Friday, November 30, 2007

It's Mundane but not SF we know it

Posted by goatchurch at 6:17 AM
I read the news today, oh boy:
Sarah Hall has won the 2006/7 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which celebrates the best fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama from the UK and the Commonwealth, with her third novel, The Carhullan Army, a tough portrait of life in a near-future Britain after the oil runs out.

The novel presents itself as the statement of a detained woman prisoner, and follows a narrator, known only as "Sister", as she escapes her regimented life of tinned food and rationed electricity to join a separatist female commune on the Cumbrian moors.

According to Hall, one of the inspirations for such a timely book was "the flooding in Carlisle, where I live". In January 2005, when many of Cumbria's biggest towns were devastated, "you didn't have to imagine [the breakdown of society] any more".

Hall, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2002 for her second novel, The Electric Michaelangelo, did not feel duty-bound to engage with the contemporary issues - climate change, fanaticism - that sit at the core of The Carhullan Army. Rather, she said, they were impossible to ignore. "You can't get away from all this stuff on the news. As a writer I feel like a tuning fork - you're picking up vibrations of things going on around you. You can't be impervious. But the duty of a writer is to write a good story, a f--ing good story"

The chair of the judges, Suzi Feay, hailed the strength of all the entries on the shortlist, calling them the books that "stuck out" amid the blur of the 120 books the judges considered. "We could remember even the weather in the shortlisted entries," she said. The shortlist revealed the strength of women's fiction - "for a while we thought we were judging the Orange prize".

She praised the courage and importance of the winning novel. "Sarah Hall's fierce, uncomfortable story of a radical dissident group holed up in the far north after the total breakdown of society seemed to all the judges to be the book that tackled the most urgent and alarming questions of today," she said. "The quality of The Carhullan Army was simply unignorable. We need writers with Hall's humanity and insight."
This is exactly what I've warning you about, boys and girls. Mainstream literature is doing an end-run around the outside of SF to connect with the real future of life as we will come to know it. Clearly the world is ready for this kind of thing, even if most SF writers are incapable of such imagination. What it is going to do is leave SF behind playing with its 1950's dated tropes of space ships and little green men like plastic children's toys stuck in a time-loop, never able to move forward beyond worn-out dreams we once had.

Without a tactical embracing of Mundane-SF, the genre will be dead within 30 years, cut-off like many other forms of literature, because it remained entrapped within its short-list of false tropes that permanently blinded it from the real story.

So it goes.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Everyone loves Amory

Posted by goatchurch at 4:49 AM
It's an old joke. (I'm a mathematician, by the way.)
An engineer, a physicist, a mathematician, and an economist are spending the night in a motel. After they have all gone to sleep, a fire starts out in the engineer's wastepaper basket. He wakes up, fills a bucket with water, and douses the fire. He creates a big mess on the carpet, but at least solves the problem.

Not too long afterwards, the physicist's wastepaper basket catches fire. He wakes up, whips out his calculator, and determines the precise amount of water needed to extinguish the blaze. He fills the water glass with that exact amount; as the last drop lands, the fire is extinguished.

A bit later, a fire breaks out in the mathematician's wastepaper basket. He wakes up, sees both a bucket and sink, and then goes back to sleep content that the solution is trivial.

When the economist is woken by the smell of burning, he kicks over the wastepaper basket because he is assured that if no one is prepared to make any money out of saving the motel from the flames, then it is better for everyone to see it destroyed.
Recently one of our Mundane-SF contributors justified the unchallenging optimism presented in his story in the following way:
The mode of travel did bug me while writing the story; given a choice between assuming some new magic to keep planes flying in the sky and assuming we retreat to slower/older modes of travel, I decided to go with the first, rather than the second option. The basic rationale (ignoring the usual one of wishful thinking) was this: [1] supply always meets demand, and [2] the demand seems to be for faster and faster modes of travel. With the recent steady drumbeat of good news on energy-efficient transport, perhaps the first option is not too unrealistic.
Extra points for mentioning it; normally something so consistent with prevailing wisdom is not even held up for question.

I, personally, question it. I question it profoundly on the basis that this type of rationale is just an observation which too often masquerades as a natural law immunized from criticism.

In my experience, there are numerous things which are demanded, but which the market won't supply. It's pointless to go into details because the rationale that "supply always meets demand" is the front-line of an interlocking set of fall-back positions. Were I to exhibit a case where supply did not always meet demand -- and thus falsified the claim -- the response would be a combination of the following excuses:
  • Well, what you're demanding is not realistic.

  • What you're demanding is a niche product; nobody else wants it, and the market quite rightly services the majority.

  • You're being impatient. It'll happen in the future once the investment cycle is complete, and it'll phase in just in time.

  • If you think you've got a very good case, why don't you set up your own company and make lots of money manufacturing and selling your idea.
Theoretically, these claims are very difficult to overturn with any evidence, therefore they're weak rather than strong. Newton's law of gravity is strong because it would be falsified as soon as you showed two masses which did not attract one another according to his equation. The final position above, which forms half the definition of the word free in the phrase "Free Market" is unfalsifiable because it boils down to the tautology:
If someone else doesn't do it for you, then you have to do it yourself.
I mean, really, we have to work on a level above these petty moral truisms that bog down any progress.

What's this got to do with Amory Lovins?

Lovins is a dude who set up his own institute, consults for American auto makers, and writes books, such as Winning the Oil Endgame.

Most people oppose my position that we are heading over a cheap energy cliff where life will get a whole lot more interesting, with the world expanding to its proper size, the exurbs being evacuated, and politicians no longer able to solve problems by starting wars. It's a matter of faith that life will continue as-is with ever-longer daily commutes to jobs that are by and large pointless, that traffic jams will get worse, and that Black Friday will remain the cultural highlight of the year.

Such people who do like the world as it is, and disagree with my countervailing choice of predictions (predictions are so all over the place you can take your pick), don't usually have the information to argue, and just say it's wrong, because it is. Look, they say, throughout all of our history each generation has managed to overcome the challenges presented to it. Your father was ugly too, and yet he managed to find a woman to get married. His father the same. And so on and so forth. In fact if you look down any timeline of life, there's always an appearance of triumph over adversity, because those that have failed and died out are not properly represented. Our history necessarily presents a false case for optimism. More representative cases emerge from archeology. You might not like the evidence that there have been die-offs of civilizations from the pinnacle of their achievement, but you have to know about them before you can claim it's not relevant.

I often wind up doing the research for lazy people who know they're right, but don't know why. If you don't want to download and read the book (fully peer reviewed with accurate numbers about how the free market is going wean the United States down to zero oil use by 2050 in the absence of government intervention), you can watch or listen to his lectures which tell you all the information.

Quick summary: It's all done using safe and ultra-light carbon-fibre car bodies which save energy six-fold and ratchet up efficiency because lighter cars mean lighter engines, which means even lighter cars to carry them.

Anyways, those who doubt me can go on and watch these streams and doubt me even more. I don't need to state the case. Save to point out that I scratch a living in the CAM toolmaker industry writing software for cutting molds, and have attended Euromold for about a decade (I'll be there again this week), and it's all news to me. Simple things such as carbon-fibre kayak paddles still cost an absolute fortune. I'll believe in this material once I start seeing it in my everyday life.

Unlike most technologists, Amory Lovins makes actual predictions based on rigorously applying orthodox market economics. This is good. It means his claims are falsifiable, and so they embody information. If the evidence in the next 5 years goes against it, we can legitimately demand a more sophisticated account for the applicability of market economics than that it always supplies.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

GW and Neal Asher's Grapes of Wrath

Posted by A. at 7:39 PM
So, Oxfam has a new study showing that, as a direct result of greenhouse gas emissions, natural disasters have increased four-fold in the last two decades:
The world suffered about 120 natural disasters per year in the early 1980s, which compared with the current figure of about 500 per year, according to the report.
And worse...
...the number of people affected by extreme natural disasters, meanwhile, has surged by almost 70 percent, from 174 million a year between 1985 to 1994, to 254 million people a year between 1995 to 2004, Oxfam said.

Floods and wind-storms have increased from 60 events in 1980 to 240 last year, with flooding itself up six-fold.

But the number of geothermal events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, has barely changed.
And still worse, the hardest hit are going to be the poorest nations.
So okay, that sounds bad. But, as I discovered just today, Neal Asher has already pointed out the good news. As he posted back in September:
Global warming, we are told, is a bad thing, yet I cannot help but notice, that with the return of a few warm years, like we had in the 40s, in the medieval warm period, in Roman times, during the Holocene Maximum, certain things that are now occurring: farmers being able to keep their livestock grazing throughout the winter, massive plankton blooms off Cornwall being fed upon by a record number of basking sharks, it maybe becoming possible for us to grow decent wine grapes in Britain, like the Romans did, you know, when it was warmer than it is now.
So, the good news is that we in the developed world might be too drunk on all that awesome new wine that we can now grow to notice that the third world will probably be, you know, genuinely fucked. Nice work, Neal. Not everyone can have their very own 'series of tubes' moment.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The 100 Year Letter Project

Posted by goatchurch at 5:40 PM
From DeSmogBlog, comes the 100 Year Letter Project:
We asked friends of DeSmogBlog to write a letter to their great, great grandchildren about their vision and hopes for their world in 100 years, in the context of global warming. Will we all be underwater? In outer space? Over time, we'll be adding more letters to this list.
Clearly these are all going to be works of Science Fiction in their own right. When more of them have been published I will analyse the results to see how many of them are characterized as Mundane-SF. This will be a test of how popular this sub-genre is outside of our little ghetto.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Whale Tale

Posted by goatchurch at 4:41 AM

Meanwhile, in an ocean far far away, the most magnificent animals on the planet are preparing to die. Greenpeace has attached satellite tracking devices so we can watch it as it happens.

We also need tracking devices on the Japanese whaling ships as well. Oddly, by international law designed to automatically avoid collisions, there is a system.

To prove there is no shame, the hunt is classified as scientific, which means it gets subsidized by the Government. The "science" is equivalent to logging the Amazon rain forest and hiring a couple of kids to count some of the tree-rings to determine the average age of the trees. In other words, it's self-invalidating.

After that, it's time to kill all the sharks.

Science Fiction, UN feature

Posted by goatchurch at 3:57 AM
I divide my time between a number of thankless tasks -- for which I have by definition not been thanked -- such as a Web 2.0 webpage for the United Nations.

Consequently, I know where to look when I hear odd things on the news; stuff which for most people washes straight down the memory hole into a pit known as "gut feeling" where it is largely responsible for the fact that elections seem to consistently deliver the worst of all worlds. We are not abstract perfect intelligences. We are thinking animals that, like the Microsoft Operating System, are riddled with weaknesses which can be systematically exploited by evil virus writers.

Anyways, that's a different matter. On 17 November 2007 - The Secretary-General said:
I come to you humbled after seeing some of the most precious treasures of our planet -- treasures that are being threatened by humanity's own hand... In Antarctica, the message was chillingly simple: the continent's glaciers are melting... I was told that if large quantities of Antarctica's ice were to melt, sea levels could rise catastrophically... If the IPCC's most severe projection comes true, much of the Amazon rainforest will transform into savannah. In Punta Arenas, Chile, near the centre of the famous ozone hole in the earth's atmosphere, children wore protective clothing against ultraviolet radiation. There are days when parents don't let them play outside, or even go to school.

These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie. But they are even more terrifying, because they are real.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Slowing -- and reversing -- these threats are the defining challenge of our age. The world looks to our climate brain trust to educate, inform and guide us.
He actually means a Mundane-SF movie, because in a Sci-Fi movie none of this would be frightening at all because space tourism would have funded our emigration to Mars, and thence the stars, and aliens would have given us nanotechnology to rebuild the glaciers crystal by crystal.

This isn't the first time science fiction has been referred to in vain by a Secretary-General. At the previous annual Climate Change conference on 15 November 2006, Kofi Annan said:
All of us in this hall are devoted to the betterment of the human condition... That vision, which has always faced long odds, is now being placed in deeper jeopardy by climate change... Climate change is not just an environmental issue, as too many people still believe. It is an all-encompassing threat...

This is not science fiction. These are plausible scenarios, based on clear and rigorous scientific modelling. A few diehard sceptics continue to deny global warming is taking place and trying to sow doubt. They should be seen for what they are: out of step, out of arguments and out of time. In fact, the scientific consensus is becoming not only more complete, but also more alarming. Many scientists long known for their caution are now saying that global warming trends are perilously close to a point of no return.
It's not only Climate Change scenarios which are perceived to be emerging from Science Fiction into reality (quite unfairly, since such realistic stories don't get written and don't get published), there are other topics.

Secretary-General, 10 March 2005:
Nuclear terrorism is still often treated as science fiction. I wish it were. But unfortunately we live in a world of excess hazardous materials and abundant technological know-how, in which some terrorists clearly state their intention to inflict catastrophic casualties.
The UN senior Influenza Coordinator, 10 July 2006:
Bird flu is "not science fiction, but a very real and dangerous threat that was not restricted to H5N1 as there are a variety of pathogens stemming from the animal kingdom that can threaten human security."
Joy Kennedy of the Ecumenical Team, 19 March 2002
[The idea] that a free market system would effectively address society's woes was pure science fiction.
Press Release, 1 March 2002
Despite the enormous attention the subject had received, the ethical issues remained obscure and misunderstood due, in large part, to the fact that human cloning occupied a pre-eminent place in the annals of science fiction and the popular media.
Fighting terrorism through disarmament:
The current anthrax attacks in the United States have made the world aware that biological weapons are horribly real, not just science fiction. Yet these attacks are just the "tip of the iceberg" in terms of the potential deadly power of bio-terror.
Post 9/11 Missile threats and responses, 3 October 2002:
At the moment, there is a tendency for governments to rely on military force for defence and if that fails to keep piling on the force and pouring in more money and technology to try to plug the vulnerabilities. By contrast, some governments apply completely different standards for political defence and security measures such as multilateral treaties and the building of cooperative security regimes. In the latter, any weakness in compliance or verification is treated as proof of vulnerability and justification for bailing out, rather than reason for improving the implementation.

Such approaches are short-sighted, for a perfect force field that can repel all attacks exists nowhere but in science fiction, and the quest for perfect security based on military and technological dominance will merely give rise to new kinds of threats.
Millenium Report of the Secretary-General:
Indeed, when the United Nations was founded... [t]he planet hosted a total population of fewer than 2.5 billion, compared to 6 billion today. Trade barriers were high, trade flows minuscule and capital controls firmly in place. Most big companies operated within a single country and produced for their home market. The cost of transoceanic telephone calls was prohibitive for the average person and limited even business use to exceptional circumstances. The annual output of steel was a prized symbol of national economic prowess. The world’s first computer had just been constructed; it filled a large room, bristled with 18,000 electron tubes and half a million solder joints, and had to be physically rewired for each new task. Ecology was a subject confined to the study of biology, and references to cyberspace would not have been found even in science fiction.

2 February 2004:
A senior Serbian government official had described the Chief Prosecutor’s aspersions that Karadzic was in Belgrade as "science fiction"
Judge Yankov of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, 9 December 2002:
I am pleased to have this opportunity also, in submitting this statement, to say on a personal note, that this commemorative meeting is to me an important point in my professional career. I am among these young veterans that the President of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Seas referred to, who started in 1967 in this place with the initial discussions in the First Committee of the General Assembly on a very long-worded agenda item entitled "The exploration and exploitation of the seabed and the ocean floor and the subsoil thereof beyond the limits of national jurisdiction for peaceful purposes". That was the title of the statement made by the late Ambassador Arvid Pardo. As far as I know, his statement set a precedent in the practice of the General Assembly, because it covered the entire day and appeared in the verbatim records of both the morning and afternoon meetings. Most of the representatives were taken by surprise and considered the topic to be in the realm of science fiction. It evolved from there and went to an ad hoc committee to study this problem with the very long title. I had the opportunity, and perhaps a real chance in my career, to be Vice-Chairman of the Legal Subcommittee of the Committee on the Seabed. From 1968 until the very last day of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in Montego Bay, I served as Chairman of the Third Committee, whose mandate was the protection and preservation of the marine environment, the regime of marine scientific research and the development and transfer of marine technology. There may be an emotional or nostalgic touch to what I have said but this was the most important, and perhaps the greatest, period of my professional activities.
And I'm told this UN stuff is boring-- especially for the majority of people who can't be bothered to look around for more than two minutes and prefer to read spy thrillers where the main character succeeds in cracking the case by being capable of looking for secrets in important documents for more than two minutes. You'd like to think that people who seek to write such fiction would be similarly disposed, but apparently not. Did you know that next year will be the International Year of Sanitation?

Didn't think so.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Don't waste your time on this blog

Posted by goatchurch at 8:29 AM
Every so often someone points me to something they think I'll like. Today it was this blog post about Liberation Hydrology.
[T]he main problem I have with using maps... [to show Climate Change is that they] are actually so evocative, and so imaginatively stimulating, that it's hard not to get at least a tiny thrill at the idea that you might get to see these things happen.

Nothing against Miami, but all of south Florida under several meters of water? With Cape Canaveral lost under a subtropical lagoon and St. Petersburg an archipelago?

The problem, it seems, is that climate change scientists, in describing these unearthly terrestrial reorganizations, are science fictionalizing, so to speak, our everyday existence. The implicit, if inadvertant, message here seems to be: hey, south Floridians, and all you who are bored of the world today, sick of all the parking lots and the 7-11s, tired of watching Cops, tired of applying to colleges you don't really want to go to, tired of credit card debt and bad marriages, don't worry.

This will all be underwater soon.

It could be called liberation hydrology.

Climate change becomes an adventure – the becoming-science-fiction of everyday life.
Then comes the down-side...
Instead, it would seem, you have to point out quality of life issues: you might starve to death, for instance, as organized agriculture and food distribution chains are interrupted. Malnourished, your teeth will fall out and your hair will grow thin. You may be living in a refugee camp, with neither privacy nor close friends nor personal safety. The governments of the world may have collapsed, overwhelmed by the logistical burden of displaced populations and by the loss of the world's economic centers, like NY, London, and Shanghai; there will thus be no police; you might be physically assaulted on a regular basis. There will be rats, roaches, and rivers of human sewage – followed closely by disease, infection, infant mortality, and premature death. And you won't just be able to drive away, leaving the catastrophe behind – because the roads will be potholed, without a government to fix them, and your car will probably have been stolen, anyway. Clean water will be a luxury; you'll be drinking radiator water out of abandoned pick-up trucks, rusting on the sides of highways outside St. Louis.
Aside from being much better written, BLDG|BLOG is full of gorgeous images every month.

I want it in the blogroll along with the Futurismic blog so people can click through to the good stuff. But someone won't let me have the password.

Oh these are the dogs my friends

Posted by goatchurch at 3:10 AM

Surfing around Category:Military robots came up with the above object. At first you are impressed, until it starts to look like two back ends of a pantomime horse dancing around like a blind thing to the sound of a whining tiny chainsaw. The comments on the video seem to bear me out.

Let's face it, it's a bit crap.

Often that's the reason for keeping military technology top secret these days-- so that we believe it's good.

The majority of the Military robots are flying drones. Obviously staying up in the air is much less of a challenge than interacting with something solid. However, all they can do is look around, find targets, and bomb them. Then the news gets bombed with lies about how legitimate targets were present, and how only legitimate targets were killed. Job's a good 'un.

I wish reporters would keep track of official sources properly, because if you pay close attention to the flow of information you realize that the definition of an indiscriminate attack is that the video-game teenagers on the warships don't have any idea many people they have killed-- until someone pokes through the rubble and counts the bodies. Once the number is known, they can all be declared guilty. Then, before anyone gets too interested, they move on to another remote control strike somewhere else in the world aimed at the ghost.

It's just not good enough. I am tired of this disconnect between the fantasy of what the engineers and war-makers convince the press they can achieve, and what's actually going on. The developments are heading in a different direction from the way people are used to making it up.

It's worth paying close attention and having a non-credulous discussion about what's good and what's not, because once robots begin to work and get out into the environment, they will change the world completely. The only question that matters is what type of robot is going to go mainstream first. Will it be a small device that can assassinate, or a slow vehicle driver? Will it be something that can do all the housework including cleaning the ceiling, or will it be street litter-picker, sorter and recycler? Will it be the size of a donkey, a car, or a honey bee?

This change to the age of the robots -- if it happens -- will be bigger than the internet, and must happen before anything close to AI gets invented. Science Fiction missed out on the internet, and it's missing out on stories about the age of robots for the same reason. The reason being that story-tellers consistently leap straight onto the trope of thinking computers (AI), because it gives them an extra character for free. Fiction is supposed to be about Characters, you see. That's how we are taught to write. The urge to anthropomorphise is totally irresistable.

Unfortunately, always, necessarily, this causes the SF author to gloss over the all intermediate technologies, such as effective (but dumb) robots that will undeniably change the world completely. AI is like a mile-deep bear-pit which SF writers routinely fall into, followed by an enjoyable experience of the wind swishing past the ears till the end of the story. On the other side of this hole lies an entire continent of unexplored territory that SF writers have rarely been into.

We will not have the world as it is now, but with AI. This fully played-out and false scenario is specifically excluded from Mundane-SF for this reason.

Meanwhile, here is a message of hope:

I can report that I had the honour of meeting Reverend Billy while he was on tour in England four years ago. I took part in a very modest retail intervention. The experience blew my mind. I recommend that everybody participates in one.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Panasonic Professor

Posted by goatchurch at 1:51 PM

Rodney Brooks, Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT, called his talk at the Singularity Summit:
The Singularity: A Period Not An Event
He began:
I haven't been involved in the Singularity Institute before, so I thought I'd check and see exactly what is meant by "The Singularity". The "Singularity" as defined by the Singularity Institute is:

The technological creation of a smarter than human intelligence.

and the questions are whether this will lead to opportunities and risks.

Now predicting the future is sometimes hard.
He then made some points about what the age of flight might have looked like to the Parisians in 1783 on seeing the first hot air balloon drift over their city.

He continued:
As I was looking through quotes about the future, I realized we didn't know how good we had it when Dan Quail was Vice President.

The future's here, maybe, just not everyone's got it. And every research lab in the world now uses this slogan: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." -- and we're the ones who are going to invent it.

I think Arthur C. Clarke had it right when he said, "When it comes to technology, most people over-estimate it in the short term, but under-estimate it in the long-term."

The way we think about the future is often through Hollywood. But Hollywood has a very specific way of talking about the future... [which is to] take the world exactly as it is, and then we add one thing...

My point is that when an Artificial General Intelligence appears, the world is going to be a very different place than it is today. So it's not today's world and add in this really super-intelligent being; it's the world that's going to change over time. And I think, by the way, we will be long gone, but in a positive way.

So the world is going different before we have these General Intelligences. Notice I said "when", not "if".
The rest of the talk got into the history and development of robotics over the past 25 years at the MIT labs. Happily for me he covered the spectacular failure anyone has made towards cracking the obvious problem of human vision.

Towards the end of the talk he ran through a series of scenarios about how artificial intelligences could emerge from things like home robots looking after us, or brain implants developed onwards from cochlea implants which already exist.

In these proposed scenes he makes the point that we will be different from the way we are now by the time the Singularity happens. It might be that there is no us and them at the precise turning point, so we might not notice.

In the context of the historical observation (not necessarily proven) that war-making is what really drives technology along, I picked up on the final question at the end of the speech. After talking about the company he founded called I Robot which has supplied products to all sectors of society including the military, there was the following exchange:
Professor Panasonic: There were reports that the PackBots been equiped with machine guns. That's not true. None of the PackBots have had machine guns. The Talon from Foster-Miller has had a weapon on it, all with safety circuit and a human in the loop. I think it's an interesting question. When we want to allow robots to have independent targeting authority, I think now is the time to act. There is a bunch of ethics conferences coming up in the next year. I think it's time to put this into the Geneva Conventions -- some governments do go along with the Geneva Conventions -- and I think it's time to think about that.

Question: You said, "Some governments" follow the Geneva Conventions, but apparently not the one you've done some work for. Is it a good idea to be developing AI in robots for the US Government? In my mind that could lead to some of the worst nightmare scenarios.

Professor Panasonic: That's in a sense nothing to do with AI. That's a question which has faced scientists since the time of Da Vinci, who was completely funded by doing military work for his patrons. So that's an issue which scientists have had to deal with for hundreds of years independent of the AI question. And I think it's the responsibility of scientists to worry about controls and how things are used, and I think that the Geneva Conventions have been a good way of doing it. We've seen very little biological weaponry appear because it was banned by the Geneva Conventions. I think it has been successful. There are perturbations. Governments do change. Governments can change. People can change the Governments. And I think it's going to be an ongoing question for a long time. But I don't think it's AI specific. I think I'm finished, sorry.
Well... What a sterling demonstration of back-peddling, as well as the principle that it's impossible to get someone to understand something when their income depends on their not understanding it.

The real question is what's the difference between robots wandering around with weapons, and a minefield? Since the problem with dumb minefields is that they are a gift that keeps on killing, maybe it's the high-tech nature of robots that makes them better. We know how good software is, don't we, boys and girls, especially when it gets contracted out to the private sector. You don't think our lives count more than our votes, do you? The guys who gave us the Enforcement Droid Series 209 in that movie in 1987 probably didn't go far enough, with what may be coming down the pipeline.

I expect my SF writers to go to places where Professors of Robotics fear to tread. The people at those ethics conferences he speaks of are going to be writing Mundane-SF. Probably without sufficient readability or characterization. But it's all there for the picking if anyone bothers to find it on the internet for free.

Anyways, that's just a little side issue of mine. It's always good to have a bit of passion about something, such as a healthy hatred for things likely to kill you and your fellow human beings.

What was really important was the Professor's statement that when (his "when", my "if") the Singularity happens, it will already be quite a different world to the way it is now. My observation of attempts to write about the Singularity is it's a speculation too far. It leaps over so much that you tend to see stories about a world that's exactly the same as it is today, but with this one thing different.

If Mundane-SF is about anything, it's about filling in the gigantic gaps relating to the interesting, likely, and possible scenarios in future history as it may occur. Conventional SF has shown itself wholly unwilling to go there. At its core, Mundane-SF is about originality. The truth is stranger than fiction, so why not make a little bit of room for the truth to come in and visit. Show it around. Get used to it. Don't scare it away with all your bright lights and noisy trope-ic nonsense.

Stories which feature thinking computers are almost always unoriginal and generally unenlightened by the scads of changes that have got to happen to us before the Singularity. Whether it exists or not is debatable, but many more ought to be able to see that it's not producing satisfying SF. It's like going straight for the candy instead of saving your appetite for a proper meal.

This trope has got to go.

P.S. Picture at top is of three Goliath tracked mines, manufactured in 1942 to carry up to 100kg of high explosives each. Imagine how much more advanced we can make these things 65 years later.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Astonished at the workload

Posted by goatchurch at 1:59 AM
You may came to this blog because of the link in the Mundane-SF Interzone issue rejection notice. We're reaching that stage now. Here are some notes.

First, a note about karma. I am a writer too. By the end of this episode I calculate that I will have sent out about the same number of rejection notices as I have received for my efforts over the years. This means I will have achieved a balance. Geoff, who has read more than his fair share of submissions, will also be sending rejections. Since he has been selling fiction for years, one can only guess how bad his karma is becoming.

For some stories I've had time to leave comments in the rejection notice. Please don't take them seriously. If they help, use them; if they don't, ignore them. I have no idea who each of you are or what you respond to. Email is a very problematic medium, and the reactions are often unpredictable and sometimes undesired.

I should make clear that the slush pile for this Mundane-SF issue has never been seen by the Interzone. If you think your story is good and we've missed it, didn't like or get the point, or you've substantially reworked it having found my comments useful (God forbid), you might like to know that their Interzone.November2007 e-submission system is currently open.

I don't know how pleased this makes the reader Jetse de Vries for my bringing this to everyone's attention, but he doesn't know where I live. My admiration for what he's doing is immense -- even though he's rejected four stories of mine over the past couple of years. Now I can't send any more to Interzone because of conflicts of interest from working on this guest issue. Not that it'll make a blind bit of difference.

(If you're interested in a story I actually have sold (after it got recalled by the editor who had rejected it), look here. I am an Ideas person, rather than a Very Good At Writing person. This was one of those stunning ideas you get only once a decade which, in the hands of a real SF writer, would have got a Hugo and blah blah blah. It's not Mundane-SF because it revolves around some fictional science. It is licensed under the real creative commons license (derivative works and for profit allowed), unlike the work of certain internet inactivists I could mention.)

Anyways, moving swiftly on from that little not-necessarily-welcome editorial interlude, it's worth noting that there's another outlet for Mundane-SF (ie scientifically consistent and therefore more relevent to Life, the Universe, and Everything fiction than not) called Futurismic. They also run a far better blog than this one. Go support them.

It goes without saying that you can get more details from to build up your story rejection karma, and you can simulate the fun of being submissions editor by scoring by aiming for the Most Productive Critter award every week for six months.

Finally, here's an example of all the work I'm not doing. I'm self-employed so I can freely spend days and days and days at this game and still not keep up.

Ah, but think about the lessons learned. There's always, always going to be that, if it doesn't kill you.