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June 15, 2011

Filed under: fiction»brainjuice

Peak Everything

In her review of Embassytown, Ursula Le Guin makes a lovely point about the genre and its critics:

Some authors fill a novel with futuristic scenery and jargon and then strenuously, even stertorously, deny that it's science fiction. No, no, they don't write that nasty stuff, never touch it. They write literature. Though curiously familiar with the tropes and conventions of the despised genre, they so blithely ignore the meaning of terms, they reinvent the wheel with such cries of self-admiration, that their endeavours seem a doomed effort to prove that one can write a novel without learning how. ... Only the trash forms of science fiction are undemanding and predictable; the good stuff, like all good fiction, is not for lazy minds. Where the complexity of realistic novels is moral and psychological, in science fiction it's moral and intellectual; individual character is seldom the key.
To put it another way, good science fiction is often sociological literature, as opposed to psychological. It is, as the argument goes, more about the concerns of the present than about any predicted future. And as Mieville himself has written, it lends itself to radical political thinking precisely because it jettisons the most basic bounds of possibility. That's a powerful tool, as Sam Thompson's review in the London Review of Books explains.

Lately I've been wondering if, after the genre gets over its twin infatuation with steampunk and the undead, we're due for another round of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. There's certainly cause for it--global warming, outbreaks of E. coli and bird-flu, and of course, worries over peak oil. The last is something I find particularly intriguing. Could we call it "peak everything?"

Peak oil, of course, is the theory that A) there's a limited amount of petroleum that can be extracted from the earth within our current geological span of existence, and B) we will soon pass, or have already passed, the point where we have extracted all the easy-to-find oil. That means it'll be increasingly expensive to run a petroleum economy--possibly too expensive. We'll have to find alternatives, or suffer serious political and economic consequences.

Peak everything, by extension, would be based on the idea that oil isn't the only exhaustible resource on which our industrialized society is based. Modern electronics are manufactured using a variety of rare materials like coltan, and they aren't inexhaustible (not to mention that they're mined from conflict areas, making their supply prone to disruption). The plastics used in packaging and components are petroleum-based. And some things that are technically renewable, like oil, might turn out to be refreshed at a rate so slow as to be non-renewable. In response, we'd have to drastically change our manufacturing and consumption, which would ripple through unpredictable parts of society: our labor economies, our politics, our communications, and our urban planning, just for a start.

Whether or not this is scientifically feasible, I don't know. It's largely irrelevant anyway, given the genre's loose relationship to its namesake discipline. Charlie Stross, for example, has written regularly about the impossibility of certain genre tropes--this post on the impracticality of interplanetary travel is a great example. Let's not even get started on things like telepathy, artificial intelligence, or functional libertarian governments. Eco-fiction, like other genre settings, is a tool for exploring more than just scientific theory.

But even if we don't see "peak everything" as a subgenre on the rise, I've enjoyed thinking about it this week when reflecting on my own life. After all, how much of a typical American lifestyle could be maintained if we imposed a strict renewables-only requirement? Would we see more bespoke manufacturing, more user-serviceable parts encased in renewable materials like wood and bone? Would we learn to value beautiful patterns of wear over shiny newness?

Despite what seems like obvious potential, I've only read one novel recently that really played with the idea of rampant resource depletion: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi sets the book in Thailand after the oceans rise and the oil economy runs down: coiled springs are revived as the main method of energy storage, and biotech is used as an imperfect replacement for now-defunct technology. I wouldn't say that The Windup Girl was one of my favorite books this year--it drags a bit, and some of its characterization is patchy--but I loved its willingness to interrogate contemporary economic breakdown without simply veering abruptly into Mad Max caricature. For a genre where "anything's possible," that kind of clarity is a bit too rare--and all too necessary.

May 1, 2007

Filed under: fiction»brainjuice

Humor in Uniform

Add this one to the bad signal file: while commenting on a BoingBoing story about the shutdown of Cryptome.org, Teresa Nielsen Hayden mentions this oddity:

You know, I haven't thought of this in years, but some while back I got into a conversation with a guy on a train (or maybe we were in a bar; I don't recall) who said he had an intelligence background, and sounded like the real thing. (The real thing is distinctive. I've talked to other guys who genuinely did have intelligence backgrounds. Nobody else sounds like them.)

Anyway, what this guy said was that Reader's Digest has deep old connections with the intelligence community, and that they use it to launch ideas and articles they want to have in circulation. I have to say that Cryptome.org isn't the sort of thing I expect to see written about in Reader's Digest.

I expect there's nothing to it.

Whether or not it's true, I find the juxtaposition captivating. Maybe it's just the mundanity of the outlet--which, admittedly, is the point. I used to read my great-grandfather's large-print copies of Reader's Digest as a kid. The idea that some of it was a form of propaganda or an under-the-radar public influence campaign is so deliciously paranoid that it almost circles back around to plausibility.

September 7, 2006

Filed under: fiction»brainjuice

Resistance Is Character Forming

For those who have not had the pleasure of Iain M. Banks' fine Culture novels (what is wrong with you), one of my favorite bits is the ridiculous names that the AI-piloted ships give themselves. Wikipedia, as always a fine guide to geek culture if not for anything else, has a complete list sorted by novel. Some particularly good examples are the "Nuisance Value," the "Frank Exchange of Views," the "Stranger Here Myself," and the "Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality."

December 16, 2005

Filed under: fiction»brainjuice

Meathook Remix

Reflections on a USB/Gamecube/PS2/Dreamcast adapter from Lik-Sang.

The day that the United States crashes, falls apart like the last soggy bits of overcooked fish fillet, I am in a dingy African apartment, watching a young man (who tells me to call him "James Brown" since I cannot possibly pronounce his real name) neurotically twist-tie hundreds of cables into place. The cables wrap around a huge wire structure in the middle of the room. From the back, it is like grey, barren ivy devouring a trellis. From the front, the cables are barely visible. They are hidden behind row upon row upon column upon column of Dreamcasts, a huge wall of obsolete gaming bliss, each glowing orange triangle forming a grid of cheery apostrophes.

"Now look," James says, as he finishes the last cable tie and emerges around to my side of the white wall. An old laptop stands on a milkcrate, hooked into the cables. There's a blinking Linux prompt on the screen. James runs ps, looks at a list of bizarrely named programs, nods to himself, and then types:

oasis

All those orange status lights flicker at the same time as the Dreamcasts load a fat chunk of code. Fans kick in as they digest it. And then, as the laptop screen clears, every LED in the wall begins to blink in a pattern, forming a seemingly random binary display. "This," says James, "is the farming database for three towns. Now they will manage their crops, check sale prices from their homes. They will be more efficient." On the bed, his girlfriend yawns and turns the page of a cheap fashion magazine.

I scribble in my notebook. Earlier that day James showed me the "computers" that the farmers will use when they "dial in" to the cluster of networked Sega hardware. To my surprise, they are not cased in plastic and resin but in wooden boxes, carefully carved and heavy. Opening one reveals a mish-mash of parts--a hand-soldered breadboard, a DVD drive with the PS2 logo still on the front, a Palm VIII with the backplate missing and the antenna wired to chunks of circuitry I can't identify (though they are vaguely familiar). An old IBM Presario keyboard plugs into the front. I write:

remix culture vs. grim meathook

James tells me that all of the parts came from overseas friends who went dumpster-diving, or bought the technology in bulk on eBay. Some of it is likely stolen, but none of it is really worth anything, so no serious effort was made to catch the thieves. "You throw so much away," he says, shaking his head. "And what did you need it for in the first place?" I ask him if he had heard about the initiatives from a few years back, to create cheap, wireless, hand-cranked laptops for developing economies, and James laughs. "Why would we want that?" he asks. "What would we use them for? To look on the Internet, measure how poor we are?"

I have no idea where to go with this. I just find my train of thought running somewhere along these lines nowadays. The Grim Meathook Future is (c) 2005 Josh "No Relation to Warren" Ellis.

Future - Present - Past