The View from the Top of the Mountain

I want to talk today about the future of science fiction. Not the question of whether it has a future or not. "Who Killed Science Fiction?" was first raised in a one-shot fanzine that won the Hugo in 1961, and I confidently expect that there'll be a panel rehashing that issue at the Worldcon in 2061. No, I want to apply the extrapolative tools of science fiction to itself and take a look at how technology is going to affect and alter our genre in the next hundred years or so.

In order to do this, I have to first talk about myself.

I haven't done all that much traveling, but I'm one of those people who will, within ten minutes of your meeting me, casually mention every country I've ever visited. And everywhere I've gone, I've noticed that the people there are obsessed with what it means to be of that nationality:

What does it mean to be Irish, with England so close? What does it mean to be Jamaican, when your country is so small and poor? What does it mean to be Italian, when your nation has existed for only a fraction of the time your city or region has? What does it mean to be Swedish when you can see the possibility of the language you love disappearing entirely? What does it mean to be Canadian? I once attended a science fiction conference that was about that question and nothing else.

And America. What does it mean to be American? I ask myself that frequently, and the answer changes from day to day. But the prospect does not. Being an American is a lot like standing on the top of a mountain. You're the tallest thing you can see. The rest of the world looks small and unimportant. It requires an act of the imagination to realize that it is not.

This is what the Canadian-born critic John Clute was talking about when he said that American science fiction was written from the center of the universe. But I think a better metaphor for the current state of science fiction can be taken from John Barnes's first novel, The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky. In it, the people of Earth are under the economic domination of the people who live in orbital colonies, simply because the one market lies at the bottom of a gravity well and the other at its tip. Since it's cheaper to fly things down from orbit than it is to blast them up from the surface of the Earth, the people below can only make a small profit from their goods, while the people above make a correspondingly greater profit. So the people above get richer while the people below get poorer. All because of the gravity well.

In science fiction publishing, that gravity well is the English language. It is far easier for me to sell a novel in Japan than for a Japanese writer to sell one in America for the simple reason that very few American editors can read Japanese, and thus in order for a Japanese novel to be considered somebody has to pay for a translation. Usually not the publisher. They get English-language manuscripts every day for free and reject the vast majority of them.

Most of the world's writers, then, are at a disadvantage. Well, nobody said that life was fair. But the current situation discourages writers in a far more subtle manner than that.

Thirty years ago I arrived in Philadelphia with seventy dollars, a friend who was willing to let me crash in his living room for a few weeks, and the absurd but unshakable conviction that I was going to become a science fiction writer. There was no work to be found, so I lived by my wits. I sold my blood, typed term papers for a dollar a page, and composed them for not much more. I wrote mountains of very bad prose, and threw away every word of it, and had nightmares when I could sleep, and sat by my window listening to the pimps and whores on the street below arguing with each other when I could not. I went without heat, I went without money, and mostly I went without food. By the time I finally got a minimum wage job the next spring, I had lost fifty pounds.

Six years later, I sold my first story.

I mention this not because I want to invite your pity, but because at the time this was the standard procedure for anyone who wanted to be a writer. You went to a big city, preferably New York or London - neither of which I could afford - and you systematically trashed your life, so that there would be no alternative but to succeed as a writer. Nor did it always work. I've known people who went through all of the above only to find that they didn't have whatever it was it takes to become a writer. At which point they discovered that they also lacked the skills needed to make a decent living by honest means.

So, usually, they became editors.

But I went through this long, nerve-wracking process of becoming a science fiction writer at least in part because I knew it was possible. Many, many others had done exactly that thing and were around to testify that it could be done. Would I have been so mad as to attempt it myself if I had no particular affection for English, if my native language, the one I loved above all others and wanted to write in, was Lithuanian? Or Gaelic?

Probably not.

Now it may not necessarily be a bad thing to discourage young people from becoming writers. God knows, I've encouraged my own son to give serious thought to occupations involving health care benefits and a steady paycheck. But as a reader, as someone who loves science fiction, I'm being hurt whenever the Paraguayan Robert Heinlein or the Somali Isaac Asimov crunches the numbers and realizes he's got a better chance of winning the lottery than of making it as a science fiction writer.

We need a technological fix. And I think it's on its way in the form of translation software.

This sounds like a bad idea because of our common experiences with Babelfish.

In 1855, a gentleman named Pedro Carlino decided to write a Portuguese-to-English phrase book. He didn't speak any English whatsoever, but he did have a Portuguese-to-French phrase book and a French-English dictionary, and that was good enough for him. The resulting tome, English as She is Spoke, was so ludicrous that it has been kept in print, off and on, ever since. Recently, an Internet wit took the original Portuguese phrases and fed them into Babelfish to see how the results would compare. Babelfish lost.

Just one example:

Original: King Philip of Macedonia fell down, and seeing the extension of his body in the dirt, said, "Good heavens! How small is the space we take up in the universe!"

ES: Philip, king's Macedonia, being fail, and seeing the extension of her body drawed upon the dust was cry: "Greats gods! that we may have little part in this univers!"

Babelfish: Giving a Philippe fall, king of Macedonia, and seeing the extension of its body printed in the dust, it exclamou: "Great deuses! As the space is bashful that, in this universe, we occupy."

So I understand why you're dubious. But the translation engine Babelfish uses is very primitive. It is extremely easy to imagine something much better, which would translate Portuguese into a bland, idiomatic English - good enough for an editor to decide whether the plot justified the cost of hiring a human translator to bring the book into a living prose. An ambitious writer might pay to have the first chapter translated himself, as a sample. Thus transforming a huge disadvantage into a small one.

Not very long after, we should have simultaneous translation programs running on our cell phones. So it'll be possible to annoy your agent and alienate your editor in any part of the world without having to learn a new language.

The world is a very large place. But the part of it that's taken up by publishing is manageably small. Four individuals got together online one day, spontaneously decided I needed a Web page, and built one for me. They are Pete Tillman, a geologist living in Arizona, Nick Gevers, a South African critic, Keith Brooke, an English writer; and Vlatko Juric-Kokic, a Croatian editor and Web designer. Four people on three continents! This sort of consortium couldn't have been pulled together for such a trivial purpose ten years ago.

Like everything else, science fiction is being conducted more and more by electronic means. Which means that location no longer matters the way it used to.

But the downside of all this Global Village-ization, all this shmoozing back and forth across the world is that it's like carelessly leaving your culture onto the stove and seeing it all melt together. I've watched this happen in the US and now I'm watching it happen to the world. Twenty-five years ago I was assembling a directory for the now-defunct National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center and called directory assistance in all fifty states. A decade before, I would have heard fifty distinct accents. Then, I only heard three. Everybody else had a bland, homogenized television anchorman accent. When I travel in the States and find myself out on the local Miracle Mile (because most places that's where the restaurants are), I'll take a minute and stare up and down the road with its Outback Steak Houses, and Gaps, and Home Depots, and ask myself: If I don't count the license plates, how many clues are there to which state I'm in?

The answer is usually: None.

I was wandering around Glasgow a couple of years back. It's a wonderful place, one that really grabs at the heart of anybody who loves cities. And I suddenly came upon the local Warner Brothers store. Over the doorway were ten-foot-tall fiberglass statues of Tazz and Wile E. Coyote, wearing kilts and playing bagpipes. I stood there, stunned with the vision of the coming world: One in which the only way you'd be able to tell what country you were in was by the ethnic signifiers on the cartoon statues over the Warner Brothers store.

I related this to a Scottish friend and he said, "I'm sorry you told me that."

We're in a global culture now. And it's a least common denominator culture, where Baywatch counts for a lot more than Bayreuth. In Nepal a few years ago, two teenage boys beat a monk to death because they thought his shrine contained priceless gems, probably set into the foreheads of idols. There were no gems, of course, and there was nothing in Nepalese culture that would lead the boys to think there was, or that murder would be an appropriate response if there were. They had bought into what Lucius Shepard calls "the bullshit legend," the idea that someday they would steal something so valuable or run a drug scam so big they'd never have to work again. And where did they pick up this nonsense? They caught it from the global culture.

I tried explaining this to an American audience and they hooted at me in scorn. It can't be a global culture, they said, because it doesn't reflect our values.

No. It doesn't. It's a really-o, truly-o Least Common Denominator world culture. When I travel, like a good little liberal, I keep an eye open for American cultural pollution. But unless I turn on the TV, I don't see much. What I do see are Ikea furnishings, Japanese anime and manga, and lots and lots and lots of Harry Potter. Everything's global now. America can't take the credit for the world's bad habits anymore.

At the same time, authentic cultural difference becomes one of the most valuable and easily abused commodities on Earth.

I've lost the title of the book, but there was an account written recently about the making of one of those Time-Life coffee-table books, "Tribal Peoples of the World" or suchlike. The author was told at the outset by his editor that nobody would actually bother to read what he wrote, that his role was merely to provide legitimacy to the photos. So in revenge, he wrote the True Story, describing how deep in the most remote villages of the world, they had to crop photos so as not to include the chainsaws hanging on the head-hunters' huts, or reveal the fact that the spear-carrying chap in the penis sheath was wearing Adidas. The entire enterprise, he said, degenerated into a "tit hunt." Naked breasts became emblematic of cultural validity.

This kind of nostalgic hunt for authenticity, however, is mere sentimentality. Westerners reserve the right for our cultures to evolve while we desire others to remain static, like so many ethnic Disneyworlds. But they can no more do that than we can go to the Newfoundland whaling ports and still see grim men in stovepipe hats walking around with harpoons in their hands.

My wife and I were in Ireland, looking at an old ring fort and a ten-year-old boy came out of his house to ask what we were doing. "Photographing the fairy ring," Marianne said. The kid look disgusted and said, "Don't tell me you still believe in fairies!"

Where I come from we don't have castles, cairns, holy wells, or standing stones. Seeing them for the first time, they looked completely different from how I'd imagined them. I realized then that this is why so much of the best fantasy comes from the British Isles, and why so much American fantasy is so bad. Their writers grow up with ring forts literally in their back yards sometimes, while ours grow up reading their books. I'd always wanted to write a big fantasy novel someday, and in that instant I thought I never would.

Sometime later, however, I was driving to Pittsburgh and talking with my wife about fantasy novels and steam locomotives. I made a joke about the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works, and she laughed. I drove on a mile or two more and then said, "Write that down."

That was the inspiration for The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The Baldwin Locomotive Works was originally located in Philadelphia and by acknowledging it as a locale for what I wanted to write, I was making it possible to employ the sorts of places I'd grown up among and knew about: strip malls, junk yards, high schools, factories. I didn't have to write imitation fantasy. I could write from my own culture.

Your culture - that which makes you distinct and individual - is the most valuable thing a writer owns. And in science fiction the future belongs to those who write from the heart of their own difference. Not the guy who's trying to rewrite Robert Heinlein for the umpteenth time. But the woman sitting in Helsinki with a strange light in her eye. Writing in Finnish with really good translation programs running on her Toshiba laptop and her Nokia cell phone.

That's all short-term. Almost all of us will live to see it. What happens if we extend our horizon fifty or a hundred years? Right now, the world is changing faster than we realize. Robotics, nanotechnics, cognitive science, materials science, medicine, genetic engineering... all our sciences and technologies are roaring forward in overdrive.

It's the neural sciences that are making the most astonishing progress nowadays. Pretty soon we can expect to see two major developments from that corner: Intelligence enhancement. Which should be good for science fiction writers. And a cure for the more serious forms of mental illness. About which I have my doubts.

We can already make people artificially stronger - with steroids. What happens when we can make people artificially smarter? It's coming soon. When it first arrives, there are probably going to be some hideous side effects. But so what? In one of Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist stories, a gene-line of Superbrights sues for political asylum. "We will not cause you any trouble," one says. "We only want a quiet place to finish working while God eats our brains." I read that and I thought: Yes! That's exactly the way it feels when the ideas are flowing and there's nothing but words and spirit and the page. As Virginia Woolf put it in another context: Incandescent.

So of course if a life-shortening, physically debilitating drug or treatment or stimulus came available I'd mortgage the house for it.

Intelligence enhancement will probably be good for science fiction. Not only because there will be enhanced writers to create better fiction faster, and not only because a generation of artificially-hyped scientists and engineers will be pumping new devices into the world and new concepts into the Noosphere, but also because there will be more artificially enhanced readers to buy and appreciate our work.

And as long as we're enhancing humans, why not chimpanzees? They can already be taught to talk by sign language. Perhaps with the help of a stenographer and a good editor an enhanced chimp could be coaxed into writing an autobiography. They might even be able to get into fiction. Chimpanzees are a lot like children - small, cute, emotional, not house-broken... I'll bet a talented enhanced chimp could write some extremely interesting children's books.

Simultaneous with intelligence enhancement, we can expect the elimination of mental illness. Here I have to introduce a note of caution. When I'm writing, I'll often put on earphones and listen to music. One day I bought a tape of the Gyoto Monks chanting. The Gyoto Monks are the Dalai Lama's crack spiritual troops, his karmic SWAT team, and each monk chants in chords. Western science understands this to a degree. It's obvious that they must be holding their vocal cords still at two resonance points. The only thing that's baffling is how they do this. But to the monks themselves, that's not important. The purpose of their chants is to raise the listener to a higher spiritual state.

And it works! I put the tape on my Walkman and started to work. After a minute or so I felt calm and alert and I stopped writing. I tried it twice more, with the same results. My friend and fellow writer Greg Frost had the same experience. We both had to throw away our tapes.

Most writers are convinced that there's something wrong with them and live in fear of a cure. So we'll have to write our mental health laws carefully, or all our artists will be driven underground, fugitives from sanity.

Meanwhile, as human beings are getting brighter, our machines will be as well. Artificial intelligence turns out to be lot tougher to create than Alan Turing said it would be. In fact we seem have reached that same promising moment of stasis that robotics achieved a decade ago, when serious thinkers finally codified a convincing set of reasons why robots were never going to be able to climb stairs or swim like fishes. Which was immediately followed by a flood of Japanese patents for stair-climbing robots and robotic tunas.

Even if we can't create artificial intelligences, maybe artificially intelligent people can. If nothing else, tinkering with our own brains ought to give us some valuable leads. Things will get interesting then. More interesting than I have time to go into.

But the question that concerns us here is: could a very smart machine write our science fiction novels for us?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say: No. Simply because so much of our emotions and therefore our manner of thought are rooted in somatic processes. Oh, a clever enough machine might be able to write Star Trek novelizations. But for all the work it would take, it's hard to see why a machine would want to counterfeit our emotions to create an original narrative work of art when the same time could be more profitably spent mastering the stock market or hacking into the Pentagon.

But perhaps it could write an extremely good machine-novel. What would that be like? Perhaps something like the dryer, more cerebral fictions of Stanislaw Lem. Or maybe (and this is likelier) something more alien, more interesting. Something unpredictable.

Will we like it? Well, some people will claim they do. But they'll be the same ones who today claim to have read Finnegans Wake for pleasure. They could well be telling the truth. The rest of us will have no way of knowing. But in the unlikely event that I live long enough to meet a genuinely good artificial writer, I'd love to try collaborating on a novel with it. Just to see if we could produce something that would please humans and machines alike.

At the beginning of this talk I obliquely referred to the question of whether science fiction is dead. Some people think that it is and just doesn't know it yet. That it was a mid-Twentieth Century reaction to the anxiety of technological change. As a boy, the grand old man of science fiction, Jack Williamson, traveled from Texas to New Mexico by covered wagon, and he lived to see the atomic bomb, men walking on the moon, and pornographic spam. That's a lot of technological anxiety for one man to live through.

But the twenty-first century is going to make the last hundred years look downright pastoral. There's a tidal wave of foreseeable change - and let's not forget that it's the stuff you can't foresee that really weirds things out - poised to crash down upon us.

In "Lobsters," the first story in Charles Stross's Accelerando series, his protagonist is sitting in a bar with some futurists and starts talking about how they've got to take all the planets in the Solar System and convert them into smart matter so that everything - people, trees, oceans - can be uploaded into it. There's a moment of silence. Then somebody says, "You're talking long-term, right?" And he replies, "Very long-term - at least twenty, thirty years."

I think that Stross is being optimistic. Or else pessimistic, I'm not sure which. But a world of change is going to happen in what is, even if it takes a century, historically an eye-blink. It's going to take a lot of wisdom to get through it in good shape.

I made a presentation at a computer-human interface conference not long ago. They all loved it, because none of them understood what I was saying. I told them that everything they were working for was going to be achieved. That machines would take over all the drudgery of manufacturing, finance, and politics, freeing up people to devote themselves to leisure and the arts. I said that just because those aspects of being human we most value are those that are most difficult for machines to emulate, they were going to develop symbiosis with us, in order to share in our emotional lives. Machines don't have family reunions, but they'd be mad not to want them. I said that they'd be competing with each other to offer attractive financial packages to those of us who are especially gifted athletes or artists.

They thought I was promising them Heaven on Earth.

Nobody noticed that what I was really saying was: We'll make great pets.

But afterwards one of the conference organizers came up to me with a question. He asked, "Do you think that artificial intelligence will ever enable us to develop wisdom enhancement tools?"

Wisdom enhancement tools! I could see it immediately. I bet you can too: Artificial constructs that would help us to be the sort of people we want to become, and to make the kind of decisions that years later we won't regret. It was an extremely good question.

I'm one of those people who come up with answers to extremely good questions about a week later, long after everybody's gone home and there's nobody around to admire my brilliance. So I wasn't of much use then. But thinking it over I realized that what I should have said was: You bet. We have them now. We call them books.

Specifically fiction.

And when it comes to navigating the coming changes, science fiction in particular.

Because what science fiction is all about, what it means, what it says is: The future is coming. It belongs to you. Use it wisely.

© 2003 by Michael Swanwick; this was my guest of honor speech for Finncon 2003

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