Category Archives: science fiction

Matter

matt

Last week I finished reading Matter by Iain Banks, a book bought years ago from the Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at its launch party. Matter‘s a funny book, like many of the last run of books Banks wrote it could have stood another edit and general tightening up. I’m not sure, exactly what it was all about. The story rumbles along a bit aimlessly, leading us on an interesting tour and taking in some impressive set pieces, before accelerating in the final third of the book towards an explosive, violent and visceral conclusion that’s vintage Banks. But… I’m still not sure what the book was about. There are little threads, little hints of events ‘off camera’, but the book isn’t as tightly plotted as the subtle and superlative Inversions. I don’t think there’s a dark twist hidden from the reader, as some Banks fans have read into The State of the Art.

A recurring theme, nonetheless, is the condition of living in a material universe and the strange absurdities thrown up by the mindless dance of particles. Through one of his characters, Banks offers this reflection on human life and summary of the materialist outlook on the social world:

Most men – and most women, too, no doubt – lived and died under the general weight of the drives and needs, expectations and demands they experienced from within and without, beaten this way and that by longings for sex, love admiration, comfort, importance and wealth and whatever else was their particular fancy, as well as being at the same time channelled into whatever furrows were deemed appropriate for them by those on high.

In life you hoped to do what you could but mostly you did what you were told and that was the end of it.

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Well Burrowed, Old Mole! Reflections on MacLeod’s The Star Fraction

When I first read it at the age of 16, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod was a revelation to me. I was already a voracious reader of Iain (M) Banks, especially of his novels that deal most directly with political concepts such as The State of the Art and The Player of Games. But reading Ken MacLeod was a discovery of a different order of magnitude.  Science-fiction takes ideas more seriously than any other genre. It refuses the conformity of presentism, daring to provoke the human imagination into considering different alternatives about the way that things might be.  But whilst much science-fiction focuses on the technological aspects of alternative futures, The Star Fraction is about the future of History in the ‘capital H’ sense: struggles between ideologies, movements, classes and states.  Ken MacLeod is aware of the fact that politics is not going to disappear, the future will present us with tough choices about our collective destiny. We may not always live long enough to understand the full consequences of those choices – although with the right innovations in biomedical science some of us just might…

'Well burrowed, old mole!'

‘Well burrowed, old mole!’

MacLeod’s introduction to the US version of The Star Fraction has been up for a while over on the blog for the Centre for a Stateless Society. The book is a reflection on a social-scientific, not technological, possibility: that comprehensive central planning is very likely unworkable for micro-economic reasons but capitalism may well be unsustainable for macro-socio-economic reasons. Like a lot of science-fiction, The Star Fraction presents a what-if: ‘What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?’. It’s still a pertinent question to ask.

As MacLeod himself reveals ‘History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine’. The Star Fraction is a work of social-science-fiction written by someone with a subtle understanding of the materialist theory of history, an insider’s knowledge of computing, and first hand experience of the travails of the socialist project. The cyberpunk stylings are mainly there to give the book it’s flechette-gun-volley velocity and impact – as well as to give concrete substance to some humanist worries about whether technology actually needs us in the long-term.

One of the cleverest things about the original The Star Fraction novel is the fragmented system of micro-states imposed on the UK by America’s invasion of Europe. I didn’t realise it when I first read the novel, but the UK’s political system is supposed to be a degenerate and oppressive version of the minimal-state market-anarchist system outlined in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the book ‘actually existing libertarianism’ is imposed externally by a occupying superpower – just as ‘actually existing socialism’ was in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Global financial crises generated by out of control algorithms, flying death-robots killing Islamist terrorists at the behest of the world’s last superpower, fascists in the shadow of the acropolis, grass-roots hackers’ movements releasing gigabytes of diplomatic cables – the world seems more like a MacLeod novel every day. This all reminds me that I really need to get a chance to read Farah Mendelsohn’s edited collection of essays, The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod. I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t able to go the Science-fiction and International Orders seminar, which featured both MacLeod and Chris Brown, at the LSE back in 2011 too.

Why Aren’t we all Singularitarians?

That’s the question being asked over at hnet. Why does belief in the singularity, the imminent exponential acceleration of the development of technology resulting in a post-scarcity age of limitless possibility, remain confined to dedicated enthusiasts?

The answer provided is that the public remain uninterested, unaware and/or sceptical of such notions because 1) the benefits promised by new waves of technology (such as the technology for space travel) proved to be a mirage 2) political, regulatory and cultural factors are inhibiting the development of many promising avenues towards Singularity City.

Call me a know-nothing sceptic, but the fact that space travel, robotics, genetics and – yes – even computers failed to live up to their promise should make us all a bit wary of the idea of an accelerating upward curve of technological development. As brilliantly expressed in Gibson’s short story The Gernsback Continuum, we already live in a world filled with echoes of the shiny utopian visions of yesterday. It’s somewhat ironic that the article expresses a hope that a film of Neuromancer might help shift cultural attitudes, as cyberpunk was an expression of total incredulity towards the optimism invested in the Jetsons-esque imagined futures of the ‘golden age’ of welfare capitalism.

2011 did not look much like this

One reason why many of those who have engaged with singularitarian ideas remain sceptical might be that over the past few decades there have been few technologically induced improvements in the quality of life for the majority of people in the advanced industrialised world. Much heralded discoveries, such as the human genome project, represent major scientific milestones but have produced fewer tangible benefits than expected (in the case of the HGP partially due to the unanticipated complexity of the epigenetic systems that control the expression of genes). 2011 was once envisaged as a time in which the promise of the early developments in cybernetics and biotech would be realised (just as the early C21st was envisaged as an era of space colonisation in the imaginary of the previous era), yet it still looks very much like the past.

This fact is made clear by the lacklustre rate of economic growth experienced in the industrialised world over the last thirty years. Computers and communications technology represent a partial exception. But this wave of technologies have not resulted in the generalised productivity growth associated with electrification or steam-power. They haven’t made transport easier or more rapid, they haven’t yet solved the problem of Baumol’s cost disease (teachers can still only teach effectively approximately the same number of students as they could in the C19th). Of course, robotics, space travel (through communications satellites) and computers are all now essential parts of the way the world economy operates. But all were oversold and none have had the dramatic, positive effects that previous technological shifts had. Indeed, through processes such as outsourcing, many of these technologies have been implicated in shifts which have left those in the industrialised world more insecure and precariously located than they once were.

I’m not actually a complete sceptic when it comes to specific singularitarian ideas. Cybernetics, narrow AI, advanced materials, gene-therapy and gerontological medicine (life extension) are probably going to arrive eventually . These technologies will likely reshape human societies, although in periods measured by ‘historical time’ rather than ‘event time’. But at present, there is as much evidence to suggest that we live in an era of technological stagnation (even whilst we witness dramatic leaps in scientific knowledge) as we do the pre-takeoff phase of a singularity. 

IR and the New Space Opera

Since I’m commenting on posts over at The Disorder of Things, I may as well offer some thoughts on a post on science-fiction and international relations that Pablo K wrote ages ago. Although the post is pretty old, it didn’t attract much comment at the time. I would have written a comment, but I didn’t have this soapbox back then and now I do.

I think Pablo K and I are coming from quite radically different directions, unfortunately. I don’t, for example, think that using science-fiction as an inspiration for developing counterfactuals and for systematic thinking about large-scale social change is an unworthy pursuit. I agree that it’s an error to mistake ‘things that give us pleasure [for] things which matter to the study of world politics’,  but the use of the term ‘fanboy identification’ does speak of a certain literarian snobbery. My suspicions are likewise raised by a statement like ‘Star Trek similarly embodies much of the technological determinism that literary types find so vulgar’. Is the shiver of disgust here ironic or is the writer really trying to denigrate as baseborn and common the belief that technological change influences social change?

I’m not sure. But the real problem with the article is not that it doesn’t share my own perspective, but that I’m not really sure how familiar Pablo K is with science-fiction. Who on Earth claims that Alfred Bester ‘hardly counts as SF at all’ in the view of many sf enthusiasts?

To unpick one misunderstanding in detail, the post describes Star Trek as hard science-fiction, presumably because it features space-ships and teleporters and so on. This is incorrect, hard science-fiction is usually defined by the conformity of events in the narrative to the laws of physics as they are understood. The plot is driven by problems which are largely scientific and technical in nature. This doesn’t describe Star Trek to any great degree. Science and technology in the franchise are largely rationalised in terms of technobabble and serve as devices to advance plots which focus on human relationships, moral quandries and philosophical puzzles. In fact I’d go as far as to say that Star Trek the Next Generation is a great example of soft science-fiction, with its prioritisation of anthropological, social and ethical issues over hard science. Mind-melds, a robot who want to have emotions, an empathic counsellor, a Traveller who can navigate space with his mind, aliens who only communicate through metaphor… and barely a Lorenz transformation in sight! Nor is Star Trek technologically determinist (as if there was anything wrong with that!) – indeed how can it be if other technologically similar civilisations are so different in the series? So the dichotomy being established here doesn’t work, the popular science-fiction series given as an example is on the wrong side!

The misunderstandings continue as the article goes on, with the author conflating the hard/soft distinction with the low-brow/high-brow distinction. This is in error: both hard and soft science fiction are generally both relatively highbrow elements of the sfverse. The lower-brow or more mainstream science-fiction gets the more it sheds both the hallmarks of hard sf, scientific verisimilitude, and soft sf, attention to the interior life of protagonists and complex socio-cultural milieu. In the end we reach the stage occupied by weaker entries in the Star Wars franchise, which are essential space fantasy (although sadly lacking the mythic resonances of the original films) with sfnal tropes like space ships and blasters. This is where we get ‘gun battles and car chases… now merely transposed to an astral register’. Fun if executed well, but not deserving of sustained attention. In this the author and I are probably close to agreement.

But Star Wars isn’t the be all and end all of space opera, which the author is probably thinking of when he talks about his phantom category of mainstream/hard science-fiction. Indeed, it’s pretty surprising that the post doesn’t mention anything from the new wave of space opera which has emerged over the past twenty years, which has integrated many of the concerns of hard sf, soft sf and cyberpunk. Grittier than its predecessors and free of the transposed jingoism of much older space opera, the new space opera has combined a concern with the implications of technology with an exploration of philosophical and political questions, and the inner-worlds of realistic, three-dimensional protagonists. Gender, identity, the legitimacy of intervention and terrorism, the nature of mind, socialisation and human nature, inequality, religion and ideology – all are addressed by luminaries of the new space opera such as Banks, MacLeod, Stross, Simmons and Williams.

For this reason, I don’t think an engagement with sf has to be limited to the approach suggested near the end of Pablo K’s article. Yes, science-fiction can be analysed by cultural archaeologists to provide insights into the hopes, fears and beliefs extant within wider society. But following such reflective and autobiographical route actually blocks off some of the radicalism of good science-fiction, the radicalism of science itself and the realisation that we are biological beings who live on a planet orbiting a star in a vast universe, fated to make out own collective future. It is this radical insight which many in the humanities flinch from, seeking to return to comforts of anthropocentrism, but which the best science-fiction, exemplified in hard, soft, cyberpunk and the new space opera, addresses with verve, intelligence and imagination. Here international relations has a great deal to learn.