Friday, September 23, 2005

Beyond Cyberpunk! A decade and a half beyond...

From a vantage point here in the third-quarter of 2005, halfway through the first decade of the 21st Century, it's almost unimaginable to me that we all once lived without the Internet - without websites, online order fulfilment, blogs and podcasts and the ability to know absolutely anything, no matter how trivial or superficial, in a matter of moments. I can't begin to think how I'm going to make my son understand what life was like in the days before Google. What it meant to have a word or a song lyric on the tip of your tongue and not know what it was, and worse, to have to endure this state of not knowing for minutes, hours, even days on end. To ransack your own memory for hours to try and pull some needle out of your neural haystack. To have to ask other people, who themselves might not know. To have to get in a car, and finally, in frustration, drive to a library - a specific place, a physical location! - where knowledge was kept, and then have to hunt it up, a process that could take hours. The fact that you couldn't simply type in a string of nouns to a search engine and within seconds, if not minutes, be given any sought after fact you might desire will seem incomprehensible to my child. Even if he grasps the concept intellectually, he'll never understand, on a fundamental level, what a paradigm shift his old man's life spanned. Though, of course, in this age of information exponential explosion, he and I both should live across many more such singularities. But until we step out of our bodies or shake hands with E.T., this one will be the biggie for me.

Still, almost as intriguing to me as the Days Before Internet are it's early days - not of its conception and birth, but its emergence into popular culture. I had one of the first Apple Powerbooks, and steered by the very hip magazine Mondo 2000, I was downloading My Own Personal Jesus from the BBS, Private Idaho. Around that time, Apple came out with a hypermedia program called HyperCard, sort of a digital version of interlinked index cards. (Case in earlier point: for a moment, I couldn't remember the word "index card". I was thinking "post cards, note cards..." etc... I logged onto Office Depot, typed in "card" and...) Anyhow, Hypercard allowed you to publish a manuscript with hypertext, images, and sounds. I read William Gibson's Count Zero that way, in a program that could instantly call up the first, previous, or all appearances of any character. And I was hooked.

But my most cherished hypercard stack was Beyond Cyberpunk! A huge, sprawling, encyclopedia-cum-manifesto that sought to gather cyberculture, cutting edge tech, and science fiction under one cool interface. It was practically my bible for a few years running. This virtual tome was a major, major influence. My first screenplay, in fact, The Life and Times of Mondo Zark, was a directly derivative piece of drivel about a young hacker, whose murdered mentor survived as a distributed mind across a laboratory of various inventions, out to stop a madman from subsuming the world with nanotechnology, and aided by a tribe of technonomads who lived off the grid and traveled on computerized bicycles. Fortunately, I don't think there's a copy (soft or hard) existing anywhere of this mondo-monstrosity. But even more fortunate, the creators of Beyond Cyberpunk!, Gareth Branwyn and Peter Sugarman, have made the whole incredible thing, wonders, warts and all, available online! It's amazing to see how much of it holds up, and to discover how many people I know and work with today who were involved with it then (as if the future was all around me and I was unawares). Beyond Cyberpunk! is an invaluable piece of pop cultural history and an amazing resource, and now it gets to live again, in the very future it engendered so much enthusiasm for in me and so many others back in 1990. In many respects, we've moved quite a bit beyond it now, but it's vision stretches further.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Takes a Lickin', But Keeps On Tickin'

Scott Westerfeld has an interesting post trying to identify the various types of time-travel elasticity in science fiction media and literature, notions of one absolute vs. multiple timelines, and whether or not you can effect change in your own timeline.

In contrast to Ray Bradbury's "butterfly effect," I believe it was Isaac Asimov, who in The End of Eternity, submitted the “wave” theory of elastic time, proposing that the effects of any change would be most noticable immediately after the point of interference/insertion, but would gradually diminish in intensity as you moved past the event. So, killing Hitler would radically alter the 20th century, marginally alter the 21st or 22nd century, and might leave the 23rd century or beyond virtually untouched and have no effect on the 30th century at all. Of course, the largest alterations would carry further forwards, while smaller ones would fade out more rapidly.

Oddly, this reminds me of a recent article I read on the resurgence of the “Great Man” theory of history. The idea that, at any given time, there are about 12 people who are creating the world had falled out of academic favor for some decades, replaced with the notion that economic, social, political trends were shaping events more than individuals, who were simply stepping in to fill roles dictated for them by larger forces. I.e., if you did assassinate Hitler, someone else would have stepped into the power vacuum in Germany and mobilized tensions there to similar effect. However, ironically, George W. has renewed interest in the “Great Man” theory. While the artile wasn’t suggesting W was in any way “great,” it pointed out that in almost-single handedly forcing a war that a) wasn’t necessary and b) wasn’t popular with congress, the people, or the world at large, he has demonstrated how much (catastrophic) effect one individual really can have on the course of history.

The other thing this discussion brings to mind is the way that science filters through into pop culture and effects our fictions even at the most visible layer. The original Star Trek very much adhered to the notion of “one timeline”, which, when broken, was always repaired - the break and it’s correction (as Spock points out in “City on the Edge of Forever”) always part of the design. This holds sway through the TNG episode, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” in which Guinan senses the wrongness of a universe in with the Federation and Klingon Empire are at war, and impresses Picard on the necessity of repairing the damage. (Picard raises the question, “How do we know this timeline isn’t any more right than any other?” but Guinan steamrollers him into accepting her position.)

But this notion of a single timeline begins to break down with the latter episode “Parallels,” which sees Worf permeating through a variety of alternative timelines until everything culminates in a clusterfuck of thousands of Enterprises from a myriad different universes.

By Deep Space Nine, the notion of one time-line has radically broken down, as withness an episode whose title escapes me, in which Chief O’Brien is constantly teleporting back and forth to a future in which the station is destroyed. Despite the fact that each trip exposes him to radiation poisoning, he makes one final attempt to avert the encroaching disaster, meets himself of just minutes later on, dies, and sends his minutes-into-the-future self back in his stead. Upon his return, he wonders if he really has the right to call Kieko his wife, given that “her” O’Brien died in a timeline that was then prevented from occurring, and is reassured by his best friend that he’s still the Chief, even if his memories are out of whack by a few minutes. Since “most of him” is the same, that’s good enough for government work, what?

Finally, when we get to Voyager’s first few seasons (where my knowledge of Trek ends, as my viewing of Trek did too), time has become elastic, fractal, alterable, permeable, and generally good for twisting into any shape the writers need. The two-part episode “Future’s End” sees multiple versions of characters encountered with no attempt to match cause to effect. Here, a crash-landing in the past has resulted in a boom in 1990s computer technology (seemingly the boom we ourselves experienced - thus the alteration IS the correct time, was always meant to occur, etc..), but the 29th Century timecop that is sent to prevent it is re-encountered twice, once as a sane individual aware of and contributing to the outcome of the episode’s action, and once as a homeless man wandering deranged from the initial crash. Both versions co-exist in the same (final) timeline, and alterations and corrections made in the episode do not erase or negate the mad homeless version’s existence. I quite watching soon afterwards, but kept enough tabs on the show to know that they continued to play with multiple versions of their characters, and multiple co-existing and interacting timelines.

Finally, while I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, I do think that the move from an absolute time to fluid/fractal timelines somehow coincides with blurring questions of individuality and identity unconsciously co-opted from the general zeitgeist. It used to give me fits when Jeri Taylor would tell me “absolutely the holographic doctor is a person” and Brannon Braga would turn around and tell me “absolutely he is not.” They didn’t know themselves, but unconsciously, a lot of that series was about ascribing “personhood” to inanimate, but sentient-seeming, objects, as witness the sympathy everyone gives the doctor when his holographic family breaks down, despite the fact that a simply tripping of a reset switch would have them all up and running again. This inability to distinguish between a long-running program who had achieved self awareness over time and the game-pieces conjured into existence on the holodeck typified the entire series, which, to me, was perfectly appropriate for - and indicative of - an age where a woman driver ran over a biker because her tamaguchi needed immediate food. As tragic as that was, one day I'm sure our robot masters will cite it as a watershed in human/machine empathy.

Friday, September 02, 2005

It Still Moves! - Science Fiction in the Age of UnReason

Gardner Dozois is interviewed by John C. Snider of SciFiDimensions talking about his recent Pyr anthology, Galileo's Children: Tales of Science vs. Superstition. Both the book itself, and Dozois in this interview, have some very important things to say about the current anti-science environment prevalent in America today:

"...the United States is busily turning itself into a Third World nation, and at the worst possible time, too, at a time when many other nations are becoming increasingly progressive and scientifically sophisticated. American workers are already at a severe disadvantage in the global marketplace, because they're just not as well-educated, particularly in the sciences, as workers from other countries; see the recent book The World is Flat [by Thomas L. Friedman] for a discussion of this. It certainly isn't going to help that their science education is going to have to be watered-down and distorted even further to make room for stuff like 'Intelligent Design' because of political expediency."

Meanwhile, the Guardian ran a very cogent article by Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne arguing that allowing "Intelligent Design" into the classroom may have seriously detrimental long term effects. At the risk of sounding like a true believer, I think that science fiction's position as a literature of rationality, skepticism, and an open mind has never been more potentially important than it is today.