Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Stack

Here are a few of the books I bought in the past couple of weeks (the paperback pile is about twice as high). From the top:

D.G. Compton, Ascendancies and Farewell, Earth's Bliss. Compton is a highly underrated British SF writer, probably best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, which anticipated reality TV and was made into a so-so film, Death Watch, by Bernard Tavernier. Farewell, Earth's Bliss is somewhat atypical - a darkly funny story of redemption set on Mars, used by Earth as a dumping ground for the worst kind of criminal. Ascendancies, like many of Compton's novels, views a near-future society in close-up, through flawed protagonists. Here, a widow and a hapless insurance agent try to out-game each other in a near future transformed by falls of fertilising dust and random disappearances of people via a mysterious process associated with eerie choral music and the scent of roses.

T.M. Disch, The Prisoner. Novelisation of the cult TV series. Disch and The Prisoner are a closer fit than you might at first think.

Stephen Hall, The Raw Shark Texts. Charity shop find, shortlisted for the Clarke Award a couple of years back. Adventures in Un-Space.

Stanislaw Lem, Eden. Secondhand bookshop find. A spaceship crashes on a planet of metaphors.

Jack Womack, Ambient. Womack's first novel, the third, chronologically, in his 'Dryco' series. Uncannily prophetic social satire; opens with one of the best bookshop scenes ever written.

The Ones You Do, Daniel Woodrell. Signed first edition of the third of Woodrell's St Bruno mystery novels (I bought the other two, Under the Bright Lights and Muscle for the Wing, in a sale at the fabulous Powell Books, Portland, Oregon, a few years ago).  Woodrell is one of my favourite writers, a poet of American interstitial lowlife. His second novel, Woe to Live On, was made into a film (Ride With the Devil), as was his last, Winter's Bone.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Making It Personal

Simon asks a question that I think is too good to be left under the fold:
Something has been bothering me for sometime about Sci-Fi and you seem the kinda guy to shed some light on it. How come Sci-Fi writers before recent times never mentioned/envisaged personalised settings in technology (you know - screen savers, font, pictures - things that reflect/feedback ones personality in objects). It seems that even the greatest kept faith with the idea of mass homogenised technologies which were no doubt linked to the ideas of societies and objects in the post industrial age. I mean it would have been nice if Rick Deckard would have played around with the personalized settings of his mood organ? I think personalised settings say a lot about notions of liberty, society and people’s interaction with technology – seems an under explored area (you just gonna tell me that I’ve simply just missed all the right books?!!)
 I have not one but three answers. And a question.

First - and I know I've said it before- science fiction really isn't in the prediction business. What it really does is hold up a distorting mirror to the time in which it is written, and takes current directions and preoccupations and speculates wildly about them. It doesn't predict the future, but a rich variety of possible futures.  Sometimes it gets it right. More often it gets it wrong, as in the example at the top of this post - Kelly Freas's terrific painting of a space pirate swarming aboard a rocketship with a slide rule between his teeth.

Second, modern science fiction came of age in the post-war years, when techniques of mass production deployed during the Second World War began to spew all kinds of consumer goods. The growth of the American military-industrial complex in the 1950s and 1960s not only produced the largest and most modern armed force in the world, it also stimulated a huge increase in civilian living standards. SF written at the time reflected that, often in satirical, dehumanised dystopias: Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451; Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants; much of Philip K Dick's work. Deckard's mood organ doesn't have personalised settings because that's the point: it's a machine for standardising human emotions in a future where the line between real and artificial human beings is confused.

But has any science fiction explored personalisation of technology? You bet. Much of cyberpunk explores the way in which technology can be subverted and repurposed.  'The street,' William Gibson famously wrote in his short story 'Burning Chrome', 'finds its own uses for things.' My question is this: what's the earliest example of personalised technology in science fiction? In the stories in Larry Niven's future history, published in the 1960s and 1970s, asteroid miners personalised their space suits with paintings (much as vans and motorcycles were customised, back then). But there must be earlier examples . . .

Sunday, February 06, 2011


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