Singularity Happens

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. wrote a long post on his blog on why he believes the singularity won’t happen. [via SF Signal]

According to Modesitt, it won’t happen because such visions are based on technology, not on humanity and they’re based on a western European/North American cultural chauvinism.

He goes on to explain:

One of the simplest rules involved in implementing technology is that the speed and breadth of such implementation is inversely proportional to the cost and capital required to implement that technology. That’s why we don’t have personal helicopters, technically feasible as they are. It’s also why, like it or not, there’s no supersonic aircraft follow-on to the Concorde. It’s also why iPods and cellphones are ubiquitous, as well as why there are many places in the third world where cellphones are usable, but where landlines are limited or non-existent.

All in all I think he makes a well-reasoned and cogent argument that completely misses the point. The point of the singularity is the premise, which I think is valid, that it is possible that a technology can arrive that completely overturns the basic assumptions we use to model the future. AI and nanotech are the oft-used sfnal examples, but history is already filled with basic advances that remapped the entire world to fit them: agriculture, sewage treatment, the printing press, anesthesia, automobiles, air-travel, television, the internet, cell phones.

But my main problem with Modesitt’s argument is that it is primarily an economic one, based on the assumption that the basic economic rules are somehow set in stone and aren’t manipulated by technological change. That’s only true if you’re very broad in defining your terms. A product’s value is less and less defined by the cost of the materials and labor required to build it, more and more the impetus to distribute technology is to get the end user to buy into an associated service (psst, wanna free cellphone, how’s about an inkjet printer, brand new DVR, just sign this contract) and as fabrication becomes more and more efficient, “things” become more like intellectual property where the cost has little to do with the physical object, counterfeits become ubiquitous, and theft starts meaning some basement entrepreneur is making something that looks too much like what you’re selling. The labor theory of value breaks down in a replicator economy. Even his points about energy becoming more expensive is one good fusion reactor away from being moot.

Like I said, IMO his argument is basically why the Singularity won’t happen. . . right now.

When book covers do it right

Working on Apotheosis (going well, thank you for asking) I’ve found myself digging in my old notes for Hostile Takeover. And I found a little sketch I made of the character Flower, when I was figuring out what the Volerans looked like.

Now I’m not a very good artist (I was a lot better before I decided to concentrate on writing some 20 years ago) but I thought it was a neat example of how sometimes a cover artist can actually tap into what the author was thinking. (Opposed to my prior post on book covers.)

Here’s my little sketch:

And here’s a detail of the cover of Profiteer, (one of my favorite book covers after the one for Dwarves) showing the same character:

The cool thing, Jim Burns never saw the sketch I made, he was going off of my description in the book. That was pretty cool.

I just wish he hadn’t made Tetsami (a short Asian woman) look like a pissed of Sigourney Weaver.

New Space Opera

There seems to be two main “movements” in science fiction (and I’m talking about science fiction, not the broader speculative fiction/fantasy etc.) at this point in time. Both were mentioned in the editorial in the October ’07 issue of Asimov’s. The first is the manifesto-wielding vanguard of Mundane SF that I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. The second movement has been called “New Space Opera,” which has no manifesto I know of, or a website for that matter.

The name “New Space Opera” seems to have come into currency with a 2003 edition of Locus (a role that an upcoming issue of Interzone seems to be planning to play for Mundane SF) and has not had a terribly clear definition, but my favorite one is by Paul McAuley from that same Locus issue.

There are neither empires nor rigid technocracies dominated by a single Big Idea in the new space opera; like cyberpunk, it’s eclectic and pluralistic, and infused with the very twenty-first century sensibility that the center cannot hold, that technology-driven change is continuous and advancing on a thousand fronts, that some kind of posthuman singularity is approaching fast or may already have happened. Most of all, its stories contain a vertiginous sense of deep time; in the new space opera, the Galaxy is not an empty stage on which humans freely strut their stuff, but is instead a kind of junk yard littered with the ruins and abandoned wonders of earlier, more powerful races.

The mention of the singularity is key IMO, as it seems one of the main differences in content between the “Old” and the “New” Space Opera is the whole concept of a “singularity.” New Space Opera takes the singularity as a given and either goes with it, or establishes some explanation of why AI/Nanotech/Etc. isn’t completely warping the setting beyond explanation.

I mention all this because the Apotheosis Trilogy I’m working on may, by the third volume, fit into this description– closest I’ve ever been to being part of a literary movement.

The End of Magazines. . .

Following upon my post about the oft-predicted demise of the printed book, and my opinion that it ain’t going to happen any time soon, I come across a blog post by Warren Ellis (via SF Signal) about the tumbling circulation figures of the major print SF magazines, a term that seems to be becoming an oxymoron. The figures have inspired reactions from John Scalzi and Cory Doctrow, and has provoked some hand-wringing about how these magazines can save themselves.

Unlike printed books, it seems to me that printed magazines are being displaced by their electronic counterparts in a way that seems unlikely to happen to the book-length form. Why? Several reasons I think. First, unlike e-books, e-mags just require a web browser. No dedicated hardware or software. Second, it is easy to mirror the established economics of print mags (subscriptions and advertisements paying for content) on-line. Third, magazines are, like web-pages, blogs, forums &c., ephemera comprised of relatively small nuggets of information generally between one and ten thousand words. Lastly, on-line mags offer advantages over and above traditional print subscriptions, the major one being that if you subscribe to an on-line mag you get instant access to everything that magazine has ever printed– not just 12 issues.

My solution to the plight of F&SF, Analog and Asimov’s would be simply to adopt an on-line subscription model in parallel with the print one.

Ok, I Think Everyone Needs to Get a Grip

What the hell is going on here? J. K. Rowling makes an aside about the backstory of one of her characters– something that’s not mentioned, or even evident in the text of the book– and people start freaking out.

Right now there are like 40+ comments on two separate posts on Whatever. There’s nearly 150 comments on a post @ Making Light. It’s making news at E!, Fox, Newsweek and the Washington Post.

What really annoys me is this quote from the AP story with the equally annoying headline “Dumbledore’s outing gives text new meaning”

“Jo Rowling calling any Harry Potter character gay would make wonderful strides in tolerance toward homosexuality,” Melissa Anelli, webmaster of the fan site The Leaky Cauldron, told The Associated Press. “By dubbing someone so respected, so talented and so kind, as someone who just happens to be also homosexual, she’s reinforcing the idea that a person’s gayness is not something of which they should be ashamed.”

Yeah, I would buy that– if it was part of the effing books! It wasn’t. Dumbledore’s sexual orientation is so peripheral to his character that it didn’t merit a mention. That means that every single person who reads these books from now until the end of literacy as we know it is only ever going to read the character as gay if they’ve heard about Rowling’s aside. Most of the people who have read the books, I daresay most who will ever read the books, aren’t going to read about someone “so respected, so talented and so kind, who just happens to be also homosexual.” They’re going to read about somone “so respected, so talented and so kind, who’s sexual orientation is beside the point.”

What’s more annoying is that if Rowling intended to make some sort of positive message out of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation, rather than having it as a background character trait, I don’t doubt she would have explicitly spelled it out in the books.

This hubub is saying a lot more about the folks hububing than it is about Rowling, Potter or Dumbledore.