Got 99 metaproblems (but a lack of aspirational futurism ain’t one)

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2011

Good grief, but the RSS mountain really piles up in 24 hours, doesn’t it?

Well, mine does, anyway… which means it’s probably high time I had a spring-clean in there to make it more manageable. As well as maybe, y’know, stopping the habit of adding more feeds to the damned aggregator all the time. There’s too much interesting stuff (or grim stuff, or grimly interesting stuff) going on in the world, y’see; the temptation to stay on top of it all and let it just flow through my head like some sort of Zeitgeist/sewer-outflow hybrid is horribly compelling. I am the gauzy mesh in your perpetual flow of present history, plucking out interesting lumps of… no, actually, let’s stop that metaphor right there.

Anyways, long story short: had a busy few days and have more busyness ahead, so minimal commentary from me today. Instead, an exhortation to go and read stuff written by other folk far smarter than I. We’ll start with the manageably short piece, which is another Karl Schroeder joint at Chateau Stross (or should that be Schloss Stross?) where he talks about the difference between foresight futurism and “predicting the future”, and a new aspirational direction for his near-future science fiction output that is reminiscent of Jetse de Vries’ Optimistic SF manifesto:

… I’m pretty tired of all those, “Dude, where’s my flying car!” digs. There’s always been a certain brand of futurist who’s obsessed with getting it right: with racking up successful predictions like some modern-day Nostradamus. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about; some futurists play the prediction game very well, but in the end it is a game, and closer to charlatanism than it is to science. There’s actually no method for seeing the future, and nobody’s predictions are more reliable than anybody else’s.

You know, I think we do know who he’s talking about…

And while we’re thinking about the future, it’s hard to avoid thinking about problems, for – as a species and a planet – we have rather a lot of them right now. So many, in fact, that you might even say that reality itself is a failed state:

So maybe what we have today are not problems, but meta-problems.

It is very useful to confirm our understanding with others, to meet with fellow humans – preferably face-to-face – strength flows from this.

However, disquiet remains – no pre-catastrophic change of course seems in any way likely. What we might call ‘Fabian’ environmentalism has failed.

Occasionally a scientist will be so overcome with horror that he will make a radical public pronouncement – like the drunken uncle at a wedding, he may well be saying what everyone knows to be true, pulling the skeletons out of the family closet for all to see, but, well, it just doesn’t do to say that sort of thing out loud at a formal function.

This is all a little bit strange.

We understand the problems. We also, pretty much, understand the solutions. But their real-world application is a whole unpickable, integrated clusterfuck.

I believe part of the meta-problem is this: people no longer inhabit a single reality.

Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue.

And we need to construct one. Go read the rest for the full lowdown. I’d love to be able to name the writer as something other than “Steelweaver”, but as he’s using a Tumblr with no About page or anything*, I am largely unable to do so. If you can fill in that datagap for me, please get in touch or leave a note in the comments.

[ * Note to writers of serious and/or interesting stuff on the intetubes: this is rather frustrating, and Tumblr really isn’t the best platform for this sort of stuff. Basically it’s the post-naivete ironic MySpace, optimised for collecting hipster aphorisms and reposting “art” shots that tend to contain boobs.

Just sayin’. ]

How will writers make a living in the future?

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

That’s Damien G Walter’s question:

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

I can see where Walter is going here, but the flaw in his logic is easy enough to spot… even more so now that I’ve underlined it, I hope. (*ahem*) I can think of loads of people who still make a living from talking and reading: lecturers, lawyers, performance poets and actors, to name but a few.

And as such I suspect that there will still be people making a living from writing for as long as we still have alphabets to write with. While I can imagine a post-text future for humanity, I think it’s a very long way off from now, and until the day when we all communicate in hyperdense ideoplasts that can compress entire schools of thought into a small yet intricate 4-dimensional shape, people who make widgets are still going to need to hire people with the skill to explain to potential customers why their widgets are (supposedly) better than all the other widgets available.

I’m being a little disingenuous here, of course, as Walter is more specifically thinking about the demise of the writer of fictions rather than the churners-out of ad copy. [The difference between most ad copy and ‘proper’ fiction is left as an exercise of the reader’s cynicism.] But as much as the novel or short story forms we know today may become impossible to monetise in a fully-digital cultural sphere, I still hold that the human desire for story will not vanish until the human itself vanishes… and even then, our posthuman descendents will probably want to tell tales about their simian meatbag forebears in order to understand (or mythologise, or both) themselves, and their place and purpose in the universe.

Walter’s distress – like that of many other writers, my own included – is understandable, but it is also rooted in the very limiting conception of story being something that is printed on thin sheets of compressed and dried wood pulp… which rather overlooks cinema, television, machinima and computer games as storyable media, not to mention the spoken word form that he mentions, and the media we still have yet to discover, invent or adopt. That said, my callously future-focussed big-picture attitude here probably isn’t very comforting for folk trying to pay the rent with the one skill they’ve honed over a lifelong career, and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave that would sort that particular problem out.

But it’s equally disingenuous to wring hands over the Sad and Inevitable Fate of Story: to be led, limping, out to the barn like Old Yeller. That’s a little like lamenting the demise of the buggy whip while completely overlooking the opportunities opening up for whip-makers to redeploy their leatherworking skills on luxurious car interiors… storytelling ain’t going nowhere soon. While there are still people with the drive to tell stories, there’ll be new ways of making the talent pay. Mark my words.

Looking a little less deeply into the future of fiction, however, here’s a piece from The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in which he looks at the way publishing houses are finally getting to grips with the digital age… and not so much in terms of new technologies or platforms, but in terms of the sort of books they’re printing. The internet and social media may have their faults, but there’s no denying they’ve made it easier to find out what your audience wants… or at least what it thinks it wants, which – as the saying goes – is close enough for government work, though the government don’t seem very keen on using it. Naturally enough, McCrum arrives in closing at the same question as Walter above, but with notably less angst – how’s the economics gonna work out?

I don’t have the answer, more’s the pity, or I’d be raking in big bucks from publishers as a futures consultant (in which capacity, I might add, I am most certainly available for hire at this moment in time – all enquiries and downpayments to the usual address, KTHXBAI). But it’s certainly an important question, and – if you ask me – one best addressed with positivity.

Although, of course, End Times storm clouds on the horizon do make for a more dramatic hook for a story… 😉

Fukushima: eating my words

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2011

OK, score one for the pessimist realists among you; looks like Fukushima was a lot messier than we were told, which makes me look a bit of a fool for claiming otherwise. Mea culpa.

That said, I think my overall point still stands: the circumstances of said accident were exceptional, and the course of wisdom would surely be to view it as a cautionary lesson rather than an excuse to completely write off a technology that could be of great use in the medium-term. Yes, it’s a mess that’ll take a long time to clean up… but nuclear has still killed or injured far less people per teraWatt-hour than coal.

Insight, foresight, moresight…

Paul Raven @ 11-03-2011

… the clock on the wall reads a quarter past midnight.

The world won’t wait for us to sort our civilisational shit out; even if you don’t believe that we’ve made the planet a less safe place for ourselves through our own actions, today’s events are a reminder that we have always lived on the sufferance of circumstance, and that bad things aren’t reserved for bad people, or even simply people we don’t care about.

The Earth is a sphere, folks. There’s only so far you can run, or so far you push everyone else away. One tiny lifeboat in an infinite ocean. Meanwhile, there’s a million and one ways we could be wiped out of existence with little or no warning, by nothing more than the blind unknowing caprice of a random universe. In the face of that risk, what are we doing? We’re working out ways of making ever greater profits out of those less fortunate than ourselves, arguing over who spilled the petrol rather than mopping it up, fiddling while the kids run around in the haylofts of Rome playing with matches.

Some days I really feel like we deserve to go extinct. Evolution should select pretty strongly against civilisational myopia, if I understand it correctly.

But look again and see all the amazing things we’ve achieved, in a span of time so tiny by comparison to the lifespan of our own solar system (let alone the universe) that it’s almost unmeasurable. Look at all the risks we’ve already invented our way past, all the demons we’ve already conquered. There’s very few threats facing us that we couldn’t defeat easily with a bit of collective will and determination, and the few that aren’t amenable to that sort of fixing can be significantly reduced by getting our act together sufficiently that we’re no longer dependent on the fragile life-support cradle that nurtured us this far.

Make no mistake: the greatest solvable extant threat to a human future is humanity itself. Divided we stand, united we fall.

It doesn’t have to be like this, it really doesn’t. Perhaps that makes me a foolish optimist, an idealistic dreamer, a naive child scared of the “grown up” world. Well, so be it. It’s either that or give up entirely… and as tempting as that is on an almost daily basis, I’m not ready to quit just yet.

Deep worry: writing the meathooks

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Over at SF Signal, John H Stevens pokes through some dystopian short stories to see if he can throw any light on Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent statement: “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” From his conclusion:

… my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present. This is not because the genre lacks a focus on politics as a part of speculative storytelling, but because much of that work, while a product that may reflect some ideas and anxieties of its time, do not seem to focus vigorously on current concerns. There are some, certainly, but there seems to be no pervasive sense of “deep worry” across the wider genre. This is a point, however, that I would stress needs more consideration and surveying to answer more concretely.

At the risk of seeming to contradict Stevens using the same evidence, I think the “deep worry” is actually hiding in plain sight. The widespread refusal to grapple with grim meathook futures is the surest sign of existential terror that I can think of, and also displayed itself in the kneejerk rejection of Jetse de Vries’ optimist manifesto – even worse than the prospect of writing about the many possible pitfalls along the civilisational superhighway is the prospect of imagining how we might overcome them! If you’ll forgive me the vanity of quoting myself:

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.


Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

Speaking from my own limited personal experience, near-future sf is the subgenre I’m driven to write, but I still feel a sort of paralysis of potentiality every time I start a story; an embarrassment of possible dooms, you might call it. A large part of that paralysis stems from my lack of skill and experience, I fully expect, but another part of the problem is my interest in not just exposing that “deep worry” Stevens talks about but addressing it, too: interrogating it, attempting to answer its concerns, trying to see what people might actually do in a world which – depending on which angle the light catches it – seems on the brink of either catastrophic collapse or civilisational transcendence. As should be obvious to regular readers, that’s an extension of the project that Futurismic has become… unless, perhaps, it’s the other way around.

To be clear, I’m a fellow-traveller of Jetse’s optimist project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s something all – or even most – writers should be doing: it just sits well with the sorts of stories I want to tell, and the reasons I want to tell them. I’ll leave it to more experienced fiction writers and more widely-read critics to determine whether or not that underlying drive is in some way inimical to the writing of stories that people actually want to read; in the meantime, I figure that the only fair response I can make to my own hypothesis is to get my Ghandi on and become the change I want to see.

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