For my old weblog material, visit www.kschroeder.com/archive
Jun 05, 2013
Easily had for $0.99 at http://www.comixology.com/Virga-1/digital-comic/DIG004336
Aaaand here it is!
You can't imagine what it's been like having to keep all this under wraps. I mean, I could talk about the fact that the comic was being developed, but practically every day I would get some amazing new art in my inbox... which I couldn't show anybody. Now, finally, Sun of Suns is here in the medium it was truly meant for, and we can share the vision.
And just wait for Issue #2...
May 31, 2013
Here's a teaser for you. Watch http://virgacomic.com for the launch
May 04, 2013
This position will let me use all my futures-related skills and experience
This summer I'll be joining the international strategy and innovation firm, Idea Couture, as Senior Foresight Strategist. If you have no idea what foresight is, head on over to my foresight page to find out. In a nutshell, though, I'll be helping some major corporations and organizations develop innovations and strategies around innovation, by presenting analyses and visions of the future beyond the next fiscal year-end.
This work isn't like the grandiose visionary prophecies of the classic futurist pundit--I'm not playing Toffler or Hermann Kahn here. My job won't be to rave about flying cars and jet-packs to the clientelle. Foresight's grown up a bit in the past twenty years or so. My role will be to provide inputs to particular stages of the strategic planning process. If that doesn't sound as exciting as science fiction, well, I happen to have another outlet for my visionary side: namely, writing SF! There's some overlap, as I'm a professional out-of-box thinker in both cases. But I've long been looking for a role where I can apply more rigorous approaches to the future to real-world problems. I can write stories in which humanity's solved the problem of global warming (or the looming food problem, or desertification etc.); or I can directly contribute, in some small way, to building that sustainable future. Or, I hope, I can do both.
I'll be joined in the Toronto office of IC by Jayar La Fontaine, a foresighter with a solid background in science and philosophy. Once the team is rounded out, this summer, we'll support the IC team in finding new solutions, and maybe we'll even innovate in the foresight space itself. It promises to be fun.
And, no, I will not be doing this instead of writing. Expect a new novel from me early next year, and more to come.
Apr 16, 2013
These will be taking place at Toronto Public Library branches in April; details below
Starting this week I'll be doing several talks and speed-forecasting exercises around the city of Toronto, to help Toronto Public Library celebrate Keep Toronto Reading 2013. Everybody's invited to come out and to participate. These are going to be short, focused sessions--an hour on average--so we won't have time for long debates or in-depth analyses. However, one thing I'll be hoping to do is an exercise I call 'speed forecasting.'
Scenario-based forecasting is a foresight methodology that goes back to the RAND Corporation and Hermann Kahn, the man who inspired the character of Dr. Strangelove. Generally, scenario design is a meticulous process that takes months and involves a research phase, consultations and often several rounds of workshops convened for experts in the field being analyzed.
We're going to do the whole thing in a half an hour.
While we'll be leaving the smoking wreckage of a decades-old methodology in our wake, I guarantee you we'll have fun and it'll be an interesting glimpse into the future. So, come on out on one of the following dates and places, and join in!
April 18, 2013: Spadina Road Branch
When: 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where: 10 Spadina Road, Toronto
April 22: Pape Branch
When: 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Where: 701 Pape Avenue, Toronto
April 30: St. Lawrence Branch
When: 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Where: 171 Front Street East, Toronto
Feb 12, 2013
Habitability is the measure of highest value in planet-hunting. But should it be?
Kepler and the other planet-finding missions have begun to bear fruit. We now know that most stars have planets, and that a surprising percentage will have Earth-sized worlds in their habitable zone--the region where things are not too hot and not too cold, where life can develop. Astronomers are justly fascinated by this region and what they can find there. We have the opportunity, in our lifetimes, to learn whether life exists outside our own solar system, and maybe even find out how common it is.
We have another opportunity, too--one less talked-about by astronomers but a common conversation among science fiction writers. For the first time in history, we may be able to identify worlds we could move to and live on.
As we think about this second possibility, it's important to bear in mind that habitability and colonizability are not the same thing. Nobody seems to be doing this; I can't find any term but habitability used to describe the exoplanets we're finding. Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there. So, the term applies to places that are vitally important for study; but it doesn't necessarily apply to places we might want to go.
To see the difference between habitability and colonizability, we can look at two very different planets: Gliese 581g and Alpha Centauri Bb. Neither of these is confirmed to exist, but we have enough data to be able to say a little about what they're like if they do. Gliese 581g is a super-earth orbiting in the middle of its star's habitable zone. This means liquid water could well form on its surface, which makes it a habitable world according to the current definition.
Centauri Bb, on the other hand, orbits very close to its star, and its surface temperature is likely high enough to render one half of it (it's tidally locked to its sun, like our moon is to Earth) a magma sea. Alpha Centauri Bb is most definitely not habitable.
So Gliese 581g is habitable and Centauri Bb is not; but does this mean that 581g is more colonizable than Bb? Actually, no.
Because 581g is a super-earth, the gravity on its surface is going to be greater than Earth's. Estimates vary, but the upper end of the range puts it at 1.7g. If you weigh 150 lbs on Earth, you'd weigh 255 lbs on 581g. This is with your current musculature; convert all your body fat to muscle and you might just be able to get around without having to use leg braces or a wheelchair. However, your cardiovascular system is going to be under a permanent strain on this world--and there's no way to engineer your habitat to comfortably compensate.
On the other hand, Centauri Bb is about the same size as Earth. Its surface gravity is likely to be around the same. Since it's tidally locked, half of its surface is indeed a lava hell--but the other hemisphere will be cooler, and potentially much cooler. I wouldn't bet there's any breathable atmosphere or open water there, but as a place to build sealed domes to live in, it's not off the table.
Also consider that it's easier to get stuff onto and off of the surface of Bb than the surface of a high-gravity super-earth. Add to that the very thick atmosphere that 581g is likely to have, and human subsistence on 581g--even if it's a paradise for local life--is looking more and more awkward.
Doubtless 581g is a better candidate for life; but to me, Centauri Bb looks more colonizable.
A definition of colonizability
We've got a fairly good definition of what makes a planet habitable: stable temperatures suitable for the formation of liquid water. Is it possible to develop an equally satisfying (or more satisfying) definition of colonizability for a planet?
Yes--and here it is. Firstly, a colonizable world has to have an accessible surface. A super-earth with an incredibly thick atmosphere and a surface gravity of 3 or 4 gees just isn't colonizable, however much life there may be on it.
Secondly, and more subtly, the right elements have to be accessible on the planet for it to be colonizable. This seems a bit puzzling at first, but what if Centauri Bb is the only planet in the Centauri system, and it has only trace elements of Nitrogen in its composition? It's not going to matter how abundant everything else is. A planet like this--a star system like this--cannot support a colony of earthly life forms. Nitrogen is a critical component of biological life, at least our flavour of it.
In an article entitled "The Age of Substitutibility", published in Science in 1978, H.E. Goeller and A.M. Weinberg proposed an artificial mineral they called Demandite. It comes in two forms. A molecule of industrial demandite would contain all the elements necessary for industrial manufacturing and construction, in the proportions that you'd get if you took, say, an average city and ground it up into a fine pulp. There're about 20 elements in industrial demandite including carbon, iron, sodium, chlorine etc. Biological demandite, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of just six elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. (If you ground up an entire ecosystem and looked at the proportions of these elements making it up, you could in fact find an existing molecule that has exactly the same proportions. It's called cellulose.)
Thirdly, there must be a manageable flow of energy at the surface. The place can be hot or cold, but it has to be possible for us to move heat around. You can't really do that at the surface of Venus, for instance; it's 800 degrees everywhere on the ground so your air conditioning spends an insane amount of energy just overcoming this thermal inertia. Access to a gradient of temperature or energy is what makes physical work possible.
Obviously things like surface pressure, stellar intensity, distance from Earth etc. play big parts, but these are the main three factors that I can see. It should be instantly obvious that they have almost nothing to do with how far the planet is from its primary. There is no 'colonizable zone' similar to a 'habitable zone' around any given star. The judgment has to be made on a world by world basis.
Note that by this definition, Mars is marginally colonizable. Why? Not because of its temperature or low air pressure, but because it's very low in Nitrogen, at least at the surface. The combination of Mars and Ceres may make a colonizable unit, if Ceres has a good supply of Nitrogen in its makeup--and this idea of combo environments being colonizable complicates the picture. We're unlikely to be able to detect an object the size of Ceres around Alpha Centauri, so long-distance elimination of a system as a candidate for colonizability is going to be difficult. Conversely, if we can detect the presence of all the elements necessary for life and industry on a roughly Earth-sized planet, regardless of whether it's in its star's habitable zone, we may have a candidate for colonizability.
The colonizability of an accessible planet with a good temperature gradient can be rated according to how well its composition matches the compositions of industrial and biological demandite. We can get very precise with this scale, and we probably should. It, and not habitability, is the true measure of which worlds we might wish to visit.
To sum up, I'm proposing that we add a second measure to the existing scale of habitability when studying exoplanets. The habitability of a planet actually says nothing about how attractive it might be for us to visit. Colonizability is the missing metric for judging the value of planets around other stars.
Feb 03, 2013
Every one of my novels published since 2000 has made Locus's annual list
...And that's eight for eight. Locus Magazine is the defacto industry-insider's publication for science fiction and fantasy. Locus has a cast of truly stellar reviewers and tracks everything to do with the industry--names, gossip, sales, film projects--as well as reviewing as much as they can of everything that comes out every year.
And, every year, they publish a list of recommended works. To quote from the site, this list is compiled in the following way:
This recommended reading list, published in Locus Magazine’s February 2013 issue, is a consensus by Locus editors and reviewers — Liza Groen Trombi, Gary K. Wolfe, Faren Miller, Jonathan Strahan, Russell Letson, Graham Sleight, Adrienne Martini, Carolyn Cushman, Tim Pratt, Karen Burnham, Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, Paul Di Filippo, and others — with inputs from outside reviewers, other professionals, other lists, etc. Short fiction selections are based on material from Jonathan Strahan, Lois Tilton, Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Ellen Datlow, Alisa Krasnostein, Paula Guran, and others.
I know some of these people, but have never met most of them. The list ranges from 15 to nearly thirty names on any given year. This makes it doubly astonishing that every single one of my novels (excepting The Claus Effect, that madcap romp through all things Christmasy that I wrote with David Nickle) has made the list. Wow.
Check out this year's list through the link above. It's great company to be in, as always.
Jan 28, 2013
In which I talk about some current obsessions
Over at the Speculating Canada website, Derek Newman-Stille has a new interview with me in which he asks some pretty interesting questions--such as what science fiction can do that mainstream literature can't. I've answered to the best of my ability, and I had a lot of fun doing this interview.
As a teaser, check out the following exchange:
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realist” fiction can’t?
Karl Schroeder: Describe the real world.
Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator. It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories: it’s not actually that they lack some magical gene or other that wizards have (like the midichlorians in Star Wars); it’s that they literally can’t see the magical in the world around them. They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking. (And by the way, having the Force be created by midichlorians makes the Star Wars universe a very muggle place.)
Jan 15, 2013
It's in Dearborn, MI, January 18-21, 2013
I was a late addition to Confusion's roster of guests this year; my fault, for having such a crazy schedule lately that I don't know where I'll be until I'm there. We always enjoy Confusion, though, and I'm looking forward to the new venue and to seeing lots of friends.
So, I hope to see you there!
Oct 26, 2012
Finally we can reveal what our little team's been working on for months now
The first Metatropolis audiobook, published by Audible.com, edited by John Scalzi and authored by myself, Elizabeth Bear, Toby Buckell and Jay Lake, was a roaring success--if you consider two subsequent print editions plus a Hugo nomination successful. The sequel, Metatropolis: Cascadia, did even better, garnering the project an Audie Award. Now we're proud to announce a third installment in the series, Metatropolis: Green Space, because, we just haven't exhausted all the amazing possibilities of this future.
Cascadia was edited by the inestimable Jay Lake, and for Green Space it'll be him and Ken Scholes doing duty. Like Cascadia, Green Space will be graced with a work by the amazing Mary Robinette Kowal and joining us, Seanan McGuire. Of course Jay, Ken and the usual suspects from the first volume will also contribute (excepting John Scalzi, who's too busy riding the wave of RedShirts--more power to him).
We're going even further into the future this time, to track down the implications of the bizarre yet possible world we developed in the previous two volumes. This will be an audiobook project too, of course. The details, of course, are secret, but watch this space for announcements as we draw closer to the publication date.
...Although I'll reveal one thing: my contribution, this time, will not be another Gennady Malianov story. I have other plans for him, in a nearby publishing ecosystem affiliated with The Mongoliad...
Oct 17, 2012
There is at least one planet. Therefore, colonization is on the table
Yesterday it was announced that an earth-sized planet has been discovered circling the nearest star, Alpha-Centauri (around the smaller of its two main stars, actually, Alpha-Centauri B). The planet, Bb as it's currently called, has a six-day year and a surface temperature of 1500C. Not very hospitable, perhaps--but I'm about to argue that it's just fine. If we can get to this star system, we can settle it.
Let's look at two scenarios, a worst-case and a best-case, and see what's possible with each.
The Worst Case
This is a boiling hot planet. Actually, far hotter than boiling. At 1500 degrees, it's hot enough to melt rock. In a worst-case scenario, Bb has the kind of rotational resonance that Mercury does: it is not fixed with one face pointed forever at its star, like our Moon is to the Earth, but rotates so that the whole planet is regularly bathed in the blowtorch heat of the star. If there is an atmosphere, it's mostly composed of evaporated rock.
In this case, much or all of Bb's surface is a lava sea. Oh, and since this is a worst-case scenario, let's say that there are no other planets in the system, not even any asteroids. Bb is it.
If your idea of habitability is finding a more or less exact copy of the Earth and settling down on it to farm, then things are looking kinda bleak. But, if we have the technology to get to Bb, then we have the technology to live and thrive there.
Not on the surface, of course. Not even in a nearby orbit. But even if Bb is uninhabitable, it is still a great source of building material. If we have the technology to get to it, we'll have the technology to mine it, if only by dangling a skyhook down from the L2 point (or from a heliostat) to dredge the magma ocean. Haul the magma up, render it in the terrible light of the star, and ship the refined goods to a higher orbit where the temperature's a bit better. There, we can build habitats--either O'Neill colonies or, if we can harvest enough material, the coronals I describe in my novel Lady of Mazes.
With unlimited energy and (nearly) unlimited building materials, we can construct a thriving civilization around Alpha Centauri B, even if all we have to work with is this one piece of melted rock. (In terms of details, it would be a bootstrapping operation, with an initial small seed of robot miners constructing more or bigger skyhooks, more miners, etc. until exponential growth sets in, by which time it's safe for the human colonists to show up.)
The Best Case
Even for the best case scenario, I'm going to assume that Bb is the only planet in the system. It's more likely than not that Bb actually will be tidally locked to its star--i.e., it has one face permanently aimed at its sun, and the other permanently in darkness. The point that's under a permanent noon (the 'solar pole') will indeed be a lava hell. What's interesting, though, is that some simulations show that the temperature in the twilight zone around the 'equator' and further into the night side could be quite cool. Cold, even, if you go far enough. If there's an atmosphere, there might be water and a zone of permanent rain around the mid-latitudes of the dark side, in a kind of hemisphere-wide hurricane with its eye at the anti-solar pole. And there, we might settle.
I doubt there'd be any oxygen to speak of, but we can generate that ourselves. What I find interesting, though, is that this 'dark side' is not really dark at all. Because Alpha Centauri is a binary star system, Centauri A will be visible in the 'night' sky of Bb during half its year. ...Which is only three days long. So A will cross the sky in about 75 hours, and then there'll be true night for 75 hours. This has been the pattern on Bb now for more than four billion years; it's pretty stable.
Centauri A appears very dim from Bb compared to our sun, but it's still too bright to look at and has a visible disk. It's dimmer than daylight, but much, much stronger than Earthly moonlight. Granted the luminosity range at which photosynthesis happens on Earth, I'd think plant life would do quite well on Bb's 'dark' side.
If the rain's not too bad, much of the 'dark' hemisphere might be settled. Remember that Earth is mostly covered with water; if there's no significant oceans on Bb, but enough water for rivers and lakes, then the habitable land area of Bb might be greater than Earth's. Gravity is the same as Earth's, and in fact the only major difference will be atmospheric composition/density, and the length of the day. And who knows? Maybe we can game those too, by geoengineering the atmosphere, and using a combination of distant orbital sunshades and orbiting mirrors to generate a 24-hour diurnal cycle. Ultimately, Bb could be very earth-like indeed.
The Happy Medium
I expect the reality of Bb's habitability lies somewhere in between the two extremes I've just described. In all likelihood, Bb is not alone; at the very least, there should be asteroids or planetoids of Ceres-size or larger. Bb itself might have a safe spot where industrial operations can be set up, even if it's not a place where you could live. It can export vast quantities of raw materials to colonists elsewhere in the Centauris.
All of which means one thing: Alpha Centauri is now a viable destination. If we can get there, we can live there. And knowing this makes real possibilities that, until yesterday, we could only dream about.
Oct 16, 2012
I'll be on a panel on this subject Nov. 7
My editor, David Hartwell, and Elizabeth Bear and I will be talking about the future of SF at the annual New York Library Association conference, which is being held in Saratoga Springs, NY. This is pretty timely as there's a fair amount of buzz on the subject lately, mostly touched off by Paul Kincaid's review of several Year's Best story collections; I've put in my two cents about that already.
So I've talked about rolling up our sleeves and reinjecting energy into the genre; but what does that look like? Well, for starters, it looks like Hieroglyph, which I'm part of. The Hieroglyph project is looking for new symbols of a viable future. If you imagine all our existing glyphs--the rocket ship, the robot, the flying car--as crusted and plastered over with decades of associations and past interpretations, then it seems really hard to see the excitement that once lay under all that cruft. (The quintessential example for me is Star Trek, where the first series was about the adventure of space exploration, and the subsequent series deteriorated into sentimental tales about managerial team-building in a variety of idealized office buildings called Enterprise, Deep Space Nine etc. Where's the excitement in that?) So what can we create now that has the same mythic dimension to it, the same instantly recognizable impact, as the finned rocket ship, or the metal man? Hieroglyph is about consciously crafting such new mythic symbols.
As an ironic counterpoint to that, one of my long-term projects has been to show how, without invoking any new science or technology, we can still invent entirely new science fictional settings, places so gobsmackingly cool that any number of novels and stories could be set there without exhausting them. (I'm talking of course about Virga, and my forthcoming Lockstep.) The idea here is that we are so far from exhausting the wonder in what we already have that it's hardly even necessary to invoke new tech or science to create fantastical and unheard-of visions. I've proven this with the worlds of Permanence and Sun of Suns; I'm about to do it again with Lockstep. There's nothing wrong with a new hieroglyph, but what we already have is amazing enough, if we get off our fat asses and use our imaginations a bit.
Partly, though, the future of SF has to do with reinventing the future itself. After getting a degree in foresight and practicing futurism for a few years now, I can see how the vision of the future of SF really has diverged from the projections made by professional futurists. Science fiction's future is no longer our future. But it could be.
So this is what we'll be talking about on the 7th in Saratoga Springs. And it's also what I'll be twittering about for the next while--and, most importantly, my next stories and novel are going to explore some new directions. Look to this space, and those. It's coming.
Oct 09, 2012
My part starts about half an hour in
The video of the IDF2012 Zero-day panel on science fiction prototyping is now viewable online. The whole thing is 86 minutes long, but it's worth it because we cover a lot of ground.
The best quote is near the end, and it belongs to Madeline Ashby, who describes our current selves as being 'like hermit crabs' leaving behind the shells of our discarded technologies as we evolve.
It was great fun, and I'd like to thank Brian, Joe, Harlene and Christina for keeping us organized--and of course, the Intel researchers who actually came up with the real prototypes that we subsequently wrote our stories about.
Sep 15, 2012
Last Monday in San Francisco was a blast
Intel's resident futurist, Brian David Johnson, recently commissioned some science fiction stories from myself and others in support of his Tomorrow Project. On Day 0 of the 2012 Intel Developer's Forum, we all sat down for a panel discussion to talk about the new technologies Intel is exploring.
Mark Hachman has a good summary of the day over at ReadWriteWeb. We handed out copies of the books to all 200 or so attending journalists (most of whom had flown in from points around the country and abroad), and did a signing for an enthusiastic crowd afterward. The technologies themselves were being demoed in the room next to our auditorium, and they were spectacular.
My own contribution to this particular anthology was the story "After Science," which brings back my old (circa-year-2000) concept of Thalience, and explores some of the more out-there metaphysical possibilities of current computer science. There was an interesting confluence of ideas in this, since the tech I'd been commissioned to write about just happens to perfectly illustrate some of the key issues being explored by that new stream of philosophy known as Object Oriented Ontology. For instance, in Ian Bogost's new book, Alien Phenomenology: Or, What it's Like to be an Object, he asks the question of whether we can ever know what the 'experiences' of non-human things/beings are. "After Science" suggests some directions to go in experimentally answering that question, by using computing technology to blur the distinctions between subject and object.
Abstruse, maybe, but one of Brian Johnson's points is that within 10 years, we're going to be butting right up against questions like these in our day to day lives... and the people who build the systems that are going to do the, uh, butting, would benefit from knowing ahead of time a little of what they're getting us all into.
The day was an excellent piece of foresight, highlighting both theoretical and experimental approaches to foreseeing/designing the future. The addition of storytelling as an exploratory approach fits both with Johnson's own techniques, and with mine, as my Master's thesis was all about using fiction in foresight.
I hope Intel, and other companies, use this successful Day 0 event as a template for more explorations. We'll all benefit from our industry leaders giving some thought to what world we'll all want to live in, in 10 or 20 years.
A recent review pushes well-worn buttons
Declinism is the theory that the world used to be better than it is now--it is the conviction, common to many people, that Things Are Getting Worse. There's a brilliant example of the theory at work in a recent, very thorough and well-written review of three Best-of-Year SF anthologies at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Now, the problem with declinism in art criticism is that everybody has their own model for what the best of a particular genre or style is. If your favourite SF was all published before 1980, you're going to believe SF has been in decline since then. If it was 1960, then... well, dates differ. But declinists can always find some cut-off point where things started going downhill.
Kincaid has this to say about the best SF of the past couple of years:
In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.
Is this true? Or is it rather Kincaid's own perceptions that have shifted? There lies the problem--one can't tell. But even if it's all the eye of the critic, if everybody else is having the same reaction to SF, then it's a real effect, whether the exhaustion lies in the stories themselves, or in the minds of the readers. What seems to be true, however, is that this particular reader is finding that he's no longer inspired by science fiction. And that really is a problem.
The bigger problem, for me, is that Kincaid goes on to list my story, "Laika's Ghost," as emblematic of this malaise. I can't let that stand. He says this about the story:
It is one of the best stories in these three collections, but it is almost anti-SF in its affect: the future has run its course and come to an end; what was one of the most exciting aspirations of science fiction—the promise of life on another world—is here made available only to those looking backward to a former time. It is a story that makes manifest the exhaustion that is immanent throughout these three collections.
This is great stuff--but a complete misreading of the story. First of all, "Laika's Ghost" has to be read in the context of the other Gennady Malianov stories. It only sorta kinda stands on its own; the fact is it is part of a continuum of stories that paints a very specific view of the near future. That view is not of an exhausted world, but of a world that is shifting gears--undergoing civilizational change. Sure, the scions of the old world order may be exhausted, but there are plenty of new and dynamic forces at work in Gennady's world. This is most thoroughly shown in "To Hie From Far Cilenia."
Secondly, Gennady himself is a necessary character for science fiction at this time. Why? Because he's neither a starry-eyed optimist nor an apocalyptic nihilist. He's a realist who fully intends to have a future, and for the world he lives in to have a future too. So while the people around Gennady rise and fall, taking whole civilizations and possible futures with them, he's cleaning up the mess. It's what he does.
The necessity of buckling down and tidying up the trash left by 100+ years of techno-optimism in no way contradicts the wondrous potential of the future. It's just a necessary piece of the whole process. Gennady knows this; he knows that decommissioning old nuclear reactors is a manifestation of Progress. Shooting radioactive camels in the Gobi desert is one of the prices to be paid for our industrialist past, and somebody has to pay it. Gennady represents that side of technological progress that we in SF so rarely acknowledge: he's a trash collector.
It's not starry-eyed wonder that we need at this point in history; it's a rolling-up of the sleeves to finish what we started when we introduced electric power, vaccinations, indoor plumbing and all the other critical inventions of modernism. In that sense, "Laika's Ghost" is not the best of a bad lot. It's a reminder that science fiction ultimately reflects where we stand in the world right now. And where we stand, is at a time when there's work to be done. If the science fiction of today represents that harder-edged and less sentimental vision of the future, then great! I'll write more of it.
Aug 30, 2012
You can pre-order it now.
The last Virga book, Ashes of Candesce, is doing well in hardcover, and still getting great reviews. It'll be published in trade paperback format early next year: March 12, 2013, to be exact.
For some perverse reason I'm really excited about the prospect of lining up all the trade editions of these books. I loved the hardcover editions and have done that with them on my bookshelf, of course; but there's something about the trade books that I keep coming back to. The design of both editions is stunning and elegant... but I think I like the trade editions a teeny bit better.
There. I've said it. Now ignore all that and buy the hardcover edition because... well, you know... I'll make more from it.
Jul 14, 2012
Ha ha! Yes, I'm getting more and more abstract lately. But it's high time we dug into the deeper subtext of my novels
I started reading Ian Bogost's latest book last night. Alien Phenomenology, or What it's Like to be a Thing seems an unlikely excursion for a theorist whose major work so far was a literary theory for video game criticism. (I used the ideas in Bogost's book Unit Operations as a major theoretical framework for the scenario-fiction writing technique I outlined in my Master's thesis.)
It's not often that I have the experience of hopping up and down, gnashing my teeth and shouting "well of course!" but I've been having it since starting Alien Phenomenology. But I don't mean that in a bad way; I had the same experience when I dove into Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, and more recently exploring the work of philosopher Graham Harman. It's the frustration of a long-delayed recognition of kindred minds. I talked a little about that recently, and here's that same new feeling again.
So, as I'm reading Bogost and I come across statements like
That things are is not a matter of debate. What it means that something in particular is for another thing that is: this is the question that interests me. The significance of one thing to another differs according to the perspective of both.
...I am forcibly reminded of, how, nearly fifteen years ago now, I imagined Jordan Mason sitting on the shore of a lake, and listening as the smart-dust nanotech that pervaded the entire surface of the planet Ventus tried to figure out what it was:
He could hear the song of the lake. It was deep and powerful, belying the tranquility of the surface. Thin grass grew here, but the soil beneath his feet was shallow, quickly giving way to sand. Below that... rock? He couldn’t quite make it out, though it felt like there was something else down there, a unique presence deep below the earth.
There was no indication that anything supernatural dwelt here.
He sat down, mind empty for the first time in days, and watched the water for a while. Gradually, without really trying, he began hearing the voices of the waves.
They trilled like little birds as they approached the shore. Each had its own name, but otherwise they were impossible to tell apart. They rolled humming towards Jordan, then fell silent without fanfare as they licked the sand. It was like solid music converging on him where he sat. He had never heard anything so beautiful or delicately fragile.
He didn’t even notice the failing light or the cold as he sat transfixed. His mind could not remain focussed forever, though, and after a while he made up a little game, trying to follow individual waves with both his eyes and his inner sense.
He tried to follow the eddies of a particular wave as it broke around a nearby rock, and in doing so discovered something new. It seemed like such an innocent detail at first: as the wave split, so did its voice. From one, it became many, then each tinier individuality vanished in turbulence. As they did, they cried out, not it seemed in fright, but in tones almost of... delight. Urgent delight--as if at the last second they had discovered something important they needed to tell the world.
This quote from my year-2000 novel Ventus presents a vision of the self-definition of the world becoming visible for the first time to a human being. The designers of the Ventus terraforming system imagined a technology that would dissolve into everything in the world and actively investigate it. The nanotech in and on a tree would figure out that it was a tree; a rock would know it was a rock, a hill that it was a hill. And each of these objects would be able to communicate to the human settlers of the planet what it could do for them. "I am flint, you can build a fire with me." "I am mint, you can eat me." The only problem was, this magnificent system for identifying things had to be able to invent its own categories in order to do its job; and it did that too well. When the human settlers arrived, it quickly decided what they were--but on its own terms, and using its own ontology and semantics. As far as the humans were concerned, the nanotech didn't recognize them. But something far more interesting had in fact happened: it saw them, not as they wanted to be seen--not through their filter--but as it had come to see things.
And so the nanotech (which later generations of humans called the Winds) destroyed all the settlers' competing technologies, knocked them back to the stone age, and went about integrating them efficiently into the artificial ecosystems of Ventus.
Ventus was far more than a cautionary tale about technology run amok--in fact it wasn't really that at all. I wanted to talk about how objects see other objects; but back then, I had nobody to talk to about it. Bogost's new book is another indication that the hourglass has turned, and that these ideas are finally current.
I've since moved on to next steps--but I would recommend Alien Phenomenology because Bogost also senses the need to go from discussing OOO in the abstract, to working out what it means in practice. Alien Phenomenology is the first book I've seen that explicitly challenges its readership to employ and deploy the ideas of speculative realism. This will be no mean feat, and I've already spent five years planning how to do that for my as-yet unwritten third novel in the Ventus/Lady of Mazes series, a book I've tentatively titled The Rewilding.
Because now that an entirely new world--new universe, in fact--lies open to us, it's time to stop pointing at it, and time to start exploring it.
And building in it.
Jun 25, 2012
I'm making some of my better stories available as ebooks. You can buy 'em
I haven't got a huge backlog of short stories, but I've been lucky enough to have many of my best collected in the book The Engine of Recall, which is still available. Not all my good stuff made it into that collection, however--mostly because my editor, Robert J. Sawyer, wanted to focus on my strictly science fictional output. That naturally excluded "The Toy Mill" for instance--but it also left other fantasy I've written, as well as works I consider SF, but Rob did not.
I've started transforming some of these works (previously published, but not collected) into individual bite-sized ebooks. Initially, you can find them on Amazon.com, but I'll be making epub versions as well; it's just a matter of finding the time for that, as it's a little more hands-on than the Amazon conversion.
As of now, you can find three of my stories on Amazon.com:
- "The Hero" - A Virga short story. In fact, this story is an integral part of the Virga series, and contains revelations that fill in major gaps in the overall story. It recounts certain key events that occur between Pirate Sun and The Sunless Countries, but it can also stand on its own--in fact, it makes an excellent introduction to the Virga universe for anybody who's considering taking the plunge.
- "Dawn" - My only vampire story to date. I call this my 'anti-Anne Rice' story; perhaps it's just the sort of vampire story that a writer with a pacifist Mennonite background would write. What's coolest (for me) is that this story came to me in one of the most cinematically visual dreams I've ever had. I can still picture it... so I had to write it.
- "Book, Theatre, and Wheel" - Is this SF at all? Slipstream, maybe. Set during the Inquisition, this is a meditation on memory systems, isolation and the self-invention of new mythologies...
Jun 07, 2012
This was a team effort
I just received word from Audible.com that our followup to Metatropolis, Metatropolis: Cascadia has won the 2012 Audie Award for Best Original Production!
The Audies have been awarded annually by the Audio Publisher's Association since 1996. The gala award ceremony for this year's awards was held last night.
Metatropolis: Cascadia is a collection of novella-length works, written by myself, Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear and Ken Scholes, and set in the world of Metatropolis. It embraces and extends the ideas of the first anthology, and in its audiobook incarnation, the stories were read by cast members from Star Trek.
So, if you've been thinking lately that you want to listen to an award-winning story of mine that's read in a particularly gonzo faux-Russian accent by Jonathon Frakes, Cascadia is the best place to go.
Jay, Mary, Toby, Bear, and Ken: thank you, and congratulations.
Jun 06, 2012
Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Onology are the new buzzwords in philosophy. They are what my work has been about all along
Thirteen years ago, I began my first published novel with the following words:
...Frankenstein's monster speaks: the computer. But where are its words coming from? Is the wisdom on those cold lips our own, merely repeated at our request? Or is something else speaking? --A voice we have always dreamed of hearing?
So begins Ventus, which of course is about nanotech and terraforming; but is also about something else, for which I didn't have a name at that point. I made one up: I called the concept thalience. Thalience is what you get when you find (or deliberately create) entities that are clearly objects, but which behave in ways that are supposed to only be possible for subjects. A thalient entity is neither object nor subject, or perhaps it's both. The book explores this tension (though not without a few swordfights, battles, betrayals, and romances).
I mention this because, now that Bruce Sterling has talked about Graham Harman's 'object-oriented philosophy' in Wired, this meme appears ripe for becoming a new intellectual fashion. Perhaps it's petty, but I'd like to put a stake in the sand here.
Two terms, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, have very recently given a name to the thing that I've been thinking and writing about for nearly two decades now (it took seven years to write Ventus). It's been unbelievably gratifying for me to discover these kindred spirits--people like Jane Bennett, Ian Bogost, Andy Clark, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman and Bruno Latour. Latour's been at this for decades, and I confess to only recently discovering him--but the others in this cadre seem to have undertaken their intellectual investigations at about the same time as myself. They are all scientists, theorists or philosophers, of course; as far as I know, I'm the first person to have explicitly built science fiction novels around these new areas of inquiry.
After Ventus, the novel where I jumped in with both feet was Lady of Mazes. In it, the anti-Ariadne, Livia kodaly, wages a one-woman war against what Quentin Meillassoux has now helpfully labeled as correlationism. Correlationism is the belief that the only reality is the object-subject pair--that all I can ever say about anything is that is like such-and-such for me. I can never say what it is in itself; Kant made that impossible. In Lady of Mazes, Livia begins with this belief; as she puts it, "reality is always mediated."
That may be true, but Livia is unsatisfied with the conclusion everybody else has drawn--a conclusion that has direct political and emotional consequences for her and her people. The artificially intelligent systems that create and sustain the consensual realities in which Livia's people live, called manifolds, do not interface with them through speech, or any normal communications medium--they do so by observing our values. At one point in the story, a manifold has become empty because all its human citizens have died. Yet the manifold still exists, because its creators built it around the value of music, and they have left a single drum beating, its tapping driven by water dripping from a rain-catchment barrel. Livia's peers want to retire the manifold and take over its resources--but late one night, she sneaks into the drummers' reality and replaces the ailing drum with a fresh one.
drumbeat sounded clear and distinct.
Each one rolled out into the night, reaching nobody’s ears, but real
nonetheless. It was a tremble of air,
nothing more, yet in that tremble the drummers lived. In that tremble of air was something not of
Westerhaven, not preserved by your Government or to be found in the
narratives. Call it the Song of
Ometeotl, if you wish. It remained in my
ears as I stole back through the forest, and returned in secret to my home.”
...“At the time I didn’t know why I did it. It was one of those actions that you can’t reconcile with the person you think you are. But now I understand. I was honoring the existence and dignity of a reality independent of my own."
This is one of the purposes of object-oriented philosphy (or speculative realism if you prefer): to honour the existence and dignity of a reality independent of our own. For me, to have written the above words in 2003 was to expose a nerve that I thought at the time was entirely private and personal--it was to confess to a unique mania that I felt no one else would understand or sympathize with. While the critical reception to Lady of Mazes was very kind, I did get that sense: the book was good, the topic... odd. What is most odd is that now, in 2012, the issues I brought up in the book seem utterly current, even obvious. (I suppose that's one reason why The Atlantic just reviewed Lady of Mazes.)
Livia never abandons the idea that reality is always mediated, but she does abandon the idea that there is nothing real outside of the human-world correlation. She imagines the relationship I called thalience, and it sets her free. She uses her new knowledge to in turn free her people from a correlationist tyranny personified in the novel by the culture known as the Archipelago, and an idealist AI named 3340.
Messianism aside, this pair of ideas--rejection of correlationism and commitment to a necessary mediation between the things of this world--locates me rather precisely in the current landscape of speculative realist thinkers. To be exact, it puts me in substantial agreement with Graham Harman, whose new book The Quadruple Object is compatible, I guess you'd say, with Livia Kodaly's stance. (Of course Harman is doing philosophy, and I am not: my explorations are artistic, though they allow me to create some odd quasi-philosophical entities, such as artificial intelligences designed to make the cracks in correlationism obvious.)
With people like Bennett and Bogost and Morton and Harman writing about this stuff, I'm suddenly overwhelmed with ideas and new perspectives. You can see it in my recent work, in particular two recent stories, "To Hie from Far Cilenia" and "Deodand." There'll be more.
In 2003 I thought I was alone in wanting to wage what Blake called 'mental fight' for what I'd come to call the dignity of the real. Somehow (surely without my influence) an army is coalescing around the issue.
It's great to have discovered kindred spirits.
Jun 03, 2012
Reviews for all the Virga books have been overwhelmingly positive
On the heels of great reviews at Locus and Canada's premiere newspaper, The Globe and Mail, I'm delighted that SF Site has looked at Ashes of Candesce and pronounced it good. It's not just a ringing endorsement of this last Virga novel; the message that's emerging from people who've read all five books is that there's no low spot in the series. The books are consistently good.
For me, there's always two goals: each book had to be as good as it could possibly be; and the series as a whole had to be excellent. The reviews for each individual book have been stellar, but it wasn't until I read Greg. L. Johnson, in this latest review, saying "With Ashes of Candesce, Karl Schroeder brings his Virga series to a rousing, fitting conclusion," that I started to believe I'd succeeded with Virga as a whole.
Russell Letson had already said this over at Locus:
In a recent (as I write this) Locus Roundtable post, Karen Burnham posed the question of the appeal of SF and fantasy – ‘‘Why do you enjoy this crazy brand of literature?’’ I responded with several paragraphs of babble, but I think I could have just offered this series as my answer.
All this clearly places Schroeder’s work in discussion with that of Greg Egan, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge, among others.
In the SF Site review, Johnson also says,
Karl Schroeder is also exploring many of the ideas that have dominated hard science fiction for the last twenty years or so... Those themes place the Virga series and its author in the company of writers like Greg Egan, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, and others.
And, summing up,
That the story and character development never lags as a result makes the Virga series a first-class reading experience both for long term fans and anyone looking for a good introduction to the ideas, and artistry, of contemporary hard science fiction.
I've been proud of the individual Virga books. Now I'm proud of the series, too.