There’s something very “Community theater version of Dracula” about this picture, isn’t there? It’s really a picture of us before her school’s father-daughter dance last weekend. A rather less dramatic picture of the two of us is here.
Hey: Do you like your life? If your answer is “sure, but it could always be better,” then David Louis Edelman would like a word with you. Edelman is thinking about humans and their capacity for dissatisfaction, and how that concept relates to his acclaimed “Jump 225,” trilogy, of which Geosynchron is the concluding volume. Will you be satisfied with his exploration of both? That, my friend, is entirely up to you.
DAVID LOUIS EDELMAN:
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You either love it to pieces like cats and mieces, or you think it’s a pretentious piece of crap.
I belong in the former category, and it’s partly because of a scene from the novel that never made it into the film. The book begins with the man-ape known as Moon-Watcher encountering a strange piece of advanced alien technology. This black monolith shows him an image of a fat and happy family of humans – humans who aren’t constantly starving, who aren’t constantly worried for their safety. Clarke writes:
Moon-Watcher felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy – of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.
Here’s the thing that’s intrigued me ever since I read those lines back in junior high school – one of the things that inspired my Jump 225 trilogy, consisting of the novels Infoquake, MultiReal and Geosynchron. We in the developed world are those fat and happy humans that Moon-Watcher was envying. We don’t have to worry about starvation, we’re not constantly looking over our shoulders for marauding tigers. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’ve got the physiological level down, no sweat.
But we’ve still got that vague feeling of discontent. No matter how much we achieve or how comfortable we get, there’s always a fatter and happier group of humans right over the horizon. Maybe they’ve got a hundred million dollars in their bank account. Maybe they’ve got a bigger plasma screen or a faster PC or a cooler car. But this isn’t just a question of materialism; even people who aren’t caught on the endless treadmill of Newer and Shinier Stuff feel this discontent. Maybe they feel they’re not having enough sex, or maybe they feel they’re not reading enough, or maybe they’re dissatisfied with their carbon footprint. Maybe they’re doing just fine on a personal level, but they feel the world around them needs some serious work.
Regardless, something’s driving us to get out of bed in the morning and to compete, to strive, to better ourselves and the world around us.
The human race is powered by dissatisfaction, as Arthur C. Clarke noted above. We have this innate and unquenchable urge to progress. To change. To move. That constant feeling of vague unease that Moon-Watcher experienced is written in our DNA. It may have been an evolutionarily useful trait that helped the species survive the lean times, but now we’re stuck with it like a vestigial limb.
But why? And where are we progressing to?
In my novel Infoquake (book 1 of the Jump 225 trilogy), the character Figaro Fi talks about this constant urge in terms of “bio/logic” software, or software that runs on the human body:
Want is everywhere. It’s in people. It’s in programming. In politics. In nature. The universe just won’t stay still. It wants to move; even its smallest particles want to be in motion. Take bio/logics. Aren’t bio/logic programs in a natural state of incompleteness? We release 1.0 of a program, and inevitably it is imperfect. Version 1.0s want a version 2.0, don’t they? They practically beg for it. You toil for months on version 2.0, and you’ve still barely tapped into its bottomless reservoir of want. Version 2.0 wants a version 3, version 3.0 wants a version 4, and so on and on and on and on and on – forever!
If any civilization should be ready to declare victory over the world and put the urge to improve to rest, it’s the civilization of my Jump 225 novels. The people in my novels have nanobots called OCHREs floating in their bloodstream which cure disease. They can instantly project a virtual body around the globe using something called the multi network. They can hook into their version of the Internet straight from their brains, and hold silent conversations without letting on that they’re even communicating with someone. They’ve got a network for virtual sex that takes place entirely in the mind, so it’s free of mess and disease.
Sounds like paradise to us. But then again, imagine what Moon-Watcher would think if you told him you have a soft bed, a climate-controlled house, a wheeled vehicle that can travel seventy miles an hour, and a small metal box that allows you to talk to anyone on the entire planet, instantly. Oh yeah, and you also have so much food that you can tape it to your cat just for fun.
Moon-Watcher would have trouble imagining why you ever have a moment of want or dissatisfaction. And we might feel that way about the world of Jump 225. Yet there’s still room for a ruthless and amoral entrepreneur like my protagonist Natch to trammel over his competitors. There are still warring segments of society and bickering politicians. My secondary protagonist Jara still worries about whether she can pay the bills and whether she can find true love and self-worth.
So if we’re still struggling a thousand years from now, will we ever reach perfection? (It’s not for nothing that the standard greeting of the characters in the Jump 225 universe is “Towards Perfection.”) One day we’ll figure out homelessness and war and poverty and starvation and disease, right? Could we ever solve all of our problems, and what would that look like?
Glad you asked.
Into the middle of all of my characters’ striving and struggling comes a radical new technology called MultiReal. I don’t have space to describe the technology in full here – that takes most of book 2 – but it’s basically an ultra-powerful prediction engine that allows you to see the consequences of your choices. You can predict where you’re going to hit a baseball to the extent that you can hit it exactly where you want, every time. You can shoot a gun and never miss your target.
During the course of book 2, MultiReal, we discover that not only can you determine whether you should take road A or road B… by cracking the code of human consciousness, the software allows you to actually take both roads at once. Avatar can win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and The Hurt Locker can too — as can Star Trek and I Love You, Man, for that matter. (In real life, of course, we all know that Up deserves the Oscar. I will brook no discussion on this.)
Let’s go back to the theory that dissatisfaction powers the human race. How can you possibly be dissatisfied with power like MultiReal at your disposal? If everyone can get what they want, wouldn’t that dispense with human conflict altogether? Wouldn’t that make governments obsolete? Where else could the human race possibly progress to?
But even if MultiReal represents Perfection for the human race, what’s the price for achieving it? In Geosynchron, the concluding volume of the trilogy, our protagonist Natch finds out exactly how humanity can get itself off of that endless treadmill of dissatisfaction, what that means, and what it costs.
Is that price worth paying? And if so, who should pay it?
Infoquake, MultiReal and Geosynchron are in stores and available online now. And I just discovered last week that Locus will say this about Geosynchron in its March issue: “This smart, idiosyncratic blend of cyberpunk, libertarian entrepreneurship, and social engineering will, I think, stand as a seminal work of 21st century SF.”
Which has rid me of my own vague sense of dissatisfaction. For a few days, at least.
Hey, remember how I was telling you about the French language chapbook of my story, “After the Coup?” Well, I’m auctioning off a signed copy over at Con or Bust, which is LiveJournal group set up to help bring fans of color to Wiscon and other science fiction conventions. Other authors and science fiction folk are also auctioning off signed books and other goodies; participants include Toby Buckell, Jo Walton, N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and Cherie Priest, for starters. Lots of good stuff for science fiction and fantasy fans.
This particular chapbook is a rarity on this side of the Atlantic, so if you’re an obsessive completest of Scalzi stuff, this is likely to give you the sort of bragging rights other North Americans can only dream of. I’ve already signed the copy I’m auctioning, but if the winner of the auction wants, I’ll also personalize it. You can’t beat that.