The Big Idea: David Louis Edelman
Posted on February 24, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
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.
Geosynchron: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the Geosynchron Web site. Read an excerpt. Visit David Louis Edelman’s blog.
It’s an intruiging concept and now I’m going to look out for your books.
I also loved that you know the reader audience here, thanks for the joke!
it’s basically an ultra-powerful prediction engine that allows you to see the consequences of your choices
I’m intrigued, and I’m curious about how a society could evolve enough to make rational decisions based on those prediction engines. As a society, we seem to ignore the ones we already have, or find a tame scientist or economist to say what we want to hear.
And even on an individual scale, do we not know that the extra doughnut will result in extra pounds, and eat it anyway? If we knew for a certainty that we would be ejected from an airplane for excess weight, would we desist? Or would we cancel the reservation and have another doughnut? ;)
I loved space odyssey and this sounds like very interesting stuff with a good cover to boot. Just ordered Infoquake.
And I’ll second Liz on the good joke there… :D
I read InfoQuake and it spent so much time setting up MultiReal and then just…ended that I wasn’t tempted to read the next book in the series. Now that I know where this book goes, I think I’ll give the series another shot.
@ #2 kejia : actually, we do not know for certain that an extra doughnut will add any weight. But this is not the place to discuss the dangers of taking thermodynamics for granted.
People do always seem to want more, better, faster. If a prediction engine shows us exactly how to get more, better, faster, I think a lot of people will try to go for that. I don’t think humans will ever stop wanting, even if their life seems perfect, they will always find something to nitpick about, something that makes them unhappy. I think the only thing that might help is Buddhism.
I know this is shallow, but that’s the best cover ever. And it’s an interesting concept.
I have read both Infoquake and MultiReal. I loved both of them. The technology and world were very different from what I am used to reading. I ran out and bought Geosynchron yesterday. Can’t wait to read it. Gotta finish my current book first though. If you are looking for some very unique Science Fiction you should definitely check these out.
“Oh yeah, and you also have so much food that you can tape it to your cat just for fun.”
I’m congested, so that snort actually hurt. But in a good way.
I agree with your premise of that universe is always in motion and that human society always wants more. This is one of the best Big Ideas and makes me want to go right out and get the book. Well, all three books. And thanks for the joke!
One of my yoga teachers once talked about a more modern translation of the Buddha’s four noble truths — instead of the “Life means suffering”, it’s “Life means being dissatisfied.” I’m really intrigued that someone used this as a theme. Will have to look these books up.
You sold me on buying the book by the third paragraph…….
Now, I’m hoping it comes in kindle….
Thanks for the nice comments, all.
Bess @6: Not shallow at all. The cover’s by the great Stephan Martiniere, and I’m frickin’ blown away by it. :-)
Eric @11: The whole trilogy’s out on Kindle. Geosynchron was released yesterday, in fact.
I read InfoQuake and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find MultiReal in a bookstore for love or money. Stores near me that are stocking book 3 only have copies of book 1 on the shelves as well.
Amazon, here I come.
Already ordered the third one for my husband, who is a big fan. Hopefully it will arrive today. I think I will read all three after he is finished!
Took a look over at Amazon, and they’ve already got the first one (Infoquake) available in MM paperback, which is my personal favorite format. And it sounds (actually, all 3 do) like a must-have.
I’m not convinced that this “dissatisfaction treadmill” is necessarily a bad thing. I buy the premise that the ability to be relatively dissatisfied has powered the vast majority of human advancement, but that begs the question: why should we try so hard to shut it down? “To want nothing” sounds like an ideal, but it really means the end of human advancement.
Without having read the book, I’m guessing that’s what the climax is all about: coming to grips with this realization and trying to rollback whatever magic MacGuffin managed to put an end to human want.
@ #17, Austin: Why does “to want nothing” mean the end of human advancement? Maybe the end of rapid, rigorous advancement, but don’t underestimate boredom and curiosity as motivating forces.
This series sounds like tasty brainfood. I’m eager to check it out. Great write-up, David!
I’ve read both InfoQuake and MultiReal (and have even had some email exchanges with Dave about them), and I’m looking forward very much to GeoSynchron.
To be frank: I try to buy my books from SF convention dealer’s rooms as much as possible. So I’ll check if it’s available at the coming UK EasterCon (not sure since it’s a Pyr SF release), otherwise I’ll get it from Amazon: I just want to try first.
But there’s no way that I’m *not* going to read this one.
And as to getting off the ‘treadmill of dissatisfaction’: personally I suspect this is very much a cultural and psychological thing: I have seen people in Third World countries who were happier than most First World citizens.
Quite possibly it’s an evolutionary trait (specifically, a *Darwinian* one) that doesn’t realise it’s actually a hindrance in an evolution that now follows a more *Lamarckian* path.
Also, I think this ‘treadmill of dissatisfaction’ idea greatly overlooks that other human trait: curiosity. People like Einstein, Feynman, Leonardo da Vinci (to name but a few) weren’t driven by dissatisfation, but by a burning need ‘to find things out’.
And that just from the top of my head.
Humanity, right now, is over 6 billion very diverse people. In a future with space colonies it’ll be even more diverse: so one person’s ‘perfection’ is another person’s ‘hell’.
Looking forward to Geosynchron!
Austin @17: Definitely a good point, and one that I think is not lost on the characters in the book. One of the other key concepts in the third book is finding balance — i.e. advancing technologically, but doing it in an intelligent fashion so it doesn’t bite people in the ass.
Jetse @19: Indeed, I didn’t mean to imply that dissatisfaction was the only motivator of human behavior… Curiosity does play a part, as do many other so-called “higher” motivations.
And if you don’t find Geosynchron in the SF con dealers’ rooms, Jetse, you’re gonna show ’em the error of their ways, right? ;-)
Thanks for the reminder! I picked the first of these up on a whim and was thrilled. The stores in Canada don’t seem to be stocking it except online.
The book really reflects upon this state we appear to be moving towards where all information is ‘online’ and nothing is stored locally. It’s a scary enough proposition in our world to think that we are already so dependent on the broadband connections to keep our computers and phones working.
I too am intrigued and will add this to the list of books to acquire once I’ve run out of unread books. (I’ve had Burn by Ted Dekker & Erin Healy sitting around unread for ages, plus I have several titles prefixed with ‘The Bourne…’ yet to read. After that it’s back to scifi :D