I learned something this weekend about the high cost of the subtle delusion that creative technical problem-solving is the preserve of a priesthood of experts, using powers and perceptions beyond the ken of ordinary human beings.
Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series of satirical fantasies. He is — and I don’t say this lightly, or without having given the matter thought and study — quite probably the most consistently excellent writer of intelligent humor in the last century in English. One has to go back as far as P.G. Wodehouse or Mark Twain to find an obvious equal in consistent quality, volume, and sly wisdom.
I’ve been a fan of Terry’s since before his first Discworld novel; I’m one of the few people who remembers Strata, his 1981 first experiment with the disc-world concept. The man has been something like a long-term acquaintance of mine for ten years — one of those people you’d like to call a friend, and who you think would like to call you a friend, if the two of you ever arranged enough concentrated hang time to get that close. But we’re both damn busy people, and live five thousand miles apart.
This weekend, Terry and I were both guests of honor at a hybrid SF convention and Linux conference called Penguicon held in Warren, Michigan. We finally got our hang time. Among other things, I taught Terry how to shoot pistols. He loves shooter games, but as a British resident his opportunities to play with real firearms are strictly limited. (I can report that Terry handled my .45 semi with remarkable competence and steadiness for a first-timer. I can also report that this surprised me not at all.)
During Terry’s Guest-of-Honor speech, he revealed his past as (he thought) a failed hacker. It turns out that back in the 1970s Terry used to wire up elaborate computerized gadgets from Timex Sinclair computers. One of his projects used a primitive memory chip that had light-sensitive gates to build a sort of perceptron that could actually see the difference between a circle and a cross. His magnum opus was a weather station that would log readings of temperature and barometric pressure overnight and deliver weather reports through a voice synthesizer.
But the most astonishing part of the speech was the followup in which Terry told us that despite his keen interest and elaborate homebrewing, he didn’t become a programmer or a hardware tech because he thought techies had to know mathematics, which he thought he had no talent for. He then revealed that he thought of his projects as a sort of bad imitation of programming, because his hardware and software designs were total lash-ups and he never really knew what he was doing.
I couldn’t stand it. “And you think it was any different for us?” I called out. The audience laughed and Terry passed off the remark with a quip. But I was just boggled. Because I know that almost all really bright techies start out that way, as compulsive tinkerers who blundered around learning by experience before they acquired systematic knowledge. “Oh ye gods and little fishes”, I thought to myself, “Terry is a hacker!”
Yes, I thought ‘is’ — even if Terry hasn’t actually tinkered any computer software or hardware in a quarter-century. Being a hacker is expressed through skills and projects, but it’s really a kind of attitude or mental stance that, once acquired, is never really lost. It’s a kind of intense, omnivorous playfulness that tends to color everything a person does.
So it burst upon me that Terry Pratchett has the hacker nature. Which, actually, explains something that has mildly puzzled me for years. Terry has a huge following in the hacker community — knowing his books is something close to basic cultural literacy for Internet geeks. One is actually hard-put to think of any other writer for whom this is as true. The question this has always raised for me is: why Terry, rather than some hard-SF writer whose work explicitly celebrates the technologies we play with?
Eric S. Raymond, “The Delusion of Expertise”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-05-05.
August 22, 2016
August 1, 2016
I took some heat recently for describing some of Jerry Pournelle’s SF as “conservative/militarist power fantasies”. Pournelle uttered a rather sniffy comment about this on his blog; the only substance I could extract from it was that Pournelle thought his lifelong friend Robert Heinlein was caught between a developing libertarian philosophy and his patriotic instincts. I can hardly argue that point, since I completely agree with it; that tension is a central issue in almost everything Heinlein ever wrote.
The differences between Heinlein’s and Pournelle’s military SF are not trivial — they are both esthetically and morally important. More generally, the soldiers in military SF express a wide range of different theories about the relationship between soldier, society, and citizen. These theories reward some examination.
First, let’s consider representative examples: Jerry Pournelle’s novels of Falkenberg’s Legion, on the one hand, and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on the other.
The difference between Heinlein and Pournelle starts with the fact that Pournelle could write about a cold-blooded mass murder of human beings by human beings, performed in the name of political order, approvingly — and did.
But the massacre was only possible because Falkenberg’s Legion and Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry have very different relationships with the society around them. Heinlein’s troops are integrated with the society in which they live. They study history and moral philosophy; they are citizen-soldiers. Johnnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity. One can’t imagine giving him orders to open fire on a stadium-full of civilians as does Falkenberg.
Pournelle’s soldiers, on the other hand, have no society but their unit and no moral direction other than that of the men on horseback who lead them. Falkenberg is a perfect embodiment of military Führerprinzip, remote even from his own men, a creepy and opaque character who is not successfully humanized by an implausible romance near the end of the sequence. The Falkenberg books end with his men elevating an emperor, Prince Lysander who we are all supposed to trust because he is such a beau ideal. Two thousand years of hard-won lessons about the maintenance of liberty are thrown away like so much trash.
In fact, the underlying message here is pretty close to that of classical fascism. It, too, responds to social decay with a cult of the redeeming absolute leader. To be fair, the Falkenberg novels probably do not depict Pournelle’s idea of an ideal society, but they are hardly less damning if we consider them as a cautionary tale. “Straighten up, kids, or the hero-soldiers in Nemourlon are going to have to get medieval on your buttocks and install a Glorious Leader.” Pournelle’s values are revealed by the way that he repeatedly posits situations in which the truncheon of authority is the only solution. All tyrants plead necessity.
Eric S. Raymond, “The Charms and Terrors of Military SF”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-13.
July 15, 2016
The Laundry, of course, is the unofficial name of the British occult secret intelligence service. Here, “Bob Howard” recounts the sudden organizational panic triggered by the unexpected change of government after the Brexit vote in CASE NIGHTMARE BLOND.
June 15, 2016
If you’ve read any of the Laundry books, you’ll want to read the first chapter of the latest book in the series here.
If it follows the formal schedule, the book will go on sale on June 23rd in the UK, and the 28th in the US and Canada. You may see it offered a bit sooner in a few locations, depending on the vagaries of the book distribution system (and some retailers’ inability to keep to publication dates).
June 8, 2016
In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Cathryn Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.
Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”, not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.
I think I can go further than Hartwell or Cramer or Benford in defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field. To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls “radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category “fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype “apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already been sorted into the “like an apple” category.
Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”) whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”, “avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits are important and tend to be conserved across the entire radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while some are only weakly bound (color).
In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition, but traits that are common to the core prototypes nevertheless tend to be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as “fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable interior with a sweet flavor.
SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic story, eutopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound” — or, almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of the core (hard-SF) prototypes”.
The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics continues to be a fact of life in the field. It it is telling that the only form of politically-inspired award presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF fans.
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
June 4, 2016
In some respects, it took me thirty years to understand what I was seeing. I’m one of Heinlein’s children, one of the libertarians that science fiction made. Because that’s so, it was difficult for me to separate my own world-view from the assumptions of the field. In grokking the politics of SF, I was in the position of a fish trying to understand water.
Eventually, however, a sufficiently intelligent fish could start to get it about hydrodynamics — especially when the water’s behavior is disturbed by storms and becomes visibly turbulent. I got to look back through the midlist at the Futurian ripples. I lived through the New Wave storm and the pre-Startide-Rising doldrums. By the time cyberpunk came around, I was beginning to get some conscious perspective.
Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF. William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief ideologue of anti-Cambellianism in the late 1980s, called it “the Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard target.
Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality, pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism) had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge’s 1978 hard-SF classic True Names, and even further back in The Space Merchants. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes, buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated in dozens of computer games.
Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in 1992’s Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix and Walter John Williams’s Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk took for granted a background in which late capitalism had decayed into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass grin.
By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however (figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated on New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia Butler. While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian tradition — Golden age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1998 work Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
May 15, 2016
Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging — all these SFnal tropes are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures.
SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.
At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different place than the present.
SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that the future not only can be different but can be different in many, many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.
All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism, applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the terminology of radial categories.
Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. And it is is here that we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.
The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysekoism). In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
March 31, 2016
SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this. Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for storylines in which (as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who Sold The Moon) scientific breakthrough and and free-enterprise economics blend into a seamless whole. These stances are not historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of freedom.
This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.
Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian tradition: ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the enemies of the future.
The partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are thus victims of a category error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or “conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest imperatives of the genre.
The SF genre and libertarianism will both survive this mistake quite handily. They were symbiotic before libertarianism defined itself as a distinct political stance and they have co-evolved ever since. If four failed revolutions against Campbellian SF have not already demonstrated the futility of attempting to divorce them, I’m certain the future will.
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
March 26, 2016
February 4, 2016
Lois’s latest book in the long-running Vorkosigan series, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, has just been published (my copy arrived at lunchtime on Wednesday), and she talked to Janet Potter at Goodreads about the book, the series, and other topics:
LMB: Not at this time.
GR: You deal with social justice issues in a lot of your work. Goodreads member Becca asks how new perspectives on social justice issues (particularly gender and sexuality) have affected the worlds you describe in your writing? In particular, how have they affected Beta Colony and Cordelia?
LMB: It’s a little hard to figure out how to answer that question. These books were written over a 30-year span, and each one is now fixed like an insect in amber. Whatever new perspectives may arise in our world, these pieces of art are finished. Current events cannot affect them because time does not run backward. How the old stories will be received by new readers going forward will surely shift, but that’s not under my control.
GR: Tell us about your writing process.
LMB: My writing process has evolved over the years as my context has changed. I began writing in pencil in a spiral notebook, retyped on my old college report typewriter; advanced to a three-ring binder; acquired my first computer (it had a cassette-tape drive); traded up to my second computer; the Internet was invented, and so on. Small children grew to large children, we moved to a new state, kids moved out, back, out again, career-maintenance chores multiplied, and so on. A couple of aspects have persisted over the years.
“Making it up” and “writing it down” remain two different phases for me. I still capture the ideas for a story or a scene in penciled notes, as an organizational and memory aid. These could be thought of as a very rough draft or as a (quite mutable) outline. But in thoughts and visualizations (walking is good for this) and in pencil on paper is where I munge things around till they seem to work. Only then do I take the notes to the computer and bang out the first typed draft, usually in scene-sized units. One such bite at a time, chew well, swallow, making room for the next scene to form. Each scene written alters the ideas for what could come next, sometimes by a lot, sometimes by very little. Lather, rinse, pause to whine at my test readers, repeat until the tale is told.
Formerly, as I went along I would print out each chapter and put it in a binder, freezing it till a final edit. Lately I’ve switched to working paperless. It hasn’t made the process any faster — “thinking it up” is still the main bottleneck — but I find I do more micro-editing.
GR: What books have inspired or influenced you as a writer?
LMB: The books and writers who have the most impact are inevitably those one reads first, at a young age. In science fiction and fantasy, they were mostly the books I could find in school and public libraries in the 1960s, thus a trifle out of date for the modern reader. Not necessarily the most famous, but the writers whose stories got into my head and took root include: Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, Randall Garrett, Lloyd Biggle, Jr., L. Sprague de Camp with Fletcher Pratt, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Leiber, Anne McCaffrey, and James H. Schmitz. Outside F&SF I could name Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer, Rudyard Kipling, Dorothy Sayers, and Alexander Dumas. I read, and still read, piles of nonfiction, of course, but that tends to be memorable for the subject matter rather than the author.
December 19, 2015
Jason Fuesting compares Robert Heinlein’s novel with Paul Verhoeven’s movie “adaptation” (scare quotes here because Verhoeven never read more than the first two chapters of the book). I’ve never seen the movie, but the book is one of my favourites.
Taken in a vacuum, the film itself is passable for its time. Despite being released in November, the film clearly fits the summer action film niche and summer action films are not frequently known for in-depth intellectual dialog or for exceptional acting. Verhoeven’s work does not disappoint that expectation in the least. What effort is evident in the film remains focused primarily on either the fight scenes, particularly in special effects and explosions, or in finding ways to justify having the actresses expose some amount of skin in some form or fashion as frequently as possible. As such, Verhoeven’s film comes off not too dissimilarly from what one might expect of a Michael Bay film, except less subtle in every way.
Cinematography, editing, and score were not exceptional, but quite passable. The film remained fast paced and for multiple scenes camera placement complimented the special effects and other elements quite well. The effects themselves were as I remembered, great for the time period. As far as the individual components of the film in terms of film making are concerned, outside of the acting, the film is quite well done. As for the acting, what I remembered as campy and otherwise forgettable as a teen turned out to be far worse than I remembered.
When one steps back out of the vacuum, the film ultimately falls apart entirely on writing. Many would likely ponder how a summer action movie that has managed to succeed on the other points could ultimately be deemed a failure based solely off a feature movies of its kind almost universally ignore. For Heinlein fans, the film is unequivocally a thumb in the eye. From that perspective, the director took the author’s creation, fed just enough of it through a sausage grinder to get the flavor out, mixed in his own recipe of inanity, and laid out the resulting abomination in precisely the exact opposite direction. For those not particularly attached to Heinlein’s novel but still fans of decent writing, a multitude of plot holes and grave inconsistency errors abound, all of which were introduced by the writers meddling in Heinlein’s construct like children run amok.
Amok is sadly an understatement. The film and the book are two wholly different entities. A Joking comment along the lines of the script used by Verhoeven being the result of the soulless Hollywood machine itself parodied in Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player might be closer to the truth. Simply put, Verhoeven’s script shares names with the book.
Ultimately, the book’s message is one that stresses responsibility, personal, to one’s family, and to one’s nation. Heinlein repeatedly highlights how military service is not easy, that life is a lot harder than we think it is when we’re young, how war is not the cool thing most children believe. Verhoeven steadfastly ignores every bit of that and takes every point Heinlein made and twisting it to its opposite: war is great, service is so easy any idiot can do it, the military is filled with unthinking robotic idiots and evil right-wing fascists, and the only people who are held responsible are the ones who get caught without an excuse. Instead of a story that is more or less a post-hoc biography of a soldier, complete with his regrets, Verhoeven’s adaptation is little more than modern actors in remade Nazi uniforms acting out nonsense between scenes further adapted from Nazi propaganda films. Verhoeven is so over-the-top in his use of Nazi imagery and defacing the concept of patriotism that his attempted smear against the right-wing gets lost in the noise.
The film is offensive on multiple levels. First, as a veteran, the book is easily realistic science-fiction that carries multiple very pertinent messages and warnings, especially in today’s society. Many of these were messages I needed to hear when I was younger, but I had neither the maturity nor the experience to truly understand at the time. Second, as an author, I am utterly horrified at the wholesale gutting the film makers and their writers gleefully engaged in and the complete mockery of their creation. The idea that one of my prospective works could receive similar treatment sickens me. Third, as a Conservative leaning libertarian, Verhoeven’s film lampoons ideas central to the survival of any state, left leaning or right, and does so in such a poor fashion that it fails at being even amateur-level propaganda. Admittedly, hyperbole is a valid tool; however, when using hyperbole one must ensure both that one’s point is valid and that the use of hyperbole does not destroy your message. Verhoeven fails on both accounts.
Update, 20 December: Just realized I hadn’t included the original link to this review. My belated apologies to Jason Fuesting and Cedar Sanderson for the oversight.
December 9, 2015
Charles Stross explains several SF novel shibboleths that make him want to hurl the book against the nearest wall, including so many “war in space” stories:
Newton’s Second Law, for dummies. E = 1/2 * (mv2) — it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Notice the huge distances I alluded to above? Well, to get between planet A and planet B in anything approximating reasonable human time spans, you need to go fast. And if you go fast, your velocity relative to the bodies around you is also high. In event of an inelastic collision the kinetic energy transfer is proportional to the square of your velocity; and this has drastic consequences for space ships. Suppose you’re in low Earth orbit and you hit a piece of space junk, for example a screw that’s fallen off someone else’s ship. It’s traveling in pretty much the same orbit as you, but inclined at 30 degrees. What happens? What happens is you get a happy fun experience much like being hit by a bullet from a high-calibre sniper’s rifle, because (I can’t be bothered to do the trig here) it’s packing a velocity component angled across your path at a goodly fraction of orbital velocity, and at orbital velocity a kilogram of water packs kinetic energy equal to about ten times its mass in exploding TNT.
You know what a high-speed car crash looks like, right? Space ships travel a lot faster than that: if they hit something, it’s going to be very messy indeed. And that’s at sluggish orbital velocities; if you starship is barreling along at about 85% of the speed of light general relativity has something to say on the subject and it’s kinetic energy is equal to about half it’s rest mass — the equivalent of a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb for every kilogram of hull weight. (The pilot’s space-suited body alone packs the energetic punch of a Peak Strangelove 1980s USA/USSR strategic nuclear exchange.)
Human bodies are basically squishy sacks of goopy grease and water emulsions held together by hydrogen bonds and disulphide bridges between protein molecules and glommed onto some big lumps of high-grade chalk. We evolved in a forgiving, water-dominated low-velocity world where evolution didn’t bequeath us nervous systems able to comprehend and deal with high energy interactions other than in an “ooh, that lightning bolt was close! Where’s cousin Ugg?” kind of way. We can’t even see objects that flash across our visual field in less than 50 milliseconds — a duration in which, at orbital velocity, an object will have travelled on the order of half a kilometer.
Intuition and high energy regimes: do the math, or your space combat will be a whole bundle of nope.
(Other related cognitive errors include but are not limited to: Napoleonic navies clashing in space and firing broadsides back and forth at one another’s line of battle … spaceships with continuous high acceleration fusion-powered motors or similar that don’t glow white-hot then melt because vacuum is an insulator and shedding that much heat is a hard engineering problem (hint: a 100 ton spaceship accelerating at 1g requires 1 megaJoule of thrust: using a photon rocket for maximum efficiency that’s going to require 3 x 1015 watts of juice going in, if it’s 99.9% effective at heat dissipation that means it’s racking up around three terawatt of leakage, and that’s equivalent to about 45 kilotons of nuclear explosions per minute of waste heat) … warships using active radar to hunt for one another (hint: active sensor reach is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the emission strength, passive sensors obey the inverse square law) … warships using stealth in space (hint: infrared emissions, second hint: the background temperature you want to avoid standing out against is 2.73 degrees Kelvin, i.e. liquid Helium temperature) …
Oh for fuck’s sake, don’t get me started on war in space, we’ll be here forever unless we just throw physics to the winds of fiction and delegate all our hand-waving to magic hyperspace or cyberspace technology or something.
December 5, 2015
At American Digest, Gerard Van der Leun recalls how his budding teenage life of crime was brought to a sudden halt:
As a teenager my addiction to science fiction paperbacks often came into conflict with my ongoing cash-flow problem. To wit, I hadn’t any. But, for a few brief, shining weeks I did discover a resource better than cash for acquiring science-fiction paperbacks — my pants.
Yes, at some point it dawned on my tiny teenage brain that, if I could just get these piles of paper down the front of my pants and walk without a waddle out the door of the store, the latest Asimov or Heinlein would be free. What was even better was my discovery that I could, after reading these stolen gems, take them back to the bookstore from which I boosted them and sell them back to that dull owner for a credit to buy other paperbacks. Cost of stock: $0, Price received: $0.25, Profit — infinite. What a business! I was a confirmed capitalist. I even thought of a name for my company, World Wide Pants, and was quite upset years later when David Letterman stole it from me.
Of course I knew on some level that stuffing things down my pants, waddling out of a store and then coming back later to sell the purloined items back was …. a teeny bit wrong. But the bookstore owner had so many science fiction books and I had so few. “From bookstores according to their stock, to me according to my need to read,” seemed to be my moral code at the time. Besides, I wasn’t “really” stealing them because I “returned” them for a fee. It was a way of letting the bookstore owner sort of reverse-rent them to me.
I started small — maybe a slim collection of short stories like The Green Hills of Earth, or a novella such as “Children of the Atom,” would find their way to their temporary home between my belt and my underwear. But then I decided to expand. After all, it seemed to me that my pants had room to spare especially if I let my shirt tails hang out. Once that was in my mind, I started to up the ante and began to go for multiple copies of Ace Doubles. My pants became, in effect, a small bookshelf.
The owner of the bookstore down in the slums of Sacramento was, I was certain, clueless as to what was going on. He was a wispy simulacra of William Burroughs with the gray haze of alcohol hovering about him and a tendency to give me a smile that was a little too warm whenever I came into the shop. He’d often disappear into a curtained nook with the sign “Special Titles — Ask for admittance” thumbtacked to the bookshelf next to it.
My undoing came one day when I think I had probably added a full two inches to my waistline in the science fiction section. I waddled to the cash register with one tattered copy of some space opera and slid my quarter across the counter. He looked at it, looked at me, took the quarter and slid the book into a flimsy paper bag and handed it back. “See you soon,” he said with a wink. I turned and had gotten out the door and a couple of steps down the sidewalk when the bony hand of retribution clutched my shoulder. “I see you’re gaining a little weight,” he said in a voice that betrayed an unhealthy interest in Lucky Strikes. “I think we need to talk to your parents about this. Come on back in.”
There’s no way to describe the churning, burning hunk of fear that forms in your stomach the first time you’re busted. If, at that moment, you could chose between death and juju, death would win every time — but only because you don’t know that you’ll get death only after juju.
November 30, 2015
Charlie Jane Anders talked to Charles about the book and the series:
How has the Laundry Files series changed and evolved in the dozen years or so that you’ve been writing it? Are there elements that you’re still surprised became so prominent?
I’ve been writing the Laundry Files series for 16 years at this point. When I began, I intended the short novel “The Atrocity Archive” (published with “The Concrete Jungle” in the book The Atrocity Archives — note the plural!) as a one-shot. It was only a few years later, when people began asking for more, that I had any idea of writing a sequel, and only with the third book, 8 years in, that I realized I needed a Plan. And because the book’s narrator, Bob, had been aging in line with the real world as I wrote the first three books, the most obvious plan was: track Bob’s career as he grows older, more senior, and more cynical.
This turned out to be a really fortuitous choice. It allowed me to fix some minor inconsistencies in the earlier books; because they’re Bob’s workplace memoir, he often gets the wrong end of the stick at first then learns better about some aspect of the job over time. It also allowed me to deepen him as a character, adding complexity to the narrative as he ages and possibly becomes more self-aware (although he doesn’t really have to grow up until books 8 or 9).
What I really wasn’t expecting was that Bob’s life would take over — and that the most important events in it would end up taking place off-screen, so far off-screen that I needed to pick new narrative voices! His wife Mo, for example, exhibits a very unvarnished perspective on Bob’s seemingly bottomless reserves of self-delusion in The Annihilation Score, and demonstrates that the series is very much about the Laundry as an organization, rather than just being Tales of Bob. And in The Nightmare Stacks I had to leave Bob behind entirely in order to give a worm’s eye view of the start of events that will give rise (eventually) to the climax of the series.
This book features a new character, Alex, instead of Bob. What’s the reason for switching focus?
In The Atrocity Archives Bob starts out as a twenty-something tech support guy who has blundered into a Len Deighton spy thriller (with added tentacles). By the start of The Rhesus Chart, Bob has leveled up so far that he can wade into a nest of vampires — admittedly rather inexperienced vampires — and escape with mildly damaged dignity and a stack of paperwork. Power-ups are a constant problem for any multi-book series that riffs off the Hero’s Journey: how do you engage with the underdog when your protagonist has risen from Midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet?
Alex is in some ways not dissimilar to Bob in his early incarnation. There are drastic differences: Alex has powers of his own — although they come at a drastic price. But Alex takes us back to the guy who gets sent to fix the cabling rather than spending all his time in policy meetings. And he’s got a young guy’s problems and social anxieties, unlike Bob (who by this point is in his early forties).
November 16, 2015
The Great Filter, remember, is the horror-genre-adaptation of Fermi’s Paradox. All of our calculations say that, in the infinite vastness of time and space, intelligent aliens should be very common. But we don’t see any of them. We haven’t seen their colossal astro-engineering projects in the night sky. We haven’t heard their messages through SETI. And most important, we haven’t been visited or colonized by them.
This is very strange. Consider that if humankind makes it another thousand years, we’ll probably have started to colonize other star systems. Those star systems will colonize other star systems and so on until we start expanding at nearly the speed of light, colonizing literally everything in sight. After a hundred thousand years or so we’ll have settled a big chunk of the galaxy, assuming we haven’t killed ourselves first or encountered someone else already living there.
But there should be alien civilizations that are a billion years old. Anything that could conceivably be colonized, they should have gotten to back when trilobytes still seemed like superadvanced mutants. But here we are, perfectly nice solar system, lots of any type of resources you could desire, and they’ve never visited. Why not?
Well, the Great Filter. No knows specifically what the Great Filter is, but generally it’s “that thing that blocks planets from growing spacefaring civilizations”. The planet goes some of the way towards a spacefaring civilization, and then stops. The most important thing to remember about the Great Filter is that it is very good at what it does. If even one planet in a billion light-year radius had passed through the Great Filter, we would expect to see its inhabitants everywhere. Since we don’t, we know that whatever it is it’s very thorough.
Scott Alexander, “Don’t Fear The Filter”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-28.