October 2015 Archives

This is not a post about Breaking Bad's brilliant Star Trek pie-eating contest scene, although the title would work.

Rather, it's about a pet theory of mine, which is that one of the reasons the matter transmitter is overlooked as an enduring and important trope of science fiction is because it doesn't have a cool name.

"Ray gun", and "robot" are examples of evocative nomenclature that entered common parlance way back when and stuck there. Alternatives exist, such as "blaster" or "android", but they're not universal. Everyone knows what a "time machine" is, if you want another great example.

So why not the matter transmitter?

I'll admit that this is a personal bug-bear. I've been selling matter transmitter stories since 1991, up to and including my latest novel, Hollowgirl. A couple of years ago I received a PhD for research into the trope, making me arguably the world expert on the subject. (Which is not to say that I am a complete authority, just that no one else has taken it on.) I'm currently outlining a non-fiction book called Traveling Light in order to explore the topic further, because I think it has interesting things to say about the evolution of science fiction and of science itself. The idea is almost a century and a half old, after all, and not much closer to becoming a reality than it was then, despite the convergence of 3D printing and scanning technologies. Maybe it's too fantastical for hard SF to deal with, or maybe the ramifications of the technology are too broad. Drop a working matter transmitter into your story, I'd argue, and everything changes. The trope is like a black hole, warping everything else around it.

Or maybe, as suggested earlier, it's just the name.

So where did it all go wrong?

Wouldn't you know, just as I put up a Kickstarter for a space opera set a thousand years in the (non-white-American, non-male-dominated) future, a new trailer came out for the latest installment in that great movie space opera series, Star Wars--and the screaming broke the sound barrier.

The latest outrage du jour? Black protagonist! Female protagonist! Cue Luke in anguish: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

There's even a boycott. Because Black! Female! Noooooooooooo!

Best/worst comment I saw on the subject was most hurt, hurt to the very butt, by the sheer unAmerican-ness of it all. "Luke is American. Han is American. Even Leia is American!" Because if you're not white and straight and either male or owned by a straight white male, how can you possibly be, you know, American?

Of course the dear boy was corrected. It is, after all, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Where unless one has access to time-travel technology, there really is no way for anyone in that universe to have ever heard of, let alone cared about, one very young country on a small planet in a minor solar system a fair ways out on a quite undistinguished, if rather pretty, galactic arm.

And that's the thing.

^^^M Harold Page here! Just to clear up some twitter confusion: I'm the guy currently serialising a Heroic Fantasy versus Steampunk  mashup called Swords Versus Tanks. I'm a bit further down the pecking order than our noble host, but still a professional author with four conventionally published novels and two -- now three -- "indy" ones, plus a book on writing called Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic.

Who's poised to embark on NaNoWriMo? Don't worry, this isn't one of those pep talk blog entries (Oh OK. Go YOU! Rah! You CAN do it! RAH! RAHHH!)

I like the idea of National Novel Writing Month. Companionship and a deadline together will motivate you get your ducks lined up in order to tackle a novel, especially if it's for the first time.

However, I don't think focussing on motivation is useful.There is no equivalent to NaNoWriMo for, say, Halo. Nor do gamers generally post on forums pleading for tips about self-discipline.

Yes, you do need some motivation to get started in the first place, to overcome insecurities and to elbow a place in your life in order to write.

Even so, writing itself is a quietly unheroic activity done - like gaming - in flow, "in the zone", and compatible neither with an agitated state of pumped up self confidence nor with taking it in turns to act as online cheerleader.

Conversely, if you are in the zone, motivation isn't an issue and distraction is unlikely; you're lost in your story, so why would you want to be anywhere else?

It follows that the real battle is not about motivation, but rather about getting in the zone and staying there. That's actually a much easier battle to win since the objective is clear and the opposition less nebulous. 

Here's what works for me: 

I want to complain to the studio execs who commissioned the current season of "21st century"; your show is broken.

I say this as a viewer coming in with low expectations. Its predecessor "20th century" plumbed the depths of inconsistency with the frankly silly story arc for world war II. It compounded it by leaving tons of loose plot threads dangling until the very last minute, then tidied them all up in a blinding hurry in that bizarre 1989-92 episode just in time for the big Y2K denouement (which then fizzled). But the new series reboot is simply ridiculous! It takes internal inconsistency to a new low, never before seen in the business: the "21st century" show is just plain implausible.

The series got off to a flying start with the epic wide-screen disaster story "9/11", guest-scripted by Tom Clancy, in which a steely-eyed two-fisted Republican president is confronted by a crisis; but to have him respond by reading a talking goats story book to pre-teens and then invading the wrong country is just a little bit bathetic, don't you think? The lead scriptwriter was either taking the piss or he just didn't care. And then the story line drove into a ditch. First we're fighting a shadowy James Bond terror organization called Al Qaida, the next minute we're propping them up while yelling at the Russians for bombing them! That's the Russians who were supposed to have suddenly become our best buddies in 1992 and joined the good guys team, at the end of the last season. But look, that whole BFFs twist has been retconned out of the show and they brought in a new Bond villain—a former KGB agent turned president of Russia, how cheesy is that?—who rides bare-backed across rivers while dropping oligarchs in piranha tanks and threatening to de-fund the international space station in order to burnish his villain credentials. Meanwhile there's another villain on screen, a South African dude who's trying to colonize Mars, while building electric cars. Why hasn't 007 assassinated him yet?

Oh, and speaking of villains: there's this American guy, he defects to Russia (despite the role reversal) and blows the gaff on a gigantic international conspiracy called the Five Eyes who are spying on literally everyone—including you, personally, yes, they're tapping everyone's phones and reading all the email and browser histories in the world, and their boss sends invisible flying killer robots after people his targeting committee disapproves of—their logo is even a giant globe-hugging evil octopus—only it turns out nobody gives a shit. Talk about dropping the ball!

There were a couple of good disaster movies buried in the mess as sub-plots. The Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean was an excellent tear-jerker. And the Great Tohoku Earthquake started promisingly—but wasn't it a bit excessive to throw in three nuclear melt-downs? Why not stick to two and throw in a Kaijū, just for variety? (Also, the bit where the reactor buildings exploded wasn't a patch on 1988's "Chernobyl" episode.)

More consistency and continuity flaws: apparently China is now hyper-Capitalist, only nobody noticed the change and they're still called Communists. There were revolutions against tyrants all over the Middle East in the first decade, the whole "Arab Spring" sequence, but no, that's been airbrushed out and they're all dictatorships again except for Syria, which is this story arc's Bad Place where horrible things happen. (Although they've still got a dictator because plot, I guess.)The global economy crashes a couple of times and goes into a period of hyperinflation as all the central banks run the printing presses until they smoke, but the money ends up in bank vaults and nobody's too worried. Oh, and the whole "running out of oil" thing? You forgot to deal with that, too.

Even the technology background makes no sense. Apple, ferchrissakes, have toppled Microsoft and IBM and dominate the computer business! Volkswagen are apparently building self-propelled gas chambers, and airliners are getting slower! What the hell is going on? And whose idea was it to hire the ghosts of Philip K. Dick and George Orwell as showrunners anyway? Frankly, even Doctor Who makes more sense at a story level than this so-called future we're expected to believe in.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that this viewer, for one, is deeply disappointed with "21st century" so far. And I'm betting I'm not the only one. I'm sure my readers can spot lots of other continuity flaws, or come up with better ideas for how this century should have proceeded!

So this week the usual folks have been all over China's proposal to use big data techniques to assign every citizen a Citizen Score. And while a tiny ethics-free part of my soul weeps for joy (hey, I never expected parts of Glasshouse to come true!) the rest of me shudders and can't help thinking how much worse it could get.

So, let's start by synopsizing the Privacy Online News report. It's basically a state-run universal credit score, where you're measured on a scale from 350 to 950. But it's not just about your financial planning ability; it also reflects your political opinions. On the financial side, if you buy products the government approves of your credit score increases: wastes of time (such as video games) cost you points. China's main social networks feed data into it and you can lose points big-time by expressing political opinions without prior permission, talking about history (where it diverges from the official version—e.g. the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square—hey, I just earned myself a negative credit score there!), or saying anything that's politically embarrassing.

The special social network magic comes into play when you learn that if your friends do this, your score also suffers. You can see what they just did to you: are you angry yet? Social pressure is a pervasive force and it's going to be exerted on participants whether they like it or not, by friends looking for the goodies that come from having a high citizen score: goodies like instant loans for online shopping, car rentals without needing a deposit, or fast-track access to foreign travel visas. Also, everyone's credit score is visible online, making it easy to ditch those embarrassingly ranty cocktail-party friends who insist on harshing your government credit karma by not conforming.

The gamification of social conformity, overseen by an authoritarian government and mediated by nudge theory, is a thing of beauty and horror; who needs cops with nightsticks to beat up dissidents when their friends and family will give them a tongue-lashing on behalf of the government for the price of a discount off a new fridge?

But don't worry, I could make it a whole lot worse.



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