The Techno-Hubrists

Recently, Warren Ellis — a writer I quite like — published an amusing little rant that might as well have been titled “Why We Should Fuck Up Mars”. In it, he proposed just doing whatever to Mars that would be necessary to terraform it: throw the kitchen sink at it. Nukes, everything. Go nuts.

And, I confess I don’t know why anyone took this to be any kind of bold political statement: outside of Kim Stanley Robinson novels, is there really anyone crying out against would-be Martian strip-miners and condo developers?

But it doesn’t matter. As stimulating a writer as Warren Ellis is (and he is), one thing is perfectly clear: he is not a planetologist. If he were, he would have a better sense of proportion about things. For example: planets are BIG. They are enormously, possibly unfathomably, complex. We don’t even know how our own works. We can’t even terraform the Earth. We can’t even terraform the Sahara Desert. We don’t even understand the Moon, yet. So, terraform Mars?

For heaven’s sake…how?

It’s a perfectly fine science-fictional idea, it’s just not real. Which is okay, as it happens: I am not going to get pissy with Warren just because he said something that wasn’t real. For one thing, I don’t care if he did. For another, I say stuff like that all the time, myself. For example, I frequently drop vacant and obfuscatory lines about “Earthlike conditions”, even though I know perfectly well that there is really no such thing…

But there’s something instructive here.

Let’s consider that favourite of latter-day SF devices, the humble space elevator. Made from exotic materials, it rises at least several miles into the atmosphere in any fictional form it takes. This where ripping SF yarns begin, these days: on the space elevator. We are used to considering it plausible.

But it isn’t.

Consider the capital involved — consider the political wrangling that would be involved — in creating a building ten miles high made out of solid diamond. Of course that is not actually what it would take to build a space elevator, but I figure it’s a pretty good ballpark. So…possible?

Well, yesss…

So long as you can get yourself a decent World Government first, preferably one ruled by a benevolent Science Council all wearing different funny hats, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be simply a matter of engineering.

(I mean, how else could you possibly pay for the thing? Who would ever let you build it? Who would ever let you complete it?)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pessimist. But this is, as I’ve said before, one of the peculiarities of science fiction: it skips steps. Its initial conditions are never the initial conditions that obtain in the real world. Indeed, they cannot be: after all, we’re always finding out that what we thought the “real world” was like ten minutes ago is completely wrong, aren’t we?

And, yes, I’d love to see the space elevator. I hope, at minimum, that I can live in a world where it isn’t simply insane to imagine it as something that could be built, and used…and I do think this is that world. But, it’s a big world, and I could be wrong; and at the present time going to Mars in shiny sexy ships and lobbing nukes at it for no good reason actually seems more likely, than that it will ever be built.

However this is not my point.

My point is about science, not science fiction. I’m only talking about science fiction because it happens to be a very good way to talk about science, and illustrate things about science. So forget Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson, and even Isaac Asimov too; because there’s a different kind of science fiction being written out there, now. And I don’t know if Warren’s a part of it or not. He may be. I really don’t know. He probably isn’t.

But, he could be.

…So return with me, if you would, to those halcyon days of an hour and a half ago, when the world seemed so fresh and new, and full of boundless possibilities! Let’s regard me sitting at my computer reading something, and shaking my head in disgust. A study performed, that’s revealed Scott McLeod was right, and human beings really do see themselves in car headlights. Okay, so great! We all knew that anyway. Now what’s the upshot, eggheads?

The upshot is, exploiting that tendency could give advertisers a whole new way to sell cars.

And oh my God…is this what we do it for?

Is this the knowledge we’ve sought for so long?

Hey, don’t be too hasty, maybe it is: a few years ago I remember howling with a mixture of rage and amusement at an article on “songwriting software”. This stuff, you see, helps analyze songs to see if they will be popular. A whole new way to break into the music business: because even if the Artists dude thinks your band sucks, if you can show him that the numbers roll the right way you may just land a contract in any case. And record companies even at their best can’t help but be slightly about hedging bets, you know…

So, they use it.

So, some people write by it, too.

And what’s wrong with that? Rare indeed is the musician who’s not at all interested in having at least a little bit of commercial appeal — and shame on you if you think otherwise — so what’s the difference between feeling your way in the studio and arguing with your manager, or going to school to study music theory, and actually going out to get a genuine for-real metric of your commercial appeal? It’s the same thing, isn’t it?

The damnedest part about it, is that it is the same thing. It is exactly the same thing.

Meaning: it’s completely absurd. Because everybody cares about money, but there are a lot of ways to make money, and — trust me — generally speaking, music ain’t one of them. Sure, records may move on the back of this software, but that doesn’t mean it “works” — as a vehicle made to carry a new type of collusion among players in the marketplace, the metric actually isn’t a metric of anything, except how orderly the money-flows would be if no one ever did have to hedge their bets. If what people liked last week, in other words, decomposed smoothly and with minimal uncertainty into what they like this week.

Of course that this doesn’t happen is the reason companies hedge their bets in the first place. So not only doesn’t the program work — and it ought to be laughably obvious that it doesn’t — but it misses the whole point of what music is for, and why and how it gets made. Not to mention, why and how it gets listened to. Making music under the guidance of a statistical formula is as pointless as…as…as playing against a computer in chess, which is the silliest thing I can think of off the top of my head. Chess, after all, is a game. Chess is played between human beings. That is the purpose of chess, and there’s no other. I might beat you, or you might beat me…but if two chess computers play each other in the forest, and a tree falls on them, it’s probably not even a stalemate, it’s just a bunch of electrons moving around inside aluminum casings. As science, it may be worth something (probably is, in fact). But as chess, it’s meaningless.

Key distinction.

Let’s try to hold onto it. Because though way back when I did talk about how we only get our mass-delivered science through two channels, the journalistic channel and the public-policy channel, it turns out that I’m missing another axis on this graph: there are two other ways we get the vast preponderance of our science-updates in this culture, and one way is through fiction, but the other way is through aspiration…which, I will argue, is the new fiction of our times. Aspiration is the thing that leads us to believe that we can have the things of fiction out in the world, and it’s very persuasive in part because we have gotten a lot of those things…but aspiration also leads on to the uncritical acceptance of deeply unscientific viewpoints as already-historical truths. Build self-replicating nanobots, reverse-engineer human consciousness, bomb Mars into a more favourable climate from orbit, let Wikipedia and the Internet effortlessly overturn the injustice of the world…if you listened to the New SF, you would already believe in these things, basically because the New SF sells simplicity in a world of ever-more complexified understanding, which is to say simplicity that has already been achieved. But this is about as dead wrong as you can get, when you’re trying to absorb what’s going on in the world of theory and discovery. Because it isn’t a technological singularity that’s coming, you see: that’s just fiction’s typical game, flipping the veil over its head, inverting relations to expose their true nature. What’s coming is a heaving quantum sea of interreactivity in our observed natural phenomena. All our observed natural phenomena. We will not get a technological singularity: because what we think we know about how the universe works is being done away with at far too great a speed, that mountain is eroding away under our feet even as we struggle to climb it. Things we have always known are disappearing faster than popular breeds of nineteenth-century cattle: we don’t know them anymore. We’re on the cusp; the cusp of the demise of a future in which we can just keep on slapping up our old disproven ideas against the universe and expect them to do anything for us, and a new world in which everybody is going to have to work a little bit harder to figure out what is what, and where and why. We are working off very few schema less than three hundred years old, at this point, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re all crashing around our ears, we should be expecting it. Because it’s just not going to be about what we thought it was going to be about. Things. Are. Fucking. Changing.

Surprisingly, the old fiction’s pretty okay with that: as it turns out, change is vital to stories, and especially this sort of change is vital to stories that are all about flipping science’s veil over, to show the face underneath. But this kind of change is deadly to aspiration, because it makes it hopelessly irrelevant…am I the only one who detects some truly terrified backing-and-filling in the notion that human beings seeing faces in cars is all about the cars? That’s some fiction, indeed: that one day soon there will come a glorious Golden Age in which everybody will at last be perfectly content with their car’s “face”. Thank God for science, hip hip hurrah! I for one have never felt so free, have you?

That’s the future this New SF imagines. Not that it isn’t or has never been a future imagined by the older fiction it’s attempting to supplant, either, but there’s a crucial difference — which is that the New Fiction is not at all interested in flipping the veil to show the face. Because it is far more optimistic than the old fiction is — indeed, it is far more optimistic than any fiction should probably ever wish to be. And the John W. Campbell Award for this year once again goes to those nabobs of the noosphere over at Wired magazine…!

Holy Jesus, how long ago was that all?

It’s not just gee-whizzery. Gee-whizzery is great stuff. But the idea that science will make a conceptually-simpler world somehow, in vague accordance with Moore’s Law or something, is — to put it kindly — garbage. There will be no greater technological power to straightforwardly “do” shit that we want to do; obstacles will not be ever-more miraculously removed from our current path so we can travel it with fewer interruptions; there will be no more assertions that all physics is really a subset of biology, and all biology a subset of economics…those days are gone, man. That future no longer squares with the experimental findings. And that’s what the Old SF has always been about, actually — so it’s no wonder it can move with the times. But the New SF can’t move with the times, so it’s trying to stop them.

Or at least, control them.

But control is an illusion.

Here’s the thing: the tendency is there in the Old SF too, sort of. What are all the stories of spaceships and space stations and rayguns and hyperspace drives and force-shields and telepathy and aliens, except an effort to give shape to the imagination of the future? In science fiction this was always a technical imagination that asserted itself — and there’s a lot of literature that imagines the future, actually, but SF is a creature so marvellous attuned to its times that its technical structuring of future-imagining became the dominant one. “Future” in the popular mind came to mean, at the very least, big motors and lots of metal. But underneath that, often, something else too: the naked face. The cold equations. The locked room.

In my day, though (oh, those halcyon days of three hours ago! I was so innocent then!), it got a little less educational (“why, in such a “jet” aeroplane a man could cross the Atlantic in a matter of hours!”), and a little more dogmatic (“no, no, you idiot…this is the future, that other shit’s just childish fantasy!“). When I was young, the world was full of SF fans (and writers) like that. They wanted to live on the Moon. They wanted to fly to the stars. They wanted a fusion reactor to run their dishwasher. So they tried to impress on the world that if you were spending money and time and effort and thought on a future that wasn’t that, then you were some kind of crank.

And, was this pretty much fine? Well, I guess so. Everybody’s gotta have an opinion, after all. And for the most part that all worked; that we did get that future maybe was because of that subtle imaginative control. The Man tried to shut us down, but we did get all that! Hip, hip…!

But it’s different now. Those techno-utopians may have been mostly right, but they’re also mostly gone, and I think they took most of the last of their times with them. And what’s the regulated future made of now? Nanobots and uploadable consciousness. Technological muscle-flexing like a magic spell, and all you gotta do is string the right words together in the right order. Computronium. Singularity. Magic. Transcendence.

It’s really just a fancy way of saying “selling more cars”. “This will continue endlessly, as efficiency rises to unity.” It’s what the Old SF mostly set itself in opposition to.

But the New SF, the monocultural one they spray with Round-Up — SF 2.0 — loves it. Of course SF 2.0 is bound to die a miserable lonely death — since death is what it so obviously fears above all else! — tell me I don’t have to draw you a map of that Singularity stuff, people! — as its goals gradually just plain cease to match up with scientific and social analysis. Good! It’s overstayed its welcome anyway. But that’s not my point either.

Ah, the point. Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up spouting off ill-formed blogifestos. Okay, here’s the point:

Ceci n’est pas un post.

And oh, the cleverness of me. Can’t believe it took almost two years to polish that trick off.

I guess I was just waiting for an appropriate subject to come along.

Now that was a little science fiction for you, Bloggers!

How does it taste? Hopefully not half-bad.


17 responses to “The Techno-Hubrists

  1. Pingback: Linkblogging For 29/09/08 « Thoughts on music, science, politics and comics. Mostly comics.·

  2. Don’t get me started on Warren Ellis again.

    I think this all may dovetail with misgivings I’ve been having and trying to put into words about the creations of a fellow named Will Wright. Understand that in times gone by, I lost whole days playing SimCity or SimEarth. But gradually I became more and more frustrated with these games. It started to seem that for all the options you supposedly had in either game, there was only one successful outcome and only one right way to get there. There were social values and hidden political assumptions encoded (in the non-literal sense) within the gameplay. If you tried to play against those assumptions or refused to adopt those values, the games found ways of penalizing you. And both SimCity and SimEarth — and now their descendant Spore — were explicitly set up so that the ultimate payoff, the only conceivable or attainable goal, is space colonization.

    In SimCity 2000, if you played it right, your cities literally became James Blish-like domed cities blasting up into the sky. There was no other option or winning outcome presented; either you went to space or your cities stagnated. And, it’s just…really? That’s the only winning endgame? Talk about didactic! And talk about misunderstanding how colonies work in real life. (Yes of course, as Heinlein and Niven will patiently explain to you, migration into America radically eased population pressure in Europe…and afterwards Europe accomplished nothing whatsoever of note in culture or science or industry because their “top ten percent” of genetically superior intellectual stock all emigrated as soon as it was possible. And we SF readers suck up this bilge without questioning it…)

    One other random note, since coherence seems to have slipped me by: I’d very much like to think that the recognition of how we see anthropomorphic faces in car headlights and wall outlets isn’t the road to better ways of selling cars, but the opposite — becoming aware of how the trick works helps stop it from working, so we can see it happening and have a laugh about it rather than being manipulated. But maybe that’s my own SF fantasy…

  3. Wow, RAB, I didn’t know that about Sims. Jesus, whose wet dream is that?

    And, agreed about the cars and the faces…but (fishes) how did you like the Obama/McCain stuff?

    Hope I can drag these past few posts together properly, maybe in the next one.

  4. And oh yeah! SimEarth, that was a basket case of a game: absolutely nothing to do with the way our biosphere got formed, I would do a thing that was right, and then it would tell me that thing was wrong. But it wasn’t wrong. Those guys just didn’t know anything about astronomy.

    Ahhh, now I’m remembering a game for the Mac, too: “Balance Of Power”. How impossible was this thing to win? No one was the slightest bit interested in winning, not even the computer. “I think we should play again.” “Dude, you’re just pissed because I blew up the world on you.” I swear that was the computer talking. The preconditioning was enormous. It sucked. Plus my friends are all lameasses.

    Today I’ve got a pretty high fever, watching some TV…and TV is yelling at me. It’s hyper-aggressive about everything. But the things it’s aggressive about are these crazy big fat lies…like, just walking the DA talk to the judge, or the boyfriend to the girlfriend, or the boss to the secretary, or the FBI dude to the terrorist, or the mom to the daughter, good God…make it shut up! This isn’t normative, damn your eyes TV, you’re driving me crazy! Is it so impossible to write something that isn’t cut out from the template of advertising, for heaven’s sake?

    Oh, and on Ellis: I confess I was thinking about Ultimate Captain Marvel’s cell phone or whatever that runs on zero point energy. Not Warren’s finest hour. But he’s not really to blame for thinking terraforming Mars is possible, Larry Niven is. Larry Niven writes these ridiculous matter-of-fact recipes into his stories, which just reads like the asshole guy at the party who’s always one-upping everybody — “oh, all you need to do is spin some neutronium up to about half-c, and presto!” Yes, it’s just that easy: not like fixing the car at all.

    I’m writing a story about all of this, actually. Basically we get to the moon, set up a base…and there is no “next step” in the master plan, there’s just a base on the moon. And it’s great! But once we get up there, we quickly see that this master plan’s a stupid one…to the moon, and then what? Then to Mars, and then what? Then to Jupiter, and then what?

    Then we meet the aliens who all talk like Robert Heinlein, I guess.

    Somewhere Spider Robinson is mad at me.

  5. I love the idea of terraforming Mars by nuking it. Hell, it’s all desert over there right now. Surely a few tonnes of fused plutonium is bound to make the place habitable. Then I’ll build myself a three-bedroomed detached right on the edge of Valles Marineris with a front window looking straight out on Olympus Mons. And if any space-monsters step on my front lawn I’ll have a black-hole powered neutronium disperser the size of a piano waiting to blast their ugly alien arses straight back to Cassiopeia.

    It’s a very, very, very Warren Ellis kind of idea.

  6. Granted, we’re all involved in something too big and complicated to talk about (1) easily and (2) accurately. But if we stop trying, things will get relatively worse, surely? And in order to try we have to plan, and to plan we have to simplify. Some of this this makes for good stories, hence SF and associated politico-techno fictions, like you were just writing about.

    So simplify. Write a yarn about piloting an iceberg from the Ross Shelf to drought-stricken Senegal. A simple task, the first-order results are clear – either it will work or not.

    Or don’t simplify. Write The Grapes of Ivan Denisovich, set among the vast labour camps of the displaced by climate change and the stranded by fuel shortage. Or indeed, in the actual barrios surrounding many third-world cities now. Fill your house with news-clippings, pile up the bookmarks till you can’t think. Tomorrow needs a Tolstoy.

    A lot of the fruitful bun-fighting within the SF community, including us, is about the desire to write honestly and accurately, which means breaking away from the crowd-pleasing genre and its simplicities. One doesn’t stand alone in trying to do that, there are always writers doing it, and some of them are first rank, and when the forces align, they sell like pork chops. Consider Gibson or Stevenson. How do they do it? They take as complex an armful of plausible second- and third-order speculations as they can handle, and then use all their narrative tricks to exhibit first this speculation, then that. Skill is in the choice, and the exposure of unlooked-for connections. The payoff is that the reader gets a panorama of a whole intricate world, the complexity made transparent. Or a reasonable facsimile.

    That payoff – the illusion of comprehensibilty – is non-negotiable. The panoramic view can be thoroughly pessimistic – John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up – and they’ll still respect you. But if you begin to plead – or boast – that it isn’t supposed to make sense, if you go absurdist or magical-realist after you’ve signaled that you’re presenting a serious futuristic work, then I think you’re lost.

    This despite the obvious counterexamples. But who are the heirs of Kurt Vonnegut? Who would be so Faustian as to choose the obscurity and obsessiveness of Thomas Pynchon’s life on the chance they could write another Gravity’s Rainbow? What would motivate anyone to pick up film-making where David Lynch left off? Weren’t those magnificent minds really the Edgar Allen Poes of our generation, kicking off the dust of rationalism from their sandals to set off into the territory of raw imagination and return possessed by prophecies? If I met them on their return, and mumbled “But is it honest? Is it accurate?”, would we even be speaking the same language?

    Or to put it more harshly … Okay boys, I hear where you’ve been breaking new territory, and asking all those questions we’ve been too brainwashed to ask ourselves – now you tell me how any bit of your Gothic fumings is going to be any actual help. Is any of it, as we used to say, relevant?

    Because otherwise, ya know, at least Niven and Pournelle were being serious. As was Brunner, and on occasion, Brin.

    Now, out of that farrago of post-making-sense authors, our dear Philip K. Dick gets a “Pass, friend” from me. Partly because he couldn’t completely help it, he had to write the way his mind worked. Partly because he had some serious issues to raise with Campbell and his techo-hubrist school. But mainly because in the humility of his semi-heroes, he captures the contemporary figure of the plain rational schmuck who’s trying to do something, even while global forces may or may not be rendering all his efforts nonsensical. Which describes just about everybody I admire.

    Meanwhile, Here’s Charlie Stross., wrestling with the same problem.

  7. Chess, after all, is a game. Chess is played between players. That is the purpose of chess, and there’s no other. But if two humans play each other in the forest, and a tree falls on them, it’s probably not even a stalemate, it’s just a bunch of neuron action potentials moving around inside wet meat.

  8. But if that’s what you think, then why do you do anything? If you’re willing to post on a blog, then you’re tacitly admitting that there is some point to humans and communication and leisure, which is what plok was trying to say in the first place.

  9. Anonymous, then the game of chess itself was formed by…what? The impersonal action of blind evolutionary forces?

    Say what you will about wet meat, but it does an excellent job of producing subjective internal states…much better than metals can manage, at any rate. Mind you, I suppose I could’ve chosen a better example, since there was probably more to say about the absurdity of the songwriting software, and everybody accepts the existence of computer chess anyway — I play it regularly myself. However, don’t let me be too polite to your witty rejoinder, either, because to imply that “a human being is just another kind of machine” really is to miss my point. You might as well say “all you have to do is build a space elevator, and presto!” But there is no “presto”, and the “all” that you have to do is a lot. There’s no indication that human consciousness is so much as simulable by any sort of computer, so there’s an awful shitload of work yet to do before your comparison can carry any weight. Another example I like to use is the idea of antimatter spaceship fuel — “all you have to do is power the spaceship with antimatter!” — yes, it’s possible, but at the current time antimatter costs about a trillion dollars a gram to make and capture. Now, I’m not saying that in the future there will be no comparatively cheaper way to lay one’s hands on it…but if antimatter were flat-out easy to make, there would be more of it in the universe, so the idea it’s not always going to be the most expensive crap to make that there is, seems to me wishful thinking.

    Someone is going to come along and want to argue this with me from a real philosophical perspective any minute now, I’m sure. So I should just say: I don’t consider the metaphor of the machine as supreme, and modern neo-materialism has to work hard to convince me of its contentions. Also on Star Trek when Captain Kirk uses the transporter he is not killed and then rebuilt, because a) killing the hero three times an episode is a terrible idea for a Star Trek show, and b) for heaven’s sake it doesn’t even say that in the show, where do all you folks get this idea from? From a clever neo-materialist SF dude (uh, and TNG I guess), who wants to make a point about preconceptions, obviously…


    There are preconceptions here, too. On the simplest level of scriptwriting and show-making, okay, how the transporter “works” is as a scenechanger. Characters are moved from one locale to another. Moved. This is how it works in the context of the show’s universe, too, Kirk is “converted” into energy, beamed off someplace, converted back into matter…it’s an analog process, whereas this new idea of a death/rebuild is essentially a digital process.

    That’s where the preconceptions come in. Analog and digital aren’t competing philosophical schools, they’re not equivalent approaches to all questions and problems, and in the case of the person who says “given this magical technology, who’s to say it isn’t digital rather than analog”, I say “that is like saying the existence of galaxy-faring aliens is just as unlikely as the existence of Bigfoot.” Bigfoot is far more likely to exist, than are extraterrestrial visitors, if you just stop to think about it for a second. These are whole different orders of magnitude of unlikelihood — imagining Bigfoot is just imagining that there’s an as-yet-undiscovered hominid species out there somewhere. By comparison, imagining aliens visiting from other stars involves a massively-convoluted chain of assumption. Likewise, imagining the transporter on Star Trek functioning as a digital process involves a lot of hocus-pocus compared to imagining it as an analog one — Kirk arrives on the planet with all his organs in the right places and his endocrine system functioning normally, sometimes in mid-sentence — an old philosophy professor of mine once said, of the “brain-in-a-vat” problem, that it was scientifically possible but philosophically absurd…but the digital Transporter is philosophically possible but scientifically absurd. If you see what I mean.

    So: a human being is just a different kind of machine?

    That’s either just neo-materialist dogma, or a hypothetical that leaves out important details for the sake of argument. Sure, you can make the distinction a trivial one if you squint hard enough: at the most abstract level, Kirk being dissected by the transporter and then digitally reassembled in another location may not be any different from Kirk sitting in his chair and performing human cognition…but as soon as specificity is allowed to intrude it becomes obvious that not all examples are perfect fits for all contentions.

    What if two Chinese Rooms played chess?

    Must have more tea.

  10. I have no idea why this post is drawing so many hits. It’s weird.

    Jonathan: I’ll go along with that, and I did in fact have Gibson in mind, and Stirling too, as examples of thoughtful and responsible imaginers. I’ll cop to being bugged by Stirling’s occasional matter-of-fact know-it-all persona from time to time, but then again as the anti-Larry Niven I suppose he’s entitled to it. And whatever I think of how he performs in a TV interview, well…who cares, because his writing’s top-notch. He did once offend my little starry-eyed SF fan sensibilities once by saying that living in space would be far more difficult a job than SF authors and readers would like to think — “what about all the bacteria in the biosphere?” he asked. “Don’t you need it, too, if you want to make permanent habitats?” A palpable hit — right now I think we’re living at a point where once again the quotidian aspects of space travel, life in space, etc. are becoming fascinating subjects…as we learn more about how this all actually works, we don’t need the old 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s shorthand for not-knowing anymore…because a lot of this is getting real. So we still need to simplify, but we’ve got some more ways to do that now, and more things to do it to.

    Haven’t visited Charles Stross’ page in a while, thanks for that…ah, Charlie, he’s a real favourite, and like Warren he may or may not be one of the techno-hubrists, but we just don’t know. Sometimes he looks a lot like it; looks like he’s writing Tom Clancy books for the smart people, trailing easy assumptions in his wake. But I tend to think that both he and Warren still have another gear to go: they are not yet at the top of their game. Reading that piece of his, I’m struck by the thought that the future-imagining of genres other than SF all have slightly different rules…in thrillers and in quasi-horror fantasy for example, things we already know Charlie can knock right out of the park, you can’t just swamp people with math and physics — the didactic voice of SF doesn’t get you from A to B as efficiently (although in another sense it is still right there — I noted with dismay the faith in club-car economics at the end of The Family Trade…but not having read the rest of those books yet, I’m hoping Mr. Stross took the opportunity to puncture some of those popular prejudices), so perhaps working within those different strictures would be an opportunity to take things up to another level…

    I mean, Mark Millar’s another guy who falls into that general clumping, or would like to I’m sure, but I rather think he’s already made all his choices…very little techno, so extra hubris to cover it up…

    But Charlie, definitely: I expect him to improve by leaps and bounds, especially since he seems to be a guy with a topical bent — this can be a strength.

    As for Warren, if what I’ve seen of Crecy is any indication, he should just be writing a shitload of historical novels! Yikes, I mean it’s all right there: we know what Warren’s voice is like, and the historical novel is just as much about the imagination of the future as SF is…and one of those things I think desperately wants to be introduced to the other. Christ, how I’d like to read one of those damned “Men At Sea” novels, as written by Warren Ellis! “Admiral Flashman”, blended with “An Outpost Of Progress”…a lot to be done, there. But he won’t do it, I guess. Still, it would wean him off the techno-hubris. Still, I expect him to leave that shit behind anyway, at some point. Uh…maybe. I hope so, anyway.

    Interesting thing on that thread, though: someone says “who could have predicted the War On Terror in 1998?” This made me laugh, actually, because the answer is obviously “American filmmakers” — they predicted it all.

    As to the “post-sense-makers” — thank God for them, because we certainly need our future-stories to have tenor that’s not explicitly propped up and justified by and in service to techno-wank, and without them we wouldn’t have it. What’s this all about, for the individual? It’s the most relevant question possible. In this way, the functional details of stuff are still just window-dressing — it’s their implied symbolic weight that counts.

    Well, as it always must…

    Good God I’m typing a lot today.

  11. — Bigfoot is far more likely to exist, than are extraterrestrial
    — visitors, if you just stop to think about it for a second.

    Right conclusion, but you’re making the assumption that an unquantifiable probability is the same as an unlikely one, and so you’re falling into the trap of comparing unlike with unlike. As you say, Bigfoot’s probability is roughly guessable, because you’re assigning values to events in the past and present. If we really wanted to know about Bigfoot, we could find out by assigning a few hundred thousand soldiers to go and look for him.

    Extra-terrestrials, though, are more unquantifiable because what we’re talking about is the chance that a technological civilisation will, at some point in its developement, advance enough that interstellar becomes practical. At some point, whether in a hundred years or a thousand or a million (assuming we survive as a species, which is another ponderable) we’ll have done made single possible advance, and will have developed every single possible desirable tool – your antimatter argument is a bit of a non-starter because, no matter how little antimatter there was around at the beginning of the universe, there were even fewer microwave ovens, but I’ve got one in my kitchen right now. Would that set of tools include sublight interstellar starships? My guess is that there’s a reasonable chance. I can’t see anything that kills the idea stone dead, unlike, say, wormhole travel, which just looks like wish-fulfillment.

    But that means star-travelling aliens are likely as well, right? Well, no, because for me the clinching argument is not statistical but deductive. The Earth’s been around four-and-half billion years, which is maybe a third of the history of the universe. If there are other technological alien species in our galaxy, some of them would have maxed out their set of tools millions or billions of years ago. They would have reached Earth when there was nothing but microbes here. The fact that the didn’t, that Earth was left alone for billions of years until a technological species emerged, implies to me that there are no space-faring aliens to be found in this galaxy. Whether that’s because starships aren’t in the set of tools or because there aren’t any intelligent aliens elsewhere is a matter for further thought.

  12. Hm, well you’re right about the difference there, I perceive, it isn’t “quite unlikely vs. massively unlikely”…actually I’m not even so comfortable saying that anymore, because either there is another hominid species out there or there isn’t, and likelihood’s got nothing to do with it…

    Hold on, I’ll swing back around in a sec. But, yeah. What is that thing, that the “likelihood” of is being measured in my little comparison? It’s really just people’s claims, or beliefs. As far as the likelihood of there being a species like that out there for real…I think the best that can be said is that there’s no credible evidence for it, but it certainly isn’t impossible by any means, it would require nothing more than to say there was something we had not yet observed, that now we have. But the matter of likelihood has to do with the number of anecdotal “Bigfoot Is Real I Saw Him” claims, balanced against the lack of any other evidence. If the claim were to be: “there are tons of Bigfoots living in New York City”, you could comfortably put the likelihood of that claim being true at “give me a break there are not”. So a better example of the likelihood of the thing existing would be one where the existence of the claims themselves approach an evidentiary status by default: for the Loch Ness Monster to exist wouldn’t require anything more than saying we didn’t observe something that was there to be observed, either, except it’s just one frickin’ lake we’re talking about, and people live on it. Closer to home, it does in fact seem likely that Ogopogo sightings are just sturgeon sightings or something…because even though there are genuinely lots of “monsters” in the world’s waters, fabulous-looking creatures, they can’t be both incredibly elusive and incredibly non-elusive, all at the same time.

    Whew. Ranting needlessly…

    And clearly Bigfoot doesn’t fall into that same category with Nessie…not yet. But then the extraterrestrials thing clearly is even a whole other level of “dunno” from that. Even if we were to get strong indications in the near future that life was common throughout the universe — and there is a likelihood we can set on that, actually: which is the likelihood that we are cosmically “special” or not — we don’t have a physical theory that suggests even a bunch of aliens roughly as technological as ourselves could ever easily make the trip to our little neck of the woods — and as soon as that isn’t easy, then we’re dealing with much bigger distances and much bigger efforts, even if we happen to be “special” for some other, as yet unguessed-at reason. Which we’re probably not. So for me that takes out your deductive side of the whole thing as well — with that much space and time to be reckoned with, any other factors that might impinge on flying saucers coming our way, might also grow large enough to stop ’em dead, and we can’t quantify that either, because we have no way of knowing what they might be. If you could travel faster than the speed of light (which we have no reason to think you can, and lots of reasons to think you can’t), it becomes just conceivable that we could expect to see some aliens eventually if there were any there to be seen…but without that, it’s just too big a fishpond. As things stand today, only let the clock run long enough and we will know if there’s such a critter as Bigfoot…but the sun could swallow the Earth before we saw an extraterrestrial alien, even if there’s quite a lot of them out there to potentially be seen.

    So you’re absolutely right, Clone! As long as I’m assigning likelihoods to anything other than claims, I’ve got it completely wrong, and even if I am talking claims the Bigfoot thing isn’t a different ballpark, it’s a different sport, and I’m comparing apples to tube socks. Sloppy construction on my part.

    I’ll beg to differ with you on the antimatter front, though: after all, there were just as few microwave ovens made out of antimatter at the beginning of the universe as there were ones made from matter, and you don’t have one of those in your kitchen. We may indeed get better at handling the stuff, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that anti-hydrogen will probably never be cheaper than regular hydrogen.

    But on the possible (so exciting!) ubiquity of life…I think I may have mentioned this before, but when I was a kid, Viking hit Mars and found it arid and sterile, which was a crushing disappointment…and then Mariner surveyed Venus and found it a hellscape, which was almost even worse. Now we have water on Mars, possible microbe-fossils, and proof of life’s more general hardiness right here on Earth. In a world where it makes sense to speculate about Europa’s internal ocean, the findings of Viking seem to be wiped away. Although there is still just one more chance for a lifeless universe: what if there was something “special” about our solar nebula in the first place? Statistically or materially.

    It still looks a lot better than the Viking days, though. I’m quite optimistic. If life were practically all over the place in the universe, then given the ridiculous size of the thing…well, you know. Even with c as a speed limit (not to mention a particle horizon), to be able to finally really believe it, that would be something.

    Of course our galaxy could be “special” too.

    But the hell with that, I say. This “specialness” has to give way at some point or other.

  13. I’ll expand my point about microwave ovens, as I don’t think I put it particularly well. Antimatter in not common in our universe, but it can be created in a laboratory. Industrialisation is the process of vastly reducing unit costs to the point where they become affordable. If we’re talking about my hypothetical complete set of buildable tools, I’d assign a good probability that an economic antimatter creation machine (I know, I sound like I’m channelling Isaac Asimov) would be in that set, and therefore its current unaffordability could be removed in time.

    On the specialness of humanity/our solar system/the galaxy: that’s a debate which is beginning to be seriously debated, and as you say at some point it’s going to get resolved, as hypotheses can be tested by experiment and observation. I’m not sure which way I’d swing on this. Probably your star needs to be well away from the galactic centre, otherwise neighbouring supernovae will wipe you out before you ever get started. Beyond that, I guess it’s for the baldies to work out.

    One thing I would say is that it’s taken Earth an awful long time to reach a stage of having a technological civilisation. Three billion years of Pre-Cambrian microbes, I believe, and then complex life forms for a few hundred million years. Maybe the big question is how life jumps from microbes to fish, because that one took an age to take place. Once life’s got brains and limbs, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the creature with the biggest brain takes over.

  14. Ah, as it turns out new studies suggest that stars wander quite a bit through the Arms over their lives. So “here” may not be where we started out at all. Meaning nothing in particular, of course, just that if that study’s right, there goes one more quantifier of “specialness”.

    And, sigh, all right Isaac, if you must have your magical antimatter machine…I suppose you could call it a “Hawking Harvester” or something…

    …Oh, shoot. You could get away with that.


  15. Weird, the stats for this thing just keep going up and up.

    Is Warren more popular than he was a couple years ago? It doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only thing I can think of. And yet no “warren ellis” search terms coming in, just the same old same old. “What means trout and milk”, that kind of thing.


  16. One last thing, on the limits of “specialness”…

    The real “habitable zone”, in the science-fictional imagination it seems to me at least, is the zone between special and not-special. Too special and you’re an absolute fluke, with a precarious existence dependent on weird things all happening in just one of a few “right” weird sequences. Too unspecial and you’re simply cosmologically insignificant, just random bits of chemistry in a big cosmic soup — no aliens would ever visit you anyway, why would they? What would be the point? Life becomes as interesting as a pile of gravel, and who travels millions of light-years to watch a pile of gravel sit there and be gravelly? It would be like travelling to Siberia just to see people bake bread and eat it with butter.

    So there’s a continuum of near-specialness, that at either end breaks down into absurdity. If life is relatively common because it’s relatively hardy, that’s one thing. If life is relatively uncommon because it requires specific conditions to get going, that’s another. But if there’s something special about the solar system, that’s getting kooky, because we do have workable metrics for that kind of thing: and so if it’s supposed to be compositionally special, our whole theory of stellar evolution has to be junked; if it’s astrographically special, there’s…just no reason for believing that at all, given the views through our telescopes; if it’s statistically special just out of pure randomness well that would be pretty special, that’d be mind-bogglingly special…that’d be too special, for credulity.

    And then you’ve got, okay, how about the Milky Way is special? But the problem is we’ve got a metric for that too: it’s called the Hubble Deep Field. Billions and billions and billions of galaxies. The scale of such specialness fairly beats in on you. It becomes more conceivable that there’s just something special about the planet than about the galaxy. And then if you blow it up bigger you hit a brick wall of the absurd: we were born in the special half of the universe! Uh, but the universe is BIG, friend…being in one half of it rather than the other is anything but “special”.

    Current “dark energy” (gyuucchhh…) speculation has it that we may just be in a “thin” patch of spacetime. Red Alert! All hands to the epicycles! Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave seems infinitely more plausible a suggestion of potential “unknowns” than that…

    Oh man, do I need coffee. I swear some of the stuff I wrote up there in the comments barely makes sense

  17. Months later, and yeah…it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    But the most interesting way it’s wrong, instead of merely non-sense-making, is…


    Antimatter is made in thunderstorms.

    Cool, eh? Little gamma-ray bursts in thunderheads are created by electron-positron collisions. Clouds are cyclotrons! And there’s no shortage of clouds.

    God, I love being wrong. Now, maybe the space-elevator…?

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