Monday, January 23, 2012

Science fiction triple feature

I've been in a science fiction state of mind recently, which is perhaps why I was particularly struck by a few things I ran across in the last day or so.

First, there was a lot in author Charles Stross's discussion of 'world building' (part of a series) that reminded me of my own efforts at 'past reconstructing': i.e. how closely related efforts to understand the past and predict the future can be. (Even if the problem of 'unknown unknowns' plays a rather different role in each case.) (Thanks to Chris W. for pointing me to Stross's excellent blog!)

Second, another 'future building' track brought me to SF author Bruce Sterling, some of whose novels I've liked for many years now (such as Islands in the Net or Holy Fire).

Sterling downplays both his blog and, by implication, his 'State of the World' discussions at The Well, as being 'rambling, open-ended, eclectic blather'.

Without being utterly inaccurate, however, this description does insufficient justice to Sterling's ability to write things that are well-phrased, insightful and funny all at the same time.

For instance, I like his summary (at the Well discussion) of what he sees as the key society-shaping factors of the coming century, i.e., demographics and climate change. The mid-century world, he quips, is going to be dominated by 'old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky.'

Or put another way: 'Futurity means metropolitan people with small families in a weather crisis.' Also quite good, but not nearly as memorable.

Of course, there are other visions of futurity to be dealt with, such as those of right-wing talk radio hosts, the People's Republic of China and Cyberculture ('Smartphones! They make the Silicon Valley of the 1980s look like the railroads of the 1880s!').

In Sterling's summary of what he sees as the sorry state of 'fringe beliefs about the future', I am embarrassed to discover an apparently well-known fringe group of which I had never heard: the 'chemtrail' conspiracy theorists. (Sterling: ' These guys are pitiable loons, but they're interesting harbingers of a future when even scientific illiterates are deathly afraid of the sky.')

I have to admit more sympathy for two other fringe beliefs that Sterling observes seem to have disappeared a bit:

Space Travel people.  Visible mostly by their absence nowadays.  About the only ones left are nutcase one-percenters of a certain generation, with money to burn on their private space yachts.  This was such a huge narrative of the consensus future, for such a long time, that it's really interesting to see it die in public.   There's no popular understanding of why space cities don't work, though if you told them they'd have to spend the rest of their lives in the fuselage of a 747 at 30,000 feet, they'd be like "Gosh that's terrible."

Transcendant spiritual drug enthusiasts.  People consume unbelievable amounts of narcotics nowadays, but there used to be gentle, unworldly characters who genuinely thought this practice was good for you, and would give you marijuana and psychedelics because they were convinced they were doing you a big, life-changing favor.

You go into one of those medical marijuana dispensaries nowadays, they're like huckster chiropractors, basically.  The whole ethical-free-spirit surround of the psychedelic dreamtime is gone. It's like the tie-dyed guys toking up in the ashram have been replaced by the carcasses of 12,000 slaughtered Mexicans.

Finally, Sterling -- who spends a lot of time in Italy and Serbia -- offers two interesting perspectives of these countries' views of future change based upon his experiences in each.

With regard to the Italians' views of 'Europe':

The Italian version of "Europe" is different from other people's versions of "Europe," mostly because "Europe" is so much better-governed than Italy.  If Italy hadn't founded the European Union, Italy wouldn't be allowed into it now, because Italy's too decadent and ramshackle to live up to the standards.  So, every once in a while some kind of cold European economic/political breeze will ooze over the Alps; and Italians rarely complain; on the contrary, they're grateful for it and hope for better.  Like, maybe "Europe" will somehow dispell the "Crisis" without Italians having to do much of anything, and wow, that would be great.

With regard to the Serbians' views of Russia:

Serbia's fantasy version of Russia is like nobody else's conception of Russia; most everybody else thinks of Russia as some half-blind, yellow-fanged ursine creature bristling with rusty nuclear weapons, while for Serbia, Russia is a fluffy angelic-winged flying bear to be depicted in stained-glass windows in a cloud of Orthodox incense. Tremendous emotional energy is invested in imagining that Russia will somehow show up and set everything to rights someday,even though Russia has never really done that anywhere for anybody.

Third, and finally, at 21C magazine there is quite a good discussion of J. G. Ballard among Sterling, V. Vale and (our friend) Simon Sellars. (Who also has an essay in the Ballard collection I noted here recently.)

This is by no means new, but I failed to mention it at the time and ran across it quite by chance again yesterday. 

Sterling again:

You’re not suicidal if you understand J.G. Ballard. On the contrary,this guy’s a consummate survivor. Burroughs and his friends and the beatnik movement had a tremendous casualty list, whereas Ballard and his friends in the British New Wave movement and the Pop Art scene were actually fairly solid, well-balanced if unconventional individuals – people with jobs and children, they were not reedy figures. This is a towering oak tree of a writer, who wrote many volumes of consistently good, accomplished work.
This reminded me a little bit of some similar comments on this blog that we offered a few years ago now on the occasion of Ballard's death.

OK, enough 'open-ended eclectic blather for one evening, methinks.

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