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The future, but not all at once

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So begins William Gibson's Neuromancer. It's the best opening line in all of literature, and if you say otherwise, I will fight you. With Imagist parsimony, it conjures a polluted, fallen world in which everything is mediated by technology and nothing is quite real; but it also throws up a problem that is pervasive to science fiction. Gibson's novel is the first of a trilogy that features an array of technologies that, in 2013, are still science-fiction: implanted brain-to-computer virtual reality interfaces; affordable commercial space-flight; private orbital habitations; weakly godlike artificial intelligence; and, for the 0.0001%, technologically mediated quasi-immortality. Some of it is on its way, some of it is decades off, or more, and some of it will eventually fall into the limbo of the technically feasible but practically unmarketable. (I mean seriously, who wants a piece of consumer tech that can’t be upgraded without a general anæsthetic?) And yet, in the first line of the book, the first technology referred to is analogue broadcast television, which, by 2013, you can't even get any more. Hell, broadcasting in general is still lumbering along, but everyone can see it's got one foot in the tarpit. Before the technologies Gibson depicts become feasible, if not real, there will be a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the book with an endnote that explains to readers born before 2008 what television tuned to a dead channel looked like.

For the benefit of younger readers, this is what it looks like. Image licensed CC-BY-NC-SA smokeghost 2012.

At least, I hope they do that, rather than update the line to;

The sky above the port was the colour of that bit at the beginning of HBO shows that makes VLC glitch out because it can't be compressed.

This isn't really science fiction's fault. The trouble with research is that it tends to be about stuff we don't yet know how to do; which makes it rather difficult to predict what we're basically on track with. There are some areas where, if we keep feeding the research machine EPSRC grants and turning the crank, commercialisable products come out the other end. There are others where it’s going to take us another couple of decades to just figure out that we've been asking entirely the wrong questions in the first place. Yes, Most Of The History Of Artificial Intelligence, I’m looking at you.

We seldom have foreknowledge of which is which.

Of course, this can be an asset for the science fiction writer. Even if we could predict the future, the story with the most accurate predictions is not necessarily the best story; and having plenty of free parameters to fiddle with gives us lots of options as to what stories we want to tell. Much far-future science-fiction assumes a world in which we have figured out both how to get fermions and bosons to slip past the relativistic limit, so that not only can we pop over to have dinner with our friends on Tau Ceti, we can call ahead to tell them to set another place at the table. On the other hand, we can tell quite different kinds of story if we’ve only figured out faster-than-light travel for big chunks of stuff we can strap exotic engines to, in which case the only way of keeping Facebook’s servers on Earth and Gliese 581g in sync is to strap some exotic engines onto a great big SSD, and send it back and forth, creating a galaxy that is in some sense a reversion to the communications world of the 18th Century, in which the fastest way to get a letter across the world was to put it on the fastest ship. On the other hand, we could come up with a whizzy faster-than-light particle with which data can be sent across interstellar distances fast enough for Skype, and with which digital representations of our minds, bodies, and the things we need to live can be transmitted to fabricators, cloning tanks and the like on worlds we wish to colonise. Actually getting the first wave of equipment to other star-systems, however, is going to involve some poor shmucks going the long way round, living, pairing off, raising kids and dying in deep space, all in the hope that their great great great great great grandchildren will get to staff the first Genius Bar on Alpha Centauri.

Of course, whatever choices we make in concocting science fiction worlds, the key to getting readers to buy it is consistency - just as it is with writing fantasy, or for that matter, realist fiction. This is all well understood. What is perhaps less appreciated is that the creative possibilities inherent in science fiction lie not only in what technologies you allow your imagined futures, but also in what technologies you deny them.

 

 

On the human (and teuthid) condition

Well, I guess I should start with hello.

I’m Dave, the other half of Robot Squid Publications. Those of you who’re in the super secret test audience for that other thing that I’m doing know what my main novel project is, here at Robot Squid Geostationary, but this is the first time I’ve actually blogged here, so some of you don't know me at all.

In my other job, I am an egregious drain on the resources of a cash-strapped society, or in other words, a grad student. An eterna-student. I’ve been in tertiary education for longer than primary and secondary education combined. I might as well come out and admit, I have a problem. Certainly, if I had just listened to wiser counsel and gotten heavily into drugs instead, it would have turned out to be less financially and psychologically ruinous.

Naturally, I regret nothing.

My life sentence in academia (the idea of no longer having access to a university library when I graduate genuinely frightens me) has taken me right across the campus, from English Literature, where I got my first degree, to Computer Science, which is what my PhD will be in if I ever get it finished. Quite a long time ago, my teacher for A-Level English told me that the thing that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction is that literature “offers insights into the human condition”. She was a great teacher, regarded the poems of Sylvia Plath as basically a vitamin, gave me the best piece of advice I ever heard for dealing with teenage angst (“stop thinking about your own problems for a while, and try really listening to someone else”), but on this point, I think she was dead wrong.

Offering insights into the human condition is the number one distinguishing characteristic of really good fiction (second place goes to “containing lots of very well-written sentences”), but there’s no reason to suppose that such insights evaporate on contact with spaceships, elves, detectives or jokes, though I suppose they might struggle for elbow-room when crowded around by all four. As far as I can tell, as a novice in the publishing industry, “literary fiction” is primarily a marketing category. Douglas Adams articulated the tragicomic absurdity of human existence more eloquently than Samuel Beckett ever did. Laurence Sterne, probably thought he wasn’t so much creating an enduring literary classic in Tristram Shandy, as trolling the novel-reading public of his time. When Margaret Atwood famously got offended at hearing The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake described as science fiction, she was touching on a marketing problem that science fiction had at the time, describing it as "talking squids in outer space."

(N.B.; I should note that, although Atwood no longer describes science fiction in such terms, my novel-in-progress here does contain a talking squid in outer space, who is also a flying robot)

Of course, fiction doesn’t have a monopoly on insight, and doesn’t deliver its insights in isolation. Indeed, I would like to suggest that forms of fiction that have connections to cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science and quantum physics might just deliver more startling, unexpected insights into the human condition than forms of fiction whose main academic connection is to departments where poststructuralism is Still A Thing. Science fiction has the power to take the astonishing, weird, counterintuitive vision of the world presented by science, and bring it together with lived human experience; and, in an era of unparalleled growth in scientific knowledge, that puts it in a better position than literary fiction to show us how strange the human condition really is.

And that’s what Robot Squid Publications is here to do.

The Deadly Paradox

Science likes paradoxes. Science fiction loves them even more. In the world of science fiction, a paradox can even destroy a big evil computer. Personally I've always felt that was a bit of a cop-out. You must have seen one of those episodes of Star Trek where an evil super computer is about to kill everyone on the Enterprise and then Captain Kirk rolls out an amazing paradox like..."So, you are going to destroy us because you are Godlike? But ... isn't God Love? So how can killing everyone be an act of a Godlike creature?" and then the machine goes into a recursive loop until blue white sparks fly out of its console, everyone staggers from side to side a bit and the whole thing blows up. The Enterprise, saved by the power of paradox, once again!

Aagh, the paradox!

Science reporting also loves paradox. You will often see a paradox breathlessly reported in the media - they are particularly popular when it comes to health issues. So we have the French paradox, which is something like, oh steak is unhealthy, oil is unhealthy, wine is unhealthy, but the French live loads longer than the English and they love that stuff, what the HELL is going on? Run! It's a PARADOX!

What this kind of thing generally points out is not that there is some kerazy paradox going on but that one of your initial assumptions is false, and the arrival of a paraDOX reveals the need for you to change your paraDIGM. It can be easier to demonstrate with an obviously (for most of us) fictional example- such as - "Girls are too stupid to bother sending them to school. But the ones who do go to school get better grades than boys. It's the Female Education paradox!" Pretty easy to see the flaws there ( I hope).

In scifi time travel is a very popular source of paradox and people travelling back in time are frequently warned not to create a paradox - so, don’t screw your mother or you could end up being your own father and that’s a PARADOX, or she might fall in love with you instead of your father and then you will disappear because of the PARADOX (thanks Marty McFly).

But how can you create a paradox? Isn't a paradox, by its very nature, something that can't exist? So if that paradox can exist, it seems to me that we should re-examine whatever underlying beliefs are making us think this is a paradox in the first place (phew). So in the time travel example, if you are able to go back and have your mother fall in love with you instead of your father, what this surely means is not that you are going to disappear (gradually fading away whilst playing a rocking guitar solo... nooo) but that if this possibility of your mother falling in love with you is available, that shows time is not linear and perhaps cause and effect does not work quite how we thought.

SO if it is possible to do something paradoxical it surely shows that you were making some incorrect assumptions in the first place. Maybe time doesn’t work how you think. Maybe steak and red wine aren't that bad after all, and it's something else that kills off us Brits. Where you see a touted paradox, look for any underlying false beliefs- it can be revealing.

"The Red Wing" review and giveaway

It's always good to see owner-created comics  - a refreshing alternative to the big comic stables. So I was pretty excited to get my hands on the trade paperback of "The Red Wing" by Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra (and coloured by Rachelle Rosenberg).
First impressions are, this is a quality comic. Nick Pitarra's artwork is great- clean, detailed, and beautifully coloured by Rachelle Rosenberg. He is not scared to use blank space to full effect and the frames often seem more like captured moments, frozen in time, rather than an imitation of movement, which complements the rather detached and thoughtful feel of the book.
"The Red Wing" is the story of a war fought through time and in slightly divergent realities. The protagonists are trying to defend their world as it is being stripped to dust throughout its choronlogical instances by an unknown enemy - the Blue Wing. It's a story with some standard timetravel tropes - dinosaurs, Aztecs taking time travellers to be gods, etc - but threaded through with Freudian undertones and an examination of the queasy mixture of pride and shame in one's parents and their achievements - or failures.
The pilots fly "Temporal Attack Crafts" - small and agile craft fitted with a missile system that kills through time. Part of their training is learning to see past the common illusion of time's linearity, instead seeing it as "a stack of all moments, all happening at once, just at a difference frequency". It does seem a bit ironic to be examining these thoughts through the medium of comics, where the story is split in very linear panels, with pointers at the beginning of scenes such as "Now" and "The Future". But I guess it would be just a bit too confusing to try to tell a story outside of the temporal illusion completely!
The tale has an interesting conclusion, although the point of it really seems to be that nothing has a conclusion, raising the questions of can we ever escape our past or our future, and are fate and free will actually the same thing? This is a comic that's worth reading a few times to appreciate the plot fully. My only criticism would be that I wish some of the main characters had been made to look a bit different. When you have a story with potential to be a bit confusing, it doesn't help if half the characters are blue-eyed bearded men! Perhaps that was deliberate and meant to aid understanding, but personally I felt it had the opposite effect.
If you would like to read "The Red Wing" yourself, there's an affiliate link below to purchase. OR just leave a comment telling us what you think about this comic, time travel, or anything else that's relevant and you'll be entered into a draw to win my review copy.

 

Necrophobia and thoughts on genre

You got your zombie in my alien!I read an interesting novella recently, Necrophobia by Karsten Kluge, and was thinking about posting a review on Robot Squid. Then I thought, "Well, it doesn't really fit our remit. It's not science fiction."
That got me thinking about the whole idea of genre. Sometimes it can be tricky to pin down exactly what fits where. Robot Squid's thing is "intelligent scifi", but that can be a pretty subjective boundary. Over on the excellent Escape Artists podcast forums, discussion can quickly degenerate once somebody pipes up "Yes, but that wasn't really scifi/horror/fantasy, was it?". A popular response is the Damon Knight quote ""Science Fiction is whatever I am pointing at when I say 'science fiction'"  - handily,  this can be adapted for horror and fantasy too...
So, Necrophobia. First off, it's about zombies. That would automatically put it in the horror camp, right? Yet the main horror in the story in many ways, is general humanity's lack of empathy and tolerance towards others. Does that place it closer to dystopian scifi? The zombies in Necrophobia aren't souless monsters, indiscriminately tearing apart humans to devour their flesh. The main zombie, Sarah, is a more sympathetic character than most of the living humans. She is trying desperately (with the help of cosmetics, drugs and plenty of air freshener) to survive in a world where many people find her disgusting and terrifying. It's certainly a riff on a well-know horror theme, but it's not graphically horrific in nature.
The source of the zombies is a mystery infection, the Lazarus Virus. It seems that everyone can be, or is, a carrier of the virus, but it only asserts itself once you die and come back to life as a zombie. The only way to avoid this is to take medication all your life to suppress the virus and prevent re-animation. That's an original way to deal with the whole zombie origin problem, and more thoughtful than the majority of stories which shy away from any kind of explanation for the sudden rising of the dead. It also provides opportunity for social satire of the American health system - what happens to those who can't afford the medication or who aren't covered by insurance?
Rod Serling said that the difference between science fiction and science fantasy is "science fiction the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable". So I keep coming back to zombies being supernatural creatures, therefore unscientific, therefore they can never be science fiction. On the other hand, a time travel story, or one where spaceships can go faster than the speed of light, will be classified as scifi- yet many scientists believe those things are also impossible.
I guess this is why the genre of 'speculative fiction' was created- so much simpler. What do you think? How useful is genre? Are zombies and vampires always horror; spaceships and robots always scifi? And how much does nitpicking over classification detract from the more important question of "Is this a good story?"
If you'd like to read Necrophobia for yourself, please visit the author's website or use the affiliate link below.