Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
I am in the midst of reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which is a book dealing with the development of the Singularity. This is my second attempt at a Stross novel, the first being Halting State which was written in second person, which is an immediate deal-breaker for me. I’m having a bit of trouble with this one, too, and I’m trying to put my finger on why.
Part of it is that the main character (in this part of the book, anyway), Manfred Macx, is a sort of techno-bohemian philanthropist who has cast off the ‘shackles’ of capitalist society and lives by coming up with random patent ideas, patenting them, and then giving them away to start-ups who can use them in exchange for permanent favors. So, while he has no money, he has everything he needs. Skipping past the implausibility of this scheme or, at least, it being completely implausible for anyone who isn’t as brilliant as Macx, I get the sense in this book that I’m being sold something. I’m supposed to buy into Macx philosophy and think he’s really cool; furthermore, I’m supposed to get excited or accept the inevitability of the Singularity.
I do not do either of those things.
There is a pretty robust argument out there (one I ascribe to, incidentally) that suggests the Singularity will never actually happen. I don’t especially want to get into the debate here; a cursory read of the wikipediea entry on the singularity can give you the basic overview – draw your own conclusions. The thing I want to discuss here is the attitude that comes along with certain futurists that proclaim the Good News of this or that technological innovation. They often are as evangelical as any given Bible-thumping born-again, proclaiming the inevitability of their particular technological hobby-horse’s supremacy with all the zeal of a cult follower. Those who disagree are fools, or anti-science, or hopelessly misled (the poor things).
But then, you know, Utopia doesn’t actually happen. We go halfway. We find a hiccup in plan, a hole in the road. The bridge is out on this track to fairy land, folks. You’ll have to go around.
This is what happened with Steam Power, and with electricity after that, and with nuclear power after that, and with psychology, and communism, and fascism, and pretty much everything else the human race has ever come up with to solve all the world’s problems. This is not to say that they were Bad Ideas or that we ought not hope to fashion utopia out of our innovative spirit – keep trying, by all means – I just don’t particularly enjoy having something sold to me before it’s been proven to work. I’m not going to upload my brain into a computer until I see what happens to all those guys who go first. Call me a coward, if you will, but I prefer to call myself a skeptic. I need more than just a schematic, guys, or a fancy sales pitch – show me your track record.
Now, I don’t know whether Stross is trying to sell me on the wonders of the Singularity, yet – I’m not far enough through Accelerando to tell. Right now, in this first part, he’s being pretty didactic, though. Maybe that’s the character; maybe Macx is in for some heavy-duty reality alignment. I kinda hope so, honestly, because I don’t easily buy utopian (or dystopian) tales.
“But,” I hear you ask, “How can you read science fiction if you don’t want somebody selling you their version of the future?”
There’s a difference between ‘exploring’ and ‘selling,’ though. In the former case, you are positing a theory and exploring it while paying attention to the audience’s suspension of disbelief and managing their expectations without overtly endorsing the future you create. In the latter case, you are attempting to show the effect of technology on society as inevitable in this, our real world, and, furthermore, putting forth your work as prognostic or prescient. That strikes me as arrogant, because we can’t tell the future. We never can. Science Fiction isn’t the exploration of what will be, it’s the exploration of what might be. We must be careful not to buy our own theories, lest we think of ourselves as prophets; we aren’t. We are storytellers, and that’s quite enough.