More on Sociology and Science Fiction

by Henry on December 9, 2010

“Paul McAuley on sf and society today”:http://unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com/2010/12/something-just-happened.html

bq. … something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn’t it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. …

bq. I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we’re in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit – the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present’s different air, that’s exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.

And “Cosma Shalizi riffs on Ernest Gellner”:http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/702.html

bq. It was pretty plain by, oh, 1848 at the latest that the kind of scientific knowledge we have now, and the technological power that goes with it, radically alters, and even more radically expands, the kind of societies are possible, lets us live our lives in ways profoundly different from our ancestors. (For instance, we can have affluence and liberty.) How then should we live? becomes a question of real concern, because we have, in fact, the power to change ourselves, and are steadily accruing more of it.

bq. This, I think, is the question at the heart of science fiction at its best. (This meshes with Jo Walton’s apt observation that one of the key aesthetic experiences of reading SF is having a new world unfold in one’s mind.) Now it is clear that the vast majority of it is rehashing familiar themes and properties, and transparently projecting the social situation of its authors. I like reading that anyway, even when I can see how it would be generated algorithmically (or even by a finite-state machine). … But sometimes, SF can break beyond that, to approach the question What should we make of our ourselves? with the imagination, and vertigo, it deserves.

Discuss – but try not to get bogged down in the finer nuances of the etymology of ‘reticent’ please …

{ 96 comments }

1

Cryptic Ned 12.09.10 at 10:17 pm

“crude flint hammers of pulp”? Gross.

2

Straightwood 12.09.10 at 10:29 pm

The key problem here is one of cultural lag. Things are changing in a non-linear fashion, and the literary memes can’t seem to keep up. That is why the stories recounted by Homer and Shakespeare keep getting remade with characters in space suit costumes. Here are some epochal pending changes that leave literature in the dust of failed imagination:

1. Superorganism emergence. The notion of individual heroism is so critical to the literary tradition that there is no mechanism for artistically engaging ego-less hive mind actions or dispersed identity.

2. Multiplicity of existence. Related to the extinction of heroism is the dissolution or multiplexing of unified personal identity. At any given time, a member of a sufficiently advanced society could be in one or more of N existential states, including participation in a superorganism. What is this person’s “story?”

3. Spatial implosion. Instead of expanding outwards, an excellent argument can be made for advanced civilizations imploding inwards, consuming progressively less space and energy while steadily expanding complexity and capability. That is why there are no SETI signals: a sufficiently advance civilization travels (at infinite speed) in (spatially arbitrary) logical space. This is a challenge for the literary journey meme, to put it mildly.

Alas, literature, that fountain of artistic innovation and imagination, no longer seems able to keep up with the increasingly strange ways of the world.

3

Barry 12.09.10 at 10:29 pm

I can’t resist – are ‘crude flint hammers’ reticent, or do they perhaps speak quite eloquently?

4

shah8 12.09.10 at 10:49 pm

I would hope that people are reading the original Murakami, because I don’t think McAuley is actually grokking what Murakami is actually saying. I believe this because Murakami is saying the exact same thing, and not what McAuley *thinks* he said–anyways, Murakami more or less implicitly stipulates this and talks about what forces a writer in a genre (aaaaaaaaaaaannnnnyyyyy genre, peeps!!) to change the tools, props and assumptions in plying the trade. It is, in other words, stipulated that we live in a fictional construct of some collective thought. What *changes* the things that are so emphemeral and subject to willpower is a collective cultural conflageration of superimposed, collective, and overwhelming unreality, using the latest newly built geopolitical/cultural mechanisms of spreading, coercing, and adopting ideas. A culture marks time from one event of undesired, unwanted unreality to the next.

In other words, Murakami is a zillion steps ahead of McAuley and answered his fucking question. With a model, too!

n.b. McAuley is on my shit list as far as writers go, so take my vituperative attitude with some salt.

5

sg 12.09.10 at 11:13 pm

I have always found this particularly depressing in fantasy, much more so than science fiction. Fantasy has all the tools at its disposal for transformative societies, but almost always falls back on cheap feudal power-dreams. The key ingredient of fantasy – magic – explicitly allows the author to make anything happen in their world, but all that ever happens is a small cadre of rich white men rule the world with the help of a small cadre of powerful white (magician) men.

I think it’s a depressing indictment of fantasy that the concept of “post-scarcity society” was invented in the SF genre (by e.g. Iain M. Banks), when the tools for the existence of such a society have been staring fantasy writers in the face since forever. It’s bad enough that SF has explored that so weakly, instead giving us the sterile visions of people like Asimov, but at least some of them have tried. In the end stories like Hyperion or Against a Dark Background seem so much more fantastical and magical than almost everything that comes out of the fantasy genre. I think China Mieville talks about this a bit, though from a different direction, when he decries the lack of diversity of political cultures in fantasy, and the lack of critical insight into the existing ones.

It’s a bit sad, really.

6

Sufferin' Succotash 12.09.10 at 11:16 pm

Offhand, the only sf superorganism of interest that I can recall is the Martian Cloud-Mind in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men.
Of course, my history students texting in class come close to life imitating art.

7

rm 12.09.10 at 11:23 pm

Yes, to both of the quoted paragraphs. (But it’s work remembering Sturgeon’s Law. Flint tools, indeed.)

I don’t think hive minds are on the way, but just the size and complexity of our world now is a singular change from the old world. Every “mainstream”* novel I read uses the SF and fantasy toolkit, often some of both.

* you know, mainstream, the genre of novels that deal with unhappy middle-class adults in the twentieth or early-twenty-first centuries

8

rm 12.09.10 at 11:24 pm

worth, not work

aaarrrrgh, I blame the texting kids

9

rm 12.09.10 at 11:25 pm

Why, oh why, does an asterisk automatically change to a bullet point?? I MEANT AN ASTERISK, you damn webpage.

10

Kaveh 12.09.10 at 11:31 pm

@2 I’m not so sure that this super-organism experience is really a new thing under the sun, or that it’s happening for the reasons people think it’s happening.

How then should we live? becomes a question of real concern, because we have, in fact, the power to change ourselves, and are steadily accruing more of it.

This, I think, is the question at the heart of science fiction at its best. (This meshes with Jo Walton’s apt observation that one of the key aesthetic experiences of reading SF is having a new world unfold in one’s mind.) Now it is clear that the vast majority of it is rehashing familiar themes and properties, and transparently projecting the social situation of its authors.

This is interesting to me both as a pulp fantasy fan, and as a historian of pre-modern Asia because (and I think I’m not alone in this) this is also the appeal of a lot of good historiography, especially historiography of Asia (and also because of The Singularity–but different aspects of it). For a lot of the Third World, especially in Asia, it’s almost impossible to think about the future without keeping one eye on the past. Sometimes historians look to the past, especially the (in certain ways) truncated histories of Asian civilizations, for things we would like to see in the future. (A good example of this is In An Antique Land, and I think a lot of Ottoman historians, among others, do this on some level.)

Certainly the nature of “the individual” is one thing that has changed across time and geography, and the possibility of heroic individuals making a difference, or at least the faith in this possibility, was not always there. So, is the disappearance of the individual really a matter of technology, or is it more a matter of history? Could it be caused by loss of the faith that our communities–nation state or world–will deploy technology for the reasons and in the ways that we previously believed they would? Maybe super organism experience is really just the decline of The West, an undoing of a major part of the Singularity–a part of the Singularity that we take for granted, but that we knew would come undone sooner or later? Maybe the world doesn’t seem bigger because it IS bigger, or more interconnected, it seems bigger because the End of History didn’t happen according to our expectations, and we’re put in more meaningful (co-equal) relationships with people who don’t look, sound, or think like we expect them to. And maybe super-organism experience is in some ways closer to how people experienced the world before they could read printed novels in their living room?

The animated TV series, Cowboy Bebop, takes place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic setting in which earth is frequently bombarded with meteor showers making it inhospitable to civilization, and on a deeper, thematic level, the show is about the displacement of Western civilization as a force that structures and dictates meaning–the actual, approaching post-Western world. So you could say that it equates the decline of the West with apocalypse. There are a lot of spaceship dogfights and heroic action in a kind of wild west-like setting, so it is very much “re-hashing familiar themes and properties, and transparently reflecting the social situation of its authors.” It’s good fiction rather than good science fiction, strictly speaking, keenly aware of its own location in history. But it’s also forward-looking.

So, maybe understanding our own location in history is something we need to do before we can write forward-looking scifi, or before we can be inspired to write forward-looking scifi?

11

Straightwood 12.09.10 at 11:32 pm

Sociopathic heroism neatly describes toxic leaders like Bush II, Tony Blair, and Putin, yet literature keeps serving up hero myths. Assange dressed himself up in shining armor at the cost of rendering Wikileaks vulnerable to his neutralization. Obama played the hero and delivers endless war, corpocratic rule, and shrinking liberties. What if the whole heroic tradition is just wasting energy on endless cycles of aggrandizement and dissapointment/betrayal?

We need an anti-heroic literature that serves extropy, the continuous unfolding of new structures and behaviors that promote, peace, freedom, and sustainability. If this means the end of heroism, let artists find new memes.

12

Lemuel Pitkin 12.09.10 at 11:34 pm

increasingly strange ways of the world

Seems to me that Cosma’s earlier post was an excellent corrective to this sort of thing. It’s just not the case that we live in a period of accelerating change, technological or otherwise. By any measure, social and material life have changed less in the past 50 years than in any of the three or four preceding 50-year periods.

It’s also not the case that sf has a better handle on the (non-increasing, but certainly real) strangeness of the world than other forms of literature. On the contrary, the range of human situations and types in most genre fiction is much narrower than in other forms of fiction. You’ll find far more genuinely new worlds in the realistic stories of Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned) or Miranda July (No One Belongs Here More Than You) than in almost anything on the sf shelf.

I enjoy science fiction as much as anyone, but I’ve never understood why so many fans feel the need to elevate it by dismissing everything else. Suggests some insecurity, or a lack of imagination.

13

Straightwood 12.09.10 at 11:48 pm

By any measure, social and material life have changed less in the past 50 years than in any of the three or four preceding 50-year periods.

The answer to any factual question is now immediately available to any literate person in the world. All of the written knowledge of the world will be digitally available to any literate person in the world within 10 years. Any digitally connected person can communicate instantly, and at near zero cost, with any other similar person. The encoded structure of human life is being analysed and reverse-engineered by computers whose power is increasing at an exponential rate. People are routinely augumenting themselves with pocket computers that connect them to all of the world’s knowledge and a steadily growing array of artificially intelligent “servants.” If you don’t believe that we are on the brink of epochal change, beyond anything enabled by Gutenberg, then you lack imagination.

14

Elf M. Sternberg 12.09.10 at 11:51 pm

Straightwood:

The problem with approach #1 is that it would have a hard marketability problem in our culture: individuals buy books, not the existent superorganisms, and “book buyers” have not coalesced into a superorganism of their own. The current population of bookbuyers apparently want individuals to associate with. The idea that a corporation or collective can be heroic is somewhat alien to the human ideal.

Greg Egan attempted to tackle #2, and ultimately deferred to the Space Opera meme.

15

Kaveh 12.10.10 at 12:00 am

@12 & 13: And gender roles have changed a lot more in the past 50 yeas than in the preceding 50 years.

16

shah8 12.10.10 at 12:11 am

Man, I’m feeling like an old grouch, but *Elf M Sternberg*, but I’d just have slapped Straightwood with Hannu Rajaniemi’s book.

Then again, that book has absolutely no exposition fairies in it. I think it’s like Blindsight in that it’s completely opaque to a non-genre, non-scientifically literate reader.

Which is kind of the point. All of those complaints/points of *Straightwood* is that people do write books like that–for a much smaller audience. I mean, how many people read and understood Schild’s Ladder to any real extent?

17

Lemuel Pitkin 12.10.10 at 12:47 am

If you don’t believe that we are on the brink of epochal change, beyond anything enabled by Gutenberg, then you lack imagination.

On the brink, of maybe. Who knows? It remains the case that *so far*, computer technology has transformeed society much less than the great innovations of the long 19th century. If someone were magically transported from 1960 to today, the material world would be almost completely familiar to them, in a way that would not be the case at all from 1800 to 1850 or 1870 to 1920. The telegraph and the railroad shrank the world a lot more than the internet has.

And gender roles have changed a lot more in the past 50 yeas than in the preceding 50 years.

Yes. I was going to add a caveat that the one area where we really have been living through a period of fairly rapid change is gender and the household. But of course this is precisely the home ground of non-genre fiction; sf doesn’t bring much to the table, certainly compared with history or anthropology, as you say in your insightful comment at 10.

18

Lemuel Pitkin 12.10.10 at 12:55 am

The silliness of the whole “everything’s changed” idea really comes out in McAuley’s piece, where one of his history-is-accelerating events is …. September 11. I’m really, really tired of the stupid narcissism of Americans who can’t imagine that bad things have ever happened to anyone else. That 9/11 continues to hold such a central place in people’s imagination is testimony to the lack of epochal events in recent years. Why people ant to imagine the current period of stability as one of incessant change is — as Cosma rightly framed it — an interesting sociological question.

19

David 12.10.10 at 1:01 am

I just want to put in a word for that poor flint tool. A well made flint tool is anything but crude.

20

Keir 12.10.10 at 1:15 am

Gah why don’t sf authors know anything about modernism? SF is after all one of the central literatures of modernism.

21

Kaveh 12.10.10 at 1:23 am

@17 Thanks; I actually did not mean to be pessimistic about what scifi has to offer, compared to history and anthropology, I just think it matters a lot how well writers understand our own historical moment. Like, one thing that really struck me when reading Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes was how much the material she discusses (Europeans writing about travel and exploration in Africa and the Americas) reminded me of Star Trek. You can have all the want-less society you want, but we can’t make sense of our experiences without barbarians and savages.

@18 I actually don’t think it’s sociological, exactly–I would say people think change is accelerating because change is supposed to accelerate in these crazy modern times we live in? (i.e. not because of anything other than that causing them to perceive rapid change; because people associate “the past” with stasis)

22

Henry 12.10.10 at 1:25 am

bq. I’m really, really tired of the stupid narcissism of Americans who can’t imagine that bad things have ever happened to anyone else.

McAuley isn’t American, and has a very interesting novel, Cowboy Angels, which is all about purported American exceptionalism, and should be coming out on this side of the Atlantic sometime soon. An America which discovers how to access parallel worlds through an accident, and uses the opportunity to extend an American empire through various versions of itself …

23

sg 12.10.10 at 1:36 am

It’s not just Americans who think this silly thing though is it? Canadians, Australians and Britons also occasionally subscribe to this notion (Brits in my experience not so much, perhaps because they have actual historical experience of terrorism on home soil).

24

Chuchundra 12.10.10 at 1:43 am

@5 I hardly think that the concept of a “post-scarcity society” was invented by Iain M Banks. Go read some of the Midas World stories written back in the 50’s by Fred Pohl for starters.

SF authors have been thinking and writing about this stuff for a long time. Just because the SF in the spinner rack at the airport is mostly *ZAP* *ZAP* power fantasies (not that there’s anything wrong with that) doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of interesting and thoughtful work going on out on the margins.

25

John Holbo 12.10.10 at 1:53 am

“I hardly think that the concept of a “post-scarcity society” was invented by Iain M Banks. Go read some of the Midas World stories written back in the 50’s by Fred Pohl for starters.”

I think, for starters, The German Ideology, by the 19th Century sf great Karl Marx, presents us with a vision of a post-scarcity society.

26

sg 12.10.10 at 1:56 am

chuchundra, sorry to rile you – I wasn’t trying to make a claim about who invented it in sf, just quoting someone I know as reference to it. My point is that it should have been thought of in fantasy but wasn’t. And I don’t think my sf reading is “spinner rack at the airport” stuff, don’t be so condescending.

27

David 12.10.10 at 2:29 am

As for genre, Leslie Fielder put a stake through that in the mid-sixties. However, like zombie economics it appears reluctant to die in the marketing, critical and consuming eyes.

28

zhava 12.10.10 at 4:30 am

Henry in reference to McAuley’s sci fi book “Cowboy Angels” :
“An America which discovers how to access parallel worlds through an accident, and uses the opportunity to extend an American empire through various versions of itself …”

Sure this isn’t horror genre?

29

Brett 12.10.10 at 5:18 am

The encoded structure of human life is being analysed and reverse-engineered by computers whose power is increasing at an exponential rate.

“Reverse-engineered”? I wouldn’t go that far. Sure, we’ve sequenced the genetic code for humans, but we’re not even remotely close to understanding how it works (and a genetic code is not like a blueprint, or a computer program – it’s closer to a recipe).

People are routinely augumenting themselves with pocket computers that connect them to all of the world’s knowledge and a steadily growing array of artificially intelligent “servants.” If you don’t believe that we are on the brink of epochal change, beyond anything enabled by Gutenberg, then you lack imagination.

It’s still less ground-shifting that the industrial revolution in the late 19th century/early twentieth century brought about in terms of societal shifts. Think of the revolution wrought by the railroads alone (and I consider steam power to be the most important invention of the last 300 years).

30

yeliabmit 12.10.10 at 6:13 am

John Holbo: “I think, for starters, The German Ideology, by the 19th Century sf great Karl Marx, presents us with a vision of a post-scarcity society.

David Brin has actually said several times that he believes Marx was a sf author — e.g. http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/71/asimovpanel71.htm (near the end of the discussion, although his analysis of the adoption of Marxism is …wanting, let’s say, in that particular example).

31

garymar 12.10.10 at 7:27 am

What about Peak Oil? Will we all be using “crude flint hammers” after that Anti-Singularity?

I don’t think flint is a good material for hammers. Doesn’t it tend to shatter when struck? That’s how we used to make arrowheads (“knapping”).

The sociologists on this thread are expecting way too much from poor little literature. I recently reread the entire Neuromancer sequence of novels. The technology is already looking a little threadbare, but Gibson’s humanism still shines forth. That’s why I read it.

32

maidhc 12.10.10 at 8:22 am

A lot of science fiction is really about the time it was written. I like reading Asimov because he gives such a good picture of what the 1950s was all about. His future is like working at Honeywell in 1958.

The best prediction of the future I can think of was Orson Scott Card predicting blogs in Ender’s Game back in the 1980s.

33

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 8:48 am

Garymar, I thought a flint hammer would be a hammer used on flint, not one made from flint?

@ maidhc: yes, especially when the most respected bloggers become natural leaders of the world

34

garymar 12.10.10 at 9:26 am

Zamfir, I see. I first thought of a flint hammer like a stone hammer or a wooden mallet. More like a meat hammer, which tenderizes meat. I may be overthinking this.

But those who would use the “crude flint hammers of pulp” will produce only flaky literature!

Sorry. Where I am it’s already Friday night, and I’m in a funny mood.

35

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 9:36 am

Is an MC Hammer a hammer that hammers other MCs, or a hammer made of an MC?

36

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 9:40 am

MC Hammer died a few months ago, BTW:

37

Chris Bertram 12.10.10 at 9:42 am

_1. Superorganism emergence. The notion of individual heroism is so critical to the literary tradition that there is no mechanism for artistically engaging ego-less hive mind actions or dispersed identity._

Well you could try Victor Serge’s _Conquered City_ as a counterexample.

38

ajay 12.10.10 at 9:48 am

pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history.

This is actually a not-too-far-off description of recent SF books like “Gardens of the Sun” and “The Quiet War”, written by one P. McAuley.
Both very good by the way.

39

Martin Wisse 12.10.10 at 10:46 am

It’s not McAuley’s view that 9/11 changed everything; he’s quoting/summarising Haruki Murakami.

In literature it seems to be the core memetic writers; the ones most often reviewed in The Times or The Guardian, who most seemed to be shaken awake by the fall of the towers: McEwan, Amis and their pals. Science fiction for the most part found it a non-event: if you routinely imagine the destruction of Earth, one lousy terrorist incident is no big deal.

American science fiction was turning into itself before the WTC was succesfully attacked. It seems to me that where there was a rough equivalence in American/British sf writers doing important near future work back in the mid-nineties, the noughties have been purely dominated by UK and especially Scottish writers. Ken MacLeod’s latest three novels have all tackled the War on Terror in one way or another, without being overtly literal or wish fulfillment. I haven’t seen anything similar coming out of the US.

40

ajay 12.10.10 at 10:55 am

Science fiction for the most part found it a non-event: if you routinely imagine the destruction of Earth, one lousy terrorist incident is no big deal.

Here’s a thought. Isaac Asimov said that “history is the trade secret of science fiction”. There’s a degree to which geography is now the other trade secret of SF. William Gibson, of course – “the future’s already here, just unevenly distributed” – and the increasing vogue for SF and SF-influenced authors like David Mitchell to look at other periods and/or other cultures for ideas and settings. If you want to set your novel in a weird high-tech omniconnected near-future culture, you can make one up, or you can just set it in Tokyo. If you want to set it in a decaying post-industrial dystopia full of dangerous military technology, you can make one up, or you can just set it in Russia. If you want to set it in a truly alien culture where almost none of your readers’ assumptions about how society and relationships work hold true, you can make one up, or you can set it in seventeenth-century Nagasaki. And you’ll have exactly the same Walton moment whichever option you pick. Ian McDonald and Paul McAuley and William Gibson and Jack Womack and others have all picked up on this.

And the relevance of 9/11 here is that, if you come from, or spend your time thinking about, a society in which mass-casualty terrorism is common, then 9/11 was nothing really new. The dividing line here isn’t SF/mundane. It’s broad versus narrow minds – broad, in the sense of ‘broadened by travel’.

41

Keir 12.10.10 at 10:55 am

Compare tho’ Banks — Dead Air frex.

42

Bruce Baugh 12.10.10 at 11:23 am

Martin Wisse: I dunno, I look at the post-9/11 madness of American writers from James Lileks to Dan Simmons, and the accelerated madness of ones who were already morally defective like John Ringo, and it’s hard for me to agree with Science fiction for the most part found it a non-event: if you routinely imagine the destruction of Earth, one lousy terrorist incident is no big deal.

(No, I’m not trying to claim that Lileks is an sf writer, just roping him in as a non-core mimetic author to illustrate the point.)

I do very strongly agree about the turning in, though. For every writer like Tobias Buckell who’s trying to do something that bridges the real world and ones he dreams up, there are several who’ve just plain given up bridge-making altogether.

43

ajay 12.10.10 at 11:33 am

40: Dead Air starts off with 9/11, sure, but it doesn’t actually do much with it if I remember? The rest of the novel is basically Complicity 2: The Quickening (and the connotation of a vastly inferior sequel is entirely deliberate).

A counterexample of a US SF author returning post-9/11 from the photosphere of his local neutron star to write near-future SF that deals with the War on Trr – Greg Bear, “Quantico”.

44

ajay 12.10.10 at 11:34 am

And another one, now I think about it: William Gibson, with “Pattern Recognition” and “Spook Country”.

45

Alex 12.10.10 at 11:51 am

Ajay: the consequence of the uneven distribution of the future is that all travel is potentially time travel. Even a good blog can be a time machine – if you read someone like Borderland Beat, you’re experiencing a different historical era.

46

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 12:12 pm

Ajay, using far away places in place of a fantasized future carries the risk of a kind of orientalism. You don’t try to describe really existing people and places as they are, but as you like them be as background for your story. Usually based on a rather stereotypical idea of the place. Even if the writer is fully aware of the difference, readers who never visited the place in question just get a rehash of their stereotypes.

Both Russia and Japan clearly suffer from this treatment. In quasi-SF, most places in Russia are former military operations in the snow with mafia connections, and Japan consists of techno-corporations run by cunning old men in skyscrapers who talk quiet wisdoms based on ancient tradition.

In general, places the readers of the book actually visit don’t get this treatment to such extent. Gibson might be an exception here, who turns every place into an orient.

I much prefer that people create their own fantasy worlds resembling ours, than that they project them on the stereotypes of real places.

47

dsquared 12.10.10 at 12:19 pm

the consequence of the uneven distribution of the future is that all travel is potentially time travel

do I detect the influence of a certain academic guru and theorist of ItalEuropa?

48

Alex 12.10.10 at 12:52 pm

Yes, I think Tristram has a paper on this coming out soon.

49

ajay 12.10.10 at 1:22 pm

45: Zamfir, that’s a theoretical risk, but you’re going to have to adduce some actual examples if you want to argue that it’s what actually happens in a significant number of cases.

50

Kaveh 12.10.10 at 2:11 pm

@45 using far away places in place of a fantasized future carries the risk of a kind of orientalism. You don’t try to describe really existing people and places as they are, but as you like them be as background for your story.

If you do that you’re probably already way off the rails. On the other hand, it seems like any effort to explore the more remote states of the human condition would be hamstrung without a good sense of how human life varies across time and geography on a span of decades or centuries, and merely earthly distances. The idea isn’t to faithfully reproduce 17th century Nagasaki as your setting, but to mine ethnographic data for insights into how people may behave in radically different social circumstances, what kinds of social structures and cultural institutions already exist(ed). Maybe a future world without borders (say, a future Dubai, or New York) would have things in common with Medieval Cairo?

51

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 2:29 pm

Ajay, I would offer Pattern Recognition as example of Russia, especially the part with the Russian businessman-mobster with infinite labour-camp support. The nineties had a lot of Japan-obsessed techno-thrillers where the Japanese had all this amazing electronics in Machiavellian corporations that were almost states within the state. I think Tom Clancy did one, and Michael Chrichton, and loads of less known writers.

Techno-thrillers suffer from this a lot, and I don’t really see how to distinguish between them and “Scifi in the futuristic parts of the present”.

52

ajay 12.10.10 at 3:04 pm

Pattern Recognition’s depiction of Russia isn’t really orientalism, though.

53

dsquared 12.10.10 at 3:07 pm

Cryptonomicon is pretty orientalist about Southeast Asia.

54

bianca steele 12.10.10 at 3:11 pm

Well, Stephenson’s first novel is kind of orientalist about physics professors, sororities, and gamers.

55

MPAVictoria 12.10.10 at 3:21 pm

17:
“If someone were magically transported from 1960 to today, the material world would be almost completely familiar to them, in a way that would not be the case at all from 1800 to 1850 or 1870 to 1920.”
Is this really the case? What would a person from 1800 find so different in 1850? Someone from the 1960s would find hand held devices that can answer your every question in seconds, access to an almost unlimited selection of films, books, television shows and music right from the comfort of their living rooms and medical science that is capable of analyzing the very building blocks of life itself. Not to mention the ridiculous abundance of products available at your average supermarket.

What would be the equivalent material changes between 1800 and 1850?

56

ajay 12.10.10 at 3:22 pm

“Anna Karenina” is noticeably orientalist about Russians.

57

Henry 12.10.10 at 3:26 pm

bq. This is actually a not-too-far-off description of recent SF books like “Gardens of the Sun” and “The Quiet War”, written by one P. McAuley.
Both very good by the way.

Ajay – you are not the only person to say this (Adam Roberts has similar criticisms), but I think you’re wrong (or at the least another plausible reading can be supported, and supported better by the text). The ‘happy’ ending of Gardens of the Sun is framed within two other visions of how the future will turn out, neither of which are particularly attractive sounding from the point of view of humanist individualism. We’re given _no_ warrant to believe that the nice future will win out against the others, and strong hints that the long term forces determining outcomes _do not discriminate_ in favor of human values. In a very quiet way, these are … not bleak books, but books about a universe that is not tailor made by human beings. The diptych isn’t _Blindsight_ – but it is a lot closer to it than it is to your standard space opera.

58

ajay 12.10.10 at 3:30 pm

Is this really the case? What would a person from 1800 find so different in 1850?

Steam power, steam ships, rail travel, the electric telegraph (so: moving matter at fifty miles an hour rather than the speed of a horse, moving large amounts of information instantly across hundreds of miles rather than by horse, ship or semaphore), street lighting, gas lamps, macadamised roads, a professional police force, a recent revolution in almost every European nation, photography, surgical anaesthesia, mass production, the vast expansion of London and other cities…

59

ajay 12.10.10 at 3:36 pm

57: I agree with what you’re saying about the uncertainty of happy endings, and about the unsympathetic nature of the universe – but I still think that, whatever the uncertainty about the future, those two books have plots in which “technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history”. The fates of entire worlds appear to depend on the actions of individual characters – Macy, Arvam Peixoto, Sri Hong-Owen, Avernus, Cale and a few others.

60

MPAVictoria 12.10.10 at 3:57 pm

ajay:
Some very interesting examples. However number of items on your list began in the 18th century not the 19th so we can assume that a person from 1800 may already have been familiar with some of them. For example:
– The mass production of goods began in the 18th century. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution)
– The first practical steam-powered ‘engine’ was developed in 1698 by Thomas Savery. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_engine)
– The 18th century had its share of revolutions and unrest. The French Revolution for example.
– Examples of professional European police forces predate 1800. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police#European_developmen)
– The transition from rural to urban was well under way by 1800.

Still I take your point.

61

Straightwood 12.10.10 at 4:04 pm

After 3000 years, Odysseus still seems to be the standard action hero. Boldness, cunning, courage, and a touch of quirkiness are what it takes to beat the bad guys and get the girl. Give this character a space ship and a ray gun and you have the protagonist of most low-grade science fiction.

Much of the mischief done in the world can be attributed to placing excessive and unaccountable power in the hands of people who want to play hero, and it can be argued that heroism is the root problem, not malice or wickedness. The persistence of heroism as a central cultural ideal is increasingly dangerous in a nuclear-armed world. The archaeological excavation of Troy would have been rendered far less interesting if the ancient Greeks had used nuclear weapons.

62

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 4:07 pm

Ajay, I don’t mean orientalism to be taken too literally. More as an analogy, for the way how fictional descriptions of a real, but faraway place can be become so standardized that references to the place have more to do with its earlier fictional appearances than with reality. The Russia in Pattern Recognition is basically that from GoldenEye.

63

MPAVictoria 12.10.10 at 4:08 pm

Straightwood:
You make a good point but for my taste anyway, a interesting hero is an important part of enjoying many books.

64

markd 12.10.10 at 4:08 pm

When McAuley writes , “Asking how novelists should respond to this [the “two acts of destruction”]- as they must, or else fall silent or become irrelevant”, I think, why must any novelist, or artist, respond to events that others deem important? The best sci-fi writers create something de novo, which may or may not be pertain to current events. Of Tolstoy’s absurd criticism of Shakespeare, Orwell wrote, “there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’ … Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses.”

65

ajay 12.10.10 at 4:13 pm

After 3000 years, Odysseus still seems to be the standard action hero. Boldness, cunning, courage, and a touch of quirkiness are what it takes to beat the bad guys and get the girl. Give this character a space ship and a ray gun and you have the protagonist of most low-grade science fiction.

This comment has been recently recovered from a cryogenically preserved archive of letters written in 1947 to the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction”.

66

Shelley 12.10.10 at 5:12 pm

Love that jaunty “a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit.” As someone who writes about an alternate (but not sci-fi) world of economic disaster, I am mystified, as the post says, that our current situation is being generally ignored.

67

ajay 12.10.10 at 5:35 pm

65: fiction publishing cycles might be a part of it. If you were inspired by the failure of Lehman Brothers to start writing an SF novel about an economic collapse, you would probably have finished your novel in about June 2009, and so it might only be coming out about now if you were lucky. Charlie Stross is quite good at explaining the lags built in to the novel business, rather bitterly in his case because he’d made quite a lot of progress with his novel about Bernie Madoff when Bernie Madoff happened.

68

praisegod barebones 12.10.10 at 6:49 pm

Alex 45,47:

‘Another country is like the past: they do things differently there. ‘ (as Abi Sutherland said recently in Another Place)

Ajay, Zamfir: it strikes me that one person who ought to be getting discussed in this context is Ian McDonald (for River of Gods, Cyberabad, Brasyl and now The Dervish House

Unfortunately, the only one of these whose setting I’d really feel confident about discussing in this context is The Dervish House, which I haven’t got round to reading yet. Any thoughts from either of you about any of the others?

69

shah8 12.10.10 at 6:59 pm

I didn’t like River of Gods. Windup Girl is far, far, better.

I was quite impressed with Aliette De Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld. Fantasy, with fantasy tropes, but quite refreshing in its mexica fashion.

One thing I am finding in my old age snerk, it seems that the mark of a really good book are confused reviews of a certain type. That tends to mean that the book is quite rich.

70

Norwegian Guy 12.10.10 at 7:50 pm

It often said that we are living in a time of increasing individualism. So this talk about the emergence of superorganisms would go against the modern zeitgeist. It could even seam too old-fashioned, a throwback to earlier times when more people did view themselves as a part of a larger collective, whether it was the nation, or the proletariat. Wasn’t communist parties in many ways intended to be superorganisms, with the Comintern as the central node?

71

Martin Wisse 12.10.10 at 8:26 pm

Windup Girl, with its genetically engineered geisha girl and stupid, stupid world building better than River of Gods? Only on Earth-2.

72

Straightwood 12.10.10 at 8:40 pm

There are crucial distinctions of tempo and optionality that distinguish between future super-organisms and past assemblages of massed humanity. We have no proper vocabulary for describing these new phenomena, but one can get a hint of the superorganism participation sensation by joining a fast-moving live blog discussion thread on a developing news event. As each participant adds to the knowledge store and deflects the discussion stream in new directions, it is clear that one is participating in the thought process of a collective mind, and this can be exhilarating. Of course, depending on the capabilities of the participants, YMMV.

A high speed of mental interaction among digitally linked members is a crucial enabler of superorganisms that functions differently from traditional organizations of individuals. This speed will only increase for the foreseeable future, so it is likely that an existential threshold will be crossed. Another distinctive feature of emerging superorganisms will be the optionality of participation. A single member may participate in one or more superorganism entities at will, and possibly simultaneously.

73

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 8:49 pm

Norwegian Guy, arguably modern “superorganisms”are more effective than the Comintern exactly because they don’t explicitly require that its nodes give up individuality.

I can really give up my job at any time, with real prospects of finding something perhaps more to my liking. I am still a cog in a vast machine, and I would be in most other jobs. But just the idea that I am choosing my own place as cog probably makes me a better cog than if I subjected myself to the machine and let it pick the best place for me.

74

geo 12.10.10 at 9:45 pm

modern “superorganisms” … don’t explicitly require that its nodes give up individuality

For my money, the most plausible and desirable of superorganisms is the Overmind in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I’ve had arguments about whether it requires the humans whom it assimilates at the end of that novel to give up their individuality or (as I maintain) bestows on those humans the full development of their individuality. After all, it was like us once: a race of poor forked creatures, scrabbling on a tiny planet lost in a nondescript galaxy. And it became pure mind, just as we’re destined to. So why shouldn’t it give us a leg up?

75

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 10:01 pm

But we have no clue whther an Overmind can exist. We really understand very little of minds and consciousness and personality and all that.

For all we know, everything we value about “mind” might only make sense in biological creatures of roughly our capabilities, while more capable thinking can only be done by very different principles. Perhaps a state, or Exxon is already as close to an Overmind as can be.

As analogy, think about a 1000 tonne star. It’s vaguely imaginable, and you could write a book about such stars. But in reality, such a thing could never exist, or it would work so differently that it’s not really a star.

76

shah8 12.10.10 at 10:15 pm

The stylized world-building kinda was the point in the Cherie Priest sense. People complaining about world building of all things, in a speculative fiction format have quite little basis to stand on. There are other reasons I loathe Paul McAuley, but poorly imagined attempts at ultra-hard sci-fi, where the techsplanations aren’t organically involved in the storytelling, just rubs me raw. I’ll take Peter Watts over Alistair Reynolds any day of the week. Greg Egan over Neal Asher. Karl Schroeder over Peter F Hamilton. I mean, The Culture Universe has all of the credibility of the Trek Universe. Octavia Butler spends far less time talking about tech and journeys and ai than Orson Scott Card does, but Blood Child beats the snot out of Ender’s Game.

Now, if you want to talk world building, read Rosemary Kirstein. The basic political economy just doesn’t realistically work, but letting it go builds a world far vaster and detailed than any galaxy spanning venture by John Ringo.

People write the good stuff. They always have. Except the good stuff is usually demanding. There is far more real meat in Wind Up Girl, assisted by the world-building than there is in River of God. Politically, even in tech…and from my perspective, it’s a far better portrayal of Thais in a super-modern (not) context than the Hindu motif in River of God. You just have to read between the words.

People not wanting to read between the words leads to a link to a thoughtless blog-post instead of actually linking to the original post where an effin’ master of the craft writes quite elegantly about how the times demand the arts.

But noooooo, the arts lead the times, right?

77

geo 12.10.10 at 10:22 pm

you could write a book about such stars

Someone has, more or less: The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle.

78

Zamfir 12.10.10 at 10:48 pm

Ah, no, I didn’t mean the star would be a mind, sorry. I meant that a star is certain balance of gravity and pressure from the fusion process. Too small, and it won’t shine, too large and it will blow apart. Beign a star is a possible property of a limited range of masses. But it required a lot of understanding of stars to know this, and without it you could speculate about much larger or much smaller stars than actually can exist.

In the same vein, overminds might simply not be possible, or even meaningful, in the sense that being a “mind” might only be something stable for things vaguely comparable to ours, and larger, more complicated things can never resemble a mind.

Of ocurse, larger objects can be galaxies, or black holes, or whatever, but they can’t be stars.

79

Alex 12.10.10 at 11:28 pm

James Nicoll once suggested that he wanted to read a novel in which the Overlords from Childhood’s End realised that they were actually the servants of a nightmarish, universe-conquering tyranny and set out to uplift as many civilisations as possible to their own technology level so that they could resist effectively.

Personally, I think the book is about tragedy in general – specifically, it’s the only art form that can be certain to be shared between different intelligent species. Anything that counts as intelligent must be aware of its fallibility.

80

Straightwood 12.10.10 at 11:47 pm

It is a puzzle to me that people willing to grasp the sheer vastness of even the known universe, in dimensional terms, have such a cramped scope of imagination for the cognitive and spiritual possibilities of living things more complex than humans. How hard is it to consider the delta between the brain of a salamander and Homo Sapiens, then lay out a commensurate span of difference between us and a more advanced being?

What does tragedy mean to an immortal species whose members can store their identities and mind states and resurrect themselves, even if physically destroyed?

81

ajay 12.10.10 at 11:48 pm

Unfortunately, the only one of these whose setting I’d really feel confident about discussing in this context is The Dervish House, which I haven’t got round to reading yet. Any thoughts from either of you about any of the others?

Haven’t read any Ian McDonald, I’m afraid.

As analogy, think about a 1000 tonne star. It’s vaguely imaginable, and you could write a book about such stars. But in reality, such a thing could never exist, or it would work so differently that it’s not really a star.

Stephen Baxter would beg to differ – all you need to have is G 10^9 times what it is here, and there you are, mile-wide stars with a year-long lifespan. (Raft)

I’m entertained that someone is lauding the superior credibility of a novel in which the energy economy depends on growing and harvesting genetically engineered fodder to feed to very large genetically engineered animals which then tramp round and round on treadmills to wind up very big springs which are then attached to machines and unwound to produce mechanical energy. (Rather than, say, burning firewood). Almost as bad as Michael Faber’s terrible Under the Skin, in which you are waiting three hundred pages for one of the unimaginably technologically advanced aliens to say “Ooh, hey, guys, here’s a concept that could make our entire extremely dangerous and uncertain mission on Earth completely unnecessary: agriculture“.

82

shah8 12.11.10 at 1:13 am

Symbolism…

Look.it.up.

That was never supposed to be anything but something that was cool to imagine and something that was an indictment. Of us. Because we fucking do exactly that, and we’re never going to change, and we’ll *still* be doing exactly engineering XXX and processing yyy and out comes the wooden button. Because our society is structured and incentivized to set a heirarchy of meaning and means and accounted by resources/finance. The actual windup is an alpha/omega snake-eating-the-tail of what human interactions with technology and its consequences. You know, the whole fighting your constructed essence, and dealing with being intensely conscious of each use of energy intensive technology, including what should be bodily second nature? People cycling, converting rice into electric energy is meant to be an allegory, not some strict fact. It.is.a.work.of.fiction. Verisimilitude got nuttin’ to do with nuttin’ when it comes to imagination. I’ve certainly have had enough physics education (about the rough ability to do a Heisenberg for a single atom) that I intimately know how interstellar space travel isn’t possible. Enough to know that, oh, Karl Schroeder’s Ventus‘s essential plot-point is thoroughly impossible or Chris Moriarty’s two works uses a bunch of real quantum mechanics plus a whole bunch of crazy shit to make her little mass teleportation scheme work. That sort of thing is just not a reason to diss a science *fiction* novel. Geeeez. Isn’t it enough to say you don’t like it, instead of also accusing it of being what it essentially is?

Good gods, did you fail British Literature because you thought that funny Irishman was serious?

83

shah8 12.11.10 at 1:24 am

Or better yet…

Mr. Ajay, may I allow myself to introduce you to Mr. Sarasti. I’m sure he’ll let you call him Jukka, won’t you?
.
.
.
silence
.
.
.
Ah, well, get along now, but I’ve got meetings later today. Toodleooo!
>>door closes>>
.
.
The expected happens

84

spyder 12.11.10 at 2:12 am

How then should we live? becomes a question of real concern, because we have, in fact, the power to change ourselves, and are steadily accruing more of it.

And, might i add, that we are changing ourselves. There is a whole host of universities and colleges working to produce research, colloquies, and conferences on transhuman development. Much of our unfolding current technological advancements are actually fairly old, four to six years, with an ever-expanding base of newer, not yet public, ones waiting in the wings.

Vets have been putting chips in pets for several years now so that owners can track them, and many children are implanted now as well to “enhance protection.” An increasing range of humans are implanted, or are implanting, chips that provide a variety of services. Much of this has happened without much thought about where it will all lead; the quest for research zeal seems ahead of the ethical and moral discussions.

DARPA is way out there, ahead of most sci-fi these days, especially in development of war without troops. While we are free to discuss the merits of this or that author, and this or that construct, our technocrats are leaping ahead trying to utilize three year old “new” technologies. Stephenson and Gibson did share in the vision, but i doubt were considered when it came time for philosophizing. Interchangeable chips in the head, already happening.

85

Alex K 12.11.10 at 7:25 am

If I ever do write a fantasy or science-fiction novel that looks back nostalgically on old-fashioned paradigms, I hope it will not be due to lack of imagination or intellectual incuriosity, but due to my genuine loathing and revulsion of singularities and super-organisms.

86

ajay 12.11.10 at 11:47 am

There will come a day on which things like 82 and 83 will make sense . BUT THIS IS NOT THAT DAY!

87

Ken MacLeod 12.11.10 at 12:12 pm

ajay # 40: Isaac Asimov said that “history is the trade secret of science fiction”.
He may very well have said that, but I would quite like to know where. Googling the quote + Asimov gets seven results, all of which attribute the statement to me. I’m fairly sure I got the basic idea from reading an essay by Asimov, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find I’d unconsciously quoted his exact words.

88

Mary 12.11.10 at 3:08 pm

With a nauseating thud the severed oval toppled to the
floor, as the segregated torso of Grignr’s bovine antagonist
swayed, then collapsed in a pool of swirled crimson.
In the confusion the soldier’s fellows confronted Grignr
with unsheathed cutlasses, directed toward the latters scowling
make-up.
“The slut should have picked his quarry more carefully!”
Roared the victor in a mocking baritone growl, as he wiped his
dripping blade on the prostrate form, and returned it to its
scabbard.
“The fool should have shown more prudence, however you shall
rue your actions while rotting in the pits.” Stated one of the
sprawled soldier’s comrades.
Grignr’s hand began to remove his blade from its leather
housing, but retarded the motion in face of the blades waving
before his face.
“Dismiss your hand from the hilt, barbarbian, or you shall
find a foot of steel sheathed in your gizzard.”
Grignr weighed his position observing his plight, where-upon
he took the soldier’s advice as the only logical choice. To
attempt to hack his way from his present predicament could only
warrant certain death. He was of no mind to bring upon his own
demise if an alternate path presented itself. The will to
necessitate his life forced him to yield to the superior force in
hopes of a moment of carlessness later upon the part of his
captors in which he could effect a more plausible means of
escape.

89

Cranky Observer 12.11.10 at 3:56 pm

> I’m entertained that someone is lauding the superior credibility
> of a novel in which the energy economy depends on growing and
> harvesting genetically engineered fodder to feed to very large
> genetically engineered animals which then tramp round and round
> on treadmills to wind up very big springs which are then attached to
> machines and unwound to produce mechanical energy. (Rather than,
> say, burning firewood).

Firewood coming /from where/? The fundamentals of Bacigalupi’s world in _Windup Girl_ aren’t stated explicitly in full, but it is clear that the Earth has suffered tremendous damage from global warming (compared to its state in 1700, say) including massive inundation but that the human population hasn’t fallen as much as is often predicted in post-apocalyptic scenarios (human ingenuity, will to survive, and all that). And that there is intense social pressure against processes that release CO2 in concentrated forms not mediated by the buffer of a biological system. Given those not-unrealistic premises, the idea that a population above the natural carrying capacity of what remains of the earth would simply be able to rampage around cutting down every tree remaining for firewood, as the European settlers did in 1700s North America, is ludicrous.

I’ll take the word of those who post here that from the perspective of hard (real world) biology and genetic engineering that the technology as Bacigalupi describes it is wrong. OTOH, having several dozen friends and family members who work in Des Moines and its equivalents, and having been surrounded by Midwestern agribusiness and its side effects for much of my life, I will tell anyone who thinks that a calorie war fought among giant agribusinesses (with or without genetically engineered weapons) wouldn’t/couldn’t happen is flat out wrong – it very well could and someday might.

But that’s not really the point. Do Bacigalupi’s critics really think that the world after the oil is gone, and possibly after we have absorbed the effects of global warming, is going to be exactly like the world we have today except that we’ll be driving electric automobiles instead of gasoline-powered ones? That the changes that will occur when the gasoline runs out will be minor? That if inundation occurs that everyone will just move a few miles inland and resume their high-tech/resource consumption lives? Because that’s the strong impression I get from most criticisms of _Windup Girl_, and I can’t say I find that line of thought very persuasive.

Cranky

90

Charlie Stross 12.11.10 at 8:02 pm

Cranky, the essential problem with Bacigalupi’s setup (as described — I haven’t read the book) is that it’s wasteful. If you can grow genetically engineered crops, then almost by definition you can use the concentrated solar energy they contain more efficiently if you use ’em to produce power directly, rather than feeding them to a large animal (say goodbye to 80-90% of the energy stored in the crops as it goes into producing behemoth shit rather than usable power) and using that to store power in a (lossy) spring-loaded device.

It’s not only bad engineering; it’s bad biology. Paolo freely admits he rigged the tech side of his back-story so that nuclear power and renewables as we currently know them aren’t economically viable (source: hanging out at the bar with him). Windup Girl isn’t a rigorous attempt at envisaging a likely future; it’s clearly not aiming in that direction. Which doesn’t make it a bad novel, but it does suggest it’s not a useful work of futurology.

91

Cranky Observer 12.11.10 at 8:23 pm

> Cranky, the essential problem with Bacigalupi’s setup (as described—I haven’t
> read the book) is that it’s wasteful. If you can grow genetically engineered
> crops, then almost by definition you can use the concentrated solar energy
> they contain more efficiently if you use ‘em to produce power directly,
> rather than feeding them to a large animal (say goodbye to 80-90% of the
> energy stored in the crops as it goes into producing behemoth shit rather
> than usable power) and using that to store power in a (lossy) spring-loaded device.

Ah, maybe (source: working in the large-scale electric generation industry off and on for 20 of the last 30 years). Maybe humans will figure out how to do that (it can’t be done now). Maybe things will fall apart too fast for that project to get completed even if (if) it is possible. Maybe the people who control the food would prefer that it be done the other way. Maybe other events will intervene or will take a chaotic/serendipitous path that isn’t even close to a linear interpolation from where we are now.

> It’s not only bad engineering; it’s bad biology. Paolo freely admits
> he rigged the tech side of his back-story so that nuclear power
> and renewables as we currently know them aren’t economically
> viable (source: hanging out at the bar with him).

Right; it is Fiction after all. Science or speculative fiction too, so I expected that some liberties were probably taken with the actual science.

> Windup Girl isn’t a rigorous attempt at envisaging a likely future;
> it’s clearly not aiming in that direction. Which doesn’t make it a bad
> novel, but it does suggest it’s not a useful work of futurology.

This isn’t aimed a Charlie personally, or at Bacigalupi for that matter, but even though I have earned my living by working some of the largest scale hard technology energy projects [1] including nuclear and am fully enmeshed in the energy-wasteful USian way of life I find far too much optimism (whether human-optimism or techno-optimism) about what will happen when the oil runs out. Brad DeLong, for example, is constantly spinning just so stories about the wonders of the Atlantic economies from 1880 through the present without once mentioning the quads of petroleum energy which have been dumped into those same economies since 1875. There is nothing on the horizon to replace oil [2], when it starts running out the well will go dry faster than anyone expects (literally), and I don’t think the most pessimistic implications of Bacigalupi’s novels are even close to what will happen.

Cranky

[1] I haven’t worked on the Chinese hydro projects, so I can’t say the very largest.

[2] Excepting the processing of coal into substitutes for petroleum distillates, which has its own set of gruesome problems and side effects.

92

Brett Bellmore 12.12.10 at 1:22 am

“What does tragedy mean to an immortal species whose members can store their identities and mind states and resurrect themselves, even if physically destroyed?”

I suppose they’d have tragedies about people who could have done exactly that, but for one reason or another neglected to. Maybe they’d have tragedies about a civilization which had cryonics, but in which 99.999999% of the people who got sick enough nothing could be done for them were permitted to rot anyway.

After all, tragedy isn’t really about the inevitable fate of everybody. Oedipus wouldn’t be a tragedy in a world where every man killed his father and married his mother. It’s a tragedy because circumstances led him to do something that *didn’t* have to happen.

93

Chris 12.12.10 at 6:46 pm

If you can grow genetically engineered crops, then almost by definition you can use the concentrated solar energy they contain more efficiently if you use ‘em to produce power directly, rather than feeding them to a large animal (say goodbye to 80-90% of the energy stored in the crops as it goes into producing behemoth shit rather than usable power) and using that to store power in a (lossy) spring-loaded device.

Heck, why not just grow genetically-engineered firewood and then burn that (which is carbon-neutral since the carbon ends up right where it started)? Burning it is a lot like eating it, except without the rest of the behemoth’s metabolic processes to pay for.

Perhaps with *really* advanced genetic engineering you can eliminate the inefficient split between plant and animal and have your (literally) green behemoth powered by its own photosynthesis. Why not, it’s the chloroplasts doing the real work either way. (On the other hand, you might need an unworkably large surface area of photosynthesis compared to the size of the animal you’re trying to move… the fact that large animals forage over large areas might be more than just compensating for their digestive inefficiencies.)

94

ajay 12.13.10 at 9:48 am

87: well, he must have said it somewhere. Ken MacLeod said he did.

It’s certainly something he believed, even if he never used those words: he was quite open about cribbin’ from the works of Edward Gibbon for the “Foundation” series, among other examples.

Firewood coming /from where/?

From the fields currently being used to grow the fodder for the great big genetically engineered beasts of burden. This is GCSE biology stuff.

95

ajay 12.13.10 at 9:51 am

On the other hand, you might need an unworkably large surface area of photosynthesis compared to the size of the animal you’re trying to move… the fact that large animals forage over large areas might be more than just compensating for their digestive inefficiencies.

Well, you lose about 90% of production at each trophic level, so if half an acre of grass will feed a cow, then a photosynthetic cow would have to have an exposed psyn surface of 200 square metres. So you’re really talking about something the size of a petrol station canopy or a small marquee that moos.

96

Alex 12.13.10 at 10:04 am

Maybe humans will figure out how to do that (it can’t be done now).

This really, really needs a cite, as there are in fact operational solar power plants, both photovoltaic and concentrating. Also, of course, wind power is just solar at one remove, using the atmosphere as a concentrator.

Also, if you can grow stuff and feed it to beasts, you can feed it to a STEAM ENGINE. Which would be significantly more efficient. We know this because…that’s how the industrial revolution happened in the first place. Burning wood in a steam engine was a better way of pumping water out of a tin mine than growing fodder on the land and feeding it to ponies walking around a gin to drive the same pump. The UK didn’t do woodburning steam power much, being largely an island made of coal back then, but plenty of places did. And yes, we did use steam power for agricultural traction. There are nice old men who lovingly restore Fowler ploughing engines to this day and take them to conventions to fire them up – rather like science fiction fans, really.

That was with Watt engine technology, but a future steam engine would almost certainly be a Stirling engine design, which is a considerable gain in itself.

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