Archive for October, 2007

The "Singularity" or "Spike" That Won’t Be

Over the past decade, if not longer, there have been more than a few futurists who have predicted that in a decade or so from now, modern technology will change human society on a scale never before seen or imagined, from implementing the linked society envisioned in Gibson’s Neuromancer to wide-scale nanotech and practical AIs.

It won’t happen. Not even close. Why not? First, because such visions are based on technology, not on humanity. Second, they’re based on a western European/North American cultural chauvinism.

One of the simplest rules involved in implementing technology is that the speed and breadth of such implementation is inversely proportional to the cost and capital required to implement that technology. That’s why we don’t have personal helicopters, technically feasible as they are. It’s also why, like it or not, there’s no supersonic aircraft follow-on to the Concorde. It’s also why iPods and cellphones are ubiquitous, as well as why there are many places in the third world where cellphones are usable, but where landlines are limited or non-existent.

A second rule is that while new technology may well be more energy efficient than older technology, its greater capabilities result in greater overall energy usage, and greater energy usage is getting ever more expensive. A related human problem is that all the “new” technology tends to shift time and effort from existing corporate and governmental structures back onto the individual, sometimes back on higher-paid professionals. For example, the computer has largely replaced secretaries and typists, and this means that executives and attorneys spend more time on clerical types of work. Interestingly enough, both the hours worked/billed and the rates of pay for junior attorneys are way up. Another example is how financial institutions at all levels are pushing for their customers to “go paperless.” I don’t know about everyone else, but I need hard copy of a number of those documents. So if I “go paperless,” all it means is that I spend time, energy, and paper to print them out.

In short, technology is expensive, and someone has to pay for it, and it’s doubtful that we as a world have the resources to pay for all that would be required to create the world of the spike or singularity.

Another factor involved in tying all one’s bills and payments to automated systems is that one loses control — as my wife and I discovered in trying to unscramble all the automated payments her father had set up. After his death, in some cases, it was impossible to even discover where the payments were going. A number of companies kept charging for services he obviously didn’t need and siphoning money from his bank account, despite the fact that he was dead. It took the threat of legal action and the actual closure of some accounts to get the banks to stop honoring such automatic withdrawals.

Technology has also enabled a greater range of theft and misrepresentation than was ever possible before the internet and computers.

The other factor is cultural. The idea of a spike or a singularity assumes that everyone on the planet wants to be plugged in, all the time, and on call continuously, while working harder and harder for the same real wages in employment positions that seem increasingly divorced from what one might call the real physical world. While those in the upper echelons of the professions and management may find this useful, even necessary, exactly how are the vast numbers of service workers employed at Wal-Mart, MacDonalds, Home Depot, etc., even going to afford such services when they’re far more worried about basic health care?

Am I saying the world won’t change? Heavens, no. It will change. More people will in fact have cellphones, and, like it or not, it’s possible that they’ll replace location-fixed telephones for the majority of the population. Portable devices such as the iPhone will change entertainment, and fewer books will be printed and read, and more of what will be read, either in print or on screen, will be “genre” fiction, how-to, or religion. Published poetry and “mainstream literature” will decline further. More and more “minor” lawbreaking will be detected by technology in industrialized societies. “Major” lawbreaking may even be treated and handled by some form of cranial implant and locator devices. Various forms of environmentally less damaging power generation will doubtless be adopted.

But for even a significant minority of the world’s population, or even that of the USA, to engage in a “post-singularity” world will require more and more other people take care of support services, such as real-world, real-time small child-care, medical services, the physical production, transportation, and distribution of food. And don’t tell me that we’ll have duplicators for food. That’s most unlikely because to make such devices nutritionally practical would require analytical and formulation technology that we won’t have, not to mention the requirement for a large “stockpile” of the proper sub-ingredients. And, of course, a great deal more energy at a time when energy is becoming ever more expensive.

That doesn’t even take into account the cost and technological requirements for medical services and maintenance… and that’s a whole other story.

Economics and the Future of Biotech

Recently, I exchanged several emails with a newer writer– David Boultbee — on the subject of plants genetically engineered to remove toxins from land and water, and the exchange got me to thinking. A number of years ago, when I was a full-time environmental regulatory consultant, a number of cities were experimenting with various ways in which growing plants could be used to filter and purify sewage and waste water, including removing heavy metals and various types of organic and bacterial contamination.

That was twenty years ago, and there’s been surprisingly little progress in his area, particularly given the need. That brings up the question as to why such progress is so slow… and the answer, I believe, is quite simple. It’s not a question of biology or even development costs, but the structure of our economic system.

Growing plants in large concentrations effectively constitutes agriculture. These days, agriculture is largely unprofitable on anything but a large scale, and the greatest amount of profit doesn’t usually lie in producing and selling the raw material, but in the distribution and end-point sales. That’s why orange growers, almond growers, and others form grower cooperatives that attempt to control the product all the way from production to final [or next-to-final] sales.

Now… even if a genius biologist does produce an oilseed plant that’s got a huge amount of oil that could be refined, where does the profit lie? With the refiner and distributor, who need to build an enormous infrastructure in order to make profits competitive with other industries in order to obtain the capital necessary to build that infrastructure. And in what industries do the highest profits lie? In those that produce small goods with low production costs with a high demand and an existing market.

Agricultural products seldom fit that market. Take wheat. It’s practically ubiquitous, world-wide, and while different varieties have been developed for different uses and climates, within those climates any competent farmer can grow it. The entire U.S. farm subsidy program was developed because too much of too many agricultural products were being grown, with the result that the prices were so low that too many farmers went bankrupt, to the point that, as noted above, only large farms — or specialty farms — remain profitable.

So… what happens if the biologists develop miracle plants? Before long, the entire world has them, and they cost less, and the profit margin is low — and they’ve either replaced products that had a higher profit margin, or they replace pollution control technology that does. And whole industries lose substantial profits. You can see why certain industries just might not be exactly supportive of really effective large-scale and widespread biotech. Biotech is just fine in making new high-margin pharmaceuticals, but fungible energy supplies or pollution control remedies, those are a different matter.

This isn’t a new story in human history. Way back when, sometime before, say, 200 B.C., there was a plant that grew in the Middle East, well-documented in more than a few writings, paintings, and even sculptures. Taken in some oral form, it was apparently a reliable contraceptive. It became extinct before the Christian era. Why? Because it filled a social need, a desperate one for women in poor societies who felt they could not afford more children, but no one could see a profit in growing or preserving it. Now, whether this plant was as effective as the various writings claim isn’t really the point. The point is that people thought it was, and yet there was no profit in cultivating it, and thus, it was hunted out and used until there were no more left.

So… I have grave doubts that we’ll see many biological solutions to our energy and environmental problems until someone can figure out a way to make mega-profits out of any new biological developments.

Sometimes We Get it Right

Although we science fiction writers like to claim that we predict or foreshadow the future in our work, historically our record isn’t really as great as we’d like to think, for a number of reasons, some of which I’ve discussed in previous blogs.

Arthur C. Clarke predicted communications satellites and the like very early and effectively, something like 60 years ago, but he also predicted we’d have cities on the moon and be able to travel to Jupiter by 2001. That was six years ago, and the way things are going, it may be sixty before any of that occurs — if it does at all. In The Forever War, Joe Haldeman predicted that we’d have interstellar travel by now. Isaac Asimov did all right in anticipating the hand-held computer/calculator [as he said, he even got the colors of the display for the first calculators right], but we’re nowhere close to his pocket-size fusion generators, intelligent humanoid robots, or even affordable automatic irising doors. Most of my incorrect speculations lie in my early short stories, and I’m content to let them remain there in obscurity. I tend not to have made as many incorrect speculations in recent years, not because I’m necessarily brighter than other writers, but because all of my SF novels are set far enough in the future that enough time has not yet passed to reveal where I may have been wrong. Writing the near future is indeed a humbling experience, and I prefer not to be humbled in that fashion.

For one reason or another, many of the past staples of science fiction have never come to be. We don’t have wide-scale use of personal hovercraft or helicopters, and likely never will. Despite quantum mechanics and linked electrons, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever have instant doors or transporters to other locales, even on earth. And for all the speculations about genetic engineering [or natural mutations] that will bring agelessness or immortality to us, research to date seems to suggest that while life spans can be extended and physical health as we age greatly improved, there are several biological stone walls to attaining great age, let alone immortality, one of which is that greater cellular regenerative capacity appears to be linked to greater carcinogenic propensity. As for a cloned copy of you — or me — that’s not going to happen anytime soon, either, if ever, because recent research appears to indicate that even identical twins aren’t, due to prenatal conditions, genetic “expression,” and other factors.

Against this backdrop, I am pleased to announce that astronomers have just discovered a billion light-year long void in the universe, a space absolutely devoid of normal matter, without stars or galaxies. A full report will appear in a future edition of Astrophysical Journal. For those of you who have read The Eternity Artifact, you will understand my pleasure at having one of my speculations proved right. At this point, however, since the locale is more than 6 billion light years away, there is no way to ascertain whether the reason for this void is as I postulated in the book. But… I did put it in print almost three years before the void was discovered.

“Coincidence” or not, sheer undeserved good fortune or not, I’ll take consolation in having at least one of my far-fetched speculative postulates being confirmed.

Feminism, Social Change, and Speculative Fiction

The other day I received an interesting response to my blog about the impact of social change in science fiction on readership. The respondent made the point that she felt, contrary to my statements, that fantasy had more social change depicted in it because at least there were more strong female characters in fantasy. Depending on which authors one reads, this is a debatable point, but it raises a more fundamental question. Exactly what are social change — and feminism — all about, both in genre literature and society?

The other day there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, which reported on the study of performance of mutual fund managements. The study concluded that the results from funds managed by all-male teams and those by all-female teams were essentially the same. The funds managed by mixed-gender teams reported significantly less profitable returns. The tentative rationale reported for such results was that mixed-gender teams suffered “communications difficulties.” Based on my years as a consultant and additional years as an observer of a large number of organizations, I doubt that “communications” are exactly the problem. In mixed-gender organizations, where both sexes have some degree of power and responsibility, I have noted that, almost inevitably, men tend to disregard women and their advice/recommendations to the degree possible. If their superior is a woman, a significant number tend to try to end-run or sabotage the female boss. If the superior is a male, because women professionals’ suggestions tend to get short shrift, the organization is handicapped because half the good ideas are missing, either because they’re ignored, or because women tend not to make them after a while. Maybe one could call that communications difficulties, but, as a male, I’d tend to call it male ego and insecurity.

What does this have to do with feminism in speculative fiction? A great deal, it seems to me, because merely changing who’s in control doesn’t necessarily change the dynamics below the top. This is one of the issues I tried to highlight in my own Spellsong Cycle, as well as in some of my science fiction. In “Houston, Houston, Do You Read,” the solution proposed by James Tiptree, Jr., [Alice Sheldon] was to eliminate the conflict by eliminating males. As a male, I do have a few problems with that particular approach.

In Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country, the males get to choose to be “servitors” to women or warriors limited to killing each other off, while the “violence” gene [if not expressed in quite those terms] is bred out of the male side of the population.

Ursula K. LeGuin addressed the dynamics of gender/societal structure in The Left Hand of Darkness, suggesting, it seems to me, that a hermaphroditic society would tend to be just as ruthless as a gender polarized-one, if far more indirect, and not so bloodthirsty in terms of massive warfare.

In the end, though, the question remains. In either fiction or life, is feminism, or societal change, about a restructuring of the framework of society… or just about which sex gets to be in charge?

Notes to Would-Be Reviewers

Heaven — or something — save us writers from the amateur reviewers, and some professionals, who pan a book with phrases similar to “trite plot” or “worn-out character type” or “overused plot device,” “all too typical young hero,” “standard PI,” etc., ad infinitum.

Far be it for me to be the one to say that all books all writers write are good. They aren’t. Nor will every book I write appeal to those who read my work. It won’t, and probably shouldn’t. But… those of you who are reviewers or who aspire to be reviewers, please, please, don’t display your ignorance by basing your judgments on “worn-out” character types or “overused plots.”

As Robert A. Heinlein noted in his “Channel Markers” speech to the U.S. Naval Academy more than 35 years ago, there are NO new plots. There are only a limited number of basic plots. As a result, there are no overused or trite plots. There are writers who handle plots badly, for a myriad of reasons, just as there are writers who handle them well. There are writers whose characters do not fit the plots, but the problems don’t lie in the “plot.” They lie in how the plot was or was not handled.

Almost every plot Shakespeare used in his plays was cribbed from somewhere else or someone else, but his work remains “fresh” and “original” after more than four centuries because of the way in which he handled those very common plot elements.

The same type of analysis applies to characters. Certain archetypes or types appear and reappear in novels, not because they’re tired or the authors are lazy, but because they’re necessary. If one writes a courtroom drama, there will be good attorneys and bad attorneys and brilliant attorneys. There may even be marginally competent attorneys and evil ones, but there won’t be moronic ones because they can’t pass the bar. Mercenaries will almost always be ex-military types, because that’s where one gets that kind of experience. Private investigators will almost always be ex-police or ex-military, or possibly disbarred attorneys, for the same reasons. In fantasy, knights should almost always be either wealthy or older retainers of the wealthy who have worked their way up from common armsmen, or professional military, because in any half-realistic society, those are the only way to gain the resources and experience. Pilots need to have a high degree of training and education and good reactions — and good judgment, because they’re in charge of rather expensive equipment and lives.

All too often both critics and social reformers tend to forget that stereotypes arise for a reason. They’re real. There are “good cops” and “bad cops.” And whether one likes it or not, if you see a large minority male in gang-like attire emerging from an alley and heading in your direction at night, discretion is indeed the better part of valor, stereotype or no stereotype. The same is true of the sharp-dressing WASP male who wants to sell you a large bridge for the smallest of sums. Obviously, stereotypes and archetypes can be and are overused, but slavish avoidance of such is as much a contrivance as overuse.

Likewise, try not to criticize a writer because he or she writes a particular kind of book. I don’t see reviewers trashing mystery writers, or “literary” writers, or romance writers because they write the same type of book time after time. One can note that the writer continues to write a particular type of book — but if you say that, make sure that’s all that writer writes. You can certainly point out that the writer didn’t handle it as well as in the past — or that the writer improved, but don’t trash it because you wanted the writer to write something different.

So… if you want to review… go ahead. Just try to do it with a touch of professionalism and understanding.

F&SF Short Fiction

Recently, Steven King wrote an essay that appeared in The New York Times suggesting, at least as I read it, that one of the reasons for the decline of short fiction was that all too many short works of fiction were written for the editors and the critics, and not necessarily for the readers. Among the host of those who have commented, Scott Edelman, the editor of SciFi Weekly, has just written a response that points out that, while it wasn’t King’s intention, effectively King has said to readers that there are so few good short fiction stories that all of the good ones are in King’s anthology and that readers really didn’t have to look farther.

Both King and Edelman are correct in noting that the short fiction market is “broken.” After all, eighty years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid as much for any number of his stories sold to popular magazines that just two story sales in a year earned him more than the average annual earnings of either doctors or U.S. Congressmen — and he sold far more than two stories a year. Even then it took money to live in Paris.

There are some gifted short fiction writers in F&SF, and so far as I know, not a one of them can make a living purely off short fiction. By some counts more than a thousand short speculative fiction stories are published annually. This sounds impressive, unless you know that around a thousand original speculative fiction novels are published every year, and novels pay quite a bit more. The sales of major F&SF print magazines have been declining for years, and until the advent of Jim Baen’s Universe last year, the rates paid for short fiction have been low, and essentially static.

It’s also a well-known, if seldom-stated, fact that the majority of F&SF magazines are edited as much to promulgate and further the editorial preferences of the editors as to appeal to the full range of potential readers.

Jim Baen was well aware of these facts, and so is Eric Flint. That, as I understand it, was the reason why they created Jim Baen’s Universe, the online magazine. In fact, Eric once told me that his goal was not to publish stories designed to win awards, but to publish outstanding stories that would entertain and challenge readers, and that he felt that too many editors had lost sight of that goal. So far as I’ve been able to determine, Universe has a higher rate scale for writers than any of its F&SF contributors, and Eric and Mike Resnick are obviously working hard to create a magazine that will boost the F&SF short fiction market and increase reader interest.

Yet, interestingly enough, neither King nor Edelman ever mentioned Universe, and how it came to be, and Edelman certainly ought to have been aware of it. Why didn’t he mention it? I don’t know, but I do know that it’s a part of the debate/issue that shouldn’t be ignored.

Science Fiction… Why Doesn’t Society Catch Up?

As I noted in passing in my earlier blog, various “authorities” have suggested for at least close to twenty years that one of the reasons why science fiction readership has dropped off, and it has, at least in relative terms as a percentage of the population, and even possibly in absolute terms, is because all the themes that were once the staple of science fiction are now scientifically possible and have often been done. We have put astronauts in orbit and sent them to the moon, and the reality is far less glamorous than the “Golden Age” SF writers made it seem. We have miniaturized computers of the kind that only Isaac Asimov forecast in work published around 1940. We have lasers — and so far they don’t work nearly so well as the particle beams in Clarke’s Earthlight or the lasers in 2001. We’ve created a supersonic passenger aircraft and mothballed it.

These reasons all sound very plausible, but I’m not so certain that they’re why SF readership has dropped off and why fantasy readership has soared. Earlier, I also explored this in terms of the “magic society,” but my personal feeling is that there is also another reason, one that has to do with people — both readers and the people and societies depicted in much current SF… and that includes mine, by the way.

Socially, human beings are incredibly conservative. We just don’t like to change our societies and domestic arrangements. Revolutions do occur, but just how many of them really end up in radically changing society? When MacArthur “restructured” Japanese society after WWII, the economic and political bases were changed dramatically, but the domestic and social roles remained virtually unchanged for another forty years. It really wasn’t until the 1990s when significant numbers of Japanese young women decided they didn’t want to follow the roles laid out by their mothers. Corrupt as he may have been, one of the largest factors leading to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran was that he was pressing to change social and religious structures at a rate faster than his people could accept.

While at least some of us in the United States like to think that we’re modern and progressive, has anyone noticed that “traditional” marriage is making a come-back? It’s making so much of a come-back that gays and lesbians want the benefits and legal structure as well. Despite the growth of the number of women in the workplace, women still do the majority of domestic chores, even when they’re working the same hours as their husbands, and the vast majority of CEOs and politicians are still male.

Now… what does this have to do with SF readership?

I’d submit that there’s a conflict between what’s likely technically and what’s likely socially, and social change will be far slower than predicted. In fact, that’s already occurred.

When my book Flash was published several years ago, one of the reviewers found it implausible that private schools would still exist some 200 years in the future in North America. I’d already thought about this, but the fact is that the traditional school structure goes back over 2,000 years. The structure works, if it’s properly employed, as many, many private schools and some charter schools can prove, and with 20 centuries of tradition, it’s not likely to vanish soon.

Yet more than a few books suggest the wide-spread growth of computerized learning, radical new forms of social engagement, and the like. Much of this will never happen. Look at such internet “innovations” as E-Harmony,, etc. They aren’t changing the social dynamics, but using technology to reinforce them. Women still trade primarily on sex appeal and men on looks, power, and position. They just start the process electronically.

Most readers don’t really want change; they only want the illusion of change. They want the old tropes in new clothes or new technology, but most of them want old-style men in new garb, and brilliant women who are sexy, but still defer to men who sweep them off their feet.

Again… I’m not saying this is true of all readers, and it’s probably not true of the majority of SF readers. But, as a literature of ideas and exploration, the more that SF explores and challenges established social dynamics, the fewer new readers it will attract, particularly today, when it’s becoming harder and harder to create true intellectual challenge, because so few people want to leave their comfort zones. That’s an incredible irony, because our communications technologies have made it easier and easier for people to avoid having their preconceptions challenged.

Most fantasy, on the other hand, merely embellishes various existing social structures with magic of some sort, and it’s becoming increasingly popular every year. Perhaps that’s because, like it or not, technology has made one fundamental change in our economic and social structure, and that is the fact that physical strength is no longer an exclusively predominant currency in determining income levels. More and more women are making good incomes, often more than their husbands or other males with whom they interact. Sociological studies suggest that male-female relationships often reach a crisis at the point where the woman gains more income, power, or prestige than the man. It’s unsettling, and it’s happening more and more.

Enter traditional fantasy, with its comforting traditional structures. Now… isn’t that a relief?

The Popularity of Fantasy — Reflection of a "Magic World"?

When ANALOG published my first story, there really wasn’t that much of a fantasy genre. Oh, Tolkein had published the Lord of the Rings, and there were some Andre Norton witchworld novels, as I recall, and Jack Vance had published The Dying Earth, but fantasy books were vastly outnumbered by science fiction novels. Today, virtually every editor I know is looking for good science fiction. They can find plenty of decent, if not great, fantasy novels and trilogies to publish [good short fantasy stories are another matter].

What happened?

First, over the last forty years science got popular, and simultaneously more accessible and more complicated than ever. Second, technology complicated everyone’s life. Third, the computer made the physical process of writing easier than ever before in history. And fourth, the world became “magic.”

Science is no longer what it once was. Philo Farnsworth was a Utah farm boy, and effectively he invented television on his farm. RCA stole it from him, but that’s another story, and the important point is that one man, without a research laboratory, made the key breakthroughs. Likewise, Goddard did the same thing for the rocket. Earlier, of course, the Wright brothers made the airplane possible. Today, science breakthroughs that effectively change society require billions of dollars and teams of scientists and engineers. Writing about the individual in a meaningful sense in this context becomes difficult, and even if an author does it well, it’s usually not that entertaining to most readers. Add to that what science and technology have delivered to the average North American or European. We have near-instant world-wide communications, travel over thousands of miles in mere hours, pictures of distant galaxies and the moons orbiting distant planets in our own solar system, lights that can be turned on with a handclap, voice activated equipment… the list is seemingly endless. So much of what once was science fiction is now reality.

As I’ve noted in a previous blog, technology is no longer the wonder it once was. Too often technology becomes the source of strain and consternation, and for all that it delivers, most people want to escape from its stress and limitations. Admittedly, many of them use it for escape into forms of alternative reality, but more and more readers don’t want to read about technology.

Then there’s the impact of the computer, which makes the physical process of writing easier. It doesn’t, however, make the process of learning and understanding science and technology easier, and understanding science is generally useful for writing science fiction. So what do so many of those would-be speculative fiction writers concentrate on? Fantasy and its offshoots.

But the biggest factor, I believe, is that we now live in a “magic world.” A little more than a century ago, if one wanted light, it required making a candle or filling a lantern with expensive oil and threading a wick and using a striker or a new-fangled match to light the lantern or candle. Today… plug in a lamp and flip a switch. How does it work? Who knows? Most young people would have a hard time explaining the entire process behind that instant light. In a sense, it’s magic. Once transportation meant a long slow walk, or feeding, saddling, grooming a horse, taking care of the animals, breeding them, and still having to make or purchase bridles, saddles, and the like. Today, step into a car and turn the key. In more than 95% of all cars the transmission is automatic, and, again, how many people can even explain what a transmission or a differential does? It’s magic. You don’t have to understand it or explain it. I could go through example after example, but the process — and the results — would be the same.

As a society, we act as though almost all our physical needs are met by magic. Even the environmentalists believe in magic. How would many of them deal with the coal-fired power plants that fuel so much of our magic? By replacing them with solar and wind power, of course. But building solar cells creates much more pollution than using a coal-fired power plant for the same amount of power. And wind turbines, while helpful, cannot be counted on to provide a constant and continuing power source for our magic.

This mindset can’t help but carry over into what we do for entertainment. We act as though our society’s needs are met by magic, and we want to escape the incredible stress and complexity beneath the surface of our magic society. How many readers really want to deal with those factors, accelerated as they will be in the future? [And don’t tell me that technology will make things simpler. It never has. Physically easier, but not simpler. Allowing individuals to do more in the same amount of time, but only at the cost of more stress.]

To me, the “magic society” has far more to do with the comparative growth of the popularity of fantasy and the comparative decline of science fiction than the fact that we’ve reached the moon and surveyed planets and their satellites.