Ted Chiang’s hot takes are like his short stories—punchy, powerful, and thought-provoking.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
I’m not the only one thinking about J.G. Ballard.
A luxury cruiseliner quarantined in San Francisco bay, its well-heeled passengers confined to their cabins for weeks on end. Holidaymakers on lockdown at a quarantined hotel in Tenerife after an Italian doctor comes down with coronavirus. A world of isolated individuals rarely leaving their homes, keeping a wary distance from one another in public, communicating with their friends and loved ones via exclusively technological means. These situations are so Ballardian as to be in the realm of copyright infringement.
Monday, March 30th, 2020
Living Through The Future
You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.
Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.
On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.
But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.
When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?
At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.
Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.
For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).
In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:
Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.
The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.
Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.
I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.
I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”
Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.
Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
How design fiction was co-opted. A piece by Tim Maughan with soundbites from Julian Bleecker, Anab Jain, and Scott Smith.
Monday, May 20th, 2019
Ted Chiang has new collection out‽ Why did nobody tell me‽
Okay, well, technically this is Joyce Carol Oates telling me. In any case …woo-hoo!!!
Sunday, April 14th, 2019
Wednesday, November 21st, 2018
The terrific Hugo-winning short story about inequality, urban planning, and automation, written by Hao Jinfang and translated by Ken Liu (who translated The Three Body Problem series).
Hao Jinfang also wrote this essay about the story:
I’ve been troubled by inequality for a long time. When I majored in physics as an undergraduate, I once stared at the distribution curve for American household income that showed profound inequality, and tried to fit the data against black-body distribution or Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution. I wanted to know how such a curve came about, and whether it implied some kind of universality: something as natural as particle energy distribution functions, so natural it led to despair.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
Wednesday, June 27th, 2018
Between the utopian and dystopian, which vision of the future seems more likely to you? Which vision seems more true to how we currently live with technology, in the form of our smartphones and social media apps?
Friday, April 6th, 2018
There was a time, circa 2009, when no home design story could do without a reference to Mad Men. There is a time, circa 2018, when no personal tech story should do without a Black Mirror reference.
Black Mirror Home. It’s all fun and games until the screaming starts.
When these products go haywire—as they inevitably do—the Black Mirror tweets won’t seem so funny, just as Mad Men curdled, eventually, from ha-ha how far we’ve come to, oh-no we haven’t come far enough.
Friday, March 9th, 2018
I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
Kevin Kelly’s thoughts at the time of coining of this term seven years ago:
No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.
Tuesday, November 28th, 2017
It’s fairly light-hearted by the standards of Black Mirror, but all the more chilling for that. It depicts a dysutopia where people rate one another for points that unlock preferential treatment. It’s like a twisted version of the whuffie from Cory Doctorow’s Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. Cory himself points out that reputation economies are a terrible idea.
Nosedive has become a handy shortcut for pointing to the dangers of social media (in the same way that Minority Report was a handy shortcut for gestural interfaces and Her is a handy shortcut for voice interfaces).
“Social media is bad, m’kay?” is an understandable but, I think, fairly shallow reading of Nosedive. The problem isn’t with the apps, it’s with the system. A world in which we desperately need to keep our score up if we want to have any hope of advancing? That’s a nightmare scenario.
The thing is …that system exists today. Credit scores are literally a means of applying a numeric value to human beings.
Nosedive depicts a world where your score determines which seats you get in a restaurant, or which model of car you can rent. Meanwhile, in our world, your score determines whether or not you can get a mortgage.
Nosedive depicts a world in which you know your own score. Meanwhile, in our world, good luck with that:
It is very difficult for a consumer to know in advance whether they have a high enough credit score to be accepted for credit with a given lender. This situation is due to the complexity and structure of credit scoring, which differs from one lender to another.
Lenders need not reveal their credit score head, nor need they reveal the minimum credit score required for the applicant to be accepted. Owing only to this lack of information to the consumer, it is impossible for him or her to know in advance if they will pass a lender’s credit scoring requirements.
Black Mirror has a good track record of exposing what’s unsavoury about our current time and place. On the surface, Nosedive seems to be an exposé on the dangers of going to far with the presentation of self in everyday life. Scratch a little deeper though, and it reveals an even more uncomfortable truth: that we’re living in a world driven by systems even worse than what’s depicted in this dystopia.
Two years ago Douglas Rushkoff had an unpleasant encounter outside his Brooklyn home. Taking out the rubbish on Christmas Eve, he was mugged — held at knife-point by an assailant who took his money, his phone and his bank cards. Shaken, he went back indoors and sent an email to his local residents’ group to warn them about what had happened.
“I got two emails back within the hour,” he says. “Not from people asking if I was OK, but complaining that I’d posted the exact spot where the mugging had taken place — because it might adversely affect their property values.”
Tuesday, September 26th, 2017
A near-future tale of post-Brexit Kafkaesque isolationism in the skies.
It turned out that taking back control also meant creating an aerial deadzone. Nothing can fly in here without a Library of Alexandria’s worth of paperwork, and nothing can fly out without the same.
Tuesday, September 12th, 2017
There are some delightfully dark touches to this Cory Doctorow coming-of-age near-future short story of high school students seizing the means of production.
Tuesday, August 29th, 2017
More on that event with Brian Aldiss I was reminiscing about: that was the first time that Kate unveiled part of her Purple People book:
Jeremy insisted this would be an excellent opportunity for me to read an excerpt from Purple People, and so invited me onto the stage with those illustrious, wordy wizards to share an early indigo excerpt. I was quite literally shaking that night (even more than a talking tree, ho ho), but all was jolly. I read my piece without falling off the stage, and afterwards, folk made some ace and encouraging comments.
Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
Kate’s book—a “jolly dystopia”—will get published if enough of us pledge to back it. So let’s get pledging!
There’s a curiously coloured scheme afoot in Blighty. In an effort to tackle dispiriting, spiralling levels of crime and anti-social behaviour, the government has a new solution: to dye offenders purple.
Sunday, June 25th, 2017
The first of Neil Bomkamp’s series of short films—testbeds for potential feature films.
Monday, April 10th, 2017
A small black mirror.
Monday, January 16th, 2017
Most of these dystopian scenarios are, after all, post-apocalyptic: the bad thing happened, the tension broke, and now so much less is at stake. The anxiety and ambivalence we feel toward late-stage capitalism, income inequality, political corruption, and environmental degradation—acute psychological pandemics in the here and now—are utterly dissolved. In a strange, wicked way, the aftermath feels fine.
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
Ten years on from Afonso Cuarón’s masterpiece.