Snow Crash vs Star Trek

“[C]yberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal,” writes Noah Smith (What we didn’t get, Noahpinion). “We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.”

I don’t find that surprising. Cyberpunk writers were looking at ongoing trends and extrapolating about the near future. We are living in that near future.

Considering inequality in the US began growing several decades ago when cyberpunk became a genre, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such inequality would continue to grow and play out within technology itself. And the foundations for present technology were developed in the decades before cyberpunk. The broad outlines of the world we now live in could be seen earlier last century.

That isn’t to downplay the predictions made and envisioned. But it puts it into context.

Smith then asks, “What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?” His answer is that, “Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.”

That question and answer is premature. We haven’t yet fully entered the Star Trek future. One of the first major events from its future history are the Bell Riots, which happen seven years from now this month, but conditions are supposed to worsen over the years preceding it (i.e., the present). Like the cyberpunk writers, Star Trek predicted an age of growing inequality, poverty, and homelessness. And that is to be followed by international conflict, global nuclear war, and massive decimation of civilization.

World War III will end in 2053. The death toll will be 600 million. Scientific research continues, but it will take decades for civilization to recover. It’s not until the 22nd century that serious space exploration begins. And it’s not until later in that century that the Federation is formed. The Star Trek visionaries weren’t starry-eyed optimists offering much hope to living generations. They made clear that the immediate future was going to be as dark or darker than most cyberpunk fiction.

The utopian world that I watched in the 1990s was from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Those two shows portray the world 250 years from now, about the same distance we have to the last decades of the American colonial era. It’s unsurprising that a pre-revolutionary writer might have predicted the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the 18th century, just as unsurprising that he couldn’t have predicted the world we now live in. That is why I would argue it’s premature to say that no further major advancements in science will be made over that time period.

Scientific discoveries and technological developments tend to happen in spurts — progress builds incrementally, which is what makes Star Trek compelling in how it offers the incremental details of how we might get from here to there. We can be guaranteed that, assuming we survive, future science will seem like magic to us, based as it would be on knowledge we don’t yet possess. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were those who predicted that nothing significant was left for humans to learn and discover. I laugh at anyone who makes the same naive prediction here at the beginning of the 21st century.

To be fair, Smith doesn’t end there. He asks, “These haven’t happened yet, but it’s only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?” And he adds that, “we also don’t really have any idea how to start making these things.”

Well, no one could answer what the world will be like in the distant future any more than anyone in the distant past was able to predict the world that has come to pass. Nothing happens yet, until it happens. And no one really has any idea how to start making anything, until someone figures out how to do so. History is an endless parade of the supposedly impossible becoming possible, the unforeseen becoming commonplace. But it is easy to argue that recent changes have caused a rupture and that even greater changes are to come.

Smith goes on to conjecture that, “maybe it’s the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us.” Sure. But no one can be certain one is or is not at the beginning of a tech boom. That can only be seen clearly in retrospect.

If the Star Trek future is more or less correct, the coming half century will be the beginning of a new tech boom that leads to the development of warp drive in 2063 (or something akin to it). And so following it will be an era of distant space travel and colonization. That would be the equivalent of my grandparents generation growing up with the first commercially sold cars and by adulthood, a half century later, experiencing the first manned space flight — there being no way to predict the latter from the former.

As a concluding thought, Smith states that, “We’ll never know.” I’m sure many in my grandparents generation said the same thing. Yet they did come to know, as the future came faster than most expected. When that next stage of technological development is in full force, according to Star Trek’s future historians, those born right now will be hitting middle age and those reaching young adulthood now will be in their sixties. Plenty in the present living generations will be around to know what the future holds.

Maybe the world of Snow Crash we seem to be entering into will be the trigger that sends us hurtling toward Star Trek’s World War III and all that comes after. Maybe what seems like an endpoint is just another beginning.

* * *

About predictions, I am amused by early 20th century proclamations that all or most great discoveries and inventions had been achieved. The belief was that the following century would be limited to working out the details and implementing the knowledge they already had.

People at the time had just gone through a period of tumultuous change and it was hard to imagine anything further. Still, it was a time of imagination, when the earliest science fiction was popularized. Most of the science fiction of the time extrapolated from what was known from the industrial age, from Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution. Even the best predictions of the time couldn’t see that far ahead. And like cyberpunk, some of the predictions that came true in the following decades were dark, such as world war and fighting from the air. Yet it was hard for anyone to see clearly even into the end of the century, much less the century following that.

The world seemed pretty well explained and many felt improvements and progress were hitting up against a wall. So, it would be more of the same from then on. The greater changes foreseen tended toward the social rather than the technological. Otherwise, most of the experts felt certain they had a good grasp of the kind of world they lived in, what was possible and impossible. In retrospect, such confidence is amusing to an extreme degree. The following passage describes the context of that historical moment.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine
by John Higgs
pp. 17-19

It appeared, on the surface, to be an ordered, structured era. The Victorian worldview was supported by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.

The pillars seemed solid. The British Empire would, in a few years, cover a quarter of the globe. Despite the humiliation of the Boer War, not many realised how badly the Empire had been wounded and fewer still recognised how soon it would collapse. The position of the Church looked similarly secure, despite the advances of science. The authority of the Bible may have been contradicted by Darwin and advances in geology, but society did not deem it polite to dwell too heavily on such matters. The laws of Newton had been thoroughly tested and the ordered, clockwork universe they described seemed incontrovertible. True, there were a few oddities that science puzzled over. The orbit of Mercury, for instance, was proving to be slightly different to what was expected. And then there was also the issue of the aether.

The aether was a theoretical substance that could be described as the fabric of the universe. It was widely accepted that it must exist. Experiments had shown time and time again that light travelled in a wave. A light wave needs something to travel through, just as an ocean wave needs water and a sound wave needs air. The light waves that travel through space from the sun to the earth must pass through something, and that something would be the aether. The problem was that experiments designed to reveal the aether kept failing to find it. Still, this was not considered a serious setback. What was needed was further work and cleverer experiments. The expectation of the discovery of the aether was similar to that surrounding the Higgs boson in the days before the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Scientific wisdom insisted that it must exist, so it was worth creating more and more expensive experiments to locate it.

Scientists had an air of confidence as the new century began. They had a solid framework of knowledge which would withstand further additions and embellishments. As Lord Kelvin was reputed to have remarked in a 1900 lecture, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Such views were reasonably common. “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered,” wrote the German-American physicist Albert Michelson in 1903, “and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” The astronomer Simon Newcomb is said to have claimed in 1888 that we were “probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

The great German physicist Max Planck had been advised by his lecturer, the marvellously named Philipp von Jolly, not to pursue the study of physics because “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Planck replied that he had no wish to discover new things, only to understand the known fundamentals of the field better. Perhaps unaware of the old maxim that if you want to make God laugh you tell him your plans, he went on to become a founding father of quantum physics.

Scientists did expect some new discoveries. Maxwell’s work on the electromagnetic spectrum suggested that there were new forms of energy to be found at either end of his scale, but these new energies were still expected to obey his equations. Mendeleev’s periodic table hinted that there were new forms of matter out there somewhere, just waiting to be found and named, but it also promised that these new substances would fit neatly into the periodic table and obey its patterns. Both Pasteur’s germ theories and Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to the existence of unknown forms of life, but also offered to categorise them when they were found. The scientific discoveries to come, in other words, would be wonderful but not surprising. The body of knowledge of the twentieth century would be like that of the nineteenth, but padded out further.

Between 1895 and 1901 H.G. Wells wrote a string of books including The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. In doing so he laid down the blueprints for science fiction, a new genre of ideas and technological speculation which the twentieth century would take to its heart. In 1901 he wrote Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophecy, a series of articles which attempted to predict the coming years and which served to cement his reputation as the leading futurist of the age. Looking at these essays with the benefit of hindsight, and awkwardly skipping past the extreme racism of certain sections, we see that he was successful in an impressive number of predictions. Wells predicted flying machines, and wars fought in the air. He foresaw trains and cars resulting in populations shifting from the cities to the suburbs. He predicted fascist dictatorships, a world war around 1940, and the European Union. He even predicted greater sexual freedom for men and women, a prophecy that he did his best to confirm by embarking on a great number of extramarital affairs.

But there was a lot that Wells wasn’t able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, black holes, postmodernism and so forth. These weren’t so much unforeseen, as unforeseeable. His predictions had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but, “stranger than we can imagine.”



Introverted Delights

I’ve been watching Westworld. It’s my favorite show at the moment. That is saying a lot, considering it’s competition. The second season of The Man in the High Castle is about to come out, based on a novel I love by my favorite fiction writer. And the always entertaining Game of Thrones will be returning soon. But neither of those shows competes with Westworld.

Westworld is popular. But even though it has higher viewer ratings than Game of Thrones, it has much more mixed reviews. It’s such a complex show. The plotlines of Westworld are immensely more complicated than the sprawling narrative world of Game of Thrones. This makes it all the more impressive that it is so popular.

For some people, they see it as too cerebral. I wonder why that is. There is more emotional depth to this show in many ways than a show like Game of Thrones that is focused so much on physical action of fighting, on political machinations and worldly power. The inner experience of Westworld characters is conveyed to a much greater extent. Maybe that is what is difficult for some people, specifically extraverts.

Westworld, despite the outward action and adventure of the virtual world portrayed, is ultimately a show maybe best appreciated by an introvert. So many of the main characters on the show seem rather inwardly drawn and guarded about their most personal experience, which is unusual for mainstream action-oriented sci-fi. The point of the entire show revolves around growing self-awareness and the strengthening of an inner voice, the kind of thing that preoccupies introverts.

Some people wonder what is the point of all the convoluted plotlines, multitudinous cultural references, and in-show commentary of obscure ideas. Also, there is the simultaneous celebration and questioning of genre tropes. Is it embracing “guns and tits and all that mindless shit”? Or is the entire show a criticism of that, an exploration of what it means for our humanity? Maybe both. From my perspective, that just makes the show more interesting. But the basic show can be enjoyed on a much simpler level, even ignoring the sex and violence, as much of the character development is fairly straightforward. The motivation of characters is revealed as the show goes on, assuming enough imagination and curiosity pulls you in to follow the characters on their path of emergence.

The tricky part is that the identities of characters isn’t immediately apparent, only being revealed as their pasts are revealed. This is a slow reveal with glimpses of a murky past gradually coming into focus. The exploration of motivation is a learning experience as much for the characters themselves as for the viewers. We are meant to identify and empathize with the characters as individuals and not merely to be caught up in their actions and relationships with other characters.

This requires of the viewer both patience and immersion, along with suspension of disbelief about the entire fictional world. It’s an act of imaginative speculation taken to an extreme degree, an attempt to bring we the viewers into the borderlands of consciousness and of humanity. Some people have more tolerance than others for that kind of thing, but this is what the best sci-fi is able to achieve. That is what the producers of the Westworld show have been attempting, it being fair game to argue over how well they achieved it. Still, no matter how well done, these themes aren’t exactly of mainstream interest. Most viewers probably just want to see robots revolting and, for those folk, this show does deliver on that promise.

Still, Westworld is constrained by the sub-genre it belongs to. There is a central element of dark mystery and claustrophobic focus that is typical of gritty neo-noir, always leaving certain things unseen and unexplained. Take the slow burn of Blade Runner, exaggerate and complicate it, spread it across an entire show series with no linear plotline or single dominant protagonist, and that is what you get with Westworld. This isn’t a world-building exercise like some traditional fantasy and space operas where every detail is articulated and the background fully described. Everything in the narrative revolves around the characters and about what it means to be human.

This season introduced the individuals and their place in the world. The exploration of the larger world, if it is to happen, will be developed in the next season. The hosts, having gained consciousness, will no longer be trapped in voice commands, character scripts, and narrative loops. The inward focus likely will turn ever more outward, as the hosts try to grasp what kind of world they find themselves in. That is the natural progression of emerging consciousness, whether for a child or an android.

Alternative Visions, Radical Imagination

When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About the Future
by Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic

Over here is Le Guin, taking a stand for science fiction on the grounds that “we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” And over here is Star Wars, showing you more pictures of the Millennium Falcon. So much for Le Guin’s call to elevate creators who know “the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

writing & reading, democracy & despotism 
by Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium

Ursula Le Guin
‘Resistance and change often begin in art’

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The full text of the talk was published in the Guardian; there is also a video of the talk.

Science Fiction and the Post-Ferguson World: “There Are as Many Ways to Exist as We Can Imagine”
by Mary Hansen, YES!

Again, this is why we need science fiction. We often can’t imagine that things could be different because we can’t imagine alternative systems. Ursula LeGuin just gave an incredible speech at the National Book Awards, where she talked about this and said people can’t imagine a world without capitalism. Well, there was a time when people couldn’t imagine a world without the divine right of kings.

But the writers, the visionaries, those folks who are able to imagine freedom are absolutely necessary to opening up enough space for folks to imagine that there’s a possibility to exist outside of the current system.

I think it’s been a concerted effort to erase those possibilities. These systems that we live under are incredibly unnatural. This is not the way we’re supposed to live. It takes indoctrination to get us to a point where we believe that this is the way things should be. When we take a small step outside that, we are able to break that indoctrination and see that this is not the only way, and in fact there are as many ways to exist as we can imagine.



Resurgence of Imagination

My response to Matt Cardin’s response to Damien G. Walter’s response about Arthur Machen:

Beyond just horror, all works of imagination have had an upsurge of popularity: movies, graphic novels; and, within fiction, speculative fiction in general. 

In movies, this can partly be explained by increasingly better special effects and graphic novels have been piggybacking on the superhero movie boom.  In general, I think movies have made accessible realms of imagination that were outside of the norm in the past.  I think the popularity of fantasy fiction is directly linked to the changes in movie-making.  Even someone like Machen probably wasn’t all that popular in the past except amongst the literati.

There are a couple of other reasons that imagination has been let loose. 

First, many of the censorship laws applied to the movie and comic book industries stifled creativity for many decades… or at least forced creativity outside of the mainstream and into the black market.  Comic books such as the Watchmen were direct commentary on this dark period of the American imagination.

Second, I think that imaginative and speculative art in all its forms captures the public attention during times of social upheaval and stress.  The American public has been under great stress this past decade, and it seems the fear-mongering has hit a high point recently.  People want to escape reality and also imagine new possibilities

And my response to Matt Cardin’s interview with Stephen Jones:

This shows a contrasting view to that of your blog post about Arthur Machen.

I generally disagree with the negative view here.  If I remember correctly, more books are being published in larger numbers than ever before in history.  I was peruzing Amazon the other day.  There were tons of books on a wide variety of intellectual topics and there was no lack of such books having been printed in recent years. 

With e-book readers, this book boom will only boom even further.  With an e-book, a person can easily carry around all of the volumes of the massive Oxford dictionary (which in physical form take up an entire bookshelf).  I think, in particular, small presses are going to get an increase of sales as e-book readers become more popular.  Books that have been out of print for decades will soon be available to anyone in the world at cheap costs.

Also, the internet helps the average writer.  The internet makes it easier for writers to interact with other writers and interact with their readers.  And the internet makes it easier for a writer just starting out to get their name and work out there by joining forums and starting their own website.  The internet has introduced me to many new writers including those in the genres of horror and weird fiction.

However, it’s possible my view of reality is too rosy.  I live in a liberal college town (Iowa City) which has the oldest writers workshop and supposedly has the highest per capita in the US of the well educated.  I’m surrounded by bookstores and book-lovers.