In my ongoing quest to read science fiction with sensible politics and economics, I thought I would give Robert Charles Wilson a try and am reading his novel Spin, which is very enjoyable so far. On his web site he has published some talks he has given, including this:
Total up the man-hours necessary to bring even a cheap conventional color TV into your home, and the result, I suggest, would be absolutely staggering. And that work in turn rests on an absolutely colossal body of prior knowledge, all of it generated piece-by-piece and preserved and transmitted over generations.
This reminded me of the famous pencil essay. He is writing about all the things that went into making a TV advert for a car:
So even something as inherently humble as an automobile commercial stands as striking evidence that we, as a species, have an absolute genius for collaboration. Even without conscious intent — and after all, of all the billions of people necessary to produce that ad, only a handful of them actually wanted it to exist — we can still create something in which our collective ingenuity is embedded and embodied.
Of course, he doesn’t mention what mechanism makes this collaboration possible, but we all know what it is.
It is by no means necessary for my enjoyment of art that the artist has vaguely sensible political views, but it helps. Looking for a science fiction novel to read, discovering that the latest Alastair Reynolds was something to do with global warming, I instead took Amazon up on one of its recommendations and tried Neal Asher, who has a blog, and at the time had recently written this:
So, Cameron is a nannying statist who wants to stick a minimum price on alcohol per unit. What on Earth is he thinking? Does he think that this will result in fewer pavement pizzas and fat slags crying in the gutter on a Saturday night? Does he think there’ll be less violence on the streets after chucking out time on a Friday and less chaos in A & E over the weekend? If he does think that then he’s an idiot because the people responsible for that drink in bars where the price is already way above his damned 45p a unit.
He has also written favourably about fracking.
The novel I chose was The Departure, the first of the Owner trilogy. If anything it had too much action for my taste. If Alastair Reynolds writes film noir, Neal Asher writes Bruce Willis and explosions. The science is sensible enough: there are no exotic physics and the technologies discussed are robots, giant space stations and brain-computer interfaces. The politics is very interesting. Asher seems to have perceived a slippery slope and extrapolated in the extreme. Something like the EU has, thanks to a complacent populace, taken over the whole planet. This is the Committee and it has long since stopped pretending to be democratic and gone outwardly Orwellian. Cigarettes are illegal; armed robots are used to control rioting crowds; selfish, individualistic dissidents are taken away for readjustment by pain inducer; and clever scientists are allowed to do research useful to the state but are considered a risk and kept under scrutiny or even lock and key. The protagonist is one such scientist who sets out to get revenge.
The action includes novel ways of killing people, fantastic feats of computer hacking to fool officials who trust their computers rather too much, zero-gee small arms combat and lots of expensive things getting destroyed. Interspersed is plenty of discussion of the political situation that has lead to all this.
Statism gets a good kicking. Government is described as the biggest killer on the planet. A Committee member is scorned for her belief in “knowledge-based societal planning”. Fiat currency is scorned when the protagonist uses gold to make a purchase. There is a subtle reference to the purpose of practical politics as described by H L Mencken. In a history of NASA, the agency is described as “moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy”. One chapter opens with a description of how people obtain things forbidden by the state:
The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets.
Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:
Make the process slow enough to sit below immediate perception and they will grow accustomed to their enslavement; they even might not realize they are wearing any chains at all.
My biggest criticism is that the theme of overpopulation runs strongly through the book. There are food, housing and other resource shortages, and while it is acknowledged that the Committee members are doing very well for themselves, this is very much in a zero sum sense. At one point the protagonist wonders about “the mindless, ever-breeding swarm” governed by the Committee. In a discussion of how government waste prevented development of technology, he claims that the only technology needed was birth control.
The author understands that technology and people can overcome resource shortages. In a sub-plot on Mars, the colony has hydroponics which are somehow not applied on Earth, though robotic farming is. The colony has problems as a result of events back on Earth and the administrators plan to cull the population but the author understands that people create wealth:
Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them.
It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book. But none of the characters seem to connect these dots and I am not sure why. I am worried the author has not either. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will make things clear.
“Lots of hard problems have proven to be tractable. The planetary genome and proteome have been mapped so exhaustively that the biosciences are now focusing on the challenge of the phenome – plotting the phase-space defined by the intersection of genes and biochemical structures, understanding how extended phenotypic traits are generated and contribute to evolutionary fitness. The biosphere has become surreal: Small dragons have been sighted nesting in the Scottish highlands, and in the American Midwest, raccoons have been caught programming microwave ovens.”
Page 170 of Accelerando, by Charles Stross. (First published in 2005. )
Whatever you think of Stross’s non-fiction views, such as on libertarianism, his fiction often includes hilarious passages such as this.
The following extract from Permutation City by Greg Egan covers several topics of interest to Samizdatistas and the commentariat. The “Copies” are fully conscious computer simulations of people who have had their brains scanned. The first speaker, Durham, is a biological human trying to persuade the Copy, Thomas, that in the long term he is in danger of being switched off, even though the computer he runs on is private property, by governments claiming the moral high ground.
‘…The privileged class of Copies will grow larger, more powerful — and more threatening to the vast majority of people, who still won’t be able to join them. The costs will come down, but not drastically – just enough to meet some of the explosion in demand from the executive class, once they throw off their qualms, en masse. Even in secular Europe, there’s a deeply ingrained prejudice that says dying is the responsible, the moral thing to do. There’s a Death Ethic – and the first substantial segment of the population abandoning it will trigger a huge backlash. A small enough elite of giga-rich Copies is accepted as a freak show; tycoons can get away with anything, they’re not expected to act like ordinary people. But just wait until the numbers go up by a factor of ten.’
Thomas had heard it all before. ‘We may be unpopular for a while. I can live with that. But you know, even now we’re vilified far less than people who strive for organic hyper-longevity — transplants, cellular rejuvenation, whatever — because at least we’re no longer pushing up the cost of health care, competing for the use of overburdened medical facilities. Nor are we consuming natural resources at anything like the rate we did when we were alive. If the technology improves sufficiently, the environmental impact of the wealthiest Copy could end up being less than that of the most ascetic living human. Who’ll have the high moral ground then? We’ll be the most ecologically sound people on the planet.’
Durham smiled. The puppet. ‘Sure — and it could lead to some nice ironies if it ever came true. But even low environmental impact might not seem so saintly, when the same computing power could be used to save tens of thousands of lives through weather control.’
‘Operation Butterfly has inconvenienced some of my fellow Copies very slightly. And myself not at all.’
‘Operation Butterfly is only the beginning. Crisis management, for a tiny part of the planet. Imagine how much computing power it would take to render sub-Saharan Africa free from drought.’
‘Why should I imagine that, when the most modest schemes are still unproven? And even if weather control turns out to be viable, more supercomputers can always be built. It doesn’t have to be a matter of Copies versus flood victims.’
‘There’s a limited supply of computing power right now, isn’t there? Of course it will grow – but the demand, from Copies, and for weather control, is almost certain to grow faster. Long before we get to your deathless utopia, we’ll hit a bottleneck — and I believe that will bring on a time when Copies are declared illegal. Worldwide. If they’ve been granted human rights, those rights will be taken away. Trusts and foundations will have their assets confiscated. Supercomputers will be heavily policed. Scanners – and scan files – will be destroyed. It may be forty years before any of this happens – or it may be sooner. Either way, you need to be prepared.’
Not long ago, Rob Fisher asked, back at his blog, before he started writing here, whether there is a correlation between an early enthusiasm for science fiction and later being a libertarian, and if so what might be the cause of such a correlation. And I seem to recall the notion finding its way here also, although I can’t recall or find where. It may have been in a comment thread. My take is that SF embodies the idea that things could be very different. Maybe a more general version of the same idea is that SF leads to political radicalism of all kinds. There was certainly a huge enthusiasm for SF on the left before World War 2. Think only of H. G. Wells.
I recently mentioned to Michael Jennings that I too went through a big SF phase in my teens and twenties, while in the process of becoming a libertarian, and that although I subsequently stopped reading much SF, I did later become very keen on reading history. I still am. The connection between reading SF and reading history, at any rate in my mind, is that just as SF says that the world can be very different, history is all about the fact that, in the past, the world actually was very different. Things change, from era to era, from epoch to epoch. History and SF both say that very loudly. Libertarianism, and all the other isms, say that also.
As far as history is concerned, I’m thinking of things like how the sea, in the European Middle Ages, far from being any sort of defensive wall (as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt famously describes it – and as it later became) was actually more like a motorway system, for those able to command the vehicles to make use it of. I’m thinking of how very different life was if most of the people in the place you lived in were illiterate, perhaps including you. I’m thinking of how very hard it was even to preserve the great ideas of the past, let alone accumulate new ones with any success, before the printing press was contrived. I’m thinking of what a difference swords and bows-and-arrows and gunpowder and machine guns successively made, and what a difference atom bombs and hydrogen bombs have made to our own time. I’m thinking of what a different world it was when it was very hard to send messages of any complexity (or for that matter human beings) any faster than a succession of very expensive horses could gallop.
Michael’s response was that reading lots of SF, then becoming something like a libertarian, then reading lots of history, is a fairly common intellectual biography. So rather than ramble on, let me ask commenters. Does that sequence of interests ring any bells with any of you good people?
Disappointingly, it seems that some of these scenes of the happy family life of a Star Wars stormtrooper may have been faked. In the comments to this Daily Mail article, “John, Bristol’ claims that “the small one is a Lego toy.” I shall leave readers to make up their own minds.
My problem is that I find everything increasingly interesting.
– William Gibson
You can’t blame them. It would go to anybody’s head.
You can, in a way, blame Frederick Lindemann, the first (and last) Viscount Cherwell.
Apart from the facts that he more or less founded Oxford physics and so got a laboratory named after him and was some sort of scientific adviser to Churchill, most of what I know about Lindemann I learned today, from this site, aimed at children in secondary schools, and Wikipedia.
Lindemann ought to be more famous. He developed the first theory of how to recover when an aeroplane goes into a spin, and learned to fly so that he could repeatedly and dangerously put it to the test on his own aircraft. Umpteen pilots owe him their lives. Umpteen Germans owe him their deaths: his hatred of Nazism was “almost pathological” and – well, let Wikipedia give you the flavour:
When Churchill became Prime Minister, he appointed Lindemann as the British government’s leading scientific adviser … Lindemann established a special statistical branch, known as ‘S-Branch’, within the government, constituted from subject specialists, and reporting directly to Churchill. This branch distilled thousands of sources of data into succinct charts and figures, so that the status of the nation’s food supplies (for example) could be instantly evaluated. Lindemann’s statistical branch often caused tensions between government departments, but because it allowed Churchill to make quick decisions based on accurate data which directly affected the war effort, its importance should not be underestimated … In 1940, Lindemann supported the experimental department MD1. He worked on hollow charge weapons, the sticky bomb and other new weapons … “In his appointment as Personal Assistant to the Prime Minister no field of activity was closed to him. He was as obstinate as a mule, and unwilling to admit that there was any problem under the sun which he was not qualified to solve. He would write a memorandum on high strategy one day, and a thesis on egg production on the next” … Following the Air Ministry Area bombing directive on 12 February 1942, Lindemann presented the dehousing paper to Churchill on 30 March 1942, which advocated area bombardment of German cities to break the spirit of the people … Lindemann also played a key part in the battle of the beams, championing countermeasures to the Germans use of radio navigation to increase the precision of their bombing campaigns.
Lindemann’s achievements in science, though distinguished, have been surpassed by those of other scientists. But never before or since has a single scientist, in his role as a scientist, been so close to the seat of power. He was like a Grand Vizier of old. His name may not be that famous, even among scientists, but his role in the Great Drama has become a folk memory; a fantasy.
In the 1950s Isaac Asimov, writing under the pseudonym Paul French, produced an enjoyable series of science fiction novels for teenagers featuring David “Lucky” Starr, Space Ranger. (In which occurs the first known appearance of the lightsaber trope. I didn’t know that.) Like the Lone Ranger, Lucky has a faithful sidekick. Like James Bond – whose career began at about the same time – Lucky has gadgets. And backup. On Lucky’s wrist there is a tattoo which is invisible until Lucky exerts his will, triggering some chemicals or hormones or something, which makes the tattoo become visible. Then they sit up, take notice, and hasten to do what he says, because the tattoo reveals that he is a member – indeed, the youngest ever member – of the Council of Science.
The Council of Science!
Quoting Wikipedia again:
In a later novel in the series, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, the Council of Science is described this way: “In these days, when science really permeated all human society and culture, scientists could no longer restrict themselves to their laboratories. It was for that reason that the Council of Science had been born. Originally it was intended only as an advisory body to help the government on matters of galactic importance, where only trained scientists could have sufficient information to make intelligent decisions. More and more it had become a crime-fighting agency, a counterespionage system. Into its own hands it was drawing more and more of the threads of government.”
And just for a while a year or two back it all looked like coming true. Lindemann’s heirs back in the saddle again. Maybe not the tattoos, but the Scientist taking the President’s calls, speaking with grave wisdom to the frightened assemblies and governments of mankind.
You can’t really blame them, can you? For remembering their time of glory and feeling just a smidgeon of pleasure that those days were here again?
From the story quoted by Brian in the post below this one:
Scientists have called for Second World War-style rationing in rich countries to bring down carbon emissions, as world leaders meet in Cancun for the latest round of talks on climate change.
Watching the re-make of Battlestar Galactica I came across a thought-experiment in practical ethics that seems to me far more interesting than the rather trite runaway-train examples I knew from university ethics classes.
The situation for the thought-experiment is this:
The last remnants of the human race are fleeing their robotic exterminators. Owing to what the (human) military commander perceives as a poor tactical decision, the lawfully-elected civilian President has been incarcerated and martial law has been declared. With the support of civilian and enlisted sympathisers, the President has escaped immediate custody and is on the point of disappearing into hiding amongst the populace, supposedly accompanied by her immediate staff and a few abettors amongst the military.
Up until this point, by the nature of television drama, the focus has been on the President herself and senior military officers, both sympathetic and antagonistic. At the last moment, however, it is made clear that even flunkies and acting extras have an independent moral choice, when the President’s principal aide unexpectedly reveals his personal moral dilemma.
“Madam President. I understand what you’re trying to do…but, it’s going to divide the fleet. At the very best it’s going to create an insurgency against [the military commander]; at the worst, civil war. Taking part in that is a line that I will not cross.”
This strikes me as troubling, but far from unrealistic. I am genuinely unsure what is the morally correct action here.
For the sake of this thought experiment, let us accept without question the idea that our protagonist fully believes the President is the rightful and best leader for the human race. Let us assume he is convinced that the best outcome, both morally and practically, would be for the military dictator to quietly step aside and reinstate the President. Let us also assume he genuinely believes that that will not happen, and that internal opposition will materially reduce the prospects of survival for the remainder of the human race.
If we left it at that, most people would agree that he had no choice but to submit to the military in the interests of the survival of our species.
However, this character is clearly thoughtful and reasonable, so let us add in another opportunity for dilemma. Let us suppose, as is strongly hinted at, albeit not explicitly stated in this drama, that although he genuinely believes all the above, he recognises the possibility that he might be wrong.
This creates a genuinely realistic and sophisticated moral dilemma. His best outcome would be for the President’s insurrection to be swiftly and painlessly successful. The worst outcome would be a protracted civil war.
Should he give precedence to his admittedly fallible assessment of the President’s chances, betray her, side with the military dictator he considers illegitimate, in order to swiftly put down the President’s opposition, in the hope of avoiding the total destruction of humanity at the cost of casting humanity into autarky for the foreseeable future?
Or in the alternative, would it be better to be true to his convictions and back the President, in the hope of preserving a free society, even though he believed that in doing so he was placing the survival of our species at greater risk, but recognised that he might be in error in this assessment? In short, the question is not the commonly poses but simplistic one of “should the moral or the pragmatic choice prevail?” but its more sophisticated child: “Given uncertainty about the future, should we cleave to moral certainty despite grave fears of the likely outcome, or betray our preferences for fear of utter calamity?”
To me, these ten seconds in Battlestar Galactica seem far more interesting than almost anything in my undergraduate ethics course. But if this seems too obscure, or too adolescent, treat this posting instead simply as a comment that there is more serious ethical debate in ten seconds of a popular commercial sci-fi drama than in a month of ‘Newsnight’ interviews.
Following on from Brian’s recent essay in which he wonders about the point of spacefaring, here is a sort of related essay by the science fiction author, John Scalzi. Strongly recommended. (H/T, Boing Boing).
I have read a number of Scalzi’s novels and I enjoyed them a lot. I recommend that people who are interested start with Old Man’s War.
Shannon Vyff of the Immortality Institute gave a talk yesterday in London on the advocacy work that she undertakes, promoting unlimited lifespans. At a basement room in Birkbeck, to an assorted crowd of extropians, greens and interested parties belonging to Extrobritannia, we heard from a person who actually leads the CR life.
Calorific restriction is controversial but the contrast for Shannon lay between her and, perhaps, her audience. As Brits, we are not particularly active in giving time or money to deserving or undeserving causes, and it was quite breathtaking to see an upstanding example of American voluntarism. From my perspective, it was gratifying that Ms. Vyff decided to devote her energy to causes closer to my heart: life extension and anti-aging.
Her other focus is on the introduction of these ideas to a wider audience of primary school children, proving an inkling of the wonders that technology can provide. This is coupled with the joy of thinking positively about the future and working for it and, to my mind, counts as an important antidote to the killjoyous scaremongering of the luddite greens whose tool of social control is to make children ashamed of life itself. Perhaps there are better written books, but not in this field. Vyff wishes to harness the motivational power of science fiction for a new generation.
Like the Libertarian Alliance, the Immortality Institute remains an outlier. Despite debates over entering the mainstream, the group decided to retain its name, a wise decision. As these concepts become more accepted, other groups will spring up to advocate more moderate agendas, but the promotion of pure life extension remains a valuable project in and of itself.
I suppose I should not be surprised that transhumanist ideas, mutilated in a fascist form, would start to reach breakthrough point. Slightly late in the day as this was noted in September, but drinking wine and trawling Stross is one way of dealing with Saturday’s ennui..
So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I [Charlie Stross] hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism:
The new tech is going to foster discrimination and differentiation. This will be enthusiastically taken up by those in power to maintain control. It will probably have a short shelf life as all such attempts to limit the (trans)human spirit do; measured in decades rather than centuries now. No doubt the kleptocratic elites of many countries will jump on this bandwagon to paint their already black rule a darker shade. Tempted enough by shiny power to create closed systems, too stupid to realise that they just shortened the life of their political schemes, by curbing their ability to adapt and change. In the long run, they will either die out or be bought out.
My only prediction: by the end of this century, we are going to be sick and tired of the suffix, -humanism.