... when I took a subway to a café to write this article and electronically transmit it to a distant editor, I was doing something I could have done in New York City in the 1920s, using that same subway, the Roosevelt Brothers coffee shop, and the telegram, albeit less efficiently. (Whether all that efficiency has helped me personally, or just made me work more for declining wages, is an open question). We expect more change than actually happens in the future because we imagine our lives have changed more than they actually have.
Emphasis mine. Such dilemmas manifested, in my case, in the form of questions about what kind of human behavior to depict in a story about the far future. I decided the best thing I could do, in the case of Flight of the Vajra, was not try to predict too much, but instead to do what any decent SF book does: take what we have now and comment on it by using SF as an interpretive filter.
Vajra was already bordering on obsolete, at least in terms of its technical predictions, by the time it came out. Right in the first sec tion, the main character users a disposable personal drone, and the way I wrote it I implied that this sort of thing was a) common and b) something of an arms race between the people who made such things and the people who try to defend against them. This has already happened, so the future in question already starts to look a little quaint. Ditto the way things like 3D printing or self-assembling materials figure into the story as local color and backdrop. All this stuff just seems hopelessly obvious now, and not very boundary-pushing in terms of asking hard questions about what our lives are going to be like in any number of years. (This isn't why I would want to revise the book, either. Rather, that was more around cleaning up the text itself, on a simple mechanical level.)
But then there are all the things that wouldn't change, most of them rooted in deep-seated parts of human nature. Rather than pin my hopes for the story's success on any one technological prediction, I decided the smarter thing to do would be to make the whole thing revolve around human desire: the impulse to move forward versus the urge to cling to what's familiar. That became the real axis for the story.
I don't think I was completely successful there either, but I hope that element of it has a better chance of meaning something to readers later on down the line than tech gimcrackery already dated by the book's release.
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.
OK, I can't help myself here.
For those who just walked in, protomics was the name of the fictional in-universe technology I created for Flight of the Vajra, where various forms of matter have been created that are programmable and malleable. (I started writing that story over three years ago.)
The researchers call the building blocks "catoms" (or "claytronic atoms"), but even the concept as they describe it is fundamentally the same as what I had in mind:
... the researchers hope to use a set of local rules, whereby each catom needs to know only the positions of its immediate neighbors. Properly programmed, the ensemble will then find the right configuration through an emergent process.
... The researchers’ ultimate aim is to create a system of modules the size of sand grains that can form arbitrary structures with a variety of material properties, all on demand.
And at the bottom is this cute scare headline: "Help, My Chair Has a Virus! / Hackers could turn your programmable matter against you." (Yep, that's in the book too.)
I kick myself now for not putting in that patent application ahead of time.
Well, I had a feeling something like this would come along in some form; it didn't have to be as I predicted it, or on anything like the same time scale. I gave it a century or so from "now" before it really took off; I still give it a good long time before it's on the scale I had in mind.
But I have to reiterate that the point of the book wasn't to predict any specific thing or even enumerate how workable a given concept would be. Protomics, the "entanglement drive", the whole far-future¹ setting I devised was just a backdrop for a story about some people who are faced with some very tough choices, whose lives (and the lives of innumerable others) are altered because of that, and who can only see it all through by turning to each other. In the end, the human side of the story had to win, and I hope it did.
Addendum: DARPA has something tangentially related: "Atoms to Product: Aiming to Make Nanoscale Benefits Life-Sized".
¹ I almost typed "fart-future". I almost kept it.
And now, a shout-out. A bunch of them, actually.
If you were one of the folks who stopped by my table at AnimeFest and bought a book: thank you.
If you were one of the folks who stopped by my table at AnimeFest, took a flyer, and bought one of my books online afterwards: thank you.
I received my Amazon Kindle royalty statement this week. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a sign that a few people are interested and curious. I hope they — you — stick around and check out what else I have to offer.
Remember that great interview I gave at the Two Geeks Talking podcast for Flight of the Vajra?
... Go stand in the hall and hold these pails of water.
In all seriousness, I did a podcast interview with the TGT folks and it was great. Now I'm in a fight to come out on top in an Author Vs. Author battle, where all the folks who were interviewed on the show have their fans vote them to the top.
Go here and search on "Flight of the Vajra" to vote. The winner will get, uh, bragging rights and a bunch of good karma*. Those who support me will get even better karma*!
* yes, I know this is a flagrant abuse of the term.
Flight of the Vajra is $1.99 on Kindle through next week.
And the entire first part of the book is available as a Kindle sample freebie.
If you've been on the fence about whether or not to grab it, this is just your excuse.
And if you're still wondering what the book is about, take it from my good friend Steven: "A more responsible version of Tony Stark finds he's got to save the galaxy - and his team consists of a circus acrobat, a futuristic Dali Lama, Jim Gordon, Seven of Nine, and David Bowie."
If that doesn't sell people on it, I have no idea what would.
Last night a friend mentioned he'd discussed Flight of the Vajra with someone at a geek meetup, although the lead-in was a bit oblique.
Other Person: "I don't read long stories as much as I used to."
Friend: "This book has a guy punching another guy in the brain with a city."
Other Person: " . . . what?"
Yes, this sorta-kinda does happen, but it's that the climax of the story, and it's far from being the most important thing that happens in it. But it's become something of a running-gag-explanation for my friend, who drops it in peoples' laps as a way to spark their curiosity about it. He also came up with a great one-liner to describe the book, one which never fails to turn heads: "A more responsible version of Tony Stark has to save the galaxy, and his elite strike team consists of a circus acrobat, the Dalai Lama, Commissioner Gordon, Seven of Nine, and David Bowie." (I'm putting that on cards and using them for my table pitch at the next con.)Read more
One of the better pieces of creative advice I've received is "Look for the cracks in things." Leonard Cohen has a couplet along those lines: there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. But the right way to apply that advice eluded me for a long time.Read more
One thing I've noticed about myself vs. other writers with a Web / social network presence is how much more explicit and candid many of them are about their work while it's still being produced. E.g., Twitter updates about word counts or editing status, or even posting the whole thing to their blog incrementally (my friend Scott Delahunt has been doing this with his Lethal Ladies and Subject 13 projects). I don't think these approaches are bad or wrong, just that I've found that they're not the approaches I prefer to take.Read more
... the reason that it is important to include diverse characters and diverse voices in speculative fiction would be because the assertion “we’re all in this together” is not, in fact, a pure, shining, unimpeachable truth, handed down by the gods of speculative fiction for our enlightenment. The statement “we’re all in this together” is, instead, an ideological presumption which is not supported by most of the extant facts.
I'd put it more this way: "we're all in this together" is a dormant truth, one which can emerge one of two ways: either as an evident fact of life, becuse we are all in fact in the same boat and pulling together; or as a grim specter, in which the connectivity of each to all is expressed despite this and not because of it.Read more