Sci-Fi: Future Shock Proofing

Can science fiction make the world a better place?

As I’ve discussed before, SF can have a demonstrable impact on the real world in terms of inspiring scientists to develop new technologies. But part of that previous discussion included the potential costs and negative effects of that technology—something SF lit explores in often frightening detail.

Damien G Walter has written a thoughtful and compelling piece for The Ascender Magazine on the way SF serves as a forum for building a better world through imaginative explorations, as, in his words: “…imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

In the overview to The Ascender article on his blog, Mr. Walters describes the two basic audiences for SF as liberal and conservative constituencies, each approaching reading SF with different aims: world-building and escapism, respectively.*

“The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet.”

It’s this social futurism that is often neglected when discussing the predictive aspects of SF writing. Mr. Walters cites excellent examples of progressive SF writers who address sociopolitical issues directly, such as Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of the benchmarks for literature about gender and The Dispossessed made me seriously consider for the first time if an anarchist state might be possible. But there are just as many wacky libertarian-conservative imagined futures like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistressline marriage anyone?

But I think Mr. Walters really gets at the core of an important idea when he writes about SF as the literature of the imagination:

“The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention.”

The individual quirks of a given vision of the future are less important than the act of trying to imagine one. Gay marriage seems downright prosaic once you’ve spent time inhabiting an imaginary line marriage. Star Trek showed the first interracial kiss on television. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass made us confront the possibility of ecological disaster as early as 1956. Beyond predicting the next cool gadget, SF has long helped those of us who embrace the genre adapt to the ever increasing pace of technological and social evolution.

One of the principle benefits of reading a lot of SF is the protection it affords the reader from future shock. If you have imagined—with the help of a good writer—a wide range of possible futures, you’re less likely to be alarmed by new technologies or new social norms.

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End is a great example of near future world-building that examines both the practical and social impacts of emerging technologies. Reading the novel, I shuddered at the (largely metaphoric) book scanning device that devoured whole libraries; felt pangs of sympathy for a character struggling with the displacing effects of anti-aging tech (a possible social cost of looking younger that had never occurred to me before), and vicariously reveled in the potential applications of wearable computing.

Despite the potential downsides of Vinge’s future, I’d be ready for it tomorrow. Bring on the wearable computing and constantly wired life, I’m ready to Google everything I see.

Can SF make the world a better place? The cumulative effect of all these imagined futures on the real world is probably equally dark as light—as many drugged-out cyber terrorists as social progressives might have been inspired by a given piece of SF. But change is indeed the only constant and SF is the only literature that has ever fully engaged with change at all levels.

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*Although I would argue that the line he draws between these two goals is blurry at best, isn’t world-building just a different kind of escapism? —maybe a more progressive kind, but still.

Starship Troopers: a Misunderstood Masterpiece or Trash?

starship-troopers-shooting-bugs

Let me just state my position up-front: I have really come to bury Starship Troopers, not to praise it. I think Starship Troopers (the movie, I’ll rant about the book some other time) is gradually being reassessed in all the wrong ways. Starship Troopers is junk by any measure, and always has been.

In the past few years, a number of critics have come out with revisionist-themed pieces on Starship Troopers lauding its value as satire. Here’s a recent one by Calum Marsh of The Atlantic.

Mr. Marsh rightly castigates viewers who want to take the film at face value. But what his, and most of these attempts at reassessment fail to grasp is that many of us who saw the film when it first came out always understood it to be satire, and still think it’s a terrible film.

The problem with Starship Troopers is that it utterly fails to be good satire. Director Paul Verhoeven‘s filmography is overstuffed with luridly violent trash with satiric subtext. But where the satire mostly works in say his own Robocop, it doesn’t in Starship Troopers because Verhoeven’s obsessions and fetishes overwhelm the thin satiric content. Robocop featured a strong performance by Peter Weller that helped ground its violent satire on 80s consumerist society and policing in a basic humanism. In contrast, the acting in Starship Troopers is limited and wooden throughout, so all we’re left as an audience is either to revel in the violent spectacle or enjoy a “knowing” chuckle at the ham-fisted satire.

Mr. Marsh, like many contemporary critics, characterizes Starship Troopers as “…a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” He also quotes fellow critic Phil Coldiron who “…described it as ‘one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films,’ a parody of Hollywood form whose superficial “badness” is central to its critique.”

Funny? Starship Troopers features barn-broad satiric touches such as a military flogging shot like sweat-drenched S&M porn, screamingly obvious recruiting ads, vagina-mouthed aliens, and military scientists who dress like SS monsters. None of this is at all subtle or in any way a unique statement—it’s parody without the moral high-ground that true satire requires. Verhoeven has nothing to say in Starship Troopers except fascism is bad and Hollywood loves sex and violence. The trouble is, Hollywood loves sex and violence only slightly less than Verhoeven himself, so who is he critiquing exactly? And I’m not sure many people are lining up to defend the cartoonish fascism in the film as a viable political system.* But to say that the politics of Starship Troopers provides a fun-house-mirror-style understanding of our own politics is like saying The Honeymooners provided an enlightening window onto domestic relations—broad caricature is not good satire.

One of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films? Really? So, Starship Troopers is up there with classics like The Man Who Would Be King,** Lawrence of Arabia, The Mission and The Battle of Algiers? If we can’t all agree that sounds ridiculous then I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It doesn’t measure up to any of these films in terms of plot, script, art direction, cinematography, editing or performances. Starship Troopers exhibits a reasonable level of film craft, but only as an efficient delivery system for flat, brightly lit blood, bare-chests and sledgehammer-like campy humour.

I think Starship Troopers could be reasonably embraced by an audience as a semi-self-aware trash-art work—a slick, high-budget camp-fest that wants to make fun of jingoistic military clichés while simultaneously reveling in violent, sexy spectacle. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy Verhoeven’s ultra-pulpy The Fourth Man under those terms.

But, accepting that premise makes Starship Troopers a decently executed, hyper-garish b-movie with ardent fans, not an unrecognized cinematic classic.

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*Heinlein might have been the exception here, but again, I’ll save that rant for another day.
**A true example of largely misunderstood satire.

Bookstore Browsing and Chaos Theory

Charles Stross—the exceptional writer of Accelerando* among other great books—has posted a piece on how readers will discover books in the future, which I believe is both completely accurate and deeply chilling:

“In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.”

It’s a polemic about the inevitability of virulent bookspam entering our e-readers.

“Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering.”

In general I’m not afraid ebooks and their attendant marketing because I am neither a Luddite nor paranoid about Minority Report-style** targeted marketing; but I am hesitant about our ebook-dominated near-future. Something essential in my life as a book lover will be lost when I can no longer browse an interesting shelf in a well appointed store.

In a post on book buying, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative notes in an offhanded manner that browsing in big-box book stores isn’t fun anymore because e-readers:

“…solve the “problem” of that Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store. When we were in Paris last month, Julie and I took so much pleasure in the gorgeous small bookstores—all independently owned—all over the Left Bank. If either of us read French well enough, we easily could have lost hours, just browsing. You don’t have that experience often in American bookstores anymore. It used to be fun to browse in record stores too. Times change.”

Mr. Dreher, rightly, bemoans the lack of depth in the stock of big-box bookstores, but fails to see the small independent bookstore as a valid alternative. Many have written about the long tail approach to retail—selling a higher volume of unique items over time rather than, say, a box full of one bestseller the week it comes out—a mode of retail that is largely seen as an online option. But doesn’t that description apply to some of the better, especially used, bookstores you’ve visited?

The most successful independent bookstores that still exist have combined both bricks and mortar and online operations—thriving off both the long tail online and the personal service that many punters still appreciate: a good chat about books followed by some recommendations. But what the bricks and mortar bookstore offers that surpasses even the best online experience is physical browsing.

Amazon-style automated recommendations have arisen to try and simulate the real-world experience of stumbling on something new while browsing, by bombarding us with suggested purchases. The problem with these systems is the rudimentary nature of the AI involved. I frequently buy gifts through Amazon, or order for friends and family. For example, I’ve ordered a large number of craft books for my lovely wife. So the amazon bookshelf assembled just for me contains a surprising number of books on Estonian needle-craft. Not only do these suggestions not interest me, but my wife isn’t Estonian and to my knowledge has never asked me to order a book related to Estonian heritage.

The only way to improve the Amazon system is to continually click “not interested” as you browse their recommendations in order to affect the overall results. But the minute I order another knitting book for my wife, I will screw with the algorithms again.

But here’s the more important factor that online systems can’t even come close to emulating: the chaos of browsing.

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
—Albert Einstein

The recommendations of online systems are based on the statistical likelihood that you, the buyer, will be enticed to buy something else based on trends in your past purchases. In the words of Michael Crichton’s characters in Jurassic Park:

“They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been cherished scientific belief since Newton.’

And?’

Chaos theory throws it right out the window.”

Browsing a good bookstore is like visiting an art gallery where everything is for sale—a curated experience that is then randomized by alphabetical shelving. Chaos enters the experience through the shelving of unlike works next to each other under broad categories.

A certain frission occurs for the book lover when she glances away from the body of work of a familiar author to light upon the spine of something new—drawn by the title, or a vague familiarity with the author’s name, or even the colour and texture of the binding.

This is a feeling I have treasured all my life and however much I like my iPad—and I love the damn thing—or however much I like browsing random pictures and snippets of text on various websites—nothing I’ve experienced online comes close.

Booksellers have complained of “showrooming” for online book sales and have even considered charging for admission to their stores as a way of solving the dilemma of browsers who leave their stores to buy the same item online. This is, of course, patently ridiculous. A long time local Ottawa book dealer once told me a story about a customer who wandered into the back of the store, found a quiet corner to take off all their clothes, then proceeded to the front of the shop and climbed into the window display; where he sat quietly until the police came. “Showrooming” is the least of your worries as a shop owner.

The only avenue open to independent bookstores to close deals is to provide a better experience through personal service or superior selection of stock—it’s not volume, it’s quality.

And a shop that provides a high-quality browsing experience—cleanliness***, organization, good lighting, peaceful atmosphere, interesting stock—will encourage the spread of chaos.

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*Seriously, why are you not reading this book immediately? I’m looking at you…
**Though I do blame Minority Report, in part, for all the streaky fingerprints littering the screens of the key electronic interfaces in my life…and for freakin’ Windows 8.
***As book lovers we all have stories about dirty, disorganized, dingy shops that we’ve found hidden treasures in, but do you really prefer that kind of store or would you rather leave with a good book and not the urge to wash your hands?

Hardboiled: The Maltese Falcon

Since our launch last month, we have shortchanged part of our mandate by not talking about hardboiled lit with the same enthusiasm we’ve shown other genres. As a corrective, I’ve provided below a reworked version of a review I put up last year on Goodreads of The Maltese Falcon.

I’ve chosen Dashiell Hammett as the first hardboiled author to highlight on Albino Books because he is one of the first true writers in that subgenre and because of his influence over an important subgenre of science fiction: cyberpunk.

There’s a lot of loose talk about the noir influence in cyberpunk, and the most common reference tends to be Raymond Chandler. No disrespect to the marvelous Chandler or his admirers, but I think Hammett is a clearer influence on cyberpunk and in particular the ground zero that is the William Gibson novel Neuromancer.

Hammett’s best work is clean, diamond-hard and unsentimental—the core of what it means to be hardboiled writer.

If you spliced together the DNA of Red Harvest, The Stars My Destination and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress* the resulting hybrid would be Neuromancer.

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Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I’ve seen the beloved third film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There’s a distancing effect that happens to me where I compare what I’m reading to my recollections of a film adaptation. And those recollections aren’t always accurate, despite how many times I’ve seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I simultaneously interrogate myself about my memories.

Look, I’m not going to argue with you that I’m not too introverted sometimes.

Roughly halfway through reading The Maltese Falcon though, I became fully engrossed and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.

From the first page, I was surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammett describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall “blonde Satan.” Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance), and certainly not blonde.

This was where I was still wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up “the Levantine” Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed  in Hammett’s morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.

Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett’s novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.

Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn’t differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.

Hammett gets into a surprising amount of detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin—I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It’s a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It’s easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.

But what’s really striking about the book, as opposed to the movie, is the ambiguity of Spade’s moral calculus. There’s some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—just slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.

The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only hints at. The movie is unimpeachably a piece of classic film noir, but it only touched on the blackness of the novel—still a bracingly modern read, even over 80 years later.

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*I readily acknowledge the importance of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to the development of SF, but think it’s mostly a terribly written book with some great concepts littered throughout.