Friday, August 29, 2008
Monday, August 11, 2008
If you live long enough, you bump into decades you imagined in your SF stories.
Back in 2000, I started a story cycle. The premise: In 2008, right after the summer Olympics, Yakuza gangsters plan to trick China into invading Taiwan. The Yakuza sell pirated video games; they want to disrupt the flow of intellectual piracy out of China, crush their Triad competitors in Taiwan, and corner the global market. They're betting the UN and USA will intervene with sanctions, blockades and boycotts but stop short of a shooting war. The Yakuza run the risk of starting W.W. III for the most venal, corrupt and petty of reasons.
There's more to it than that. Shit happens.
It was all based on the assumption that the Clintonian peace of the 1990s had extended past Y2K. It's an era of peace and prosperity. War, in 2008, is unthinkable.
I imagined a satire along the lines of Kornbluth.
I imagined the 2000s would look like the 1990s.
Those fuckers with the boxcutters ruined my plotline.
War is very thinkable now.
Of course, the PRC would never invade Taiwan.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
—William Gibson, Neuromancer
Why the cyberpunk future isn't.
Cyberpunk suffers from the peak-and-trough effect. I.e.: technological change tends to come in punctuated waves.
SF writers see the next wave coming, though they almost never get the particulars right. The future eventually catches up with their predictions: Jules Verne’s submarines, the “atomics” of the 1930s, etc. When the future gets too close or actually arrives, the SF predictions seem lame or boring. I.e.: Lester Del Ray’s Nerves postulating a nuclear meltdown seems pedestrian compared to the actual Chernobyl.
The current incarnation of the internet is babyshit. The future hasn’t caught up with cyberpunk yet; we’re still in the trough. Unfortunately, our current wave of tech is particularly good when it comes to simulations. I.e.: Hollywood (and TV commercials) are insanely great at simulating the future before it happened. So, in the 1990s, people got hit with the images of Johnny Mnemonic and Ghost in the Shell — not to mention a slew of schlock cyberpunk knockoffs (like William Shattner’s godawful, ghost-written Tek War series) where, as Bruce Sterling likes to say, rip-off artists filed off the serial numbers. And let’s not forget that series of gee-whiz AT&T commercials promising “You will” to everything from VR glasses to self-driving cars. It all seemed very convincing — to the point it seemed like a cliché.
To the point cyberpunk became a fashion statement and folks forgot this shit hadn’t actually mainstreamed yet. Cyberpunk became a style before it became a reality; then the style got old. Which, coincidentally, is right around the time the tech bubble burst and George W. Bush built a bridge back to the 19th century.
That being said, the next wave is coming. As folks have pointed out, avatar-based games like World of Warcraft, though resembling ren fairs, aren’t that far from Neal Stephenson’s predictions in Snowcrash. The internet, as somebody else said, is where we go to work. The military, as we speak, is researching strength enhancing exoskeletons. Medical researchers are opening all those man-machine doors man wasn’t meant to open, mostly in the name of rehabilitating the paralyzed and the brain-damaged.
Faster, stronger, better.
More human than human.
About the only cyberpunk prediction that hasn’t happened and probably won’t is William Gibson’s original vision of cyberspace. Which, if you think about it, was a graphic user interface creating a contextual/consensual space around given proprietary sites. I.e.: if Gibson’s prediction had come true, YouTube would be a giant TV set with a location in a seemingly physical landscape. Google would be a multi-tentacled cyber octopus ripping data left right and center out of other entities. Gibson’s cyberspace was literally a media — a space between the other spaces — a consensual, hallucinatory landscape which physicalizes abstractions into concrete representations to allow users to interact with them. The implication: the internet was a place, you could move around in it and see what was going on. Jesuschrist, those Russian spammers are hacking email sites — you’d see an army of steel rats coming down the Cartesian grid, a giant steel cat chasing them.
Instead, what They’ve given us is a black corridor. We go from here to there with no context, no space in between. Each web site is its own pocket universe with links to other sites. But there is nothing representing the web itself. Or the relationships between what’s going on in the web.
You can’t see what’s going on.
If I wanted to be a Pynchonian paranoid, I might speculate that Neuromancer tipped Them off and They made sure it didn’t happen. The Web encourages certain kinds of crime, discourages others. The House wins. The House always wins.
Be seeing you.
As another starving writer reminds me, Verne had easy. To paraphrase Gibson, technology has its finger permanently set on the fast-forward button, like some mad social scientist's experiment. This gives a contemporary SF writer 3 choices:
A) Write near-future SF. This will become almost instantly obsolete. But you'll have a 5-15 year window in which to posit a trendy, extrapolation based on some hot new thing -- before your story becomes dated and ridiculous.
B) Write far-future SF. Flipping A.C. Clarke's well-worn penny: "Any sufficiently advanced technogy is indistinguishable from magic." Corollary: SF based on sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from fantasy. I.e.: It's not Harry Potter's wand, it's, uh, nanotechnology.
C) Write SF set in the not-too-distant-future and posit some reason that technogy has been held back. So, Battlestar Galactica is a bucket of bolts because the Cylons can infect advanced AI systems. Futurama's 30th century is more like the 22nd century because earth has been blown back to the dark ages a few times. Or, in Serenity and Firefly, the Blue Sun Corporation destroyed the earth's ecosystem to jump-start a space colonization program and keep humanity at a level they could control. Hypothetically.
Another friend -- yet another SF writer with a ridiculously high IQ -- thinks the future is unimaginable. Perhaps unimaginably unimaginable. As may be. I still think it's worth the effort to keep up with M.I.T. Technology Review. My SF is bullshit, I know. But I want it to be high-quality bullshit.
Oh, yeah. It occurs to me there's a 4th choice.
D) Write SF set in the present. Gibson is doing just that, actually. Pattern Recognition happens now. He figures we're living in a cyberpunk future. The future's caught up. Worry about character and story.