Are we living in a computer simulation?

img_20160913_161724This question has come in for a surprising amount of attention of late. For instance, take a look at this article from the Guardian. Or try this from the New Yorker.  Or  PBS, or the BBC, or Scientific American. It’s everywhere. Why so much attention to this question? Because Elon Musk believes it and therefore it is interesting to the world at large.

He is wrong. He is drawing attention to an incredibly important scientific issue. I fully endorse his enthusiasm for the topic, and I agree with him all the way about Mars. He has done wonders to raise awareness about electric vehicles, sustainability, and humanity’s role in the universe.  But on this topic, he is wrong. So wrong.

Why am I confident that I know? Because nobody on this entire planet knows as much about simulating the fundamentals of the universe using algorithms as me. And it hurts.

How can I justify such a ludicrous remark? After all, aren’t luminaries such as Richard Terrile, Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom all weighing in on this subject with incredibly weighty things to say? Do I know anything compared to them? Me, a lowly science fiction writer, part time software hack, and general-purpose babbler of random nonsense?

Yes. I know more. Horribly more.

By the end of this post, I aim to convince you of three things, firstly, that I am the global expert on simulated reality, secondly, that Elon Musk is wrong, and thirdly, that the money and attention associated with this subject should be properly invested not into navel gazing, but into warp drive research. Yes, warp drive. (As in Star Trek, as in faster than light. As in, that’s not real physics is it? I thought all that was impossible!)

But first, let me take a very small moment to scream. There, done it. Why am I screaming? Because this topic reflects on a subject that seized control of my mind and has been shaping my thoughts and actions for the last twenty years. And now that it finally has a public airing, it’s coming out all wrong.

Because there is not one question in here, but two.

It’s not whether we’re in a simulation, but 1) whether the universe is like a simulation. And 2) if it is like one, is anyone running it?

The answer to the first question is yes. And that’s why there’s attention in Silicon Valley right now.

Something has slowly been happening behind the scenes in the world of physics research. Confidence in string theory as the picture of reality is breaking down. The math holds up just fine, but it doggedly refuses to have anything to do with experimental results. Quietly, the options for supersymmetry, upon which string theory depends, are being ruled out by experiments at places like the LHC.

Nobody likes this, but there it is. String theory lives on as a handy theoretical framework for cosmologists, but not as something you’re supposed to take literally any more. It is dying a quiet, graceful death, while everyone in the field continues to deny that fact because their funding depends on it. What is left in the wake of that vision is confusion.

At the same time, folks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have noticed that it’s getting easier and easier to simulate aspects of our physical reality. Spookily easy, in fact. And they have both the vision and the tools to be able to estimate when the day will come when we won’t be able to tell the difference.

If it’s that easy to simulate reality, they say, then how the hell do we know it’s not already happening? What if there’s some exterior universe out there with better kit than ours who’s just doing it?

Good question. I’m so glad that you all are finally starting to think about it.

For me, this question kicked on hard in 1997. I found myself reading the Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose, in which he attempts to assert that human consciousness cannot be modeled on computers. He claimed that the processes that consciousness requires in physical reality, like quantum mechanics, weren’t computable. They were infinite. And so consciousness was too.

As an ex AI researcher, I found his position profoundly annoying. But as I read his book, I realized that he wasn’t just wrong. He was exactly wrong. Every supposedly infinite process he outlined was, in fact, something I could emulate on a machine. Furthermore, I could actually prove it.

And, like an idiot, I spent the next twenty years doing that. Not in a university department, though my crazy adventure has taken me to national research labs in Italy and the Institute for Advanced Study, but on my own time. As a hobby. TWENTY YEARS! What in god’s name was wrong with me? I have no idea.

Did I attempt to recreate reality? No. Was I looking for a unified theory of everything? Definitely not! That wasn’t the point. The point was to look at every core physical symmetry in turn, and show that it could be made computable.

Quantum mechanics and the superposition of states? Done it. Can run it on my Mac. I can watch the double slit experiment in real time.

Special relativity? Covered. Piece of cake. Want to check out my Youtube videos?

General relativity? Done. Spatial distortion, temporal distortion, you name it. I have it sorted.

The group structure of particle families? Yep. Nailed that one.

The Big Bang, and a background independent model of spacetime? Absolutely. Took a while, but was very satisfying to figure out.

Bell’s Inequality? Solved. Admittedly, didn’t finish the code because I have a kid, but I know how to reproduce it.

Now, let’s be clear about what I achieved here. Did I solve the mysteries of the universe? No. Are the tools I developed useful to physicists? I doubt it. Do I expect my theoretical solutions to reflect actual reality? Not for a minute. Was this a work of staggering genius? Hell no. It was probably a phenomenal waste of time.

So why do I even imagine that I achieved all this? How can I be so confident? Because I spent a ridiculous amount of time hanging out with physicists, in significant part by being married to one. Which is why I ended up as a complex systems theorist at Princeton before I started writing full time. Since becoming infected with this mental disease, I have chased down the implications at UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Cambridge, and JPL, talking it over with anyone patient and tolerant enough to answer my stupid questions.

I mimicked all these symmetries of nature, not with math, but with code. And I’m confident that I got it working, because I duplicated the necessary experiments in simulations, and then collected the data.

My code is slow. It’s not elegant. It’s weird looking. I don’t expect anyone else to like it. But by Crikey, it has enabled me to do some fascinating things. Most of the stuff I’ve written has never made it into science papers because it’s a hobby and I have a life to lead, but it’s still there, calling to me, silently shrieking.

So yes, I’m all the expert in this one trivial, psychotic corner of science. On my tiny palm-tree island, I reign supreme, coconut in hand.

“But what has this to do with Elon Musk?” I hear you ask. “If you’ve actually proved that the universe can be simulated, doesn’t that speak in favor of the simulation hypothesis?”

No. No. And a thousand times no.

What I learned on my adventure is that Nature is computable. But what I also learned was that the class of algorithms you want to do that job are not nice, or cheap, or much like human software. They involve networks. Lots and lots of networks. And crazy iterative functions. And sets. So many sets! If there is someone simulating the universe, they are even crazier than I am.

An easy way to think about it is this: we live in a universe that appears to follow physical laws. So why shouldn’t it be simulated? Fine, but then you’re proposing a universe outside it that runs on physical laws too. Because if there weren’t consistent physical laws, they wouldn’t be able to make those simulations.

So then that universe is also something you can simulate. So maybe there’s someone sitting outside that.  And so on. Forever. Assert that the universe is being simulated once, and you have to allow for a possible infinite number of levels.

Sure, you say. Why not? But here’s the thing. Every time you bump up a level of simulation, you need a faster, bigger, smarter universe in which computation is that bit easier. Yet, conversely, in each universe, you need your engineers to tinker with the code less.

Because that’s what simulation engineers do. They screw around with their code! They restart it with different parameters. They poke their fingers in. Every day that you aren’t bombarded with styrofoam elephants or teleported to a planet made of cheese is another day that a potentially infinite number of software engineers have  decided not to play with the awesome thing that they built. Do I buy that? Not for a frickin’ instant. I have played God successfully, and the longest I can leave something alone is about eight hours.

But there’s another, deeper reason to be skeptical here. And that’s because exactly the same minimalist logic that makes discrete models of the universe scientifically relevant points away from the simulation hypothesis.

Discrete, algorithmic models of the universe kick ass because they produce results that align with experimental reality with the least amount of complexity.  No infinities. No paradoxes. No dangling super-particle partners. No Godel universes. No mess. To then propose another layer of universe on top of that achieves exactly the opposite result. It adds complexity. Without evidence! Which if you’re doing real science, is generally frowned upon.

“But if the universe is like computer code,” you may ask, “who’s running it?”

NOBODY! DO YOU HEAR ME? NO ONE! Does the idea of a smooth, fluid universe require that it be run on a machine made of GIANT VALVES? Does the idea of universal equations imply a school of blind monks in hyperspace tracing out the symbols on a piece of magic felt while they keen out the song of infinity in their reedy voices? No. The universe is just there.

Discrete models of the universe are great because you can model all of Nature as a mathematical series rather like the Fibonacci numbers. If math exists, so does physics. Hardware is not required.

But there’s an added bonus to discrete physics. Once you’ve built a working simulation of a physical symmetry, you can play with it. You can tinker, just like the gods of hyperspace don’t. You can make those models do things that Nature never intended. You can, if you like, warp space.

Not assuming a flat Lorentzian manifold for spacetime and putting in the effort to build something that looks like it out of pointers instead opens the doors to all kinds of possible new physics. Suddenly, Nature becomes something you might be able to hack.

While your picture of reality is obscured by a set of differential equations that require perfectly serene behavior at all scales, you can’t see that. Which is why most classically trained physicists pooh-pooh the idea. However, not only are discrete models of the universe infinitely more likely to be correct, they also leave the door to awesomeness wide open.

Why don’t more people care? Why haven’t people looked into this more deeply? Your guess is as good as mine. It makes me want to tear my hair out. Because it’s a lot of work, I guess. Classical physical models take you further faster, even though they may hide all the cool stuff. And there’s no funding for discrete approaches because they’re risky. Who knows what’s the right implementation model to look for?

img_20160913_161412So here we go, Elon Musk. Here’s my plea. If we’re ready to take the time and the effort to contemplate the simulation hypothesis, let’s go one better. Let’s give humanity the stars instead. Yes, Elon, please get people interested. But don’t try breaking out of the Matrix, bend it to your will instead like Neo. Do physics-kung-fu, and I will do everything in my power to help you.

(My first novel Roboteer has its US debut this month on October 18th. If you know someone of the American persuasion who loves intelligent, action-packed SF, let them know!) 

Rock Paper Madness

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog. My dad has been sick and I’ve been working on book edits. Between those two things, my posting just fell off the map. But now I feel motivated to share with you the crazy way I have been spending my time over last few days while I should have been writing novels. I’ve been playing Rock Paper Scissors, and I’m addicted.

I should say that it’s not normal Rock Paper Scissors. The rules are a little different. And I’m not running around the streets of Santa Cruz looking for people to duel with. Rather, it’s computer-based, and I’m watching a machine play itself. Does that make this habit worse? Undoubtedly. But there are reasons why I’ve become so fascinated by this game. Strange, remarkable reasons.

It started innocently enough a few years ago when I first came across the variant version of the game called Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock, which was apparently popularized by sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Instead of three possible actions, it has five. I also knew about a computer-based version of Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) invented years ago in which squares in a grid played their neighbors and updated their action if they were beaten. I thought it would be fun to see what happened if you played the grid-based game with the two extra states.

First, here’s what happens if you play RPS on a grid. Red is rock. Green is paper. Blue is scissors.

This is interesting in its own right, IMO. Notice how the game results in spiral propagation waves. In certain places where all three actions occur close to each other, you get a little knot of swirly magic. Trippy!

Now here’s what I came up with for Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock (RPSLS).

This is even more interesting. You still get the swirls like before, only now they’re different colors. They map out little tiles of activity that don’t invade each other. That’s cool enough on its own, until you realize that spirals of all five colors are eating the little three-color spirals until nothing is left. Furthermore, when the center of a spiral is devoured, it becomes a knot of unusual twistedness in the advancing five-state wave. In effect, you see a phase change in the system, where five-cycles become dominant, and threes are extinct.

The attentive reader may at this point be wondering how you define what action for a cell to pick after it has been beaten by neighbors of two different types. The answer is that you assert that each action is more effectively dominated by one of the two winning actions and you go with that.

So far, so psychedelic. Fun, but what’s to learn? I did this much years ago and put the whole thing down. I only picked the project back up again when I started to wonder what would happen in a game with an arbitrarily large number of actions. Lets say one hundred and three. So this would be more like Rock Paper Scissors, Lizard, Spock Godzilla, Lawn Chair, Absinthe, Creosote, Nasal Polyp… (insert reams of insanity here)… Hamster, Profiterole, Eggplant, Chin. Let’s take a look.

Nice. More diverse little three-cycles. Different kinds of five-cycles. At first sight, it doesn’t look much different from RPSLS. What have we gained?

Heh. What we have gained, my friend, is the door to a digital acid-trip that keeps on giving. Let’s look at what happens if we take the same simulation as above and add just the teensiest amount of mutation, so that the result of a cell update can occasionally be a random value.

Warning, if you suffer from epilepsy a lot, this next video may be not be good for you.

The simulation starts normally enough, but then it starts to get weird and strobey, and the patterns start to get knotted and ugly and strange. It kind of looks like there’s another kind of wave happening in there, but it’s hard to make out because the colors are jumping around all over the place. Could it be that we’re looking at seven-state waves eating the five-state waves? Two phase changes in the same system?

Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder, because I built a little software filter to enable us to find out. It tracks the number of colors cycling in each pixel and tints the cell accordingly. It even calculates the average number of colors cycling in the pixels and shows you the value.

Plus, it’s now safe to up the frame rate without blowing our minds apart (sort of).

Ugly? Beautiful? Just plain wrong? In any case, what this shows is that several exciting things are happening. First, there are multiple phase changes, like we suspected. Green tinted three-cycles are being munched on by cyan-tinted fives, which in turn are devoured by purple-tinted seven-beasts. But on top of that, we’re seeing that mutations within a given spiral beastie can give rise to streaks and discolorations. The features of age. It’s all looking more biological by the minute.

“So what?” you may say. “It’s making my eyes hurt and it looks like you force-fed oil-paints to a bucket full of fungus and goaded it into creating the world’s most hideous petri-dish performance art.”

You’d be right. But on the other hand, it’s a little bit like creating life out of nothing but a handful of bits. These patterns have structure (they’re dependent on their central spirals). They engage in competition. They produce offspring slightly different from themselves. And the level of structure that they seem able to take on seems limited only by the mutation rate you dare to set, and the neighbor radius you use for each grid cell. As a demonstration, here’s what happens if we ramp the mutation rate just a little more.

Eleven-action spiral-monsters are taking over the board by the end. Madness. I can’t think of another type of simulation where you can have as many successive phase changes as you like, or see self-organizing patterns of such complexity that you have to build filters just to watch them grow.

Is it useful? Hell no. Is it a meaningful analog of biological systems that we could use to better understand nature? Probably not. Is it attractive? That depends on how much you like having your eyes pummeled by garish hypnotic waves. But for me, discovering this kind of magic in a simple game is ridiculously engrossing. Here’s what happens when you hide the actual spirals altogether and just look at the cycle-sizes in a 5x time-lapse speed-up of the simulation.

By the end, we have twenty-three action patterns appearing, and the system still hasn’t stabilized.

It does, by the way, in case you were wondering. There’s always some cycle-size that the system maxes out at for a given mutation rate and neighbor radius. But who cares about that? Look at the furry, impressionist chaos that’s happening here! I can’t even fathom half the crazy crap I’m seeing. It’s like a meltdown in a fireworks factory as rendered by Claude Monet on speed. And there is more to see. So much wrongly more.

In any case, you get the idea. A rabbit hole of impressive proportions for the simulation-minded, I’d say. I will never think of little old RPS the same way again. And now my eyes need a rest.

On Alien Invasion

IMG_20160522_192301Everyone loves a good alien invasion story, right? We’ve been busting them out since H. G. Wells first got his war on. What kind of tale better brings out existential panic at our own insignificance or our smugly iron-clad belief in the awesomeness of Homo Sapiens. So why, when I look at some of the alien invasion stories hitting print and film do I feel this flat, bored feeling?

I think it’s because this sub-genre seems to have gone into reverse. Wells started us off well, with big, goopy bad-guys with unstoppable machines and zero knowledge of microbiology (about right for the late Victorians). By the 1950s and 1960s, we’d upgraded to morally sophisticated stories about humanity’s own limitations. And from there, up to and including the early 2000s, the stories kept evolving, getting steadily more technically sophisticated even while our hope for the future thinned out. To my mind, the wave finally broke around 2006 after Peter Watt’s excellent book Blindsight showed up.

Since then, alien invasion stories have settled into a trope-rut. More and more, they optimize toward idiots running around with machine-guns yelling at giant insects (something Heinlein covered adequately a while back). Humans are plucky underdogs, battling bravely against impossible odds. Aliens are big and sticky with teeth and bewildering gaps in their technology relating to water/software/food supply, etc.

‘Oh no, Coordinator Xzzyllchh! The humans have discovered our crippling inability to use doors!’

‘All is lost! Prepare for messy self-destruction!’

Yawn. Is that really the best we can do? The question is, why the retreat from awesomeness in the first place? I think there are several reasons.

1: Cultural lethargy

Bug-fight stories are fun, so why not write even more of them it that’s what people want? I mean, who cares, right? We all cheer ‘whatevs!’ and dive back into our phones.

2: Science ruining everything

The more we learn about the universe, the clearer it is that any aliens that are out there are awfully far away. And if they had the chops to come visit us, chances are they’d have much better things to do than stomping around on our planet in badly-designed exosuits. Like, for instance, vaporizing us from the distance of Jupiter, which wouldn’t be that hard once you’ve crossed the interstellar void. Or just flying a bunch of microscopic drones through our atmosphere and copying anything valuable we had with 3D printers at a safe remove. So thanks, science—another nice storyline buggered.

3: Finding new ideas

A lot of the obvious good ideas around alien invasion have been used, and used again. Bug-fights at least have staying power. Coming up with something that nobody has done before seems like a lot of work. And kind of pointless given that the audience would be happy with another bug-story. (After they’ve finished their current level on Jewel Birds Crush Run Extreme, that is.)

So in the name of saving this excellent and venerable literary tradition, I offer to the world three ideas for alien invasion story ideas that I just made up and which I don’t think have been done. Just to prove that the field is wide-open, and that there’s tons more room for play.

1: Space-Roach Attack!

Hyper-intelligent aliens swing by for a quick look at the human race before buggering off to something more interesting. While they’re visiting, they happen to accidentally vent their waste-chutes, disgorging unwanted pests from their hold. The pests, as it turns out, are eight-foot bugs in shitty exosuits with laser rifles. The human race had to conduct its own extraterrestrial pest control exercise. With the Marine Corps, of course. And shouting. They fortunately discover that the bugs cannot bear the sight of soap.

2: Attack on Bees!

Aliens that look like tiny Marines invade Earth through mini-wormholes, bent on destroying a dangerous species before it evolves to become dangerous enough to invade them. That deadly species: bees! The human race must rally to protect the bugs before our world is stripped of all its pollinators and our food supply vanishes. The aliens, though, realize that their machine mind made a mistake in assessing the risk, because the human race was already finishing the bees off anyway.

3: Plucky Resistance Therapy!

IMG_5634In a desperate attempt to conserve a fragile and interesting, if ugly, species before it renders itself extinct, aliens mount an attempt to rescue us. They intervene by mounting an apparent invasion, reducing the human race to plucky bands of resistance fighters, as it seems to be the only way to get us to functionally cooperate. Alien care-workers inhabit carefully engineered dummy-bodies, designed to neatly come apart when assaulted by humanity’s laughable weapons. Under their gentle guidance, humanity manages to finally get its act together and starts attending a formal workshop program for the barely sentient.

Do you think I’d doing the sub-genre a gross disservice? If so, good. I invite you to let me know in the comments.

Nerds, Geeks, and Dorks

IMG_20160520_102642Let’s get this cleaned up. There are three terms, they mean different things, but people use them in a muddy, mixed up fashion, with varying degrees of value judgement. I’m here to set the record straight.

Geek: a person who enjoys details. Whether it be the history of a comic book universe, or the more complicated elements of role-playing, or the decks of the Star Ship Enterprise, or train timetables, or bird species.

Nerd: a person who gets off on ideas, and the manipulation thereof. This might be science, or music, the law, or math, anything else where abstractions can have appeal in their own right.

Dork: a person who has a limited grasp of, or disinterest in  social cues. This might be someone who says obtuse things at parties, or the guy who shouts into his cell phone, or the guy in the corner picking his nose, or Donald Trump.

You can belong to any combination of these groups, or none at all. I, for instance, am a nerd, but not a geek. Many of my friends are geeks. I don’t understand them but I love them anyway.

To my mind, dork is the only one with negative connotations, and there are at least as many dorks who are neither geeks or nerds than those who are.

Do I see geek and nerd as badges of pride, after a fashion? Of course. Because they both reflect a notion of competence. Both geeks and nerds self-reward for different kinds of mental self-improvement. But then again, I would say that, because I’m a nerd.

 

Boycott Reboots

140-4050_IMGLook at this. They’re making three Tetris movies. Not one, but three. You couldn’t ask for a more crystalline example of how deeply we, as a society, have become embedded in the habit of re-eating and excreting our own cultural products.  But who cares about the movies, or Tetris? What fascinates me is the press release.

Look at this amazing quote:

Today there are so many great sources on which to build a movie blockbuster and video gaming is certainly an amazing category with its huge international following…

Which I think is hugely informative. Also:

Tetris, one of the most recognized video game franchises of all time, is a perfect first project for this strategy

And

…will bring one of the most beloved, cross-generational gaming brands in the world to the big screen…

The people making this film have followed a simple, reliable logic.

  1. You pick something that people know about and already like. And have nostalgia about.
  2. That gives you a stable brand platform and knee-jerk curiosity from your potential audience.
  3. Then you push your project hard, capitalizing on the pre-existing weight of the brand to lever it into the public consciousness.
  4. This gives you a critical mass of audience attention that will push your project into profitability even if you cut corners on the quality of the finished product. Say in terms of the writing, or actors.

This is what we have come to. This is what making a big movie now means.

Why do companies do this? Because they can. Because we, as the entertainment buying public accept it. And because in our media-saturated world, we’re unlikely to pay attention to anything that doesn’t trick its way into our brains. That’s because companies are already using as many tricks as they can. Our frontal lobes have been gamed six ways from Sunday.

So we have two possible futures. Twenty years from now you can  find yourself watching Speak and Spell Four, the Struggle Continues, reading book nine of the Wizard School for Sexy Vampires with Steam-Powered Swords series and getting involved in fan-fights over which was better, the original Mork and Mindy or the gritty, pychodrama reboot. Or, we can say no to the endless parade of familiar slop, whether in the form of fiction, movies, TV, or anything else, and choose things we haven’t seen before. We take a risk. Like we used to do every time we went to the damned video rental store. Because where we are now is not a fixed point. Culture is always in motion. And if we succumb to the bland, the bland gets worse.

How do we resist? By asking simple questions before we watch a movie or show or read a book. How am I likely to get better from engaging with this? How does it make me smarter/more interesting/stronger? Is this product just offering me mind-treacle, or something more? How will I feel about it afterwards? Will I even remember it? In what way is it new?

‘But I just need to relax,’ I hear you say. ‘My job sucks.’

IMG_3376 (1)I know that feeling. I really do. But so long as we soak away our exhaustion and discomfort into the nearest digital sponge, our jobs will continue to suck. That’s the point. That’s what it’s mind-treacle is for, and it’s addictive. It’s a carcinogen for the imagination, and therefore for hope. We get stuck on it at our peril, because the corporations will always feed us more.

Untethered

IMG_20160516_094418Two years ago, before I started writing full-time, I was on top of Android and iOS development. I knew both platforms solidly. I was getting my hands around Python development, and was looking at picking up Go. I was on top of trends and algorithms in machine learning, and was an agent-based simulation design ninja. Today, after having written a couple of novels and invested a ton of time in parenting, I confess I feel a little out of touch. This kind of scares me.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a hot new thing in coding. A lot of the crazy buzz around JS seems to have slacked off. There are new languages, but not obviously new platforms. Everyone has a phone. Nobody cares about tablets. The internet of things turns out to be kind of limp. The one topic that seems to be all over the tech press is ‘chatbot’, not exactly a red-hot engineering opportunity, so far as I can see.

A little while ago, with my futurist hat on, I speculated to my wife that the next surge in open positions in tech after ‘data scientists’ was going to be ‘machine educators’. Could it be that we’re there already? Wired seems to think so, and at the cost of the role of the programmer. And if recent news accounts are anything to go by, providing input to train AI algorithms may not be that fun. So I’m left with the odd sense that while I’ve been away, maybe professional coding has started to slowly die off.

Now, maybe I’m just too far away from the buzz right now to know where it is. Maybe there’s a huge market for watch apps that I’m just not seeing, or everyone is writing super-cool Node-plugins for plugging into other plugins. Or something. But without that knowledge, I’m left with this curious floating feeling.

106-0671_IMGAt some point soon, I’m going to have to augment my non-existent writer-income with actual money so that my wife can ease up on her startup frenzy. Is there going to be a software world to come back to? Or has the world moved ironically onward while I was busy writing about the future?

Magical Not-London

139-3925_IMGIn my current, somewhat unexpected role of self-appointed SF/F curmudgeon, today I thought I’d get up in the face of the fantasy genre. My tiny beef today? London. Particularly the magical versions of it.

Now, a lot of good writing has been done in and around magical versions of London. I respect that work. Really. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that the topic has been excellently, exhaustively covered. Except, I notice, magical London books still keep happening. I have to ask why.

People want to set fantasy books in a novel urban setting in Britain? Fine. I’m down with that. But for crying out loud, it’s an island with seven-thousand-odd years of civilized history (give or take a long barrow or two), peppered with weird and wonderful cities and towns. Why do we keep picking London?

‘Because London is great!’ I hear you say. ‘It’s so atmospheric!’ But is it? Really? Or do we keep writing about London because a lot of people from the US have been there, so it creates a self-sustaining market for books? Or perhaps because a lot of people live there and wish it was magic?  Or because without constant willful belief in the specialness of London, it might become a little claustrophobic and depressing?

To my mind, London is the least magical place in Britain. Why? Because it’s full of people. It bustles. It’s full of human energy. It’s cosmopolitan. It has an underground-informed geometry familiar to almost everyone on the planet. London crackles and coughs and jabs at you. And that, to my mind, makes it the opposite of magic. Yes, it has history, but so does everywhere in Britain. Yes, it has crunchy little streets, but far fewer than a lot of places. Mostly, it has a traffic problem, noise, expensive restaurants, modern transport, and excellent phone reception.

‘Where should people be writing about then?” I hear you say. I’m so glad you asked. Here is a list of four places I’d love to see get a thorough magical treatment. And if they’ve been covered, please let me know in the comments, because these would be books I’d love to read.

Milton Keynes

This is one of the most obviously magical places in Britain, and everyone takes it for granted. Why do I say this? Because I’ve driven through it dozens of times in my adult life, and still manage to get lost. Because it feels quiet and strange. There’s no center, yet most people who move there say they like it, for reasons that always seem oddly bland to outsiders. Either that or people despise the place and are desperate to escape.

The entire town is laid out in a maze of roundabouts. There are pockets of inexplicable countryside seemingly inside it. It has history and modernity and surreal calmness and menace all locked up within. And yet nobody seems to comment on that fact. Could you ask for a town where it was more obvious that magic was at work? Except, people don’t ask. Because magic is at work.

Let’s face it, when I said Milton Keynes, chances are your first response was ‘What? That dump isn’t magic!’ But that’s what magic is like. Magic lurks. It shapes your attention. It slurps around at the corners of your eyes, hiding in unexpected places. What it doesn’t do is stand on street-corners yelling at you in a cockney accent.

 Weston Super Mare

This town has given me the creeps for years, and I love that. It was the hope of the Tropicana center, where I went as a child and never felt comfortable. It’s always windswept and desolate while desperately trying to charm you into staying awhile.

There is a reason why Banksy chose this place to put his Dismaland installation. He was riffing off the miserable, optimistic, doomed, keen-to-please vibe of this place. Ironically, by making use of it, he made Weston fifteen percent less magical. But still, you can’t go there without feeling that bizarre tug of two opposing voices. One cries ‘please stay! Don’t go!’, the other screams ‘LEAVE!’

And that’s another point. Magical places say things. You can’t even hear what London is saying over the sound of everyone chattering into their cellphones.

Norwich

Norwich isn’t on the way to anywhere—a fact that local accounts of Norwich will openly admit, though nobody acknowledges how odd that is. Furthermore, it’s one of the few big towns in Britain that really has exactly no motorway connection. It’s been a while since I was there, so maybe they’ve widened the roads, but in my experience, getting into and out of Norwich was always a weirdly difficult chore. And when you get there, it’s unexpected. It’s pleasant and charming and one-eyed and brooding all at the same time. There are shops that you assumed no longer existed. There are funny little cobbled streets at peculiar angles. There’s a galloping drug and prostitution problem (or there was at one point, anyway). It has grit, modernity, history, and quaintness all crammed into the same box the wrong way up.

I did some improv shows in Norwich some years back and was astonished at how different the audiences were to everywhere else I’d performed. Their sense of humor had a dark, bawdy edge, as if something from the Middle Ages had lurked around undetected in the town’s psyche. If you wanted to set a story in a town with a curious vibe, an amazing past, and little alleyways hosting impossible shops, it strikes me that Norwich is where you’d put it.

Note the pattern here? Norwich feels off. By definition, London can’t feel off. It feels like the arterial blood of the world’s industry is roaring through it at a hundred miles per hour—which makes it about as magical as a small cafe latte at Costa Coffee.

Dungeness

This place isn’t a town. So maybe it shouldn’t be on my list. But it is most definitely magic, to the extent that some people have noticed this and yet it hasn’t reduced the location’s power.  The film director Derek Jarman, for instance, had a home here. (a secret wizard if ever there was one.) From time to time, people come here and shoot a music video or some such thing. But somehow, it doesn’t make the place any less vacant or uneasy.

Maybe it’s the giant nuclear power stations, hunched on the coast like impossible fortresses. Maybe it’s the endless swathe of shingle or the heavy skies. Maybe it’s the fact that everything that is put there seems to be immediately ruined and ancient. In any case, this place is oozing with fey power. It’s carried on every chill sea breeze, sliding around you, lingering on your skin, climbing inside your lungs. In some other realm one quarter out of phase with our own, there is quite obviously something monstrous and potent waiting here. So far, no author that I’m aware of has explained what it is.

In any case, you take my point. Magic is a whispery, interstitial thing. It lives in smashed greenhouses and failing department stores. What it doesn’t do is jabber and hoot in plain sight, locking up people’s attention. That’s what humans do.

IMG_3826But then again, maybe that’s the magic at work. Maybe it’s slowly pushing all the humans in the land into London, so that the rest of Britain can get back to the business of being fey. I await and invite your opinions.

Genres we don’t have yet

103-0316_IMGMy random thought today, as I scan the web for SF-related news is that the current novel scene seems rather locked into a specific set of genre tropes. This is not to say that unusual work isn’t out there, but it seems buried under the snowdrifts of medieval fantasy, vampire stories, media tie-ins, and politically unlikely dystopian futures.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Do we imagine for a moment that the space of all story-types has been mined out? Is it hard to conceive of new or interesting settings for great tales? Do we honestly believe that readers have lost their appetite for freshness or imagination? I certainly don’t. And to make the point, here are five new genres that I’d love to see happen.

1: Terraforming frontier romance, with sexy cyborgs

This is what you get if you cross a wild west bodice-ripper with The Martian, and throw in a little Ghost In The Shell for good measure. Can’t you picture it?

“We can never be together Brad, we’re simply incompatible!”

“Why should we let that stop us? I have a fiber-optic cable and a pipe wrench right here. And at least six hours of air. Open your socket port, my love, and at least let me try!

I think it would be awesome. I might even pick up a romance book if they were like this—full of lust and technical problem solving and sharing air mouth to mouth. The number of hardware/software wordplay opportunities alone would make these books worth looking at. Not to mention the riveting depictions of a rugged, reckless frontier life that might actually happen.

2: Teenage Utopia

As in the current fad for dystopias, but where the trouble comes not from President Asshole and his/her visor-wearing bullies, in another cookie-cutter bombed-out America, but something altogether more optimistic and awesome. Like this perhaps:

Against all odds, Jenna Reese is plucked from her family and forced to learn new skills to survive. Her society has identified her as an Excelsior, a person with the necessary genetic makeup to allow her to participate in a risky interstellar mission. The functional and democratic society she belongs to is under threat from the cynical Red Next, a competitor society who believe that good government is impossible and shouldn’t even be tried. Only Jenna’s mission to build a wormhole can save her people. Jenna must learn to collaborate with her new crew-mates against impossible odds to take the world back from the brink before bleak-minded idiocy conquers all.

It’s sort of like The Hunger Games meets Interstellar. What’s not to like?

3: Feudal Incompetence Adventure

The feudal societies frequently depicted in fantasy books are full of cunning kings, sly assassins, clever wizards, and courageous heroes. This, despite the fact that the period of history the genre draws from is one that was seemingly dominated by closed-minded thinking, ignorance, and grandiose ill-conceived international wars. Not to mention poverty and disease, etc.

Maybe this has been done already, and I’m unaware, but where are the fantasy books where the wars are pointless, the heroes are idiots, palace coups screw up constantly, and the next magical plague is just one bad spell away? Sort of like a magical version of the Flashman books. I’d read them.

4: Middle-Earth Trek

Star Wars is basically just feudal fantasy in an SF setting. That’s been super-popular, so why hasn’t anyone tried blending in the opposite direction? How about optimistic tales of exploration set in a magical past? Sort of like Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but for grown-ups, with gritty awesomeness. Or Jason and the Argonauts for a modern audience?

Bonus points to any author who can make the magic system something that’s amenable to experiment, so that the characters can have their own Enlightenment, but with different tech. Plus actual accounts of the experiments! And the falsification of hypotheses! And progress! Basically, Tad Williams meets Greg Egan, which would kick ass.

5: Post-Deluge Pirate Adventure

You know what the twenty-second century is going to be like if we don’t get our act together? My guess is wet. Lawless and wet. And to me, that says pirates. Now, okay, Waterworld was sort of in this genre, but I don’t think it barely scratched the surface of how much fun there is to be had in a damp, tropical future.

I think theres several excellent book series hiding in here. There’s ruined cities jutting out of the sea full of hidden treasure. There’s crumbling skyscrapers to have sword-fights in. There’s room for mutant monsters and radioactive curses.  There’s room in this genre for everything from the gritty to the hilarious. Just imagine a scene with a treasure-chest full of hard-drives, a fist fight, a sliding deck, and an ancient, malfunctioning taser. The possibilities are endless.

IMG_20160512_152830So there you have it. Just imagine how different bookshop shelves would look with a dozen titles available in each of these different story space. I think it’d be great. Things would look more diverse at the very least. Readers: I invite your comments and opinions. Authors: collaborations, anyone?

 

I like The Expanse

20150216_151303Yesterday I did a ranty post, so today I thought I should write about something I do like. Here’s one: The Expanse, from the SyFy channel, and the James Corey books that they come from.

 

Why I like the books:

The Corey books are fun space adventures. That’s a great start. But they’re so much more than that. For starters, the authors try to get the science broadly right, and I love that. I’m skeptical of their protomolecule, but dynamics of spaceflight they make use of are lovely, as are their toxic planets. (I also have both reservations and curiosity about their wormhole network, but I’ll leave that to another post.)

Furthermore, the books feature a diverse array of flawed characters collaborating to solve problems. Marvelous! They depict a future that’s politically complex and believable. They bother to play around with language and culture, and show how it’s affected by the environment. They make space sucky, yet still worth visiting. Which is exactly as it should be, IMO. The plotting is complex and tight, which I relish.

The books are also flawed, of course, like everything. Sometimes the military slugfests can feel glutinous and dull. The motif of ignorant, self-indulgent bullies ruining it for everyone else without much reason gets old even while it remains painfully honest to the human condition. And the series is getting kind of long and episodic. But I don’t care. I’ll read them all anyway, because they’re a cut above most of what I come across. So yay.

Why I like the TV:

I don’t watch much TV. To be honest, I hardly watch any. My three-year-old needs alarmingly little sleep, and so when I do watch anything these days, it tends to be animated and involve at least one talking animal. My entertainment time, when I get some, usually goes straight into catching up on things I’ve been wanting to read. But I made an exception for this series and I’m glad I did.

Was it because I liked the books? In part. But beyond that, I was inspired that SyFy decided to try to do justice to them. They made the bold, good choice to put some money behind some decently complex SF and bring it to life on the screen. And, broadly speaking, I think they pulled it off.  They chose a mature, intelligent series with wide appeal, and then they properly went to town on it. With a good cast. And politics. And decent zero-gee. And plot that moves forward with each episode.

IMG_20140217_194711I guess the first series is way old news by now. But still, I think it’s worth acknowledging a job well done, both by the authors, and the TV team brave and industrious enough to pick up their work. May there be more of it, and more like it. I shall cheer it all.

 

On Superheroes

IMG_20160306_150432In a recent post, I came clean about my feelings regarding Star Wars. Today, as I idly scanned io9, I felt another stirring of long-suppressed fatigue and annoyance. This time, it was about superheroes. I decided it was time to be honest about that topic too.

IMO, superheroes are lame. There, I said it. This much-loved iconic style of good-versus-evil storytelling that has informed my generation and inspired millions, just isn’t very good. But before you condemn me as a cape-hater, I encourage you to let me explain why I struggle with it, so that you can dismantle me in the comments. And please do that, because nothing would make me feel more at peace with this genre than finding some kind of meaning in it.

First, though, I will happily admit that there has been some truly great writing in this space. The Incredibles, for instance, is a near-perfect movie. I like Megamind too. (I’ve never encountered a movie character I identified with so deeply, except maybe Dr. Evil.) How to Succeed in Evil by Patrick McLean made me laugh out loud. So did Mystery Men. Kick Ass was both brutal and surprisingly deep. But you may be noticing a pattern here. None of what I consider the great work in the superhero genre takes it seriously. There’s a reason for that.

Here are my top three problems with the genre.

1: There’s no science. But the genre pretends to have science.

Superhero stories are science-ish. People invent machines that do transparently magical things. Nobody ever bothers to explain them. Nobody even cares. This makes my skin prickle for the same reason that Star Wars does. It’s lazy. But who cares, right? So long as the machines and suits are cool, whatevs. And that brings me on to my second point.

2: It’s all about cool. Just cool.

Cool suits. Cool powers. Cool machines. Yawn. Attending to a cosmetic notion of ‘cool’ is like flipping through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. It’s an empty experience, IMO.

Years ago, my brother came to me asking for suggestions for a role-playing game he was involved with. Players created their own super-heroes to battle evil. He asked me for ideas. Here are two characters I came up with on the spot.

Mr. Entropy: His power is to accelerate the inevitable process of decay that dominates all things. He touches you and trillions of years scroll forward in the blink of an eye. You turn to dust. Then your protons decay. Then your proton byproducts decay. Mr. Entropy’s weakness is that he’s incredibly depressed all the time. It takes him a huge amount of effort to engage with any conflict, because he knows the outcome is both inevitable and sad. Mr. Entropy always wins, because entropy.

The Hellmaker: She looks like a timid school-girl, but there is horror in her eyes. She can fire a bolt of energy that traps a person in a sphere of personal hell. That hell seemingly lasts forever, and their suffering keeps her young. They scream without end, and she can always hear them. Nobody deserves the amount of punishment that she can deliver, because it’s obscene, just like any notion of Hell. Her weakness is that she’s used her powers only once, and that was by accident. She’s been traumatized ever since and will run away from any conflict because no amount of evil is worth her using her ‘gift’. The only person who can defeat her is Mr. Entropy. Because entropy.

Surprisingly, my brother didn’t like either of these ideas. But here’s the thing, they’re both as legit as anything else in the superhero genre. They’re both potentially interesting characters. They just instantly explode the idiocy of ‘cool’ powers that aren’t particularly powerful, or novel, or complicated. Because, let’s face it, ‘cool’ powers are just a vehicle for fights. Which brings me to my third point.

3: It’s low-budget empowerment.

Superheroes are fantasy embodiments of the abilities we’d like to have. A lot of the genre’s appeal comes from seeing someone larger than life who we identify with have a big, symbolic punch-up with someone who’s face we’d like to punch.  And who doesn’t like a punch-up now and then? But there’s a difference between, say, kung-fu movies and superhero movies. Martial artists have done some work to acquire their awesome rather than simply being bitten on the ass by a spider or some such. Part of the glee in superhero stories comes from how easy their power feels. There’s that rush of discovery that they can suddenly do an impossible thing, without having to pay for it.

Of course, there are plenty of stories in which heroes discover the costs afterward, and subsequently become deeper more responsible people. And that’s better, certainly. But even stories with this kind of arc still elevate the idea of special individuals with awesome advantages kicking ass because somehow they’re just right. Social checks on their behavior are not required.

At root, the superhero genre feels to me like a salve for people who feel powerless in real life, as we all so frequently do. But, frankly, fuck the salve. Which is better, investing in stories that encourage us to not be powerless, or slathering on yet more salve? And how do ordinary people become not-powerless? By organizing. By learning. By getting better through struggle. By preventing the assent of bullies who didn’t pay for their powers. Certainly not by waiting around for a spider to bite us on the ass. That’s what I want to read and write about: making ourselves super, through effort and cooperation and a refusal to lie down and be salved.

IMG_20160208_074501So, there you have it. Now, it may be that I have the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps I’m not doing a vast and sprawling creative arena justice. I’m ready for that to be true. But if that’s the case, then please explain and end my torment, because if someone wedges another Marvel character promo in my face today, I think I’m going to scream. I urgently invite your rebuttals.