Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture
When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.
First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”
Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL:
There are some links that I return to again and again.
Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.
Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?
But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).
Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.
Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.
I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.
Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—
vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!
I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain
mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.
Monday, July 19th, 2021
My talk on sci-fi and me for Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious event was deliberately designed to be broad and expansive. This was in contrast to Steph’s talk which was deliberately narrow and focused on one topic. Specifically, it was all about solarpunk.
I first heard of solarpunk from Justin Pickard back in 2014 at an event I was hosting. He described it as:
individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.
The sci-fi subgenre of solarpunk, then, is about these communities. The subgenre sets up to be deliberately positive, even utopian, in contrast to most sci-fi.
Most genres ending with the -punk suffix are about aesthetics. You know the way that cyberpunk is laptops, leather and sunglasses, and steampunk is zeppelins and top hats with goggles. Solarpunk is supposedly free of any such “look.” That said, all the examples I’ve seen seem to converge on the motto of “put a tree on it.” If a depiction of the future looks lush, verdant, fecund and green, chances are it’s solarpunk.
At least, it might be solarpunk. It would have to pass the criteria laid down by the gatekeepers. Solarpunk is manifesto-driven sci-fi. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s one thing to apply a category to a piece of writing after it’s been written, but it’s another to start with an agenda-driven category and proceed from there. And as with any kind of classification system, the edges are bound to be fuzzy, leading to endless debates about what’s in and what’s out (see also: UX, UI, service design, content design, product design, front-end development, and most ironically of all, information architecture).
When I met up with Steph to discuss our talk topics and she described the various schools of thought that reside under the umbrella of solarpunk, it reminded me of my college days. You wouldn’t have just one Marxist student group, there’d be multiple Marxist student groups each with their own pillars of identity (Leninist, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalist, and so on). From the outside they all looked the same, but woe betide you if you mixed them up. It was exactly the kind of situation that was lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. Steph confirmed that those kind of rifts also exist in solarpunk. It’s just like that bit in Gulliver’s Travels where nations go to war over the correct way to crack an egg.
But there’s general agreement about what broadly constitutes solarpunk. It’s a form of cli-fi (climate fiction) but with an upbeat spin: positive but plausible stories of the future that might feature communities, rewilding, gardening, farming, energy independence, or decentralisation. Centralised authority—in the form of governments and corporations—is not to be trusted.
That’s all well and good but it reminds of another community. Libertarian preppers. Heck, even some of the solarpunk examples feature seasteading (but with more trees).
Politically, preppers and solarpunks couldn’t be further apart. Practically, they seem more similar than either of them would be comfortable with.
Both communities distrust centralisation. For the libertarians, this manifests in a hatred of taxation. For solarpunks, it’s all about getting off the electricity grid. But both want to start their own separate self-sustaining communities.
Independence. Decentralisation. Self-sufficiency.
There’s a fine line between Atlas Shrugged and The Whole Earth Catalog.
Monday, June 21st, 2021
Talking about sci-fi
I gave my sci-fi talk last week at Marc’s Stay Curious event. I really like the format of these evening events: two talks followed by joint discussion, interspersed with music from Tobi. This particular evening was especially enjoyable, with some great discussion points being raised.
Steph and I had already colluded ahead of time on how we were going to split up the talks. She would go narrow and dive into one specific subgenre, solarpunk. I would go broad and give a big picture overview of science fiction literature.
Obviously I couldn’t possibly squeeze the entire subject of sci-fi into one short talk, so all I could really do was give my own personal subjective account. Hence, the talk is called Sci-fi and Me. I’ve published the transcript, uploaded the slides and the audio, and Marc has published the video on YouTube and Vimeo. Kudos to Tina Pham for going above and beyond to deliver a supremely accurate transcript with a super-fast turnaround.
I divided the talk into three sections. The first is my own personal story of growing up in small-town Ireland and reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on from the local library. The second part was a quick history of sci-fi publishing covering the last two hundred years. The third and final part was a run-down of ten topics that sci-fi deals with. For each topic, I gave a brief explanation, mentioned a few books and then chose one that best represents that particular topic. That was hard.
- Planetary romance. I mentioned the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss, and the Riverworld saga by Philip José Farmer. I chose Dune by Frank Herbert.
- Space opera. I mentioned the Skylark and Lensman books by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds, and the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. I chose Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
- Generation starships. I mentioned Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. I chose Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
- Utopia. I mentioned the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. I chose The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
- Dystopia. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I chose 1984 by George Orwell.
- Post-apocalypse. I mentioned The Drought and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I chose Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
- Artificial intelligence. I mentioned Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan and Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
- First contact. I mentioned The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and Contact by Carl Sagan. I chose Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang.
- Time travel. I mentioned The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Peripheral by William Gibson. I chose Kindred by Octavia Butler.
- Alternative history. I mentioned A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. I chose The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
- Cyberpunk. I mentioned Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. I chose Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Okay, that’s eleven, not ten, but that last one is a bit of a cheat—it’s a subgenre rather than a topic. But it allowed me to segue nicely into Steph’s talk.
Here’s a list of those eleven books. I can recommend each and every one of them. Still, the problem with going with this topic-based approach was that some of my favourite sci-fi books of all time fall outside of any kind of classification system. Where would I put The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, one of my all-time favourites? How could I classify Philip K. Dick books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, or A Scanner Darkly? And where would I even begin to describe the books of Christopher Priest?
But despite the inevitable gaps, I’m really pleased with how the overall talk turned out. I had a lot of fun preparing it and even more fun presenting it. It made a nice change from the usual topics I talk about. Incidentally, if you’ve got a conference or a podcast and you ever want me to talk about something other than the web, I’m always happy to blather on about sci-fi.
Here’s the talk. I hope you like it.
Saturday, June 19th, 2021
I’m going to talk about sci-fi, in general. Of course, there isn’t enough time to cover everything, so I’ve got to restrict myself.
First of all, I’m just going to talk about science fiction literature. I’m not going to go into film, television, games, or anything like that. But of course, in the discussion, I’m more than happy to talk about sci-fi films, television, and all that stuff. But for brevity’s sake, I thought I’ll just stick to books here.
Also, I can’t possibly give an authoritative account of all of science fiction literature, so it’s going to be very subjective. I thought what I can talk about is myself. In fact, it’s one of my favourite subjects.
So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk about sci-fi and me.
So, let me tell you about my childhood. I grew up in a small town on the south coast of Ireland called Cobh. Here it is. It’s very picturesque when you’re looking at it from a distance. But I have to say, growing up there (in the 1970s and 1980s), there really wasn’t a whole lot to do.
There was no World Wide Web at this point. It was, frankly, a bit boring.
But there was one building in town that saved me, and that was this building here in the town square. This is the library. It was inside the library (amongst the shelves of books) that I was able to pass the time and find an escape.
It was here that I started reading the work, for example, of Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer. He’s also a science writer. He wrote a lot of books. I think it might have even been a science book that got me into Isaac Asimov.
I was a nerdy kid into science, and I remember there was a book in the library that was essays and short stories. There’d be an essay about science followed by a short story that was science fiction, and it would keep going like that. It was by Isaac Asimov. I enjoyed those science fiction stories as much as the science, so I started reading more of his books, books about galactic empires, books about intelligent robots, detective stories but set on other planets.
There was a real underpinning of science to these books, hard science, in Isaac Asimov’s work. I enjoyed it, so I started reading other science fiction books in the library. I found these books by Arthur C. Clarke, which were very similar in some ways to Isaac Asimov in the sense that they’re very grounded in science, in the hard science.
In fact, the two authors used to get mistaken for one another in terms of their work. They formed an agreement. Isaac Asimov would graciously accept a compliment about 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arthur C. Clarke would graciously accept a compliment about the Foundation series.
Anyway, so these books, hard science fiction books, I loved them. I was really getting into them. There were plenty of them in the local library.
The other author that seemed to have plenty of books in the local library was Ray Bradbury. This tended to be more short stories than full-length novels and also, it was different to the Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in the sense that it wasn’t so much grounded in the science. You got the impression he didn’t really care that much about how the science worked. It was more about atmosphere, stories, and characters.
These were kind of three big names in my formative years of reading sci-fi. I kind of went through the library reading all of the books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.
Once I had done that, I started to investigate other books that were science fiction (in the library). I distinctly remember these books being in the library by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. I read them and I really enjoyed them. They are terrific books.
These, again, are different to the hard science fiction of something like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. There were questions of politics and gender starting to enter into the stories.
Also, I remember there were two books by Alfred Bester, these two books, The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger! (also called The Stars My Destination). These were just wild. These were almost psychedelic.
I mean they were action-packed, but also, the writing style was action-packed. It was kind of like reading the Hunter S. Thompson of science fiction. It was fear and loathing in outer space.
These were opening my mind to other kinds of science fiction, and I also had my mind opened (and maybe warped) by reading the Philip K. Dick books that were in the library. Again, you got the impression he didn’t really care that much about the technology or the science. It was all about the stuff happening inside people’s heads, questioning what reality is.
At this point in my life, I hadn’t yet done any drugs. But reading Philip K. Dick kind of gave me a taste, I think, of what it would be like to do drugs.
These were also names that loomed large in my early science fiction readings: Ursula K. Le Guin, Alfred Bester, and Philip K. Dick.
Then there were the one-offs in the library. I remember coming across this book by Frank Herbert called Dune, reading it, and really enjoying it. It was spaceships and sandworms, but also kind of mysticism and environmentalism, even.
I remember having my tiny little mind blown by reading this book of short stories by Fredric Brown. They’re kind of like typical Twilight Zone short stories with a twist in the tale. I just love that.
I think a lot of science fiction short stories can almost be the natural home for it because there is one idea explored fairly quickly. Short stories are really good for that.
I remember reading stories about the future. What would the world be like in the year 1999? Like in Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! A tale of overpopulation that we all had to look forward to.
I remember this book by Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was kind of a book about the long now (civilisations rising and falling). Again, it blew my little mind as a youngster and maybe started an interest I have to this day in thinking long-term.
So, this is kind of the spread of the science fiction books I read as a youngster, and I kept reading books after this. Throughout my life, I’ve read science fiction.
I don’t think it’s that unusual to read science fiction. In fact, I think just about anybody who reads has probably read science fiction because everyone has probably read one of these books. Maybe they’ve read Brave New World or 1984, some Kurt Vonnegut like Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sirens of Titan, the Margaret Atwood books like The Handmaid’s Tale, or Kazuo Ishiguro books.
Now, a lot of the time the authors of these books who are mainstream authors maybe wouldn’t be happy about having their works classified as sci-fi or science fiction. The term maybe was a little downmarket, so sometimes people will try to argue that these books are not science fiction even though clearly the premise of every one of these books is science fictional. But it’s almost like these books are too good to be science fiction. There’s a little bit of snobbishness.
Brian Aldiss has a wonderful little poem, a little couplet to describe this attitude. He said:
“SF is no good,” they cry until we’re deaf.
“But this is good.”
“Well, then it’s not SF!”
Recently, I found out that there’s a term for these books by mainstream authors that cross over into science fiction, and these are called slipstream books. I think everyone at some point has read a slipstream science fiction book that maybe has got them interested in diving further into science fiction.
What is sci-fi?
Now, the question I’m really skirting around here is, what is sci-fi? I’m not sure I can answer that question.
Isaac Asimov had a definition. He said it’s that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology. I think that’s a pretty good description of his books and the hard science fiction books of Arthur C. Clarke. But I don’t think that that necessarily describes some of the other authors I’ve mentioned, so it feels a little narrow to me.
Pamela Sargent famously said that science fiction is the literature of ideas. There is something to that, like when I was talking about how short stories feel like a natural home for sci-fi because you’ve got one idea, you explore it in a short story, and you’re done.
But I also feel like that way of phrasing science fiction as the literature of ideas almost leaves something unsaid, like, it’s the literature of ideas as opposed to plot, characterisation, and all this other kind of stuff that happens in literature. I always think, why not both? You know. Why can’t we have ideas, plot, characters, and all the other good stuff?
Also, ideas aren’t unique to sci-fi. Every form of literature has to have some idea or there’s no point writing the book. Every crime novel has to have an idea behind it. So, I’m not sure if that’s a great definition either.
Maybe the best definition came from Damon Knight who said sci-fi is what we point to when we say it. It’s kind of, “I know it when I see it,” kind of thing. I think there’s something to that.
Any time you come up with a definition of sci-fi, it’s always hard to drive hard lines between sci-fi and other adjacent genres like fantasy. They’re often spoke about together, sci-fi and fantasy. I think I can tell the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, but I can’t describe the difference. I don’t think there is a hard line.
Science fiction feels like it’s looking towards the future, even when it isn’t. Maybe the sci-fi story isn’t actually set in the future. But it feels like it’s looking to the future and asking, “What if?” whereas fantasy feels like it’s looking to the past and asking, “What if?” But again, fantasy isn’t necessarily set in the past, and science fiction isn’t necessarily set in the future.
You could say, “Oh, well, science fiction is based on science, and fantasy is based on magic,” but any sci-fi book that features faster than light travel is effectively talking about magic, not science. So, again, I don’t think you can draw those hard lines.
There are other genres that are very adjacent and cross over with sci-fi and fantasy, like horror. You get sci-fi horror, fantasy horror. What about any mainstream book that has magical realism to it? You could say that’s a form of fantasy or science fiction.
Ultimately, I think this question, “What is sci-fi?” is a really interesting question if you’re a publisher. It’s probably important for you to answer this question if you are a publisher. But if you are a reader, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important a question.
What is sci-fi for?
There’s another question that comes on from this, which is, “What is sci-fi for? What’s its purpose?” Is it propaganda for science, almost like the way Isaac Asimov is describing it?
Sometimes, it has been used that way. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was almost like a way of getting people into science. Reading science fiction certainly influenced future careers in science, but that feels like a very limiting way to describe a whole field of literature.
Is sci-fi for predicting the future? Most sci-fi authors would say, “No, no, no.” Ray Bradbury said, “I write science fiction not to predict the future, but to prevent it.” But there is always this element of trying to ask what if and play out the variables into the future.
Frederik Pohl said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam,” which is kind of a nice way of looking at how it’s not just prediction.
Maybe thinking about sci-fi as literature of the future would obscure the fact that actually, most science fiction tends to really be about today or the time it’s published. It might be set in the future but, often, it’s dealing with issues of the day.
Ultimately, it’s about the human condition. Really, so is every form of literature. So, I don’t think there’s a good answer for this either. I don’t think there’s an answer for the question, “What is sci-fi for?” that you could put all science fiction into.
Okay, so we’re going to avoid the philosophical questions. Let’s get down to something a bit more straightforward. Let’s have a history of science fiction and science fiction literature.
Caveats again: this is going to be very subjective, just as, like, my history. It’s also going to be a very Western view because I grew up in Ireland, a Western country.
Where would I begin the history of science fiction? I could start with the myths and legends and religions of most cultures, which have some kind of science fiction or fantasy element to them. You know, the Bible, a work of fantasy.
But if I wanted to start with what I would think is the modern birth of the sci-fi novel, I think Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus could be said to be the first sci-fi novel and invents a whole bunch of tropes that we still use to this day: the mad scientist meddling with powers beyond their control.
It’s dealing with electricity, and I talked about how sci-fi is often about topics of the day, and this is when electricity is just coming on the scenes. There are all sorts of questions about the impact of electricity and science fiction is a way of exploring this.
Talking about reanimating the dead, also kind of talking about artificial intelligence. It set the scene for a lot of what was to come.
Later, in the 19th Century, in the 1860s, and then the 1890s, we have these two giants of early science fiction. In France, we have Jules Verne, and he’s writing books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, these adventure stories with technology often at the Centre of them.
Then in England, we have H.G. Wells, and he’s creating entire genres from scratch. He writes The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Over in America, you’ve got Edgar Allan Poe mostly doing horror, but there’s definitely sci-fi or fantasy aspects to what he’s doing.
Now, as we get into the 20th Century, where sci-fi really starts to boom – even though the term doesn’t exist yet – is with the pulp fiction in the 1920s, 1930s. This is literally pulp paper that cheap books are written on. They were cheap to print. They were cheap for the authors, too. As in, the authors did not get paid much. People were just churning out these stories. There were pulp paperbacks and also magazines.
Hugo Gernsback, here in the 1920s, he was the editor of Amazing Stories, and he talked about scientification stories. That was kind of his agenda.
Then later, in the 1930s, John W. Campbell became the editor of Astounding Stories. In 1937, he changed the name of it from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction. This is when the term really comes to prominence.
He does have an agenda. He wants stories grounded in plausible science. He wants that hard kind of science.
What you have here, effectively, is yes the genre is getting this huge boost, but also you’ve got gatekeepers. You’ve got two old, white dude gatekeepers kind of deciding what gets published and what doesn’t. It’s setting the direction.
What happens next, though, is that a lot of science fiction does get published. A lot of good science fiction gets published in what’s known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940s and 1950s. This, it turns out, is when authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Heinlein are publishing those early books I was reading in the library. I didn’t realise it at the time, but they were books from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
This tended to be the hard science fiction. It’s grounded in technology. It’s grounded in science. There tend to be scientific explanations for everything in the books.
It’s all good stuff. It’s all enjoyable. But there’s an interesting swing of the pendulum in the 1960s and ’70s. This swing kind of comes from Europe, from the UK. This is known as the New Wave. That term was coined by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds magazine that he was the editor of.
It’s led by these authors like Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard where they’re less concerned with outer space and they’re more concerned with inner space: the mind, language, drugs, the inner world. It’s some exciting stuff, quite different to the hard science that’s come before.
Like I say, it started in Europe, but then there was also this wave of it in America, broadening the scope of what sci-fi could be. You got less gatekeeping and you got more new voices. You got Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delaney expanding what sci-fi could be.
That trend continued into the 1980s when you began to see the rise of authors like Octavia Butler who, to this day, has a huge influence on Afrofuturism. You’re getting more and more voices. You’re getting a wider scope of what science fiction could be.
I think the last big widening of sci-fi happened in the 1980s with William Gibson. He practically invented (from scratch) the genre of cyberpunk. If Mary Shelley was concerned with electricity then, by the 1980s, we were all concerned with computers, digital networks, and technology.
The difference with cyberpunk is where the Asimov story or Clarke story might be talking about someone in a position of power (a captain or an astronaut) and how technology impacts them, cyberpunk is kind of looking at technology at the street level when the street finds its own uses for things. That was expanded into other things as well.
After the 1980s, we start to get the new weird. We get people like Jeff Noon, China Mieville, and Jeff VanderMeer writing stuff. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Who knows?
Which brings us up to today. Today, we have, I think, a fantastic range of writers writing a fantastic range of science fiction, like Ann Leckie with her Imperial Radch stories, N.K. Jemisin with the fantastic Broken Earth trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee writing Machineries of Empire, and Ted Chiang with terrific short stories and his collections like Exhalation. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, we look back on now as a true Golden Age of Science Fiction where it is wider, there are more voices and, frankly, more interesting stories.
Okay, so on the home stretch, I want to talk about the subjects of science fiction, the topics that sci-fi tends to cover. I’m going to go through ten topics of science fiction, list off what the topic is, name a few books, and then choose one book to represent that topic. It’s going to be a little tricky, but here we go.
Okay, so planetary romance is a sci-fi story that’s basically set on a single planet where the planet is almost like a character: the environment of the planet, the ecosystem of the planet. This goes back a long way. The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter of Mars were kind of early planetary romance and even spawned a little sub-genre of Sword and Planet*.
Brian Aldiss did a terrific trilogy called Helliconia, a series where the orbits of a star system are kind of the driving force behind the stories that take place over generations.
Philip Jose Farmer did this fantastic series (the Riverworld series). Everyone in history is reincarnated on this one planet with a giant river spanning it.
If I had to pick one planetary romance to represent the genre, I am going to go with a classic. I’m going to go with Dune by Frank Herbert. It really is a terrific piece of work.
Space opera, the term was intended to denigrate it but, actually, it’s quite fitting. Space opera is what you think of when you think of sci-fi. It’s intergalactic empires, space battles, and good rip-roaring yarns. You can trace it back to these early works by E.E. ’Doc’ Smith. It’s the good ol’ stuff.
Space opera has kind of fell out of favour for a while there, but it started coming back in the last few decades. It got some really great, hard sci-fi space opera by Alastair Reynolds and, more recently, Yoon Ha Lee with Ninefox Gambit – all good stuff.
But if I had to pick one space opera book to represent the genre, I’m going to go with Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It is terrific. It’s like taking Asimov, Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the best of all of them, and putting them all into one series – great stuff.
Now, in space opera, generally, they come up with some way of being able to travel around the galaxy in a faster than light, warp speed, or something like that, which makes it kind of a fantasy, really.
If you accept that you can’t travel faster than light, then maybe you’re going to write about generation starships. This is where you accept that you can’t zip around the galaxy, so you have to take your time getting from star system to star system, which means it’s multiple generations.
Brian Aldiss’s first book was a generation starship book called Non-Stop. But there’s one book that I think has the last word on generation starships, and it’s by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is Aurora. I love this book, a really great book. Definitely the best generation starship book there is.
All right. What about writing about utopias? Funnily enough, not as many utopias as there are the counterpart. Maybe the most famous utopias in recent sci-fi is from Ian M. Banks with his Culture series. The Culture is a socialist utopia in space post-scarcity. They’re great space opera galaxy-spanning stuff.
What’s interesting, though, is most of the stories are not about living in a utopia because living in a post-scarcity utopia is, frankly, super boring. All the stories are about the edge cases. All the stories are literally called special circumstances.
All good fun, but the last word on utopian science fiction must go to Ursula Le Guin with The Dispossessed. It’s an anarcho-syndicalist utopia – or is it? It depends on how you read it.
I definitely have some friends who read this like it was a manual and other friends who read it like it was a warning. I think, inside every utopia, there’s a touch of dystopia, and dystopias are definitely the more common topic for science fiction. Maybe it’s easier to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” than to ask, “What’s the best that can happen?”
A lot of the slipstream books would be based on dystopias like Margaret Atwood’s terrific The Handmaid’s Tale. I remember being young and reading (in that library) Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury, a book about burning books – terrific stuff.
But I’m going to choose one. If I’m going to choose one dystopia, I think I have to go with a classic. It’s never been beat. George Orwell’s 1984, the last word on dystopias. It’s a fantastic work, fantastic piece of literature.
I think George Orwell’s 1984 is what got a lot of people into reading sci-fi. With me, it almost went the opposite. I was already reading sci-fi. But after reading 1984, I ended up going to read everything ever written by George Orwell, which I can highly recommend. There’s no sci-fi, but a terrific writer.
All right. Here’s another topic: a post-apocalypse story. You also get pre-apocalypse stories like, you know, there’s a big asteroid coming or there’s a black hole in the Centre of the Earth or something, and how we live out our last days. But, generally, authors tend to prefer post-apocalyptic settings, whether that’s post-nuclear war, post environmental catastrophe, post-plague. Choose your disaster and then have a story set afterward.
J. G. Ballard, he writes stories about not enough water, too much water, and I think it’s basically he wants to find a reason to put his characters in large, empty spaces because that’s what he enjoys writing about.
Very different, you’d have the post-apocalyptic stories of someone like John Wyndham, somewhat derided by Brian Aldiss’s cozy catastrophes. Yes, the world is ending, but we’ll make it back home in time for tea.
At the complete other extreme from that, you would have something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is relentlessly grim tale of post-apocalypse.
I almost picked Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy for the ultimate post-apocalyptic story, and it’s really great stuff post-plague, genetically engineered plague – very timely.
But actually, even more timely – and a book that’s really stayed with me – is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell. Not just because the writing is terrific and it is a plague book, so, yes, timely, but it also tackles questions like: What is art for? What is the human condition all about?
All right. Another topic that’s very popular amongst the techies, artificial intelligence, actual artificial intelligence, not what we in the tech world called artificial intelligence, which is a bunch of if/else statements.
Stories of artificial intelligence are also very popular in slipstream books from mainstream authors like recently we had a book from Ian McEwan. We had a new book from Kazuo Ishiguro tackling this topic.
But again, I’m going to go back to the classic, right back to my childhood, and I’ll pick I, Robot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, where he first raises this idea of three laws of robotics – a word he coined, by the way, robotics from the Czech word for robot.
These three laws are almost like design principles for artificial intelligence. All the subsequent works in this genre kind of push at those design principles. It’s good stuff. Not to be confused with the movie with the same name.
Here’s another topic: first contact with an alien species. Well, sometimes the first contact doesn’t go well and the original book on this is H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Every other alien invasion book since then has kind of just been a reworking of The War of the Worlds. It’s terrific stuff.
For more positive views on first contact stories, Arthur C. Clarke dives into books like Childhood’s End. In Rendezvous with Rama, what’s interesting is we don’t actually contact the alien civilisation but we have an artifact that we must decode and get information from. It’s good stuff.
More realistically, though, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is frustrating because it’s realistic in the sense that we couldn’t possibly understand an alien intelligence. In the book – spoiler alert – we don’t.
For realism set in the world of today, Carl Sagan’s book Contact is terrific. Well worth a read. It really tries to answer what would a first contact situation look like today.
But I’ve got to pick one first contact story, and I’m actually going to go with a short story, and it’s Stories of Your Life by Ted Chaing. I recommend getting the whole book and reading every short story in it because it’s terrific.
This is the short story that the film Arrival was based on, which is an amazing piece of work because I remember reading this fantastic short story and distinctly thinking, “This is unfilmable. This could only exist in literature.” Yet, they did a great job with the movie, which bodes well for the movie of Dune, which is also being directed by Denis Villeneuve.
All right. Time travel as a topic. I have to say I think that time travel is sometimes better handled in media like TV and movies than it is in literature. That said, you’ve got the original time travel story. Again, H.G. Wells just made this stuff from scratch, and it really holds up. It’s a good book. I mean it’s really more about class warfare than it is about time travel, but it’s solid.
Actually, I highly recommend reading a nonfiction book called Time Travel by James Gleick where he looks at the history of time travel as a concept in both fiction and in physics.
You’ve got some interesting concepts like Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, which, as is the premise, time-traveling serial killer, which is a really interesting mashup of genres. You’ve got evidence showing up out of chronological sequence.
By the way, this is being turned into a TV show as we speak, as is The Peripheral by William Gibson, a recent book by him. It’s terrific.
What I love about this, it’s a time travel story where the only thing that travels in time is information. But that’s enough with today’s technology, so it’s like a time travel for remote workers. Again, very timely, as all of William Gibson’s stuff tends to be.
But if I’ve got to choose one, I’m going to choose Kindred by Octavia Butler because it’s just such as a terrific book. To be honest, the time travel aspect isn’t the Centre of the story but it’s absolutely worth reading as just a terrific, terrific piece of literature.
Now, in time travel, you’ve generally got two kinds of time travel. You’ve got the closed-loop time travel, which is kind of like a Greek tragedy. You try and change the past but, in trying to change it, you probably bring about the very thing you were trying to change. The Shining Girls were something like that.
Or you have the multiverse version of time travel where going back in time forks the universe, and that’s what The Peripheral is about. That multiverse idea is explored in another subgenre, which is alternative history, which kind of asks, “What if something different had happened in history?” and then plays out the what-if from there. Counterfactuals, they’re also known as.
I remember growing up and going through the shelves of that library in Cobh, coming across this book, A Transatlantic Tunnel. Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. It’s set in a world where the American War of Independence failed and now it’s the modern-day. The disgraced descendant of George Washington is in charge of building a transatlantic tunnel for the British Empire.
That tends to be the kind of premise that gets explored in alternative history is what if another side had won the war. There’s a whole series of books set in a world where the South won the Civil War in the United States.
For my recommendation, though, I’m going to go with The Man in the High Castle, which is asking what if the other side won the war. In this case, it’s WWII. It’s by Philip K. Dick. I mean it’s not my favourite Philip K. Dick book, but my favourite Philip K. Dick books are so unclassifiable, I wouldn’t be able to put them under any one topic, and I have to get at least one Philip K. Dick book in here.
A final topic and, ooh, this is a bit of a cheat because it’s not really a topic – it’s a subgenre – cyberpunk. But as I said, cyberpunk deals with the topic of computers or networked computers more specifically, and there’s some good stuff like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Really ahead of its time. It definitely influenced a lot of people in tech.
Everyone I know that used to work in Linden Lab, the people who were making Second Life, when you joined, you’re basically handled Snow Crash on your first day and told, “This is what we’re trying to build here.”
But if I’ve got to pick one cyberpunk book, you can’t beat the original Neuromancer by William Gibson. Just terrific stuff.
What’s interesting about cyberpunk is, yes, it’s dealing with the technology of computers and networks, but it’s also got this atmosphere, a kind of noir atmosphere that William Gibson basically created from scratch. Then a whole bunch of other genres spun off from that asking, “Well, what if we could have a different atmosphere?” and explore stories like steampunk. It’s kind of like, “Well, what if the Victorians had computers and technology? What would that be like?”
Basically, if there’s a time in history that you like the aesthetic of, there’s probably a subgenre ending in the word “punk” that describes that aesthetic. You can go to conventions, and you can have your anime and your manga and your books and your games set in these kind of subgenres. They are generally, like I say, about aesthetics with the possible exception of solarpunk, which is what Steph is going to talk about.
Living in the future
I am going to finish with these books as my recommendations for a broad range of topics of science fiction from 50 years of reading science fiction. I think about if I could go back and talk to my younger self in that town in the south coast of Ireland about the world of today. I’m sure it would sound like a science fictional world.
By the way, I wouldn’t go back in time to talk to my younger self because I’ve read enough time travel stories to know that that never ends well. But still, here we are living in the future. I mean this past year with a global pandemic, that is literally straight out of a bunch of science fiction books.
But also, just the discoveries and advancements we’ve made are science fictional. Like when I was growing up and reading science books in that library, we didn’t know if there were any planets outside our own solar system. We didn’t know if exoplanets even existed.
Now, we know that most solar systems have their own planets. We’re discovering them every day. It’s become commonplace.
We have sequenced the human genome, which is a remarkable achievement for a species.
And we have the World Wide Web, this world-spanning network of information that you can access with computers in your pockets. Amazing stuff.
But of all of these advancements by our species, if I had to pick the one that I think is in some ways the most science-fictional, the most far-fetched idea, I would pick the library. If libraries didn’t exist and you tried to make them today, I don’t think you could succeed. You’d be laughed out of the venture capital room, like, “How is that supposed to work?” It sounds absolutely ridiculous, a place where people can go and read books and take those books home with them without paying for them. It sounds almost too altruistic to exist.
But Ray Bradbury, for example, I know he grew up in the library. He said, “I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library.” He was a big fan of libraries. He said, “Reading is at the Centre of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library, you have no civilisation.” He said, “Without libraries, what have we? Have no past and no future.”
So, to end this, I’m not going to end with a call to read lots of sci-fi. I’m just going to end with a call to read – full stop. Read fiction, not just non-fiction. Read fiction. It’s a way of expanding your empathy.
And defend your local library. Use your local library. Don’t let your local library get closed down.
We are living in the future by having libraries. Libraries are science fictional.
With that, thank you.
Here’s the video of the talk I gave on Wednesday evening all about my relationship with reading science fiction. There are handy chapter markers if you want to jump around.
Monday, June 14th, 2021
Robin asked a question:
What is a work of science fiction (a book, not a movie, thanks) that could only have been written in the last ten years? AND/OR, what’s a work of science fiction that hinges on experiences and feelings new in the last ten years? AND/OR, what’s a work of science fiction that represents the current leading edge of the genre’s speculative and stylistic development?
The responses make for interesting reading, especially ahead of Wednesday’s event.
Sunday, May 23rd, 2021
Speaking about sci-fi
I’m going to be speaking at the Beyond Tellerrand “Stay Curious” event on June 16th. But I’m not going to be talking about anything (directly) web-related…
The topic for the evening is science fiction. There’ll be a talk from me, a talk from Steph, and then a discussion, which I’m really looking forward to.
I got together with Steph last week, which was really fun—we could’ve talked for hours! We compared notes and figured out a way to divvy up the speaking slots. Steph is going to do a deep dive into one specific subgenre of sci-fi. So to set the scene, I’m going to give a broad but shallow overview of the history of sci-fi. To keep things managable, I’m only going to be talking about sci-fi literature (although we can get into films, TV, and anything else in the discussion afterwards).
But I don’t want to just regurgitate facts like a Wikipedia article. I’ve decided that the only honest thing to do is give my own personal history with sci-fi. Instead of trying to give an objective history, I’m going to tell a personal story …even if that means being more open and vulnerable.
I think I’ve got the arc of the story I want to tell. I’ve been putting slides together and I’m quite excited now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a lot to say. But I don’t want the presentation to get too long. I want to keep it short and snappy so that there’s plenty of time for the discussion afterwards. That’s going to be the best part!
That’s where you come in. The discussion will be driven by the questions and chat from the attendees. Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-want basis, with a minimum price of just €10. It’ll be an evening event, starting at 6:30pm UK time, 7:30pm in central Europe. So if you’re in the States, that’ll be your morning or afternoon.
Come along if you have any interest in sci-fi. If you have no interest in sci-fi, then please come along—we can have a good discusison about it.
Wednesday, May 5th, 2021
I’m excited to do this event with Steph! We’ll be talking about science fiction on the evening of Wednesday, June 16th.
Tickets are from just €10 so grab yours now!
Wednesday, April 21st, 2021
The format of a Wikipedia page is used as the chilling delivery mechanism for this piece of speculative fiction. The distancing effect heightens the horror.
Saturday, March 27th, 2021
Black Mirror meets Henrietta Lacks in this short story by Erik Hoel who I had not heard of until today, when I came across his name here and also in a completely unrelated blog post by Peter Watts about the nature of dreams.
Wednesday, March 10th, 2021
Your grandmother is not just a starship, she’s a highly individual starship with her own goals and needs!
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
A very affecting short story by Ben. I look forward to reading more of these.
Thursday, January 28th, 2021
Tuesday, November 17th, 2020
A blog post from the future. I’m on board with the subgenre of speculative blogging.
Sunday, October 25th, 2020
I’m an agent of the 28th Amendment, the abolition of the 2nd. If it sounds sanctimonious to trace my authority to a decade-old government document that I have never read rather than my employee handbook, it’s only because I value my life.
Free Download of Africanfuturism: An Anthology | Stories by Nnedi Okorafor, TL Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene
Here are 8 original visions of Africanfuturism: science fiction stories by both emerging and seasoned African writers staking a claim to Africa’s place in the future. These are powerful visions focused on the African experience and hopes and fears, exploring African sciences, philosophies, adaptations to technology and visions of the future both centred on and spiralling out of Africa. You will find stories of the near and almost-present future, tales set on strange and wonderful new planets, stories of a changed Earth, stories that dazzle the imagination and stimulate the mind. Stories that capture the essence of what we talk about when we talk about Africanfuturism.
Sunday, September 27th, 2020
Reading, especially fiction, is often referred to as an escape, but I’ve never believed that. It’s true that a great story transports you somewhere else, that returning to your life afterwards can feel like an abrupt reentry. But I think that’s less because you escaped the real world, however briefly, and more that you got a clearer look at it. A great book rearranges time: it brings both history and speculative futures into the present, into a now you can occupy and taste and feel.
Tuesday, September 8th, 2020
T E N Ǝ T
Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.
Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.
But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.
We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.
The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.
At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.
I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.
The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.
The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.
Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”
The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.
Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.
In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.
The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).
The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.
In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).
In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.
Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.
That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.
In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.
The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.
Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.
Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.
It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.
Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.
The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.
The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…
There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.
Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.
This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.
The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.
This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:
It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.
That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.
As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.
The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.
At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.
Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.
But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?
This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.
So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:
- Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
- Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
- The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).
I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.
I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?
Thursday, August 20th, 2020
The latest edition in this wonderful series of science-fictional typography has some truly twisty turbolift tangents.