There was a belief for a while that cyberpunk was dead, with Gwyneth Jones its perhaps last practitioner. After all, the epiphany that William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy invoked shook up scifi in all the right ways, and produced a subgenre that moved the main genre away from its fascination with deep space and its flirtation with post-apocalypses to an engagement with the reality that networked computers and the systems that connect them. But the implications of what Gibson (and Sterling and Cadigan and all the rest) had played out, and the resulting weak revisions of the original cyberpunk vision were at best boring.
At the time I hoped that the death of cyberpunk was not true, but there wasn’t a lot of forward movement in the genre. Since then, it’s been reawakened and re-envisioned. I’ve already posted a couple of times about Richard K. Morgan’s Kovac series, and Morgan’s update of the genre is compelling and fascinating, with Kovacs’s first-person narrative simultaneously infuriating, energizing, and powerful.
Even acknowledging the power of that series, I’m particularly happy to have stumbled upon Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, an interesting new take on the movement. Drayden adds a whole new realm of inquiry to the genre in part by locating the material action in South Africa while maintaining cyberpunk’s reliance on far-flung systems. The fact that cyberpunk can go global (following Gibson’s good-guy Rastafarians in space and Morgan’s intentional opening up of the ethnic make up of human attempts to explore the universe) is a heartening one.
More thoughts below the fold:
Contemporary sci-fi is hard to keep up with, and I’ve not tried to read the latest and greatest in any dutiful sense for a few years. This means that I often miss great series, and the Kovacs trilogy by Richard K Morgan is one.
Broken Angels takes place in a much different space than does Altered Carbon, and is a scifi war novel, leaping away from Altered Carbon’s cyberpunk, hard-boiled world. It’s also way darker and grimmer, and fits Morgan’s world view as expressed in a couple of interviews (here and here).
Other thoughts below:
- Morgan definitely has something to say about extropianism, and he’s not a fan. The tech utopians who believe in it feel a very specific brand of willfully blind to me, and seem to believe that they can write out the potential for uber-fascism that is its foundation and create a future world that is completely rational and free (and a meritocracy to boot).
- In contrast, the world of this series posits a highly-layered, incredibly un-egalitarian system in which those who can attain virtual immortality due so in order to accumulate so much wealth that they can treat the rest of the world as their playground.
- That response makes sense, of course – in a chaotic world in which some are always oppressing the majority (and paths leading one out of the downtrodden masses often involve doing hideous work for the elite) one sure way to protect your children is to accumulate inordinate (and insane) amounts of wealth. If you can stay alive forever by simply resleeving after your body wears out, why would you not want to be able to protect yourself through wealth even more fiercely?
- He also explores the effects of trauma (and hyper-trauma) on the process of constantly putting people into new bodies – in this series entire methods have been developed to try to heal the trauma of someone who was put through physical extremes in a previous body, methods that range from intense empathy to psychosurgery.
- Re-sleeving doesn’t eliminate the trauma, a concept that I’m not sure the extropians have considered.
- Morgan stomps on the fascination with military hardware that dominates lots of cyberpunk and/or science fiction military worlds. Kovacs at one point kills over a hundred soldiers (who themselves are witnessing a horrendous execution by torture) because he hijacks their own hardware and decides that they have to die. He clearly feels no remorse over this – he just kills them all, the logical extension of having all this power.
- Cyberpunk grew into a genre that scifi military folks geek over (something we see a bit in the Star Wars fandom), and Morgan is reclaiming it as a more Gibsonian landscape, one in which layers of oppression are resisted, albeit with costs to the resistors.
- Morgan also argues that technological advances will always be configured in power. The example that comes to mind most clearly from this series is the nano-organism that Kovacs’s team finds deployed in the area of the Martian technology that they are trying to use as a way of becoming rich. The nano-organism quickly develops the capacity to survive nearly anything the squad can throw at it, and they have no option but to escape it.
- It can, however, be shut down with the simple insertion of a backdoor code. Its creators can turn off this incredibly powerful machine/biological entity with a simple key. Without that key it is unstoppable.
- Machine Learning and AI are clearly our best bad plans.
- Oh yeah, did I mention that there’s lots of alien technology, far in advance of human? And that soldiers’ DNA is spliced with wolves to help instill in them a desire to be part of a pack? Or that he sees world-building species as coming solely from predators (it’s harder to survive as a species as a predator, so it takes more intelligence as well as ruthlessness). Morgan’s extrapolations are fascinating, and in and of themselves make this series a powerful read.
I’m always interested in views of our dystopian future, especially when they involve robots, so I watched I am Mother recently. My thoughts below:
- I’m not always good at identifying how a film will end (my wife guessed the ending of Sixth Sense way before I did) so I’m probably a bad source, but I at times had trouble seeing which way the plot would go. (SPOILER ALERT) It certainly didn’t end as I expected, with the spunky-but-conflicted humans blowing up all the robots.
- I also kept wondering just how aware the director was of what felt to me like plot holes – as becomes evident at the end of the film he is (and was), but my guess is that the misdirections that felt unfollowed were designed to lead us astray as to what the ending would be.
- One of my major obsessions with robots is how they are represented in terms of power and control – this film messes with those ideas, as the killer droids seem to not be all that interested in killing unless they are ordered to do so (despite their fearsome appearance). I’m not exactly sure in this filmic world who does that ordering…and the hints are that Mother’s desire to save us from ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing…
- Mother seems too eerily drawn to be the perfect mom, and I’m guessing that’s designed to show that her coding is done from a robot’s perspective, with all coding errors done on the side of appearing as human as possible.
- It’s not exactly the sort of the Asimovian cyborg gets elected president because he’s perfect story, but there are hints that the robots truly do know better…
The Field Guide to Evil is a crowd-funded horror anthology, and in my recent viewing at the Nightlight we went with some other horror fans who had decidedly mixed opinions about it.
- Being crowd-funded made some of the choices make sense, and it’s sort of hard to imagine a horror film these days that doesn’t use green screens or other types of digital effects. The old-fashioned types of trick camera work and stunts that they used were really cool and an homage of sorts to the films of the 60s and 70s that didn’t have access to digital camera effects.
- Each focused on a folklorish approach, but they treated all kinds of texts as ones worthy of producing folklore, including texts that are more recent. In particular, I liked one that the rest of the group found hoky – a story about big-headed children in the forests of California, children who are actually the product of a mad scientist (as we find out). The mix of genres felt like a particularly useful way to look at the ways that we create folklore.
- I think my favorite was one of the first ones, featuring a tinker who went from village to village and who was told by an evil spirit that if he ate the heart of corpses he would be all-powerful. He ends up in a jail cell, but the vignette finishes with him listening to the sound of troops marching off to war, as the emperor has obviously taken on the powers by doing the crimes that he has committed.
I was directed to Schweitzer’s collection of reviews, essays, and presentations while researching an article on the Malazan world and just war theory, and I thought I’d talk about it below:
- At times this collection was frustrating. He writes off any sort of literary theory that comes after the New Critics, and he dismisses it in what I always find the laziest way – it’s too hard, it’s not well-written, it eliminates the author, and so on. There are many reasons to find fault with the deconstructionists, Foucauldians, and the rest who revolutionized the way that literary criticism works, but these are not the ways to do so.
- He also diminishes a lot of the underlying issues of race and gender that mark these texts, in ways that seem very Gernsbackian.
- Even then, however, the reasons why I think I enjoyed this become clear, as one of the essays in this collection directly critiques Gernsback’s contributions to the field because of Gernsback’s well-known multiple faults…and he does this compellingly and disruptively (critiquing Gernsback can still draw fire from true scifi fanatics).
- Those critiques aside, I plowed through this and enjoyed a lot of it. I understand, I think, that he’s a writer who is too busy writing stories, etc, a publisher who is keeping generic short fiction alive, an editor who works with and encourages a lot of other writers, an agent who makes sure that we still have access to older texts, and a collector who wears out estate sales in order to find hidden gems that need to be preserved to spend a lot of time digesting contemporary theory.
- Taking the time to work through the potential benefits these theories offer by providing different types of lenses probably isn’t in the cards…
- His memory is amazing, nearly wikipedian in its breadth *and* depth. The number of texts that he refers to is mind-boggling, and I’m saying that as someone who spends way too much time reading myself.
- I’m also fascinated by the patterns he draws – he not only reads pulp and/or genre fiction, but he digests it, sees patterns between both stories by the same author and between that author and others.
- Finally, he’s definitely not only interested in texts from the genre. He casually mentions Marquez, Kafka, and McCarthy, drawing interesting parallels, and he has clearly read a lot of the high canon and thought seriously about it…
I started to subscribe to Benedict Evan’s newsletter a couple of months ago, and it never fails to identify an interesting article or two. The most recent issue highlighted this article from Bloomsburg Business News, and reading it prompted two quick thoughts:
- The Chinese are so concerned about global warming and the damage it’s doing that they are taking some pretty drastic steps, including banning all fossil fuel-powered cars by what looks like 2040 (they haven’t said exactly when yet).
BYD Electric Vehicle at a car show in China
- While the American tech market is driven by big personalities and the alpha male culture that we seem to believe drives business success, this company – BYD – dwarfs the production of other electronic vehicle producers.
- They have done this by concentrating less on the whims of a charismatic owner (*cough*, some guy whose first name rhymes with “belon” and whose last name is most often associated with deer, *cough*) and more on what needs to be done.
- They have also made huge government investments in these countries. I’m not going to pretend to understand the way that investment works in a mixed economy like China, but after the uproar about “bailing out” American car companies and I can’t imagine that Americans will suddenly think that having governments invest in private companies is a good idea.
- Doing R and D through universities is something else, but even that is a tough sell for a lot of folks…
Maybe we will figure it out anyway?
This review of former Rust Belt cities (from the US and Europe) is way too long to do a thorough post on, so I’ll offer some thoughts below.
- The premise is that Rust Belt cities are far from doomed – instead, according to the authors, they are the next source of innovation and are a burgeoning market in and of themselves.
- They look at cities like Akron and Dresden, and highlight leadership, universities, big companies that are trying to remain innovative, and government initiatives as the reasons for these changes.
- Their optimism is tempered a bit by some of the challenges they see – more smart technology (and some emotional intelligence) is still needed for leadership, more focus on developing products rather than experiences or systems, more support for universities. They identify these problems, and thankfully don’t rename them opportunities.
- The authors have done a lot of traveling and have talked to a lot of the people who are driving innovation, and they use mostly these interviews (with a few well-chosen stats) to make their argument. That approach makes sense, and helps me appreciate Piketty’s intensively thorough approach even more. As a reviewer on goodreads commented that this book is a mile wide and an inch deep, and that methodology leaves a lot out…
- I’m troubled by the fact that there seems to be little focus on the folks left behind. Again, this argument fits neatly into the narrative that claims that smart technology will save us all, and the fact that robotics seems to mean that the work left for humans (yay capitalism!) will be either gathering all the money at the top or doing the dirtiest, meanest jobs that require some human decision-making (i.e., strawberry-picking), since building a machine to do that work would be more expensive than paying people minimum-wage and not offering them benefits doesn’t seem to occur to the authors.
- This part of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 argument always seems the shakiest to me – it feels like such a dystopian, cyberpunk future, with elements of The Circle thrown in for good measure. The alternative seems so utopian as to be ridiculous…
- Despite my pessimism, though, I sincerely hope their vision of the future comes true.