The Purpose of Speculative Fiction

April 28th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Misc, Rant, SciFi, Society, writing

I honestly started this with the intention of writing about Google Analyzer, but by the time I got to the end, I realized that I was talking about something else altogether. So I apologize for any meandering or lack of structure, but at the same time hope that you enjoy it.

It seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking about information overload, if not here, then in comments and other miscellaneous places. My take on it is that the human brain is an excellent filtering device – every instant that we are conscious, we filter out a good deal of sensory information. This isn’t a bad thing, as the alternative would be paralysis due to a tidal wave of trivia, and after all, it happens on a subconscious level, so we are never even aware of it.

Why does this matter? Because, much of technology today is all about bringing us more information, not necessarily better information. Take the internet, if you break it down, it’s probably something like 75% porn, 24.9% other irrelevant crap, and .1% useful information. That we can get anything useful out of it is in itself a wonder. We are in a process, however, of increasing the amount of raw data that we have access to, mainly through things like cheap cameras and automatic recording systems (every time you purchase something with a credit card, it creates a massive paper trail, or rather, data trail, it is only a matter of time before we do that for everything). This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does stem from the way we approach technology.

Currently, if you want to solve a computational problem, you simply throw processing power at it until you solve it. Very little resources are spent trying to improve the process, only trying to ensure that Moore’s Law will continue to hold true. So how do you improve the process? I’m not precisely sure. Improving processes is something that happens in non-intuitively connected leaps, and as such is something that is difficult to focus on. What I can say, though, is that the one area that will always pan out is basic research. By this I mean research that isn’t meant to solve a specific problem, that isn’t there to create a product, stuff that simply says, “we need to know more about . . .” and goes from there. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the more basic the question, the more we will have to be creative to answer it (read the analogy of the cave a couple of times and you’ll understand). The second is that Descartes was right, from every premise comes other premises. Every time you learn something new, when you connect it to the rest of your world-view, you can learn even more.

Unfortunately, it seems that basic research is not exactly a priority. Who would have said, a hundred years ago, that man would make it to the moon only to lose interest? Why don’t we have more large colliders? The list of questions is endless. Unfortunately, it seems that our curiosity as a species has been smothered by bureaucracy and self-interest (which is another discussion altogether, I’m afraid). I am hopeful, though, that our curiosity can and will be rekindled (as the alternative is extinction). The reason that I say this is that so long as people ask “what if?”, so long as people continue to read (or otherwise experience) speculative fiction, there will always be hope.

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19th century solution to a 21st century problem?

August 21st, 2007  |  Published in News, Politics, Rant, Society

“Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Democrats, promoting 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. If you don’t like it, ride a bike. If you don’t like the price at the pumps, ride a bike.”

Patrick McHenry (R – North Carolina)

So I ran across this quote earlier today over at Bike Portland, and even though I usually don’t do the whole political thing (I don’t particularly like either party), as a cyclist I needed to comment on this. The rest of his speech is available at his site, but basically he is saying that spending $1 million to promote cycling is a waste of money. There are a lot of things I want to say about this, but I’ll just list a couple here.

First, how is promoting a means of transportation that is cheaper, easier on the environment, reduces traffic congestion, and helps to promote a healthy lifestyles a bad thing? Even if you only agree with a couple of those reasons, do you really think that $1 million is too much to spend? Why?

Second, I would argue that getting from point A to point B despite scarcity of resources is as much of a 11th century problem as a 21st century problem. By his argument, you could say that building homes is a 21st century problem (after all, we are doing it now, and it is the 21st century). Does that mean that nails, screws, and simple machines are no longer adequate?

Keep in mind that I am not saying that cycling is the final solution to our energy problems, it isn’t. But it is part of the solution, and given the advantages, spending some money to encourage it is a reasonable course of action.


August 2nd, 2007  |  Published in Misc, Rant, Society, writing

The other day, I was reading the interview with author Sandra McDonald over at ficlets, and she mentioned an article, The Social Life of Paper.  So I Googled it.  Interesting paper, you should read it, but thats not what I’m writing about here.  If you follow the link, you might notice that the sidebar has a link to this article, titled The Formula, with the subtext: What if you built a machine to predict hit movies?  I haven’t read the article yet, but the subtext is what fascinated me.

I would bet the author was talking about scientifically analyzing movies and creating a formula for predicting popularity.  I, naturally, thought of actual prediction (think precogs, like in The Minority Report).  This would be an amazing development, being able to predict the future, and one needn’t think to long to think of how it could change the world for the better (imagine being able to predict crop failures, for example).  Thats not how it would work, though.  Instead, companies would use this potentially revolutionary technology to predict whether Scream 13 will be a big hit.  After all, how much money are we throwing at hair loss and erectile dysfunction?

Just something to think about.

William Gibson Interview

July 26th, 2007  |  Published in Misc, Rant, writing

So I just read an interesting interview with William Gibson over at Amazon (through Boing Boing where he talks, among other things, about the effect of Google on the writing process.  One of the things he said that Google has its limits as a distraction because “You’re still really inside some annotated version of your own head.”  I thought this was interesting, especially coming from him.  I had originally hit this wall, back in the late nineties, where I just couldn’t  think of anything new to search for, and I’ve sort of been in that place ever since, only searching for things once they have already come up somewhere else.

This all changed for me when I discovered RSS, which basically allows me to aggregate a few dozen sites and read truly massive amounts of information.  So what I was originally going to say was that I disagree with Gibson on this one, but the more I think about it, the more unsure I am.  I mean, I subscribe to sites that I’m interested in, so its still sort of the same thing, just extended a bit.  Now I’m living, informationwise at least, in an extended annotated version of my own head, bringing in other peoples interests as well.  But how different are those people from me?  Probably not a whole lot.  So where am I?

Genre Rant

July 12th, 2007  |  Published in Rant

I was listening to episode 20 of Adventures in Scifi Publishing the other day, featuring an interview with author Kay Kenyon, and I need to comment on some of the things that she said. Just to be clear this isn’t about the podcast itself, which I love, but about the opinions of the guest. Enough of that, on with my thoughts.

In the interview, Kenyon expressed the opinion that Science Fiction sales are dropping relative to Fantasy sales because Science Fiction, as a genre, inherently challenges the readers world-view whereas Fantasy inherently comforts it. She went on to say that Fantasy can rise above, as has been done by authors such as Justina Robson (Keeping it Real- a fantastic book, read it if you have not already). Basically, she is saying that Fantasy is escapist (it is also worth noting that the examples that she gives for the Genre being “as engaging” as Science Fiction are authors whose books have Science Fiction elements in them).

As someone who enjoys reading and writing both Science Fiction and Fantasy, I find this, for lack of a better word, offensive. Both genres are capable of being either comforting or challenging. The genre has more to do with the setting of a story than anything, and I would argue that how challenging a book is has more to do with the author than the genre. Another way of looking at it is that the point of view which Kenyon is expressing sounds a lot like the stereotypical Literary Fiction vs. Science Fiction snobbery, which basically argues that almost all Scifi is escapist. In addition, anyone who thinks that Fantasy is incapable of challenging the reader should read L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluse Saga.

Escapism is an interesting concept in and of itself. All fiction (including other mediums such as TV and cinema) is inherently escapist, after all the readers are immersing themselves in what amounts to an imaginary world, all that differs between stories is the degree of escapism. This brings up the question about what is so bad about escapism anyway (I have to credit Michael Stackpole with this, as I had never considered it until he mentioned it on one of his podcasts, probably The Secrets)? Everyone needs to escape at some point, and as far as escapes go, few would argue that fiction is worse than alcohol and drugs (which isn’t to say that there isn’t a limit to its usefulness).

Finally, I’d like to say that the different elements, whether they are from Fantasy or Science Fiction are just tools to help tell a story, thats it. Cory Doctorow has said that Science fiction is more about the present than it will ever be about the future, and I think that the same can be said about all fiction. That is not to say that it might be easier for different genres to deal with different issues (they are different tools, after all), but I don’t see any benefit to trying to figure out which one is the best. Just write the story, using whatever elements make sense for you, what the reader gets out of it is up to the reader. Every word that is spent dismissing another form of fiction or medium is a word wasted.