Category Archives: Uncategorized

Harlan Ellison – Dangerous Visions

Harlan Ellison was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame last month. At the age of 77, I have no idea why they waited so long. However it’s great news nonetheless.

Ellison wrote so many novels and short stories since the ’50, it’s very difficult to single one out. However, I would like to highlight one book of his which I think (at least in my mind) is quite significant: Dangerous Visions, edited by Ellison and published back in 1967.

Why was it so important. It was a ground-breaking anthology that made manifest the New Wave revolution in Science Fiction. Smashing head on with the expectations of SF publishing, and setting new horizons for what Science Fiction (as a genre) was capable of.

And the list of authors is breathtaking: Robert Silverberg; Frederik Pohl; Philip José Farmer; Robert Bloch; Brian W. Aldiss; Philip K. Dick; Larry Niven; Poul Anderson;  J. G. Ballard;  John Brunner; Keith Laumer;  Norman Spinrad; and so on, and so on. I don’t think there’s anyone in this anthology who isn’t famous.

It’s books like this which take Science Fiction to new literary heights , and I venture to say we have yet to see a similar work of its kind. Perhaps, we never will.

Why Good Old Fashion AI is Dead

Martin heidegger

The following paper is probably the best document which describes the death of “Good Old Fashion AI”.

Why Heideggerian AI Failed and how Fixing it would Require making it more Heideggerian

Okay, it might be a bit long for the casual blog readers. But Professor Dryfus makes a compelling case for the death of traditional AI, and why its future depends on Heideggerian philosophy. In reality, the AI community now seems to recognise that to crack the secret of consciousness, we must first understand how it manifests itself in living creatures. Only then can we begin to create artificial intelligence that represents that which we can only now imagine in Science Fiction.

It’s a fascinating topic.

Technology’s Emotional Driver

Chimp using stick  Chimp Using Rock  Bonobo Eating 

I have often considered why man seems so hell-bent on changing his environment. Why humans invent many types of useful objects and techniques, all of which I deem to be technology.

Quite honestly, most philosophical books on this topic do not have an answer. In other words, the motivation behind man’s incredible creativeness is not explained. It remains simply,  a mystery.

From my point of view, such a position is tragic. Humans are by their very nature, technological creatures.  In my opinion, the very thing that separates us from the natural world (although this too is a pont of argument) is our ability to envision an optimal state of existence, and then work towards that state by applying appropriate tools or techniques. We want to create and invent, and deep down within us there seems to be a motivational driver. But sadly, no one seems able to put their finger on it.

However, after listening to an interview with Jaak Panksepp on the Brain Science Podcast, I was stuck with the possibility that man’s primary motivation to create technology could be a specific emotion. 

In brief, Dr. Panksepp has for some time experimented on the emotion centers of animals, and has concluded there are seven primary emotions that can be found within the brains of most mammals. They are; Seeking, Fear, Rage, Lust, Care, Panic, and Play. I won’t discuss them all, but I am very interested in Dr. Panksepp’s ideas on the Seeking system.

According to Panksepp, the Seeking emotion is a primary driver which is within all mammals, and presumably humans. It motivates us to find solutions to imminent problems, the most fundamental of which would be forging for food. However, the Seek emotion is a general goal seeking system. His own words sum up its complex behavior;

… the neuroscience evidence indicates that all mammalian brains do contain a general-purpose SEEKING system designed to actively engage the world, especially its life-sustaining resources. The active and automatized urge to energetically interact with the world and to help integrate associated information about environmental events, increases the future efficiency of behaviors through the emergence of cognitive maps, expectancies, and habit structures (Panksepp, 1986a, 1992a, 1998a).

After listening and reading up to the links above, I would ask anyone to consider whether this very same Seek emotion could be responsible for technology’s creation. Is it so strange? After all, our will to discover and invent seems driven by something. I would hypothesize that Panksepp’s “Seek” is in fact that force. And this would explain why technology is so general in nature. As I have argued in previous posts, technology is not just a simple tool or invention. It is more like a useful idea that helps us shape the world. Yes, technology can be instantiated into an object. However, the concrete form pails against the idea which created it. That is because, the idea within our heads can be passed down to others, and repeated when the desire to do so exerts itself.

However, even if Seek is the primary force behind our inventiveness, there are many more questions to ask. For instance, why is man so capable of going beyond the creative ability of animals? Is the technology we create  intrinsically different from what we see in nature? For example, when beavers build dams, and birds build nests; is that an application of technology? It could very well be that the emotional centers of all our brains are driving this, but I tend to feel our cognitive scope is much higher, and allow man to enter the world of the “unnatural”.

But as interesting as all these questions are, let’s not tackle them all here in this one post. For now, the issue is whether or not the Seek emotion acts as our primary source of invention, or want to invent. I believe it is. And hopefully new experiments in neuroscience will gather enough evidence to make a more objective case.

If you want to have a more technical breakdown of Dr. Jaak Panksepp‘s ideas, I would suggest you also look at the following paper. It is more technical, but still a good read.

It Smelled of Oil and Hot Metal

 

The title may appear strange, but it’s a quote from Inside Science Fiction by James Gunn, a nonfiction book about the origins and history of SF. Gunn is a grand master, and perhaps the leading authority on SF. And his statement, “it smelled of oil and hot metal”  depicts well the nature of the genre. His words aptly describes SF’s brash and crude image. But as Gunn puts it, the genre was ignored by everyone except its fans. Who it would seem, kept coming back for more.

I’ve only finished the first two chapters, but what can I say? I’m impressed by Gunn’s mixture of informative story telling, and humorous anecdotes. Quite honestly, it’s hard to put down.

I’ll write about it in later posts. But if you’re interested in the genre for personal reasons, or just trying to get a better understanding as a SF writer,  I suggest you get a copy. You’ll enjoy every page.

Infinitas

Once again I went on Saturday to Infinitas bookstore (bookshop in OzTalk, mate) in Parramatta. My intention was to join the SF Writers Group. Sadly,  it didn’t take place for logistical reasons. However, I did have the chance to speak with Tim, the proprietor about his thoughts on SF.

Infinitas

Charless Stross signing at Infitas Aug. 10, 2010

Honestly, the number of independent booksellers is becoming few. And ones specializing in Science Fiction? Well, that’s even fewer. So I’m actually quite impressed to see wonderful shops like this crammed with SF to, literally, the ceiling. Making things even better, Tim is a wonderful person, who is both friendly and knowledgable about the genre.

So what’s happening in the marketplace? We both talked about the future of e-publishing. The clock is ticking and I suppose we both agreed that paper will go away (and the bookshops too sadly), but there is no agreement on when this will occur. My guess it is only about 5 years. But, I’ve been wrong before. Oh so wrong!

The written genre is of course in trouble. It always has been, and it always will. But clearly Sci-Fi (the media side with movies, TV, DVD, etc) is paving the way for our future. The question now is how important will writing (novels, and short stories) continue to be. I for one think it will remain the cradle, and a continuing source of brilliant ideas for the Sci-Fi media community to sponge off.

In the meantime, I look forward to visiting Infinitas several more times before my assignment in Australia comes to an end. If anyone is visiting OZ (before the demise of all paper book shops worldwide), I  suggest you give this little place a visit. I think it will be worth your time.

Worldcon 2010

The following report was published at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing . Many thanks to Shaun Farrell for putting it out there . However, I have made my own posting with some aditional material. Enjoy:

Spending five full days at the 68
th annual Worldcon in Melbourne Australia was an incredible experience. It was my first Worldcon, and as a lover of the Sci-fi genre, I imagined complete Sci-Fi immersion from morning till night would be easy. It’s a dream come true don’t you think? However I must admit that by the end of the 5th day, I was absolutely exhausted and in desperate need of rest. But now that I’ve had a few day to recuperate, let me share a journal of my experiences during this amazing event.

Day 1:

After registration, there was a small rush to sign up for Kaffeeklatsches.  Being my first con, I soon realized how important and fascinating these meetings are. A Kaffeeklatsch is a private sitting of about ten people with authors, artists, and other notable persons attending the convention. Enjoying a cozy cup of coffee like this is a key feature of Worldcon, and I was lucky to start my first day with celebrated writer John Scalzi (President of SFWA). John as you may know is a well known blogger, and wrote _The God Engines_, which was up for a Hugo this year. He is also an incredible personality. Full of energy and humor, his exuberance and passion for Science Fiction was incredible to be around. I for one consider myself quite lucky to have met him from the very start of my Worldcon experience.


John Scalzi

After the Kaffeeklatsch ended, I met up with Graham Storrs , a friend of mine, and author of _Time Splash_. Graham lives in Australia, and I was really happy to meet up with him and catch up on his newest work. But we couldn’t talk long, because we both wanted to jump into the many panel discussions taking place.


Graham Storrs

My first session was called “Australian SF vs. The rest of the world”. Chaired by Lucy Sussex, Peter M. Ball, Tehani Wessely, and Jack Dann , it was an appropriate session to watch, given that I was in Australia. The panel discussed challenges faced by Australian writers trying to get published in a country where the population (given its enormous land mass) is quite low. For most writers, breaking out into the mainstream market means getting published with US, or British publishing houses. Accordingly, the voice and style of writing often needs to be tailored to the respective target market. It was impressive to see that given all these challenges, Australia produces some great science fiction. This was evidenced by the panelists themselves, and by other notable authors like Greg Egan . Greg sadly, was not at the convention.

Day 2:

Friday began in the large Plenary hall, where Guest of Honor, Kim Stanly Robinson and Robert Silverberg spoke about their life experience in the Science Fiction field. What can I say? Watching these two great men talk for an hour was incredible. Going back and forth candidly, Stan and Bob discussed a number of subjects; archeology, ecology, utopian societies, World War II, economics, etc. It was all interesting, but for me the most memorable part was their discussion about changes in the SF market over the last few decades. Of course Robert Silverberg has been writing over 50 years, so from his point of view, the reduction in pay rates over the decades was lamentable. He pointed out that writers now get paid less per word than he got back in 1960. On a more positive note, he and Stan reminisced about many modern day advantages. For instance, both had wonderful memories about the introduction of personal computers, and how much easier it is to go about the laborious process of writing.


Stan and Bob during and after their Plenary

Later in the afternoon, I was also fortunate to meet China Miéville . China’s book, _The City & The City_, was up for a Hugo and many people were keen to meet him. But he had cancelled his Kaffeeklatsch signup due to sudden scheduling changes. It caused quite a stir with the many eager fans waiting in line. However, by noontime and without announcement, his Kaffeeklatsch was reinstated. And only by accident did I happen to walk by and find the signup sheet just laying about unnoticed. What incredible luck! Of course, meeting China in Person was an unbelievable experience. Here before me was a true intellectual, yet open, soft spoken, and quite modest. A writer who strives to create something other than the typical thrillers our genre has been gravitating too. In fact, I asked him straight out if he was attempting to buck-the-system, and write books that are more literary than what is typically expected by readers. As best as I can remember, he said, “I know not everyone will understand my writing, but I am not giving the readers what they want. I am asking the readers to want what I am giving them.”  What an answer. And since China took home the Hugo for best novel, I think the readers have shown they want what he has to give.

China signing after the Kaffeeklatsch

Friday evening, and there were many parties at the Crown Plaza Hotel, Worldcon’s official party and socializing meeting-place. After a few rounds of unabashed merriment, I found myself on the lower level, where a party was being held by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG). There I met a number of interesting personalities in the Australia writing scene. I first met Donna Maree Hanson , an editor and writer for the CSFG. She was very cordial, and explained CSFG’s history as a writer’s group formed back in 1999 after Aussicon3. Donna then introduced me to other writers in their group. One member was Simon Petrie , a research scientist and speculative fiction author living in Canberra. Simon and I met up later in the convention and he showed me his work published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM) , a fantasy and science fiction magazine published out of New South Wales, Australia. I wasn’t familiar with ASIM, but I soon met up with one of their editors, Patty Jansen . She took some time to show me a broad spectrum of work that has been published by the magazine. In all, I was quite impressed by everyone in CSFG and ASIM. And now that I know more about them, I look forward to seeing their future work.

Donna                       Simon and Patty

Day 3:

Saturday, and a big day for Plenary sessions. The first session was entitled, “Time and the Novel”, and was given by Stan Robinson about Science Fiction as a literary art form. Stan spoke elegantly about Modernist literature. Quoting from works of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, he explaining how Modernist and Post-Modernist literature helped shape Science Fiction. He pointed out that simple rules like, “show don’t tell”, can sometimes overly restrict. And it is important for writers to use, deep-time exposition, to establish the future history of a novel. Long exposition, in his opinion, is fine as long as it maintains the reader’s interest. And pointing out the trend towards fast, dramatized dialog, Stan made the case that modern SF panders itself to the less knowledgeable reader, and takes the genre away from its literary roots where it might be better served. I sat enthralled by Stan’s lecture, and I came away from this session with a much deeper understanding of what Science Fiction is, and what it is capable of becoming.

The next Plenary session was about marketing and selling Short Stories. The panel included Cory Doctorow , David Levine, Lezil Robyn, Robert Silverberg, and Angela Slatter. It was a very lively discussion, and focused on two areas. First was a need by writers to make contacts that can help get around slush piles. Bob Silverberg  made the point that often luck is sometimes needed to avoid being forgotten in a sea of paper. The second point the group talked about was the need for persistence. Since slush piles are unavoidable, the group urged that one must be professional, and submit a high number of pieces in order to get noticed. David D. Levine also made the case that even with a high number of rejections, editors will still note an author’s attempt, and accept work when the quality improves.

Day 4:

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of listening to Stan Robinson talk about his ideas on ecology and climate change. He talked for some time about technological development, and its negative impact on smaller life forms. One consequence, he pointed out, might be the destruction of the sea’s entire food chain. He also talked about possible solutions, but made it clear that “purity”, in a philosophical sense, was not a solution. He urged everyone to stay clear of fanaticism, and to consider unpopular solutions if needed. For instance, lowering our carbon footprint should include nuclear power, even though use of that technology brings with it a number of potential dangers. Overall, I found the discussion quite poignant, and I give Stanley Robinson a lot of credit for his stand on ecology.

Between sessions, I ran into David Levine . He was nice enough to sit down with me for some time and discuss the challenges that writers face getting published in greater detail. David himself is a well respected writer, and getting his personal insight on publishing was a real treat. In my opinion, it is chance meetings like this, that make Worldcon special.

The next Plenary session was about the life work of Jack Vance. I myself am a big fan of Vance, and was very keen to hear the thoughts of the panel made up by George R.R. Martin ,  Terry Dowling , Mark Olson and Jonathan Strahan . They began by talking about Vance’s wonderful stylized form of minimalist writing. They felt his prose created a hypnotic and soothing affect on the reader. George Martin also commented at length about Vance’s broad repertoire of stories. Some funny, some sad, some weird. But the panel also recognized faults in Vance’s work. For instance, the plot and ending would often have problems, or seem odd at times. Still, everyone agreed that Vance is arguably, one of the greatest Science Fiction writers of all time, and any faults were simply pushed aside by a writing style that few are able to imitate. Of course, Jack Vance is quite old now, and no longer able to write. Even so, the panel talked about the possibility of a revival. This was evidenced by a recently published anthology in honor of his Dying Earth series , and the possibility of movies.

The next major session was about the exploration of Mars. Stan Robinson, David D. Levine, and Jim Benford discussed the recent discovery of methane in certain localized areas of the red planet. They stressed that this is quite intriguing because methane can be produced by two processes. One is by volcanism and tectonic plate movement, the other biological. Now since Mars is geologically dead, it is possible to consider that some biological process is responsible. If so, it raises interesting questions. The panel talked about the many challenges of going to Mars in order to find out the truth, along with the moral ramifications. If indeed there is microbial life there, the panel considered man’s right to disturb it. Overall, the discussion wasn’t about little green men, but I still found it thought provoking.

The rest of the Sunday afternoon was spent chatting with friends and checking out the dealer room until 7pm, when the Hugo Awards ceremony took place. Since I have never been to the Hugo Awards before, I can’t compare it to anything. However, it was quite exciting as the categories and winners were read out loud. Rather than write everything down, let me put the a link in that shows the final results ;

All Hugo winners line up.

However, it is worth mentioning that this year’s voting for Best Novel resulted in a tie. Fist place was shared by China Miéville for his book _The City & The City_ along with _The Windup Girl_ by Paolo Bacigalupi . I was very pleased with this result because I think both works exemplify the great potential of Science fiction. Sadly, Paolo was not there to accept his award, but China did get up on stage. I had asked China a few days earlier if he expected to win, to which he answered quite frankly, no. He was quite modest about his chances, and I think this explains why he appeared somewhat shocked and out of breath as he got up on stage to make his acceptance speech.

Day 5:

The final day, and it felt like things were winding down. Still, I attended some good sessions. There was one on the Bioethics of Terraforming, given by Stan Robinson, Greg Benford, and David Levine. There was also a great session on selling short fiction.

But what I remember most about the last day was my final Kaffeeklatsch with Jay Lake . Even though Jay was suffering from health issues, he was brave to come to Australia and speak with the fans. Soft spoken and extremely personable, he talked about the state of Science Fiction, and why Sci-Fi sales were currently weaker than Fantasy. Jay explained in a very thoughtful manner, that Sci-fi suffers from the fact that it is non-normative. A kind of storytelling that starts with a environment where one introduces a disturbance: aliens, technology, war, etc. The outcome of which is an irrevocable change to society. This is in contrast to the normative story telling of Fantasy, which typically starts with a happy society, which is then disturbed by a dragon, wizard, and or demon. At which point, a young boy/girl comes of age and finds a magical sword, ring, helmet, spear, whatever; and then goes off to battle until said society is back to its normal state. This explanation I felt was extremely interesting, and does address why folks seem to have issues with Sci-Fi. For the most part, Sci-Fi brings news of change, and the fact that things will never be the same. I suppose not everyone likes that kind of storytelling. It can be scary. But I for one, feel it is closer to reality. Do we not live in a world that is forever changing?

On that note, I can say that Worldcon has forever changed my life. I learned so much, met so many interesting people, and made some really great new friends. How I can I ever be the same afterwards? I won’t be.

In closing, I can only apologize for leaving out so much detail from this report. I am unable to mention all the sessions that took place, nor am I able document fully the large number of fascinating discussions I had with fans and writers during breaks, lunch, and socializing events. Some of it will be lost in time, but I hope to be at future Worldcons and continue the experience. For your information, Next year’s Worldcon is in Reno Nevada , an easy travel destination for Americans. So I look forward to a big crowd, and lots of SF fun.

See you there.

But what is natural?

I have had several discussions about technology, and my defining it as any application of Sentient (not necessarily human) intentions to modify the environment in a preferred manner. I along with some other scholars see it as an unnatural act by definition. But this begs the question why our “intentions” make a difference. Are they really special or just an extension of the natural world? And If they are natural, then all our intentions and technology which emerge from those intentions, could be seen as an extension of nature.

This issue has created some debate. The crux of my argument boils down to the definition and intrinsic meaning of “natural”. Things seem to get blurry at this point, and to be honest I don’t think anyone has the answer to this. I suppose everyone can decide for himself how to apply the meaning.

But I did come across a philosopher “Peter Hancock” who seems to have thought this through, somewhat like me. The following link is interesting;

www.peterhancock.ucf.edu/Downloads/books/ESSAYS_ON_THE_FUTURE_OF_HUM.PDF

And within this text I found the following;

Technology and Natural Laws
In the sense I have conveyed we now have to inquire whether
technology and nature are different or whether they are in fact
essentially the same. For good or bad, we have come to a situation
where strong positive empiricism reigns and technology is the material
manifestation of that creed. But is this natural? As I am sure the reader
has suspected all along, it all depends upon what is considered
‘natural?’ That is, are we going to use the term in an inclusive or
exclusive sense. The inclusive, coarse-grained view is that physical
entities obey physical laws. Hence, everything is ‘natural’ by this
definition of nature. But this view is biased by a re-ificiation of
physical laws. To the strict ecologist, to whom these laws and their
application is sacrosanct, technology in general and human-machine
systems in particular are only extensions of nature. True, they explore
exotic regions that cannot be compassed by any living organism alone,
but they are bound by the same strictures and constraints and are subject
to the ‘pervasive’ laws. But, in conception, they are founded in human
imagination which is not bound by any such laws. As Koestler (1972)
notes, ‘the contents of conscious experience have no spatio-temporal
dimensions; in this respect they resemble the non-things of quantum
physics which also defy definition in terms of space, time, and
substance.’ This unbounding is what makes developments such as
virtual reality so intriguing (Hancock, 1992).

If I understand the above, it seems to put importance or meaning on the fact that technology distinguishes itself as an expression of imagination, beyond any limits of physical laws.

You could say that many (if not all) humans do put importance upon man’s imagination and desires. If not, why not just go back and live in the jungle? Mind you, I don’t think this is the brainwashing of any one culture/religion of humans. We are all guilty of this thinking and we have been since man got a brain big enough to leave the jungle. As proof, wouldn’t you agree we all seem to like singing around the fire? That is not the work of Judeo/Christian culture. It is the work of Sentient beings.

Of course, now I need to explain what is imagination and intention. Perhaps it is an emergent property of nature. One that allows the cosmos to understand itself.

I don’t know. I guess I will never know.