Throwback Thursdays: Why the Future Never Gets the SF Right

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In the January 2012 Tor Newsletter, author Michael Flynn examined the problem of science and technology in far-future sci-fi. He decided, in his own words, “to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress,” in order to make the world he created more recognizable to those of us here in the present. He explains how the world of his Spiral Arm series works in this blast from the past. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

In the Lion's Mouth by Michael FlynnBy Michael Flynn

The problem with near-future science fiction is that the fiction is over-taken by events. My novel Firestar, recently re-issued by Tor, concerns the near “future” of 1999-2010 and the hot scoop is that things didn’t work out that way. Some of it, sure, including, alas, the predicted recession. But Serbia is no longer the Bad Boy of the Balkans (nor are the Balkans the Place to Keep an Eye On) and we don’t have regularly-scheduled ballistic transport or single-stage to orbit or… However, anyone who thinks the main basic function of SF is to commit journalism on the future will be perennially disappointed.

The problem with far-future science fiction, like the Spiral Arm series (In the Lion’s Mouth, Jan 2012) is different. We can no more imagine the world of seven thousand years to come than Sumerian peasants could imagine Manhattan. But we need to keep it intelligible. What we imagine of the far future is no more likely to be accurate than Sumerian tales of crossing the sky in flaming chariots. Rockets, maybe; but not flaming chariots.

Yet “the accelerating pace of change” is such a cliché that we might ask, “What if it isn’t? After all, for most of human history, change has been minimal. Our Sumerian peasant would find life among the today’s Marsh Arabs full of wonders—iron tools!—but not incomprehensible.

So to keep the Spiral Arm intelligible to modern “Sumerians,” I decided to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress. There is precedent.

Science and technology need not go hand in hand. China achieved a high technology without developing natural science. And scattered individuals in ancient Hellas and medieval Islam pursued a personal interest in natural philosophy without applying it to “base mechanics.” Only in the Latin West did a passion for technological innovation develop alongside an institutionalized interest in investigating Nature.

The Scientific Revolution combined them. No more was Nature to be studied simply to grasp and appreciate its Beauty. Its purpose would henceforth be to invent Useful Stuff and extend man’s Dominion over Nature. Science, in short, changed from Art Appreciation to Engineering.

Nothing like this happened in China, thought Joseph Needham, because the Chinese lacked a concept of the universe as a created artifact, and therefore had no expectation of a rational order waiting to be discovered. Other historians have linked the stillbirths of science to a persistent belief in the Great Year and “eternal returns.” The ancients—Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, Hindus, et al.—extrapolated from the cycles of the sun, the seasons, the heavens to an endlessly repeating universe, destroyed and reborn whenever the planets returned to some “original” configuration.

But this belief proved fatal to science. If an eternal and uncreated universe repeats itself endlessly, then whatever can happen has happened, again and again, and the natural laws we discover are only transient configurations of particles eternally in motion. Wait a while. They’ll change.

This is the outlook I superimposed on Spiral Arm society. Scientific progress stopped long ago. Techs apply “the Wisdom of the Ancients” by rote, recite the prayers (formulas) to be followed, but have lost all sense that these things are ordered by deeper principles.

Can it happen? The endless universe has been making a comeback courtesy of Hegel and his disciples: Schelling, Engels, Nietzsche, et al. Even scientists imagine multiverses and endlessly repeated Big Bangs. And—OMG!!!—the Mayan Long Count is ending!!!!

This article is originally from the January 2012 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Highlights from Peter Watts’ Reddit AMA

Echopraxia by Peter Watts
In case you missed it, Echopraxia author Peter Watts did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) earlier this week. Here are the highlights from it.

Do you believe the central thesis of Blindsight, that consciousness is an aberration and evolutionary dead-end? Is there a similar theme to Echopraxia?

First question: I didn’t when I wrote the damn thing. I just couldn’t think of anything that an intelligent agent needed consciousness for, and it finally occurred to me that the idea of consciousness as a maladaptive side-effect was an awesome punchline for an SF story. I pretty much knew that about two weeks after release, some actual neuroscientist would condescendingly point out something that had never occured to me (because I generally don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about), and that would be that.

Since then, though, the evidence for the spandrel interpretation has only grown stronger. There are actual peer-reviewed papers out there arguing for the nonessentiality of consciousness. I may have blindly tossed a dart over my shoulder and, purely by accident, hit the bullseye.

Second question: Less than a day after release, and you’re already asking for the Cliff’s notes? I think not.

You are broke and have been offered a wheelbarrow full of cash for the rights to make a Blindsight movie. How would it work?

First of all, I am broke. What part of “midlist science ficton writer” don’t you understand?

Miniseries, but not Syfy: HBO. If we’re lucky we could get the guys who did the Sharknado movies (although personally I thought “Sharktopus” had greater verisimilitude), but those guys are in such high demand we’d probably have to settle for the “True Detective” crew.

Pacing, cuts and edits. Yes. There would be all of those things.

What made you choose the nature of consciousness as a focal point in the Blindsight universe? You can see your biology influence, specifically marine, in the crafting of the aliens, but what made you delve into the mind?

Back in the early nineties I read an essay by Dawkins—it was actually the afterword to a collection of essays on evolutionary ecology whose name I’ve forgotten—in which he mentioned, almost offhandedly, that the functional utility of consciousness was one of the great outstanding biological mysteries, that it was trivially easy to imagine an intelligent agent that could do everything we could without being conscious so what was consciousness good for, in the evolutionary sense?

He obviously wasn’t the first person to ask that question, but he was the first person to ask it within my eyeshot—and once posed, I felt embarrassed that that question had never occurred to me before then. It seemed obvious, a huge dark mystery at the center of our very existence. I wouldn’t say I started obsessing on it necessarily, but from then on the question was always there, niggling away in the back of my mind.

Eventually I got off my ass and wrote a book about it.

What made you decide to return to the Blindsight universe for Echopraxia?

My agent. I actually wanted to write a near-future techno-thriller about genetically-engineered giant squid, and in the wake of Behemoth’s tankage I was especially leery of revisiting any well without enough time to recharge my creative batteries. But I laid out five potential projects for the man, and he opined that what-was-then-called “State of Grace” was head and shoulders above the others.

And here we are.

What authors/movies/etc. influenced the horror aspects of your fiction?

The mandatory answer here is Lovecraft—but honestly, I haven’t read any Lovecraft since high school, and even then only a handful of stories. I liked the Alien movies well enough, but they weren’t especially influential on my own writing. If I dig deep enough, and if I’m brutally honest, I’ll admit that Rorschach may have had its genesis in the space-Rastaferian tree-ship from “Buckaroo Banzai: Adventures Across the Eighth Dimension”.

No, really.

For the rest of Peter’s AMA, head to Reddit.

Goodreads Sweepstakes: The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron

About The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man: Ruddy McCann, former college football star, has experienced a seismic drop in popularity; he is now Kalkaska, Michigan’s full-time repo man and part-time bar bouncer. His best friend is his low-energy Basset hound Jake, with whom he shares a simple life of stealing cars.

Simple, that is, until Ruddy starts hearing a voice in his head.

The voice introduces himself as Alan Lottner, a dead realtor. Ruddy isn’t sure if Alan is real, or if he’s losing his mind. To complicate matters, it turns out Katie, the girl he’s fallen for, is Alan’s daughter.

When Alan demands Ruddy find his murderers, Ruddy decides a voice in your head seeking vengeance is best ignored. When Alan also demands he clean up his act, and apartment, Ruddy tells him to back off, but where can a voice in your head go?

With a sweet romance, a murder mystery, a lazy but loyal dog and a town full of cabin-fevered characters you can’t help but love, New York Times bestselling novelist W. Bruce Cameron’s The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man is yet another laugh-out-loud, keep-you-up-late, irresistible read.

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends September 24)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!

Advice from a Tor Editor

One of the great things about social media is its ability to connect genre fans, or to connect authors and readers. It can also connect writers with editors, as Tor/Forge Senior Editor Melissa Ann Singer reminded us on Friday. Every once in a while, Melissa takes to Twitter to explain the reasons she rejected manuscripts recently. The reasons are all fairly general, but even a tiny glimpse behind-the-scenes of an editor’s thought process can be fascinating! So, we decided to collect Melissa’s tweets, and share them here for all the writers out there.

So there you are! Of course, as Melissa herself stated, these are all her own opinions, and may not reflect the opinions of other editors and/or agents. But we hope this peek behind the curtain is useful to all those aspiring writers out there!

New Releases: 8/26/2014

Assassin's Game by Ward LarsenBurning Paradise by Robert Charles WilsonThe Cure by Douglas E. RichardsThe Clockwork Sky, Volume Two by Madeleine RoscaEchopraxia by Peter WattsThe Emperor's Blades by Brian StaveleyThe Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler WhiteKitty's Greatest Hits by Carrie VaughnLock In by John ScalziSandstorm by Alan L. LeeShadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe edited by J.E. Mooney and Bill FawcettSun River and Bannack by Richard S. WheelerWhat Are the Chances by Kenny Rogers with Mike Blakely

See upcoming releases.

Sneak Peek: The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce CameronRead the first chapter of The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, the latest novel by W. Bruce Cameron, publishing on October 28th.

CHAPTER 1

A Conversation with Albert Einstein

Computers and insurance companies call me Ruddick McCann—to everyone else I’m just Ruddy. I work for a collateral recovery agency run by a guy named Milton Kramer. When people can’t make their car payments, I help them get back on their feet.

Continue reading

Goodreads Sweepstakes: Black Ice by Susan Krinard

Black Ice by Susan Krinard

About Black Ice:

New York Times bestselling author Susan Krinard continues the thrilling urban fantasy series that began with Mist in Black Ice.

Centuries ago, all was lost in the Last Battle when the Norse gods and goddesses went to war. The elves, the giants, and the gods and goddesses themselves were all destroyed, leaving the Valkyrie known as Mist one of the only survivors.

Or so she thought.

The trickster god Loki has reappeared in San Francisco, and he has big plans for modern-day Earth. With few allies and fewer resources—but the eyes of the gods and goddesses of an old world upon her—it’s up to Mist to stop him before history repeats itself.

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends September 22)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!

Goodreads Sweepstakes Roundup: 9 Chances to Win

The Accidental Highwayman by Ben TrippBlack Ice by Susan KrinardCrossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan
Enter for a chance to win Last Plane to Heaven by Jay Lake on GoodreadsMortal Gods by Kendare BlakeThe Severed Streets by Paul Cornell
The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. BelcherTruth Be Told by Hank Phillippi RyanTut: The Story of My Immortal Life by P. J. Hoover

Goodreads Sweepstakes: The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

About The Severed Streets: Desperate to find a case to justify the team’s existence, with budget cuts and a police strike on the horizon, Quill thinks he’s struck gold when a cabinet minister is murdered by an assailant who wasn’t seen getting in or out of his limo. A second murder, that of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, presents a crime scene with a message…identical to that left by the original Jack the Ripper.

The new Ripper seems to have changed the MO of the old completely: he’s only killing rich white men. The inquiry into just what this supernatural menace is takes Quill and his team into the corridors of power at Whitehall, to meetings with MI5, or ‘the funny people’ as the Met call them, and into the London occult underworld. They go undercover to a pub with a regular evening that caters to that clientele, and to an auction of objects of power at the Tate Modern.

Meanwhile, in Paul Cornell’s The Severed Streets, the Ripper keeps on killing and finally the pattern of those killings gives Quill’s team clues towards who’s really doing this….

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends September 19)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!

Goodreads Sweepstakes: The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

About The Six-Gun Tarot:

Nevada, 1869: Beyond the pitiless 40-Mile Desert lies Golgotha, a cattle town that hides more than its share of unnatural secrets. The sheriff bears the mark of the noose around his neck; some say he is a dead man whose time has not yet come. His half-human deputy is kin to coyotes. The mayor guards a hoard of mythical treasures. A banker’s wife belongs to a secret order of assassins. And a shady saloon owner, whose fingers are in everyone’s business, may know more about the town’s true origins than he’s letting on.

A haven for the blessed and the damned, Golgotha has known many strange events, but nothing like the primordial darkness stirring in the abandoned silver mine overlooking the town. Bleeding midnight, an ancient evil is spilling into the world, and unless the sheriff and his posse can saddle up in time, Golgotha will have seen its last dawn…and so will all of Creation.

R.S. Belcher’s The Six-Gun Tarot is “an astonishing blend of first-rate steampunk fantasy and Western adventure.” (Library Journal, Starred Review)

Enter for a chance to win here!

(Ends September 18)

Also, don’t forget to check out our other sweepstakes!