Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "The Past's Future"

you've just discovered how far behind some publications are at reading their slush pile.

Posted by Jay at February 14, 2012 09:35 PM

The slush pile explanation would certainly be comforting.

Posted by David Moles at February 15, 2012 12:00 AM

In my practical experience of trying to navigate with a GPS phone in a forest, you might well end up too far away from mobile coverage to download any map tiles. So you'd end up looking at a blue dot representing your position on a featureless grey grid. Maybe coverage will be a problem even in 2511; but of course, the character would still have reflexively tried to use his phone/contacts/implant for navigation, so the writer is still at fault for not thinking about this.

I think the solution to the wider issue you raise will come soon enough, as the print magazines die off (I was going to suggest that the people who still want to write and read about that 1980s space opera future will die off too, but on reflection I think it's as much an aesthetic preference as a generational one).

Posted by Ben at February 15, 2012 12:06 AM

I would like to hear more about what you think we might be really doing, in addition to nostalgia, affection for tropes, unmooredness, comfortable borrowed settings, etc.

I mean, I'd say we (we, the field) are doing all those things, and that we're doing them out of hatred of the present and by way of refusing the now, but I don't know what else we're doing, or what thing we might be doing that all of those things add up to; or at least I don't know how to articulate it.

Posted by David Moles at February 15, 2012 12:07 AM

Maybe the problem is less that the story in question is refusing the now, and more that it's not doing something interesting while refusing the now.

Because not all SF has to be about how radically different the world will be in the future, but SF ought to be engaged in some sort of interesting speculation. One reason the "contact-has-been-re-established-with-fallen-colony-via-FTL" setting is a stock one is that it's useful for depicting different societies and setting up different forms of culture shock and cultural imperialism. Most people don't think it's a problem that LeGuin's Ekumen have no Facebook equivalent; those stories aren't really engaged with our technological present, but that doesn't mean they're morally bankrupt.

Is it possible that if the story you read had posed an interesting thought experiment about gender politics, you'd have been more forgiving?

Posted by Ted at February 15, 2012 01:55 AM

Oh, and perhaps the cri de couer about the tyranny of mere competence you were thinking of was this one?

Posted by Ted at February 15, 2012 01:58 AM

Ted, I think I should be clearer; I don't need stories to be engaged with our present, or even our timeline. I want worlds to make sense in their own terms.

The Ekumen are different enough from us, and Le Guin makes repeatedly enough the point that they are skeptical and careful in their adoption of technologies, that were she to write an Ekumen story today, I would not expect the Ekumen to have Facebook. But I would certainly expect Le Guin, if she wrote an Ekumen story in 2012, to *think* about Facebook -- broadly defined -- and why and how the Ekumen doesn't have it. I would expect her to take into account what we now know about the cheapness of communication technologies and the power of a networked world. (Knowing Le Guin, I would even wager, in 2012, that she would include a sly joke about it.)

Le Guin's "fallen colonies reestablished" have very carefully thought out historical contexts. Gethen is technologically medieval, Annares and Urras are technologically cold-war-era, for a reason. Even if we read them as written today, we don't have to excuse them not having the internet, because it's clear why they wouldn't. Nor do I expect computers or cell phones on Whileaway in "When it Changed" -- Russ shows that they've had to struggle back from the collapse and that even a shotgun is a luxury. The same is even true of, say, Dune -- Herbert anticipated that computers would change the world profoundly, but he didn't want to write about that, so we get the Butlerian Jihad and Mentats. Done and done.

(Note that in this story the lack-of-expectation-of-networked-connectedness was actually in the *visitor's* POV -- and he's *not* from a fallen colony world.)

I certainly wouldn't have minded an interesting thought experiment about gender politics, but in and of itself I doubt that would have made me more forgiving. But yes, a parable-like style which clearly signalled that we weren't meant to treat the story's technological reality as an extrapolation would have made me more forgiving. "Long ago and far away, there was a planet where..." -- sure, then I won't expect cell phones.

Even a story which is purely -- and clearly sets itself up as -- "romantic adventure set in a from-central-casting SF-trope backdrop", while it still rankles a little, forces me to concede that it is playing fair in its own terms, and that my problem with it is my own personal idiosyncracy.

What I find very commonly though is a story which wants to engage in some particular piece of technological speculation -- "hey, what if we could erase our memories when..." -- but is only interested in that bit of speculation, and sets it in a vague descended-from-earth, 1985-with-FTL future which is, essentially, logically incoherent. If you tug on my sleeve and say "look at this cool sfness!", do not be surprised if I expect you to have come up with a world and not just a gimmick.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 15, 2012 11:51 AM

I was with you up until this: "whose covert, unacknowledged hatred of the present shows up simply as indifference to how the world actually works now". Why diagnose hatred of the present, specifically, as opposed to inattention, lack of imagination, rigidity of thought? Would this be clearer to me if I hadn't stopped reading print SF magazines in (let me think) 1998?

Oh, and cf. #shitsiskosays.

Posted by Cosma Shalizi at February 15, 2012 02:08 PM

Well, you're right, Cosma -- that's an interesting question (and speaks to David's question above that I have not yet answered). Why not just diagnose inattention and rigidity?

Maybe I'm being charitable, but it seems to me that inattention and rigidity are not where the matter ends -- they are symptoms. Because the stories I am talking about are ones where I liked the writing well enough until the worldbuilding kicked me out; or, indeed, where the worldbuilding issues even slipped by me until later, on the bicycle. So there was enough imagination plotwise, enough dexterity of prose, enough non-rigid, attentive insight into character to win me over.

So we're not talking about generalized rigidity and inattention. We're talking about being rigid and inattentive about a specific area. Maybe it's a stretch, but it seems to me that if you're perfectly capable of being flexible and attentive except for right there, then something is going on with your relationship with that there. There's something you're avoiding that's making you rigid, there's something you're unwilling to pay attention to. Sure, on a superficial level it may seem just like laziness. But it's not an evenly distributed laziness, and that's what makes me wonder.

From there to "hatred of the present" is perhaps a leap. But if a literature is described as escapist, then surely what it escapes to is some kind of indicator of what it's escaping from?

Fantasy is up-front about the fact that it's offering an escape to a simpler, romanticized past. Golden-age SF does read like it's escaping out -- to imagined far horizons, where the constraints of the author's world are loosened. A typical SF story written in 1962 is far worse, on a line, plot, literary, character level than a typical SF story written in 2012. But there's nowhere in a 1962 SF story that you can point to and say "geez, this is dated even for 1962; this feels like it's written by someone who's never heard of TV, the atom bomb, or cars refashioning urban landscapes into suburban ones". If today's SF writers -- who are better writers -- are more rigid, it's worth asking why.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 15, 2012 02:55 PM

Yes, Ted, that was the earlier cri de coeur

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 15, 2012 02:56 PM

Okay, if the story in question posits a problem created by future technology but which can be solved by current technology, I agree that that is an issue. I'm not sure how widespread that particular issue is in modern SF, though.

A broader issue is that a lot of traditional plot devices are being made obsolete by modern technology. For example, missed connections become increasingly implausible when everyone has a cellphone. But this issue is not restricted to SF. It applies to mysteries, thrillers, romances: most any plot-driven fiction set in the present. (Walter Jon Williams recently commented on a similar issue in his review of a Le Carré novel.)

These plot devices have been around as long as storytelling, so it's no wonder that it'll take a while for writers to adjust. I don't know that it's a sign of writers refusing the now.

Posted by Ted at February 16, 2012 08:17 PM

I fear we may end up in another question of semantics, between "difficulty adjusting", "reluctance to adjust", and "refusal of the now."

But let me ask you this. The pace of technological change in the 50 years up to 1962 was at least as startling as the pace of technological change since; widespread use of the telephone, automobile and airplane, death camps and antibiotics and the atom bomb, all of those surely matter as much as the cell phone and the internet. I don't see any reason to suppose that the developments of 1962-2012 are intrinisically more plot-device-foiling than those of 1912-1962. And, obviously, most of the period defined by "as long as storytelling" occurred before 1912.

Thus I would say that your model ought to predict SF writers of 1962 having that same, non-genre-specific, non-emotionally-driven, simply craft-oriented and matter-of-fact "difficulty adjusting". Their stories ought to be riddled with plot devices that actually no longer make sense in a world which now has atom bombs, televisions, superhighways, and ubiquitous telephony. Please point to these plot devices.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 17, 2012 03:19 PM

I suspect that in 1962 writers who wanted to refuse the now wrote planetary romance, postapocalypses, dying earth stories, etc. Which would suggest they were at least a little more canny about it than in today's magazine writer culture.

Oh, and don't forget radio, penicillin, audio recording, and enormous computers.

Posted by David Moles at February 17, 2012 03:55 PM

(By way of noting that I, too, would like to see this predicted stories in which futuristic SF of 1962 ignores the transformative technologies of the decades leading up to 1962.)

Posted by David Moles at February 17, 2012 03:57 PM

But on a side note: Ben, wasn't it you that just a few years ago was arguing that, e.g., space opera has become merely another stock adventure setting, like pirate, spy, sword & sorcery, secret rogue anti-terrorist special forces unit, etc.?

Posted by David Moles at February 17, 2012 04:02 PM

Arguing that it has become one is different from welcoming it. Actually, with any of those genres, I suppose you can signal to me that you are using it merely as a tongue-in-cheek, trope-for-trope's sake stylized backdrop, not referring to a real historical period but to the romantic literature around it: I don't expect historical accuracy of pirate culture from Pirates of Penzance. Even then I expect it to be a logically coherent world, but there's more leeway. But if you don't position it as a vaudeville backdrop, then I expect it to follow the logic implied by it's world -- with pirates and spies as much as with space opera or post-apocalypse...

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 17, 2012 04:26 PM

Perhaps the problem is that in lost colony / not-very-alien-aliens stories (among other warmed-over genres), it's not backdrop.

Posted by David Moles at February 17, 2012 07:28 PM

Thus I would say that your model ought to predict SF writers of 1962 having that same, non-genre-specific, non-emotionally-driven, simply craft-oriented and matter-of-fact "difficulty adjusting". Their stories ought to be riddled with plot devices that actually no longer make sense in a world which now has atom bombs, televisions, superhighways, and ubiquitous telephony. Please point to these plot devices.

I don't think my "model" predicts any such thing. (Although you yourself say that your complaint is the same one that fueled the New Wave, so maybe you can point to examples yourself.)

I'm not claiming there was greater change between 1962-2012 than 1912-1962; I'm making a much more specific claim. For most of human history, it was easy to be out of reach when someone else was trying to contact you. For most of human history, it was possible to get lost unintentionally. Stories going back to the ancient Greeks have used those as plot devices; the specifics change with the technology of the time, but the idea of missed connections or being lost remain. Those plot devices are rapidly becoming obsolete, at least in some parts of the world.

Posted by Ted at February 17, 2012 08:50 PM

Actually, while the "cell phone problem" -- how do we get a message to X? We'll have to fight our way across the mountains, and then -- oh wait, let me try his cell phone -- is indeed a common one, it isn't one I was complaining about in this blog post.

The cell phone problem has been messing with plot conventions since the early 1990s at least. But actually -- though I can't give you an exhaustive survey with citations -- my sense is that it's less common outside of SF. In a contemporary romance or thriller, if a character needs to be unreachable, the authors generally insert some bit of business about how the cell phone is out of batteries, lost, locked in the car, etc. Indeed there are contemporary romances deeply interested in romance in the age of Twitter.

Whereas SF authors creating entire secondary futures, on other worlds, etc, are likely to simply not have the characters have any cell phones and not explain why. And why? Because readers reading something set in 2012 know instinctively that cell phones belong there. But readers being transported to a distant world are in a more malleable state, willing to trust the author to tell them what that world is like.

I expect Le Carre actually handles "the cell phone problem" correctly, since that's NOT what WJW complains about. He says Le Carre fails to understand search -- Google, wikipedia, and so on -- which is a different technological disruption, dating from the late 90s, (WJW mentions also smartphones, but it's the smart part he's talking about, implying that they do have cell phones, plus he makes clear that it's a separate problem).

Meanwhile, in my blog entry I'm talking about three problems that date from the mid- to late-00s. One is GPS cell phones -- "help, our characters are lost in a rural area just outside of a city!" That is a separate problem (since this character doesn't have anyone he'd trust to call for help, a non-GPS cell phone wouldn't have been problematic. The second is lifeblogging and wearable computing -- he tries a print journal to record the time he's going to lose memory of, but never thinks of wearing a camera. The third is social connectivity -- the idea that going physically away on vacation does not serve to separate you from friends and family.

My kids are just now in the other room rehearsing their two-person show of the musical RENT. That musical, written and set at the beginning of the 1990s is fascinated with another disruptive technology -- the answering machine. There are entire songs set on answering machines, investigations of the new social practice of screening calls and their unintended effects (they accidentally answer the phone when it's the landlord they're avoiding, Benny, because they assume it's Collins calling back), jokes about the older generation not understanding the technology. Answering machines are disruptive to plot devices -- a whole set of stories 1920-1980 could get away with calling characters and having them just not be home, and thus important messages could not be delivered. Try inserting answering machines into a Raymond Chandler novel, for instance.

In Dan's link, "shit sisko says", there's another whole category of technology at issue which doesn't have to do with missed connections or being lost - but rather with the effects of the internet on "productivity", leisure, and information dissemination, politics, and governance.

I named a whole bunch of 1912-1962 technologies that are disruptive to plot devices, but consider, for starters, the telephone. There are endless, endless numbers of plots in which characters have to act quickly because they cannot deliver a physical message. Those plots were all disrupted by the telephone.

You seem to be arguing that something vastly different is occurring now which destroys the whole idea of "missed connections or being lost". I think this is nonsense. For centuries, we've had technologies to help us make connections and help us find our way. If a writer wants his characters unconnected or lost, and wants us to suspend our disbelief, she just needs to know what the relevant technologies are, and show why they don't work.

It would have been perfectly adequate to have showed this character checking his equivalent of a GPS cell phone and getting some plausible future equivalent of "no service"; or to have had the government ban introducing GPS to the new planet so as to avoid disrupting local trade patterns; or to have GPS cell phones have become obsolete because of in-brain hardware and his gets flaky when he gets to the new planet and he keeps putting it off getting it fixed; or whatever.

This is not new work. In a story from 1962, if the characters on the outpost needed to warn the main base of the alien incursion, and needed to make the dangerous trek in their land rover, the author wouldn't just conveniently forget the existence of radio. There would be a convenient solar flare blocking communications, or whatever.

(OK, as a test case I checked 1932's A Martian Odyssey-- http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23731/23731-h/23731-h.htm -- when radio was relatively new. The results are a little ambiguous; the story makes it clear that the shuttle the protagonist left in has radio transmission, but not reception capabilities. I think I'm going to give this one to Weinberg, because the transistor was only invented in 1948, and I think even luggable radio units only got really going during WWII, so the idea of a radio receiver small enough to carry in a small plane might have been quite a daring speculation. The fact that he spells out the precise capabilities of the device at the beginning -- "So I sailed along, calling back my position every hour as instructed, and not knowing whether you heard me" -- suggests that he's got his eye on the problem, he's called his shot in terms of what technologies this future contains, and he's following through. But in any event he's not just acting like it's 1890 in the story.)

In A Game of Thrones, when GRRM wants to disrupt medieval communications, he makes sure we know his characters are posting archers to shoot down message-carrying birds. If he hadn't, if he'd simply forgotten that he has message ravens, that would have been a problem.

If anything, what's unique about the disruptions of the current period has nothing to do with "missed connections" -- the big jump there is the telegraph and the phone, not the fact that the phone moves to your pocket in a finicky battery-powered device -- but with the issues Dan's link raises, the difficulty of governments controlling and suppressing information transfer -- the anti-Orwellian age.

I think my question is pretty well-posed. If it's a matter of adjusting, it should be easy enough to find a 1962 story with the plot of A Martian Odyssey -- pilot crashlands, has to return on foot -- and in which the author neglects to tell us why the downed aviator just doesn't use a transistor radio to call for rescue, because the author is still living in 1932. I don't think I'm playing unfairly at all in suggesting that if you can't find one, something has changed.

Since making sure your characters miss connections, in any age, is actually a reasonably simple piece of stage business -- "my battery is dead! a solar storm is interfering with transmission! a virus has infected the WorldMind!" -- I don't at all think that the authors are simply incapable of adjusting their game. I think these authors would remember to have the carrier pigeons shot down if the setting was medieval. Nor do I think they're consciously refusing to include cell phones in their futures.

No, I think that when they cast their mind out to their thrilling future on the rediscovered colony world, when they sink into the luxurious thrilling excitement of the Future, what they are really doing -- without really knowing it -- is casting their minds back. The place they want to write about is the lost future, the one they grew up reading about. They don't want to do the messy business of thinking about what we've learned since the summer they spent in the attic reading Asimov's or Wonder Stories. SF of 1950-1985 is what feels like the Future to them, the right Future, the interesting one. It wouldn't occur to them to add GPS cell phones because GPS cell phones weren't a part of that thing that they love.

And SF writers of 1962, for all their flaws, weren't doing that.

This is not the same problem outside of SF. Those authors I'm referring to can use GPS cell phones; they just want to leave them behind, along with all the rest of the crud and disappointment of the modern world, when they retreat to the Future.

Whereas what WJW is saying about Le Carré is that Le Carré actually doesn't, literally, himself, understand Google. He's an old guy and he has a nontechnical profession -- writing -- and he probably just doesn't get search. "Le Carré was in his mid-seventies when he wrote this book, and he’s not of a generation that grew up with the internet, and maybe he’s the sort of busy, successful person who hires other people to do the internet for him. Professionally he’s never even graduated to the typewriter— he writes everything by hand."

That's a different problem. Bungling a technology because you actually don't yourself know how it works is one thing. Using a technology yourself every day, but failing to include it when you write about the Future because it doesn't feel like it belongs there, means you're doing something different than what SF used to do.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 18, 2012 10:08 AM

Well, it seems that once again we're talking past each other. If a brief mention of "no signal" or "my battery died" is all that's needed for you to accept that the writer is not refusing the now, great. I personally think it's only slightly better than pretending that cellphones don't exist. I think really engaging with the implications of modern technology means devising dramatic situations that don't rely on someone being incommunicado; to me, that would be embracing the now, but it's also a more difficult task, and one that will take some time.

Posted by Ted at February 18, 2012 11:53 AM

Sure, I think that's a more worthy, deeper, more important goal, and I'm very interested in it personally as a project. And I think 1962 SF was more actually engaged with its technological disruptions on that deeper level, too. But in terms of what I'm talking about above, I'd settle for the technical fix.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 18, 2012 12:08 PM

It isn't that the technical fix would be so much better than pretending they don't exist in terms of speculative wow. It's that not even bothering to have a technical fix is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 18, 2012 02:19 PM

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