01/09/2003. Contributed by Evelyn C Leeper
Evelyn reports back from the world's finest purely literary science fiction con, Readercon 15 and discovers the Golden Age of science fiction is .. well, now.
Clement was born Harry Clement Stubbs May 30, 1922, in Somerville, Massachusetts, but moved to Braintree at a very young age, and later to Cambridge. He was able to go to Harvard because Cambridge had a scholarship for Cambridge residents.
He was introduced to science fiction in February 1930 with Buck Rogers, and can remember walking out of the public library with Jules Verne's "A Trip to the Moon" under one arm and an astronomy text under the other. This was an era, he said, when if you read science fiction magazines, you hid them. His first science fiction magazine was the October 1933 issue of "Amazing"; Clement said, "Professor Jameson hooked me on science fiction."
Clement decided to try his hand at writing, and his mother typed his first story from his hand-written copy, after which she said, "Never again," so he learned to type. "Proof" was accepted by John W. Campbell for "Analog" in 1941. That plus another sale that year totaled $235, which Clement said "went a long way towards the $400 tuition at Harvard." He used the pen name "Hal Clement" because he was also writing for "Sky & Telescope" and wasn't sure how well they would like to see science fiction stories by the same author.
In June 1942, Clement signed up for the Army Air Corps, but they told him to finish college first. In February 1943 he graduated and then enlisted, He served with the 8th Air Force in Britain, flying in bombers which would carry four two-thousand-pound bombs, meaning that the flyers' biggest concern was often whether they would actually manage to take off. Clement said he wanted to make the record clear: he never saw an enemy fighter during any of his missions. Ben Bova's article about Clement in the Program Book says that at the Heidelberg Worldcon, someone asked him if he had ever been to Heidelberg before. Clement supposedly responded, "No, but I've been within a few miles of here" (meaning up above the city in a B-24). The main problem with this story, according to Clement, is that he wasn't *at* the Heidelberg Worldcon. Oh, well, it's a nice story anyway.
After the war he returned to Boston University under the G.I. Bill, where he got a degree in education. Following that, he took a job at Milton Academy, where he taught - for thirty-seven years (counting the two years during the Korean War when he was called up but officially remained on the faculty).
Burstein asked Clement why he never used his wartime experiences in his writing. Clement said he worked at not becoming one of those bores who tells war stories over and over.
Clement"s "Mission of Gravity" appeared in "Astounding" starting in the March 1953 issue. He described the process of coming up with the assumptions, and then "the rest was slide rule work." "This was before slide rules grew buttons," as Clement put it. However, he now says that the calculations were off, and Mesklin should have been more like a discus than an oblate spheroid.
Clement said that a lot of his stories came because, as he put it, "I had already developed the notion that whenever I heard the words 'of course', I should immediately be suspicious." Burstein quoted Greg Benford as saying that non-hard science fiction is "like playing tennis with the net down." Clement didn't specifically agree, but said that he thinks the planning is the fun part.
Burstein asked about how Clement felt when people cited his first novel as his best work. Clement said that he likes some of his more recent of his books better, but he accepts "Mission of Gravity" as a breakthrough novel. One relatively recent novel, "Still River", came about from losing an argument with Lester Del Rey, of which he said, "I had a wide experience."
Clement said he always starts from the scientific perspective, not from a plot or character.
Burstein asked about George Richard, the artist who did the covers for the three volumes of Clement's work from NESFA Press. George Richard is Hal Clement. As an artist, Clement said he does mostly "landscapes, and planetscapes, and starscapes are *really* easy."
Someone asked him about Mesklinite reproduction, and Clement said he had never really given any thought to it. He said it might be like some worms, where the worm crawls along and then hangs on to something with its rear legs while the front keeps going forward, splitting in two and reproducing by fission. This led someone (Burstein?) to suggest that Mesklinite pornography would have a lot of stuff about rubber bands.
Rucker began by talking about "transrealism" which he described as extending concepts into the science fiction realm. For example, the notion of understanding becomes telepathy, and nostalgia becomes time travel. There are also "monomyths" (such as "man meets woman, they split up, then they get back together"). And there are "power chords" (tropes), such as "blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, holograms, immersive virtual reality, robots, teleportation, endless shrinking, levitation, antigravity, generation starships, ecodisaster, blowing up Earth, pleasure-center zappers, mind viruses, the attack of the giant ants, and the fourth dimension.
One problem with these tropes is that they are overly familiar now, but the postmodern approach to this is to be ironic. But in response to this irony and what he termed "Douglas Adams silliness", Rucker said, "F**k that sh*t! Science fiction should be hard. It should rock. It should be real." His approach is to make the trope new.
And as Rucker says in his preliminary paper, "Another group of freeloaders who fail to pay their power chord dues are the mainstream writers who dip a toe into 'speculative fiction.' These cosseted mandarins tend not to be aware of just how familiar are the chords they strum. To have seen a single episode of Star Trek twenty years ago is sufficient SF research for them! And their running-dog lickspittle lackey mainstream critics are certainly not going to call their club-members to task over failing to create original SF. After all, science-fiction writers and readers are subnormal cretins who cannot possibly have made any significant advances over the most superficial and well-known representations, and they should only be grateful when a real writer stoops to filch bespattered icons from their filthy wattle huts. Not to sound bitter..."
Stephen Wolfram thinks we can't predict the future of even simple systems. "Science fiction writers are not necessarily very knowledgeable, but they have a kind of low cunning."
Rucker said that the old techniques don't work any more. Hereditary dukes in space navies don't impress "losers and stoners." And the part when the sidekick says, "Tell me more, Professor" - Rucker complained, "My friends never say that." Having an average person as a protagonist - instead of a hereditary duke or a professor - allows the reader to follow what's going on.
The essence of writing transreally, Rucker concluded, is to be generous and sympathetic.
Waldrop was born in 1946 in Houston, Mississippi, and got his degree from the University of Texas. Growing up as a kid in Mississippi was "swell when you're a kid." He fished all the time.
He was in the Army from 1970 to 1972, and was married from 1968 to 1973. He told the following story about his ex-wife. She was in a store and saw the clerk reading a science fiction book. So she said, "I was married to a science fiction writer." "Oh, who?" "Howard Waldrop." The clerk said he didn't believe her. To which she responded, "If you're a science fiction fan and I say I was married to a science fiction writer and you say who and I just want to impress you, I wouldn't say 'Howard Waldrop.'"
Later Waldrop lived for a time in the "Monkeyhouse Slanshack" in Austin.
As for his influences, Waldrop says that he was possibly influenced by William Faulkner, but only after he had grown up. "You can't be from Mississippi and not sound like Faulkner," he claimed.
Waldrop started writing in comics fanzines with George R. R. Martin. In 1965 he happened to read Lin Carter's "Wizard of Lemuria" and said, "I can write better than this." He sold an article to "Crawdaddy" in 1969, and he sold "Lunchbox" to John W. Campbell at "Astounding" in 1970. (The acceptance letter arrived on his fourth day of basic training.) "Lunchbox" hadn't been reprinted since then, but it now appears in the anthology "Wondrous Beginnings" edited by Steven Silver.
"Tunnel in the Sky" was his favorite Heinlein juvenile (in spite of the fact that everyone else seemed to prefer "Rocket Ship Galileo"). Waldrop said that all the fascism in these books "goes right by kids." One of his earliest reads was Chad Oliver's "Mists of Dawn", and oddly enough, he ended up as Oliver's fishing buddy. Just like everyone else, he went through his Lovecraft phase, his Heinlein phase, and his Bradbury phase. Other influences he cited were Robert Silverberg and James Tiptree, Jr.
Asked about his inspiration for "The Ugly Chickens", Waldrop said he distinctly remembers seeing a Flemish painting of an interior scene with a dodo, though he has looked in vain for it since then. (That in itself sounds like a Waldrop story! But a Google serach turns up that in 1605, the first scientific description of the dodo bird was made by the Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius from an observation of a dodo at the home of the anatomist Peter Paauw. So it's not inconceivable that someone included one in a painting.) The story took six months to write and is "full of infodumps." (As with Clement, Waldrop seems destined to be known for one of his earlier stories; "The Ugly Chickens" was published in 1980. Amazingly, it didn't win the Hugo for best novella for that year. That was won by Gordon R. Dickson's "The Cloak and the Staff", though I doubt that even a tenth of the people who remember "The Ugly Chickens" could tell you anything about the Dickson.)
Regarding those infodumps, Waldrop talked about researching a story. "The World As We Know It", dealing with the phlogiston theory, took him three to four months to research, which included reading fifty to a hundred books. Then he found a 150-page thesis that summarized them all! He said he can occasionally use information he has discovered for one story in another. For example, "Davy Crockett Shoots the Moon" mutated into "US". After all the research is done, however, a story takes him only a day or two to write. He dislikes typing it up though, and always writes in longhand first.
He feels editors can be useful, and recounts an example when Datlow called him up and read him a sentence. "Does that make sense?" she asked. "No." "You wrote it." "That's not what I meant."
His longest work is "Them Bones", at 60,000 to 70,000 words. ("The Texas-Israeli War: 1999" is longer, but that was written in collaboration with Jake Saunders.) In the Program Book, Waldrop says this about novels: "I write novels (*when* I write them), not series. The first time I saw the words "stand alone novel" I thought I would never stop throwing up. Once upon a time, a book was a book. One. A Singular. Now they're not books unless there's *at least* three of them."
He has been thinking about another novel, "Moonworld", for thirty years now. Datlow asked him, "How close are you?" to which he replied, "Closer than thirty years ago."
In answer to another question, Waldrop said, "No, I'm not intentionally obscuring my work, no."
His story "Sawing Boys" used Damon Runyonesque slang, and Datlow also noted, "You're writing alternate history for people who don't know history. Waldrop responded, "I suffered for my art; now it's your turn." Datlow advised him (rather frankly), "It's a tightrope. You have to be careful. You don't want to lose what audience you have."
Recent works include "A Better World's in Birth!" (a chapbook from Golden Gryphon), a George Zucco story in "Silver Gryphon" (and then someone asked who George Zucco was, proving Datlow's point), and "Custer's Last Jump" (a collection of his collaborative short fiction). Upcoming collections include "Heart of Whitenesse" (limited edition from Subterranean Press), "Dream Factories and Radio Pictures", and "The Search for Tom Purdue". ("Dream Factories and Radio Pictures" is available only electronically - go to fictionwise.com rather than amazon.com, because the former offers eight formats including PDF, rather than just the Microsoft Reader format that the latter does.)
Someone asked again about "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Waldrop said that the Coen Brothers did a tremendous job, but the story had been around for 2800 years, and that in fact Martin Scorsese had done it on film as "After Hours" almost twenty years ago. "If it was an homage, they forgot to tell me," Waldrop said, although someone noted that having a character named "Vernon P. Waldrip" might be considered a clue.
Rather than go to the Kirk Poland Competition, we went to the Con Suite, where we discussed a variety of things with a variety of people.
In a discussion about standards of kashrut ("kosherness"), someone claimed, "Reform kashrut is like the Unitarian Inquisition."
Someone described how some airlines who would fly over Iran would announce they were entering Iranian air space and that women should put on veils. Mark [Leeper] asked, "Do the veils drop from the overhead compartment?"
Someone in the Con Suite asked a bunch of us who we thought would win the next election. My response was, "It depends what you mean by 'win'."
Description: "Furrowed brows over the state and future of sf are the standard at conventions, perhaps necessarily so, but today we stop to consider how good we have it. The standard of writing, at all lengths, is higher than it has ever been. More writers than ever are building on the past in ever-more-inventive ways. Reprint projects are making available the best of the past. Many of us are finding that there are far more fine books than time to read them. An exploration of our many reasons to be cheerful."
(In preparation for this panel, someone picked up a pitcher of ice water by the handle, and the handle detached, spilling water and ice all over, but luckily mostly missing the panelists. As they were picking up the ice, someone referred to this as "The Ice Age of Science Fiction".)
Di Filippo skipped having the panelists introduce themselves, saying that he figured by Sunday people should know who everyone is. This may or may not be reasonable - it's probably fine for Readercon, but not for Worldcon.
Di Filippo said that this panel appeared to be in direct opposition to the "Death of Science Fiction" panel, and said that one could either confirm or deny that other panel. Hartwell, he said, was on both panels so that he could be the "Whitmanesque" person.
Mendlesohn said that yes, this was a gold age for science fiction, at least in the UK. In the 1970s and 1980s the only science fiction available in the UK was that from the United States from the 1940s and 1950s. She spent a couple of years in the United States, she said, from 1993 to 1994, and when she returned, suddenly all the big science fiction writers in the UK were British. And there was also a return to science fiction juveniles in the UK, and when she looked at them there was "a real kick-assness to this fiction." Of British science fiction in general she said they seemed "finally to be getting over the post-imperialist melancholy."
Clement said there was "very much very good science fiction being written now". In part he thought this was because there was more science available now to write about, not just astronomy, but also advances in biology and other sciences. And there are a lot of good children's science books, which helps them get started early. Clement gave the example of "Doc" Smith, who had to invent some of the basic science for his Lensmen and Skylark novels. Mendlesohn said that two-thirds of the British science fiction writers have doctorates in science. (Though she didn't say it, I'm sure the percentage in the United States is *much* lower.)
Di Filippo said that this was definitely a golden age for short fiction, although he admits that one still can't make a living in it - he specifically said he was talking about the content, not the market. He said that just a look at http://www.scifi.com/scifiction would show you such authors as Ilsa J. Bick, Octavia Butler, Jeffrey Ford, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Barry Malzberg, and Maureen McHugh, and Lucius Shepard. And there was a lot set in the near future, which Mendlesohn said should answer Clute's claim that no one was writing about the near future any more.
Two authors that Mendlesohn talked about as contributing to this golden age were Ken MacLeod and Gwyneth Jones. She mentioned the good work appearing in "Interzone" and Datlow said that she blanks out the science fiction in "Interzone" because she is reading it for the year's best horror for her anthology! (I can't imagine taking a job that would require I purposely ignore some of the most interesting science fiction around.)
Hartwell said that his anthology "Hard SF Renaissance" was meant to highlight the current renaissance/golden age, not just in the United States, but also in Canada, Australia, and the UK. Magazines outside the United States, he said, "publish half a dozen stories that I think are just terrible and are totally memorable."
Tourtellotte thought that the explosion of commercial and information media are feeding this renaissance. Mendlesohn characterized the information explosion by saying that to research something, don't go searching yourself; put a query out on Usenet and in five minutes you have an expert. Tourtellotte said that it was now also cheaper to produce and print a zine, as well as there being an explosion in on-line markets, print-on-demand (especially for reprints), and so on, and that this was also driving the current golden age. (NESFA Press may be an example, though their situation is unique.)
Mendlesohn said that a side effect of all this was that one can no longer read the entire field as it comes out. In particular, she sees a shallowness of new science fiction, especially in feminist science fiction and science fiction criticism in that the authors read only feminist works when they research older material. She also sees a division of science fiction into political subgenres.
Di Filippo described this as there being "one enveloping community where this Golden Age is happening" during the Campbell era, but not now. Now there is a golden age for military science fiction, a golden age for feminist science fiction, and so on.
Hartwell disagreed, saying that even during the Campebellian era "there was an out-group in the Golden Age." Actually, it was pointed out that there were two or three. The main out-group was the Futurians. (However, Isaac Asimov was in both the Campbell circle and the Futurians). There was also a group of space opera writers who wrote for such magazines as "Planet Stories". And then there were "the people we never talk about at all, ... people who wrote terrible trash in 'Amazing' and other magazines."
Clement said, "[We also] made a distinction between science fiction - I didn't even add the 'hard' [then] - and fantasy, which I eschewed."
Mendlesohn pointed out that the classics we admire were not necessarily admired then. "Stories that became anthologized classics were trashed by readers [of that time]."
Speaking of stylistic differences now, Mendlesohn said that "early MacLeod and Banks books sound like a pub argument on artificial insemination ... no, no, I mean artificial intelligence." Hartwell said that authors are not only talking to each other, but they are arguing and disagreeing, and this is one characteristic of a renaissance. Mendlesohn said she found 120,000 words on the M. J. Harrison web site discussing whether there is something called "The New Weird."
Hartwell talked about an earlier time, saying, "The Seventies was a decade of real ferment and argument." "As of 1975," he claimed, "the science fiction field was arguably leading the entire world feminist discussion." There was also a backlash against the New Wave, with Ben Bova, Lester Del Rey, and Judy-Lynn Del Rey responding to Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard by looking for more of the "Good Old Stuff." Mendlesohn said that around 1986 feminist science fiction stopped being good and exciting and didn't make a comeback until around 1993.
Returning to an earlier statement, Hartwell said, "A majority of the best stuff is short fiction." There are a couple of outstanding novels, and a few very good ones, but there are a hundred outstanding stories. (Is this per year or over some other period of time?)
Mendlesohn said that one stumbling block was that you can't write about science you can build in your home anymore. Hal Clement said when he was starting out, readers were less demanding: "If there was a good idea in the story that was all you really needed." He said for "Still River" he had to work harder on characterization, but his description still made it sound like a science exercise.
From the audience, Faye Ringel noted, "The Golden Age is always 'ago'."
Description: "As a mathematician, computer scientist, professor, and writer of both fiction and nonfiction, Rudy Rucker explores many dimensions, and each of his interests informs the others. As a writer, he is particularly known for his *ware series of novels, for which he is considered one of the founding fathers of the cyberpunk movement. He also espouses a style he calls "transrealism" which he defines as writing about one's real life in fantastic terms, in novels such as The Hacker and the Ants. And he has recently forayed into historical fiction with a novel about Peter Bruegel. Come join our exploration and celebration of this protean talent."
Glenn Grant said when he first met Rucker, he thought, "Gosh, he looks so normal!" "But then you hang out with him for five minutes and you realize he's not normal at all." He first became aware of Rucker through his fiction ("Spacetime Donuts"), but Freund said he first heard of Rucker because of autocad and "Life" software programs.
Slattery said that she was influenced by Rucker's idea of the transreal as "a way of navigating the politics of consciousness." (Can anyone explain this to me?) She also said, "The only legal hallucination today is the consensual one." In fact, she said she could be described as a "theory-head" and then talked for five minutes and I couldn't understand anything she said.
Houghton introduced himself as someone whose profession was "interpreting the officially avant garde science fiction area." Discussing Rucker, he talked about "following [Rucker's] journey and mapping that journey." This sounded like sounded off the program "Inside the Actors Studio", and I'd just like to say that the cliche of just about every creative act or life being a "journey" is wearing a bit thin for me.
Di Filippo noted that Rucker appeared in "Unearth", a magazine devoted to publishing only first stories. "Spacetime Donuts" appeared as a serial there - or rather the first two installments did, but then the magazine died before the third and last installment could appear. He said that he wrote his story "Fuzzy Dice" as an homage to Rucker, and says he's thinking of getting a "What Would Rucker Do?" bracelet. (This strikes me as a bit hagiographic.)
(I left this panel after about a half-hour, because if you were unfamiliar with Rucker's work, the panel was basically incomprehensible.)
Description:" Italo Calvino wrote: 'Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.' We'll talk about reading and writing works of great ambition, and how one affects the other."
The panelists were asked by Smith what their earlier ambitions were and whether they felt they had succeeded. Barry Malzberg said, "To make a living as a science fiction writer, and no, I didn't." Howard Waldrop then said, "Barry stole my thunder, but I'll go him one better. I tried to make a living in science fiction writing short stories."
Marks said it was to start writing. Kushner was going to pass, but then said it was to buck her own snobbery (against series) by continuing to write in the same world as "Swordspoint"; said she is writing an "interstitial novel" between "Swordspoint" and "The Fall of the Kings".
Clute said he wanted to make reviewing a front door, rather than a back door into science fiction. Smith said that putting together a set of collective consistent stories (in "Future Boston") had been his ambition.
Asked about their current ambitions, Malzberg said, "After thirty-eight years of publishing fiction, anyone who has any ambitions at this point after my experience would be crazy. My ambition is to arrive safely in Teaneck, New Jersey." (Though in response to an earlier suggestion that new readers should go to the library and read classics like "The Space Merchants", Barry Malzberg had said, "You can't get that in Teaneck, New Jersey.")
Expressing a desire to find someone less pessimistic, Smith asked Malzberg, "Can we interview the 1973 version of you?" "Not with my wife in the audience." At this point, someone accused Malzberg of being jaded. Malzberg replied, "No, I'm enjoying this," to which Waldrop noted, "That's an improvement over the 1973 version."
Kushner said that now, "My ambition is to write work that will last." Asked whether that wasn't every writer's ambition, she said no, and gave the example of writers who did media tie-in novels or quick series books with which they expected to pay the rent but from which they did not expect any lasting fame.
In terms of Calvino's statement about over-ambitious projects, Clute said that Robert A. Heinlein's attempt to write almost everything in a single "Future History" probably qualified, and Smith added Isaac Asimov and James Blish as two others who attempted to have a "grand plan" tying all their works together. Asimov did that after the fact, though, and ended up with some not very seamless joins. (A lot of it, in fact, reminds me of those end-of-the-season episodes of the "New Outer Limits" on Showtime where they attempt to take all the stories written in their free-form anthology format and fit them all together.)
Clute said that at least those authors *thought* it was a possibility, lamenting, "Science fiction now does not dare that sort of grasp." He then asked, "Do we read many science fiction novels that are ambitious novels about the near future?" Smith wondered if one problem with near-future novels was that "by the time you write it, it's out of date." Clute disagreed, pointing out that we still read a lot of older works that have become outdated. Regarding outdated stories, Waldrop observed, "In keeping with my career so far, my Y2K story was published in February 2001." Smith asked, "Did you regard that as alternate history?" "At the time I regarded it as $2500," Waldrop responded, noting that "The Texas-Israeli War: 1999" also became alternate history in that sense.
Kushner said that this was not true just of science fiction - even fantasy gets outdated. She gave as an example that the position of women has changed quite a bit in fantasy (no, not *that* way). Describing how she could tell how to write to avoid this problem, she achieves an astro-anatomical feat, saying she follows "the star which has always guided me which is my gut."
Smith said there was also "contractual ambition," meaning I suppose promising to deliver works faster than one can actually do so. And there are works that are ambitious in scope (one thinks of Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men"), and works that are topically ambitious. Of the latter, Smith said that trying to write something now based around the September 11 attacks would be topically ambitious. (It wasn't until the 1990s that one started to see works about the Vietnam War.) There are also thematically ambitious works and literarily ambitious works.
Malzberg said in terms of literarily ambitious works, there were a lot of authors doing that forty years ago; Alfred Bester, Henry Kuttner, C. M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Walter M. Miller were some he named.
Smith noted that ambition wasn't everything. He said there are works that are ambitious, and even lasting, but still terrible, and cited E. E. Smith as an example. Clute said that Smith "desperately wanted to convey a sense of wonder and occasionally, miraculously, did."
Smith said that now "[my] personal ambition is that the next one is better than the last ones." (Given the fact that Hal Clement and Howard Waldrop are both known best for a work early in their careers, this is an interesting comment.) Marks added, "Sometimes we aspire just to finish it."
Malzberg then went on a long riff about Randall Garrett, who apparently had no ambition. At one pint, he had said, "This man is my literary hero. He doesn't give a damn." Garrett, according to Malzberg, wrote publishable prose, and didn't care what the quality was. In fact, Malzberg added, "This is postmodern. He not only didn't care, but he didn't care that he didn't care." In addition, "He didn't like the act; he liked the money."
Waldrop felt that quality *was* important. "99.9 percent of the people who lived and died didn't matter." And children, contrary to popular view, are not you carrying on; they are them carrying on. All we have to carry on, he said, are our works. Malzberg interjected, "But how can it matter after you're dead?" Clute felt it was the anticipation of mattering, and disagreed somewhat with Allen Steele's earlier statement (on a different panel) when he said, "It's a privilege to be misunderstood because most people are not heard at all." Waldrop said, "It cheers me no end that you [Malzberg] will be read a hundred years from now."
Regarding Calvino's statement, Smith called it "heroic morose." Marks said it seemed to imply that ambition was hopeless. Waldrop quoted Shakespeare: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, ...." He then quoted T. H. White's statement to his draft board, "Any bastard can go to this war and get his head blown off. I'm the only one who can finish this damn book" (referring to the unfinished "Once and Future King"). (I was unable to verify this statement.)
Smith asked if ambition therefore implied failure, and Malzberg, ever cheerful, replied, "Of course." He said that Leonard Bernstein, on his deathbed, lamented, "My life has come to nothing." Marks said that ambition must imply at least the possibility of failure.
Di Filippo noted that there are writers whose ambitions are totally misguided to their talents. For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought his historical novels would be what he was remembered for. Clute added that Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) thought he was a writer of serious music and that the operettas were mere fluff. However, the only thing other than the operettas that he wrote that is remembered is "Onward Christian Soldiers". Malzberg said that Sullivan once claimed that he "was the organ grinder to Gilbert's monkey." Malzberg added that he thought that in the science fiction area, John Brunner could be added to this list of misguided artists, with his later works striving for something other than what he was best at.
Smith suggested that the problem might have been that Doyle was born at the wrong time, and hence "bought into the Victorian definition of detective fiction rather than what he created." Poe also was ahead of his tine, Smith observed, and died an alcoholic. Waldrop said there was a bias against novels in the 19th and early 20th century, and "nearly every great novelist [of that time] wanted to be a playwright." Someone in the audience added that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote only when he was unemployed.
Smith said that authors console themselves by telling themselves that they are "too ambitious for the audience."
Someone asked whether one's ambition should be for self-knowledge. Malzberg replied, "I really don't know and that's kind of liberating in a way."
Description: "The sf of the 1940s seems, in retrospect, to be filled with both large and tiny atomic generators producing clean, unlimited power. The reality turned out differently. The sf of today is filled with various human/computer hybrids achieving transcendent states of mind. We suggest that the Singularity may be to the 2000s as atomic power was to the 1940s. What might this say about the state of today's sf? Can we imagine how the reality might be a bit more complicated?"
Discussing her background in physics, Asaro said, "I write a little bit of fantasy of which some people say my doctoral thesis was my first one."
Someone suggested that the first question might be, "What is the Singularity and how do we define it?" (Other than Charles Stross's "definition" - "the Rapture of the Nerds" - or Cory Doctorow's - "the Rapture of the Geeks").
Rucker said that the Singularity was invented/conceived by Vernor Vinge, and was a statement of strong artificial intelligence. That is, computers will eventually become equivalent to us (which is debatable); then they can be made smarter and faster because hardware is always getting better, and they can also design the next generation of computers. Easton said that this was true enough, but flawed in that it was too specific. He talked about "when the future becomes unpredictable," to which an audience member responded, "Like it wasn't already." Rucker agreed, saying that we tend to forget that history was never predictable. (Although I'll note that many early civilizations thought of history as cyclical rather than linear, as repeating cycles rather than a progression.) Rucker claimed that though we feel that change is accelerating, there was actually more change between 1900 and 1950 than between 1950 and 2000. Of computers and such, he said, "AI is just a bunch of stupid head tricks." In the year 3000, he said, we'll still be people.
Asaro felt the notion of the Singularity was flawed because things will eventually slow down because of societal and cultural forces. Carver added that Charles Stross once said, "One of the things most wrong about science fiction now is that the idea of the Singularity makes people think they can't write about the near future."
Carver felt that this notion of the transformation of humanity was a little optimistic. "Half the software will be written by Microsoft," he said, "it's gonna crash, and we'll never achieve the Singularity." Hecht said, "The termination of the [idea of] the Singularity comes when the bubble pops" and the telecomm bubble that so fueled it has already popped. "Is the economic system capable of it?"
Easton disagreed with Asaro, saying, "I'm reluctant to draw limits on just what we can handle." Asaro responded, "I don't think human beings would settle for being second-class citizens."
Cramer said that in addition, "The Singularity assumes there is such a thing are general intelligence, and [that] we know what it is."
Asaro said that we have no problem adding pacemakers and such, observing, "We always want to make ourselves better." Cramer responded that the Singularity seems to assume a uniformity and universality of improvement. She warned, "But if we make our left foot work a thousand times faster without changing our right foot...." Hecht said that we also needed to factor genetic modification into this whole concept.
Carver interrupted, saying, "If I might be heretical for a moment and address the actual question ...," that is, whether the Singularity is today's "atomic power" trope. Easton thought that atomic power might be making a come-back, noting, "Environmentalists are starting to realize that atomic power is more benign than fossil fuels."
Hecht thought that a lot of tropes are impractical in the realities of the business world, because complexity requires both the resources of large corporations *and* the nimbleness of small corporations. (Indeed, the whole AT&T/Lucent/Avaya corporate history of late seems to exemplify this paradox all too well.)
Speaking about real-world realities, Rucker said that someone was recently telling him about "open source genomics", to which Rucker replied, "That doesn't sound like a good idea."
Cramer said, "I don't believe in the Spike or the Singularity in their true form, but I do believe in catastrophic resonances." Rucker thought that rather than the Singularity, we might have the "Long Boom." Hecht pointed out, "We tried that," and Cramer added, "I made a lot of money in the stock market for four months."
Asaro said that currently we are less fragmented than ever before because we have the potential for global networking. But the fear is that we will lose control and be unable to slow it down. Hecht asked, "How were we ever in control?"
Carver said, "I want the sense of wonder but I [also] want some sense of understanding." (He was referring to technology, but it could probably apply to science fiction as well.) Rucker voiced a common notion of what we fear when he said, "I'm more scared of biotech than of computertech because I understand computertech."
Asaro thought we were looking at the Singularity as purely technological when it could be that it would be an evolutionary step where we would become something qualitatively different than we are today (just as we are different from cavemen, I assume). Easton suggested that we might become Gaia, though that was considered unlikely.
Someone in the audience said that what the panelists seemed to be talking about was not artificial intelligence, but artificial consciousness. Rucker said, well, one could define a happiness value, and then the computer could be programmed to maximize this. (This seems similar to Greg Egan's "Reasons to Be Cheerful".) Asaro asked the panelists, "How would you know if I were just simulating emotions?"
Cramer said that a qualitative difference between humans and computers is that humans have an "open, digressive way of learning," as opposed to the very directed learning modes of computers. Hecht felt that the major break-though in intelligence and how we perceive it was more likely to be in the other primates, for example, the notion that chimpanzees (and bonobos) belong in genus Homo with us. Easton wasn't sure this would happen, saying, "Many of us have horribly ingrained resistance to expanding our horizons."
Another difference between humans and computers, according to Asaro, is that humans take for granted physical presence and all that it entails, but that that is very difficult for computers to do.
An audience member said that yet another difference was in the fallibility of our memories, which has both positive and negative aspects. Carver said that both humans and computers are "more and more prone to idiosyncratic failures." And someone else felt that we had to address the possibility that our feeling of continuity is an illusion.
One of the things I noticed on various panels was that in spite of the supposedly higher level of discourse at Readercon, an amazing number of people don't know how to pronounce words such as "simulacrum" or "automata".
In addition, I've come to the realization that a lot of today's science fiction does not lack ideas so much as a clue.
Button seen at Readercon: "Gods don't kill people - people with gods kill people."
Ideas for future panels: Why Are the Scots Taking Over SF? (This will probably appear in some form at Intersection. I suspect a tradition of engineering has something to do with it.)
Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2003 by Evelyn C. Leeper
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