torstai, 13. syyskuu 2018

Random thoughts on Ninefox Gambit and money

Recently read Rajaniemi's Summerland and Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, two books which feature magical/technological systems which forcefully shape society and even reality. Ninefox Gambit especially, it has this system which is at the intersection of mathematics and common beliefs, created by what people believe in and in turn changes reality where the people exist. And there are many other recent books with a similar theme.

What's with reality-affecting belief systems? I have a theory: since 2008 market crash, and the panic surrounding it, the relationship with one very basic building block of reality has been nervous and shaky. Economy, money. If that's not a magical system directly affecting people's lives, I don't know what is. It's closer to a god than most other things humankind has come up with. It is an invisible force which gives us plenty of undeniable good. I would not be writing this thing here, well-fed and well-clothed, on a fancy machine precision-built from rare metals sourced from all around the world, if we were living in a hunter-gatherer society with no concept of money – complex systems of trade which make our lifestyle possible just are not possible without money and the many layers of meta-money and derivatives building on top of each other. (As an aside, I'm really irritated with myself that I understand so little of how economy actually works. It's difficult to make sense of the world without having a good grasp how money moves around and what forces rule it. But every time I read a book on economy and money policy, it seems to jump directly from plain obviousness "people want to acquire necessitates they don't have" to cryptic formulas "(Zt=p)+i x t, where Z is the national gross production and t is the interest rate" and my mind starts to wander and suddenly I want to clean the oven or write  a short story or learn hindi, as if understanding economy was something best avoided, like sticking one's hand in a dark hole in the ground. Rationally I find it important and interesting field of stuy, but emotionally it's the opposite. I think this whole fiction writing thing got started when one summer I decided to tackle basic books on economy, borrowed a pile of them from library, and then got hit by a strong urge to write sf romance stories I'd like to read myself. Great way to confuse myself from the original plan, brain!)

But back to where was I… Economy in a very concrete way also punishes people, smiting them down, really hurting them and to at least third generation if not longer. It does not exist in the physical world, not since the invention of debt, and these days hardly at all,and yet it has such a profound effect on _everything_. Up to and including causing the conditions for and hindering any attempts to stop the end of the world. To understand our relationship to this moody and untrustworthy god, fiction has to be written. To accept that we are at the mercy of a system we have created ourselves, for better or for worse. Maybe to remind ourselves of the absurdity of the situation. Perhaps to view this system from the outside, to see if there are ways to change its course? But is this useful line of thought? Is our economy an all-or-nothing deal? Could we cherry-pick just the good and not the bad? I have no idea. I hope someone who has actually read through all the economy textbooks comes up with an answer. Preferably soon.

sunnuntai, 2. syyskuu 2018

What I'd like to write

I know what I want to write, it just refuses to come out the way I want it to. I guess there's no other path to take me to the spot where I can write what I'd like to read than practice. Faustian deals seem to be very scarce. I haven't been offered any!

Particularly what I would like to write is a love story with a emotionally satisfying happy end but aside from the love plot things would go horribly wrong in a distressing way, so the reader would exit the story with messed-up ambivalent emotions. Hopefully be a bit nauseous too. It's just damn hard keeping both sides balanced.

Another story I'd like to write is in two parts, from different perspectives. Both parts would be stand-alone, and preferably published separately. Reading them both would reveal neither protagonist has any clue what the other one is thinking and both have drawn totally wrong conclusions.

tiistai, 21. elokuu 2018

Hannu Rajaniemi: Summerland

What if there was an afterlife, available to these with enough money or connections, and it interacted with this side regularly and conveniently? Both sides had some benefits – this side all the bodily pleasures, that side ability to peek even into the most private issues of the living, and of course eternity. Inevitably the balance of power would eventually favor the afterlife. Any side which can afford to make plans armed with endless time has the upper hand. Any faction on this side backed by those on the other side would be remarkably powerful. Gaining control of the afterlife and access to it would be serious enough reason to spy, betray, kill, create terrible weapons, wage war on a scale like never before…

This is the set-up of Summerland, Hannu Rajaniemi's alternative-history ectopunk spy thriller. It's 1938 but in a world where the ectoplasm and supernatural craze of late 19th century was founded on scientific fact. Ectophones deliver messages between life and afterlife. Souls of the dead rent spirit medium bodies to visit the living. Battles fought with supernatural weapons destroy not only bodies but souls. Great Britain has a strong presence in the afterlife, the titular Summerland. Rachel, a spy fighting to be taken seriously in the old boys' club of the security agency, and trying to keep her marriage from falling apart, stumbles upon a possible conspiracy. And it goes higher and in more dangerous directions than is healthy for her, as these things tend to do, but she's not going to back down. Especially not after being patted on the head and told to take a rest.

Rajaniemi's debut trilogy was so hyped it was impossible to enjoy it properly (for me at least). Also, I have to admit I had the (unfounded) suspicion he was sprinkling ample handfuls of fashionable words upon his text without really backing them up. But after hearing him speak at a scifi convention it did become apparent every quanta and exotic string was accounted for, it was just my personal understanding of finer physics which was lacking… sorryyyy for having doubted you, mr Rajaniemi! Of course you write about stuff you know! hey also, how do you do it? Quantum physicist and tech startup entepreneur by day, scifi writer by night, when do you ever sleep?

Summerland is, in my opinion, a excellent book. It's full of ideas just like the Quantum thief trilogy, but more coherent (and with a more sympathetic protagonist). I suppose lots of research went to having the historical details right. I can imagine Rajaniemi coming across the history of roof climbing university students of the thirties and passionately wanting to write something abbot it – he succeeds weaving it into the story meaningfully. He also manages to participate in current discussion about digital immortality and AI without being banal about it.

Summerland is a book to read lounging on a beach chair – it's fast-paced and exciting. But it also gives food for thought: If possibility of a factual afterlife existed, it would change the world. Some would argue an eternal afterlife would rob our mortal life of deeper meaning. But no matter how well-founded these objections might be, they would be but feeble mutterings compared to the roaring storm of human desire to live forever. Not that Rajaniemi is pushing an anti-immortality viewpoint – he isn't naive. What he does is he acknowledges there are issues in any technology or system which makes it possible to freeze social values at any one point. Imagine being stuck with the morals, social order and hierarchies of your great-grandparents, them watching over your shoulder all the time, till the end of time...

torstai, 19. heinäkuu 2018

Mad Max The Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road operates on dream logic. Like all movies do, in my opinion, but Fury Road is particularly upfront about this. It does not aim to build a coherent post-apocalyptic world. The reality it portrays is of a different sort, the reality beyond such boring things as rational logic and facts. It's the truth of myths and desires and all this stuff world views are made of. Desert, swamp, eighteen-wheelers, blood, water, supermodels in ethereal white dresses, gangs of youths chrome-spraying their mouths before battle suicide, mother's milk and fire, put together in a way that's more than the sum of its parts. Not to forget the battle guitarist suspended as the figurehead of a truck. It's the landscape of our collective myths, easily recognized on an emotional level.

A parched wasteland of masculine aggression, where life-giving moisture is strictly rationed, as are conventionally pretty fertile women. But the opposite of the desert is not a lush green paradise of gentle femininity, but a wasteland of a different sort. How to reconcile? Where between the extremes is it possible to lead a positive life?

***

Mad Max is the titular character, but he's not a protagonist really, more a leaf tossed here and there in the winds. He introduces us to the story which has already begun some time ago, Furiosa's story of trying to rescue five beauties from a life of captivity. Luxurious captivity, but even a pretty prison is a prison, especially when you have a dream of a better life in a better place. For all the talk (both admiring and whiny) about Furiosa, she is not the protagonist either. The protagonist, I think, is Nux, one of the brainwashed sickly youths who dream of nothing but getting a dose of faux-fatherly approval before their pitiful deaths. He grows and changes (after some sympathy from a pretty girl, the usual, oh well..) and, hmm, finds meaning and collaborative friendship, a much more satisfying and humane worldview than the rivalry of angry young men. At the end of the movie my emotion towards Nux was 50% motherly tenderness and 50% respect.

Not to diss Furiosa though! She's fierce and righteous. She has her faults, – good character writing – being stuck to a past-looking vision, a refusal to accept that her childhood paradise is gone. And it's no good doggedly riding towards the horizon, hoping for a safe haven to show up. Furiosa's steel-hard determination is not enough to change the world on its own. It needs a drop of Max's cynicism to transform into a very precious substance: realism. Acceptance of facts and working to change them.

It's a lot of emotional and conceptual content for a movie that can be also viewed as  "120 minute long exploding car chase" as it was accurately described at Maxim. But it takes the language of cars and explosions and chases and fights and uses it to say something about … hmm, hard to translate exactly to words, since it's a visual language and I guess the film crew would have written an essay instead of making a movie if it was something that was super easy to express in straightforward English. But anyway, something about gender in today's America, and the haves and the have-nots, and desperate search for a better world and/or a place and group to belong to.

It's quite similar, in structure if not in vocabulary, to Japanese pop idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's music videos, which use the visual language of fashion magazines and girl's manga to say something disturbing but profound about being a young female in Japan. Pressures and pleasures of presenting a certain predetermined image and in general being on display all the time. Eating disorders and culture of compulsive consumption.

***

What I'd like to know is, is it possible to interpret this symbolism in a few decades, when the topical questions are something else, does the movie end up as untranslatable hieroglyphic message of a lost language…

maanantai, 18. kesäkuu 2018

SF or F?

Back from a science fiction convention. Lots of interesting program, many interesting people, plenty of interesting discussion. Like: Is N K Jemisin's trilogy science fiction or fantasy? I was pretty amazed when I heard this question. I had not considered it could be anything but science fiction. Yes, some characters have powers not explainable by current science, but so what. We'd be left with just a tiny crumb of the huge body of work science fiction is, if we were totally rigorous with that demand. It's (imo) perfectly allowable to have the biological equivalent of handwavium that makes spaceships fly from galaxy to another in a matter of hours.
For some, the telekinetic powers in The Fifth Season place the book in fantasy genre. For me, the divide that separates fantasy and science fiction has little to do with actual science. It's geographical. Or geometrical. Fantasy is a genre of fiction that happens on a flat plane. The plane may have high mountains and deep chasms, but overall, it does not curve into a planet. Once the important 'fantasy map' does not conform to the flat paper page, but would require a sphere to present it accurately, we find ourselves in the science fiction genre, regardless of any seemingly magical powers, elves, curses, dwarves, princesses and prophesies. Fantasy happens in the classic Euclidean universe, in which the Sun circles the flat plane of the world, stars are pretty fairy lights, and things are made of the four elements (or five, or whatever) instead of atoms. There just are no molecules in fantasy. And no galaxy clusters. It's a human-scale universe. Science fiction happens in a non-Euclidean universe which on a fundamental level operates under the same conditions as our world.

Thus is this age-old question settled. Now I will take a nap.