Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 14 Sep 12 05:44
We are delighted to have Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross here to discuss their new book The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations. Jon Lebkowsky will be attempting to harness these two extraordinarily creative minds. From Amazon's recap of the book: "Welcome to the fractured future, at the dusk of the twenty-first century. Earth has a population of roughly a billion hominids. For the most part, they are happy with their lot, living in a preserve at the bottom of a gravity well. Those who are unhappy have emigrated, joining one or another of the swarming densethinker clades that fog the inner solar system with a dust of molecular machinery so thick that it obscures the sun. The splintery metaconsciousness of the solar-system has largely sworn off its pre-post-human cousins dirtside, but its minds sometimes wander and when that happens, it casually spams Earth's networks with plans for cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems. A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there's always someone who'll take a bite from the forbidden apple. So until the overminds bore of stirring Earth's anthill, there's Tech Jury Service: random humans, selected arbitrarily, charged with assessing dozens of new inventions and ruling on whether to let them loose. Young Huw, a technophobic, misanthropic Welshman, has been selected for the latest jury, a task he does his best to perform despite an itchy technovirus, the apathy of the proletariat, and a couple of truly awful moments on bathroom floors." The book is a romp, with a wicked sense of humor and a serious undertone of the fractal futures we face at the "dawn" of the Twenty-First century.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 14 Sep 12 05:47
CORY DOCTOROW is a coeditor of Boing Boing and a columnist for multiple publications including the Guardian, Locus, and Publishers Weekly. He was named one of the Webs twenty-five influencers by Forbes magazine and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. His award-winning novel Little Brother was a New York Times bestseller. He lives in London with his wife and daughter. He is also a member of the WELL (doctorow). CHARLES STROSS, author of several major novels of SF and fantasy including Singularity Sky, Accelerando, Halting State, and Rule 34, is widely hailed as one of the most original voices in modern SF. His short fiction has won multiple Hugo Awards and Locus awards. He lives in Edinburgh. Jon Lebkowsky is an author, activist, journalist, and blogger who writes about the future of the Internet, digital culture, media, and society. He's been associated with various projects and organizations, including Fringeware, WholeEarth, WorldChanging, Mondo 2000, bOING bOING, Factsheet Five, The WELL, the Austin Chronicle, EFF-Austin, Society of Participatory Medicine, Extreme Democracy, Digital Convergence Initiative, Plutopia Productions, Polycot Consulting, Social Web Strategies, Solar Austin, Well Aware, Project VRM, and currently Reality Augmented Blog. He is also a web strategist and developer via Polycot Associates.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 16 Sep 12 13:37
Thanks for the intro, Ted! I want to start with a general question for both of you. "Science fiction" is a broad umbrella of a genre that can include many things. I remember being stumped when I went to sci-fi conventions and saw legions of fantasy fans celebrating swords and sorcery under the same roof with post-postmodern cyberpunks. There's also a growing thought that science fiction is less of a separate genre, that it's bleeding into contemporary literature, into works by authors like Pynchon, Murakami, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Borges, Marquez, Burroughs et al. Definitions can be fluid. How do you find science fiction in the 21st century? What does it mean to you today to be classified as authors of science fiction?
Type A: The only type that counts! (doctorow) Mon 17 Sep 12 05:42
I think it's important to separate science fiction as a literary tradition from science fiction as a marketing category. Marketing categories are important, but their primacy is dwindling -- you don't shop for books (pysical or electronic) online by gravitating to a sf section: you shop through search, recommendation, and similar methods. But fantastic literature (which includes sf, horror, fantasy, etc) has a coherent set of traditions, a shared vocabulary, a fandom, and related fooforaw. That stuff *is* important to me, especially with books like this one, which are explicitly in response to ideas that the field has been working its way through for a decade or two. It's also important to me inasmuch as I inhabit the community -- I go to cons, I count fans as friends, etc.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 17 Sep 12 06:06
Your book is a great romp with a wonderful Swiftian humor. I have a technical question for you both. It reads as one voice with a sustained pace and no obvious delegations, how exactly did you co-author this? It seems like both your hands are in every sentence.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 17 Sep 12 06:19
"Fantastic literature" makes more sense to me as a superset that links all these genres, forms, ideas and traditions together. And while I think of you two as authors of "hard science fiction," I can see "fantastic" elements in your writing. You mention "ideas that the field has been working its way through for a decade or two" - what are those ideas? (Ted posted while I was writing this, I'm responding to <3>.
Charlie Stross (jonl) Mon 17 Sep 12 10:57
(Posting for Charlie, who's on his way...) jonl (#2) -- I'm with Cory on the significance of genre. It used to be useful as a flag to tell book store clerks where to file the product, so that readers could find like with like. But you could only file paper books on one shelf. Now we can search by recommendations, by tag clouds, by a host of different mechanisms: you can assign multiple genre tags to a book, for example. Or in principle show different covers to people looking for a different type of product! We've barely scratched the surface of the mutability of categorization that the ebook revolution permits. On the other hand, genres come with internal dialog. I've written some books in response to books by other authors; doubtless other folks argue with me in the privacy of their own skull, and some of them will work it out by writing another story and publishing it. Which makes it hard for an outsider to break into the genre discussion, because there's a whole lot of explored assumptions and ideas already there which they might well be ignorant of. (It's quite common to see a literary mainstream novelist think, "SF is feeble genre writing, how hard can it be to move in and make a name for myself?" -- and then to write a novel that amounts to a very fine treatment of something that was a cliche three decades ago.) Genres aren't as easy or open as they look from the outside; speaking from experience, trying to write a police procedural is far harder than it looks!
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Mon 17 Sep 12 11:44
Ted (#4) : we played ping-pong with a text file via email. Simple as that. I'd write a thousand words, throw the file at Cory. He'd edit what I'd just written then append another kiloword before throwing it back to me. I'd edit what *he* just added, then extend it some more. I think the smallest chunk either of us added was around 300 words; the longest was around 2500 words: and every chunk got edited by the other guy at least once before we finished the first draft. Reading it gave me the weird feeling that it was written by someone else -- not Cory, not me. And ISTR Cory said the same. So it seems to have worked.
Type A: The only type that counts! (doctorow) Tue 18 Sep 12 03:17
I agree -- having written through each others' passages so many times, it's impossible to tell (often, anyway) where one stops and the other commences. @jonl, regarding the ideas filtering through the field: of course there's the Vingean Singularity, but also all the cyberspace stories that presented virtual worlds that the author intended to paint as noir and stylish but which came off as sad and desperate; the corporate and popular futurism about the "coming Singularity" (futurism is a subgenre of fantastic literature, though it often lacks the self-awareness to realize it) -- basically, all the stories that exalt the mortification of the flesh and the transcendance of the mind through technological means.
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 18 Sep 12 04:12
Following on from Cory's #8 -- there's also a profoundly theological undertone to the supposedly hard-headed and rationalist ideas of the singularitarians. I'm all in favour of rationalism, but when you lift up the corner of the extropian rug and find Christian apocalyptic ideas dating back to the first century CE festering underneath, it's time to shine a bright light down there.
Rob Myers (robmyers) Tue 18 Sep 12 04:31
Do those apocalyptic ideas start with early Christianity, or is that just where we are culturally familiar with them from? And is RotN a Singularitarian "Left Behind"? :-)
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Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 06:00
I love the fact that the novel includes feral Christians reacting in their own inimitable way to the technology-mediated rapture. I'm not a brilliant technologist like Ray Kurzweil or Hans Moravec, but it seems obvious to me that silicon and meat are radically different environments, and that puny humans don't have a clue what it means to be "conscious" or "aware" and how that might emerge and evolve in computers. We're all just blind spots looking for a glimmer of sight, and I suppose singularity/posthuman thinking strikes kurzweilians as compelling vision. Does science fiction, by creating stories that make Skynet or Colossus or some other form of deus ex singularity seem viable, feed a crazy belief system that's emerging? Do stories like _Rapture of the Nerds_ leave (less cynical) readers with an idea that "the cloud" you describe is plausible?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 18 Sep 12 08:33
Rob, those particular apocalyptic ideas predate Christianity; they were in common circulation among various Jewish sects in Judaea, especially after the destruction of the second temple following the siege of Jerusalem. I don't know about earlier versions, but I'd be startled if those traditions had no pre-Jewish or non-Jewish antecedents ... this stuff goes back a *long* way! As for whether RoTN is a singularitarian "Left Behind", I leave it to the reader to make their own mind up :)
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 18 Sep 12 08:38
JonL (#12), I think the whole question of artificial intelligence is a fraught one, even before we begin adding in call-outs from our collective eschatological subconscious. Real AI might not bear any structural or functional resemblance to human intelligence, any more than a Boeing 737 resembles a seagull. (Seagulls aren't made of aluminium, and Boeings don't lay eggs. All they've got in common is the flying thing, and even there the mechanisms are wildly different. Come to think of it, I've written more than one novel examining this idea -- notably "Rule 34", which (behind the focus on the future of criminology) floats a bunch of ideas about how an AI might look to us.) But from my PoV -- Cory's is different -- "The Rapture of the Nerds" is to some extent an argument with my earlier novel "Accelerando". Now *that* was a non-cynical look at a singularity!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 09:05
Both novels include concept of a "matryoshka brain" - can you say more about that concept? Also wondering how Cory's PoV differs? And how your different perspectives work together?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 18 Sep 12 09:27
Jon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matrioshka_brain "A matrioshka brain is a hypothetical megastructure proposed by Robert Bradbury, based on the Dyson sphere, of immense computational capacity. It is an example of a Class B stellar engine, employing the entire energy output of a star to drive computer systems. This concept derives its name from Russian Matrioshka dolls." (Sorry 'bout the wikipedia cut'n'paste: carpal tunnels are acting up today.) The idea is to dismantle most of the planetary mass of the solar system and turn it into small free-flying computing devices that communicate via radio or laser and orbit at various inclinations, from solar-equatorial to polar. They are so numerous that they occult the star they orbit, effectively forming a Dyson swarm. The innermost ones (near the orbit of Mercury) are solar-powered; further out they run on the waste heat released by the inner layers of the onion. It's an elaboration of Freeman Dyson's Dyson sphere concept, with the emphasis on powering computation rather than space habitats containing biological life forms. (The original concept and development is mostly down to the late Robert Bradbury, who during the mid to late 1990s refined it from the earlier Jupiter Brain speculation, which in turn was a happy fun cognitive chew-toy for the EXTROPY-L mailing list back in the day.)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 10:12
<scribbled by jonl Tue 18 Sep 12 10:13>
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 10:20
<scribbled by jonl Tue 18 Sep 12 10:20>
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 10:24
Sorry for the deleted posts, I was trying to add an image. Here's a link to the image, from Wikipedia, of a Dyson swarm: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ab/Dyson_Swarm.GIF/320px -Dyson_Swarm.GIF EXTROPY-L is a blast from the past. (For those who don't know it, it was an email list focused on extropian concepts, defined here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extropianism) As we were sipping wine together one evening, Extropian Max More was making clear the distinction between the Extropian transhumanist vision vs. singularity thinking. Extropians are positivists who're into optimization and extension of the human, but like Huw, they wouldn't go for disembodiment, uploading consciousness to the cloud. How did the two of you decide what you were writing about? How much of the story emerged; how much did you plan?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 18 Sep 12 11:15
(Parenthetically: I was on either EXTROPY-L, or an early successor, from some time in early 1991. In fact, it was where I first ran into Ken MacLeod. And got a lot of the ideas that later showed up in "Accelerando".) Writing "Rapture of the Nerds": Cory and I hadn't met but were chatting via email and it seemed like a good idea to try and write a short story. So I rummaged around for a stub I hadn't been able to do anything with -- the first 1000 words of a weird-ass story about a guy waking up in a bathtub after a wild posthuman party -- and emailed it to Cory. And he wrote a bit more and threw it back at me. And after a few weeks we had a novella called "Jury Service" which, I think you could reasonably way, read like it had been written on a dare. We squabbled a bit about what direction to go in via email as we did it, but it mostly felt as if it was writing itself. Most peculiar. And we sent it to Ellen Datlow, who was editing fiction for SciFi.com at the time, and to our surprise she bought it! A year or two later, Lou Anders was rebooting Argosy magazine. And he asked us if we could do a sequel which he would publish in a chapbook (along with "Jury Service") bound with the magazine. So we got down to work and continued the story of Huw's adventures into "Appeals Court". And lo, the chapbook appeared in issue 3 of the new Argosy, titled "The Rapture of the Nerds". Argosy then ceased publication. (I hope it wasn't our fault ...!) Anyway, a year or two after *that* Tom Doherty got wind of these collaborations and asked his editors to "buy the book". And as we already had the first two acts of a three-act drama, it seemed only natural to continue with it -- although before we could write the third structural piece (actually the second half of the book) we had to spend quite a lot of time chewing over where we were going. Working on a collaboration like this is a three-legged race, and if one of you is trying to take a left while the other is going straight on you can end up falling flat on your faces.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 11:36
Can you give an example or two where you took off in different directions? How did you resolve differences when they came up?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 18 Sep 12 12:13
#21: trouble is, we resolved stuff by discussing it and then edited the contradictory stuff out. I *think* at one point we had Ade going in two different directions, but like I said: we worked out a common view of what he should be doing, and went with it.
Type A: The only type that counts! (doctorow) Tue 18 Sep 12 15:40
Yeah, those offcuts are buried in the email, but otherwise lost to remembrance.
Mike Godwin (mnemonic) Tue 18 Sep 12 19:02
FWIW, my review of Cary's and Charlie's novel is here: <http://reason.com/archives/2012/09/18/the-singularity-as-farce> If it is not obviously clear, I loved it.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Sep 12 19:22
Probably a good time to mention that the book is available online as a free download with a Creative Commons license: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/fiction/nerds/Cory_Doctorow_and_Ch arles_Stross_-_Rapture_of_the_Nerds.html Let's talk about copyright and Creative Commons. Why offer a free download of the book? Doesn't that mean that you won't make a buck? Isn't it crazy to give your work away?
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