Thursday, May 25, 2006

No to the nano

Posted by goatchurch at 5:00 PM
Unexplaned fascination with nano-technology refuses to get out of the way.

"Nano-technologies" from the cutting edge of physics remain surprisingly mundane, limited to a few interesting crystals and one or two bent molecular wires. Yet SF people continually get excited, and dare I say "distracted", by it.

It's not a failure of imagination, so much as a problem of over-imagination. You can read about a hat that can talk in a book, and you can easily imagine it can happen. The image might be so compelling that you can write stories about it, although there might be more important things to think about.

The idea that there are going to be invisibly small self-propelled little machines swimming and running around the environment, rearranging matter in cool ways, curing cancer, and allowing us to live longer, is nothing more than wish fullfillment. However, it ought to be dismissed immediately after a moment's thought. We cannot even build a self-propelled machine that could get to the end of the garden and back, unless it was a tank that didn't care what it drove over. If you want to see the state of the art in terms of this technology, recall the Mars Exploration Rover with an average speed of 1mm/second over hard packed ground, while having to stop every half minute. Admittedly it did a lot more than just drive around, but it's embarrassing. It's worse than a tortoise.

As to relative sizes, the critique is obvious. In 12th century England they couldn't build reliable mechanical clocks. Therefore it's safe to assume they also couldn't build miniature wrist-watches.

This common-law rule should apply when you are imagining stuff that's like nano-technology. I call it the Law of Techno-precedence:
If the ability to build mechanism X implies that you can build mechanism A, then a world which contains X without A must be sufficiently explained. There may be no explanation that is sufficient.
A trivial example: a metal worker who can build scissors, but can't make a knife. An important example: a world where there is atomic power but there has never been an atomic bomb.

The nano-bot example: a scientist makes self-propelled miniature machines, but we still don't have a robot that can vacuum the living room.

I wrote a story about the invention of a robot that could travel as much as one kilometre at the speed of a gecko, and assassinate anyone who could be identified by their odour. It could be built with off-the-shelf parts, and the only technical difficulty was getting the software. Within a few months we could eliminate every world leader, policeman, irritating boss, Bill Gates; anyone who is well-known and has annoyed anyone -- that's about 0.0001% of the population; most of us are pretty well anonymous. The world would be changed beyond all recognition.

I'd argue that a scenario like that was considerably more likely than the building of robots the size of a pinpoint that could chew a hole in some rich white guy's lung cancer. But which one always fills the pages of NewScientist? Why? Whatever happened the techno-precedence?

The point is to get something that connects with reality through more than the usual points of contact. Nano-technology may or may not be possible. Eventually. But as a theme for today, it's entirely misused. Before technology X, there will exist technologies A, B, C, D, E, and G, as well as human extinction threats P, Q, and S. There will be cameras on fleas, an honest man in the White House, and clones without heads, carpets made of worms; before there is ever a self-replicating nano-bot in a petri-dish.

Banning nano-bots from mundane-SF is called playing it safe. It's like stopping you drinking whiskey while you are writing. It's not that you can't handle it, or that it doesn't make you feel great. But we want some different results, apart from the usual ramblings. Maybe after you have deliberately exercised your mind without, it'll be safe to use this substance in small doses. But for this exercise I don't want to see the usual drunkenness on the job.

"The Djinn's Wife" by Ian McDonald, pt 1: Thoughts to ponder

Posted by Trent Walters at 3:47 PM
Not finished with McDonald's latest in Asimov's, but so far so good. Initially, the story was a bit difficult to dive into. It began with what appears to be the main story thread, then veered off on a description of the world. All well-written, but the connection for why we're going here to talk about that wasn't there.

They are not the first to fall in love on the walls of the Red Fort

The politicians have talked for three days and agreement is close.

Perhaps this is a very different kind of love, perhaps tangential?

On a more Mundane note, this isn't Mundane SF. No crime, of course. We have artificially intelligent creatures called djinn who compose themselves out of dust. I'm a fan of nanotech, but this strains my credulity as a Mundane reader. As a typical SF reader, I'm willing to stretch out time and say that any technology is possible, but contrasting these two competing philosophies brings one back to the thought: Is SF just competing with fantasy, creating worlds we wish existed than what may be more reasonable to expect?

Of course, we don't know what to expect from the future, but how many visions of SF simply tried to look at what seems probable rather than what would give the better eye-ball kicks--akin to Hollywood's love of the explosion and car chase? Don't get me wrong. I love special effects--SF's or Hollywood's--but we should elbow a little space for the more quiet features as well.

First nanomachines?

Posted by Trent Walters at 10:15 AM
An important step in developing more complex tools for manipulating molecules at the nano-sized level.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ian McDonald

Posted by Trent Walters at 5:49 PM
Ian McDonald wrote in his blog:

It is also points up what I found vaguely unsatisfactory about the mundanistas: while there was much I agreed with about the kind of sf it proposed, it seemed too mundane yet insufficiently worldly. The game itself, (as Geoff proposes) is entertaining, but seems too much part of SF's interior dialogue to revitalise the genre, particularly with that general readership that enjoys SF when it comes across it, as long as it doesn't look like that stuff with spaceships with lots of windows. But an SF that looks beyond the American Century to the century we will surely inhabit, in all its diversity and conflict and challenge, seems to me a lot more relevant, and accessible.

That's because this proposes an entirely different manifesto, perhaps a bit more narrowly focused but a possibility worth exploring. But this has politics as its core while ours is more science-oriented, which then affects politics. SF has had a long tradition of dabbling in politics, but to support our manifesto, I'd have to point out the SF is often called science fiction, not political fiction. Of course, the problem of political fiction is that it can teeter off its agenda into propaganda.

But this brings up a question: Is it all right for SF to take place in the US?

A reader, picking up a book of SF, may be asking, "What will the future be like for me personally or my kids?" This is probably why SF published in the US has been set in the US.

(Note: McDonald responded, "Of course it's okay.")

Science news from a more societal perspective

Posted by Trent Walters at 5:33 PM
Cooperation may be more beneficial than gobbling. I'm a bit dubious over the conclusions drawn (part of the problem is labelling the bacterial behavior, which means other factors may be at play), but they're certainly intriguing results to ponder. Discover had a more mathematical approach to this, a decade or so ago, called "Tit for Tat."

Controversial and surprising study on gender and violence.

Clarion now has a writer's workshop online

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:42 PM
As part of a way of supporting Clarion, the Clarion Foundation has also created an online workshop presided over by a professional guest author (other professional authors also contribute critiques)--in addition to chats with authors and advice on contracts and writing. Having been disappointed in other critique programs, so far I've found that the workshop critiques have been fairly respectable.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

MSF Compared to Freestyle SF

Posted by Trent Walters at 9:15 PM

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

News briefs

Posted by Trent Walters at 6:37 PM
Although the study from this description sounds superficial in its scope of detection (only 11% of men are interested in babies?), they postulate that woman can look at a guy's photo and tell what kind of relationship they want from him. (Phys Org has a misleading title and description, but this earlier one is more cautious in its claims.)

Edinburgh has found the key protein for maintaining stem cell populations in frogs--a similar counterpart to humans.

This nanolipoblocker sounds problematic from the Phys Org description. Maybe the original study has a better description that doesn't sound like a prescription for death if someone is inordinately fond cholesterol.

“Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” by Nancy Kress [Asimov’s, July 2006]

Posted by Trent Walters at 5:45 PM
Three cheers for another Nancy Kress tale. I was immediately swept into this (semi-)quiet meditation on the dangers that a sudden technological leveler of economic disparity could bring. People quit their jobs because there’s no reason to work now that all needs are provided for--food, clothing, shelter, and the unnecessaries of prettier curtains and hot rods. Of course, when no one wants to work, some things get left behind, like children’s education. Our protagonist does what she can eke out a safe harbor as the brave new technological society descends into social chaos.

The story stands fairly well on its own. But I did think that a few issues would not occur as she plotted them. Since I’ve explained the problems elsewhere and plan to write a more Mundane treatment of the matter, I may be a little vague. 1) The technology is a bit too easy and would not be implemented this way, economically. 2) The society would not wholly dissolve in this manner. While the first impulse of men and women may begin as Kress illustrated, at least one secondary reaction would ensue to compensate for the drastic change in economics. Finally, 3) the narrator, while incredibly “empathizable,” does not address what seems to me to be her central issue: being unnecessarily isolationist and a bit too leery of the technology. A deeper issue underlies this psychological problem, but it may be that this kind of pragmatic narrator would not look too deeply within to see it as a personal problem as opposed to logical responses in dealing with a problem society.

Unfortunately, these problems may make it appear that the story is not enjoyable. Quite the contrary. If I'm thrown out of a story, I tend to gauge periodically how many pages are left. Not here. It is quite aesthetically pleasing--the matters mentioned being peripheral to the overall arc. In fact, I reread parts to see how I’d been helplessly drawn in to the narrative when it opens with such an inherently non-dramatic character scene:

I was weeding the garden when nanotech came to my town. The city got it a month earlier, but I haven’t been to the city since last year. Some of my neighbors went--Angie Myers and Emma Karlson and that widow, Mrs. Blaston, from church. They brought back souvenirs, things made in the nanomachine, and the scarf Angie showed me was really cute. But with three kids, I don’t get out much.

The title’s “Clifford” might signal the rural kind of SF that Clifford Simak wrote. The first line may play off the BB King song, “When Love Comes to Town,” thereby foreshadowing the lack of love and the abundance of “Nano” technology and all that comes with it (but maybe not. The comparison is rather loose). The strength, to me, was the banality of the names, the ease with which they’re rattled off, as if the narrator has known them all her life. The comment that the scarf is cute sharpens her desire for girliness, yet the hook was the narrator’s inability to get out of the house much because of the hecticness of raising kids. The narrator sublimates said girliness for the more pragmatic child-rearing.

Kress captures the small-town mentality well, and one longs to see more writers look toward stronger characterization.

"Fireflies" by Kathe Koja [Asimov’s July 2006]

Posted by Trent Walters at 5:32 PM
Kathe Koja uses her experimental grammar to retell Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” That is, her couple talk completely around a subject (or two--one personal, the other scientific--the two being somehow linked). Koja's male protagonist, however, is the reverse of Hemingway’s brusque callousness in that this hers cannot control his emotions.

Koja's unnamed medical condition--not Hemingway's abortion, a taboo subject in his day, requiring circumlocution--involves a bandage on the female protagonist’s right arm which is presumably for the drawing of blood. Unfortunately, that’s not very informative since so many diseases require bloodwork. Whatever the ailment, it appears to be terminal, despite perhaps visiting Cairo for a second (third?) opinion. The discussion of expansion and effects like that of a stroke indicate perhaps a brain tumor. This mysterious "expansion," though, is not indicated around her brain but around her bandaged arm. Moreover, tumors are hardly taboo, so the medical topic remains unclear.

It may be that the situation is meant to stay ambiguous and, therefore, Koja does not care what the medical situation is. Something else is at stake. What that appears to be--since both insight into the science, expansion of the universe, and the medical condition remain unexplored--is a metaphor for male-female relationships, which may also be taboo and/or terminal.