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Response, Part 2

by Charles Stross on January 27, 2009

3. Thank God it’s Friday … (Ken MacLeod)

What can I say? I think Ken nailed most of the easter-eggs in “Saturn’s Children”. (There’s a really tongue-in-cheek piece of meta-commentary implicit in the title—a book about what might appear at first sight to be a libertarian utopia, given that we have engineered the right kinds of libertarians to inhabit it—riffing off the title of an earlier book by a noted British libertarian/conservative ideologue; but at this point the tongue is so firmly embedded in the cheek that its owner is in danger of acquiring a fistula.)
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Response, Part 1

by Charles Stross on January 27, 2009

1. Stross on development economics (Krugman)

Civilizations are complicated.

That statement ought to be ploddingly obvious to the point of banality, but it’s astonishing how often it seems to elude pundits, politicians, and—yes—science fiction authors.

As Paul Krugman observes, we don’t really know why development economics started working better around 1980. I’d go further: I’m not sure 1980 wasn’t simply a coincidence. All we know for sure is that given access to a sufficiency of tools and ideas, sometimes a nation or group of nations (or a region within a nation—huge parts of China’s interior still remain locked in peasant farming poverty) figures out how to build institutions and infrastructure at a dizzying rate, only slowing when they near the then-prevailing state of the art. (Which itself is moving forward only slowly.)
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Charles Stross book event

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2009

A New Year, a new Crooked Timber book event. But instead of one book, we’re covering a dozen or so, all written by Charlie Stross, exploring different forms of the SF genre from postcyberpunk to alternate history and beyond. For this we need an all star cast, and, in addition to several CT regulars (Henry, both Johns and Maria), we have contributions from Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and Ken MacLeod. Between us, we’ve managed to cover nearly everything. Glaring exceptions include the Laundry series, which every fan of Len Deighton and HP Lovecraft should read, and Glasshouse. I’ve added an open thread at the end of the seminar, for those who want to discuss what we missed.

For those who haven’t read Stross, start off with Maria Farrell who shows why you should. As Maria says, “Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man”, and her essay shows some of this amazing range. With that to whet your appetite, it’s probably best to jump randomly to whatever sounds most interesting, but for those who prefer some order, I’ll give a summary of the seminar, mainly in chronological (reverse blog) order.

Starting off with a heavy hitter, we’ve got Paul Krugman writing on The Merchant Princes, considered as a thought experiment in development economics. Of course, as Paul points out, these books are first, and foremost, great fun. But, unlike others in the ‘between alternate timelines genre’ Stross focuses on the big question: how does an agrarian society respond to a sudden irruption of modern industrial technology?

Following this up, John Quiggin on a problem more directly relevant to most CT readers: how does a modern industrial society respond to a sudden irruption of electronically accelerated financial technology? Accelerando provides the best imagination of possible paths to a Singularity that I’ve read. Of course, as current events tell us, there are different kinds of singularity.

Next, another star of the SF movement’s Scottish fraction, Ken MacLeod, on Stross’ latest venture, Saturn’s Children, a piece of Heinleiniana set in a post-human future, where femmebots, rendered effectively redundant in the absence of human males, intrigue with robot gigolos. Brad DeLong riffs off Ken’s reference to Asimov’s Three Laws to discuss the constitutional status of robotic ex-slaves and that less concrete but more powerful form of artificial/fictive humanity, the corporation.

John Holbo writes, as expected, at Holbonian length, with no possibility of a summary. As a teaser, I’ll quote his second para “Someone should rewrite Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a Wodehouse novel, with the title Absolutely Jeeves! (Alternate, Kierkegaardian version: Beer and Trembling.)” Read on and all will be explained (sort of).

Coming back to a more classic mode of SF review, Henry Farrell writes on Halting State, which he argues is the best novel Stross has written. In comments, I favour Accelerando and invite all comers to lost their Fave Five. Still, as Maria says it’s hard to beat a novel that includes the line “Nobody ever imagined a bunch of Orcs would steal a database table…”. And as Henry’s post shows, there’s more to be learned about post-sovereignty and the erosion of political authority in Halting State than if you spent the same time reading pontificatory opinion pieces about the inevitable breakdown (or triumph) of the EU.

Finally, Charlie Stross replies, in two parts. To my mind, this is usually the best bit of a CT book event, when we get to understand some of the author’s motivations and look behind the finished product of a book, and Charlie doesn’t disappoint. I won’t try to summarise, but encourage readers to jump straight in.

Why you should read Charles Stross

by Maria on January 27, 2009

Science fiction is, more than anything, a literature of ideas. And Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man. How many writers truly grapple with what it is to be human, with or without post-human technology? Accelerando bravely risks alienating you from the characters by propelling them off into multiple iterations far removed from the original meat-space versions. It reminded me of the second half of Wuthering Heights, when the original cast of characters is dead or unrecognizable, and a set of translucent copies play out the same drama. Less satisfying emotionally, but it makes you grasp intuitively the big questions beneath; what is free will? Am I the same person I was before puberty, when I left home, or even this time last year?
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State of chassis

by Henry on January 27, 2009

Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Halting State for my money, is Charlie Stross’s best science fiction novel. Not his most fun novel – that award collectively goes to the slightly-borked-alternative-reality Merchant Princes series that Paul talks about. Nor his most wildly inventive novel (which is surely Accelerando). But it’s the novel where fun and speculation come together most successfully. It works both as an entertaining read and as a fascinating discussion of an encroaching low-level singularity. It’s one of the best pieces of sociological-political extrapolation that I’ve ever read.
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In honor of Manfred Mancx, Charles Stross’ venture altruist/seagull/submissive/catspaw/posthuman protagonist in Accelerando – who tries to patent six impossible things before breakfast, or something like that – here are a couple of possibilities to start things out. [click to continue…]

I Feel an Attack of Constitutional Law Coming on…

by Brad DeLong on January 27, 2009

Ken Macleod wrote:


Thank God that Charlie chose [Friday] as his late-Heinlein legacy text for Saturn’s Children…. Its eponymous heroine’s problem is that she’s human, but hardly anyone recognises her humanity – a situation with real-world resonance enough. She needs to find a place where she can be herself and belong. Stross’s heroine, Freya, has a more intractable anguish. She’s in love with humanity, and particularly fixated on the male of the species…. Unfortunately for her, Homo sapiens (along with almost all eukaryotic life) has been extinct for centuries. For a femmebot like Freya – a hard-wired sex machine so much a creature of male fantasy that her bare feet can grow high heels – this is deeply frustrating….

Humanity’s final and perhaps fatal achievment has been to create its own replacement, in the multifarious forms of robots… minds are modelled on the human brain, mangled by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, and driven by impulses they have inherited without understanding. The result is one of the most physically attractive and ethically revolting societies conceived in SF: a system-spanning, star-striving community most of whose inhabitants are slaves…. I could have done with more detail on the (well-sketched) outline of how the ruling class rules through corporate personhood and property rights, using and abusing what remains of humanity’s laws (as well as Asimov’s). There can’t be many SF books where there are fewer infodumps than the reader wants, and it’s a strong point of this one that it is….

Plot.… I felt an apologetic authorial nudge when the device Freya couriers from Mercury to Mars turns out to be hidden inside a black-painted statuette of a bird of prey…. When the main plot-engine does catch fire, though, we’re definitely along for the ride, and the ending is a slingshot that does the Heinlein (and Asimov) influence proud.

So, Mr Stross … your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to turn your rights-savvy cold eye on a story about a revolt in an anarcho-capitalist penal colony on the Moon…



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Thank God it’s Friday

by Ken MacLeod on January 27, 2009

… that Charlie chose as his late-Heinlein [1] legacy text [2] for Saturn’s Children – and not, say, Time Enough for Love. Friday, for all its flaws, is a good act to follow. Its eponymous heroine’s problem is that she’s human, but hardly anyone recognises her humanity – a situation with real-world resonance enough. She needs to find a place where she can be herself and belong.

Stross’s heroine, Freya, has a more intractable anguish. She’s in love with humanity, and particularly fixated on the male of the species, her One True Love. Unfortunately for her, Homo sapiens (along with almost all eukaryotic life) has been extinct for centuries. For a femmebot like Freya – a hard-wired sex machine so much a creature of male fantasy that her bare feet can grow high heels – this is deeply frustrating.

After the living, life goes on. Humanity’s final and perhaps fatal achievment has been to create its own replacement, in the multifarious forms of robots, who have gone loyally on to create their dead creators’ Golden Age SF dream of the Solar System. Their minds are modelled on the human brain, mangled by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, and driven by impulses they have inherited without understanding. The result is one of the most physically attractive and ethically revolting societies conceived in SF: a system-spanning, star-striving community most of whose inhabitants are slaves.

Given this set-up, it’s surprising how much fun there is to be had. Freya may pine for her One True Love, but she’ll take sex where she can get it – and in an environment where almost any object may be conscious and randy, this results in a great deal of consensual polymorphous perversity. She is screwed by a space shuttle (within which she is securely strapped). She is fucked by a hotel (which is called Paris, though I waited in vain for the matching hotel-name shoe to drop). There are more allusions to kink than you can shake a rod at, some of which (I suspect) whizzed right past my head. There’s a scene where the set-up of endless porn movies segues into the breathy language of romantic novels. There’s an even funnier scene where a femmebot meets a robot gigolo.

Intellectually, too, it’s fun. The long-running argument between Evolution and Intelligent Design provides something of a running gag. (The Darwinists have ancient texts from the Creators, the ID advocates have evidence: blueprints, specs, purchase orders … ) The nitty-gritty of the robot body is original and believable. I could have done with more detail on the (well-sketched) outline of how the ruling class rules through corporate personhood and property rights, using and abusing what remains of humanity’s laws (as well as Asimov’s). There can’t be many SF books where there are fewer infodumps than the reader wants, and it’s a strong point of this one that it is.

Plot … well, it wasn’t a strong point in Friday. It’s stronger here, and complex, but I felt an apologetic authorial nudge when the device Freya couriers from Mercury to Mars turns out to be hidden inside a black-painted statuette of a bird of prey … When the real issue at stake becomes clear, half the novel has passed in the rataplan of Freya’s bouncing around half the planets in the System. When the main plot-engine does catch fire, though, we’re definitely along for the ride, and the ending is a slingshot that does the Heinlein (and Asimov) influence proud.

So, Mr Stross … your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to turn your rights-savvy cold eye on a story about a revolt in an anarcho-capitalist penal colony on the Moon.

1. Charles Stross, months and months ago: ‘Everyone wants to write a Heinlein juvenile! But it’s late Heinlein that got on the best-seller lists! Yes, I know they’re fat! Inside every late-Heinlein there’s a good SF novel screaming to get out!’ Or words to that effect.

2. A term coined by Farah Mendlesohn, by analogy with ‘legacy code’ in programming.

Money makes singularity

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2009

Money makes singularities. The most obvious example is hyperinflation, where a gradual rise in prices gets built into expectations and institutions and accelerates, feeding on itself (and the capacity of the printing press to add zeroes) until prices are doubling daily and rising a million-fold within a month. It’s this kind of thing that led Richard Feynmann to suggest that we should talk of “economical” rather “astronomical” numbers. Eventually, hyperinflation collapses on itself, and trillions or octillions of currency units disappear or are replaced by something new, and hopefully more stable.

Singularities can go in both directions. Only in a monetary economy is it possible to generate a depression, in which goods go unsold because those who would trade them lack the money to do so. The downward spiral of a depression shares many of the viciously circular characteristics of a hyperinflation, but in reverse.
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Stross on development economics

by Paul Krugman on January 27, 2009

My mission, should I choose to accept it – and I have – is to talk about the Merchant Princes novels. For anyone who’s reading this without having read the full Stross collection, the MP novels concern a group of related individuals – the Clan – from an alternate universe, the Gruinmarkt, with a more or less medieval society, who have the ability to world-walk between that universe and our own. They use their base in their home world to make money in our world by smuggling drugs where the DEA can’t go, and are rich and powerful at home because of the high-tech goodies they can bring back from America. The protagonist, a thirtysomething tech journalist named Miriam Beckstein, has been raised in our world – but unknown to herself, she’s actually the child of a countess in the other world. Many complications ensue.

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Charles Stross open thread

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2009

This is where anyone who wants to discuss the Laundry series, Glasshouse or anything else that got missed out in the book event can have their say.