Tag Archives: fiction

Too Like The Lightning

Ada Palmer, 2016, Tor

I have been looking forward to this ever since I heard that it was a medium-future science fiction novel written in the style of an eighteenth century conte philosophique, two of my favourite literary forms. (Medium-future as in a couple of centuries from now, between near-future, which is decades away, and far-future, which is your Olaf Stapledon or Stephan Baxter stuff when humans have evolved into moonbats or the universe is running down and the sun’s turned into a cannonball.) It’s such an ambitious book — the narrator is describing a twenty-sixth century world which is several technological marvels and a world political revolution distant from our own, but is doing so from another imagined future perspective, after it’s all changed again. This doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it to, particularly in the book’s treatment of gender: I felt like Terra Ignota’s conventions were not well-established enough before the narrator starts poking holes in them. But I forgave this for the fact that it’s a future history which is about radical social change. (Altered Carbon, which I was looking forward to after seeing people rave about it on Twitter, is a depressing example of how lame most sf is: the hero wakes up after 250 years and nothing seems to have changed except that the rich are meaner. Everything’s still a shopworn cyberpunk dystopia which, let’s be completely honest, was always just Chinatown as seen by a scared white kid.)

The other thing to point out is that the book comes with an in-universe title page, rather lovingly done in imitation of the sorts of eighteenth century books it’s emulating, complete with content warnings from the relevant organisations. Most of the text on this page is incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book and got your head around the very different political structure of its future world, but the content warnings themselves are straightforward, accurate, and should be taken very seriously. It’s an easy book to spoil, and I don’t want to do that, except to warn you that there aren’t many novels where I’ve read certain pages and then had to make a conscious decision whether I wanted to keep reading it in the morning.

I’m glad that I did. Palmer has created something quite unique and exciting, which reminds me of a bunch of authors I never thought to see yoked together. She acknowledges her debts to Asimov and Bester with a couple of sly references, and the portrayal of an utopian society about to unearth social forms which it has buried or obscured reminded me of Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man stories, in content if not in style. And, most unexpectedly, the baroque characterisation made me think of R A Lafferty, who is not an author I ever expected to compare to anyone.

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You Should Come With Me Now

M John Harrison, 2017, Comma Press

The first collection of Harrison’s short fiction since Things That Never Happen in the early noughties. I think it would make a very good introduction if you haven’t read him.

One way of looking at fantasy and sf is that they are about incursion. Something new, wonderful and frightening, enters the character’s world. Often it’s an obvious metaphor, especially in popular forms, for sex or the racial other, bureaucracies both private and public, but leave that aside for a moment and think about the seam between the fantastic and the real. Although even “seam” is too literal. I was fascinated, as a child, by the way in which you could distinguish the background painting from the animated figures in a cartoon, not just because the latter were moving, but because of their texture or grain. In the literature of the English-speaking world, we have strict border patrols between genres which do this and those which don’t, and even in those forms when the fantastic is permitted, there are a lot of conventions about how and in what way it manifests itself, about how the imaginary or the impossible is allowed to be imagined or narrated. It’s these, as much as the repetition of props and tropes, which can make genre fiction so dull even if you aren’t prejudiced against it.

One of the things I admire about Harrison is how he handles this disjunction, always with originality, with a kind of offhand deliberation that evades the usual rituals. Sometimes by making a liminal zone apparently explicit, like the first journey to the land of Autotelia, the focus of some of the longer stories in this collection: it’s literally referred to as “transition” by a guard announcing it on the train journey, but the standard lecture from either narrator or character, guided tours on the reader’s journey into strangeness, is absent. The verisimilitude of piled-up facts, internally consistent details and clever extrapolations is abandoned — it’s good to see that Harrison’s anger at worldbuilding is still burning bright, in the vignettes about the sordid and comical lives of the royal family of Elfland — what we get in exchange is something more valuable, in which the journey to an imaginary land takes on the unspoken and strange qualities of the boundaries (of work, home, between social roles) which we cross countless times every day.

Autotelia, like the city of Viriconium from earlier in Harrison’s career, is more convincing for being unexplained and multivalued. To me it echoes something of the relationship between England and continental Europe and between the developed world and its former colonies, while not being a literal metaphor for either of these. (For the fans: yes, there is a Viriconium story in the collection, and it’s a good one.)

There are a few novellas, many short stories and a number of even shorter pieces of fiction, which made their first appearances on Harrison’s blog. A bunch of terms occurred to me for these, the chummy old sf label “short-short”, “parable” or “epigram” or “microfiction”, but none of these seem suitable. Even the ones which at first glance are parodies of sf/f clichés, like the Elfland stories or “Earth Advengers”, have got something more disquieting and interesting happening if you pay attention.

The collection’s title is apt: not so much an invitation as a warning, with the implication that there’s no time to waste, and no promise of comfort. For a sample, here’s one of the stories in full: “The Crisis”

Ursula K Le Guin

1929-2018

One of my resolutions this year was to be a bit more alive to coincidence, which is the only sort of magic I believe in. And then two of my favourite artists, Ursula Le Guin and Mark E Smith of The Fall, leave within a day of one another. (I imagine the universe saying, sardonically, “don’t say I never give you nothing.”)

There are more weird symmetries here. I discovered both Le Guin and the Fall when I was in high school but really went into overdrive about them when I was at uni. With both there was a long fallow period in my thirties when I turned away from them. And I’ve lately shared my love of them with two of my three kids, one per twin. I was going to put both in the one blog post, but this one got too big, so Mark E will have to wait.

After I gave my daughter the Earthsea quartet for a birthday a few years ago, she got me to admit that I had never read The Left Hand of Darkness, so I read it while she was studying it for the HSC last year, and one memory of 2017 which will stay with me is the regular idea-bouncing/ranting/fangirling sessions we had while I cooked dinner on Wednesday evenings.

I don’t mind that I came to Left Hand late. Calvino says that there are classics you should put aside so that you can read them for the first time as an adult, not that I did this deliberately, but there are lots of aspects of the novel which I would have taken for granted when I was younger. It’s justly famous for its interrogation of gender, but that aside, Gethen is one of the most detailed and convincing planets in science fiction, and the gender themes are only one aspect of its portrayal of a relatively advanced human civilisation on a planet locked in an ice age, where politics has taken different but still familiar directions than it has on Earth. The book is a subtle example of the sort of modernist collage which I think comes from John Dos Passos, of weaving in-universe documents into the text, not as obtrusively as John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar but just as effectively.

Last year I also re-read the first four Earthsea books, and didn’t quite find myself as swept away as I was at thirteen or fourteen, but that’s to be expected, and I still love them. Far more imaginative than the average high fantasy setting, and they contain as rich a description of mortality as anything I’ve read in science fiction and fantasy. One of my abiding memories of my adolescent reading of the books is that they made me aware of death in a way which I hadn’t before, as something at once intimate and distant. Mortality is one of the weak spots of both sides of the conjoined genre of sf&f; science fiction, in particular, tends to see death as either a bug which can be hacked, or the occasion for some Picard platitudes about how it makes us truly human. There are elements of the latter in Le Guin but I think she goes beyond that into something visionary. The Dry Land is not exactly a place of consolation.

Another good thing about the Earthsea books which I missed as a kid is that each of them is a separate novel, with its own register and style. In most of the high fantasy I’ve read, each text is a section of one large book, which in recent times threatens to outrun the ability and lifespan of the author. Each of the Earthsea books shows us its world and characters from a perspective which is distinctive and appropriate to the nature of the story. This is most apparent in Tehanu, published twenty-odd years after the first three, and a breathtakingly good feminist interrogation of high fantasy in general, but it’s already evident in the first three books.

I haven’t read either The Dispossessed or The Lathe of Heaven since I was a student: I think I’ll make time for both soon. The latter is a bit underrated, I remember it as a witty and frightening satire of utopian thought, mingled effectively with a meditation on dreaming.

I look back over what I’ve written here and it feels like I’ve used chatter about technique to obscure how I felt when I found out that Le Guin had died. My kids are overseas, at the tail end of a month-long holiday with their mum and stepdad to celebrate the end of the HSC, and the thought of my daughter finding out that Le Guin had died when we were apart made me cry uncontrollably. I made a joke about this on Twitter and Facebook, but now that I’m trying to write about how it made me feel with a bit more honesty, I feel dried up. They’re coming home tomorrow, and I may be better able to express it after that. Or that this flat sadness, which I trust will also pass, is not something which I’m capable of expressing.

Look, there’s also this: ever since I learned that Joyce died in 1941 I’ve had a kind of obsession with people whose lives end in the middle of great events, it seems like a peculiarly touching aspect of how our lives work within history. The idea that Le Guin is unable to see how the current moment in the United States works out is one of the things that made me sob, but she was more far-sighted than that, and her works are one of the things that give me courage: that much which they may tear down can be rebuilt, that it took utopian dreams to build it in the first place.

Speculative Execution

Speculative execution is not exactly how thought works, it’s how you work without thinking about it. When philosophers talk about determinism versus free will, they treat the brain as if it were a black box with memory and sensory perceptions going in and actions coming out, with a clear sequence of causality from the first to the last. For the determinists, this is enough. For those who believe in free will, there’s an extra something special added at some point — the Soul, some kind of quantum magic going on in the synapses, whatever sort of swerve away from clockwork perfection seems convincing this decade — but it’s just another station on a linear progression.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience undermine all of this because the brain doesn’t work like a black box. Without your noticing, it’s continually second-guessing and anticipating in all sorts of different ways. Your visual field is not the beautiful and transparent 360-degree spherical sensorium, God’s own VR headset, that you think it is: it’s a little dot of fine-detailed vision in constant motion with the gaps filled in by how your visual centres have come to assume that the world works. You anticipate what other people are about to say; your own words come tumbling out of your mouth without any conscious composition. The mind isn’t some Cartesian homunculus behind your eyes, marshalling inputs and emitting appropriate commands like some idealised 18th century lord. It’s a democratic and noisy playroom of independently-acting modules, all fighting for what little bandwidth your senses and memory afford them, and only too keen to proceed as far as they can on what guesses they can make.

And just as in CPUs, the goal of all this mess, this willingness to go out on a limb, is efficiency. Err on the side of caution if you think there’s a predator or, more realistically, the hostile or mocking attention of your peers; get distracted by anything which seems promising, an attractive person or an appetising aroma, because who knows that it might not be your last chance.

That’s the evolutionary story, and while we like to locate the life-and-death struggles behind the bundle of hacks we call consciousness in the savage prehistoric past, think of how much more we need to rely on speculative processing in the buzzing and blooming and overcrowded Umwelt we’ve built around ourselves. Sure, we might have evolved on the savannah, but all of these words and walls and works and wills and won’ts are what we’ve built to suit us, and they give our phantom selves such a lot of opportunity to run down the paths of might-have-been.

You’re about to change lanes and you map out the trajectory towards the exit ramp but: there’s someone coming up the inside. Backtrack. You’re indulging in a daydream fantasy about an attractive co-worker and then have to be polite and efficient with him for an hour-long team meeting. Backtrack. You’re following the plot of a movie and then what is he doing? Didn’t she get shot? Backtrack.

And this is just on a small scale. You marry young, anticipating decades of mutual happiness, only to have to unpick it all in a messy divorce in your early thirties. You choose a degree based on a school friend you hero-worshipped but get sidetracked out of it and have to explain it away for the next decade. A swarm of ghost lives, decisions and commitments and purchases and options which, if we’re lucky, we get to retrospectively make sense of, justify, tell ourselves it was destiny or fate, that it was what we were aiming for all along, what we really needed. But perhaps the truth, and it need not be an unkind one, is that a human life needs a sort of virtual scaffolding of possibilities, that the might-have-beens which we’ve unconsciously or consciously rejected are what hold us together.

Certain mental illnesses and mood disorders can be seen as a perversion of this tendency. Depression as the paralysis brought on by too keen an awareness of the sheer volume — number is too narrow a word — of possibilities exploding from every moment: anxiety is a failure of the shielding which lets our minds evaluate them without bothering us with the nagging sense that we are dancing over an abyss. In the manic phase of bipolar disorder there is a dimming of the red light and bell that clangs to signal that it’s time to backtrack, impulses are followed through to their destructive last.

It doesn’t take very much paranoia to imagine that our brain’s talent for speculative execution could be an exploitable vulnerability. Maybe back in the days of the savannah — any predator will have a keen instinct for the false steps and feints of its prey — but now? The misdirection of the magician, the fortune teller’s cold read, the confidence of the con artist, sure in their ability to anticipate just how far down the garden path their marks will lead themselves. The manipulative and abusive, those who gaslight and interrogate, the grandstanding attorney and the demagogue: do they take not take their victim’s or audience’s might-have-beens and magnify them into terrors or seductions? Facebook keeps a record of not only the posts you write, but those you cancel. The algorithms that watch us will have a better map of our shadow self than we will, seeing all the links we follow and then hurriedly click shut, the people we stalk, the products we dare not purchase.

Except that we know from a hundred ads which clumsily ape our ten most recent Google queries that the algorithms are not yet that subtle. The idea that our brains could be hacked by means as delicate as those which can be used to steal the ghosts of data from the might-have-beens of CPU caches is science fiction. And what is fiction, if not a way to coax an audience into the speculative execution of a series of thoughts, a shared illusion, a thing which could never be?

Neural Streams of Consciousness

Style-extraction algorithms having reached the level of popular smartphone apps which could take the small-scale features of Hokusai’s wave or a Lichtenstein cartoon and apply them to a picture of one’s pet, it was only a matter of time before the technique was successfully applied to textual, rather than graphic, works. These first neural networks were mere mimics, more sophisticated versions of elementary Markov chains, which could produce plausible but nonsensical imitations of existing texts with no semantic content.

A breakthrough came with the Antal functor, which used a form of iterated adversarial machine learning algorithm to extrapolate multiple versions of a given text along many dimensions and then aggressively prune this ramifying cluster of words into “fixed points”, an unfortunate piece of mathematical jargon for what could be quite subtle and profound features of the source material. (The story of the functor’s use in extracting “virtual characters” from apparently objective and non-fictional texts, and the subsequent effects of this discovery on journalism and politics, have been told elsewhere.) Once this basic technique had been mastered, it could then be applied in an analogous way to that used in vision, sorting the qualities of a text on an approximate scale which ranged from such minutiae as idiosyncrasies of spelling or word frequency, to the characteristic syntactic patterns employed, and then on, with decreasing accuracy, into such large-scale qualities as extended metaphors, symbolic structures and plot.

The most famous application of this technique was the urDay service. The user registered his or her various social media accounts with urDay and allowed it to apply a battery of neural functors to the texts and images which flowed from them, taking these as a modern and technologically-mediated version of the stream of consciousness which had been pioneered in literature by Woolf and Joyce. The abstract versions of these could then be expressed in any number of ways: to generate wry or amusing animations with a cast of adorable algorithmically-generated mascots; inserted into an ever-changing roster of movie clips and viral videos as sarcastic commentary, witty cameo or heartfelt dialogues.

A set of textual plugins had been provided, more out of the curiosity of some of the development team and a sense of pride in their antecedence than any hope that urDay would have any serious impact on literary studies, much less kindle in its users a love of high modernism. With these, one could project the narration of one’s life in a kaleidoscope of styles and voices, just as Joyce had done in Ulysses: a cursory description of an annoying planning workshop or visit to a supermarket could be recounted in the language of high fantasy or science fiction. Use and abuse of these textual plugins became popular in certain literary circles, all the more because of the occasional thunderings against this digital prostitution of the art and craft of writing which came from the stodgier journals: although their output was, if anything, too facile and polished to really be groundbreaking as generated textual art, their use signalled that one was not above a certain populist bravado.

As is only natural, after a few years such collaborations seemed painfully dated, and the professional writers abandoned the field to those amateurs who enjoyed running an autoblog which gathered up and retold the output of their various encounters and days in the manner of, for example, a noir detective story, or an epic battle across frozen tundra, or a stylish psychodrama.

Their remained the matter of what became known as “the puzzles”. Certain scholars who had shifted from collaborating with the urDay plugins to analysing their outputs claimed that motifs and images seemed to be following patterns which, though elusive, could neither be attributed to the social media inputs, nor to the literary models used to generate the various styles. (The use of functorial analysis allowed this to be done with a degree of confidence.) For example, a week-long sequence from a university student’s autoblog, which alternated between a somewhat archaic translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Patti Smith’s memoirs, showed a striking affinity with certain of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, a work which neither the student nor her chosen electronic amanuenses had any connection. An archaeologist’s field notes, transformed into an elaborate science-fantasy scenario, spontaneously revealed a correspondence between certain ruins on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the galactic coordinates of active pulsars. Once one began looking for such patterns, it was said, they began to emerge everywhere, and perhaps it was this sense of ubiquity which explained the somewhat tepid response with which these demonstrations were greeted. While happy enough, at least in some circles, to let the false leads and teasing traps laid down by a legitimate genius like Joyce keep them busy for centuries to come, literary scholars saw the apparently limitless sea of neural “puzzles” as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of their computational origin, as uninteresting to them as the technical details of the programming languages used to create their word processors or functorial analysers.

Eventually, the “puzzles” became the hunting ground of that even more prolific realm of amateurism, the conspiracy theorists, to be added to their never-ending roster of patterns and coincidences, world without end.

Human, All Too Human

Megastructures Revisited

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As metaphor, megastructures have the potential to be powerful: as explanations for real phenomena, they are petty, motivated by the same impulse which makes journalists always refer to Star Wars when writing a story about a planet with two suns, or crack feeble Doctor Who jokes when writing about the theory of time travel.

Tabby’s Star is a genuinely exciting mystery, and to read articles which rush through the halting attempts by scientists to provide an astrophysical explanation in order to get to the part where they can write about megastructures is to watch the scientific be eclipsed by the merely science-fictional.

The objects supposed to be eclipsing Tabby’s Star are always referred to as “alien megastructures”, an adjective which on first glance is redundant – the star is thousands of light years away, and humans don’t know how to build megastructures. As I argued in my megastructure post from last year, in science fiction we project the ability to construct artefacts on the scale of solar systems onto aliens or our own machine descendants to avoid the uncomfortable fact that even if we had the technology to build such monstrosities, we lack, or believe that we lack, the ability to muster the social and economic resources which they require. All megastructures are alien.

Considered in the light of what we actually know, however, the opposite is true. We don’t know if aliens exist, and we don’t know anything about what their societies and psychologies might be like. And the ability to imagine megastructures is not even a human universal: it arises from a very specific time and place, from the triumph and downfall of the dream of an ever-expanding rationalist civilisation. The megastructure is born in the communist galactic epics of Olaf Stapledon and the manic space operas of E E Doc Smith, takes flight on the dreams of Cold War theorists like Dyson and Kardashev, and begins to collapse under its own ironic weight in the middle of Larry Niven’s Ringworld series in the seventies and eighties.

When we start speculating about Dyson spheres as the explanation for astrophysical effects, rather that using them as metaphors in fiction, it’s worth listing the assumptions which underly them:

  • once a civilisation becomes industrial, it will remain in a state when energy capture and expansion are its absolute priorities;
  • the most plentiful source of energy in a typical solar system is the radiation from its star;
  • somehow, the economic and technical means to build a Dyson sphere or swarm are achievable;
  • our current knowledge of stellar astrophysics is total: in other words, there are no factors, unknown to us today, which would make building a Dyson sphere or swarm harmful or impossible

The shakiest of these assumptions seems to me to be the first. We can’t imagine alien psychology, by definition: in general, the aliens in sf are projections of racial stereotypes, whether they are warlike Hun/Klingons or austere, contemplative Vulcans. Even contemporary efforts to imagine truly inhuman aliens – the eusocial galaxy-spanning civilisation of Charles Stross’ novella “Missile Gap”, or the terrifying and asentient “scramblers” in Peter Watts’ Blindsight – are specific to the culture which created them: arising from a very early-twenty-first-century pessimism about human consciousness and society as fallible and weak, at the mercy of creatures who are better equipped to follow a biological imperative which is simply another version of the grow-expand-maximise-capture drumbeat.

The common failure in all of these dreams is the idea that we can know what aliens would do, what a civilisation with better technology or organisational skills or more ruthlessness could accomplish: this line of speculation leads to aliens who are insane caricatures or nightmarish parodies of the worst excesses of the industrial civilisation that gave birth to them.

The star AR Scorpii appears to be a binary pair of a red and white dwarf: the latter is blasting beams of electrons travelling very close to the speed of light, which, when they impact upon its companion’s surface on the side visible to Earth, cause its brightness to fluctuate violently. This explanation is only an hypothesis, like all of our ideas about the stars. I think that it’s better to contemplate the strangeness of what might be out there than to merely use these remote and strange lights as projector bulbs for the shadows cast by our human, all-too-human megastructures.

Open City

Teju Cole

Russell Hoban has one of his characters say of  the weather in Amsterdam that “one would be ashamed to draw badly in that light”, and Teju Cole’s novel makes me feel that my clunking prose can’t do it justice. Narrated by a psychiatrist of Nigerian and German parentage who practices at a hospital in New York City, its meditative style is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, and its moral seriousness (that’s too pompous a phrase, but I can’t think of any other way to put it) and artful use of omissions and silence made me think of Henry James. There’s a patience and strength to this novel that stay with the reader.