Your Reading Assignment For Friday

Charlie Stross has taken up a hammer and genre fiction looks like the nail. Check it out. My favorite line:

For the sad fact is, there seems to be some kind of law about contemporary American horror getting into furry sex by volume three then suffering a fit of remorse and going all god-bothering and Jesus-fondling by volume six.

It’s funny because it’s true.

In his post, Charlie goes back to last year’s Big Question of what’s wrong with American SF these days, (occasioned by the All-Brit Hugo novel slate of 2005), by way of whacking at the “alternative history” craze:

This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it’s not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren’t doing that is interesting.

American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?

This is a provocative point, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think Charlie may be underestimating the banal fact that alternate history simply sells well; Harry Turtledove books and books of that ilk sell not only to SF geeks but to history geeks as well. All those US Civil War recreationists are probably over the moon (so to speak) that they have whole new scenarios to have their heroes play in, some of them involving dragons or aliens or whatever. It’s not necessarily a national neurosis. It could just be publishers riding the train until the wheels fall right off, like they did with the horror boomlet in the 1990s. In other words, never attribute to a zeitgeist what you can equally attribute to heedless commerce. One does need to ask if this alt-history craze is any more egregious than steampunk, many of the primary practicioners of which are British, if memory serves.

Likewise, I don’t think Americans largely care if other people don’t like our political leaders, so I don’t think building a theory on that notion is useful. We knew the rest of the world despised Ronald Reagan, for example; we didn’t give a crap what anyone else thought (well, some did; they were just ignored). Right now, we’re aware the rest of the world despises Dubya, but it’s rather more important to us that we don’t like him; everyone else not liking him really is an afterthought in the American psyche.

Americans aren’t immune to the idea that the rest of the world represents competition and even a threat to us — we feel about China today roughly the way we felt about Japan in the mid-80s — but the fundamental American assumption that we should be running the world hasn’t changed much. The American self-image of comptent leadership in and of the world persists, and that’s one of the reasons why the general US population is down on Dubya at the moment. He’s at odds with our self-image, damn his guts.

I do think Charlie’s contention that American SF is oversaturated with alt-history is well on point, even if I disagree with his theory of the causes for that. I think this is a shame, because I don’t think the appetite for the classically American “competent man takes on the universe” subgenre of SF has much abated, here in the US or elsewhere, and all things considered I think I’m qualified to say that. People like this stuff. I suspect what needs to happen is that those folks who attempt this type of story need to get past the structural crutches of the genre, which happen to be the mechanistic trappings, i.e., all that NASA crap. If one wants to provide the “alt-history” genre a reason for being other than commerce, one could suggest it exists from a lack of imagination; it’s easier to imagine Nazis fighting aliens than to figure out a plausible post-competent-NASA near-future that involves both space travel and Americans in a mission-critical role.

Now, off the top of my head I can think of one person who’s done a book like that recently: Robert Charles Wilson, in Spin. There’s only a little space travel, but enough to qualify, and all the rest of it is surely in line. Of course, he’s Canadian. Oh, the irony.

In any event, if there is a critical lack of near-future SF from the US, I can promise all y’all I’m doing my best to fix that. The Android’s Dream is set in a future that is mere decades away, and other projects I have in the hopper will also take place close to the current timeframe. I’m doing what I can for you. I’ll let the alt-history craze take care of itself. Not to mention all that furry-sex fantasy.

69 thoughts on “Your Reading Assignment For Friday

  1. Sucre! I suddenly realized that aside form a Greg BEar book written in 1987 and your stuff, all I’ve been reading is British Sci-Fi: Alistair Reynolds an Rechard K. Morgan to be exact. I had no idea I was letting America down like this!

    Seriously, I seem to be horribly out of touch with contemporary science fiction. Seeing as I want to publish in that arena someday, I should maybe get into it a bit more.

  2. I think this sort of SciFi miasma is visible in other ways as well. Take Enterprise, for instance. Instead of trying to push the view of technology further, they resorted to an “origins” story, basically placing them in a relativley safe space, from a storytelling perspective.

    My prototypical near future novel of choice is still Snowcrash, but the picture it paints is bleak in many way, and his writing style can be tedious for some people.

    I wonder if the U.S. is still kind of feeling the aftershocks of the fall of the iron curtain. We moved from a world of certainty (more or less – USSR + China = Bad Guys) to a more nuanced reality (Russia = ?, China = Huge trade partners). I still get a kick out of reading old Tom Clancy novels, as they seem so anachronistic nowadays.

  3. HaHA!

    Funny he mentions Laurell Hamilton by name… she’s a very guilty pleasure of mine… though I’m quick to point out that I started reading her before the smut really hit the fan… now its definitely borderline (over the border) porn… but, my wife enjoys it as well (one of the few authors we both like) and it gets her randy… so its all good.

    :D

  4. Americans like it when foreigners hate our leaders. I particularly enjoyed traveling abroad when Reagan was President. People would publicly profess their belief that he was a warmongering old fool, then admit to me in private that they admired his moral clarity and willingness to stand up to the same thugs their own governments were appeasing.

    There seems to be quite a few military Sci-Fi novels out recently in which the UN, EU, or thinly disguised substitutes are the bad guys. Satisfying but not very plausible in my mind. The Islamic demographic bomb about to go off in many parts of Europe will probably be the big event of the next couple of decades.

  5. Of course, Wilson is in fact a Californian who’s spent his adult life in Toronto, so what that does to your theory, I’m not sure.

    I am a bit bemused by the idea that alternate history somehow bestrides SF bestseller lists like a colossus. Not in our experience. It does OK. Turtledove has an audience. A few other writers have had moderate success with it. It’s far from a ticket to fortune.

  6. The other thing that occurs is that much of the near-future SF from the 80s and early 90s has grounded out on the rocks of the tech revolution. We’ve just passed through (maybe are still passing through) a major era of change — not just internet, but PDAs, GPS, laptops, Google, Tivo, etc. have all tweaked us up in yet-to-be-settled ways. So if something was near-future SF in 1992 is now a business plan.

  7. “…if I see one more novel about the US Marine Corps in the Thirty Seventh Century (with interstellar amphibious assault ships and a different name) I swear I’ll up and join the Foreign Legion.”

    !!!

  8. I consider China to be far and away our biggest threat, and every military resource we have/will have should be developed with the thought of killing them by the bushel-basket.

    I’d also do it now. They’ll never be weaker, and we’ll never be stronger.

    In a nod to sci-fi, I do hope that our troops are all led by 24 year old female generals in full leather who are unrivaled martial artists.

  9. cisko: “The other thing that occurs is that much of the near-future SF from the 80s and early 90s has grounded out on the rocks of the tech revolution. We’ve just passed through (maybe are still passing through) a major era of change — not just internet, but PDAs, GPS, laptops, Google, Tivo, etc. have all tweaked us up in yet-to-be-settled ways. So if something was near-future SF in 1992 is now a business plan.”

    Could be there’s some truth to that. And yet the first few decades of the 20th Century were periods of equal technological change: The automobile, airplane, broadcast- and two-way radio. Telephones and electricity still had a long way to go to penetrate every corner of American society. And yet that’s when science fiction initially flourished.

  10. I’d like to offer up a few of the usual suspects, Robert J. Sawyer, and Elizabeth Bear. I know that Mr. Sawyer is Canadian, but at least he’s not British, and some of his stories have been set in the near future. Does his being Canadian, and having penned a parallel history with his Hominoids series, disqualify him? Are Ms. Bear’s Hammer series books too far in the future (2062) to qualify?

  11. Politicaly, near future science fiction plots could be based on one of several possible outcomes of the Cold War. That stage of history is over, now a writer has to deal with nuclear armed Islamic Facsicsts, Eurabia, and China vs. the Asian democracies. Not so simple.Politically, near future science fiction plots could be based on one of several possible outcomes of the Cold War.

    That stage of history is over, now a writer has to deal with nuclear armed Islamic Fascists, Eurabia, and China vs. the Asian democracies. Not so simple.

  12. I was going to give a shout out to Vinge, but Stross already did so. It’s not 9/11 that changed the dynamic, it’s the internet. A big part of the reason for technological optimism being in decline as a writing theme is that, if you take it seriously, you end up having to write Singularity literature. This turns out to be Really Hard to do convincingly, to the point that there’s only about three people who have pulled it off (Egan, MacLoed, Stross), and even they have to worry about it running away from them into incomprehensibility.

    I’ll have to look into Paul Park, though. I had thought Stephen Brust was the last truly interesting thing in fantasy, and anyone that Stross considers Brust to be a pale second-best to is worth checking out.

  13. The reason Americans aren’t writing forward-looking SF any more is that forward-looking SF these days is all technotopia Singularity hyper-wired shit, and it all sucks irredeemably as literature. Not even Vernor Vinge could make that Stross/Doctorow/Wired stuff interesting in Rainbows End; and if Vinge can’t make a subgenre interesting, it’s just not interesting.

  14. cisko: “The other thing that occurs is that much of the near-future SF from the 80s and early 90s has grounded out on the rocks of the tech revolution. We’ve just passed through (maybe are still passing through) a major era of change — not just internet, but PDAs, GPS, laptops, Google, Tivo, etc. have all tweaked us up in yet-to-be-settled ways. So if something was near-future SF in 1992 is now a business plan.”

    Could be there’s some truth to that. And yet the first few decades of the 20th Century were periods of equal technological change: The automobile, airplane, broadcast- and two-way radio. Telephones and electricity still had a long way to go to penetrate every corner of American society. And yet that’s when science fiction initially flourished.

    It seems to me that most of the developments in the earth 20th Century were figuring out how to do things we already knew were possible. IE, engineering problems. There weren’t any giant theoretical breakthroughs associated with the things you name (offhand, the assorted developments in atomic theory, which not many plots were based on, and DNA, were the only theoretical breakthroughts that spring to mind. I’n sure someone will correct me.)

    Basically, in that time there were a lot of things people knew to be possible (space travel, data processing, etc) but didn’t know how they were going to be done. Right now, I don’t think there’s too many things that have entered that stage: There’s stuff we can’t do yet, like travel to Pluto, but that’s not new. The only field I can think of where not before thought of progress can be made is biology, and that’s an avenue a lot of people are uncomfortable with.

    Meanwhile, the Big New Ideas in the world seem to be social and memetic, not physical. iPods and the whole idea of reworking music distribution is merely the application of existing technology to allow people to act in ways they didn’t know they wanted to, and that’s a lot harder of a premise to predict the future from than having things you wish you could do but can’t.

  15. The quote that mensley posted above caught my attention, too. Was Charlie Stross slamming Old Man’s War?

    Also, Mike Kozlowski is dead on. I don’t avoid certain books because I’m insecure or timid about my country’s place in the world. That might console Mr. Stross as he’s gulping warm ale in Edinborough, but it’s BS. I skip most sf because too much of it is crap that cares too much about being “hard” and not enough about sf-optional details like characterization.

    Just once, I’d like to see sf writers acknowledge that the genre’s market share is slipping not because of cultural decay, or anti-intellectual backlash, or luddite pastoral nostalgia, or timid editors, or people who are willing to create a bin Laden future for our grandchildren. Just once I’d like to hear some of them say that it’s because the writers are no longer speaking to a large audience. They don’t want[1] to speak to a large audience (of “fuggeheads”).

    But that won’t happen, because a world where sf writers and fans stop thinking of themselves and the brainiest of all would be pure fantasy, and we all know that “Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in.”

    [1]I realize that you’re the exception here, John, and I respect that. OMW was one of the best sf novels I’ve read in the last year.

  16. Turtledove is a very good writer, and deserves his audience (Wouldn’t you know that Brust and Turtledove both have books come out the week I quit the bookstore?); it could well be that everyone else wandered into a wallmart to see what was selling and grabbed Alt. History…

  17. WHat’s so great about the near future anyway? I mean, I love OMW for one reason because it takes place a while from now, is full of aliens and is full of cool gadgetry. If i want near future excitement, I go read the newspaper or Wired and think about how things might develop. Woo-woo, I’m a near futurist. I find most science fiction that deals with near future concepts pretty boring, personally.

    That said, a story I’m working on now is set a mere hundred years from today. Woo-woo, I’m a 22nd centurist.

  18. Harry Connolly:

    “The quote that mensley posted above caught my attention, too. Was Charlie Stross slamming Old Man’s War?”

    I doubt it. He’s a friend of mine and we’ve chatted about the book before. I know what he thinks of it.

  19. The reason Americans aren’t writing forward-looking SF any more is that forward-looking SF these days is all technotopia Singularity hyper-wired shit, and it all sucks irredeemably as literature. Not even Vernor Vinge could make that Stross/Doctorow/Wired stuff interesting in Rainbows End; and if Vinge can’t make a subgenre interesting, it’s just not interesting.

    I don’t entirely agree with this, as I thought Rainbows End was a very entertaining book. But it succeeds in large part because it comes at the “Stross/Doctorow/Wired stuff” from an angle, rather than making it the focus of the story. In fact, that’s true of nearly all of Vinge’s “Singularity” themed work, and I think it’s one of the reasons why his books on the subject are so much more readable than most of the others out there.

  20. I’d like to note the 2nd paragraph of my previous post should have been italicized too, as it waz also quoting Mitch Wagner’s post, although it wasn’t being quoted by him like the 1st paragraph was.

  21. Andrew – That explains it then. I read the second paragraph of your penultimate post, and said to myself, “Damn, that’s guy’s smart! Hell of a good writer too!”

  22. Steve Brady wrote:

    “Everyone knows that Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is, maybe he didn’t?”

    Ah, but Old Custer was literary fiction, not alternative history!

  23. American SF has followed american liberalism from its conseption…The left (a sub-group of liberalism) has fallen in to a pit of empty ideas and non-existant ideals…it is no mistake that american SF has followed…or that Vinge, a non-left liberal, is an exeption.

    It is also no mistake Kim Stanly Robbinson use to write stories about a hopeful future then wrote alternative earth hitory, then wtote a book about global warming that no one has read.

    Anyway my 10$ is that Ian M Banks is voting Liberal Democrat rather then Labor…as most other UK Authors.

  24. Andrew – That explains it then. I read the second paragraph of your penultimate post, and said to myself, “Damn, that’s guy’s smart! Hell of a good writer too!”

    Right, but how much less smart do I sound now that you know which parts are entirely mine? ;)

    Seriously, what big changes in life can you see coming from a technological change? All the big changes in the past few years have been new website ideas, in a way. Blogs, LiveJournal, Myspace, Gmail, etc are ideas, more than technology. Once you get past having an internet, I don’t think there are any real practical technological limitations that matter too much. Sure, there’s stuff that’s hard or expensive to do now, that no one has put the effort in to do, but is there anything that people would like to do but isn’t possible yet?

  25. Also I think that John completely missed it that this barb was directed at him:

    And they’re not even Doing It in spaaaaaaace. Well, some of them are: if I see one more novel about the US Marine Corps in the Thirty Seventh Century (with interstellar amphibious assault ships and a different name) I swear I’ll up and join the Foreign Legion.

    Not that I agree with Stross or anything

    :)

  26. On the specific point of Charlie Stross overlooking the possibility that Turtledove et al. might be writing alt-history sf because it’s popular, rather than because of some terrible national neurosis–I’ve noticed in the past that non-Americans tend not to get just how huge a presence in the American psyche the US Civil War has. More Americans, North and South, died in the Civil War than in all our wars since, combined. It shaped our landscape and still reverberates strongly in our politics. Northerners and southerners have strongly divergent views both on what did happen, and on what should have happened.

    It’s a major–in many ways the major–formative episode in the history Europeans sometimes seem not to realize America has, separate from footnotes to European history.

    (Of course, we are also experiencing a spate of really fine British sf writers just now.)

    (And I must object to the lack of taste involved in dissing Vinge’s exceptionally fine work. If Rainbows End doesn’t deserve to win the Best Novel Hugo, we may never recover from the shock of reading so much excellent sf in one year.)

  27. joshua corning: “American SF has followed american liberalism from its conseption…The left (a sub-group of liberalism) has fallen in to a pit of empty ideas and non-existant ideals…it is no mistake that american SF has followed…or that Vinge, a non-left liberal, is an exeption.”

    Oh, good, another example of how every single thing wrong with America is to be blamed on liberalism.

    For example, we had Chinese take-out tonight. Ordered hot-and-sour soup. Didn’t get the noodles. Got home. Wished I had the noodles. Making me another victim of the American liberal conspiracy!

  28. Ah were just takiing a break. Right now globalism is big. It’s like the ‘Kiss me I’m American’ T-Shirts.

  29. Joshua Corning:

    “Also I think that John completely missed it that this barb was directed at him”

    This is why you need to read the entire thread, Joshua, since I did already discuss this.

    I know Charlie well enough to know that if he had any specific problem with OMW he wanted to share with his readers, he would call it out by name. Also, he would know I would want him to do that.

  30. As I commented over there, SF/F has always reflected it’s times, but there are also “ecological” considerations, as the most successful works inspire imitators.

  31. Why is the Singularity supposed to be so friggin’ inevitable anyway? It’s about as inevitable as the consensus SF future of solar system expansion and Galactic Empire was fifty years ago.

    I’m a technological optimist in the sense that I think technical and scientific knowledge and development are absolutely necessary for a decent human future. But it’s hard to work in software and come away thinking that some asymptotic intelligence explosion is going to sweep everything away. Computer hardware has developed exponentially for a few decades, but like transportation tech before it, it’s probably going to level out in a logistic S-curve eventually. Meanwhile, our practices of software development have hardly moved forward in 20 years, despite changing tools and theoretical fashions.

    There’s also the problem of garbage-in-garbage-out. A while ago, in a comment thread on Unfogged, Gary Farber linked to an online transcript of Murray Leinster’s 1946 story “A Logic Named Joe”, which had me utterly gobsmacked. This was in many ways probably the most prescient science-fiction story ever written, in that, while it’s a basic AI-run-amok story, Leinster basically correctly described personal computers, the Internet, weather.com, iChat, and the practice of Googling your old boyfriend; you could even argue he comes within a stone’s throw of Wikipedia. The rogue AI’s plan is basically to bring about what would later be described as the Singularity, by giving any human the necessary information to do anything possible.

    But the one thing Leinster didn’t foresee was that the “data plates” in information servers all over the world would be contaminated with so much false or dubious information. That’s a hard thing to get around if you want to ascend to godhood.

  32. I “skimmed” “A Logic Namee Joe” a few months ago, and a couple of things impressed me.

    The first thing that impressed me was, of course, what you said, Matt–he not only predicted the Internet as it is today, but he also predicted the little details of how it’s used. It’s as though he not only predicted the automobile in 1900, but also the interstate highway system, traffic jams, rental cars, and fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror.

    The story itself revolved around an issue that’s very much in the headlines today: Should dangerous information be accessible on the Internet? Should we permit bomb-making instructions, tips on how to commit murder and get away with it, and other such incendiary info?

    The story provides an answer that most of us here would recoil in horror at: The network is controlled by a single, benevolent monopoly, which exercises complete censorship power over online content. Or, at least it is until Joe comes along. I’m not sure how the story turns out.

    P.S. When I say I “skimmed” the story, I mean I listened to a dramatization of it on the excellent Spaceship Radio podcast,

    http://www.spaceshipradio.com/

    which plays classic science fiction radio dramas from the 1950s. Great stuff.

  33. Matt McIrvin

    Meanwhile, our practices of software development have hardly moved forward in 20 years, despite changing tools and theoretical fashions.

    You make some good points, but this isn’t one of them. Software development today is light years ahead of what it was 20 years ago.

    I’ve been there and done that for a bit longer than 20 years.

  34. Software development today is light years ahead of what it was 20 years ago.

    Speaking as someone who builds software development tools for fun and profit, I’d have to disagree. If you went back in time twenty years, and did a straightforward extrapolation of what software development would look like if we didn’t have to worry about CPU, RAM, or hard disk space, you’d pretty much end up with the current state of the art. Software developers today aren’t doing anything today that hadn’t already been thought of in 1970. We’ve just stopped having to do as much horrible stuff to get it all to work. Becauses of that, we’re much more productive than we were twenty years ago, perhaps as much as a factor of 15x-30x, but not because of any great theoretical breakthroughs in how software development is done, more because we finally have affordable machines that are able to run the tools and environments that were already on the drawing board back then.

    There’s some exciting new stuff on the horizon (resilient active components, heuristic static analyses, language-level transaction support, DSL design meta-tooling, cross-tier programming languages, declarative monitoring, hygienic metaprogramming, truly collaborative development tools), but it’s going to be a while before any of that makes it to the street. Even then, I’m pretty sure that the practics of software development in 2020 is going to be recognizable to a time-travelling software developer from 1976.

  35. I wondered just what the heck Charlie was reading, and then saw that Laurell Hamilton was mentioned. Anita is doing furries — and just so much sex that there is no story, but she hasn’t come to Jesus yet. Doubt she will.

    So *what* is he reading??

  36. Dave

    Software developers today aren’t doing anything today that hadn’t already been thought of in 1970.

    I pretty much agree with much of what you say, but the fact remains that software development is light years ahead of where we were in the 1980s. Which tells me that don’t disagree so much as have different perspective on what we mean by advancement.

    Now you have to understand that I come from a perspective of being a software developer of safety-critical systems for aerospace applications. In my world, everything must work or people die. Also, I work in the world of embedded systems, though increasinly, aircraft are moving away from embedded systems.

    Everything we do in this world is governed by a Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) document designated DO-178b which defines the guidelines for development of aviation software in the USA. All software developed for commercial aircraft must be certified to the objectives defined within this document by the FAA.

    And the fact is, so much has changed since the 80’s that software we produced back then could not be certified today for flight-critical systems.

    Back in the 80’s everything was done in assembler. And pretty much the only real design practice we followed was structured programming methods.

    Global data was the norm. This is no lonfer the case. Assembler is now the exception and Global Data is a dirty word.

    It is quite true that advancement in hardware technology has allowed for advancement in software development, we are no longer compelled to use assembler. However, design techniques such as encapsulation, abstraction, typeing, data and control coupling, etc are not things available to us 20 years ago even though sich ideas were concieved in the late 70s.

    In addition to that, Software processes were very immature back in the day. Twenty years ago the Capability Maturity Model was pretty much unheard of outside the academic community while today, not being rated at CMM level 3 or better is serious debility when trying to obtain software contracts.

    So both in terms of software process and design concepts software development methodologies are much advanced from where they were.

    On the horizon I see actual software coding by engineers, or programmers as becoming increasingly extinct.

    Mathcad’s Simulink is increasingly becoming a standard for system design and requirements specification. And Mathworks continue to improve the capability of Simulink’s autocode generator.

    The French company Esterel Technologies has gone one step further with their SCADE product: They claim to be able to auto-generate DO-178B certifiable code from their system models. Airbus insists that all subcontractors of software systems be able to accept system-level requirements in SCADE as a minimum.

    While these autocode generation tools still have a ways to go, especially where embedded systems are concerned (but increasingly, aircraft design is doing away with the traditional “black-box” approach anyway) these tools are getting more powerful and the day will come, probably before I retire, when software engineering will typically involve more engineering and less coding.

    So while I don’t deny your points, software development is light years ahead of what we were doing 20 years ago.

  37. CoolBlue


    Which tells me that don’t disagree so much as have different perspective on what we mean by advancement.

    Reading over your post, I concur. I’m in enterprise, rather than embedded, so the actual technologies involved are different, but the arc is the same.

    I fervently hope that an advance can occur in software development technologies that is as large as the advances that occur seemingly continuously in hardware development. Until that happens, we’ve got plenty of headroom for strong incremental progress of the sort that most trades can only dream about, but we have proved ourselves to be in a truly silver-bullet free zone. Perhaps I’m wishing for the moon.

  38. I said 20 years because that’s about how long I’ve been coding, off and on. Maybe it’s that I went from advanced desktop scientific workstations into embedded programming, so I was way ahead of the consumer curve back then and am working with more limited systems now. But in the 1980s I was already able to do at least some work in high-level languages with structure and typing and such, and most of the concepts and methods I use today certainly existed at least in theory. The windows/icons/mouse/pointer paradigm even already existed, though it was a few years away from taking over the world.

    Anyway, there’s certainly been some advancement, in that we have better source control systems and debuggers and such, and there’s more use of things like object-oriented languages (though whether this is even an advance is debated), and, yes, there’s stuff like CMM and slightly better organizational understanding of how to run a software operation.

    But it’s nothing like what’s happened to the hardware; there’s no sense of an ever-speeding exponential explosion. It’s more like laboriously won linear progress in a very human art. People try in any number of ways to use all this exploding hardware power to assist in developing software, but it seems as if this is a very hard problem. Machines can compile high-level code and generate an API skeleton and do other things that help a lot, but it’s not as if the machines are on the verge of seizing the baton and leaving us behind.

  39. Matt and Henry

    Well this seems like a good time for a plug.

    So anybuddy who wants to enjoy the Green (and very Blue) state of Vermont, we desperately need some Software Engineers with embedded experience.

    Contact me if you’re interested.

    (Hope you don’t mind my efforts at recruiting, John)

  40. joshua corning:

    Anyway my 10$ is that Ian M Banks is voting Liberal Democrat rather then Labor…as most other UK Authors.

    I don’t see how this relates to the rest of your comment; for what it’s worth, though, I don’t doubt that Banksie is voting for someone other than Labour these days. But I suspect that is because Labour have become too right-wing. They’re almost like the US Democrats these days ;-)

  41. Liberal Democrats are liberals but have sluffed off the socialism of labor (and nanny state popularism)…the american equivalnet of UK liberal Democrat is libertarian…which is a very diffenent animal then say what your average lefty american sci-fi writter is…

    I think the shift from lefty liberalism to libertarian liberalism among UK SciFi writters is best illistrated by Banks drinking buddy Ken MacLeod
    who has said in very plain english that he use to to be a lefty liberal and is now a libertarian liberal.

  42. MacLeod is a socialist. A real, honest-to-Marx-and-Engels, sings the Internationale in the shower socialist. Much the same is true of Banks, who has, for instance, campaigned with the Scottish Socialist Party.

  43. joshuacorning, where on Earth did you get the idea that American science fiction was largely an outgrowth of American political liberalism?

    It started in the 1920s, before there was any such thing as liberalism. Pioneering figures such as John Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein were conservatives. Science fiction has always exulted the military and capitalism.

    Science fiction writers, then as now, have represented the breadth of political thinking–probably more broadly than the American population; Poul Anderson, for example, sometimes defended feudalism.

  44. MacLeod is a socialist.

    I think the term is ‘was’ a socialist.

    http://reason.com/0011/cr.jw.anarchies.shtml

    on a side note I found his work to be unreadable…but that is just me.

    joshuacorning, where on Earth did you get the idea that American science fiction was largely an outgrowth of American political liberalism?

    I did not say that.
    I am only postulating what it is that makes current UK Sci-Fi appealing to Stross vs current american Sci-Fi.

    But to address your point I would say that Sci-Fi often address political possibilities…it would be a pretty hard to convince anyone that WE is not a political work. A book written between 1920 and 1921 at the dawn of your era of Sci-Fi’s start.

  45. Oh, good, another example of how every single thing wrong with America is to be blamed on liberalism.

    That is actually funny so I give credit where credit is due before my unfunny response…

    The blame to be specific is with a particular sub-sect of liberalism.

    I am wealthy healthy and happy and I explicitly blame liberalism for that.

  46. Why is the Singularity supposed to be so friggin’ inevitable anyway?

    Read Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Singularity is Near”

    His argument is that the rate of humanities aquiring knowlage is acelerating and if it continues to it will reach a point where aqusition will be infinately fast…ie the singularity.

    Anyway I am not completly convinced but if you are honestly looking for the the answer to your question i feel that above mentioned book gives the best answer to be found.

  47. Joshua (and everyone else), as much as possible try to aggregate your responses to multiple people into one post. I find multiple sequential posts from the same author rather deeply annoying. Call it a personal quirk.

  48. Mitch Wagner

    [Science Fiction] started in the 1920s, before there was any such thing as liberalism.

    I believe that the intellectual underpinnings of liberalism were advocated much before the 1920s by Locke, Hume and Adam Smith. And certainly one would have to look to Thomas Paine, Jefferson and John Adams as promoters of political Liberalism.

    Science fiction has always exulted the military and capitalism.

    So did Democrats once upon a time, not too long ago. I would point out FDR, JFK and what some of us nostalgicly refer to as the Scoop Jackson era of the Democrat party.

    Of course, this strain is steadily being expunged. We’ll see how far this is gone when the polls close today in CT.

  49. Mitch Wagner writes:

    “joshuacorning, where on Earth did you get the idea that American science fiction was largely an outgrowth of American political liberalism?

    It started in the 1920s, before there was any such thing as liberalism. Pioneering figures such as John Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein were conservatives. Science fiction has always exulted the military and capitalism.

    Hello, Mitch, this is very silly stuff. In the 1930s, Heinlein was an activist and organizer for Upton Sinclair’s socialist EPIC campaigns in California; in 1938, he himself ran unsuccesfully for the California state assembly on a left-wing platform. In 1940, he was an alternate delegate to the national Democratic convention. His turn to the right began with his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld in 1948.

    This thread appears to be sprouting ignorant assertions about politics the way an untended garden sprouts weeds. One such loopy assertion is my pal Mitch’s claim that there was “no such thing as liberalism” in the 1920s. Certainly the exact political meaning of term “liberal” has shifted around over time, taking on different nuances in Britain, Europe, and the US, but the term has been well-established since the 19th century and was in widespread use in American politics in the 1920s. Certainly the local and state-level politicians who would go on a decade later to implement the New Deal would have, in the 1920s, answered to the term.

    Another jaw-dropper is Joshua Corning’s notion that “the american equivalent of UK liberal Democrat is libertarian.” Yes, aside from the fact that American free-market libertarians and British Liberal Democrats disagree fundamentally on the proper role of the state in, um, everything, they’re just like one another.

  50. “what some of us nostalgicly refer to as the Scoop Jackson era of the Democrat party”

    Ah, the Lost Era of Henry Jackson, when Democrats were just as willing to kill brown people as Republicans. One of the foundational political myths of modern American war fans of all stripes.

    It’s total baloney, of course.

  51. It’s fairly silly to claim that some kind of post 9-11 malaise is responsible for the alt. history craze, if it exists at all. The present popularity of the genre traces back to Guns of the South, which came out in the mid-90s. Now I suppose it could all be connected to Americans being all sad about the lack of a Cold War, but really.
    Assuming that there really is a problem in sci-fi, I would place it on a general discomfort with our present stalemated social and political systems. In the past, Wells, Heinlein, Dick, etc. were imagining their own utopias and dystopias and the path to get there. Today not too many people are thinking utopia (and dystopia is played out to some extent), so it’s harder to write near future, and the more distant future looks disturbingly similiar to the present (not an OMW criticism).
    Still I think the filthy lucre argument makes more sense.

  52. “Does his being Canadian, and having penned a parallel history with his Hominoids series, disqualify him?”

    Actually, he’s a dual citizen of Canada and the USA. This came up a while back when a con chair (I think) who had neglected to buy Sawyer the plane tickets he was promised to come to a con as a GOH tried to hint that Saywer couldn’t get on account of being all furrin and a security risk.

    Humane examination of prominent Canadian SF writers reveals a US connection for a lot of them.
    Sawyer is dual citizen. Wilson was born in the USA. Sean Williams was raised in Texas during the summers (and may have moved to the US, I’ve lost track). A lot of people like Robinson: he’s an import from New York. I’m never sure if William Gibson is naturalized or a permanent resident but he started off as an American. I could go on, I’m sure.

    The logical deduction I make from this is that Americans write better in Canada and therefore someone should hand me two million dollars to set up a writer’s colony (Honest, I have a property in mind, good for about thirty to sixty people).

  53. “A big part of the reason for technological optimism being in decline as a writing theme is that, if you take it seriously, you end up having to write Singularity literature.”

    What I find even more disturbing than Vinge’s Singularity is the great Cloth Singularity of the 19th century. If you look at the figures from the early industrial revolution, it’s clear that not only were people making more money from cotton and the like, but that the efficiency of investments in that field was increasing as well. By my calculations, this inevitably leads to the conversion of all organic matter to cloth, sometime before the end of the 20th century (Orginally, it looked like we might have until the 21st or 22nd, but then I realized the rate of change was itself increasing). It’s an economic inevitability.

  54. Joshua (and everyone else), as much as possible try to aggregate your responses to multiple people into one post. I find multiple sequential posts from the same author rather deeply annoying. Call it a personal quirk.

    Bwahahahahahahaha!!

  55. I’d like to amend my previous response to joshua corning. He said:

    “American SF has followed american liberalism from its conseption…The left (a sub-group of liberalism) has fallen in to a pit of empty ideas and non-existant ideals…it is no mistake that american SF has followed…or that Vinge, a non-left liberal, is an exeption.”

    I responded dismissively, communicating by means of humor that I thought joshua was completey full of baloney, and his ideas were loony.

    I’d like to amend that statement slightly, and instead say, hmmm… you may have a point there.

    I disagree with this part: “The left (a sub-group of liberalism) has fallen in to a pit of empty ideas and non-existant ideals.” There’s plenty of good ideas in the American left today, right now, and fine ideals. You can see them every day in the liberal and left blogosphere. But, unfortunately, these ideas and ideals are not being expressed by our national leaders. I hope that’ll change soon–I think the future of America depends on it changing.

    On the other hand, it’s an interesting thing to consider, that the collapse of American sf and the collapse of American liberalism go hand-in-hand.

    That’s if American sf has collapsed. I’m not convinced it has.

    Also: Vinge is nobody’s liberal. He’s a libertarian.

  56. That’s if American sf has collapsed. I’m not convinced it has.

    Yeah I have pretty much abandonded that idea…stross seems to argue that americans arn’t writting near future singularity stuff and therefor it is bad.

    Which I find kind of strange becosue it is my opinion that the only people who have written good singularity work are Egan and vinge who are austrailian and american respectivly (note I have not read Vinge’s latest novel)

    Vinge is nobody’s liberal. He’s a libertarian.

    Libertarians are liberals…just not members of the left. You will have to excuse me from accepting Kos’s and Limbaugh’s definition of what a liberal is.

  57. the great Cloth Singularity of the 19th century

    Thank you, James. I’ve been at a loss for how to express my failjure to believe in the Singularity, and now you’ve done it for me. Personally, I find the Singularity idea and its cousins uncompelling and uninteresting for themselves, though there have been some very good books written with it in them.

    I just thought of something though. I just realized that when we’re looking at stories with a lot of grimness in them, and we then call those stories a bleak view of the future, we might sometimes be missing the story’s real relationship with the future. Because sf isn’t, really, usually an attempt to predict what will happen, it’s looking at what could maybe happen, and what could maybe happen because of that.

    Especially with respect to writers like Stephenson, and Robinson, and Sterling, the very fact of the writing seems to me to be optimistic. The fact that these things are worth contemplating is optimistic. And then, within these stories, you see people struggling to make things better and not getting completely shattered in the process, even when they lose: that’s optimistic.

    And then, finally, there’s a thing about the nature of story. There’s no story unless something untoward happens somewhere along the line: an eventor a process or a condition which is undesirable for somebody. At least an unsatisfactory condition the characters want to improve, if not outright disaster. If you think about something happening and the trajectory you come up with is that if this happens, everything will be all right and nothing bad will happen, you don’t have a story. So naturally stories are full of danger and grimness and anger and sorrow.

  58. Thanks, Gary. I read the story years ago, but pretty much forgot all the details–including the ending.

    When I said earlier that I “skimmed” it, what I meant to say was that I listened to the podcast, but with crappy headphones, so I couldn’t understand half of it and then finally bailed out after a few minutes.

    joshua corning – Libertarians are liberals…just not members of the left. You will have to excuse me from accepting Kos’s and Limbaugh’s definition of what a liberal is.

    Huh? The accepted definition of liberal, even by liberals themselves, includes liberals as part of the political left. I think that ‘most everybody would agree about that, including Kos, Howard Dean, George McGovern, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter.

  59. I looked over the articles.

    The second one states: “Broadly speaking, contemporary liberalism emphasizes individual rights.” I know many conservatives would disagree with that. I think those conservatives have a screw loose, but that’s just me.

    Here’s my point: Modern liberalism is characterized by strong government interference in the free market. This is why libertarianism and liberalism are antithetical.

  60. I interviewed Robert Charles Wilson a month or so back and I don’t think he would refer to himself as a Canadian. He lives in Canada but he’s American.

  61. Modern liberalism is characterized by strong government interference in the free market. This is why libertarianism and liberalism are antithetical.

    strictly speaking and an a bad day I would rewrite this to say:

    Socialism is characterized by strong government interference in the free market. This is why liberalism and the left are antithetical.

    But I can be mangnanimous and simply conceed that the left are simply confused liberals.

    For the life of me I cannot see how regressing back to the days of tyranny is progress…what does the left think “We got rid of the god freaks now the state can retighten its grip on the economy and everything will be all right”

    Weird.

  62. Look, I’m not arguing about the rightness or wrongness of liberalism, just trying to express the common definition of the word. If you want to claim that FDR, LBJ, JFK, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and their ilk weren’t really liberals, they were, in fact, socialists, that’s ok with me. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Fox News and the Washington Times might well agree with you.

    I agree with you that tyranny is a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m 100% down with child protection laws, health inspection of restaurant kitchens, building codes, using the government to desegregate schools, and other terrors of the ee-vial liberal philosophy.

    Reading over the links you sent me, I conclude that you, sir, are a capital-L Libertarian. Says right there in one of the articles that libertarians consider themselves the true liberals, and the people that most of society considered as liberals for most of the last half of the 20th Century are in fact, well, something else entirely.

  63. Sorry to come in a little late…

    I think Charlie was being provocative for effect, and it did start a lively conversation on his blog. He does Alternate History himself, after all.

    As to the dearth of near-future SF, there are probably a lot of reasons.

    One is simply that SF has acquired a history. When Heinlein was doing his ‘future history’, it was more or less a first.

    But we’ve been there, done that, and seen the embarassing results. The fact of the matter is that SF writers are terrible at predicting the future. They tend to fail badly, and to do so in characteristic ways; straight-line extrapolations of contemporary trends, while missing the new stuff that really matters.

    Hence the ever-bigger, ever-faster rockets just as transport speeds were about to top out.

    I suspect a lot of us are doing the same thing with computers, while missing the real story — possibly biotech.

    That’s why I don’t find the Singularity stuff at all persuasive, or even interesting. Technology doesn’t continue to accelerate; it goes through a slow starting phase, takes off for the moon, the S-curves out.

    And we’re even worse at anticipating social/cultural trends. For example, see how many “overpopulation” stories are still being done, when the real crisis of the 21st century is going to be aging, declining populations all over the world, with Germany and Japan just a bit ahead of the curve.

    Hence you could make a good argument that rise-of-China stories are already obsolete, because of the very rapid aging of the Chinese population. A huge mass of geezers is not a world-conquering instrument.

    I don’t do near-future stuff myself, partly because I’m conscious of the above. Alternate History gives you a more untrammeled canvas. And anyway, SF isn’t really about the future; it’s about a particular present’s _idea_ of the future. AH does that just as well, or rather better.

    As an aside, Nicolls is quite right about the “Eurabia” panic. The figures don’t add up — Turkey and most of the Mahgreb, for example, now has sub-replacement level fertility too; Tunisia’s birth-rate is lower than France or Norway’s. Fertility rates in the Middle East are plunging with astonishing speed, much faster than they did in Europe.

    This isn’t to say that the Muslim communities in Europe (or rather a significant minority among them) aren’t a serious problem, but they’re not going to be putting minarets on Notre Dame any time soon.

    “Eurabia” is mostly a rhetorical device, a needle to stick into certain rumps for the pleasure of seeing them scream and leap.

    Extremely low fertility levels, ones well below replacement level, OTOH, _are_ a terrible problem that’s largely being ignored. It’s just that this is probably going to be a _worldwide_ problem, except possibly in the US.

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