Writing: September 2011 Archives

I'm just barely old enough that it's a miracle I survived toddlerhood, having come into existence in the era of child-strangling continuously-looped window-blind cords and child-trepanning lawn darts, guaranteed to come down point first and ever-so-much faster than they went up. This is relevant because it means that when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and making the first serious, striving steps toward becoming a published SFF writer, the genre discourse was all about the singularity.

A lot of bad advice gets handed out to aspiring writers. One of the crappier pieces that I received at that time was the assurance that I must address the concept of the rapture of the nerds in every science fiction story, to be taken at all seriously. That uploaded brains were where it was at, and if we didn't talk about that, we weren't talking about the Real Futuristic Futureā„¢.

It was also at about that time that our esteemed host, Mr Stross, had just published his breakout story "Lobsters," which deals--among other things--with just the problem of uploading brains. And I read that story and was blown away... but I also had the privilege of hearing Charlie speak on the topic of the singularity, either at Readercon in 2002 or at TorCon in 2003--possibly both, looking back--and he said something that made much more sense to me than the idea of one major catastrophic event as singularity, after which would be Humanity v. 2.0 and nothing old would matter anymore.

Charlie presented the idea that history was a series of one-way gates; that every time we passed through one, it was a technological singularity from which there was no turning back. It was just that we adapted to these changes, and considered them commonplace: that the post-human future looked pretty human once you were in it.

At the same time, I had been noodling with some ideas of my own regarding uploaded minds or created artificial intelligences. Some of these appeared in Hammered and the associated novels; some have appeared in Dust and its associated novels.

It troubled me that this idea of a post-human future was so western, so industrial, and so absolutist. I admit to a kind of existentialist bent in my personal philosophy--I call myself an agnostic because I'm not capable of summoning the belief in my own infallibility it would take to declare myself an atheist (I could be wrong! There could be something that looks, from the outside, like a god!)--and I'm exquisitely aware that value judgments are externally exposed and culturally determined.

And the fact that the future is not equally distributed, to paraphrase Bruce Sterling, does not make the lives of the people who still live ten or twenty of fifty years ago--technologically speaking--of less value than the lives of those who--technologically speaking--are living five or ten years ahead of me. (Every time I go abroad, I am reminded of how primitive so much American infrastructure is. Why does the bus stop by my house not tell me when the next bus is arriving? Why do I need to take my credit card out of my wallet to buy groceries?)

Geoff Ryman addresses a lot of these issues brilliantly in his novel Air, set in a future Cambodia. I also think Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death--while not a singularity novel, per se--makes an interesting series of counterpoints to the idea of "a" singularity. It's set in a future Sudan, and the base cultural assumption it makes are very different from those we're accustomed to seeing in western SF.

So I leave the reading of these novels as an exercise to the class, and pass on discussing my suite of issues with the Western-Civ-Centric singularity for now.

Because what I want to talk about today is another problem I have with the singularity as monolithic event. When I first started talking about it online, in 2006 or so, I identified what I was doing as a feminist critique (and to be specific here, I am talking about the uploaded-brain rapture-of-the-nerds singularity, not the augmented-meat/skinned reality brand of singularity. We have so many, these days. It makes one jealous of having just a nice neat three or five or seven branches of Urban Fantasy to fight over and lump-or-split texts into.). At the time, I wrote:

When I first moved to Las Vegas, I used to burn my mouth a lot when I wasn't thinking carefully about what I was drinking, because the air is so dry that you often can't see the steam rising from a cup of tea. After a while, I learned to hesitate, and check the temperature of the air over the fluid with my lip. This isn't something I ever decided to do. Rather, my autonomous systems figured it out for themselves. Because they're smarter than you think they are.

The meat does a lot of our thinking, in other words, when the more advanced electrical systems are busy. An MIT a-life researcher who I quoted in Hammered holds the unpopular perspective that a good deal of our thinking (our consciousness, our sentience) is emotional rather than rational. Chemical, if you will, rather than electrical.

Sarah Monette pointed out at Boskone (2006) that the idea of the singularity is at its heart a denial of the body, and it occurred to me that that could be read, from a feminist perspective, two ways. One, that sex becomes irrelevant, or--and here's the bit I twigged on--that if you squint just right, what you're left with is a very Augustinian refutation of the flesh. In this way, Stross's notorious turn of phrase, the rapture of the geeks, is exactly right. The weak/evil/flawed/excoriated flesh is scoured away, and what is left is divine, improved, elevated, incomprehensible.

Transcendent, if I may.

There's a bunch of talk about how SF has to address the idea of a singularity to be relevant, which to me is bullshit. Augmented intelligence, techshock, sure--but we've been dealing with that as a genre for the last hundred years. Which is why I like Charlie's one-way-gates (the Strossian singularity) as a more useful idea than the Vingean posthuman singularity. (I'm pretty freaking posthuman to a sixth-century Northman, yanno?)

Basically, it's a lovely idea, and there's been a lot of very good SF written about it, but I think allowing this idea of posthumanity to become The Defining Dialogue of "serious" SF is a mistake. (Of course, I'm not much for SF as predictive--we keep missing the big ones, after all, so I don't see why that should change.)

But then, there's this drive to define SF as Apollonian, in contrast to the purported Dionysian bent of modern fantasy, and to thus elevate SF, and I think is some ways that's one element of the whole posthuman thing. Because a singularity is nicely Apollonian. Augustinian. Anti-feminist, if you accept the idea that women's fiction tends to be more concerned with relationship and the negotiation of life and that women are more concerned with the messy bits of being made of meat.

Boy games are still privileged over girl games, in other words. Even when the games are intellectual.

Of course, I don't for half a second think that the male writers playing posthuman games are intentionally setting out to devalue "female" (please note the scare quotes) values or perspectives. I know Peter Watts and Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow and so on, and a less gender-bigoted bunch of guys would be hard to find. (Actually, one of the things I really like about Cory Doctorow, and a symptom I suspect of how giant and shiny his brain really is, is that he can manipulate "masculine" and "feminine" communication styles with equal facility.) What I'm saying is that if you come at this thing from the right angle, it looks surprisingly like the old logic-trumps-emotion, Apollo-trumps-Dionysius, male-trumps-female, SF-trumps-Fantasy, mind-trumps-meat "moral" argument.

This idea of the meat-puppet as somehow different from and inferior to the mind, rather than the two being an integrated and seamless whole: it's so pervasive in our culture that I think we forget to question it... but there are cultures that could not conceive of the mind without the body. Which is what I mean when I say that the singularity in its Rapture of the Geeks form is Augustinian... but then again, what if it's not a case of the rancid flesh and the incorruptible soul? What if it's a package deal?

It doesn't fit our Western cultural preconceptions, of course. But then, our current Western cultural preconceptions have deep roots in Thomas a Beckett's stinky hair shirt and Calvinist doctrine, the mortification of the flesh for the glorification of the soul.

And that's interesting to think about, from a perspective of regarding unquestioned assumptions.

I still think what I wrote then is broadly true, though I've refined my perspectives somewhat, and started tying it more closely into some of my broad, unified theories of what's afoot in speculative fiction.

The more research I do into human neurology--and writing Dust and the other two Jacob's Ladder books required more about brains than I ever wanted to know--the more convinced I become that we, human we, are not divorceable from our meat. In one of the Jenny Casey books, I have a artificial intelligence researcher protest to her creation that he's nothing but piezoelectrical patterns in crystal; he retorts that she is, likewise, piezoelectrical patterns in meat. And while that remains true... the shape of the circuitry, and the neurochemical baths that wash it, have a hell of a lot of influence over who we are. So I've been playing more extensively with this idea of what the actual practical results would be, if we did have the technology to "upload" a mind, or copy it in some fashion. And possibly download it into another brain.

How does this affect identity? Does identity even exist under those circumstances?

Where's your soul now, Augustus? The machine shapes the ghost as surely--probably even more strongly, given current research into neuroplasticity--as the ghost shapes the machine. Meat hacks mind and mind hacks meat: they are codependent, and cannot exist without each other in any functional form.

They are not, in fact, two separate things. Rather, one is an emergent property of the other.

And that fascinates me. Far, far more than beaming my brain across space into a new body for easy lightspeed travel.

There's a lot of effort expended on identifying The Next Big Thing in science fiction, and arguing about what it should be, and trying to make each of the cresting wavelets into the next big sweeping change. Biotech was supposed to be The Next Cyberpunk; so was quantum physics; likewise the singularity.

Which is why, I think, I felt as an arriving writer that it was being stuffed down my throat.

But Next Big Things, like minds, like singularities, are emergent properties. I don't think they can be prescribed--only identified once they are inevitable.

And I think while we've all been trying to declare one, one has shown up.

Because a thing I notice about "my" generation of science fiction and fantasy writers is that we are different in one particular significant manner from the generations before us, and I think that particular difference contributes to this lack of a unifying Next Big Thing.

The coming revolution in the English-language genre is here. And it's this: we're diverse. I've taken to calling it the Rainbow Age of science fiction, because the one thing I notice about the writers in my cohort is that we are multicolored, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic. We come from a wide range of class and religious backgrounds and life experiences. We do not conform neatly to gender binaries or established sexual identities. You cannot assume that we are male, or heterosexual, or white, or American or English or Canadian, or of protestant or Jewish background, or that we are probably professional or middle class.

The thing--the only thing--we have in common is that we are science fiction and fantasy fans.

And certainly diversity is not new to science fiction fandom, but this mass and breadth of diversity is. This sheer number of intelligent, vocal people who come from outside fandom's established demographics means that the genre club scene is suddenly, vividly alive. Fusion is happening. Creation is underway right here.

It's causing some readjustments of assumptions and it's pushing some people's comfort zones.

And I think that's glorious. I think it's healthy. I think it's blowing the boundaries of the genre wide open, throwing the windows wide, getting the dust off, and leading to some of the most creative and interesting work I've read in years. I think this diversity and multi-threadedness and the power of these arguments is exactly what science fiction needs to make it a vital and enduring and relevant literature for another fifty years.

Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

Charlie is traveling for a couple of days so I'm dropping by for a quick post. Remember me from last April? Dracula-movie guy? Vaguely familiar?

Anyway, I wanted to kick around a few ideas about ebooks; authors (and some real people) have been talking this subject to death for years--decades, even--so what's new to say?

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I've been surprised by the way sales are running on Amazon.com. It's a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it's not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked Amazon.com's Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

I realize this isn't anything like a complete picture of sales trends, but it is interesting in the same way Netflix is moving away from mailing DVDs. Amazon.com is so well positioned to sell digital files that one glance at their list of Contemporary Fantasy bestsellers shows one unsurprising fact: It's not dominated by books put out by New York publishers.

As I write this, the top three books are in the "Vampire for Hire" series, which are self-published, as are seven of the top ten. Amazon.com's digital customers appear to be moving toward self-published books and away from professionally-published ones.

What does that mean for the future? Well, we're no strangers to love. You know the rules and so do I. A full commitment's what I'm thinking of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling. Gotta make you understand.

Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry. Never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

We've known each other for so long. Your heart's been aching but, you're too shy to say it...

Okay, yeah, that was a rickroll. Hopefully, you laughed, which is more than you would have gotten out of my predictions of the future. The truth is, I don't know if anyone is really capable of calling the score on this one. Yeah the "book stink" people (the folks who are always talking about the way books smell) are the minority most of us expected, and ebook sales are growing, but the picture is more complex than that. Ebooks seem to be hitting mass market originals (like my books) much harder than hardbacks and trade-sized paperbacks, but how much more of a bite can they take? What happened to windowing? If ebook readers buy even more self-published books, will Amazon.com be less of a problem for brick-and-mortar indie stores? And what about those readers who really make a book into a mega-hit, the casual, two-book-a-year, everyone-else-has-read-DaVinci-Code-so-I-should-too people?

It's fascinating (if slightly painful) and I'm curious to see if the market finds an equilibrium soon. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling.

ObPlug: Here's a couple of links for those curious about my books: New book, which Charlie has very kindly blurbed | Sample chapter | Entire series.

Thanks for reading.



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This page is an archive of entries in the Writing category from September 2011.

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