a book from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age … that is powered by a computer so advanced it’s almost magical, and it teaches children everything. It does this through a fully interactive story. It teaches you how to read, how to do maths, it teaches you morals, ethics, even self-defence.
Looking back at the post, I’m shocked by just how little I remember writing it. I suppose when you’ve been blogging for almost twenty years, that’s to be expected. It’s also a reminder that while blogging is rarely as viral as Facebook and Twitter, its permanence and searchability can pay dividends over decades.
I was born in the UK — in Birmingham — although obviously I don’t have the accent! My parents came from Hong Kong, but we didn’t visit it until I was a few years old, since it’s quite the trip for any family.
The approach to the old Hong Kong airport in Kowloon Bay is hair-raising. You descend between skyscrapers, so close that you can practically see inside their windows. We were staying with relatives near the airport, which was fun, if noisy.
Me and my brother did the rounds of our aunts and uncles and grandparents, but eventually it was time for my parents to see their own friends. We were left with our cousins and the world’s greatest collection of pirated Famicom and Sega Megadrive videogames.
Now, these cousins. Their great aunt Agatha lived with them. As I was told it, she’d travelled the world, sailed the seas, fallen in love with all sorts of people, and made her fortune. Now in her eighties, she was still as sharp as a tack, with photographic memory and a wickedly funny tongue.
Agatha couldn’t easily walk any more, so more often than not, she’d sit in her armchair in the corner, situated just so she could see the whole living room and kitchen and hallway, and watch everyone coming and going. She wanted to know what was going on in the home, but more importantly, she wanted to be useful — and she was.
If you were on your way out but you’d forgotten to get pick up your keys, auntie Agatha would remind you (very loudly). If you were looking around for a letter or book you’d misplaced, she’d know precisely where you’d left it. She’d even watch you while you were doing your chores and tell you just which spots you’d forgotten to dust. Her job, as she saw it, was to help the household flourish, and keep them safe.
I’m sure some of you have figured out where I’m going with this. Almost forty years later, we all have auntie Agathas, watching over us in every room of our homes.
Today, in 2027
8 out of 10 households in the UK and US now have multiple home cameras. It’s one of the most astonishing success stories in the history of technology, with an adoption curve almost as impressive as smartphones in the previous decade. But unlike smartphones, we’ve bought many more than one per person.
What fuelled the rise of home cameras? Let’s start with the devices themselves.
Why did the home camera revolution only begin in 2018 and not earlier? Fast and cheap internet was an essential condition, allowing owners to monitor their homes on the move and abroad. Another boost came from the ‘smartphone dividend’, which reduced the price of camera components.
But beyond 2018, two technological revolutions fuelled the rise of home cameras: charging and sensors.
Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that almost all home cameras in the mid-teens were wired. These cameras had no batteries and had to be tethered to a power outlet at all times, constraining their placement within homes and generally causing an unsightly mess.
From 2018 to 2023, home cameras adopted batteries lasting one week to one month — a massive improvement over tethering, as they could be mounted anywhere, including outdoors and in bathrooms — but arguably more irritating than wires, as their “low-power” chirping became a frequent sound in many homes.
It wasn’t until the full rollout of resonance charging, or more broadly speaking, ‘charging at a distance’, that cameras truly permeated every room and corner of our homes. Freed from the need to be wired or retrieved every month, and completely weatherproofed, they were stuck in the corners of ceilings, thrown onto roofs, hung on walls, mounted on gates, and balanced precariously on shelves. Providing they remained within range of a resonance station, they could be placed and forgotten for years.
The improvement in the sensor capabilities of home cameras has been even more extraordinary. In 2018, most cameras had a laughably-named ‘high-definition’ resolution of 1920 x 1080 — barely enough to distinguish small objects across a room. Matters were soon improved with the introduction of ‘High Speed 4K’ sensors that could examine minute changes in skin bloodflow to monitor people’s heartrate and emotional state. Soon after, cameras reached beyond the visible spectrum to infrared and ultraviolet, essential for home security and health applications.
It wasn’t until the introduction of multipath LIDAR in 2024 that the supremacy of cameras in our hearts and homes was assured. Various primitive forms of LIDAR had been present in earlier cameras, as an aid to home VR and augmented reality through precision depth mapping and 3D positioning. Multipath LIDAR, however, multiplied the reach of our cameras by using reflections to see around corners into other rooms; to interpolate new camera angles; and to even see inside objects. It finally provided total awareness of all objects within a home, without the need for excessive numbers of cameras.
In fact, the most advanced multipath systems now pose a threat to the business model of the camera manufacturers who’ve emphasised quantity over quality. Now that a single camera can take the place of many, it’s likely that overall camera shipments could begin falling.
Film critics were not kind when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001. A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg but originated from, and was made with, Stanley Kubrick, up until his death in 1999. A lot of reviewers accordinly blamed Spielberg for pretty much everything they disliked about the film, notably its final 30 minutes which appeared to be overly sentimental.
I enjoyed the movie when it was released. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I’d played the associated ARG, which also provided more context for the final 30 minutes. But it was hard to convince my friends that it was a good movie, especially in the face of critics.
In the past five years, prominent critics have begun reappraising A.I., to its benefit. A better understanding of the ending, and the relationship between Spielberg and Kubrick, sheds much light on the intention and message of the movie. In short, Spielberg didn’t write the ending, Kubrick put the teddy bear in, the aliens are actually machines, and the ending isn’t happy:
Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are “problematical,” go over the top, and raise questions they aren’t prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David’s. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let’s assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.
When the epilogue begins, it’s Kingsley’s voice that explains the ice age and the passage of time. Does that mean David’s story – ie AI – is itself a creation myth, told by these futuristic mechas about the making of their kind, as an attempt to understand the elder beings that made them?
“Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence,” the Kingsley mecha tells David, and the line sounds odd until you realise these creatures hold humans in the same awed regard as humanity holds its gods. Dr Hobby’s son died so that David might live, and these new mecha are descended from David’s line.
In that light, AI’s ending isn’t twee, but wrenchingly sad. The love we’re seeing, between a mecha and a clone, is a simulacrum, as manufactured as a movie. But if it feels like the real thing to us, what does that tell us about the real thing? In that moment, Spielberg shows us real fear and real wonder, knotted together so tightly it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.
Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.
It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else.
Mark Kermode at the BBC: AI Apology (published 2013)
In 2002, Spielberg told film critic Joe Leydon that “People pretend to think they know Stanley Kubrick, and think they know me, when most of them don’t know either of us”. “And what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s. The teddy bear was Stanley’s. The whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s. The whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film – all the stuff in the house – was word for word, from Stanley’s screenplay. This was Stanley’s vision.” “Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I’ve been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I’m the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That’s why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, ‘This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'”
I’ve been a fan of Philip Reeve after reading his thrilling Mortal Engines quartet. Strictly speaking, Philip Reeve is a young adult SF/fantasy author, but I found this series to be more imaginative and darker than many other ‘adult’ novels. A lot of his other books have been for younger children, but when I heard that he’d written an out-and-out SF novel called Railhead, I had to check it out.
Railhead is an exciting amalgam of two of my favourite SF series: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (well, the first two books, anyway), and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The Hyperion part stems from Railhead’s network of wormholes, connected by – of course – railways; plus the presence of godlike AIs with their own cryptic plans. The Culture part is represented by the slightly-smarter-than-human AI trains, with appropriately Banksian names, plus the well-written action, explosions, drones, and AI avatars. There’s also a dash of Dune and Hunger Games in there, as well.
Perhaps the most Banksian thing – and the most surprising to see in a young adult SF novel – is Railhead’s refreshingly modern treatment of gender norms and sexuality. Some characters are gay, and some characters regularly switch sexes, leading to offhanded passages like this:
She was gendered female, with a long, wise face, a blue dress, silver hair in a neat chignon.
Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat.
And, to cut the story short, it fell in love with him. And he fell in love with it. In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy changed my life. I was 14 and reading plenty of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov when I idly flipped through our monthly book club brochure. They usually didn’t have any science fiction, so I was surprised to see an entire page devoted to a book called Red Mars. It was by some author I’d never heard of and therefore of questionable quality, but Arthur C. Clarke himself urged readers to give it their time. “The ultimate in science fiction,” or something similarly unambiguous.
We bought the book – we had to, that’s how book clubs worked – and I fell in love with the idea of colonising Mars. I felt as if Kim Stanley Robinson had demonstrated that not only was it possible, not only was it sublime, but it was absolutely necessary for the project of humanity becoming a fairer, more enlightened people. At an impressionable age, this book made the biggest impression, and was enough to spark my ambition to write an essay, win a competition, travel to a Mars conference in the US on my own, organise youth groups, speak at TED, and so on.
I am not active in the Mars exploration movement, or even the space exploration movement any more. I remain deeply interested, but it became clear to me that the road to Mars would be much longer and much harder than anyone had expected. Even now, even with SpaceX, it feels as if the decades keep ticking up. What once might have happened in 2020 will now happen in 2030, or 2040, or later. And when we get there, what then? Creating a world from scratch is hard, slow work.
Kim Stanley Robinson regrets the effect the Mars trilogy had on people like me. At least, that’s the impression I got from Aurora, a tale of the near-impossibility, and hence near-pointlessness, of creating an Earth-like environment outside of Earth. It’s not his fault; the science has changed since the 90s. We now know that Mars has much less nitrogen than we need for growing plants, and the vast amounts of perchlorates on the surface are a serious hazard to humans. These, and other new obstacles, could lengthen the time to terraform Mars from centuries to millennia, or tens of millennia. Perhaps our technology will advance to meet the challenge, but there’s no question the challenge is herculean.
Yet no-one seems dissuaded by this. In fact, I had never even heard of the nitrogen and perchlorates problem until reading Aurora. It’s as if merely asserting that colonising Mars is an imperative for the survival of humanity suddenly makes it possible. What must happen, will happen.
And why is colonising Mars an imperative? Because, in part, of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
So Aurora is a corrective. We follow an attempt to colonisation a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, light years from Earth. In short, it fails. Everything fails. Not the just colonisation of Tau Ceti, but the very starship that took the colonists there as well. All the beautifully designed miniature Earth-like biomes on the starship fail, because that’s what happens to enclosed ecosystems with a wide variety of flora and fauna, all evolving at different rates.
Our colonists do try, though. A engineer/biologist is positively heroic in her efforts to keep the starship running, a rather unusual note in a science fiction novel (although not, to be fair, The Martian); and some colonists are so determined to press on with the project in Tau Ceti that they choose to take the one in ten thousand chance of creating a new world. Those are, of course, terrible odds. Only in a certain kind of story do you win that gamble, and this is not that kind of story.
What kind of story is it, then? An anti-space exploration story? Not really. Robinson describes a solar system full of thriving outposts and colonies, all trading with one and another, and most crucially, with Earth. He talks about the eventual colonisation of Mars – in a few thousand years time. This is not the imagination of someone who wants to smash rockets. In his world, Space exploration is exciting, it’s laudable, it’s inevitable, but it’s not a solution to preserving the future of humanity. And while volunteers will line up to take the riskiest of gambles, it’s not so clear that their children and grandchildren, left on a fragile miniature ecosystem too far from Earth, should have to risk their lives as well. No, the future of humanity is best assured by preserving the future of Earth’s ecosystem.
This kind of talk used to sound like sedition to me, spread by shortsighted fools who’d say, “Why explore space when we have problems on Earth?” It still does, sort of. It may not seem like it, but humanity is wealthier than ever, and I still think we can well afford to explore and travel in space, and to Mars.
The problem is, it’s not just on Mars that the facts have changed, with its nitrogen and perchlorates – it’s Earth as well, with its warming air and rising seas and fraying ecosystem. So I don’t feel unjustified in changing my mind as well about our priorities and how we think about the future of humanity, not after reading Aurora.
It’s been almost twenty years since I first opened Red Mars, but I’m still impressionable – at least, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of Interstellar tonight, courtesy of BAFTA. Christopher Nolan surprised the audience by introducing the movie with a few words, comparing-but-not-comparing it with 2001.
It’s not as good as 2001 – but you could say that about almost any movie. Is it a great movie, though? No. Is it a good movie? Maybe. If you like Nolan’s other movies and you like science fiction and incredible visuals, it’s certainly worth watching Interstellar; there are many moments and entire sections of the movie which are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, they’re marred by an often plodding and predictable story, flat characterisation, and confusing cinematography.
There is an excellent 90 minute movie hiding in Interstellar, and probably another very decent 30 minute short film. Unfortunately, you’ll have to see the whole 170 minutes to get to them.
Quite apart from the fact that even a big TV can’t replicate the ultra-widescreen experience required to properly appreciate 2001, I think that most normal people – myself included – are incapable of paying sufficient attention to the movie unless forced to do so in a dark cinema. It’s not just that I’d want to check my phone during some of the slower bits (which, to be fair, is most of the movie); it’s that it’d be near-impossible to avoid interruptions like noise from outside, or phones ringing, or people coming and going, and so on. So, see it at the cinema. Also, live in the UK, because if you don’t, you’re out of luck.
2001 is one of the two movies that I rewatch every year or two. Specifically, the flight to the space-station, and then to the Moon:
(didn’t I tell you not to watch this at home?)
What’s the other movie? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here’s the opening sequence:
It’s beautiful, and slow. The movie features few battles other than those against the weather. Like 2001, there is much “competence porn” wherein smart and experienced people concoct clever plans. Like 2001, it is a journey into the unknown, on board a state-of-the-art vessel with serious technical problems.
They’re both – mostly – contemplative movies punctuated by moments of sheer terror, providing an enjoyable mix of ASMR-like relaxation with adrenaline that keeps me awake. And once I’ve finished, I feel like I’ve grappled with weighty questions that concern the future of humanity. What more could you want?
After reading Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, I was immediately compelled to figure out exactly what was going on in the story (similar to what I tried with Iain Banks’ Transition). Of course, The Islanders is even more deliberately ambiguous and dreamlike than Transition, and so I’m acutely aware that trying to unknot the plot is perhaps not the most sensible exercise; especially when I haven’t yet read Priest’s other stories set in the same world, i.e. The Dream Archipelago and The Affirmation.
That said, I really enjoy doing it, so: please look away, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Click to enlarge
In no particular order, here are some of the questions I had, with accompanying speculations:
So, what exactly happened with Commis?
The most straightforward answer is that Kerith Sington, after having been beaten up by Commis (in non-mime garb), really did drop the pane of glass on him; and that this was made possible by Chas Kammeston loosening its bindings and leaving the door open (not to mention putting it up there in the first place, although that wasn’t entirely his fault). Continue reading “The Many Meanings of The Islanders”
When I heard about Reamde‘s premise of hackers, spies, and gold mining in a massive multiplayer online game called T’Rain, I had the same worried feeling that I had when I heard about Anathem’s monasteries – that Neal Stephenson was venturing away from the sort of adventure/SF capers I enjoyed best. However, I was pleasantly surprised at Anathem and I held out the same hope for Reamde.
The problem with Reamde is not that it’s trying to be more ‘accessible’, if by ‘accessible’ we mean it’s set during the present day and has no obviously futuristic elements that might put the ‘mainstream’ off. No, it’s problem is that it’s frequently boring and it doesn’t add up to much at all.
Sure, there are flashes of the classic Stephenson brilliance – the insightful observations of how technology is changing the world, the clever ideas about business and gaming, the tangents into the finer points of grammar and MMO economies. But these are buried in literally thousands of words describing stuff that I frankly couldn’t give a shit about. Every fight, every journey, every thought is explained in excruciating detail, often from multiple points of view, and a lot of the time, none of it is particularly relevant to the plot.
Even worse, the usual and excusable Stephenson vices seem to be on particular show in Reamde: the tendency of almost all the smart characters to speak in the same over-specific way, the cliched over-weaponed and sprawling family of hard-bitten survivalists, the revisiting of Manila and Trinity College in Cambridge, the baffling hookups. I accept these things as being integral to Stephenson’s soul and writing, just as Iain M Banks frequently lapses into forced-jokiness and gratuitously violent torture scenes in his novels, but usually there are more than enough good moments to balance them out. But not this time.
It’s upsetting because there are some fantastic moments in the book where Stephenson was clearly having a lot of fun. I was impressed by the man-hunt in Xiamen, and later on, a massive battle in T’Rain occurred simultaneously with real world shenanigans. Many reviews (such as the WSJ’s*) suggest that these moments, and others like them, are the meat of the book; in fact, they’re far outweighed by tiresome detailing of gun battles and people travelling from A to B. Perhaps if it was a mere 500 pages instead of 1000, I’d have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, as it stands, I can’t see myself recommending this book to anyone.
In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.
After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”
Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?
I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.
Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.
If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.
(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).
I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).
So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.
It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…