Strange Vistas


Book cover for Stories of your Life and Others

A lot of dystopian stories posit variations on a Mad Max world where marauders roam the wasteland. That’s a kind of change no one wants to see. I think those qualify as doom. What I mean by disruption is not the end of civilization, but the end of a particular way of life.

— Ted Chiang

You have got to squint to see Ted Chiang.

You could give me a random markdown file with a story, and I could tell if the writer was Peter Watts or Robert Heinlein or Vernor Vinge. As authors, they have distinct voices, styles, concerns that come through whether they are writing about the near-future or post-singularity, fantasy, or body horror. Most would take a few paragraphs – Iain M. Banks might take a chapter.

Not Chiang. The most impressive thing about Ted Chiang’s intricate collection of beautiful (and mostly) science fiction tales, Stories of Your Life and Others, is how muted Chiang himself is.

You can see the connecting tissue, mostly in the concerns, but Chiang is a writer who lets the characters and situations speak – you don’t hear him nearly as much.

It’s an eclectic collection of themes. Among them:

  • The Tower of Babylon, a scientific recounting of what it would be to attempt to pierce the heavens, see Yahweh;
  • 72 Letters, mixing magic with thermodynamics, using the Kabbalah as lexical genetics;
  • Hell is the absence of God, a smirking, chuckling story of speculative fiction (and the only one not science-bent) about what it would be like if Christian myth was literally, visibly real;
  • And of course Story of your Life, whose central conceit the movie Arrival has already spoiled, but which manages to convey its fascination with language and the shaping of reality.

They are filigreed little things, littered with minutia, much more solid than they first appear. Every story in this collection has a distinct voice – Chiang doesn’t have a single one. Nowhere is this more evident than on a “documentary transcript” about how we manipulate each other with beauty. Multiple talking heads bob in and out of the story, each one with their manner and concerns.

They all share a few traits, though. Mostly, the focus on getting back to science fiction roots, when the stories weren’t supposed to be about the gadget but about how the gadget changes us. It’s not just all business and sociology, though – Chiang manages to sneak in jokes about such varied things like histocompatibility genetics – but they are all about the social implications, how things changed because.

Plus, there is a brief afterword, with notes about where the stories came from. People always ask writers where do they get their ideas, but nobody wonders ever asks how for how long they had to work at getting them right. If the details on the stories themselves did not leave it clear, the afterword would cement the impression that Chiang takes a while to let things percolate and edit them so that they are just right. Or, more importantly, so that he is satisfied with them.

With this meticulous attention to detail, it is no surprise he has published only a handful of tales in the last 30 years. It was surprising, however, learning that even after Arrival he is still working as a technical writer. I shouldn't have, however, considering the respect for the craft his stories shows. While the rest of us expect the ideal gig and complain about how shitty our managers are, he just wants to produce something he is happy with, however long it takes. Even if it means holding up a day job.

#books #scifi #tedchiang #storyofyourlife #arrival

2010 flash crash

On May 6, 2010, something went amiss in the United States stock market. Starting at 2:42 pm, prices on equity markets began to drop rapidly. Individuals, trading firms, pension funds all reacted panicky, selling into the crash, attempting to cut their losses, and within minutes, over a trillion dollars of value had vanished. Twenty minutes later, the market had bounced back – not to the levels it was half an hour earlier, but to a point where investors could stop thinking about impending doom.

Those with steady hands were barely affected. Some made money. Most active participants lost enough that it sparked conspiracy theories, academic research, congressional hearings, and several federal investigations.

Almost five years later, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission pinned it all on one man. It wasn't an over-leveraged hedge fund manager or a politically connected player doing insider trading, but a random guy trading out of his parents' house in London's edges. They argued that Navinder Sarao, using a home computer and a residential internet connection, created a maelstrom of panicked decisions that engulfed both professional fund managers and high-tech trading firms capable of taking bites out of the market in nanoseconds.

The crash will get its chapter, but, despite its title, Liam Vaughn's Flash Crash does not follow the event itself but Sarao.

The dubbed him The Hound of Hounslow. The picture that emerges through Flash Crash is not what you'd expect from the monicker. Nav Sarao is not the Wolf of Wall Street, some white-shoed Gordon Gecko-worshipping bro-suit, or table-pounding speechifying Boiler Room refugee.

Who he is, and why it's worth having 240 pages around the story of a guy clicking on a screen in a bedroom, I'll let you find out for yourself.

I'll say this: Nav sees systems.

He's not an engineer but a trader, someone who has to go to a programmer to create extensions to his usual platform. His e-mails are part of the public record, so we get to see the features he requested. These are straightforward rules, blindingly simple. He is asking for the financial equivalent of “for every step someone else takes, walk one step back” or “if I want to buy 12 items, and someone sells me just 1, cancel the other 11”. He intends to use these trivial rules to outsmart algorithms that make decisions in billionths of a second over connections that transfer information at the speed of light. If you didn't know you were reading a book about someone accused of causing the financial world to have a near-death experience, you would shake your head at their seeming naiveté.

He doesn't even mean these rules to be his trading heuristics – these features are only there to remove some clicks for him, help him interact faster with the markets. Nav is still in control of all decisions. It's almost impossible to see how these rules would help – even if you know a bit about finance and algorithms. The only way these would work is if Nav knew what multiple competing participants, who employed large teams of mathematicians and programmers, were doing behind the scenes.

And seemingly, he did.

Figuring out how a person like that processes reality, the possibilities of being capable of distilling a tangled process from the manifold of its signifiers, and how that can turn against him, will be what keeps you turning the pages.

#books #nonfiction #finance

A spaceship looming over an alien structure

Peter Watts' Blindsight is one of the most pessimistic books I have read, and still I am fascinated by it. It's not just its conceptual density, where you can find more ideas in a chapter than you can find on entire other books. Or that setting, theme, and events are so intertwined you couldn't just pull one out and have the construction remain. Or that its topical range is so broad that it's the first novel I'm happy I read in a digital format, so I could easily look up concepts of biology and linguistics I wasn't familiar with.

What fascinates me about Blindsight is that it's a trojan horse of a book. Blindsight is neo-cyberpunk transhumanism disguised as a first contact novel.

It's not postcyberpunk. Postcyberpunk is characterized by an optimism, a willingness to find a middle ground between tech progress and how we handle it. It doesn't fear the mega-corps, expects that things will balance out.

That's not what Blindsight is. Blindsight is neo-cyberpunk as in neo-nazis.

Neither has any illusions about the original philosophy they are basing themselves on. They are aware of the nastiness. They embrace it, double-down on it, hone it. To them it's not a bug, it's a feature.

What else could you call a post-scarcity future where humanity lost? You have everything you could want, so the work that would have defined you has become obsolete. You have to mutilate and dehumanize yourself just to remain useful and relevant. You can't even fight the government anymore – they can make you believe you crave doing the things they want you to do. You end up becoming something other than a human. No, not “more”. It's not a power fantasy with cybernetic implants.

What you are is something else.

You are that other that the Luddites were so worried the bleeding edge would turn us into after we let it cut us up.

Yet you still have the personal disadvantages that characters in cyberpunk stories had. The unease with your new body. The social conflict from those that would rather things remain as they were. Overspecialization, knowing your specialty might soon become vestigial.

Meanwhile, most of the world has just traded a future of oppression by mega-corps for one of ennui, people reveling in their own irrelevance.

That's not even the book's point. That's just background scenery seen through the window as a few characters go on humanity's worst interplanetary road trip. Going to a place that will confirm the evolutionary cul-de-sac we've drunkenly walled ourselves into. To talk to something which will highlight that if at this point we want to get anywhere as a race, we better start grafting shit onto our brainstems.

Smart narrative choice, as it helps the characters retain some humanity. It stops them from turning into whining cybernetically-enhanced teenagers. They're not bitching about their lot in life – “woe is me, I can taste infrared”. They're showing you how they deal with it. Why they chose it.

Which doesn't stop the characters from being alien to each other. Watts doesn't need to come up with some new lingo for them to speak to make his future feel remote. These people are so strange, even humans back in their own time need Siri (the narrator) as a translator. Crew members all “subtitle” each other as they go to understand what the rest of the crew is talking about.

That they were expected to establish functional communication with the actual others they are sent to find is baffling, when they can barely talk amongst themselves.

And if it wasn't evident, it's also a transhumanist book. Not the “we'll live forever and be omnipotent by bringing nanotech to heel” masturbatory fiction we get so much of. It's transhumanism of the type we're likely to get: dirty, imperfect, full of ragged bits and things that don't quite fit together, but things we'll take anyway because maybe they'll make us more than what we were before. If nothing else, they'll make us different. When all around you humanity is collapsing into the uniform complacency of obsolescence, different is good.

(Image by Dan Ghiordanescu)

#scifi #peterwatts #books #blindsight #cyberpunk #transhumanism

Echopraxia book cover

The main problem with most trans-humanist fiction – see SOMA – is how little trans there is in it. Scratch the chrome a bit, and you find most supposedly beyond-human characters are just people whose voices have been put through a modulator to sound like an 80s digitizer.

Not so with Peter Watts. With him, even characters who are mostly human in appearance can be incomprehensible, never mind his aliens.

And still there's something in his writing that connects with me. Some thematic mental resonance, a neural backdoor through which he sneaks in.

Not always in a good way, mind you. I appreciate the world building and writing in Starfish, for example, and I can see where he's going, but he's making the trip damned unpleasant. It's like watching someone expertly and systematically break every bone in someone's body, giving the victim only enough time to stop screaming before moving on to the next one: you can appreciate the skill, but that doesn't make it enjoyable.

Or The Things, his Grendel to John Carpenter's movie, which narrates in first person the creature's perspective as it strives to survive and navigate the mess of relationships at the arctic base.

If writing is therapy, I don't want to know the issues he's dealing with.

The first one that I can say I straight up enjoyed – as opposed to using it to entertain one of the voices in my head as it watched the others squirm – was Blindsight. It's a first-contact story where a League of Extraordinarily Maladjusted Gentlemonsters are sent to the Kuiper belt to examine an alien signal. Strongly recommended for any hard science fiction fan: you won't find any light sabers or space magic here. His time is instead spent on neurology, linguistics, and the nature (and trade-offs) of consciousness. His characters can still barely pass for normal, mind you – the most human one has several voices in her head. Unlike in Starfish, Watts was now focused more on the themes at hand, instead of exploring his cast's fundamentally unpleasant nature and rapidly vanishing humanity.

From that point of view, the Blindsight follow-up Echopraxia feels sanitized. I wouldn't call it a crowd-pleaser but, at least in its narrator, readers might be able to find some remnant of normalcy that they can relate to.

It's not a direct sequel – the events from the first book are referenced, and propel some of what happens, but it won't be required reading. The story follows Daniel Brüks, stubbornly aging biologist, as he gets plucked from his Oregon desert retreat and shanghaied into a trip to the sun by a crew that's vintage Watts.

To say more would be spoilers.

It was a good read, and I was happy to get that Watts narrative scent from Blindsight lingering around again. He's still the man when it comes to hard science fiction topics. What he isn't as good at are the weak and confusing action sequences, a prose equivalent of the Bourne series' Blair-With-O-Vision fights, where the camera is so close to the flailing arms you have no idea who's punching who. Those could have used some serious editing – or being excised altogether – since there are key events that happen in the middle of the chaos, and might confuse readers.

One confused me, actually, and I was uncertain of why things had played exactly how they did. This drove me to do a quick search for Echopraxia, which lead to a IamA that Watts did on reddit around the time the book came out.

How Watts obliquely answers some questions cleared things up, but more importantly, provided a crystalline reminder of one of the problems with creative work: it's very easy to sink too much of your self-worth into your results.

There's an undercurrent of frustration on his replies coming from the book not doing better, just wandering through the mid-list, that is not hard to relate to. Watts has poured his heart and mind into making something out of nothing, into creating a baroque, layered trans-human Earth that would not have existed without his effort, and then it gets by and large ignored because more accessible books came out at about the same time.

It's not hard to see why that would make you want to throw your hands up in despair and sign whatever sell-out contract with a topical devil ends up giving you a wider audience. Craft be damned, you just want enough sales to not have to worry about how long the next one's going to take.

We're all together in this online soup, and as he says, it can be hard to draw the line between organism and environment. Now that you have direct access to your audience, you can no longer blame distribution or marketing or lack of reach and be satisfied it's not your fault. You are submerged in the same signal sea as everyone else, and you pick the bits you echo.

Imagine you are Peter Watts.

You can just swim out there, grab them by whatever lapels you can get a hand off, and ask them Why? Why isn't this doing better? I thought I did a good job. Fuck, a great one! Is there anyone out there that handled this theme better? Look at the reviews, for Christ's sake! What could I have done differently?

And then you realize it's not that the book isn't impeccable. Most of them don't give two fucks, and have not heard of you, and it doesn't matter if you had polished and perfected the confusing sequences, because they're too busy laughing at PewDiePie's antics and making his book of silly inspirational sayings a best-seller.

You'd despair of humanity if you had the snobbishness in you.

But if you cut deeper, bringing some of that clinical detachment with you, what you actually encounter is a deep sadness at the way your own brain is wired. You find easy to do things others find hard or impossible – just not massively profitable things. There are many out there who you know for a fact don't even care about their craft, merely bang out dreck or hang around a desk job, and they do better than you, because they can spot what people are willing to pay for. You rage at the mental proclivities that pushed you towards hard science fiction, when they could instead have made you want to spend the time jockeying for a chance to write the script for the next space-magic lightsaber movie.

What do you do?

Do you just stand there, all clenching fists and grinding teeth?

Or do you just collapse on the chair, shake your head, and hunker down for the next one?

#books #scifi #peterwatts #transhumanism