Friday, November 09, 2012

Two Stories

Two stories in particular stayed with him. In one, a young woman on Saturn’s giant moon Titan discovered one of the fabled gardens created by the great gene wizard Avernus, hidden inside a bubble habitat buried at the bottom of a deep rift. When she cycled through its airlock the young woman found that it still lovely and perfect centuries after the gene wizard’s death: groves of slender birch trees standing amongst black rocks and lawns of thick black moss, lit by bright chandeliers. But as she walked through it, it began to die. Chandelier light dimmed to an eldritch glow. Her p-suit boots left white prints in the moss that began to grow like puddles of spilt milk. The fresh green leaves of the birches around her darkened, turned red, and began to fall, a red snow fluttering down across the dying, piebald lawns. And the paper-white bark of the trees began to darken too, turning black as soot. The young woman realised that she had triggered the garden’s death, that she had become Avernus’s collaborator in a work of art. That she was the sole witness to its transient beauty. The spills of white widening across the floor. The red leaves fluttering down. The skeletons of the leafless trees blackening as if consumed by an invisible fire. She sat in the middle of the garden, aching with sorrow and wonder and awe.

The second story began in a holy city threatened with invasion by a True battle fleet.  The city's two priest-kings burned the sole copy of the sacred book at the heart of their religion, so that it would not fall into the hands of the infidels, and divided their people into two groups and fled into the Kuiper belt. The priest-kings had memorised every word in the book; each established a refuge where the children and children’s children of their followers learned the sacred text by heart. But as generation succeeded generation errors crept into the memorised text, subtly changing it, subtly changing the creed and customs of the religion. A million years passed. At last, the long, slow orbits of the icy kobolds of the refuges brought them close.  After first contact the two groups immediately declared war, each convinced the other was a nest of heretics, and the bitter battles left no survivors.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Just Like Science Fiction

A genre is a warehouse of tropes.  No, it's like an Ikea catalogue. You could use it to furnish a house.  Or it's like one of those old Sears Roebuck catalogues: you could use it to furnish a life.  But no matter how much you rearrange the furniture, you can't escape the feeling that the house you've built is no more than a variation of all the other houses furnished by the same catalogue.  It's a roomy old catalogue, but it's much smaller than the world.

Some of the items you can order from the science-fiction catalogue aren't quite ready for the real world.  They may seem plausible or possible, but they're unrealised possibilities, golden vapourware.  Others are tick marks on a fantasy wishlist.  But there are items that were once golden vapourware that have escaped from the pages of the genre catalogue.  Space stations and satellites and spacecraft.  Cyberspace and robots.  They are part of the furniture of the happening world.  And the world continues to find new uses for them, and their importance to us continues to change, just as they continue to change us.  A science-fiction writer can choose to deal with them as if they were still no more than catalogue images, as if robots (for instance) are still no more clanking, vaguely human-shaped metaphors for oppressed workers, or machines too powerful to control, or unfallen humans, or silver-metal lovers.  But she would be looking backwards, or inwards.  She wouldn't be writing about the future; she wouldn't even be writing about the present.  She would be writing a fantasy polder about some future of days long past.

Here's an idea: why not write about them as they are now, or as they might become? Why not write about robots that are extensions of ourselves, in our blood, at the bottom of the ocean, falling past the heliopause? Why not write about killer drones, panopticon drones, soft robots, robots on Mars, robots swinging around Saturn's rings and moon, microscopic robots, surgical robots, cockroach robots, robot cockroaches, swarming robots, hive robots, spam robots, robots that connect to satellites and plot your route through the world, robots that live in your phone and help you live your life, wave-rider robots. . .

Push what they are, what they can to do, how they are changing us, as hard and as fast as you can.  Turn them into metaphors for the way we live, the way we might live, new angles on the human condition.  Mash them.  Mutate them.  Make them dance.  Make them sing.

Just like science fiction.
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