An article on the way Buddhism and science intersect on certain key issues features this line: "Unlike Christ, who promises eternal life, the last words of the Buddha reportedly began, 'Decay is inherent in all things.'"
It's timely and appropriate that I came across this piece right around the same time I started reading Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, that man's philosophical treatise on the collision between the romantic impulse to live forever and the grim certainty that eternal life is more of an idea than it can ever be a reality, and how that collision is vital to human life and not an obstacle to it.Read more
... Lem preferred to depict societies bogged down by excess information and technology. “Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea,” he writes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice, “because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors … ?” This observation rings eerily true today, but Lem wasn’t only trying to critique modern society. He wanted to imagine what the future might actually be like.
The reason why SF has traditionally trafficked in a cautionary view of the future is as a corrective to human hubris. I don't think having a positive, actionable vision of the future necessarily results in a positive, actionable future: you might bring to life some of the artifacts of that vision, but the vision itself is just that: a vision, not real.
Plus, once a vision leaves your hands, it's not yours anymore; it can be turned against its original conceit and wrenched out of its original context as easily as it can be deployed.Read more
io9 (which I normally don't read) just posted an extract from one of the stories in Hieroglyph — "By the Time We Get To Arizona," by Madeline Ashby — and it looks intriguing — just edgy (I hate that word, but whatever) enough to be skeptical, and just curious enough to be optimistic. If the rest of the anthology is in the same vein, then I'll be making a meal of my previous words with a side order of crow and a helping of Werner Herzog's boiled shoe leather.
Most of my skepticism — read: cynicism — about the project revolves around the way technical achievements are too often by themselves taken as prima facie evidence of progress. To wit: a concept for the tallest tower on earth, one which could serve as a launch platform for sending objects into space. A discussion of something like that needs to be fully rounded: the labor issues, the dangers involved, where to put the thing in the first place — and in a tone that's more thoughtful than "you can't make a future omelet without breaking a few present-day eggs", or something to that effect. We always need to ask where our future comes from and what cost we're willing to pay for it, and I don't just mean long green.
I've ordered the book and will be diving into it over the coming week.
More about the other day's post. I'm still stung at the tone I used to describe that stuff — Cory Doctorow in particular — but I suspect it's an abreaction, a consequence of being bombarded by so many we're-going-to-change-the-world-with-our-website types.
Zach Bonelli had his own take on it which is a more reasonably worded version of mine: "I’m not sure which I dislike more — wholesale acceptance of anything technological, or wholesale refusal to admit that anything technological might be of value." Some of that dichotomy was at the heart of Flight of the Vajra, too, although my feeling was that people would tilt towards technology by default anyway, because who really wants to not live with the conveniences offered by same? I was also deeply skeptical of the idea of a "post-scarcity" society, since after a certain point the concept of scarcity is more sociological and psychological than physical, and it becomes hard to tell a real scarcity (no clean water) from merely not being able to keep up with the Joneses (his broadband is 100 MB next to my paltry 20 MB).
Zach is right in that it's not about figuring out which one is right and going that road. It's about a dialogue between the two, something that doesn't end at any given moment, one where (as he put it) "one optimal human society might engage in endless self-reflection and criticism about the proper use of technologies, alongside a scientific arm endlessly churning out new theories and constructs."
My feeling is that no human society will elect to divide itself that neatly, because such a divide — as someone else once put it about good and evil — runs through every human heart. The struggle's going to be incarnate, first and foremost, inside each of us. Every time we wonder about what to put into our car (or our bodies), every time we choose where to live or what kind of job to work at, we're struggling with those things, even if the broader consequences of that struggle would never reveal themselves to any one of us, but only to humanity as a whole a hundred years from now.
Some follow-up notes on my earlier post about Hieroglyph.
First off, I'm just as fed up as anyone else is with SF as a "wet blanket", as someone else put it. I do not believe the point of SF is to talk obsessively and commiseratively about how much the future is going to suck.
But I also don't think the point of SF is to talk about how great the future would be if only we invented this or that. The two are, I think, manifestations of the same mindset at different extremes. One is naïve optimism; the other, naïve cynicism.
There's a middle way between those two that combines both vision and skepticism, and very little such SF has ever been produced. I would further wager that very little of it will ever be produced (Sturgeon's Law), because of the gravitational pull that both extremes exert on someone trying to walk that path.
I should not have made it seem like I did not want a project like Hieroglyph to be produced at all, only that I'm skeptical of how useful it'll be if it amounts to little more than a shill for a bunch of things that haven't been sold yet.
ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Regarding Cory Doctorow - I apologize for the acid tone of my earlier statements about his work. That said, I still plan to read the book and see how his work and everyone else's holds up in the light of what I mentioned. I'd honestly like to have my gut feelings proven wrong here.
Word reached my ears recently of a new anthology, Hieroglyph, in which a whole gaggle of SF authors have been called upon to produce bright, shiny, optimistic, smiley-faced visions of the future instead of the dystopian grimdark gloomndoom nowayout stuff crowding the shelves. The way they put it is "optimistic, technically-grounded science fiction stories depicting futures achievable within the next 50 years":
"Why do we end up with the technologies we do? Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it's Harry Potter, right? That's where they saw it," he says. "Why are people interested in hand-held devices that allow you to diagnose diseases anywhere in the world? Well, that's what Mr Spock can do. Why can't we?"
The first thing I notice about this whole endeavor is the emphasis on the technical and the technological. Well, that's SF for you, right? Yes, but only in part.Read more
Capping off a splendid encomium to Jack Kirby, this graf:
I can’t help but feel saddened and depressed by the notion that the greatest feeling in the world is sniveling at the feet of monolithic corporations for the privilege of aping people you admire, for twisting their work and motivations, for doing things counter to the way they would. It’s much more fulfilling and important to leave You-shaped holes in the world. Don’t crawl through the Jack Kirby-shaped ones. Build your own pyramids; building someone else’s leaves you nothing with nothing but a bad back and sore feet.
Why stop at comics when talking about this? It applies no less to other franchises that had a spark of greatness in them once but have since been bricked up inside their own legacy (Star Trek, Star Wars) and that now survive only by being fed the blood of the next generation of creators.Read more
Sometimes I get the impression that the reason SF&F and the literary worlds tend to be at such odds — with exceptions, and I'll go into one such example separately — is because most of the folks involved with the latter surround themselves with an environment that discourages real experimentation.Read more
... in an article in Science Fiction Studies, [Lem] explains his issues with genre fiction as a whole: "If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought." This makes sense, given that the rise of Lem's fiction didn't arise through the shared influences of the American genre, or even the underpinning cultural influences that informed it. In many ways, Lem was an alien in and of himself to the regular language of science fiction, and his viewpoint is a good way to recognize the limitations of the fiction emerging from the United States at this point in time. It’s also a good reminder that science fiction existed outside of North America and the United Kingdom.
I neglected to mention Lem before in my discussion of how SF&F is enriched by bringing in outsiders, when now that I think about it his name should have been one of the first on that list. His was among the first SF I ever read, and I kept waiting for the other stuff I came across in the field to live up to or surpass his example. Rarely did it ever do so, and soon I realized I'd started with the exception, not the rule.Read more
I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it's fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you've got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that's your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn't lie.
This echoes back to my previous post — that baggy pair of trousers that Spike Lee and Snowpiercer each shared a leg of. I read Gardner's book in which he espoused this and other ideas (incidentally, it contains a great argument for E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is not a good piece of work), and while at times I worried he was sliding over into finger-waggling moralism, I see his point.Read more
Matt Lees has a fine little video in which he talks about (among other things) the way the gaming industry has become cyclically insular. Teenage boys who play games aimed mainly at them grow up and become part of an industry where they create video games aimed at ... teenage boys.
Sound like another cultural sphere we talk about here a lot? It sure did to me.Read more
In the comments section of a really good essay on Spike Lee's best and most widely debated movie is this gem. I have excerpted it here in full, because it deserves it, and because I'm about to go off on some major tangents with it.
I think the point on why audiences expect films to moralize is kind of simple: we use film, in America at least, to live vicariously through others so we don't have to engage in the actions ourselves. Most films acknowledge this, as there's a distinct narrative difference between false actualization and legitimate call-to-action. Most American cinema falls into the former, while something like DO THE RIGHT THING pursues the latter, which is also why that film troubled many American cultural critics (and audiences) in the time of its release.
As an example, America doesn't want revolution; it just wants the explicit promise of it, and often a constant stream of entertainment that feeds into that narrative. It's why THE HUNGER GAMES is so popular. We're pissed about what our country has become, but we're too lazy to do anything about it; so Americans can live through Katniss as she does the things most of us only fantasize about. This is why most post-apocalyptic fiction and revolution-leaning cinema are infantile in the way they handle the scenarios they propose, at least when compared to much of what Lee has done as a director. Lee's films often end in frustrating ways, such as with SCHOOL DAZE, where the central problem isn't resolved, and, in fact, transfers its righteous anger from its characters onto the audience and expects them to follow up on what the film was attempting to accomplish. You aren't allowed to feel like anything was finished or made better, because, realistically, nothing in life ever is — we spin in endless cycles of mindless violence, racial inequality and nationalistic soul-searching.
... since there is no way of eradicating man’s destructive drive — which is the price he pays for the faculty of invention — we should try to direct it toward books instead of gadgets. Literature can mitigate this drive without much risk. ... Unlike the scientific civilization that has made us more fragile than our ancestors were before they learned to fight the tiger, under a literary civilization more impractical, passive, and dreamy men would be born. But at least these men would be less dangerous to their fellows than we have grown to be since we voted for the gadgets and against the book.
A good essay, but with some dunderheaded conclusions.Read more
The more I think about end-of-the-world fiction, the more I'm seeing it as a red herring. Not just because we're surrounded by so damn much of it lately (it started most recently with, I think, The Walking Dead and it's just gone on unabated from there), but because it's predicated on a few assumptions that I'm finding harder to swallow as I go along.
First, the core premise: things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc. It's hard for me to look at such things and not see them as a gross underestimation of the resilience of human ingenuity. If we're good enough to stick it out that fiercely after things collapse, doesn't that imply we'd be good enough to keep it together from collapsing to begin with?Read more
Point of clarification. When talking about "just different enough", it might be easy to think I'm stumping for the kind of far-out creativity that is epitomized by everything from Naked Lunch to bizarro fiction. Well, not really.Read more
Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9, one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.Read more
Dystopian novels portray a society, usually of the future, that has arrived at the destination we’re all headed for if we don’t change now. The great dystopian novels and the scary developments they portray convince us of things that are all too possible in the society we live in, if we hadn’t spotted them for ourselves. The most shocking dystopian novel is the first one you read, when the whole idea of the arbitrariness of human arrangements comes over you, with the realization that the future is contingent on the present, and can be affected by something you do or don’t do now.
The review in question is of Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea, which I haven't yet read but which I understand is in something of the same general vein as books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road — an ugly future as depicted by an author nominally best known for avowedly literary work. But this line from the review caught my eye, especially the bit about how the most shocking of dystopias is the first one we run into.Read more
What I termed the serial thinking or the general serial form in the fifties, or what I designated as musical through-organisation then, has by no means been forgotten or become superfluous. Rather, it has been integrated into a more comprehensive concept: integrated into the musician's mental armament. It is now applied in such differentiated areas, that it can no longer be identified only in the domain of material (or in the characteristics of the sound). Today such terms as serialist, or through-organisation or general serial form are applied to entire style aggregates. It is possible. for example, to imagine the conception of modulating an African style with a Japanese style, in the process of which the styles would not be eliminated in order to arrive at a supra-style or a uniform international style - which, in my opinion, would be absurd. Rather, during this process, the original, the unique, would actually be strengthened and in addition, transformations of the one into the other, and above all two given factors in relation to a third would be composed. The point is to find compositional processes of confrontations and mixtures of style - of intermodulations - in which styles are not simply mixed together into a hodge podge, but rather in which different characters modulate each other and through this elevate each other and sharpen their originality. In my opinion, that is the problem since circa 1960, not only in the field of music.
Emphasis mine. Hymnen was composed between 1966 and 1967, which (in my view) was at the tail end of the time when the high arts were still taken seriously by laypeople as a place where genuinely new and interesting things could happen. The problem is of course not the arts themselves, but us, our own stagnancy, but that's its own argument for later.Read more
We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, the dystopic universe of “The Hunger Games,” the places where vampires and zombies prowl: These places are having their day. Yet in spite of the vogue for fantasy fiction, in the finest of literature’s fictional microcosms there is more truth than fantasy. In William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi and, yes, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, imagination is used to enrich reality, not to escape from it.
I never got around to writing about this before (an impending move will knock all thoughts of "getting caught up" clean out of your fool head), but Mr. Rushdie echoes one of my own long-running sentiments with this one. It's not that the vampires, zombies, and hunger games are lesser for being fantastic, but that any of those things can be made greater by dint of a more complete understanding of the world we do have.
It's not the fantastic alone that enthralls us, but the way we connect with an identifiable human being who is also reeling in the face of that fantasy. It's not Middle-earth that enthralls us alone, but the process of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins encountering it. It's not the Death Star, but Luke Skywalker going up against it. Not Panem, but Katniss; not the amusement park, but Chihiro. It's the human that's the most real of all, and real in the most important way.Read more
Steven Savage has talked about Robinson Meyer's piece in The Atlantic about how looking to SF for ideas about the future via things like the Google X lab was a mistake. Steve's piece is worth reading, and he invited me to draft my own response — something I wasn't even sure was possible given how thorough his own essay was. So, while I'll respond on kind, consider this more of a string quartet to his symphony.
The big question I would pose to Meyer would be this: if looking to SF for a vision of the future is a bad idea, can we specify which SF he might be thinking of?Read more