Response, Part 1

by Charles Stross on January 27, 2009

*1. Stross on development economics (Krugman)*

Civilizations are complicated.

That statement ought to be ploddingly obvious to the point of banality, but it’s astonishing how often it seems to elude pundits, politicians, and — yes — science fiction authors.

As Paul Krugman observes, we don’t really know why development economics started working better around 1980. I’d go further: I’m not sure 1980 wasn’t simply a coincidence. All we know for sure is that given access to a sufficiency of tools and ideas, _sometimes_ a nation or group of nations (or a region within a nation — huge parts of China’s interior still remain locked in peasant farming poverty) figures out how to build institutions and infrastructure at a dizzying rate, only slowing when they near the then-prevailing state of the art. (Which itself is moving forward only slowly.)

The Merchant Princes series is to some extent a failed thought experiment in development economics. (I say failed because, for various reasons, the series is probably ending with book six; the scale of the canvas exceeds my ability to do it justice, and the style of the series — effectively a series novel, where each book is a chapter rather than a stand-alone — makes it difficult for me to remember what I’m doing.)

But it’s also shaping up as a morality play about the dangers of blithely walking into a situation and attempting to impose reorganization from the top down.

Miriam’s intervention in Clan politics in the second book (The Hidden Family) generates blowback, with a vengeance, because she’s failed to realize that the changes she is proposing will destroy the power base of a group of elderly women who, through their iron grip on the arranged marriage structure of the Clan, have carved out a tolerable niche for themselves in an otherwise intolerable world. She’s challenging the business model that has made the Clan’s conservative faction wealthy (and as we know, the first rule of politics in any place and time is “don’t be disrespecting the Money”). And she’s provoked them into actions that result in counter-actions outside the Clan, by antagonizing the monarchy _and_ indirectly exposing the Clan’s existence to the US government. Societies, as I noted earlier, are complex: there’s never just _one_ power center, no matter how centralised a culture might appear to an outsider.

It’s all a house of cards, a nest of delicate interlocking dependencies. Trying to introduce change is one way to kick-start the development process; but too many changes, too fast risks generating revolution or civil war, not to mention massive disenfranchisement and deprivation among the general public (as suggested by Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”).

*2. Money makes singularity (Quiggin)*

Here’s a confession you won’t hear too often: I’m ignorant and under-educated — especially in economics and finance (but I’ll cop to the arts and languages too, if push comes to shove).

Trying to learn about somebody else’s discipline when you’re an outsider is an interesting experience. The first stage is bafflement, as you’re confronted by a thorny hedge of impenetrable jargon and recursive definitions. The second stage is over-simplification, as, equipped with a Bluffer’s Guide level of understanding of some of the basics, you pry apart the thorny branches and decide that the jargon is, in fact, a Shavian conspiracy against the laity and conceals the essential simplicity of the field in question. And the third stage in learning occurs when you push further into the hedge, and the branches behind you whip back into position behind and impale you on the thorns of your own misconceptions.

I’m a bit like that with money. (It’s probably why I write for a living, rather than being a hedge fund manager.) Because, when you get down to it, I don’t understand money. In fact, I’m not sure anybody does. So I’m going to retreat towards more solid ground and talk about an area where I’m at least able to grasp the scale of my own ignorance: programming.

There’s a paper I read a couple of years ago — I ran across it on the internet, but can’t find it right now — by a couple of eminent computer science academics, discussing the failure of the first fifty years of teaching programming. Fifty years ago, they explained, they could take a class of students and by the end of the class approximately 50% of them would master three essential abstract concepts. (In ascending order of abstraction these are: named variables, loop constructs, and pointers.) The other 50% of the students would flail around, programming by cutting and pasting chunks of code from elsewhere, without real understanding — as could be demonstrated by testing. In the early years of the 21st century, the outcomes are no better: 50% of folks who try to understand programming simply don’t seem to be able to grasp the core abstractions, especially pointer indirection. (It’s an inability I can sympathise with: it took me ages to get my head around what was going on.)

Money, it seems to me, is an indirection layer between barter transactions — a pointer that can reference any number of types of variable (or commodity). You can do arithmetic on money, establish how many oranges are equivalent to a gross of apples, and convert between types! (But don’t be surprised if your conversion of gasoline into lemons fails to fill the fuel tank of your car.) It lets you encapsulate a whole lot of information in a single unidimensional variable. And then …

You hit the third stage of enlightenment and the bramble patch bites you on the ass.

Money is a unidimensional signal: it tells us how much a participant in a transaction is willing to pay for something, but not _why_. It gives no measure of the internal state of the participant. Direct barter is more obviously amenable to theory of mind, to the participants gaming each others’ inner states — but it works really badly when you’re trying to keep a complex supply chain running. And I can’t help feeling that the unidimensional nature of the information encoded by money is somehow responsible for many of the problems we’ve seen over the past year. Let’s take a random example: Would we have had a housing bubble if houses — real estate bought, used, and sold over a period of decades — was denominated in, call it, “slow” money, accounted for and evaluated over many years and only used in the housing market, which could not be interchanged directly with our everyday “fast” money (profit and loss statements due quarterly, please), used in every other transaction? A second type of money — or, from another angle, money that encodes a different type of information — might have kept the damage from propagating. (Although I’m inclined to think that some brilliant financial super-programmer somewhere would have figured out a way to leverage the slow money in the housing market to build fast money futures, as a way around the barrier. Idiots are ingenious.)

Where was I? Oh: Accelerando.

I began writing Accelerando in 1999, in the middle of the first dot-com bubble. I’d been hired on contract in 1997 to be the first programmer in a start-up. We were writing software glue to allow merchants to accept credit card payments over the internet. Back in 1996, nobody was doing this: by 2000, when I left, it seemed like everybody was in the game. As Tim Berners-Lee put it, five internet years pass for every year in the real world: by that metric, I spent two subjective decades inside Datacash. My job was to write the server-side software that allowed a Linux box to talk to the British banks’ credit card processing systems (which operate completely differently to the US system). I was under a bit of strain in 1999. Our business was growing at a compound rate of 30% per _month_, and the code I’d originally hacked out as a proof-of-concept demo was now a mission-critical monster that the company was basing its IPO prospectus on.

(I said I didn’t understand money, didn’t I?)

“Lobsters”, the first story in what became Accelerando, was what I did instead of having a nervous breakdown: I bottled up the angst of acceleration and tried to distil it into a novelette, as a way of explaining to outsiders just what it was like to be inside the internet bubble. Then, in 2000, I began writing a sequel story, because I’d left the characters in “Lobsters” dangling over the abyss of an uncertain future. It took me another four years to finish the process — by far the longest it’s ever taken me to write a novel: three decades of internet bubble-time.

If I understood money, I’d be looking at the current economic situation and licking my metaphorical chops. But you’ll have to find someone else to write you the “Accelerando” of the CDS market.



Bill Gardner 01.27.09 at 9:35 pm

Our business was growing at a compound rate of 30% per month, and the code I’d originally hacked out as a proof-of-concept demo was now a mission-critical monster that the company was basing its IPO prospectus on.

I’ve seen this in other settings, including the electronic health record system of a Very Large Hospital System caring for many people. Which was terrifying. But maybe most successful complex systems look and grow this way… look at the immune system: utter freaking chaos with, obviously, no design, but incredible performance.


Brad DeLong 01.27.09 at 10:39 pm

There are two things that make the world-walkers’ universe even less hospitable to economic development. First, only the world-walkers can walk the worlds–the others from the LDW–less developed world–have no ability to participate in the more advanced society. They are trapped where they were born.

Second, the LDWs don’t–or rather didn’t–have to worry about being conquered, so the entire dynamic by which one has to pull one’s country into the modern age to avoid being colonized is simply absent.

These together mean that Miriam Beckstein is really behind the eightball: two of the things that would make the people she’s trying to help get behind her project simply are not present.

That said, I was surprised that the old women were so old womanish: I would have expected some of them at least to say: “I want my granddaughters to have the opportunities I never had. I want to change the world,” and get behind Miriam.


Yesterday I got an email on Facebook asking if I wanted to be friends with Miriam *Burstein.* And it took me five minutes to figure out it wasn’t *Beckstein*…


LizardBreath 01.27.09 at 10:50 pm

First, only the world-walkers can walk the worlds—the others from the LDW—less developed world—have no ability to participate in the more advanced society. They are trapped where they were born.

Not quite — world-walkers can carry anyone they can lift, no? I found myself wondering why there hadn’t been more of that; world-walkers hiring/shanghaing experts with industrial educations to develop their world.


yabonn 01.28.09 at 10:46 am

And now the dreaded Stross event, and I’m stuck with my boring question – regrets if I do, remorse if I don’t. Anyway, you write books and you are here, so it’s a little bit your fault.

There : in Family Trades, material comfort an important way of conveying the differences between life Here and There. So much that it functions (it seemed to me) in the book as a celebration of Here, modernity, and by extension, our economics/society, etc. I remember I was puzzled by this while reading : why this celebration, and why the need for a celebration, when just showing it do the trick? It felt a bit unfair, in general, to those poor backward bastards, unfair in particular to do it via comfort, and the reason of the possible unfairness was interesting.

So : is it a simple byproduct, part of the novel mechanics here to emphasize the Here/There contrast? Or is it rather a product of the times, 2004 ad all these glorious upward sloping curves looking at some dark ages (in which case, yes a little bit of unfairness here) ? Or maybe a proof by comfort, comfort as a proxy for economic progress? Is the asymmetry between uncomfortable historic Gruinmarkt and the comfortable, air conditioned, ever-present of Miriam’s world part of the game? Did it happen just so?

Perhaps I’m tracking a dahu here, and it is just my reading – I should probably focus more on the Clan. Or, better even, do an Annie Hall and ask the author.


Charlie Stross 01.28.09 at 12:58 pm

yabonn: I’d try to answer if I was sure I understood your question.


yabonn 01.28.09 at 1:37 pm

I wish it was clearer on my side, but I’ll try to be more explicit : I felt there were very frequent reminders in the book of how Miriam’s life is comfortable on our side, and uncomfortable on Gruinmarkt side. I’d expect a measure of it in a book about another, medieval, world. But these reminders are so frequent – I felt – that the end impression is of a praise to the modern, the air conditioned and the hot water.

This praise may apparent only to me, or part of what you meant by the book (economic progress gives you hot water and hot water is a very nice thing), or a simple mechanic of it (you really wanted to emphasize the here/Gruinmarkt difference), or something else entirely.

As the question wasn’t obvious to you, I fear the first explanation is the correct one – if so nevermind, it is just me.


Nancy Lebovitz 01.28.09 at 3:20 pm

Another angle on yabonn’s question: When I read the first Merchant Prince novel, I was annoyed that everything about the other world was awful. I don’t romanticize the middle ages, but there are things about clothes and cooking and calligraphy that they did well– that’s why people bother to recreate them.

The way it was shown in the novel didn’t seem to be that Miriam was in shock because she was uprooted nor that she was extremely picky about things– it was that the alternate world had nothing worth keeping.


LizardBreath 01.28.09 at 3:23 pm

I had that reaction as well; that the Gruinmarkt was unpleasant to an unrealistic degree.


Charlie Stross 01.28.09 at 4:18 pm

You might just have tripped over the fact that I haven’t got a romantic bone in my body.


LizardBreath 01.28.09 at 4:25 pm

You don’t think you romanticised the grimness of pre-modern life, and underrated the speed and completeness with which people adapt to and stop noticing discomfort?


Nancy Lebovitz 01.28.09 at 4:29 pm

I believe it’s possible for people with nasty societies to make good music. Is that romanticism?


Barry 01.28.09 at 4:38 pm

LizardBreath 01.28.09 at 4:25 pm

“You don’t think you romanticised the grimness of pre-modern life, and underrated the speed and completeness with which people adapt to and stop noticing discomfort?”

Not really, because a lot of things would keep hitting her. You might get used to cold, and poor clothing, and then you’ve got to get used to baths being on a weekly calendar (as well as laundry). Then you’ve got to get used to a diet which might s*ck, as well as simply be different. Then you’ll find yourself continually frustrated by lack of access to information and news. Then come medical problems!


LizardBreath 01.28.09 at 4:49 pm

I’m going to drag out personal experience here, but I’ve lived in a developing country for a couple of years; electricity for about fifteen hours a day, no hot water, lots of bugs, disturbingly poor medical care, different food, and so on (Peace Corps Samoa). And people really do adjust very fast; the local normal felt normal, and local luxuries, however weird by developed country standards, felt luxurious. Miriam didn’t seem to adapt in that way much at all, which seemed odd.


fmackay 01.28.09 at 6:04 pm

Romanticism aside, any nice things in the middle ages would have been the preserve of the rich, and the rich people in the Gruinmarkt (at least the ones we see, ie the Clan) have their luxury goods needs largely fulfilled by imports from the USA – and most of these things won’t seem like luxuries to Miriam. Miriam does have plenty of handmade gowns which everyone tells her are lovely, but which she hates – not a romantic bone in her body, that woman…


LizardBreath 01.28.09 at 6:46 pm

Let me try it another way; Miriam seems to lack a touristic reaction to her travels to an unusual degree. Her reaction to the Gruinmarkt (and whatever you call the third world) is all “This sucks” and “How do I solve these problems”. There’s no “Wow, this is neat!” at all, which even in the absence of romanticism is an ordinary response to finding yourself someplace bizarre by your standards. Maybe that’s not so much to say something about how bad the Gruinmarkt is as to say something about Miriam’s character.


yabonn 01.28.09 at 6:55 pm

You might just have tripped over the fact that I haven’t got a romantic bone in my body.

Romanticising would be a concern because (between many things) it would get in the way of a proper representation of society and life in Gruinmarkt. But precisely, because of the importance given to comfort, it is sometimes hard to escape to an impression of these middle ages as merely “those not-comfortable times”, or “take urban 2004, invert” – which is unfair to the depht and care of the description. So, at least for me it sometimes got in the way, just as a romantic description would have.

I can see now how the book, taken as an economic thought experiment , works better this way. Fun hypothesis : the economist type readers tend to ignore the comfort thing, because it fits well into the economic demonstration, and the not economist type tend to notice it.


Gareth Wilson 01.28.09 at 8:15 pm

On a similar topic, there’s a scene where Miriam worries about disrupting Gruinmarkt’s culture and a native woman angrily tells her all the terrible things about her country. But almost all of those terrible things are economic, not cultural. So Miriam’s worry about Gruinmarkt’s culture being destroyed isn’t really addressed.


Paul Harrison 01.28.09 at 11:15 pm

Nancy, regarding medieval recreation: Medieval recreators, or at least the ones I hang out with, are upfront about recreating the “best” of the middle ages. And it’s a romanticized recreation where knights are honourable disciples of courtly love, rather than the real life thugs and consumate politicians that probably existed. Our view of medieval society is very much filtered through the small subset of people who could write, and what they chose to write about. We have far more ready access to these writings than the people of the time would have. On the other hand, we’ve lost the infintely vaster and constantly evolving unwritten culture that people told, sung, played, danced, and believed except as scraps and remnants.

One thing I’ve noticed from hanging out with recreators is that you do start to be impressed by different things. Handmade clothing represents a considerable investment of someone’s time, it’s a display of wealth that wouldn’t be immediately obvious. The things we value now from medieval times are different to the things they thought had greatest value.

Strangely though, I think the Arthurian legends and other such romantic stories had exactly the same appeal then as they do now, and for much the same reasons.


Keir 01.28.09 at 11:58 pm

Her reaction to the Gruinmarkt (and whatever you call the third world) is all “This sucks” and “How do I solve these problems”.

I found this really quite believable; she’s a tech journo geek. I’ve meet (well, read them ranting on the internets) quite a lot of people like that who really would have reacted in similar fashion.

Also, a lot of the things about the middle ages that are fun to recreate are fun because you’re recreating them.* Monkish calligraphy was actually a painful and dull pursuit in Northern Europe.

* This also applies to Samoa, I think. You anticipated and knew what you were going to go through, and you knew what would be involved? Certainly, when I was in India, things like getting the train were survivable because you had that detachment and, to be blunt, you knew you had a Western passport in your pocket.


LizardBreath 01.29.09 at 12:09 am

I guess, but she wasn’t impressed by anything? I should have reread the books before starting to argue about them – I read them as they came out, and I’m not fresh on the first couple, but the image of the Gruinmarkt I recall from the books is (a) mean people in castles furnished with imports from our world, or with vaguely described local stuff, and (b) mud. I don’t recall getting any image of their world as a functioning place on its own terms; agriculture, internal commerce, art, and so on.


Keir 01.29.09 at 12:23 am

Pshaw! Reread the books and bring facts into it?

My theory is partly that our hero doesn’t interact with very many non-Clan people, and that the Clan itself is quite cut off from the commoners — after all, the Clan’s prestige derives from being literally unworldly. So there will be the normal aristocratic disdain for commoners (how much does Jane Austen tell us about printing in Pride and Prejudice?); compounded by the tendency to go for the more dominant society’s products; and also the fact that the Clan are the US to the Gruinmarkt.

For the Clan, watching a E1 movie instead of seeing an E2 play is an explicit claim about the Clan’s power — the movie is a symbol of the Clan’s wealth.

So, for all we know, there’s a thriving Gruinmarkt society existing at the peasant levels we just don’t see.

(Can I have a No Prize now Charlie?)


ScentOfViolets 01.29.09 at 4:08 am

My thought: Nancy, you’re way off base on this one. I grew up in a house with no electricity and no running water. Heat was provided by various Ben Franklin stoves and a fireplace, all of which were fueled by wood personally hand-cut and split by me with no power assists whatsoever. We had a separate stove just for hot water.

One of the more infuriating parts of this idyllic existence was dear old Dad who always had plenty of fresh hot water for a bath and never walked in so much as a stick of wood from outside, let alone cut any. He used to opine frequently that country life wasn’t so bad, ‘once you got used to it’. He also had the theory that if you were ‘disobedient’, you were ‘going against Jesus’. Does this begin to sound familiar? Or should I go on with the truck farm and the endless rounds of blackberry jam, blackberry jelly, blackberry cobbler, green beans, green beans, green beans, etc? Again with Dad not above taking illicit trips into town to eat the good stuff?

No, such a life is not one of romantic hardship and rustic rhythms, an ancient poetry of soil of flesh, blech!!!! I’m guessing that the vast majority of people- the vast majority – are going to react like Miriam. And most of the rest will feel the same way once the novelty wears off and it hits them that they can’t go home. I admit that this is based upon personal experience, nothing but anecdotal. But I’ve met one or two people over the years with backgrounds similar to mine, and the common reaction is that they do not want to go back to the lifestyle of their youth. Hot water is good. So is junk food, central heat and air, TV, the internet, etc.


shah8 01.29.09 at 4:12 am

Primitive agriculturalist societies in temperate or colder climates (with lots of very flat land) are hellholes. Proper comparison is not with Samoa circa 2000 AD, but Russia circa 1500. There is a reason Russians drink. Massively predatory societies are possible under those circumstances and the majority of people live terrible lives of brutality and malnurishment to satisfy a tiny clique of extremely short-sighted and short-tempered noblemen. Trade, commerce, escape all mitigate against these kind of dystopian outcomes. Stross’s major error here is that the North America he paints has ample mountains, ragged costal bays/swamps and other difficult territories for serfs to flee. Ample native tribes interested in new blood and ideas. So the kind of society that the Gruinmarkt had was about as likely as a successful Vinland. The serf base would have been able to compel a genuine amount of economic agency.


agm 01.29.09 at 7:47 am


You’re asking about conspicuous consumption as a display of transitive power inequalities, right? Offworlders better than the Clan, Clan better than local peasants.

I really like the explanation of one aspect of this, the culinary dimension, that Lizzie Collingham lays out in her book on the history of curry. Basically, a desparate attempt to maintain one’s status above the hoi polloi based on culture and habit from back home. One tries to reassure oneself that one is better because one is blatantly different and capable of maintaining the lifestyle from back home, whereas local culture is inherent inferior. Whereas the powers that be back home are changing their culture on you at the same time…


Ray 01.29.09 at 8:17 am

It’s very unfair of me, because I haven’t read them, but this line
“I can see now how the book, taken as an economic thought experiment , works better this way”
sums up my impression of the series. A cross between two thought experiments, on trade and on “if you were flung back in time to the year X, how would you leverage your knowledge?” A novel? Not so much.


ajay 01.29.09 at 9:54 am

19: This also applies to Samoa, I think. You anticipated and knew what you were going to go through, and you knew what would be involved? Certainly, when I was in India, things like getting the train were survivable because you had that detachment and, to be blunt, you knew you had a Western passport in your pocket.

Well, yes, but Miriam is a worldwalker, for heaven’s sake. She can leave Gruinmarkt even more easily than you could have left India! I thought that Miriam’s reaction was just meant to show that she was a rather spoiled person from a sheltered upbringing – a selfish, high-maintenance prig. She’s basically a grown-up Eustace Scrubb.


Keith M Ellis 01.29.09 at 9:54 am

As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I’ve come to believe that science fiction, as a genre (but with a very few exceptions) handles sociological and cultural speculation very poorly, despite the popular consensus otherwise. It endlessly writes large and with strange words the socioeconomic territory of the author. Even when it attempts to do otherwise, it does so only in a very simplistic manner. Science fiction’s strength is not, frankly, imagining the future (which it has rarely gotten correct) or the Other, it is presenting our times and ourselves to us in an unfamiliar fashion so as to force us to see things that we otherwise wouldn’t see. Science fiction is writing about fishes and water in the guise of birds and air so that the fish suddenly see the water they’re swimming in. Or something to that effect.

All this is to say, I think maybe it’s unrealistic to except Stross’s Gruinmarkt to be an informed and fully realized hypothetical medieval society. In the context of science fiction as a genre.

But maybe we should expect more.

Science fiction has been dominated by technologists and hard scientists, and within this limited domain of informed science the genre has generally excelled. There’s a long history of an alternative movement within the genre that most disavows the hard science and takes its cue from the arts and humanities. What’s been missing is a movement that is informed by the other sciences and rigorous disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, history and such. It truly seems peculiar to me that the two genres which are all about “world building” (and the term really means culture building atop a technological or magical structure), fantasy and science fiction, are generally so uninformed about the sciences which would most benefit these aims. This recently struck me the strongest as I’ve read Steven Erikson’s Malazan series—Erikson (a pseudonym) is an anthropologist by training and (I believe) trade, and it shows in his writing. He creates alternative cultures with such convincing depth and complexity, that it really shows how shallow are almost all other attempts at the same.

I haven’t read Stross’s Merchant Princes books, but on the basis of this seminar, I think I’ll order them from Amazon. I don’t plan to hold it against him if Gruinmarkt seems under-realized. It’s the norm.

My problem with the other books of Stross’s I’ve read, including Accelerando is that they’re authorially smug. (Which is why I couldn’t get more than a few pages into Infinite Jest, by the way.) In Stross’s case, as I expect is true for many other CT readers, I seem to share a great deal of the experience and ideas which form the background to his speculation. And he’s always flying right at the edge of his intellectual competency (I’m not one who should throw aspersions, to be sure) and occasionally beyond. That he’s a brilliant man is beyond doubt. But I’m not sure this makes for good novels. He’s inventive with ideas the way a jazz musician is inventive with notes. The problem is that these ideas, and his particular virtuosity with them, are extremely contemporary—if you strip them away, as readers will in twenty years when many of them seem wrong-headed or anachronistic or archaic, the brilliance fades.

I quite enjoyed Saturn’s Children. Although I’m sure there are many of us, I’m the only person I know who truly grew up reading Heinlein. (Despite Jack Williamson living only blocks away from me.) It’s impossible not to immediately recognize what Stross was doing—and he did it well. It’s clever as both an homage and a satire (those that fail to comprehend the feminist objections to Heinlein’s writings might clue-in while reading Stross’s book) and a decent story in its own right. But, to me, it exemplifies Stross’s biggest faults (as do his Laundry books, which I couldn’t finish). It’s really, really clever. Brilliantly clever. “Clever” in the American sense; which connotes something aside, or in addition to, intelligence. The con artist is clever. Stross is intelligent and clever, but I’m not sure he’s a very good artist. That’s a criticism common against science fiction writers.

I’d like to read a Stross novel that actually makes me feel something. I’d like him to turn his brilliance and cleverness and intelligence and inventiveness to something that actually means something. It’s hard for me to explain why I feel like breath-taking “big ideas” are not, in themselves, that enduring. Here’s a counter-example: my favorite novel is War and Peace. Tolstoy had a Big Idea. He, unfortunately for the reader, felt the need to expound on it at length in his epilogues, but we’ll set that aside. (And a few monologues, besides.) The real enduring genius of W&P is that Tolstoy managed to examine his Big Idea in a way that truly made it meaningful to individual human lives. Incredibly real-seeming peoples’ lives.

Most of the time, science fiction writers have Big Ideas that they examine schematically. It’s a sketch on a chalkboard backed up by the rapid patter of varyingly competent lecturers. But the reason that any of us really and truly care about these Big Ideas is because—other than their whiz-bang ingenuity—they often actually come to matter to how we live and be. And yet most science fiction authors provide us with only barely realized characters who inhabit these worlds of Big Ideas. The writers are sort of missing the trees for the forest.

In this sense, I feel that Stross is a bit of a throw-back to Heinlein and Asimov and the others writers of science fiction’s Golden Age who placed a large premium on wowing the audience with more weird ideas than they’ve encountered elsewhere, while giving the deepest relevance of these ideas short-shrift. Like many of the Golden Age novels, I don’t think that Stross’s work (extent till now) will age very well.

He’s still among the very best writing currently in the genre, however. As a side note, can anyone tell me why it is that the US is seeing a real dearth of science fiction (bad novelizations from other media excepted) while the UK is seeing a boom? Meanwhile, the situation seems to be reverse with regard to fantasy. It’s odd; and I can’t help but think it is saying something about the two respective cultures.


Ray 01.29.09 at 10:28 am

“What’s been missing is a movement that is informed by the other sciences and rigorous disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, history and such.”

Ursula leGuin comes to mind immediately, but yeah. The ‘history’ thing is particularly bad, because lots of SF writers seem to follow Asimov in taking history as the writer’s secret weapon, but what they mean by that is “I know, I’ll write about the Roman/British Empire/ Vietnam/Aztecs/blah blah blah – but in space!

While I’m here a random recommendation – The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness. It’s YA because it has a teenage protagonist (and moves very quickly), but is very well done. There are no biology, engineering, sociology or economics lectures, it’s all show, not tell. Worth a look.


Keith M Ellis 01.29.09 at 11:37 am

Heh, I have that book right here on my desk, along with a small stack of others I recently had delivered.


rea 01.29.09 at 1:19 pm

“I know, I’ll write about the Roman/British Empire/ Vietnam/Aztecs/blah blah blah – but in space!”

Or Czarist Russia circa 1902 (although, of course, that was in part a deliberate anachronism on the apart of the Singularity Sky society in question)


David 01.29.09 at 6:19 pm

I grew up reading Heinlein, practically in real time. A much earlier tribute to/ evocation/pastiche/send-up/one-up of Heinlein is Alexi Panshin’s “Rite of Passage,” in which he demonstrated that he could write a Heinlein juvenile better than Heinlein. Kim Stanley Robinson once remarked to me, on the subject of Heinlein, that what most put him off was the lack of humanist values. Heinlein is not, in my opinion, an author to emulate. The occasional nod should suffice.


shah8 01.29.09 at 9:08 pm

You know, alot of people never really ask so much more from their books than I did with a Rick Cook book. I’d be suspicious of the whole make me *feel* sentiment. Power’s Goldbug Variations “attempts” to make me feel. It’s superschmaaht and everything, but the emotional passages come off as Randian Emo, which is why I haven’t finished the last 100 pages or so.

There are plenty of science fiction written by people who comes from other than male dominated fields. I will skip the obvious females such as Cherryh, Le Guin, or Butler. How about Iain Banks or Richard Morgan? Going a bit further afield, Murakami and Vonnegut, and leaving alone Atwood’s disposition? These are all the obvious people, man, so I kinda find your comments (Ellis) pretentious. It is really not as if we don’t have a controversy about this every year in the community. I don’t think Science fiction has *ever* been dominated by writers with a scientific background. In fact, I think hard science fiction, which *is* dominated by people with some sort of technical background like Peter Watts or Greg Egan. However, there is also such a thing as hard social science fiction (which of course is what Merchant Princes aspires to be). The thing is, hardness almost ALWAYS limits the audience to reasonably educated people at high school reading level or better. Greg Egan is never going to sell as well as Bujold, who isn’t going to sell as well as Rowling. To talk about aspire the way the comment does it, is mildly narcissic.


Kelly Sinclair 01.29.09 at 9:37 pm

A good example of a writer working with complex cultural themes is C.J. Cherryh in her Foreigner series. She conveys the confusion of a well-intended human diplomat from a small human enclave living on an alien planet. There are sequels. The alien remains completely “other” despite the protagonist’s growing learning curve.
As for the Middle Ages, I recommend Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book.” A near-future female researcher visits medieval England. Even with a well-researched, prepared approach, she is ill-equipped for the reality of her subjects’ lives–a mixture of village gentry and commoners.


Keith M Ellis 01.30.09 at 8:16 am

I read all the authors mentioned in the previous two comments, excepting Murakami, whom I’m sure to Google as soon as I finish this comment.

Cherryh’s Foreigner series, as well as some of her other work, indeed succeed where most other science fiction writers fail at imagining truly alien cultures. And I really can’t praise Banks enough, though I don’t think he’s actually that interested in examining alien cultures. He’s very much writing about us.

Yes, I know that science fiction readers “in the community” argue about this constantly. But, you know, I read a lot of books. A very lot of books, including most of those which are so-called “great”. I know what a truly good novel can do. Most science fiction fails at this. Most science fiction is entertainment. Which is fine, it’s why I still read so much of it and don’t apologize to those who sneer at it for doing so. But I think it could be better than it is. It’s hamstrung by its early legacy. And many of its readers, too, of course, because of their expectations.

Incidentally, I’m almost finished with The Knife of Never Letting Go, and it is indeed quite good. I think it might also be targeted to the YA audience because the solution to the central mystery seemed obvious to me very early on and I am finding it very belabored at this point. I also question the author’s choice for the speech patterns of the community—it’s pretty hackneyed. Still, I think it’s a convincing idea of how people might react to the situation he’s conceived.


virgil xenophon 01.30.09 at 10:41 pm

“Scent” is right on target. I remember seeing a TV news “human interest” story around a decade ago about a woman in Penn. who went “back to the future” as a lifestyle experiment (and drug her family with her.) She got ALL her water from a well and cooking was done by a huge classic black pot hung in the fire-place. Nothing but candle-light, etc. When interviewed on TV for the story, her great-grand mother who had actually grown up under circumstances fairly close to those depicted, allowed that she thought her great-grand daughter was crazy. “I’ve got every electric appliance imaginable in my kitchen and house to make life comfortable,” she stated, continuing, “I’d NEVER go back to those days unless forced to.”


Barry 01.30.09 at 11:55 pm

Adding on to Virgil’s anecdote, one big difference between the peasants in Gruinmarkt/ many people in a third-world country & us (incl. that women living w/the Big Black Pot) is that they are living under the social constraints of their systems. The Gruinmarkt peasants live under the control and exploitation of their lords, who probably have the rights of very summary injustice. Not to mention ruinous taxation in a variety of cunning methods (harvest the lord’s crops first, use the lord’s mill, use the lord’s this thant and the other, paying the lord’s set fees to do so).

Similarly, an Indian person living in India has to deal with social limitations which a first world person wouldn’t be subject to, and could, in the end, avoid by leaving.


Keir 01.31.09 at 12:01 am

Well, yes, but Miriam is a worldwalker, for heaven’s sake. She can leave Gruinmarkt even more easily than you could have left India! I thought that Miriam’s reaction was just meant to show that she was a rather spoiled person from a sheltered upbringing – a selfish, high-maintenance prig. She’s basically a grown-up Eustace Scrubb.

Ah, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

(Actually, the Eustace Scrubb line is really quite good — but don’t you see the resemblance to some the people you meet in SF fandom as well?)


Keir 01.31.09 at 12:02 am

That first para is Ajay.


soru 01.31.09 at 4:58 pm

As a side note, can anyone tell me why it is that the US is seeing a real dearth of science fiction (bad novelizations from other media excepted) while the UK is seeing a boom

Stross has a theory about that:

The paucity of near-future US scifi is about the country becoming pessimistic, not being able to see the future clearly. There’s a trend in US scifi towards militarism and far-future stuff.

I suppose in a year or two we should get some Obama-era sci-fi: wonder what that will be like.


David 01.31.09 at 8:21 pm

@39: My hat is off to the many fine British writers of SF. They have, among other virtues, ushered in the true golden age of Space Opera. However, on these shores let me just remind you of: Robert Reed, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Swanwick and David Marusek, just off the top of my head. And in a preemptive mood, no Neal Stephenson, probably the most overrated author in the history of the genre, if not the English language.


beowulf888 02.01.09 at 6:22 am

I think Keith is being a little too harsh on Stross. One of the sub-plots of Glasshouse is wonderful love story that takes place in a time when people can morph their bodies into either sex — or into non-human constructs. I think Glasshouse one of the best science fiction novels — as well as being one of the best novels of any genre — that I’ve read in the past decade. And the reason it is works as a novel is because it superimposes the timeless human longings for love and security into a place where memories and identity can be edited (against one’s wishes) and where physical identity can shift. To categorize Stross’ work as “space opera” trivializes it and and overlooks its subtlety.

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