Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

Red Planet Blues

A fine piece of speculative journalism from the redoubtable Geoff Manaugh: crime and policing on the off-world colonies. Full of chewy gems and story-starters, alongside the existential stuff that proponents of such neocolonial projects either ignore or lack the imagination to consider:

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity—even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

This is, I’ve always felt, the point that Chairman Bruce was trying to make in Schismatrix: once human beings start living in habitats other than the one they evolved in, they effectively stop being “human” and become something else — a difference marked not only by the technological/biological adaptations to said environment, but also (and perhaps more so) by the social adaptations. As such, the notion of “crimes against humanity” might look like a useful precedent for Martian policing from an Earther’s perspective, but Martians would likely consider themselves to be beyond that jurisdiction, if only implicitly.

The particular gift

It is the particular gift of genre fiction to assume a different background to the mainstream and so delineate character from a different angle. Science fiction carries this change of perspectives to extremes. By changing what counts as figure and what as background, the characters can be seen in ways otherwise impossible – and so, ultimately, we can understand ourselves in ways that would otherwise be impossible. These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture.

From a Graun editorial bit responding to N K Jemisin’s Hugo hat-trick. While I doubt we can say that the culture war has been won, it does at least look like the campaign that has torn the world of genre to shreds over the last decade or so has come to a conclusion: the redoubt has held. As Jemisin said in her acceptance speech, the stars are a little closer for all of us. The genre world, with hindsight, was something of a bellwether for the broader culture conflict that still rages around us; I’m going to cling to the hope that it might be a bellwether for its ending, also.

No such thing as magic: misinterpreting Clarke’s Third Law

Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.

However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)

The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.

Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.

It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)

There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:

Stating the bloody obvious

… those tech creators and tech billionaires who are influenced by Science Fiction seem to assume that because things in Science Fiction work in the society and culture of those created future-set universes, there is an expectation bias that they will work in our real life and present, without much testing or oversight.

Gadgets, services, and technologies work in Science Fiction because it is fiction. They work because it is a narrative, and as such, their authors or filmmakers showed them working. They work because in fiction, it is very easy to make things work, because they aren’t real and don’t need to actually work.

Realizing the unreal from fiction will not make that realization work in the same way in real life. It can’t. The context, timeframe, and people are different. Most importantly, Science Fiction is fiction.

Astonishing, really, that this even needs to be said — though it clearly does need to be said.

However, the author’s relentless capping of Science Fiction betrays what is likely the same superficial engagement with the genre demonstrated by those they are criticising: there’s plenty of science fiction in which the tech doesn’t work, and indeed which is totally about the tech not working, or working in ways orthogonal to its maker’s and user’s original (or at least originally stated) intentions; it’s also hard to square this piece with the effectively mainstreamed (but nonetheless totally wrongheaded) punditry to the effect that science fiction has gone too far in the tech-negative dystopian direction. But hey, when your research needs publicising and a venue has an obvious hook for your pitch, well, we’ve all been there, amirite?

That said, the author’s call for companies to hire social scientists to deal with these sorts of issues is something I’d support — though yer man Damien Williams makes the case far more effectively (not to mention eloquently). Meanwhile, re: science fiction, the distinction between the technological utopian mode and the critical utopian mode was old theory when I picked it up back in 2014, but it’s as relevant as ever. If people are going to turn to narrative forms as spaces of inspiration and reflection — and they clearly are, and clearly always have done — then we might as well use critical narrative form to counter the uncritical stuff, no?

Represent the world without reproducing it

science fiction is fundamentally a metaphorical literature, because it seeks to represent the world without reproducing it. Now the structure of metaphor as such is the knight’s move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess: leading you in a certain metonymic direction, the logically correct A to B to C, and indeed sometimes it leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, but only in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in an unexpected direction.

It’s the way the carefully world-built society of Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel’s wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It’s the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson’s superb ’26 Monkeys, also the Abyss’. It is the famous jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly, yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

The thing is: this structure I’m describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke. The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected. The joke can’t be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won’t be funny: but the flourish at the end must work. This is not to say that SF needs to be full of jokes to work. I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That’s why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

Adam Roberts on sf as a metaphorical literature. Mostly parking this for further thinking later on, when life is marginally less hectic; that form/content distinction he’s making seems like it could unpack in lots of interesting (and critically useful) ways.

I’m thinking in particular of an echo I’m getting from a riff of Clute’s in which he argues that capital-S Story “is inherently non-mimetic”; that Fantastika is coextensive with Story, and has “an inherent non-allegorical bent”, being a genre wherein the work “is a kind of representation of itself”; that Fantastika is “pure Story: not a lesson, but the thing told”. As I recall, Clute denies sf as being inherently metaphorical, but I think perhaps he and Roberts understand that term slightly differently; the form of the joke, after all, is also “not a lesson, but the thing told” (or so it seems to me).

The Roberts riff on the magician’s flourish above also opens up the possibility of rereading Priest’s The Prestige as a work of metagenre… though I suspect that doing so would only incur the writer’s wrath.