Monday, February 18, 2013

Technology Revolutions, Trends, and Twists

Each of the last two posts has spawned a particularly interesting comment thread. I will, a bit arbitrarily, reserve the one about monarchy (and other political systems) for a future post, and take up here - not for the first time, not for the last - the question of the limits of technology.

As regular readers know, I tend to be a technological conservative. This may be, at least in part, a generational thing. Those of us (old farts) who grew up expecting that controlled fusion, scheduled Moon flights, and Real [TM] AI were all Right Around The Corner are perhaps inclined to be cynical about claims for new technologies. We have been stung before - repeatedly.

If, on the other hand, your tech experience started with PCs, then the Internet, then the mobile Web, and now apparently credible progress toward automated cars, claims about the Next Big Thing probably look rather more convincing.

Let us look at a few familiar and popular technologies, and how they have or haven't panned out:

AI, in the old Asimovian robot or HAL 9000 sense, has to date been a pretty complete bust. The Web offers the perfect environment for the classic Turing test, and so far no prominent blogger (or even obscure one) has been outed as an AI.

But the flip side, as previously noted here, is that capabilities we once regarded as the sole province of human-like intelligence - such as winning at chess, or even Jeopardy! - have turned out to be within the reach of brute-force computing power. If we get driverless cars in the near future, or even midfuture, they will utilize a combination of sensors and processing power that would have seemed fanciful or at least unaffordable in the 1960s.

The computer revolution also has a third side: the Gutenberg-on-steroids impact it has had on communications between people. Rocketpunk-era SF predicted AI that we don't have and aren't even close to. It did not predict the Internet, not even kinda sorta. (One or two stories hinted at the idea, but it never emerged as a trope.) 

Fusion power is also high on the disappointment list. There was a time when the joke was that it had been 20 years away for the last 40 years - now make that the last 60 years. My (somewhat hazy) understanding is that they are making progress, and getting fairly close to the power break-even point.Whether a technology so demanding will end up as a practical power source (or space drive) is another matter, and it is hard to be really sanguine about the prospects.

Astronautics is yet a different matter. Something to remember as we pine for those scheduled moonships is that, on a purely technical level, most of what the space evangelists promised us in 1955 has worked out just fine. Multi-stage rockets can and do reach orbit, routinely, a hundred or so times each year, even if only a handful of their missions carry humans. We have largely scouted out the Solar System, and are moving on to more detailed investigation, such as putting vehicles on Mars.

What failed to pan out in this case were optimistic assumptions about ease and - especially - cost. There is no need for this post to beat the mummified remains of that particular horse.

Now, on to biotech. I can't claim even an informed layperson's knowledge of things bio-, so I have no formal basis for believing or disbelieving much of anything. That said, my first-blush reaction is to regard pretty much everything from radical life extension to 'designer organisms' as hype.

After all, I would argue, the devil is almost always in the details. I tend to picture biotech as most likely providing such agribusiness miracles as flavorless cubical tomatoes (for more efficient packing) that remain blandly edible for decades.

I can even point to a preliminary - and perhaps premature - hint or two in that direction. Genetic technology has not, in its first decade or so, produced the patentable and profitable drugs that Big Pharma was eagerly predicting a few years ago.

The prospects may, however, be more complicated than that. Commenter Thom S, who has a professional background in the field, sketches out a few possibilities.

When I first read the comment, I confess that I was merely grumpy. On a second reading, however, it dawned on me that hardly anything described fit my stereotype of biotech pipe dreams. Nor are they mere cubical tomatoes. In fact, these informed projections compare to my vague stereotypes roughly as the Internet compares to HAL 9000.

Some technology revolutions never deliver on their early promise. Others deliver in spades. And yet others deliver not what was predicted, but instead deliver something rich and strange.

But dammit, I still want spaceships.


The quite cool image comes from Luke Campbell's Google+ page. Because, come on, when it comes to biotech, as with other fields, wouldn't you really want to do the Cool Stuff?

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Force of Nature

Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.
-- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

What the former Tor managing editor (now consulting editor) and Making Light blogger says about plot surely applies with even greater force to genre. At least in the familiar sense of 'the genres' in the the book trade, which I have argued are all somewhat arbitrary subgenres of Romance.

As the title suggests, however, this post is about that much more primal literary force, story. To make one long story short, I have been offered a book contract.

The other and more relevant story, Catherine of Lyonesse, is quite a bit longer - 135,000 words (prior to whatever editing will be called for), somewhere around 300-400 pages of the old fashioned physical book it will be. (There will no doubt be an ebook version, too - ebooks have more or less taken the place of the old mass-market paperbacks of yore.)

No need to click over to just yet - getting the contract is only the start of the process. And the pace of the book industry tends to be ... stately.

It will be published as a YA historical fantasy novel by David Fickling Books, perhaps best known in the SF/F 'verse for Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass et seq. And because the publisher is British, the final version will presumably have colourful spelling and the like.

(And I shall be paid in pounds sterling, which gives me good personal reasons to be annoyed with the Tories, who are fully living up to Walter Bagehot's celebrated description of them as the Stupid Party. And also annoyed with the LibDems, whom an Anglican God evidently created to demonstrate the utter uselessness of third parties. But I digress ...)

The eponymous protagonist, Catherine de Guienne, is a teenage girl, a fact of which she is blissfully unaware, the concept of 'teenager' not yet existing in her Renaissance-esque world. She is also a royal heiress, a fact of which she is all too acutely aware: Its consequences can sometimes be gratifying, but are all too often alarming.

The basic argument for hereditary monarchy is that it averts succession crises. As the recently reported discovery of Richard III's body under a parking lot demonstrates, it has not always been effective in this regard. When the 'apparent' successor is (what we would call) a teenage girl, the succession can be ... problematic. And there are other complications, such as being raised in a foreign court.

There are no space battles. (On a happier note there are no vampires, sparkly or otherwise.) The original draft did have a couple of early 16th century sea battles, which alas ended up on the cutting room floor.

All of which is to say that the book has pretty much nothing to do with the topics I have usually discussed here. Story, as said, is a force of nature, which brushed aside with cool indifference any impulse on my part to write about something else.

Also, I have been holding out on you, my readers, as the book went from wishful thinking to theoretical possibility to impending reality: My agent advised me against a premature announcement. Which explains, whether or not it justifies, my more sporadic posting over the last year. Blogs, like sharks, need to keep moving, but a lot of the topics I most wanted to talk about would make no sense out of context.

I do not intend to wrench Rocketpunk Manifesto entirely away from its existing course, or turn it into a blog about the book. (At some point I will likely as not spin off a Catherine of Lyonesse blog.) But I will certainly re-broaden the scope to more nearly match the topic range asserted at the top of this page, and explore the host of ways in which the book has more in common with space travel than might be obvious at a first glance.

This earlier post offers one example.

English galleass Hart, 1546

As does this one, which includes a snippet from the draft version.

Which is enough for now. Of course I am chuffed, and chuffed people often make themselves boring. I will try to refrain, but make no promises.

The image of the Royal Arms of Lyonesse was created by me - I got the heraldic lions and other detailing from somewhere, but alas I don't recall where.