Sunday Salon: Current technology in novels

The Sunday SalonA recent episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast raised the subject of technology in novels, and whether authors deliberately set their novels before 1990 so that they don’t have to take technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet into account. It’s certainly true that a lot of classic stories would make no sense if all the characters had smartphones and GPS. (The podcast gave the example of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo wouldn’t have sent a letter that got delayed, but instead an SMS. Then again, texts get delayed all the time, so Juliet might still not have got the message in time. Yes, I have thought about this a lot!)

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Reality is always worth more than wishes

backroom boysBackroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin
by Francis Spufford

This was my final read for my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge. It’s been recommended to me by multiple people, including Tim, so I thought I would save this for last. It’s about British engineering projects, large and small, of the 20th century.

This is a sort of love letter to British engineering, but a deprecating one with notes of doubt. Spufford looks at projects from the Black Arrow space rocket to the computer game Elite to the Human Genome Project. Sometimes, like that last example, the Brits formed part of an international effort, but it is very much the Brits that Spufford is writing about.

Spufford is playing up the idea of the unsung hero, the small project dwarfed by international (especially US) comparison, which isn’t actually always as true as he implies (but obviously in the case of, say, the space programme, it really is). A book about technology, especially one including ongoing projects, does risk feeling dated quickly, and in the 11 years since this was first published, things have changed. In fact, the paperback edition includes an author’s note at the end with updates that had already happened in the first year since publication.

“It was beginning to dawn on the engineers that they were watching a virtually perfect performance…Wishes were turning into facts faster than seemed wholly lucky…The party was long and loud, because the attempt to orbit Prospero had been the last thing between the rocketmen and the end of the programme, and this, the celebration, was the last of the last. When the sun came up the next morning over the desert, the hangover would encompass the whole of British rocketry.”

This is an interesting, entertaining book that brings to life largely forgotten (or possibly never known to begin with) stories. Spufford doesn’t just explain the science and technology well, he bubbles with enthusiasm, pouring praise on the men and women (but as he admits himself, mostly men) who made these projects happen. I was actually a little saddened when later chapters concentrated more on the policy and politics of making projects happen, not because that’s not a valid part of the story, but because it meant there was less of that almost childlike enthusiasm and adulation.

There’s a definite lean towards Cambridge-based projects. Spufford lives in Cambridge and, while I would not say any of his choices of subjects to cover are undeserving, it does seem a little more than coincidental that half of them are or were in Cambridge, and makes me wonder what alternative options he might have covered with a net cast more widely. Also, I was not always convinced by his sweeping statements, though I’m pretty sure he’s right on the details.

For instance, Spufford writes about Elite as if it’s the one and only example of a decent British computer game, as if this effort by two Cambridge students was the country’s one stab at a games industry and, while successful, was a one-off. This is so very far from true. In the major success league, by 2003 there had been four Grand Theft Auto games (DMA Design/Rockstar North), five Tomb Raider games (Core Design), Goldeneye 007 (Rare), Lemmings (DMA Design), Burnout (Criterion Games), Worms (Team17) and dozens more that I don’t know. So while Elite was clearly a major step forward, hugely influential on gaming as a whole and an interesting human story to boot, it is by no means a lone wolf in British engineering history. That said, it’s a particularly well written chapter, plus it was a lot of fun reading it while sat next to Tim playing the recent sequel Elite: Dangerous, and hearing from him what a big deal the original Elite was.

“That’s how making goes. It would be dispiriting for the maker if it weren’t that reality is always worth more than wishes. A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain, is still therefore deeply pleasurable to the maker.”

Overall, Spufford is very readable and I’m glad that we already have one of his other books on our shelves.

First published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Borrowed from Tim

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

Too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core

William Gibson_1984_NeuromancerNeuromancer
by William Gibson

I read this book because I had arranged to take Tim to an evening with William Gibson arranged by Toppings in Bath and, having read nothing by Gibson myself, thought I might as well start with his first and most famous novel, which is 30 years old this year. It was…educational?

Gibson’s language is wonderful, both lyrical and humorous and I often felt I could visualise scenes really clearly. However, the same can’t be said for clarity of plot. Through a lot of this book I felt that I didn’t know what was happening. After I had finished it and turned to the Internet for a little guidance, it turned out I had misunderstood some early scenes and that had thrown me, but actually I had followed the majority of the action. I just somehow didn’t feel that I had.

“Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the borders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.”

The story follows Case, formerly a successful hacker in the Matrix, a kind of virtual reality, a “cyberspace” where computer data is visualised in various ways, from a pleasant beach scene to a complex maze. But at some point (before the novel begins? this bit I’m still not clear on) Case was caught stealing from an employer and a terrible punishment was wrought – a modification to his nervous system that left him unable to access the Matrix. So instead he wanders the back streets of Chiba City in Japan searching for a black market cure.

He is saved by a woman called Molly, a samurai who recruits him for a shadowy employer called Armitage, who offers to cure Case in return for a very big, dangerous job in cyberspace. He and Molly work together for Armitage but also begin to try to unravel exactly who Armitage is and what this job really is.

It’s clear from the start that this book was a major influence on the language of computing, computer games and SF films. But what’s interesting – and also no doubt part of why I got so confused about what was happening at times – is that there was a lot of terminology that’s now familiar to us all but in this book it’s not quite describing what I initially thought it was. For instance, “virtual reality” and “hacking” are words that I have clear preconceptions of but Gibson’s interpretation is wider and requires a bit of a brain shift.

Incidentally, at the Gibson talk we went to last week, he said that the only thing he felt he could predict about the future is that the division between reality and virtual reality will blur to the point that children born today won’t understand why us old folk insist on a distinction between the two. It’s clear that Gibson already thought that way when he was writing Neuromancer and it explains a lot about one of my confusions, which was that I wasn’t always sure whether a scene was happening in reality or virtual reality. But apparently the characters don’t think that way, so of course it wasn’t always distinct!

Plot confusion aside, I did enjoy this book. There are plenty of interesting, flawed characters, though none that you really get inside the head of psychologically speaking. Molly is pretty kickass, with inscrutable motivations, which I found refreshing. In fact, the whole novel felt very modern, certainly not 30 years old. I’m not sure if that’s the language or great foresight on Gibson’s part or if he’s actually managed to create something here that’s somehow timeless.

It’s also a very interesting look at addiction. Case gets physical pleasure from plugging himself into the Matrix and at the start of the novel is strung out on drugs in his attempt to achieve an equivalent high. When Armitage has Case cured of his nervous system damage, he also has Case’s pancreas altered so that no drug will have any effect on him. Initially Case is upset by this and showing signs of withdrawal, but once he gets back to cyberspace he no longer misses the drugs.

“The high wore away, the chromed skeleton corroding hourly, flesh growing solid, the drug-flesh replaced with the meat of his life. He couldn’t think. He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.”

And despite my confusion at the time, I think the start of the novel in Chiba City is a very visceral, believable depiction of poor neighbourhoods rife with prostitution, drug-taking and other crime. It’s a dark, depressing place where everyone (especially Chase) is paranoid, but not everyone is miserable. In fact, the novel as a whole has great sense of place in all its various locations, perhaps rooted in Gibson’s early travel around the globe before he settled in Vancouver.

I just wish I’d known at any point what was actually happening.

First published 1984 by Victor Gollancz.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

C is for…?

C
by Tom McCarthy

This is another book club read that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and I’m a little annoyed that in the end I missed the book club meeting about it due to illness, as I think I would have got a lot more from the book by discussing it. As it was, I must admit that it fell a little flat for me.

One of the many review quotes on the book’s cover calls it “admirable for an unashamed literary ambition” and, well, it certainly does scream its literariness but I’m not sure how admirable that is. Although the narration is third person, it follows quite closely the thought processes of its main character Serge, frequently combining stream of consciousness with mechanical or scientific detail in a manner that I found hard to follow and frankly dull. There were so many allusions to science, myth or literature that you could create a very long reading list to interpret the nuances of C.

The novel follows the story of Serge’s life, starting with his birth, and it’s a reasonably interesting life. Born in 1898 to a deaf mother and a father who is both an inventor and principal of a school for the deaf (in which sign language is banned), in the early section there is a certain amount of comedy, sadly lacking later on. Serge’s name itself is pronounced in the French manner by his mother (“sairj”, which he prefers) and the English way by his father (“surge”, like electricity, a running theme) who is a brusque, difficult but enthusiastic and highly animated man. Serge has an older sister, Sophie, who he is devoted to, though as they get older he worries that she is so much cleverer than he. She performs chemistry experiments from an early age, is generously indulged by her father and cannily uses her little brother without him realising he is being manipulated.

From well-to-do English countryside, the action moves to a spa town near Dresden, where Serge has been sent to be healed of a digestive disorder; then to the First World War, during which Serge serves as a frontline aeroplane radio operator; then to post-war London, where Serge half-heartedly studies architecture while becoming increasingly embroiled in drug culture and addiction; then finally to Egypt, where Serge is sent without him ever really being clear what he is supposed to be doing. They’re very different locations and situations but what ties it all together is radio and Serge’s obsession with it.

Serge’s father, at the start of the novel, is building one of the first wireless stations. It becomes the favourite hobby of teenage Serge to listen in on conversations in Morse code and this feeds directly into his wartime employment. Between injury, illness and drug-taking he is often delirious or otherwise in an altered state of mind and at those times his thought patterns become electricity- or Morse-like, rearranging the world he sees into waves and patterns.

Serge is a very believable, multi-faceted character, but he is a little cold for my liking, though there are reasons for him being that way. I thought the depiction of him as a soldier and just after the war was particularly well done, the stand out moment being when someone begins to sympathise with what he must have been through in the war and how hard that must have been and he replies, “But I liked the war.” It’s actually an ambiguous statement, because Serge spent much of the war and a lot of the time since so drug-addled he has no handle on reality, but he thinks he really means it.

It’s not a book to read if you’re easily annoyed by little rich boys getting out of scrapes through a combination of money and knowing the right people. Or indeed if you want to know exactly what is happening and have every question answered (there are a few recurring details that I expected to come to something but never did, plus there’s all the need for interpretation). But neither of those applies to me usually, so I can only conclude that it was the writing style itself that put me off. It was certainly at times beautiful and evocative, but far too often I found myself skimming long passages through boredom, and I definitely wasn’t engrossed.

First published in 2010 by Jonathan Cape. Paperback published 2011 by Vintage.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010.

BristolCon11: science

There were two panels at BristolCon based around “real” science: “When did science become the bad guy?” and “Sci-fi now”. Both were interesting discussions and shared a few panel members so I thought I’d write them up together.

(Apologies by the way, for the scatty and delayed nature of this post. I wrote it weeks ago and then NaNoWriMo started and I didn’t get round to tidying it up. And now I must get back to writing that novel…)

Tim Maughan kicked us off with the declaration that science is not considered uncool itself, but understanding it is. All these shiny new TV shows about science are pretty but have little or no depth, and certainly don’t teach anything new (though, as a counterpoint, he still rates Sky at Night). Eugene Byrne suggested that this dumbing down was part of a general increased shallowness of the media. In fact, he was quite positive, comparing the 1980s general fear of science to the current feeling that science is an important tool and the great enthusiasm for technology and gadgets. He also controversially put forward the idea that raised tuition fees will be good for science, because potential students will likely lean towards more practical subjects with firmer career prospects.

Simon Breeze made the suggestion that the Internet generation couldn’t build the Internet, which I have to say I disagree with. But I could see how someone might think that – as Jonathan Wright pointed out, technology has advanced so much so quickly that you can’t just learn how things work by taking them apart. Tim Maughan added the interesting point that state schools in the UK teach computing, including HTML and basic coding, but public schools don’t go near it, staying as always behind the times but also creating an odd reverse snobbery.

But what about the cool future science we all thought we’d have by now and don’t? This discussion kept coming back to the idea that technologies are developed when we need them. And of course some things turn out different from exactly what was envisaged. Paul McAuley thought teleportation might be useful, but suggested that the long queues for the booths might make it only fractionally quicker than flying. And drones barely feature in old science fiction yet are becoming scarily real (in military use). Tim Maughan pointed out that the car that drives itself is imminent and Eugene Byrne suggested that increased age and disability in western populations will accelerate technologies like robot cars. Dev Agarwal suggested that the same might be true of investment in cybernetics – e.g. for making people walk again.

The panel all agreed, in response to an audience question, that the future science fiction of 1984 is scarily close to coming true – and we’re all willingly helping it along. From Internet security measures that save our every search term and movement on the Web, to store cards that track our purchases, to CCTV, to social media where we announce our every action, we are creating the surveillance culture that Orwell envisaged, only we’ve forgotten to be horrified by the idea.

Thought-provoking stuff.