Hamilton’s Void

One of the more interesting news stories today concerns Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of US State Department diplomatic cables. The takeaway point is that there’s a use-by date on confidentiality, and while predictions that we’ll live in a world without privacy may be (slightly) exaggerated, the idea that one can bury the past is clearly obsolete.

I recently finished The Secret History of MI6 (I read the Kindle version — on my iPad — which, like pretty much every ebook I’ve read, is rife with egregious typographic and layout errors — I don’t know how many of them are shared with the print version). I don’t recommend this book to anyone not interested in stories of bureaucratic infighting. Operational details (“spy stories”) are pretty much thin, since this kind of stuff was purged from the records pretty methodically. How much was spent on office supplies was recorded for the ages. I mention this only because this is very much not the world we’re living in today.

Failing to Predict the Present

Science Fiction has been, it seems to me, almost crippled by the pace of real technological advancement. It’s hard to think of a SF story from before 2000 which doesn’t seem ridiculous given our current state of advancement. Even great books, such as (say) A Fire Upon the Deep or Earthlight need to be read “with allowances”. Theirs is a speculative future without decent cellphones and laptops. I remember saying to colleagues in 1992 that the Newton had just made every SF novel obsolete, because it represented technical capabilities beyond pretty much anything anyone had predicted* and the Newton’s initial failure in the market did not mean the demise of either the underlying idea or the technology behind it.

(Note: * Hari Seldon had something a lot like a Newton, only better, in Asimov’s Foundation, which was something of a tour de force in terms of tech ideas.)

It’s understandable for a SF writer not to take future developments into account (after all, if they really knew, they’d have better things to do than write science fiction). Even the venerated Arthur C. Clarke completely missed miniaturization (in Earthlight, scientists living on the moon have filing cabinets full of paper records; in one of his memorable short stories (whose name escapes me), a spaceship crew is reduced to using abacuses to calculate a new orbit after their ship’s two onboard computers both fail) — and this was despite its having been the central feature of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (I continue to ignore the later installments).

It’s much less forgivable for SF writers to miss current and past technical developments. The lack of support for voicemail and call waiting in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s communicators is hilarious. One of the frequent, small satisfactions of the Stargate franchise is that it’s set in the present, and the characters are constantly pushing the envelope of existing technologies, such as when the Stargate Command started launching drones through the stargates for reconnaissance (and later, air support). One of my favorite ever scenes was when SG-1 was teaching people to use P90s and showing how for practical purposes they were far more effective than high-tech goa’uld weapons.

Which brings me to Peter F. Hamilton’s recently concluded “Void” series (The Dreaming Void, et al). I’m a little under halfway through as I write this, and I’m going to try to avoid spoilers. This isn’t a review per se since I can’t review what I haven’t finished reading. (Now, if I were a professional reviewer things would be different.)

My first exposure to Peter F. Hamilton was his Night’s Dawn Trilogy. This is a huge, spawling, kitchen-sink space opera — but with zombies (before the zombie craze really took off).

In a sense, Night’s Dawn reminds me a lot of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos (“Cantos”? Seriously?) — both are big, rich, complex settings torn apart by war and “monsters”. Hyperion seems like a more serious and disciplined work, while Hamilton’s books are something on the line of an explosion in a typewriter factory. Hyperion itself is, in my opinion, something of a masterpiece (albeit a pretentious one — it’s a riff on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) but the follow-ups are increasingly ragged. Night’s Dawn feels more like a huge slab of work chopped into pieces and sold as a trilogy (or sexalogy in reprint). There’s no appreciable quality drop — the whole thing is a solid B while Hyperion starts as an A and fitfully declines to a C. (Maybe that’s C and B to D before grade inflation.)

Commonwealth vs. Culture

The Void strongly reminds me of Iain Banks’s Culture setting, but while both writers are somewhat slapdash — “I won’t bother you with details because, frankly, I haven’t bothered with the details myself” — it seems to me that Banks is simply better at keeping balls in the air (both plot-wise and conceptually). That said, he doesn’t generally try to keep nearly so many balls in the air.

If we do a bit of conceptual mapping — Banks’s Culture is a highly advanced machine/human civilization that’s very, very high tech. Machines are characters in the stories and have full human rights. It operates in a Galaxy full of civilizations among which it is one of the most powerful, mainly because most civilizations as advanced as the Culture choose to “sublime”. Earth is not part of The Culture, but an example of a pre-Starflight world in whose affairs The Culture meddles. The most interesting Culture novels examine the way The Culture interacts with external societies, notably the markedly less advanced (Use of Weapons), less advanced (Player of Games, Consider Phlebas), and more advanced (Excession). While there is some discussion of The Culture’s internal affairs, it is pretty cursory and, in general, The Culture doesn’t really work at all internally so getting into detail isn’t going to help too much.

Hamilton’s Commonwealth is a highly advanced human/machine civilization where the machines are, aside from when they are running human personalities, appliances. (This is perhaps a conscious dramatic decision, or even an attempt to differentiate the setting from The Culture.) In general, the machines act a lot like Culture machines, but they don’t “talk” and aren’t treated as characters.) The Commonwealth operates in a Galaxy full of civilizations among which it is one of the most powerful, mainly because most civilizations as advanced as the Commonwealth choose to become “post-physical”. Earth is the center of the Commonwealth, and is ruled by a giant computer into which the combined minds of many of its citizens have been uploaded. Surrounding Earth are “Higher” worlds inhabited by augmented humans living lives of essentially unlimited wealth and leisure on worlds largely united by wormholes, and beyond that some kind of ill-defined market-driven diaspora of ordinarily high-tech worlds. People live as long as they want and can “migrate inwards”, going from relatively normal, to “higher”, and then uploading.

And if I may make one final analogy — the titular Void in Hamilton’s universe is a lot like the titular Excession in Banks’s novel of that name. The big problem with the Void is that it’s been around a heckuva long time and no-one seems to have made any sensible contingency plans (which, given the level of technology available, would include relocating to a safer galaxy).

Now, in terms of being a “rollicking good read”, the Void seems to be right up there with Night’s Dawn. It’s pretty good fun, there’s a lot of good ideas and quite a few bad ones. It’s competently written, there’s plenty of action, and it hangs together quite well.

But as I read this series some of the overlooked details irk me more and more. There’s an old joke to the effect that anyone can see the wheel and predict cars, but it takes a SF writer to see the wheel and predict traffic jams, and a really good SF writer to see the wheel and predict parking meters. This is where Hamilton basically fails as a SF writer. He’s seen a lot of wheels and predicted a whole lot of cars and a few traffic jams, but he never sees the parking meter. Banks usually sees the parking meter, although he may choose not to dwell on it.

I want more life, fucker.

Let’s consider the absolutely central concept of personalities as software. This is perhaps the single most pervasive concept in science fiction today and for the last 20 years. (I can remember long conversations about it with friends when I was in college working on ForeScene, which would be circa 1985. Let’s just say we came up with a lot more parking meters than Hamilton has.) The idea is that a human brain/body is hardware and a personality is software. You can back up software and “run it” on alternative hardware (e.g. a sufficiently powerful computer) or load it on a new body (e.g. if the original is killed). In Hamilton’s Void this is called “relifing”. One of the major characters lives in Earth’s hivemind, and is relifed for a diplomatic mission. It’s no big deal.

This is utterly stupid. It makes no sense. And Iain Banks gets this in a way that Hamilton simply fails to.

In Excession there’s a hilarious scene where a modern Culture warship finds itself about to engage a suborned fleet of obsolete Culture warships in combat. Assuming that its attack run will be suicidal, the modern ship backs up its mind. It then feels an enormous sense of liberation, knowing that it is going to die and feels that it would be horrible to deny its new self the memory of this feeling and makes a new backup. The point is that in the Culture, despite all the technology, death is death.

You could explain away these problems in a setting which did not treat personality as software, but as soon as you decide personality is just a bunch of bits the consequences are pretty much lethal. (E.g. if you make the argument that the Universe is infinite and that therefore there are infinite perfect copies of everything, you can’t demonstrate that your “personality” isn’t shared among all the perfect copies of you. This lets you do things like teleportation and even backing up your body with quantum theoretic arm-waving rather than data/cpu arm-waving). The fact you can duplicate your copy of Excel and run it on a new computer doesn’t make it the same as the original — a fact you can quickly verify by running both at the same time.

(One of the ideas I’ve started toying with as a result of all this is the idea of a quantum-entangled backup — which I’ll call a “Schrodinger Clone” — where you make a duplicate of your body in such a way there’s a 50% chance that the “you” that continues “living” is the copy. If you come to a sticky end before your next backup the waveform is collapsed so that the copy was the one who died. Otherwise, you collapse the waveform to make your “active” copy the original, back it up, and then throw away the old backup. Note that death is still death, but the “self” with longer continuity leads a privileged “life”. Death still sucks for the copy, of course.)

Similarly, an SF writer can make the case for “teleportation” not being equivalent to dying and being duplicated if, and only if, the mechanism is fundamentally “space origami” and not replication. (I might add that Iain Banks’s “displacers” satisfy this rationale, and show how much more rigorous his underlying concepts are than most other writers’.) It’s very sad that in Star Trek (TOS) there’s an episode which explicitly requires transporters to be replicators (the main characters all die of old age owing to a disease and are “restored from backup” using the transporters), which means that using one entails being vaporized and having a new copy created at the destination (i.e. Star Trek transporters kill you). Note that it follows as a simple corollary that the Enterprise can reuse its security officers (they should probably keep trying new ones until they find one that’s competent, though). Similarly, there have been several episodes of Stargate: SG-1 and Atlantis that hinge on wormholes being replicators and not “folded space”. It’s pretty annoying for SF writers to be willing to completely destroy their settings this way.

(Note that my “Schrodinger Clone” concept could also work as a teleporter, or in fact be a teleporter. Thus, if your “Away Team” dies horribly then, actually, they never left. Sucks to have been them.)

But hey, it’s fun to read. Right?

Look, I get that SF is, in large part, a simple escapist fantasy genre. It’s simply a set of building blocks with which to tell good action stories. I’m not saying that Hamilton’s Void is horrible and not worth reading. Far from it. It just seems to me that there’s a much more interesting story to be told if the basic assumptions were to be examined more carefully, and that the pervasive underlying assumption that being uploaded into a hive mind or restored from backup “not dying” is a constant irritation.

And there are some brilliant ideas I haven’t even touched on in Hamilton’s Void. To begin with there’s the whole idea of the “gaiafield” — some kind of technologically implemented telepathic field that lets people share emotions and (notably) dreams. And then there’s the whole idea of the Void itself, and the whole techno-religious thing. And I quite like the story of the Waterwalker thus far (I won’t say anything more than that). Much as with the Night’s Dawn trilogy there’s so much stuff to like in these books that the not insignificant amount of really bad stuff is simply overwhelmed.

The future is not what it was. Accept it and move on.

In the British paperback market, having a gigantic spaceship on the cover of a book used to mean "it's science fiction" regardless of the substance of the story. Suffice it to say that there are no gigantic spacecraft in "The Face" and no indication anywhere in this picture that the artist read the book or had it in mind when he created the picture.

One of my ambitions is to write a science fiction novel. Or two. I have some fairly elaborate ideas sketched out, but I’m a little short of spare time right now. I also don’t think that creative endeavors such as writing are a “zero sum game”. Science fiction is in a pretty dreadful state right now, and it’s no use to me if it withers and dies before I get around to making my contribution to the genre.

Here's the latest printing of the same series (this is volume 1, the second volume is very similar). Note what looks like some kind of space carrier on the cover. Aha, it must be "science fiction". (You can guess how many "space carriers" figure in the series.)

Here’s the basic problem: for a hundred years or so science fiction writers have been pretending that “the future” will involve interstellar travel by faster-than-light travel. Sure, there are notable exceptions who write stories set in near-future dystopias (e.g. much of Philip K. Dick’s work, all of William Gibson’s or Neal Stephenson’s work, or David Brin’s Earth and The Postman), but in large part we haven’t advanced beyond E. E. Doc Smith’s “60 parsecs/hour” via “inertialess drive”. Certainly SF in popular culture, which means TV and movies, is essentially a species of fantasy with spaceships and energy bolts instead of dragons and wizards. (Not that this kind of fantasy can’t be fun!) The flipside of the problem is that most science fiction ignores or negates the advances in technology in fields other than warp engineering. Star Trek features fabulous spaceships but no voicemail.

I’ve complained elsewhere that SF does a lousy job of envisioning a future that grapples with today’s problems. Where is a science fiction setting which addresses energy conservation the way the original Star Trek addressed racism? At least BSG had something to say about the War on Terror, but as a piece of speculative SF it was simply dreadful; we can’t make anything remotely resembling the Galactica, but we have firearms way beyond the crap they were using.

It doesn’t help that the few writers who have taken a stab in this direction, e.g. Pamela Sargent’s Venus series and Kim Stanley Robinson’s horribly overrated Mars trilogy, have written ridiculously overlong and generally dull doorstops.

I’d like to see a speculative science fiction setting (on network TV or in a decent series of novels, say) that is not near-future (e.g. Star Trek timeframe or beyond) and does not go beyond our Solar system. Ideally, it wouldn’t make stupid assumptions about, say, the rate at which we can realistically terraform other planets, but let’s not expect miracles. I’d also like to see a speculative science fiction setting that involves interstellar travel using some kind of plausible technology and deals with the implications rather than wishing them away.

I have two fairly solid ideas for settings that satisfy these constraints (I think I have an actually brilliant idea for the second); what I don’t have is a good idea for a plot. Maybe I’ll just steal something from Shakespeare.