New sf futures from Rudy Rucker

Paul Raven @ 30-06-2010

In response to Jo Walton’s Tor.com post about the problem that the Singularity meme has caused for science fiction writers [short and slightly snarky interpretation: The Singularity is such a ubiquitous idea that everyone feels obliged to write around it or beyond it, and there’s a paucity of old-school “people-like-us-but-with-spaceships” stories as a result], the ever-fertile mind of Rudy Rucker has thrown out a whole bunch of new themes and directions for science fiction stories.

Change is of course something that happens to any living art form—think of painting or popular music or literary novels or even TV sit-coms. Yes, it’s sad to see Golden Ages slip away, but it’s sadder still to keep doing the same thing. Inevitably the old material goes stale and the fire goes away. I’m not saying it’s become impossible to write fresh novels about aliens and spaceships and planets. But maybe it’s become a task as difficult and quixotic as writing a fresh doo-wop song.

But why not a new kind of song? And why not a new kind of SF novel? This is, after all, the twenty-first century.

If you think about it, it’s quite unreasonable to regard, say, the physics and sociology of classic space opera as “rules” about science-fictional futures. These are all things that writers made up in, like, the 1930s, and which later writers polished and refined. The “rules” have no Higher Truth and they’re unlikely to apply to any actual future. They’re only stories that people made up for fun, and there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t keep changing the rules.

Testify, Brother Rucker! Here’s a couple of the directions he suggests:

Quantum Computational Viruses

The current trend is to view any bit of matter as carrying out a so-called quantum computation. These computations can be as rich and complex as anything in our brains or in our PCs. One angle, which I explored a bit in Postsingular and Hylozoic, is that ordinary objects could “wake up.” Another angle worth pursuing is that something like a computer virus might infect matter, perhaps changing the laws of physics to make our world more congenial to some other kinds of beings.

The Subdimensions

For too long we’ve let the quantum mechanics tell us that there’s nothing smaller than the Planck length. Let’s view this tiny size scale as a membrane, a frontier, but not a wall. We can in fact go below it…into the land of the subdimensions. Possibly the subdimensional world is a kind of mirror version of ours. Certainly aliens can visit us from there…no need for all those star ships. Just focus on a speck of dust.

Granted, Futurismic focusses on publishing a very specific subgenre of science fiction (and offers no apologies for doing so!), but I tend to see thematic and stylistic diversity as a sign of health in any realm of creation. The end-game of postmodern culture seems to be an increasingly uncritical obsession with retro styles and pastiche – a phenomenon I can see very clearly in music, but increasingly in genre fiction as well. Which is sort of a shame (retro is fun for a while, but soon becomes little more than a costume party – hello, zombies! hello, steampunk!), but perhaps understandable. As Rucker points out, it’s not that there aren’t any routes forward… but the routes available aren’t an easy stroll through familiar gardens.

While it’s nice to walk through a familiar garden every once in a while, I like to explore new places. And that’s why sf is my genre; it’s the only one whose concerns expand and change with time. For example, space operas – while plenty of fun – are essentially as limited in their main concerns as a Regency romance or a Western. Sure, you can reinvent them, subvert them, mash them up with other ideas… and if you do something interesting with it then I will (and often do!) read it with genuine pleasure. But I’m still going to keep looking for writers who are willing to try to expand the sphere of storyability… after all, wasn’t that the defining dynamic of science fiction in the Golden Age, the dynamic that brought us all the forms we’re now pining for?

It’s always baffled me that a genre that purports to be concerned with new ideas can, at times, be such a hidebound and nostalgic institution. Rebellion eventually becomes dogma… another story that’s as old as humanity itself. 😉


The Hollywood Stock Exchange, and bands with shareholders

Paul Raven @ 26-02-2010

If investment bankers can gamble on the success of big-money projects, why can’t the rest of us? Well, of course, we can – but those sort of big-money projects aren’t the sort of thing that get us normal folk excited, nor the sort of thing we understand (or think we understand) sufficiently to throw our money after.

But if you scratch a film buff, underneath you’ll find someone who thinks they can predict how well a movie will do once it gets released… and Hollywood reckons that’s an as-yet untapped source of funding for big-budget blockbusters. Hence HSX, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, is set to re-launch in April of this year as a real-money commodity exchange [via SlashDot]:

Since 1998, HSX has allowed just-for-fun traders to buy and sell valueless shares in Hollywood films based on forecasts of what the pics will ring up. Once launched, a new HSX site will list current and imminent movie releases with their projected four-week domestic grosses and allow exchange users to take long or short positions on the films.

A formal announcement about rules and guidelines for HSX users is expected closer to the launch. The exchange hopes to lure hobbyist investors as well as industry professionals, though the latter will be prohibited from improper insider activity.

For instance, distribution execs with access to early boxoffice data will be barred from making trades on the exchange after a film has opened. But film financiers will be allowed to invest in HSX an amount equal to a minority percentage of their total investment in a movie.

(Oh, man, you just know there’s gonna be some spectacular gaming of this system at some point, assuming it lasts long enough for gaming it to be worthwhile. It’s just too tempting, especially for such a historically desperate and greedy industry.)

Investors wishing to participate in the exchange will buy “contracts” priced at one one-millionth of a film’s projected boxoffice, with films to be listed on the exchange from the time productions are announced in the industry trade papers. Trading will begin six months before a movie’s anticipated wide release.

I make no claims to financial expertise of any kind, but I think I’d still assume that the safest way to gamble on the future of Hollywood properties would be to invest in something else entirely…

But a thought occurred to me while reading about HSX, namely that something like a stock purchasing model might act as a sort of bolt-on or extension to the crowdfunding models for creatives that we were discussing the other week. Say you’re in a band, you’ve done a few national tours, self-released an album, got some buzz going. How do you take things to the next step?

Systems like the newly-in-administration SellaBand are all well and good, but there’s still an intermediary middle-man involved, and the investment is conditional as well as project-specific; so why not just float your band (or your two-person animation studio, or yourself as a writer, or your guerrilla puppetry theatre mob or whatever) like a public company, offering shares to potential investors in exchange for their influence and input on what the band does? Product replaces dividends, tours and appearances are booked according to geographical distribution of fans, etc etc… it’s a bit like Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans idea, I guess, but much more formalised, with legally-binding obligations in both directions.

I’m pretty sure someone could knock up a software suite for managing all the paperwork necessary in order to make this happen, though I’ll confess that my knowledge of buisness law is sufficiently lacking that I have no idea whether or not it is legal (let alone practical, given the lack of a trusted and reliable micropayments platform and the morass if international business law). Can anyone in the audience shed a light on some of the details?

And more to the point, would anyone like to buy shares in Futurismic? We may not be profitable, but we’ve got a warehouse full of kudos… 😉