Notes on some classic science fiction titles.
This piece is just a collection of short observations on sci-fi titles that I've read, listed in publication order.
I have never been much of a fan of reading science fiction, but I recently realised that it would be good to know the classics. After all, one way to invent the future is to take old ideas and mix them with new technology. Another route is to take old technology and find some new use for it. New problems, new solutions; old problems, old solutions.
Another way to invent the future is to follow the Alan Kay method, where you travel forward in time and think about what would be absurd not to exist. From there, you can head back towards the present and see what might be possible between here and then. You never know, you just might be able to buy your way into that future early. On the other hand, you could also go way back in time and try to appreciate how people thought about the future — the present — back then.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about how the right way to invent the future is to think not so much about what will be added, but what will slowly disappear or end up being taken away. What will disappear next? Science fiction offers a different perspective: What was imagined that never appeared in the first place?
In any case, I'm interested in what I can get out of reading more science fiction.
"Somebody once said that a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. We agree. And so should good science."
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1920s, 225pp)
The original authoritarian dystopia tale. The diary of D-503, the builder-architect of the airship INTEGRAL, detailing life in the clockwork machine that is the nation of OneState ("Yedinoye Gosudarstvo", "Единое Государство"). It is the twenty-sixth century: the days are highly regimented and timeboxed, from exercise hours to a brief curtains-down moment in the evening. All is carefully accounted for: people and places and procedures and politics.
The problem of happiness has been solved. The solution is found in an absolutely logical, sterile way of life, in which divergent thinking and doing is a sure sign of illness. Everyone knows their role and place, always, from birth to the vacuum chamber where the journey ends. Life by the bell, death by the Bell.
Peace and harmony in OneState is maintained by the guardians, the OneState secret police, and ultimately by the all-powerful Benefactor, the head of state of almost metallic gravitas. A great wall and a man-made sky divide the world into the technologically advanced city-state and the vast outside where nothing can live. This is one of several absolutely true, unquestionably clear facts about OneState life shared by D-503.
The story of We is about the friction between a fixed, carefully orchestrated total society and all the little things that make us alive and human. The closed, cold and rigid city-state as the ideal machine, versus the open and free and messy nature of the human condition. As the story unfolds, we get to witness stepwise shifts in D-503's worldview between mathematical roboticism and deeply emotive humanity.
Trouble finds its way into the city. A wild, free woman brings with her love, passion, desire, and other follies of the ancients. Our protagonist D-503 has his engineer's life turned upside down. There's a revolution afoot, but are the free-thinking children of the wild too late? The announcement reads that a cure for imagination has been found.
The cars fly, and bigger ships as well, though not to space. Old things are novelties, newspapers are still a thing. Slips of paper carry permissions, but brain surgery can be done with behavioural precision. Advanced weapons and a vacuum contraption for a guillotine. Wild and free and messy contrasted with logical and clear and clean. Paranoia and the secret police, the neighbourhood watch. The political ceremony and the outrageous rebellion. State media and tame spin.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951, 231pp)
Foundation is the first book in what became one of the most celebrated science fiction serials of all time, a kick-starter for an epic space saga spanning easily a thousand years. With this kind of scale, the story is less about individual people and more about the larger scheme of things. Indeed, that is precisely the story: there is a grand plan at work, at the galactic scale, and the drama is in the unfolding.
Foundation is effectively a story about institutional memory. As time goes by, different players enter and exit the stage, each generation moving the story along a little. The planetary neighbourhood evolves, there's all kinds of scheming going on at the highest levels, but equally in the daily exchanges between a trader and a technician, between a scholar and spy. The little stories that make up the larger one are a joy to read.
It all begins in the centre, on planet Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, an advanced space-faring civilisation. The Empire is thousands of years old — and tens of thousands of years in the future. We are indirectly introduced to Hari Sheldon, a "psychohistorian", a hybrid discipline that combines forecast-making data science, history, and social economics. Through his analysis Sheldon has determined that the Empire will fall, and with the help of a small army of scholars, he sets up the Foundation to do something about it.
That's it, that's the story. The rest of it is fascinating detail and political intrigue to the tune of Game of Thrones. The difference to GoT is that time moves on, characters come and go. It's like having a new person sitting on the Iron Throne every episode. Not only are the individual episodes of Foundation great reading, the overarching business makes it still greater than the sum of the parts.
On the technology side we start off with the Encyclopedia Galactica — the original Hitchhiker's Wikipedia — with an editorial staff in the hundreds of thousands. Atomic power is a big deal, and lack thereof even more so. That particular tech has been successfully miniaturised as well. Microfilms are still the medium of choice for information storage and even transfer. Interplanetary travel is commonplace, but on the other hand the decaying Empire is in places falling back to a coal economy. There's force fields and blasters, and spatial 3D recording with CSI enhancing.
The fundamental theme is perhaps revenge of the nerds. This is scientists and engineers and merchants having their day after the MBAs and aristocrats have run the galactic ship to the ground. A metal-poor planet becomes a high value prize and a serious player in inter-planetary affairs through little more than a knowledge workshop effort and some cunning political moves. Mastery over advanced technology is true power. Religion is weaponized mass control and the free market is unmasked as a tool for private interest. The message is that great men can and do move history forward — women barely receive a mention.
For all the forecasting ambitions of present day data-powered business intelligence, we still have some ways to go to reach the likes of Hari Sheldon and his thousand year plan.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1951, 305pp)
The first pictures of planet Mars were developed on Earth in the summer of 1965. The Mariner 4 flyby mission was a spectacular technical feat, but received mixed reviews at home, so to speak. The highly anticipated images revealed a barren world much more like the Moon than a rich one like ours. Life on Mars would not be as exciting as many had hoped. We were, and have been ever since, alone in the neighbourhood.
The hype for the red planet is wonderfully captured in Ray Bradbury's 1951 story collection The Martian Chronicles, which details the adventures of the first expeditions to Mars and the strange encounters between the first men and the locals. The interlinked stories, told in continuity preserving chronological order, span a few decades of the distant future, the beginning of the 21st century. In this future history, the first Earthian boots landed on Mars in 1999.
Bradbury's Mars has a breathable, if much thinner atmosphere. This makes the drama more straightforward, and post-war America easier to bring along to the new planet — for better or worse, as Bradbury emphatically points out. Mannerisms and customs carry over almost unchanged. Open fires work without problem, and there's even time for a cigarette break at touchdown. Gatherings for dinner are as commonplace and cosy as back home, and a crew of astronauts can spend a night celebrating with bottles of wine.
In just a few shorts years enough pioneering men and women have come over from Earth to populate several viable cities. Regular rocket shuttles carry people back and forth between the cities of the old world and the new. There's gas stations and their retiree keepers, and slick entrepreneurs lined up to make a killing with their shops and stands.
Mars in not found to be empty, by any means. The remains of an ancient, grand civilisation can be found everywhere, complete with waterworks, highways, and other infrastructure. And, indeed, there is Martian life to be found. Bradbury grants native Martians both strange new powers as wells a recognisable domesticity and character, a familiar way of life. The Martians have a sense of humour, a sense of honour and curiosity, a whole complex set of emotions and behaviours that mirror and play with those of the invading species. They are like us, but different.
The Martians have a profound literature and a reserved philosophy, a whole culture. Some of them have achieved a transcendental presence — they are far more in tune with Nature and their place in the universe than we are. Against the Martian background, humans come across as rash and impulsive and dangerous and quarrelsome and messy. This is Bradbury's genius, for, make no mistake, this is not just about the red planet.
The Chronicles are a sharp projection of the post-war mindset and context. 1951 was early days into the atomic era, with a planet consuming nuclear war being a thing for the first time. Advanced rocketry (of the future) is presented as commonplace and as quotidian as driving a car. Computers are absent, radio carries the news. American values dominate. The first missionaries arrive with their own blessed rocket. In a frank civil rights statement, back on Earth, in the Deep South, USA, the black communities band together to leave behind their servitude once and for all.
What lifts Bradbury's tales beyond entertaining pulp fiction, is the nuance and humanity with which he navigates the fantastical setting. The strange things are compelling and insightful, and the familiar things are revealing. Many stories are delightfully fun, others are pure suspense. The satire is silky smooth and never makes too much noise. As a whole, the stories are straightforward, and yet far from simple. Like great essays, the best of the chronicles share small stories that grow far beyond their subject matter.
"Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears."
Sprawl-trilogy by William Gibson (1984-1988, 270+256+251pp)
The landmark series that defined the golden age of the cyberpunk sub-genre. William Gibson's debut novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, explore a dense web of intertwined stories of hackers and mercenaries and assorted freelance weirdos all trying to get by in a world filled with low-lifes and high tech. The fast-paced novels are all set in the same gritty near-future, The Sprawl, that Gibson developed in some earlier stories.
Neuromancer made a huge splash when it arrived, capitalising on the success of Ridley Scott's take on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ("Blade Runner" 1982; novel 1968), but with a focus on powerful software over fleshy hardware. The network over the node. The sequels add mode depth and colour to the world, new characters and their story arcs and passions, all the while keeping everything loosely joined together.
Gibson's world is a dark one, with an expansive, indifferently violent underworld, complete with hyperactive drugs and advanced weaponry. The Sprawl is a dystopia where specialised skills are lucrative and in demand, but life is cheap and everyone is fighting for survival. Faceless corporations run the world, the rich have escaped into orbit, and the masses are kept in check with mass media that plays on vices and vanity. Many are driven by an addiction of one kind or another. Nobody is happy or in particularly good spirits.
Notably, Neuromancer presents one of the earliest virtual reality networks, a global "matrix" dataspace that inspired countless other portrayals in fiction —and surely contributed to the rise of rich Internet media in the real world. The matrix is a computing interface, an overlay dimension to reality, where humans and software entities can coexist. It is both an environment and a tool, enabling knowledge work and advanced information processing techniques for skilled individuals. Digital life beyond the mortal coil, as facilitated by the network, is a major theme in the novels.
Neuromancer is a hacker's delight. The story sets the independent computer nerd as the protagonist of the story, the cool, moody antihero, who goes on the global heist adventure of a lifetime. We meet fatal women, unstable former soldiers and hustlers, lethal bureaucrats, the powerful rich, and even sentient AIs and their keepers. There's not just complex computer play, but biohacking, and space hacking and more. Everyone is out to get theirs, be it revenge or power or just money or some complex notion of justice or meaning. Everybody is moving fast, risking everything for the present, except the rich and powerful, who are half asleep and lost in some kind of timeless ennui.
Space travel is as commonplace as driving, if not universally accessible. Medical science is advanced and computing is ubiquitous. Cloning and cryonics are available for the elite. Capitalism has won decisively, The Sprawl is a social wasteland. Religions and cultures have mixed and globalised, and have perhaps degenerated into brands, fashions. In the final crescendo, Neuromancer ventures into philosophical territory, raising questions about life and being and identity in the advanced technological age. Are we conscious observers, or is it all just a simulation?
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992, 440pp)
The definitive young hacker adventure, a high-stakes hero story at the interface where the real world meets its virtual reflection. In Snow Crash ruthless corporations and old mafia families have the run of things, but it's the independent runners that make it all go round. These edgy couriers, freelance operators in a desolate gig economy, are way too cool for school, and instead live a peculiarly detached life carrying pizzas and parcels for a living. In the capitalist anarchy of the real world fast thinking and fast delivery are everything.
Half the story takes place in the Metaverse, the ultimate virtual world run by a corporate branch of the ACM, of all things. The Street is as real of an estate as any in the meatspace. The Black Sun club is the place to be seen — to make a scene. The wealthy and the talented both show off in the massive online role play of the Metaverse by way of sophisticated avatars. All interests, all cultures, all tongues are mixed together in this great melting pot. Special daemon programs, personal assistants and keepers, help individuals navigate the ever churning digital space. In this liminal virtual world, access and sharing — the information economy — is everything.
Snow Crash is essential reading for everyone interested in networks and platform plays. Stephenson established and popularised much of the imagery and vocabulary of a whole new era, a whole new dimension in human interaction. The Metaverse is a computer fantasy, and over the last 30 years people have tried to make it happen one idea at a time. We've built many things on top of Internet infrastructure, and it's all there in the novel: digital twins, a second life, digital currencies and crypto applications, online games, social media, virtual events and virtual space, viral phenomena, the effects of the virtual on the physical.
Outside the Metaverse, the picture is bleak. Snow Crash is set in a failed society, or at least one perceived as such by the young and able. The powerful have their gated communities, private security militias, and advanced weapons systems. The government is small and feeble. The average person just tries to get by in the relative wasteland, doing odd freelance jobs for the highest bidder.
And then, of course, there's the deadly virus. Old language and forbidden knowledge mixing with the new language and synthetic biology to lock up the mind and the body alike. Our Protagonist is in the middle of it all, unravelling this particular mystery and the scheming behind it. But the Snow Crash story is no revolution, it's just one of a thousand stories in this strange new land.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015, 880pp)
An epic story in three parts, outlining a global catastrophe, humanity's arduous survival in the extremes of space, and the adventurous return right back to where it all started from.
Hard sci-fi: everything is plausible, if convenient, from asteroid mining to swarm robotics and from space manoeuvres to genetic engineering. Space is presented unromantically as a particularly harsh, operationally difficult environment — with inspired nods to other difficult environments.
The book is a review of the technological landscape just beyond current reach. Long-term terraforming is eventually doable. Nanotech and wearables combine in a combat suit. On the side the story is a satire of social media and society and culture more broadly. Flight, space flight, is discussed optimistically, with creative licence. The point, I suppose, is that many of these technologies are in a sense ready to go.
There are various political undercurrents to the story, from environmentalism to feminism. Engineers and entrepreneurs and adventurers against bureaucrats and talking heads. A unique spin on racial tensions and an incisive look at generational cultural memory. Recording — the cultural record — is a deep theme.
Ultimately Seveneves is a story about human faculties, human behaviour, human society. A story of human triumphs and human failings, of ingenuity and sacrifice and betrayal and fallibility. A story about good intentions and bad outcomes, of unlikely odds — and the miracle that we are here at all.
Ultimately uplifting, Seveneves is a celebration of the human spirit.