Science fiction update

This is rambling and all over the place, but I think I will post it anyway, as it tries to make sense of a lot of the reading I have been doing lately, and which I haven’t previously mentioned in this blog.

SF writer Chris Moriarty, whose excellent novel Spin State I have just finished reading, notes on her website that the most fundamental distinction in science fiction as a genre is “the division between writers who view sf as being primarily about science and writers who view sf as being primarily about politics.” She goes on to note that, of course, this polarity is really a “continuum” rather than an absolute divide; but I think that the major point is well taken.

Actually, I might want to substitute “technology” for science in Moriarty’s formulation, because, even in the “hardest” SF the scientific knowledge is embodied in technology; and also because more metaphorical technologies, like those used in certain types of fantasy writing, are sometimes (though, obviously, not always) closer to the technologies that hard SF provides. (Think, for instance, about the use of artificial intelligence, alongside several kinds of flat-out magic, in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. So it might be best to state the division as between SF that looks at the imaginative possibilities unleashed by potential or future technology, and SF that looks at the political consequences of such technology. Though, of course, most good SF has elements of both.

I’m thinking about this because I want to work out more of the way that SF moves in between these two poles, and helps us focus on the ways that politics inflects technological development (and even scientific discovery) and the ways that scientific discovery and technological change inflect, divert, and alter socio-political possibilities.

For instance, Moriarty’s Spin State is premised on extrapolations from current quantum mechanics. There is a lot of stuff about correlated particles (providing for a loophole in the absolute restriction of movement to the speed of light or lower), and about the many-worlds implications of certain branches of quantum theory (though, thankfully, Moriarty never uses this as a mere plot device to bring alternative universes in contact with the one in which the novel is set). And Moriarty even provides several pages of bibliography at the end of the book, in which the real physics underlying the made-up physics of his novel is grounded and explained.

And yet, Spin State is, in a certain way, more about (old-fashioned) class struggle than it is about quantum theory. The action takes place mostly on a planet where workers are employed in horrific conditions as coal miners, digging up the “Bose-Einstein condensate” that is necessary for superluminal communication and travel, and that is buried amidst the coal. The miners’ conditions are every bit as bad, and even as ‘primitive’, as those of mine workers in, say, South Africa today. The flashy newer technologies that make up the world (universe) of the novel are overlaid upon the older technologies that in fact, already exist today. It is symbolically indicative that, several centuries from now, people are still watching the Mets take on the Yankees in the world series, and government troops are still being brought in to break strikes and keep the workers in line. The novel is split between the hell of the coal mines, where workers routinely die in cave-ins, or — if not — succumb to black lung by the time they are forty, and the paradise of completely immersive virtual worlds in which the illusion of physicality is complete, and material objects are as palpabe, and can be transferred, as easily as occurs in the physical world. We meet emergent artificial intelligences possessing superhuman computing power, quasi-human beings who have been genetically engineered and cloned to provide certain exploitable physical and mental characteristics, and people whose bodies have been extensively wired to give them strength, computing power, prosthetic memory, ability to interface directly with machines, and so forth. Yet these transformations,as well, are not universally available, but tied to power and privilege and economic status.

The thriller plot of Spin State involves contact with an alien form of intelligent life (so alien, that for a long time human beings were unable even to recognize it as either alive or intelligent), together with a love story between a quasi-human “construct” and an AI who can only instantiate itself physically by “borrowing” (actually, paying for use of) the bodies of physical human beings. Though the novel is partly committed to the sort of naturalistic “character development” that is sometimes considered requisite in genre fiction, it does at least to some extent speculate on what it might mean to speak of the “psychology” of an intelligent and communicating entity which, yet, is not entirely human, and not even a unified subject in the ways that we expect human beings to be. Moriarty doesn’t go anywhere near as far in this respect as Justina Robson does in Living Next Door to the God of Love, a book which is mind-blowing in the way that it imagines the depth psychology of entirely nonhuman subjects, and the emotional relationships such subjects might enter into with other nonhuman, as well as with more or less ordinarily human, beings. But Moriarty, unlike Robson, links this sort of strange emergence — something beyond what we might be capable of actually experiencing today — to socio-political conditions that are continuous with our rapaciously capitalistic present.

Well, I seem to have introduced a third category: nonhuman psychology, or (as I would prefer to call it) the affectivity of nonhuman beingss (including transhuman beings, genetically modified human beings, hybrid/cyborg human beings, and artificial intelligence beings), which is as separate from (and as influenced by) either science/technology or politics/economics as these two are separate from, and yet strongly influenced by one another. Nonhuman affectivities are an important part of science fiction, because they are part of the investigation of how “we” (taking this pronoun in the broadest possible sense) could be otherwise, and indeed how we are already (since SF is always about the futurity that is already implicit or incipient in the present) in process of becoming-otherwise. The key principle here, of course, being McLuhan’s, that as media (an even wider term than “technologies”) vary and change, so our very percepts, affects, and concepts vary and change.

But I digress. I wanted to mention, as a contrast to Moriarty, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, which just won the Hugo for best SF novel of 2006. (I am looking forward to Vinge’s visit to my university’s campus later this year). Rainbows End is near-future SF; it extrapolates trends in “social software,” in wearable computing, in ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous networks, and massively parallel computing involving scores of people only virtually connected, etc., in order to suggest how these technologies are radically reshaping our social world. It is much more on the science/technology side of the continuum than the political; and I tend to distrust Vinge’s politics to a certain extent, I must say, as it seems (from what I can gather from his fiction) to trend libertarian-capitalist; not to mention that Vinge is the originator of the concept of The Singularity, which I think has subsequently (in the hands of others, at least) been greatly oversold.

Nonetheless, Rainbows End is quite brilliant both for the ways it integrates into a seamless whole its various technologies, all of which are floating around right now, but isolated from one another and only in incipient versions; and for the way that the book offers a vision in which the surveillance of the national security state, vigilantly on guard against terrorism and against any violation of so-called ‘intellectual property’ rights, has become so ubiquitous and taken-for-granted that the chance of getting away from it doesn’t exist anymore — the loss of civil liberties and of privacy is so established that it isn’t even an issue. The scariness of this is only mitigated by the fact that “freedom” of business entrepreneurship and of entertainment “choices” is left intact — i.e., you are entirely free to swear your allegiance to either of the two popular fantasy authors who have ripped off and updated Terry Pratchett, each in their own way. That is pretty much the way Vinge paints it, though I don’t think he is quite as snarkily ironic about the commerce part of it as I just was. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against Terry Pratchett; I am only objecting to his future imitators).

And, oh yes, Vinge’s book also has some interesting bits about a sort of mental virus that, spread by a combination of biological and net/informational infection, can cause an extremely high percentage of those exposed to suddenly want to buy a given product, or support a President’s rationale for waging war. And, also, the novel contains one mysterious character who (it seems — this is never explicitly spelled out) just may be an emergent AI, having arisen out of the Net itself, with its own somewhat alien agendas/interests and affects… That again.

But, for really hitting that point on the continuum where the social and political blends imperceptibly into the scientific and technological, and vice versa, the best SF I have read in quite some time is Warren Ellis’ new comic book series, Doktor Sleepless. Only two issues have come out so far, so it is hard to know quite where this is heading — it is as if I were to review Moriarty’s or Vinge’s novel on the basis of only reading the first fifty pages — but already we have been hit with an extraordinarily high density of new ideas, innovative concepts per page. One theme, at least, is the contrast between the shiny, high-concept SF of the past, and the way that technological innovation is already, much more quietly and unassumingly, worming its ways into our lives in ways that are far more profound, precisely because they are less spectacularly noticeable. In the world of Doktor Sleepless, people complain, “where’s my jet pack? where’s my flying car?”; but they fail even to notice how much they have been altered by stuff they take for granted, like (just barely beyond what we actually have today) ubiquitous instant messaging. Now, making fun of the grandiosity of Golden Age SF is nothing new; William Gibson did it twenty-five years ago in his short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” But Ellis is pointing, beyond this, to the increasing sense we have, in our globalized network society, that futurity itself is used up, that its horizons have shrunk, that we have nothing to look forward to. Our future hasn’t changed in, what, twenty or thirty years? The future we imagine today is no different from the one that Ridley Scott imagined in Blade Runner twenty-five years ago, just at the same time that Gibson was mocking the future that had been imagined twenty-five years before that. So we would seem to be in a stasis, where futurity has decayed, melted into an infernal, eternal present.

Against this malaise, Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless has a “terrible perscription” — though we do not know, after only two issues, what it is yet. But it does seem to involve DIY low tech, of the sort that has already changed our world, more profoundly perhaps than we have even noticed. [This really does ring true to me. My students are always surprised -- not only that I grew up in a time before the Internet, even before personal computers -- but, more stunningly, because it is something much more mundane -- that I can remember the first time that I saw and used an ATM, and that -- prior to that moment -- I managed my bank account for many years without one].

Anyway.. Issue two of Doktor Sleepless introduces us to the “Shrieky Girls” — young women who have tiny haptic devices on their hands or arms, connected to the ubiquitous instant-messaging system that they can access through their contact lenses. The result is that they can share, not just words, but perceptions and sensations. When one of the Shrieky Girls takes a boy (or a girl) home with them, then the next morning “it’s all of them who share the modemed sensation of a warm arm closed softly around them.” So “Shrieky Girls are never alone; they live in an invisible web of constant secret conversation, transmitting raw feelings like they were texting notes.” What’s brilliant about all this is that it’s barely even SF; it’s only a step beyond what is already technologically feasible; and, in the world of the story, it isn’t even spectacular, but is something cobbled together cheaply and easily, out of already-obsolete components and second-hand networking links. Which makes it nearly invisible, even as it meses with our ideas about selfhood and privacy, and the boundaries between self and other, more profoundly than the more flashy technologies of science fiction past had ever done.

Ellis’ Global Frequency of several years ago already toyed with the making-mundane of the most extravagant SF visions that recent technologies have given us. And his novel (prose, not graphic) Crooked Little Vein, released this past summer, made the point that categories like “perversion,” and distinctions between the normal and the pathological, no longer make any sense in our society of what Baudrillard calls “transparency” and Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — and emphasized this with humor and relief, rather than with the horror of Baudrillard, or the moralistic fervor of those who bemoan the so-called “decline of symbolic efficacy” (the only “perversions” in the novel that are truly odious and objectionable are the ones that stem from the privileges and life-and-death powers that the extremely rich and well-connected exercise against the rest of us). Doktor Sleepless seems to be starting out from where these other works left off, and heading into uncharted territories. Ones in which the micro-affects and micro-politics of technologies that have insinuated themselves within our lives pretty much without a splash (albeit with lots of marketing hoopla) are exposed, dramatized, subject to the harsh scrutiny of genre fiction.

I mean, I’ll never have a jet pack, but won’t the iPhone change me? Why do I want one so badly, even though it won’t do anything for me “as a person” that my current phone (albeit using the disgustingly ponderous and irritating and user-unfriendly Windows Mobile platform) doesn’t do already?

Leave a Reply