A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

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.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adrian/a-history-of-the-future-in-100-objects/widget/video.html

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…

Notes on Iain Banks’ Transition

Iain Banks’ latest novel, Transition, is perhaps his strongest work in recent years, straddling his science fiction persona (Iain M Banks) and his non-genre, non-M persona (Iain Banks). For me, it combined his fantastic world-building imagination that we see in his Culture novels with the more rooted nature of his traditional novels – with a good splash of the mystery and weirdness that characterised The Bridge (another crossover novel that sits among my favourites).

A common complaint of Transition is that it leaves too many unanswered questions. It certainly seems that way, but a closer reading of the novel suggest that answers to most – if not all – of those questions can be uncovered, and it’s quite fun to speculate on them.

Since there isn’t much speculation about the book online yet, I’m starting a resource here where I explore some of the questions raised. Obviously it contains MEGA SPOILERS so if you haven’t read the book, you really should go away, right now.

I’ve tried to root all of these speculations in the text of the book, with relevant quotes. I’d be very happy if anyone with alternative theories contributed in the comments – I’ll then add them to the blog post if appropriate. I intend to keep on updating this post as more and better theories are generated.

So, let’s start:

Who (or what) is Mrs. Mulverhill?

There are several unusual things about Mrs. Mulverhill:

  1. She almost always wears a veil. Even when she isn’t, her eyes are often obscured, e.g. “hair veiling her face.” Why? “Madame d’Ortolan had always assumed this was mere affectation, but perhaps the lady wished to conceal some angle from which she looked less than racially pure, when the race concerned was human. Who knew?”
  2. She never provides a first name.
  3. We get to see her eyes on two occasions. Adrian Cubbish sees “catlike slits for pupils, not round ones,” and Temudjin Oh sees “slitlike pupils in amber irises.”
  4. Adrian Cubbish describes her as an astonishingly good dancer: “…she moved round me, curling and uncurling and rising and falling, circling about me like she was caressing my personal space.”

Let’s face it: Mrs Mulverhill has something to do with cats. She has cat’s eyes, and she dances like a cat. Her clothes often seem catlike (all black, etc) and she occasionally speaks in a ‘purr’. Madame d’Ortolan doesn’t even think she’s fully human. And interestingly, her lack of a first name may then be related to the fact that Madame d’Ortolan’s cats do not have first names either (M. Pamplemousse, and Mme Frenolle). All of this has a bearing on the next question…

Of course, Mrs Mulverhill isn’t actually a cat – she looks like a human. But Adrian Cubbish does find it hard to place her: “The face behind the veil looked Asian, I thought. Maybe Chinese, though less flat than Chinese faces usually are. Sort of triangular. Eyes too big to be Chinese, too. Cheekbones too high as well. Actually, maybe not Asian at all.” Later, he says, “You look a bit alien yourself, Mrs M. No offence.”

Adrian’s difficulty may simply be down to the fact that Mrs Mulverhill comes from another world in which the standard racial types are different. However, there is a tantalising possibility is that she’s from Calbefraques – a world in which the Mongols had a much greater influence over world history, and could conceivably have mixed genes in interesting ways. Does this have any significance? It’s not clear yet. Continue reading “Notes on Iain Banks’ Transition”

Anathem and neologisms

A lot of people are criticising Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem, for containing vast quantities of invented words. Instead of mobile phones, he has jeejahs; for video, he has speely; for church, he has ark; and so on.

I had been warned about these beforehand, and yet I still became irritated during the first couple of hundred pages (at which point I would be nearing the end for most novels, but for Anathem, not even up to the first act), since I regularly had to turn to the glossary to remind myself of what they all meant. It wasn’t particularly clear to me why he insisted on doing this.

However, once the words had bedded down in my mind, I realised that there was a very simple and good reason for inventing new words; they are free of the baggage and connotations that we automatically associate with ‘normal’ words. If I say Plato, or Aristotle, or Science, or Humanities to you, then a certain notion may immediately pop up in your mind. This notion, however, is probably an amalgam of various things you have read, or heard, or seen – it is probably not the product of actual considered thought on your own part. Which is not surprising since most people don’t have much reason to be thinking about these concepts.

Stephenson replaces these well-worn characters and concepts with new words, and in doing so, forces the reader to consider their meaning from first principles, which is a major point of the book. It is often painful to do this, but definitely worthwhile if you can get through it. Speaking for myself, it was one of the most engaging and dramatic philosophy primers I’ve ever read, and it’s one of those few books that makes you think there might be a better way to live your life.

None of this requires jeejahs and speelys, which (at least to me) correspond directly to things we have in our world, and frankly it seems a bit bloody-minded for Stephenson to insist on giving them new names when he still calls a train a train. What I can tell you is that there are actually very few such words, and most of the invented words have good reasons for being invented.

Ultimately, Stephenson opened himself up for unnecessary criticism with his use of jeejahs, which has allowed people to dismiss the whole book as being sophomoric, when in fact it’s just a small niggle that is merely trying to play along with the far more worthwhile invented (or rather, disguised) concepts and characters.

Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction

I took the afternoon off today to attend a symposium on Science Fiction as a Literary Genre at Gresham College. However, the main reason I went was because Neal Stephenson (author of Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Quicksilver, etc) was the keynote speaker. Aside from being one of my favourite science fiction authors, Neal is also an excellent speaker. I last saw him give a talk at Trinity College in Cambridge a few years ago, and since he rarely makes public appearances, I was looking forward to today.

Having gone to many conferences in recent years, on subjects varying from neuroscience to space exploration to game design, I’ve seen an awful lot of bad talks, and some very good talks. The good talks tend to fall into two broad categories. The first are given by highly charismatic speakers who have spent a long time perfecting a visually rich and witty presentation, in the sense that the words and the slides merge into one. If you couldn’t see the speaker and their slides, you’d lose a lot. These guys tend to come from the technology world.

The second are those in which the speaker has more or less memorised or pre-written the entire thing, and works without any slides whatsoever. They might consult notes, or even read from them directly, but their words are so engaging that you don’t care. If you could listen to these guys on the radio, you wouldn’t lose anything – in fact, it might actually be better that way. These guys are often from the academic world.

Now, this is obviously an approximation and there are people, myself included, who fall in between these categories. One of the best talks that I ever saw was by Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and he was of the second category; a master story-teller if there ever was one, even if he does give the same talk again and again. I became convinced that this was the way to give a good talk – no slides, just words. Unfortunately I was only 18 at the time and I just didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

Over the next few years, I went to a lot of technology and gaming conferences, and saw lots of well-produced presentations. I then concluded that, since I couldn’t just rely on words alone, I had to bolster my talks with images; game design is, after all, quite a visual subject. This worked fairly well and most of the presentations I gave about Perplex City had quite a lot of slides.

Still, I wasn’t entirely happy about this; I had the niggling feeling that I was just telling people stuff rather than making them think. I also remembered how enraptured I could become in just listening to the words of a good speaker, and how that’s much more difficult to do when you’re being distracted by visuals. So I backtracked a little and that’s where I am now.

Neal Stephenson is not only a science fiction author but also an insightful writer on technology and computers; In The Beginning Was The Command Line is a very highly regarded essay on computer operating systems. You might therefore expect him to be of the first, visually-rich type of speaker. However, he is not the sort of person who keeps a blog or writes frequently on technology; perhaps tellingly, both his parents were hard scientists. And so, Neal is a speaker of the first second category – he clearly prepares his talks in detail beforehand and has few to no slides.

The title of Neal’s talk at the symposium was ‘The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture’. The subject was essentially about what makes science fiction different from, well, everything else. ‘Everything else’ used to be called ‘mainstream’, but that term is basically meaningless today. Some science fiction fans call non-fans ‘mundanes’ and so that’s the term Neal used (in an obviously joking manner).

Now, I normally don’t take notes at talks any more. I find it distracting, and generally pointless since I never read the notes again afterwards. I didn’t intend to take any notes here either, but Neal said a few things that I found so original that I had to write them down. As usual, these are imperfect, etc. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction”

Mass Effect

I was so impressed with the first two minutes of Mass Effect, the new sci-fi RPG for the Xbox 360, that I had to play through it twice and then show everyone at work. While it’s essentially nothing but an extended cutscene, it’s a beautiful, well-directed, well-paced and astonishingly atmospheric introduction to the game. If you have a friend who owns Mass Effect, make an effort to have them show you it. You get more out of it if you customise your avatar’s appearance, as well.

I finished Mass Effect a couple of hours ago – it took me a little over fifteen hours to complete, playing about an hour per day for two weeks, and while those fifteen hours obviously weren’t as good as the intro, I’m very pleased I bought the game. It’s not without its substantial flaw, but I respect the efforts the designers put into creating a wholly original fictional world, and populating it with interesting characters and technology. Writing a science fiction game is tricky – the players will be very familiar with the genre, so you have to avoid stereotypical SF tropes while also not completely confusing those who aren’t so familiar.

(As an aside, I read somewhere that the space opera brand of science fiction has become very unfashionable, hence the reason why it’s vanished from TV and films. I would disagree – it’s as popular as it ever was, it’s just migrated to videogames, where it rules the roost. Halo and Mass Effect serve to demonstrate its enduring popularity.)

Mass Effect’s gameplay is split up into quests. There’s the main quest, which I spent around half my time on, and unsurprisingly it had the more unique and fun gameplay compared to the dozens of side quests which are more or less independent of the main story. I did around a third of the side quests, maybe more, but I gave up after I realised that I simply wasn’t enjoying them. There was one quest in particular which put me off; it had an exciting backstory, and you had to clear up three bases full of robot soldiers. Sounded lots of fun.

I travelled over to the first base and killed the soldiers. It was fairly diverting, but nothing special. When I entered the second base, I thought, ‘How helpful that everyone’s standing in the same place as before’. In fact, the base was identical to the first one, except there were some more soldiers. I felt a bit disgusted by this, and of course the third base was exactly the same, but with some random barriers thrown in. Instead of making the quest more interesting, however, the barriers just made it more tedious. At this point I gave up on doing side quests because they were clearly designed just to consume time rather than actually be entertaining.

Compared to the rest of the game though, this is a minor complaint that can be easily fixed in the sequel. It’s far outweighed by the marvellous story, dialogue and pacing that make me very glad I bought an Xbox 360.

Municipal Darwinism

Unsentimental. That’s what the Mortal Engines Quartet is.

Children’s fiction – in particular, children’s fantasy – is so strong nowadays that it’s hardly necessary to say that a book is adventurous, imaginative or exhilarating. They’re all adventurous, they’re all imaginative, they’re all exhilarating. And they’re all plenty good enough for adults to read as well.

Amid this wealth of excellence, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet stands out for a reason that others may not want to emulate: it’s uniquely unsentimental. His four books, set a world in which mobile cities rumble across the land on, chasing and consuming each other in a cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, are the most willfully unsentimental novels I have ever read. Villains do not get their just desserts; heroes are regularly punished for their virtues; and pretty much everyone is flawed in some nasty way.

Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy seems like Disneyland in comparison. This isn’t because the Mortal Engines Quartet is more depressing or more vicious – it isn’t. Instead, whereas Pullman’s novels are dark and serious affair all around, Reeve switches between carefree humour to awful tragedy so fast (and so often) that you just have no time to prepare yourself from general unfairness of the universe.

Enough about the unsentimentality for now – what about the story?

Mortal Engines, the first book in the series, begins with what is widely acknowledged as one of the best first lines in fantasy, ever:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Immediately, you know that this is no normal children’s fantasy, and what comes next is a dazzling explosion of imagination; after the Sixty Minute War devastated most of world, cities began to re-engineer themselves so that they could move across the barren land in order to prey on smaller, ‘static’ settlements. Soon enough, every town, village, suburb and city was on the move, gobbling each other up in a great cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. London is now composed of several tiers, with St. Paul’s Cathedral relocated to the very top, and other streets arranged under it. Continue reading “Municipal Darwinism”

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

One of my favourite authors is Ted Chiang. I’m not entirely sure what Ted does with his time, since over the course of seventeen years, he’s written fewer than a dozen short stories, the sum of which would easily fit into a typical novel. Of course, this has nothing to do with the quality of his writing, which contains such beautifully-wrought ideas and language that they remind me of Borges and Murakami put together.

Some of the stories have more of a scientific spin than others, and it probably eases the cognitive dissonance of journalists to call him a sci-fi writer, but if that were the case, it would only be so much as Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy could be described as the same; in other words, they’ve all written sci-fi, but not as most people would know it.

Until this year, Ted had published only had one collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. This was a sad state of affairs for his fans, who were left hanging following his 2001 short story ‘Hell is the Absence of God’, which won pretty much every award available.

This year, a new collection finally emerged, called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Published by Subterranean Press, a specialist in limited-run books, the collection is Ted’s first ‘novel’. At sixty pages, I would disagree with that classification, but all the same, it was a new story. Knowing exactly what it had in its hands, Subterranean sold two versions of the novel; one was a cloth-bound hardback trade edition, which is now sold out, and the other was a limited edition edition of 200 copies, at $45.

I mulled over which edition to buy for a little while, but eventually my desire to own a piece of true Chiang memorabilia – and the weak dollar – conspired to make me order the limited edition. It arrived a few weeks ago, and I feel I made the right choice.

The book itself is a series of four intertwined stories set in medieval Baghdad, about the nature of fate and our acceptance of it. While it’s arguably a sci-fi novel, given that it concerns itself with time-travel, most agree that it’s more in the vein of Arabian Nights than anything else. I liken it to a perfectly crafted gourmet meal; small in size, yet containing a real variety of subtle flavours.

You might think that buying a sixty page book for $45 is slightly out of character for someone who believes in The Death of Publishers and the inexorable rise of free or cheap eBooks – but I don’t think this is contradictory. If my copy of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate was the same as a bog-standard paperback, I would have been disappointed. The reason why I spent $45 was to get something special – and that’s what I received.

http://www.flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?user_id=adrianhon&set_id=72157601328210033

The book comes bound in red leather, with a beautifully drawn dust jacket. The paper is of a high quality and feels like parchment. My copy is signed and numbered 24 out of 200. There are several lavish full-page illustrations, and dotted throughout are a number of smaller drawings that reflect details in the stories. It feels as if the physical book was designed hand-in-hand with the author, and the resulting product is that of a work of art. I’m going to hold on to this book for a long time, and unlike my other books, I’m not about to trade or sell it online. So why wouldn’t I spend $45 on it?

Publishers are beginning to catch on to this trend. Authors that have a particularly loyal following, such as JRR Tolkein and Haruki Murakami, are having their novels republished in increasingly elaborate editions. While at Borders today, I saw a £100 gilt-edged, leather-bound edition of Lord of the Rings, and a £30 cloth-bound edition of After Dark, with a hard case. I see both editions as being a rip-off in the sense that the quality of the physical product is in no way commensurate with the price they’re being sold at – especially when The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate is a mere £23 – but ultimately it shows that people are not merely buying these books for the words inside, but for the physical objects themselves. Continue reading “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Ministry

‘Ministry’ is the name of the latest installment of G. W. Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. These sixty page booklets have been arriving on my desk every Monday for the last five weeks, and there are still another five to go. It’s certainly a novel delivery system.

I can’t remember exactly how I heard about ‘The Glass Books’ – either it was from a weblog or from our lead writer, Naomi Alderman – but I didn’t require much convincing to pay £25 to sign up for the weekly installments. Whether or not the story was any good seemed immaterial, I just loved the idea that a publisher was releasing a book in this way, just like the old penny dreadfuls from over a century ago. Continue reading “Ministry”

Singularitarian

“[When] there are wireless chips in my clothes, when I get up in the morning it’s going to simplify my life enormously. There’s all this stuff I won’t have to consciously think about anymore. If I don’t know where my cowboy boots are, they will tell me.”
– Bruce Sterling

I quite like Bruce Sterling’s novels, Schismatrix and Holy Fire in particular, but the reason why I bring up this quote is because it’s in an interview with Vernor Vinge, one of my favorite authors. Vernor Vinge is best known for two things – slowly but surely writing epic space operas that awards tend to gravitate to, and for popularising the idea of the Singularity (the continuation of the exponential development in technology to the point where it’s changing so fast, we can’t predict where it’s going).

His latest book, Rainbows End, is not a space opera, and takes place in California a mere few decades from now. In it, he looks at a few trends in computing and communication, and simply extrapolates them. However, the novel doesn’t focus on the technology as much as the way the technology profoundly changes the way people live and work, in quite an intimidating manner. We forget that our present day technology of mobile phones and the internet has completely reshaped millions of people’s lives (if only the seven million people who play World of Warcraft). Imagine what it’s going to be like in another 20 or 30 years.

One idea of his that I’m quite fond of is silent messaging, where you simply subvocalise words and they’re transmitted to another person’s earpiece or contact lenses instantly. The technology behind this is not particularly hard. You need unmetered ubiquitous network access (check – we’re almost there), a sensor that can pick up and translate subvocalizations (check – although it needs to get a little smaller) and a transceiver (check – it’s called a mobile phone). The hardest part are the contact lenses, which is tricky but there are a lot of bright people working on that. Alternatively you could just wear a miniaturised earpiece (check).

So what, you might ask, I can already do that with texting. True, but with silent messaging, you could effectively conduct two conversations at once, or simply talk to someone without anyone else knowing. The social implications are enormous. Not only are we talking about cheating on a massive scale, but at a more basic level, backup on a global scale. Want to get rid of an awkward date? Silent message your friend to rescue you. Need to figure out a complex sum while carrying a load of shopping bags? Silent message your calculator. Need to remember or look up something – anything – before you forget it? Silent message your notebook or Google. This is a few years off.

Ultimately, it’s what the technology enables that’s interesting. Vinge illustrates this rather well in the last third of the book, which takes place over about two hours:

“In the climax, there are only about 25 Marines that are actually involved in an operation that is looking after the entire southwest United States. But they are backed up by thousands of analysts and by a lot of equipment on the ground. So, in a way, the normal people in the story are already strange by our standards.”

If your technology is so powerful, then you don’t need people to wield the weapons, you just need people to out-think and outguess the enemy. The more people and the more diverse their knowledge and specialties, the better. The theme running through Rainbows End is that it’s not so much what you know, or even who you know, it’s the ability to identify and connect people with the skills and knowledge you need in the best way possible. To do that, you need to be able to use the new tools effectively, and inevitably, the young will be able to learn those tools better than the old.

It’s a scary place, the future.