Neuroscience fiction: what do we really know about the mind?

Paul Raven @ 08-03-2010

In case you don’t follow Clarkesworld Magazine already (and you really should do, because they’re one of the finest genre fiction webzines about, managing to pay pro rates for about five times as much material as this humble organ every month, and still delivering it to you for free), you might have missed Luc Reid’s essay that went up earlier this month – and it’s time you amended that situation. Neuroscience Fiction and Neuroscience Fantasy” looks at the leading edge of neuroscientific research and refers back to some of the more common mind-related science fiction tropes – like mind control, brain uploading, or memory replay and editing – in order to show how likely they are to ever come true. [image via Hljod.Huskona]

Understanding these things about memory — that we extract details instead of making recordings, that memories are stored in fragments all across our brains, and that a lot of what seems to be memory is really our brains filling in the blanks — it becomes clear that we’ll never be able to download or view memories per se: that would be like trying to show a film when all you have is a capsule review. However, it might be possible eventually to view someone’s imperfect recollection of a memory, along with other thoughts they have.

Well-researched and clearly written, it even has a list of references at the bottom! It’s a great overview of the topic from the layman’s perspective… even if it does debunk a lot of our favourite sf-nal tropes. 🙂


Jo Walton on the protocols of reading science fiction

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2010

Have you ever wondered why it is that, for all your efforts and enthusiasm, you’ve failed to convince your bookworm buddies of the brilliance of a favourite science fiction story or novel? As science fiction readers, we know instinctively that there’s something different about it by comparison to “regular” literature, but explaining that difference concisely – to others, or even to ourselves – can be quite tricky.

Well, help is at hand – novelist Jo Walton has hit the nail on the head over at Tor.com with a short and lucid essay on the reading protocols of science fiction:

Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.

It always feels a little elitist to engage in special pleading for science fiction’s literary merits, but it really has evolved its own rhetorical and narrative language; this has become much more apparent to me since I started critiquing manuscripts by beginning writers, especially those who’ve come to write science fiction late in their lives, or via television and cinema. It’s often said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, but I wonder if exposure at a formative age is an essential prerequisite for the ability to parse it – can that “hard work” of decoding the fictional world be taught later in life and still bring the same degree of pleasure it gives to us?

A few years back, I managed to convince some of my public library colleagues to read Geoff Ryman’s Air, and I know a handful of people from the same generation as my parents who enjoy Ballard’s later short fiction, but reliable and universal “gateway drugs” seem hard to find. Have you had any success converting readers to science fiction, and if so, what books or stories did you use to bait the hook?


Who killed Thomas M Disch?

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2008

This week’s non-fiction piece over at Strange Horizons is by friend-of-Futurismic Sam J Miller; it’s a rumination on the recent suicide of sf writer and poet Thomas M Disch, and an attempt to divine what the trigger of the tragedy might have been. From Sam’s introduction:

Suicide is always a speculative matter. Even in a case like Tom’s, where a number of negative factors clearly contributed, the survivors are left to wonder. What was really going on? Where do we put the blame? What do we do with our grief? With our guilt? Murder and disease and acts of God give us something concrete on which to focus our rage and grief, but suicide thumps us over the head with the ugly truth about human mortality.

Grieving the death of a favorite writer is not so different from mourning the death of a friend: there’s the same sense of frustration and impotence, of loss and loneliness. Literature is a kind of intercourse, and we crave a closer communion with the writers who send those shivers up our spines. So I wonder: who killed Thomas Disch?

It’s an interesting and sensitively-written essay, and well worth your time – go take a look.

Disch is one of the ever-growing list of writers whom I’m painfully aware I should have read by now – are there any Disch fans among Futurismic‘s readers? If so, which of his works would you recommend as his best?


Howard Waldrop (and Friends) at Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet

Jeremy Lyon @ 02-08-2007

Howard23DHoward Waldrop is a brilliant, iconoclastic and thoughtful writer. His prose is as dense as depleted uranium, and as intricately constructed as DNA. He’s blogging at Not A Journal, the blog of the crew behind Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His first essay is a typically Waldrop-ian journey from Rozerem to beavers to the opening of the American west and the Civil War.