Last week I caught an episode of Almost Human pretty much by accident. I have to say it was pretty fantastic. The story followed Dorian the android and a human detective as they tried to track down an illegal sexbot ring that was using human DNA in the skins of their androids. The show had a nice sense of humor, some cool advanced technology, good action and pacing, and excellent dialogue. It culminated with Dorian being present for the ‘death’ of a sexbot made with the illegal skin. It was the climax of the episode’s central theme – what happens when you die, and how can others derive comfort from it? It really was very, very well done.
Accordingly, I expect Fox to cancel it within 12 episodes or so.
Anyway, the exploration of human morality through the lens of androids is not a new one. It arguably dates all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy. In Caves of Steel we meet Detective Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw and watch a dynamic quite similar to that of John and Dorian, except the roles are more stock: whereas Karl Urban’s John is the one that is emotionally damaged and unavailable and Dorian is empathetic and open, Bailey is the poster boy for emotional appeal compared to Olivaw’s bloodless logic. In Asimov’s case, however, he was attempting to show the technology of the future as helpful and wise despite its frightful appearance. Almost Human is doing something a bit different; it is taking a more even-handed approach to the prospect of advanced tech, showing the horrors as well as the benefits. Dorian is meant to be more human than John and in many ways he is. Unlike Asimov, who is asking social and economic questions, Almost Human seems to be concerned about psychology, morality, and humanity on a more personal level.
In this sense, then, Almost Human owes less to Asimov, all noble and ponderous upon his gilded throne of Golden Age Science Fiction, and a great deal more to the fallout-choked alleys and half-religious psychadelia of Philip K Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans save via extremely intricate post-mortem physical exams or less-than-reliable ‘empathy tests’ based off the assumption that androids are incapable of feeling empathy. The society of the book adopts this mantra as the quintessential definition of humanity, and yet the action of the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating just how foolish a definition this is. Humans are shown not to be empathetic at all and not only towards replicants; they hurt each other, they judge each other, they demean each other with casual familiarity. The world, as shown by Dick, is hostile to life in all its forms, and no creature comes to expect quarter from any other, replicant or otherwise. This is not to say that there is no hope, but rather to demonstrate how we who feel that humanity is doing just fine haven’t really stopped to look at ourselves. Dick does this with Replicants, as artificially creating the ’other’ to be abused by the so-called noble, pious, empathetic forces of humanity makes it easier for us to see ourselves.
So, too, does Almost Human attempt to show us reflections of ourselves in the person of androids, in the hopes that we can actually recognize ourselves better when faced with that which we define as not ourselves. These stories, when done well, are hard to watch. They have the power to levy biting criticism unfettered by the softening insulation of social context or apologism. These stories are also not easy to do – too many of them fall into trite echoes of ‘traditional’ values (Spielberg’s AI comes to mind). So far I feel that Almost Human has done a good job, but it is very early. I will keep watching, though. I hope very much they can keep it up.
What is it with fantasy novels and the Middle Ages? I mean, seriously, think about it for a second: you have a genre in which you can do anything, anywhere, with anybody, and where is it always set?
12th-14th Century England. Every damned time.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good medieval fantasy world as much as the next guy, but it does get old. To some extent I need a break from knights and castles and monarchies and so on. I need something fresh. Something more exotic, with perhaps fewer old Europe overtones. There are authors who have done this, and done it well (Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World comes to mind), and those works serve to remind us that Tolkien didn’t set any laws about where we could go and what we could do in fantasy. Just because he pirated Saxon lore to make Middle Earth doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, that doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of Europe as a whole. As much as we need more African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American fantasy worlds (boy howdy, do we!), there is a reasonable argument to be made that fantasy literature is traditionally rooted in European myth and, as it is primarily marketed to Europeans, it seems reasonable that Europe and its reflections will remain a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre for a long time to come. Fine then.
So why does it need to be the middle ages all the time?
When I say ‘all the time’, I mean that literally. So many fantasy worlds are apparently frozen in a kind of permanent quasi-feudal society. It never changes, never grows, never evolves. Go back a thousand years in the world’s history, and they’re doing the same things – wearing the same armor, using the same technology, building the same kinds of places, farming the same kinds of stuff. Why is that? Are they just incapable of technological advancement? Are the people in that world just stupider than the ones in ours? Seems improbable to me.
The fantasy world should grow and change like our own. It should have shifts in culture and history and technology and religion, just like we have. It should change, and the way it reflects our world should change with it. Why not fantasy set in the High Renaissance? The Victorian Era? The 1950s? The Napoleonic Wars? The Ancient World? Why not have cultures based more on Renaissance Russia or 3rd Century Turkey?
The answer comes back to my old belief that fantasy novels are, at their heart, conservative. The fantasy genre is so often about the prevention of change, the preservation of the old in the face of the new. New is almost always bad in fantasy worlds. Change takes the form of conquerors and monsters, evil curses and world-shattering magic. The heroes, meanwhile, must dig up something ancient and powerful or listen to the counsel of the aged and the wise in order to prevail. Their victory is the preservation of the status quo or, perhaps, the reinstatement of that which was unrighteously usurped. Are we not all waiting for Daenerys to regain the Iron Throne? Do we not pine for the fall of the Old Republic and the doom of the Jedi? Are not the elves and old Gandalf the wisest voices in Middle Earth? Is not the existence of the Dragon Reborn proof positive of the cyclical nature of existence – nothing new under the sun, just the same old stuff come again? If the young save the world, it is not to remake it, but rather to restore it to the condition their forefathers maintained before them. There is always the attempt to return, to go back, to undo.
And yet we have the potential to explore so much more in fantasy literature. We can explore the repercussions of the new and the revolutions of thought and belief that go with it. We can shape a world that reforms itself, that learns from its mistakes, that leaves the past behind it and moves on to a brand new day. Perhaps this treads on the toes of science fiction too much – that has always been the genre of those who would look forward – but in an era where science fiction is increasingly obsessed with our society’s demise, maybe it should fall the fantasy to pick of the slack. Maybe fantasy can show us a way forward that science fiction, so tied down by the negativity of modern society, has forgotten how to find.
I bought a smart phone yesterday. I didn’t really want to – none of its added functionality really appeals to me as worth the extra charges – but my ancient dumbphone is on its last legs and the ‘new’ dumbphones were all of worse design than the one I bought in 2007. Society has sent a clear message: buy a smartphone, you cheap bastard. So I did. Ah well. Thus I am compelled to shell out an extra 30 bucks per month in perpetuity in order to keep pace with the world.
Technology is a difficult master. It moves along (note I refuse to say ‘forward’) and compels us to keep pace or be shunned. This happens in every sphere of life – military, social, agricultural, architectural, etc., etc. – and it is almost impossible to stop it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I do think the human race, on the whole, is better off today than it was in previous eras, and the numbers bear this out on balance – but it does require human beings to acclimate to something we fundamentally despise: change.
The world always changes. Always. Sometimes by degrees, sometimes all at once, but it always happens. Those who succeed in the world (whether we’re talking humans or animals or plants or whatever) are the ones that adapt best to it. We humans are probably the all-time adaptability champs, or at least the current title holders. It’s funny, though, how much we like to complain about it.
And so that brings me back to the smartphone. The smartphone is the poster boy for the New World Order, and people have been lining up to hop on board ever since the iPhone was trotted out. It represents an age of unparalleled interconnectivity, of convenience of access, of freely flowing information, of the world at your fingertips. We, as a society, love these things. We really, honestly do. If the smartphones were to all be packed away, the internet dismantled, and the world to be disconnected, we would be miserable.
So can we all please stop bitching about losing our privacy?
Much hand-wringing and a metric ton of wailing and teeth-gnashing has accompanied our new era of connection. We keep hearing about privacy being lost, freedoms curtailed, and so on and so forth. Wired’s Marcia Hoffman writes a column about how Apple’s newest gadgetry may compromise the 5th Amendment and, you know what, she’s probably right. The thing that bothers me, though, is what did everybody think would happen?
How can you be alarmed that corporations and governments are acquiring your personal information if you spend almost ALL OF YOUR TIME shooting it through space to be intercepted? Spy agencies spy on people – it’s why they’re called spy agencies. Corporations will do anything to make money – this should not be new. How can you be so alarmed when these entities (most of which predate the Information Age) have adapted themselves to capitalizing upon the Information Age? Shouldn’t it be OBVIOUS that the NSA can hack any site on the internet they want? I mean, if they couldn’t, would they be very good at their jobs?
The crazier thing to me is that we’re acting like this is a brand new phenomenon. Businesses and governments have been doing this stuff since FOREVER, folks. Ever since there’s been secrets whispered in alleys, there’s been people hanging out in alleys to hear secrets. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of stuff we’re saying to each other and making available to each other. It only follows that the listeners would also grow.
The idea of online privacy is a charming myth, like El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth. You can’t have it. There has never been a vehicle of communication that wasn’t compromised by people wanting to make money or secure power. Never. So, if you own a gadget that connects all of your information to the rest of the world at the touch of a button, it’s merely the cost of doing business to accept that somebody else could, if they so wish, acquire that information. Get over it. Move on. Technology works both ways, folks. It always has and it always will.
Or, you know, toss out the Internet. Melt down all the smartphones. No more Facebook for you. No more blogs. Because that is the only way you will get your mythical ‘privacy’ back (assuming you ever had it in the first place which, if you ever had a credit card before the internet, you didn’t).
Unfortunately, if it’s gotten to the point where I purchased a smartphone, I think the cat is pretty well out of the bag at this point.
A few days ago, I read this post over on Gizmodo listing five new man-made materials that could ‘change the game’ so to speak. Since that time, I’ve been trying to figure out some of the fun, science-fiction-y applications that could be dreamed up, extrapolating from this material onwards. I have to be honest – I haven’t gotten far. Let’s see what I’ve come up with. Perhaps you have some better ideas:
Aluminum Bubble Wrap
The first thing that comes to mind is body armor. Today, one of the things that is dangerous to Kevlar users is blunt-force trauma. Sure, the bullet doesn’t go through, but it sure as hell leaves a big, big bruise. Get hit with a thing going fast enough, and it will bust bones, break blood vessels, and can even cause internal bleeding. Having a layer of this stuff would be lighter than wearing a trauma plate (a rigid steel plate placed underneath portions of body armor to prevent that kind of blunt damage) and possibly more flexible. Still, this use isn’t all that fantastic or interesting. While a useful development, it lacks a certain adventurous spirit, doesn’t it?
Replacing bone with porous titanium? Well, not only are we closer to making an actual Wolverine (minus the healing factor, but hey–you can’t have everything), this is the kind of materials science that might even make silly things like giant robots possible. You still wouldn’t need or want them, but still.
But wait! If this makes giant robots easier, why wouldn’t it make *regular* robots easier. Heck, you could get the same material strength for less density – that means lighter tanks, lighter planes, lighter *everything*. Want a vehicle with the speed of a dune buggy but the durable construction of an Abrams? Hello Titanium foam!
This is a cool one. An actual manmade material so light it is legitimately lighter than air. It can also absorb stuff. Besides being used as an anti-chemical agent, you could also saturate it in stuff and produce a way to distribute materials accurately, too. Think of firing pellets suffused with just a *little* bit of compound X that can be delivered to a single person over a long distance. You’d need to couple this thing with something with a little mass (so it would fly true), but it could be a pretty cool gas-pellet device. What about somehow rendering it microscopic and distributing it in the blood. It would absorb oxygenated blood for (potential) storage, giving you something of a back-up supply that could be (potentially) released via nanotechnology somehow–instant energy boost. Or, you know, fill it with adrenaline and see what the hell happens (well, besides a heart attack).
Artificial Spider Silk
You know those monofilament whips they tote around in cyberpunk stories? Well, a potential reality here. More importantly, couple this stuff with Foam Titanium and grapheme Aerogel and you know what I’m thinking? Space Elevator. Yeah, baby – a tether to a space station that you could climb up via elevator (essentially), making the escape from Earth’s gravity well much, much easier. Oh, and coupling this with aluminum bubble wrap could make some great safety gear.
Molecular Super Glue
This stuff is both hilarious and terrifying. Bonding covalently with (whatever) has the potential to create some really interesting pranks as well as some horrifying crimes. That said, I imagine this has some significant future in both the medical and mechanics fields. Being able to glue back on a lost fender without worrying about it falling off is pretty cool. Being able to stitch people up without stitches is also pretty awesome. Couple with graphene aerogel and consider this:
You get shot. Doctors x-ray to determine size/location of bullet. They fill a small pellet of graphene aerogel with just the right amount of solvent and press it against the bullet. The bullet dissolves into a (presumably) inert substance (imagine super-chemistry here). They then pull out the pellet and glue you up with molecular glue. You take it easy for a few weeks to heal, but no scar, no bullet, no muss, no fuss. Cool right?
Of course, none of this is as-of-yet possible. Part of the scifi writer’s job, though, is to imagine potential even where it seems impossible. What about you guys? Any ideas for this stuff?
And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.
The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.
At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.
This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.
But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.
Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.
Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.
Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?
Do you ever wonder why the ancients always seem to have crazy secret stuff hidden away in holes? I do. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I think ancient ruins and the history of ancient peoples is really cool, and am often impressed with the innovations they developed – but there’s a notable trend in scifi and fantasy to show the ancient world as superior, more advanced, wiser, and better than the society shown as contemporary. If you think about it, it’s almost hard to think of a fantasy book that doesn’t do this. Everybody from Tolkien to Howard to Martin to Jordan to, gosh, everybody seems to get a piece of this. Science Fiction has its fair share, too – from Star Wars’ Old Republic to Asimov’s Galactic Empire and even Mass Effect has a lot of that ‘faded glory of ages past’ thing going on. What the hell?
To some extent this is all because of the Romans or, maybe more accurately, the Dark Ages. Humanity hit a peak with the Pax Romana and then, after a lot of bad decisions and slow erosion, it slumped into the Dark Ages, which is definitely a low. Oh, and let’s not give Europe all the blame, either. Similar stuff happened to the Islamic world after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate and to the Chinese after the fall of the Ming Dynasty. No doubt there are descendants of the Aztecs in Mexico who pine for the glory days of Tenochtitlan and Egyptians who look with wonder back on the works of the Pharaohs. History is littered with the corpses of great civilizations that preceded long periods of unimpressive or downright barbaric culture, so tendencies to look at the ancients (who got it ‘right’) for guidance are, to some extent, culturally ingrained in us.
Let’s not get carried away, though. Ancient Rome might have been neat, but to suggest that their civilization was ‘better’ or ‘more advanced’ than our own is a clear exaggeration. We do lots and lots and lots of things better than the Romans ever did. Did they achieve some things we haven’t? Well, maybe, but it wasn’t ‘ancient laser beams’ or ‘the secret to immortality.’ They probably had a slightly better way to, I don’t know, make a canoe paddle or organize a mail system without vehicles. Fascinating, but not the kind of thing you dig up out of an ancient ruin and then proceed to use in the conquest of the Earth. Our civilization is at its own little peak, and it is currently producing the kind of tricks that the next Dark Age might marvel at, but the civilized peak after that one will look at and say ‘my, weren’t they so clever without the use of moldable nanotechnology and germline genetic engineering!’ Nobody’s going to dig up a Harrier jet and fight off an alien invasion. That would be silly.
I am the first person to say that technological progress isn’t strictly linear (if you want a real-world example, take a look at this article), but I also don’t think humanity is prone to being total boneheads. We are more advanced today because, in large part, we have learned from those who have come before us. The cleverness of ages past is not evidence that they were somehow smarter than us, but rather that they were just as smart. They figured some stuff out we didn’t, wound up not using it so much, and the rest of the world sort of forgot. Later on, some other guy figured the same thing out and did it again, but then an archaeologist says ‘the Romans could do this, you know’ and then a bunch of people run around saying the Romans were the most brilliant folks who ever lived because they thought of ‘x’ thousands of years before anyone else. Then somebody points out the Chinese/Egyptians/Persians/whoever actually thought of it before them, and tout this as some kind of evidence of humanity’s escalating intelligence the further back we go. This simply isn’t true; what it is evidence for is that humanity has always been pretty smart and periodically hits upon the same ideas and accomplishes them in whatever way necessity dictates they must.
To bring this back to the specfic genres, I feel it would be refreshing to find more fantasy novels that weren’t so obsessed with the whole sic transit et gloria mundi theme. I’d like to see cultures on the rise, surpassing their forebears, blazing new ground, showing how silly the old conservatives are to stick to their old ways. We get plenty of this in science fiction, to be fair, but fantasy could use that same spirit. Maybe I’m expecting something out of the genre that isn’t under it’s purview–maybe fantasy is a genre designed for those who long for the past and see nothing but peril in the present. I don’t think so, though. I’d like to think our wildest dreams can lead us forward, not just backward.
This story’s been out there for a while, and I haven’t talked about it mostly because I’ve been waiting to see if we get anything more solid, but here it goes: NASA is working on an actual warp drive.
Of course, there’s something that particular article doesn’t mention: Arriving in-system from warp drive might blow up the whole neighborhood around you. Sort of a downside, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I am resolving not to be negative about this, though. This is a big deal. A HUGE deal, if it works. This opens up the stars to us. This lets us get off this rock (of which I’ve been an advocate for quite some time). This could save the Earth, the whole human race, or entire way of life. BIG news.
But let’s not get all misty and over-the-top idealistic, either. The Federation of Planets didn’t come into being thanks to warp drive alone, and we’re nowhere near the kind of post-scarcity utopia Star Trek describes. Space travel will be as ugly and messed-up as anything else humanity has done, but hopefully with enough wonder and humanity to make up for it.
The important thing to always remember is that new technology is always filtered through the lens of culture, and culture dictates how the new technology is developed. It’s harrowing to me, for instance, that it currently looks as if we could design a star-system destroying, interstellar missile. All it will take for us to do it, too, is an alien species we find scary enough. Hell, a colony of ourselves we find scary enough would probably do it, and don’t think that we won’t.
Still and although, the capacity to explore the stars, as preliminary and theoretical as it now is, could mark a huge change for the human race as a species. It will be a giant shift in the political and economic power structure of the world’s nations (assuming we find anything good out there, but that’s a reasonably safe assumption). I don’t know what form this change will take, but there’s one thing I do hope:
I hope I live to see it happen.
I am in the midst of reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which is a book dealing with the development of the Singularity. This is my second attempt at a Stross novel, the first being Halting State which was written in second person, which is an immediate deal-breaker for me. I’m having a bit of trouble with this one, too, and I’m trying to put my finger on why.
Part of it is that the main character (in this part of the book, anyway), Manfred Macx, is a sort of techno-bohemian philanthropist who has cast off the ‘shackles’ of capitalist society and lives by coming up with random patent ideas, patenting them, and then giving them away to start-ups who can use them in exchange for permanent favors. So, while he has no money, he has everything he needs. Skipping past the implausibility of this scheme or, at least, it being completely implausible for anyone who isn’t as brilliant as Macx, I get the sense in this book that I’m being sold something. I’m supposed to buy into Macx philosophy and think he’s really cool; furthermore, I’m supposed to get excited or accept the inevitability of the Singularity.
I do not do either of those things.
There is a pretty robust argument out there (one I ascribe to, incidentally) that suggests the Singularity will never actually happen. I don’t especially want to get into the debate here; a cursory read of the wikipediea entry on the singularity can give you the basic overview – draw your own conclusions. The thing I want to discuss here is the attitude that comes along with certain futurists that proclaim the Good News of this or that technological innovation. They often are as evangelical as any given Bible-thumping born-again, proclaiming the inevitability of their particular technological hobby-horse’s supremacy with all the zeal of a cult follower. Those who disagree are fools, or anti-science, or hopelessly misled (the poor things).
But then, you know, Utopia doesn’t actually happen. We go halfway. We find a hiccup in plan, a hole in the road. The bridge is out on this track to fairy land, folks. You’ll have to go around.
This is what happened with Steam Power, and with electricity after that, and with nuclear power after that, and with psychology, and communism, and fascism, and pretty much everything else the human race has ever come up with to solve all the world’s problems. This is not to say that they were Bad Ideas or that we ought not hope to fashion utopia out of our innovative spirit – keep trying, by all means – I just don’t particularly enjoy having something sold to me before it’s been proven to work. I’m not going to upload my brain into a computer until I see what happens to all those guys who go first. Call me a coward, if you will, but I prefer to call myself a skeptic. I need more than just a schematic, guys, or a fancy sales pitch – show me your track record.
Now, I don’t know whether Stross is trying to sell me on the wonders of the Singularity, yet – I’m not far enough through Accelerando to tell. Right now, in this first part, he’s being pretty didactic, though. Maybe that’s the character; maybe Macx is in for some heavy-duty reality alignment. I kinda hope so, honestly, because I don’t easily buy utopian (or dystopian) tales.
“But,” I hear you ask, “How can you read science fiction if you don’t want somebody selling you their version of the future?”
There’s a difference between ‘exploring’ and ‘selling,’ though. In the former case, you are positing a theory and exploring it while paying attention to the audience’s suspension of disbelief and managing their expectations without overtly endorsing the future you create. In the latter case, you are attempting to show the effect of technology on society as inevitable in this, our real world, and, furthermore, putting forth your work as prognostic or prescient. That strikes me as arrogant, because we can’t tell the future. We never can. Science Fiction isn’t the exploration of what will be, it’s the exploration of what might be. We must be careful not to buy our own theories, lest we think of ourselves as prophets; we aren’t. We are storytellers, and that’s quite enough.
I’m in the middle of reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (which, by-the-by, is amazing), and something about the mood of the whole thing has struck a chord in me. The age of Wolfe’s Urth (which we come to understand is some distant evolution of our own Earth) is a palpable thing. The dust and detritus of the half-remembered past seem to fill every decrepit alley of Nessus. The wonders of the past and the horrors of the present in that book are presented simultaneously, without nostalgia or sentimentality, really. Severian’s world, as strange is it is, merely exists; it is not open to critique.
On the surface, Urth seems to be situated in the distant past. We have guilds, headsmen, citadels, and old moldy libraries. The world is ruled by an Autarch, who is readily identified as a kind of absolute monarch, and our ‘fantasy world’ gears are cleanly engaged. But then things start to change a bit; Severian comes across things that seem anachronistic. There are technologies present that we do not, as yet, possess. There are oblique references to the Apollo Moon Landings (‘before the moon was green’) and other things, as well. You quickly realize that this is not the alien past, but the alien future. So alien, in fact, that you do not recognize the least part of it. Yes, they seem primitive, but the parts of their culture and technology that are far superior to ours are so ingrained as part of their world that they scarcely notice them as unusual. They lack the curiosity about such things that we would naturally expect.
Wolfe is not the only writer to do this. Frank Herbert creates such a world in his Dune novels; Warhammer 40,000 is a naked and brutish attempt at the same thing. On the surface, what such stories enable us to do is experience both the kitsch of the medieval world as well as the wild imagination of science fiction without exposing either to undue cognitive dissonance on the part of the audience. We get drawn into the world and accept it before we start wondering how it came about. By that time, of course, we are already hooked; we no longer need the explanation and, even if we get it, we are likely to be forgiving. The passage of millennia enables almost anything to be plausible.
Deeper than that, though, and the thing that really gets me engaged, is the way in which such stories are able to engage deeply-held cultural and social biases of what constitutes ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’. We commonly look at technology as a linear progression rather than a fluid adaptation to social and environmental needs. We forget that the internet was not predestined to occur and, likewise, forget that if it were to cease to exist, we would continue along without it anyway. The day after Rome fell, the Romans were still Romans or, conversely, they had ceased being ‘Romans’ a long time ago anyway and it hardly mattered. They had a mess to clean up, that’s all. The passage of time shall erase all that we’re familiar with, but it may return from obscurity that which we have forgotten, too, should it be needed. Like all successful species, we are very adaptable critters.
And so, when looking at scifi/fantasy (or ‘science fantasy’, as Wolfe’s work has been called) stories of this kind, we find ourselves faced with the realization that our current reliance on (x), whatever that is, is not the thing that defines us, or at least not essentially. Those peripheral concerns change the circumstances somewhat, but not the essential spirit of what it means to be human. We will forever build things; we will forever forge new ideas and new inventions; we will always seek to make our mark on the universe. Whether we do it with a branding iron or a laser is a side-concern. The choice is not one of ‘how advanced we have become’, but rather ‘what method we culturally accept’.
I will close with a brief anecdote: A friend of mine who is very Italian attended an exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science showcasing artifacts from Pompeii. What struck him most was the display of women’s jewelry and cosmetics as well as men’s rings. He said he could have seen any of those things being worn by Italian relatives and friends on that very day. Indeed, his comment initiated a scene in my mind’s eye: A Roman man with a fat gold ring on his pinky sits in his coach, gazing worriedly at the spewing Vesuvius. “Angela!” He calls, “Let’s go! You can put your makeup on later!” Angela yells from the villa, “Michael, I’m not going anywhere without my face on, I don’t care if the mountain does explode!”
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Just how long can you go getting everything you want?
The simpleton answer is ‘forever’, but you need to think a bit harder than that. Consider how human beings use their time at the moment. In the so-called Third World, much time is spent surviving – getting food, getting water, maintaining shelter, etc., etc.. Proportionally less time can be spent enjoying oneself thanks to the insecurity of their situation. Move up to the so-called First World, and ‘survival’, as such, is generally easier. We spend a lot of our time working to make money, yes, but we have more opportunity to entertain ourselves and much greater ability to acquire whatever it is we want, though that is limited by income. Still, when compared to the huge number of people in the world who make less than a dollar a day, your ~$700 a week job is pretty sweet.
Still, we in the First World aren’t satisfied – we want more money, more property, better vehicles, better skin, bigger muscles, smaller waists. We want the train to show up at the exact moment we step onto the platform, we want our iPhones to function while miles above or beneath the surface of the Earth, we want our fridge to re-fill itself with ice cream all by itself, and for that ice cream to be somehow healthy for us. These are, in common parlance, “First World Problems”.
Okay, so say we solve all those problems. Eternal youth and health. Unlimited fun and games. No work at all. No danger.
Cancer cured, traffic eliminated, energy for free, and all the healthy ice cream you can eat forever and ever and ever and ever. Then what?
In Utopia, we probably start complaining about even smaller things. We want to re-arrange the freckles on our face into a pattern more aesthetically pleasing. We want our dogs to talk to us in Scottish accents that are more realistic than the ones we genetically engineered them to talk in now. We think it’s really inconvenient having to hold our breath underwater, so we push for federal legislation mandating all children be able to breathe water.
So, eventually, say we get all that. Then what?
If you take away all the challenge, all the struggle, all the potential for failure…what do you have left? Iain M Banks explores this (somewhat) in his Culture series, and Arthur C Clarke goes through Utopian ennui in Childhood’s End. Others have covered it, as well. Even Idiocracy, to some extent, wonders what a society of near-perfect comfort would do to us. To my mind, it isn’t positive. It would have negative social effects we have difficulty imagining.
I write this, now, just as Johns Hopkins is discovering a way to regenerate adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells. It’s still unclear what this might mean for humanity, of course, but it has great potential to make the comfortable even more comfortable. I think about that a lot – and talk about it often on this blog. How much comfort do we really need, anyway? When did living into your seventies/eighties and dying equal ‘dying too young?’
What I hope for these technologies is that they aren’t simply used to make the wealthy and the powerful (in which I include most residents of the First World) immortal – they really, really don’t need to be. What I’d rather see is these technologies deployed so that all of us – all humanity – can live in the state of relative comfort that we First Worlders do now. I think this because, ultimately, First World Problems are good problems to have – not too terrible, but not so easy that we forget what it means to be alive, to struggle, and to achieve.