3. Thank God it’s Friday … (Ken MacLeod)
What can I say? I think Ken nailed most of the easter-eggs in “Saturn’s Children”. (There’s a really tongue-in-cheek piece of meta-commentary implicit in the title—a book about what might appear at first sight to be a libertarian utopia, given that we have engineered the right kinds of libertarians to inhabit it—riffing off the title of an earlier book by a noted British libertarian/conservative ideologue; but at this point the tongue is so firmly embedded in the cheek that its owner is in danger of acquiring a fistula.)
Actually, “Saturn’s Children” was the comic pratfall to go alongside “Halting State”. When I pitched “Halting State” at my publishers (“it’s going to be a near-future Scottish police procedural told in the second person present tense! About gaming!”) they were understandably skeptical; in the end, they agreed to take it—on condition that I signed a two-book contract, the other book being a bankable space opera. It doesn’t get much more bankable than Heinlein, especially writing in the 100th anniversary of his birth, so Heinlein it was going to be—and it was the imp of the perverse that nudged me into tackling late-period Heinlein. (Because everybody and their dog writes an early Heinlein hommage at a certain point in their career …)
I’d better shut up now before I dig myself in any deeper!
4. Concluding Unscientific Posthuman to the Singularitarian Fragments – an Agalmic-Pathetic-Dialectic; a Mimic-Extropic Discourse (John Holbo)
I haven’t read Hegel. I haven’t read Kierkegaard either. This is probably a flaw I will manage avoid fixing: for although those who are ignorant of philosophy are doomed to repeat it (and make the same old mistakes), I have the brain of a worn-out old jade.
I tend to hold to the idea that the purpose of fiction is to explore the human condition; in the case of SF, to explore the human condition under circumstances that are not implausible but do not currently occcur, in the case of historical fiction to explore it under circumstances that obtained at some time in the past, and in the case of fantasy to explore it from the back of the aid of a Pegasus on stilts. On which note, “Accelerando” is really a question about the human condition in circumstances where, as Vernor Vinge put it, “The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts our most deeply held notions of being.” [http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html]
It’s murderously difficult to write fiction with no human beings in it—at least, fiction that anybody but my toaster would want to read. (The nearest I got to it was “Saturn’s Children”, but arguably that begged the question: its robots are, after all, emulations of human consciousness in a universe where the possibility of a singularity is firmly denied.) “Accelerando”—if it was to probe the question of the human condition in circumstances spanning a Vingean singularity—couldn’t help but cling to its human protagonists even in the face of their looming obsolescence. Which is, I think, what John Holbo is getting at: the only possible response to human obsolescence is comedic (which brings us full circle to Wodehouse and his splendidly obsolescent creations, Bertie and Jeeves).
5. I Feel an Attack of Constitutional Law Coming On … (Brad DeLong)
I didn’t know that, dammit. If I had known about the fourteenth amendment, I might have worked the irony a little bit harder. Ah well, lost opportunities …
6. Halting State (Henry)
One of the defining characteristics of the past century has been the erosion of authority; and if anything it has accelerated in the past fifty years to such an extent that today’s western nations would seem utterly alien to a denizen of 1959 transplanted into the present. Not alien in appearance—most of the buildings are the same, fashion in clothing repeats (with some added surprises, and a few permanent omissions—witness the decline in popularity of the man’s hat, for example), and the cars could be dismissed as a simple exercise in styling. But what are those small glowing boxes everybody is holding to their heads and talking into? And the wires leading to their ears? And what are all the odd codes on the advertisements about—the ones that all seem to begin “www” …?
Old certainties have been eroding: family, religion, gender roles, race, the hopelessly compromised multinational news media, politicians mired in the megaphone era and trying to grapple with ubiquitous information overload at the same time that they’ve been systematically stripped of actual power by the trade treaties of Empire. And so the existing establishment figures shout louder to drown out the noise, and foment moral panics and pass increasingly draconian laws just to be seen to be Doing Something. And something is done: anti-terrorism laws are applied to fly-tippers, bugging facilities are used to see that parents aren’t conspiring against the interests of the state by sending their children to the wrong school, and the unforseen complications of the disconnect between authority and real power multiply exponentially.
Nor is it obvious that the control-freak response of the traditional political centres to these challenges will succeed—that the Stasi-esque mountains of metadata being amassed by such processes as the Interception Modernization Program will hold back the flow: they’ve bought into what Cory Doctorow calls the MetaCrap delusion—that metadata is accurate, and if they can only hoard and search enough of it, they’ll find the answer to that which ails them. [[http://www.well.com/~doctorow/metacrap.htm]]
But ultimately the only source of accurate metadata we’ve got is the human species, with its insatiable appetite for gameplay and pinning labels on things.
Information overload works by association: so does google. (“Lots of people talking about Subject X go look at This web page. You’re asking about Subject X. Why don’t you look at This, too?”) Associative logic is deeply alien to hierarchical control structures. (“You. Go look at This, Right Now. It’s all you need to know about Subject X.”) To the extent that “Halting State” was a spy thriller, I was attempting to make this point; the reliance on electronic intelligence (ELINT) that has crept up on the state intelligence field since the early 1960s is going to dead-end soon, if it hasn’t already, in the need to find new ways to recruit and motivate armies of analysts to add the tags. And that way lies SPOOKS.
(Hopefully Henry will be pleased to learn that my main task in 2009 is to write a sequel to “Halting State”, exploring more implications of the social networking revolution some five years further down the line …)
7. Why you should read Charles Stross (Maria Farrell)
I should like to note at this point that I am in practice a wildly vacillating agnostic on the subject of the singularity: I don’t actually believe it’s going to happen—or that it’s not—but it’s a really neat idea to experiment with, and that’s why it features in quite a lot of my writing. Alas, my first SF novel “Singularity Sky” got retitled by editorial fiat (it was originally going to be “Festival of Fools”), and I’ve had the S-word hung around my neck like an albatross ever since.
(I suppose it’s better than being known as the Talking Cat Sidekick guy …)
The other point Maria brought up was the panopticon, which may well be the flip side of the more optimistic singularity scenarios. Our political culture seems to me to be responding to the trauma of its loss of control by trying to construct a perfect panopticon, and what it will glimpse through it will be a distorted reflection of its own fears and insecurities.
… Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?