Ideas of immortality, old and new, re-examined.
An article on the way Buddhism and science intersect on certain key issues features this line: "Unlike Christ, who promises eternal life, the last words of the Buddha reportedly began, 'Decay is inherent in all things.'"
It's timely and appropriate that I came across this piece right around the same time I started reading Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, that man's philosophical treatise on the collision between the romantic impulse to live forever and the grim certainty that eternal life is more of an idea than it can ever be a reality, and how that collision is vital to human life and not an obstacle to it.
Why great SF has typically been cautionary and not just visionary.
... Lem preferred to depict societies bogged down by excess information and technology. “Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea,” he writes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice, “because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors … ?” This observation rings eerily true today, but Lem wasn’t only trying to critique modern society. He wanted to imagine what the future might actually be like.
The reason why SF has traditionally trafficked in a cautionary view of the future is as a corrective to human hubris. I don't think having a positive, actionable vision of the future necessarily results in a positive, actionable future: you might bring to life some of the artifacts of that vision, but the vision itself is just that: a vision, not real.
Plus, once a vision leaves your hands, it's not yours anymore; it can be turned against its original conceit and wrenched out of its original context as easily as it can be deployed.
A peek at the Hieroglyph, up close.
io9 (which I normally don't read) just posted an extract from one of the stories in Hieroglyph -- "By the Time We Get To Arizona," by Madeline Ashby -- and it looks intriguing -- just edgy (I hate that word, but whatever) enough to be skeptical, and just curious enough to be optimistic. If the rest of the anthology is in the same vein, then I'll be making a meal of my previous words with a side order of crow and a helping of Werner Herzog's boiled shoe leather.
Most of my skepticism -- read: cynicism -- about the project revolves around the way technical achievements are too often by themselves taken as prima facie evidence of progress. To wit: a concept for the tallest tower on earth, one which could serve as a launch platform for sending objects into space. A discussion of something like that needs to be fully rounded: the labor issues, the dangers involved, where to put the thing in the first place -- and in a tone that's more thoughtful than "you can't make a future omelet without breaking a few present-day eggs", or something to that effect. We always need to ask where our future comes from and what cost we're willing to pay for it, and I don't just mean long green.
I've ordered the book and will be diving into it over the coming week.
Yet more on 'Hieroglyph' and a better future for all who can afford it.
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.
On 'Hieroglyph', take two.
Some follow-up notes on my earlier post about Hieroglyph.
First off, I'm just as fed up as anyone else is with SF as a "wet blanket", as someone else put it. I do not believe the point of SF is to talk obsessively and commiseratively about how much the future is going to suck.
But I also don't think the point of SF is to talk about how great the future would be if only we invented this or that. The two are, I think, manifestations of the same mindset at different extremes. One is naïve optimism; the other, naïve cynicism.
There's a middle way between those two that combines both vision and skepticism, and very little such SF has ever been produced. I would further wager that very little of it will ever be produced (Sturgeon's Law), because of the gravitational pull that both extremes exert on someone trying to walk that path.
I should not have made it seem like I did not want a project like Hieroglyph to be produced at all, only that I'm skeptical of how useful it'll be if it amounts to little more than a shill for a bunch of things that haven't been sold yet.
ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Regarding Cory Doctorow - I apologize for the acid tone of my earlier statements about his work. That said, I still plan to read the book and see how his work and everyone else's holds up in the light of what I mentioned. I'd honestly like to have my gut feelings proven wrong here.
Why an anthology of techno-positivist SF raises hackles with me.
Word reached my ears recently of a new anthology, Hieroglyph, in which a whole gaggle of SF authors have been called upon to produce bright, shiny, optimistic, smiley-faced visions of the future instead of the dystopian grimdark gloomndoom nowayout stuff crowding the shelves. The way they put it is "optimistic, technically-grounded science fiction stories depicting futures achievable within the next 50 years":
"Why do we end up with the technologies we do? Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it's Harry Potter, right? That's where they saw it," he says. "Why are people interested in hand-held devices that allow you to diagnose diseases anywhere in the world? Well, that's what Mr Spock can do. Why can't we?"
The first thing I notice about this whole endeavor is the emphasis on the technical and the technological. Well, that's SF for you, right? Yes, but only in part.
On standing on the shoulders of giants, but only to jump free.
Capping off a splendid encomium to Jack Kirby, this graf:
I can’t help but feel saddened and depressed by the notion that the greatest feeling in the world is sniveling at the feet of monolithic corporations for the privilege of aping people you admire, for twisting their work and motivations, for doing things counter to the way they would. It’s much more fulfilling and important to leave You-shaped holes in the world. Don’t crawl through the Jack Kirby-shaped ones. Build your own pyramids; building someone else’s leaves you nothing with nothing but a bad back and sore feet.
Why stop at comics when talking about this? It applies no less to other franchises that had a spark of greatness in them once but have since been bricked up inside their own legacy (Star Trek, Star Wars) and that now survive only by being fed the blood of the next generation of creators.
This page contains an archive of posts in the category Science Fiction Repair Shop for the month of September 2014.
Other Lives Of The Mind