Pleased that one of my essays will be in Quillette’s first book publication.
A shout out to Spectacle, an SF magazine that is launching now and includes my story “Ingredients” in Issue #1. I’ve always thought: we need an SF magazine that’s like Galaxy colliding with the Paris Review colliding with a pile of really good comics. And here someone has done it!
Support them! I’m sure you’ll love it, and get good SF and nonfic and art all in one place. You can subscribe at: https://spectacle.subsail.com/subscribe/
Update. I just learned Spectacle decided to put my story “Ingredients” up on the home page. You can read it for free here: https://spectacle.com/001/ingredients/
I learned just this minute that Ursula Le Guin has passed. Literature feels smaller now.
She was the best of us. She was everything I aspired to be as a writer. Her book The Dispossessed taught me that science fiction could be great and dangerous literature.
Walkaway is an extraordinary novel. It throws us into a possible future that explodes from the conflicts of our own era. Doctorow has created a compelling, plausible vision of a different kind of social order.
There are some social theorists who have offered speculations in this direction, which we might call abundant-anarchism. David Graeber is one, and he gets a nod in the acknowledgements of Doctorow’s novel; perhaps Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is another example of sympathetic theoretical speculations. But I am unaware of any fiction that animates such a vision. We can set Walkaway next to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed as a plausible and rare vision of a radically free society.
For me, the most compelling character of Walkaway is the lead antagonist, Jacob Redwater. Redwater is the neo-liberal Iago. His most striking feature is also the one that makes him the most believable: he has an absolute conviction that his values are final. He is the living embodiment of “There Is No Alternative.” And yet, Doctorow makes him a real person, believable and even, in some rare moments, sympathetic. Redwater’s self-assurance is reflexive, and it is wrapped in a suave false openness that for him just constitutes a surface of professionalism. Our world is full of Jacob Redwaters, and they run the international economic order.
One important question the novel raises is the prospect of walking away. Doctorow sees it as a resolution to conflict: the Walkaways literally get up and go when the machinery of the old economy tries to rob or murder them. The plausibility of this strategy in part depends upon the plausibility of super-abundance. Will we enter a phase of economic production where it is easy to “start over,” where the means of production are so low cost as to be seemingly free for the taking? But it also raises questions of space (social space and geographical space) and frontiers. David Graeber has observed–in response to the question “How come there’s never been an anarchist civilization?”–that most human societies were anarchist. But that prompts another question: why have nearly all those anarchist civilizations that overlapped in time with industrialization and colonialism been victims of oppression and often genocide? Presumably there was something about the two kind of civilization that made the one always able to destroy the other. Would Doctorow’s Walkaways be hunted mercilessly? The climax to Doctorow’s novel attempts to answer just this question: he portrays the explosive increase in communication abilities as changing this dynamic. We can hope that he’s right.
One thing troubles me about Doctorow’s tentative optimism. In the world he portrays, I can only believe that hard-working techies have a home. The heroes all code, or hack genes, or build and fly blimps. Such people have already inherited the Earth; it seems no surprise that they are doing well in the future. But what place will the artists or philosophers find in this abundant world of disobedient makers? And–dare I ask?–what place will the slothful have?
Hopeful but plausible science fiction like this has become rare (although this is a good year for it, with New York 2140 also being published). I will be excited and eager to recommend the book for the Nebula, though I suspect it won’t make the ballot. Recent Nebula nominations have seemed to strongly favor fantasy, military SF, or space opera.
It was an honor to vote for Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem for the Hugo. I was pleased when it won. Barring some fantastic additional book this year, I will nominate the sequel, The Dark Forest, for the first Hugo slot this year. For his vision and his creativity, Cixin Liu can only be compared to Asimov.
The book is exploding with interesting ideas, but one of the most interesting is a new answer to the Fermi Paradox. Liu assumes that life and technological advancement are common in the universe, and that technologically advanced life tends to expand and use resources at an exponential rate, creating a scarcity of resources and the conditions for conflict. From this, and some conditions that arise from interstellar distances, he derives a game where the equilibrium is to remain hidden, and attack those who are not hidden. The reasoning appears valid. Here I’ll reconstruct the game, in extensive form, as I understand it.
The first move is whether to announce yourself and your location to the universe. The first player is an arbitrary technological civilization that has radio communication and other technologies. If it doesn’t announce, no interaction occurs. For utility values, I’ll use some arbitrary numbers that are meant to represent some divergence from the current situation, listed as (FIRST PLAYER, SECOND PLAYER), as is the norm. So, if the first player doesn’t announce, nothing changes for that civilization, and nothing changes for our arbitrary second civilization. Utility change is thus (0, 0):
But if civilization 1 does make a move to announce itself, an extreme game begins if any other civilization hears the message. First, this civilization 2 must decide, should it announce itself to the civilization 1 or not?
Now consider the reply fork. The civilizations are now in communication and are aware of each other. If they cooperate with each other benevolently, then they might both be better off to some degree. We don’t know how much this expected benefit is; call it +C. However, if one or the other is malevolent, then that civilization can destroy the other civilization. Here lies an important set of assumptions in Liu’s model: technology grows quickly, and stars and planets and ships are fragile. For these reason, he assumes, it is always possible to annihilate another civilization. Being destroyed is the worst possible situation. We represent it as -Max. So civilization 1 must decide whether to cooperate or attack.
The results of one final set of pathways are complete. If civilization 1 cooperates, it could earn some benefit. But it also might just be vulnerable to total destruction. Given interstellar distances, it will be hard to learn enough about the other civilization in order to determine, in the immediate period after first contact, whether they are malevolent. And, no matter how small the odds that civilization 2 will attack, this would seem to be too terrible a possible cost. The result would seem to be that the best move for civilization 1 is really to attack:
Of course, civilization 2 can see all this. So they will not, at the second move in the game, reply. They will, instead, remain silent. That would seem to be the end of the game, but Cixin Liu argues that it is not. Instead, he assumes, civilizations tend to grow exponentially, spreading out. That means that, from the perspective of civilization 2, the situation is one where they now know that after some delay of time (represented below with “…..“), they may be encountered by civilization 1, which will then have to play the same game again. (I remove the moves in the game described above, to simplify the diagram.)
And thus civilization 2, unable to determine with certainty that civilization 1 is benevolent, and wanting to avoid even the possibility of the worst possible outcome, will attack. In sum: taking all this into account, as every civilization should, each civilization both remains silent and attacks those who identify themselves.
There are a lot of assumptions here that we can question. For example, whether it really is so easy to destroy other worlds and civilizations. And, Liu holds that interstellar distances eliminate chances for safe interaction. A civilization is either at a valuable world or cannot communicate. But perhaps one could get around this, by using some location as a neutral place to start communication. And, there is a meta-game: the universe is so dangerous as he describes it, that it might be safer to form large alliances than to wait to be found alone and thrust into the game as described above. (Also, I’ve left out some important details–Liu is fascinated by the complexities of self-referential reasoning, of a kind that requires strange logics to study.) But, even simplified, his argument is very provocative. It suggests that the universe is a dark forest, full of hiding civilizations that will destroy any other civilization that makes itself known. It’s an important achievement: a new hypothesis in answer to Fermi’s paradox.
I hope his argument is unsound. But, given the stakes, we should consider whether he might be on to something.
An update: some scientists have proposed a method to hide Earth from detection via transition. Shared fears?
I finally saw Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary that describes Alejandro Jodorowsky’s project to make a film of Dune. One comes away awed by the relentless passion of Jodorowsky. He is one of those people who strive to make art happen on a grand scale through sheer force of faith and will. You cannot help but find him inspiring.
Three things are striking about this documentary. First, it illustrates the difficulty of making something daring under the funding mechanisms of the Hollywood model. I was reminded that Orson Welles (who would have played Baron von Harkonen) had more projects canceled by funding problems than Andrei Tarkovsky (working under Soviet censors) ever had cancelled for any reason. This is not censorship; but it is a kind of very powerful and very effective compression of the imagination. Capital chases banality. Second, Jodorowsky had a healthy independence with respect to the text of Dune. He was going to change the plot left and right, to make the movie he envisioned. The result would have been a fantasy inspired by Dune, but it would have been his own movie. This is a good thing. Dune the novel will always be there; a free adaptation can do no harm to the original text. The textual puritanism that has much influence in fan culture today is reactionary. Artists should ignore it. Third, one wonders what speculative film would be like if Jodoworsky had succeeded in making his movie with an original Pink Floyd soundtrack, with Orson Welles and Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali and David Carradine acting, with Giger and Moebius and Foss art. It may have created a whole different perception of the possibility and potential of speculative film.
Hence one comes to Jurassic World.
The dinosaurs are beautiful; but all (literally all) of the creativity of the film is in the special effects. And, oh, how the camera strives to get the grill of a Mercedes into every damn shot.
It is a common claim that most of what comes out of Hollywood is leftist. This is not true; most of what comes out of Hollywood is usually a celebration of our current shared economic prejudices. (For example, the criticisms of corporate greed that form a staple of thrillers, and make some kind of vague subplot in this movie, are always safely abstract and unrealistic, and completely removed from real corruption and greed. The result is that these apparent criticisms are both smug and misdirection.)
If we can find a message in this latest installment of the Jurassic-franchise product placement vehicles, it is this: science is bad when it is daring, when it attempts bold dreams. Science is only good when it is producing consumer products of a familiar kind, for familiar brands. Another world is not possible.
Let us imagine an alternative film: Jodoworsky’s Jurassic Planets. In it, the dinosaurs escape their consumerist nightmare park and they breed, covering the world. Humanity develops radical new technologies (force fields, powerful stun weapons, etc.) to enable people to live in safety and in harmony with the dinosaurs. The velociraptors learn to read and adopt our technology; they form an anarcho-syndicalist collective with sympathetic humans, and decide, first, to bring back all the organisms that humanity pushed into extinction and, second, to spread all of Earth’s life into the universe. The long closing shot is an exterior of a terraformed Mars. Not a single Mercedes rolls over the red planet, not a single Coca Cola is drunk there. Instead, passenger pigeons fill the sky over a crimson savannah where woolly mammoths roam.
So I read Eggers’s The Circle. It is our time’s Brave New World. It insidiously takes you step by step — where each step seems reasonable, if not inevitable — from a situation essentially indistinguishable from our own to a terrifying dystopia.
So, I read Cory Doctorow’s Makers, and I decided that, if he is not the muse of the zeitgeist, he is a muse of a zeitgesit. This novel captures an ethos unique to our time, in which a kind of labor constitutes a kind of person, with its own virtues and its own aspirations. In a classical sense, in fact, it offers a new kind of heroism.
In the old days, the ethos embodied here was called “hacking,” but the popular media utterly annihilated that meaning for “hacking.” So, Doctorow rightly coins another label: makers. The ironies here are immense for an American (e.g., such as myself), since we just had an election in which one of the parties offered an Ayn-Randian vision of the makers and the takers — a vision which is mostly (though not entirely) antithetical to that of Doctorow’s makers. For this reason, I think Doctorow’s novel is an important alternative vision to that hoisted upon us by an inanely unreflective media.
And it’s a very human novel, one without easy answers. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll find it generates in you an empathy for a certain vision of the world, of our economy, and of our possibilities. And what could be better than that? I recommend it.