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?
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.
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!