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Sci-Fi

Neal Stephenson On Fiction, Games, and Saving the World 91

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-necessarily-in-that-order dept.
An anonymous reader points out an interview with Neal Stephenson at The Verge in which he talks a bit about his upcoming "research-heavy" novel, his Mongoliad project to reinvent the fiction novel as an app, what he thinks about saving the world with sci-fi. He says, "It would be saying a lot to say that SF can save the world, but I do think that we've fallen into a habitual state of being depressed and pessimistic about the future. We are extremely conservative and fearful about how we deploy our resources. It contrasts pretty vividly with the way we worked in the first half of the 20th century. We are looking at a lot of challenges now that I do not think can be solved as long as we stay in that mindset. This is more of an 'if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail' kind of thing. My hammer is that I can write science fiction, so that's the thing I'm going to try to do. If I had billions of dollars sitting around, I could try to put my money where my mouth is and invest it. If I did something else for a living, I would be using my skills – whatever they were – to solve this problem, but since I'm a science fiction writer, I'm going to try to address it through the medium of science fiction."
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Neal Stephenson On Fiction, Games, and Saving the World

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  • by Osgeld (1900440) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @12:28AM (#41077591)

    you can do a (metric) shit-ton with a hammer as long as you know how to wield it. yea you can drive nails, but you can also do so much more as well, IE take a flat sheet of metal and craft it into a work of art.

    Maybe thats the problem, a hammer is for driving nails, and we go out and buy a stupid expensive hand press that performs the same act as someone who is skilled with a hammer to do the same thing.

    2 cents

  • by MikeTheGreat (34142) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @12:45AM (#41077661)

    I wonder if our ever-declining real wage is connected to our pessimism?

    If I thought that my life was going to be Better In The Future For Sure then I'd be much more likely to take risks, try stuff that might not work, and generally be more optimistic. When I'm confident that my life will be as-good-or-better than now then I could always say "well, that was a nice experiment, too bad it didn't work, thank goodness it will not substantially impact the remainder of my life"

    And, just because I feel like I ought to provide a citation:
    http://www.workinglife.org/wiki/Wages+and+Benefits%3A+Real+Wages+(1964-2004) [workinglife.org]

    • by flaming error (1041742) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @01:01AM (#41077755) Journal

      Yep. My own pessimism comes from watching an unsustainable economy (basically a Ponzi scheme based on perpetual growth) on a collision course with the laws of physics in a finite world.

      Since I don't subscribe to magical thinking, I'm convinced there must come a time when the population stops growing, when the birth rate matches the mortality rate. It might be really messy. And the lack of political will to address the fundamentals makes me pessimistic and cynical.

      But the prospect for real change and a sustainable future excites me. I hope SF writers, engineers, and thinking people can come up with a saner, more grounded future.

      • an unsustainable economy (basically a Ponzi scheme based on perpetual growth) on a collision course with the laws of physics in a finite world

        Bam! There it is. Pointless regurgitation of Malthusian economic theory. It is as true today as when Malthus spouted his nonsense in the XIXth century. The fact is the world is large enough that it doesn't matter and if it did there is the rest of the solar system and lots of other solar systems in the galaxy. There are also other galaxies. The resources are as go

        • by flaming error (1041742) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @01:53AM (#41077993) Journal

          the world is large enough that it doesn't matter and if it did there is the rest of the solar system and lots of other solar systems in the galaxy. There are also other galaxies.

          If the world is large enough for exponential growth forever, why do you hedge your bet with the implicit assertion that we'll develop faster-than-light travel?

          Please google "most important video you'll ever see", hear Dr. Bartlett out, then, please, seriously, do me the favor of letting me know what it is he and I are missing.

          • Faster than light travel? You don't need that for interstellar flight. Proxima Centauri is 4.24 light-years away. Even Epsilon Eridani is only 10.5 light-years away. Develop suspended animation or artificial wombs, which do not require new physics to be developed, and the amount of consumables required to make a trip are reduced.

            You are concerned about lack of resources or space on Earth. The fact is we don't even use all the land on Earth for living and that is only 1/3 of the surface of the planet. The

            • Suspended animation or artificial wombs, plus a new form of propulsion that can get you there in only a couple of centuries at sub-light, plus robotics that can handle the reanimation (Or even harder, raising of children), and all that on technology that can continue to function for centuries without repair. It doesn't break any laws of physics, but just because it is possible doesn't mean it is easy.
              • Possible forms of interstellar propulsion have been proposed since the 1950s and 1960s. These include nuclear pulse propulsion and anti-matter catalyzed versions of it if you want to shrink the spaceship at the cost of more exotic engineering. I never said it was easy but it is neither impossible nor unheard of. Any manned mission will most likely be preceded by robotic missions (fly-bys and one-way trips to the actual destination). Tsiolkovsky proposed multiple stage LOX/LH2 rockets in 1903. The actual en

            • Please hear Dr. Bartlett [youtube.com] out, then let's discuss. I'd appreciate it if you would point out any flaws.

          • ...we'll develop faster-than-light travel?

            You mean to tell me it will never ever happen? Gee, if everybody thought that way, the horseless carriage would never have gotten off the ground.

            • Whether it will ever happen I wouldn't know.

              But it's insane to base our civic planning on an imaginary technology that by all indications is physically impossible.

              If we ever have FTL, hey, go hog-wild and conquer the universe, and when we fill that, conquer another dimension.

              But until then, it's a lousy plan. We're building an epic disaster, bringing children to life and putting a gun to their heads.

              It's really quite a horrible thing to do. Evil.

              • How about simulating a new world. That technology is "theoretically possible". And if you can't tell the difference, there isn't one. Morpheus, and his "must live in reality" buddies can janitor the machines for us. Problem solved.
                • Problem solved.

                  By solved you mean we've found a way to generate unlimited amounts of energy and dissipate unlimited amounts of waste heat?

                  Or maybe you've worked out 100%-efficient reversible computing? Even that won't fix our desire for ever more bits over time.

                  • by lennier (44736)

                    Or maybe you've worked out 100%-efficient reversible computing?

                    Well, the tablet and cloud generation seem heck-bent on destroying the last 30 years of knowledge gained from network disaster preparedness and user interface design and dropping us right back to 1982, so I'd say we've pretty much got this "reversible computing" thing nailed...

              • No, what we are doing is very natural. All life forms maximize their populations to the verge of starvation, in the absence of predators, of course. We aren't even near that level yet, though our mismanagement of resources might indicate otherwise. See, that's our real problem, not the quantity of resources, but the politics that corrupt the distribution systems.

                • That's great news. Politics sounds like a relatively easy problem to solve.

                  Problem is, people are starving now. Please don't claim "we aren't even near that level yet" until people aren't starving.

                  • Ok screw politics, therapy is what people need. What I'm telling you is that the planet can support a lot more people than are here now. That's the level I'm talking about. We are here to reproduce, to infest and dominate the entire universe. And it is mental illness that is slowing us down. A combination of Stockholm and Munchhausen syndromes, with a "minor Oedipal complex". That is what give us the politics we suffer today.

            • by lennier (44736)

              Gee, if everybody thought that way, the horseless carriage would never have gotten off the ground.

              My horseless carriage gets off the ground just fine, as long as I have a decent run-up and the cliff is high enough.

        • Cheesybagel- you sir are a moron. You've failed to notice that to get to where we are now we've decimated 70% of fish stocks, 20% of arable land and 30% of potable water. We made our last billion people in 12 years and in the first three decades of this century the global population will increase 50% (source: UN global population forecast). We are now consuming non-renewable resources faster than at any time in history. By then 2050, 40% of us will be elderly. Under those circumstances the global economy w
      • by khallow (566160)

        My own pessimism comes from watching an unsustainable economy (basically a Ponzi scheme based on perpetual growth) on a collision course with the laws of physics in a finite world.

        Please, show us this economy so that we may observe it as well. If you're referring to pensions and other schemes that depend on new blood working to pay directly the old blood, well the simple solution is simply that those pensions and other such things pay less than they used to. If you're referring to economic growth, please be aware that one can grow an economy via innovation and that is a more effective way to grow the pie than via population growth. We also need to keep in mind that the function of an

        • Please, show us this economy so that we may observe it as well.

          I think you could just graph the world population composed with per-capita energy consumption over time.

          • by khallow (566160)
            A graph isn't an economy any more than a quip is. Where is this economy of which you speak?
      • by tgd (2822)

        Yep. My own pessimism comes from watching an unsustainable economy (basically a Ponzi scheme based on perpetual growth) on a collision course with the laws of physics in a finite world.

        Since I don't subscribe to magical thinking, I'm convinced there must come a time when the population stops growing, when the birth rate matches the mortality rate. It might be really messy. And the lack of political will to address the fundamentals makes me pessimistic and cynical.

        But the prospect for real change and a sustainable future excites me. I hope SF writers, engineers, and thinking people can come up with a saner, more grounded future.

        And this is precisely why some near-future SciFi can be so ... uplifting. The problems you talk about are because the Earth used to be a closed system that was so big that, in an economic sense, it was an open system. In the early 21st century, its not really all that big anymore. Expansion is the solution to keeping that ponzi scheme going. Getting off the Earth, chewing up the solar system and slowly moving beyond.

        • by lennier (44736)

          Expansion is the solution to keeping that ponzi scheme going. Getting off the Earth, chewing up the solar system and slowly moving beyond.

          Of course what most expansionist SF doesn't figure is that even devouring an entire galaxy of Earthlike planets (assuming that they exist, and that we had a vaguely hopeful theoretical pathway towards FTL, neither of which are true right now) won't work forever. The numbers are out there somewhere; I think about a century or two before we eat the whole Milky Way at current population/infrastructure buildout rates?

          But if we don't get FTL, the picture changes dramatically. At STL generation-ship travel speeds

    • by ScentCone (795499) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @01:07AM (#41077807)
      The whole real-wages-are-down meme always ignores the enormous change over time in standard of living, creature comforts, households full of magic communication devices and the rest. Give up on some of that, rewinding to the nostalgic past to which everyone compares earning power, and watch how much better you can get by on a given wage.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Shush you! Just because indoor plumbing is standard and aluminum is no longer the metal of kings doesn't mean people should consider that statistics are often misleading!

      • by Anonymous Coward

        many already have and are still having a hard time. Take me for example, I can't even afford a slashdot account.

      • by flaming error (1041742) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @01:43AM (#41077963) Journal

        Those "real wages" are unweighted averages. We professionals are on the top end, among the 20% who have 80% of the wealth. The other 80% are living on much less, and don't enjoy all we do. They may have a tv and a cell phone, may have a car. Probably don't own a house. They probably don't have a PPO, maybe have never met a dental hygienist. One in six kids don't get three meals a day.

        These are real facts about life in America today. The standard of living you and I enjoy is the exception, not the rule.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        A lot of the high tech goods that have had a huge development are also on the high end of the consumption. A lot of the more basic income items like food, housing, transportation, entertainment haven't really changed all that much. Oh sure a 2012 car is very different from a 1962 car but it's not like you can get an insanely cheap "1962-style-in-2012" car, either you get a modern car or you get no car. Progress hasn't necessarily made it that much easier to live cheaply.

      • Really? You have a computer. Other than that life is pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago. Oh and you have a car instead of a horse.

        When the industrial revolution made manufacturing an order of magnitude easier people should have taken a break to instill equality, philosophy and education using all the free time.

        Instead we allowed those technologies to make the richest people even richer. People work more now than they ever did before. So many people write reports and do silly paperwork that no
        • by ScentCone (795499)

          Really? You have a computer. Other than that life is pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago. Oh and you have a car instead of a horse.

          What's it like to be so utterly clueless? Oh, I get it. You're not. You're just trolling while trying to sound pious.

        • by Moofie (22272)

          You're using an electronic device that can connect you, basically for free, to global audiences for free?

          And you think there's no progress in the last 100 years?

          You have a very strange brain.

    • by neyla (2455118)

      It certainly is. I live in Norway, where income has grown steadily over the last 30 years (yes, that includes over the last 5 years), and there's no, or very little, such pessimism here. (you can find data here: http://www.ssb.no/english/subjects/05/01/10/inntekt_en/ [www.ssb.no] )

      If that makes people less risk-averse is hard to say. There's some risks it's easier to take - a work-market with an overabundance of good-paying jobs means you can quit to try it out on your own, knowing that if it doesn't work out, you'll ve

  • They've been doing this for quite some time. Although, from what I understand their updates are brief, sometimes only a few hundred words, as they are delivered via a sort of extended text message. I think an app is a much better way to deliver it. Pay 99 cents for the app, get a chapter a month until the story is done, and then pay $7.99 for a complete version off Amazon or *gasp* from the bookstore.
  • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @02:29AM (#41078123) Homepage

    Many of the early SF writers and editors were trying to change the world, and said so. Asimov. Heinlein, Clarke, Gernsback, and Campbell were all trying to help invent a better future.

    Stephenson mostly cranks out dystopias.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Neal certianly has a ironic sense of humor endorsing this scheme.
    Books that watch us read them will not lead to anything of value

    Cory Doctorow has a much better understanding of SF in this regard as his stuff is literally from the future since it has 0-DRM and doesn't exist in ecosystems which deprive users/readers of their privacy & anonymity.

  • I'm not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination. But the shear amount of mass murder conducted in the name of "science" and "progress" in the 20th century was mind boggling.

  • by paiute (550198) on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @07:35AM (#41079393)
    "...we've fallen into a habitual state of being depressed and pessimistic about the future...."

    Don't you fellows remember the 1950s? The science fiction from that era was extremely pessimistic.
    • Don't you fellows remember the 1950s? The science fiction from that era was extremely pessimistic.

      Looking back on some of the decades following the 50s, apparently, with good reason.

  • by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortex.project-retrograde@com> on Wednesday August 22, 2012 @08:51AM (#41079769)

    You! Yes YOU! I want you to save the world. No, seriously. Darkness has befallen your brethren, and all of the lands are at war. You're the only one that can change the world for the better. You'll play this amazing game or read an awesome story, the protagonist will accomplish amazing feats and your reward will be: A CREDITS ROLL! HELL YEAH! How many times have you defeated the most bastardly bastard, and that's it?! No more story? You don't get to reap any real reward after all that hard work mashing buttons, or turning hundreds of pages. Yet, that's the norm. It's what's economically advantageous.

    True, the cost of high quality game assets is so much more expensive today, but I'm a game developer and story architect, not an accountant at all! In my stories I don't hang the carrot of climax over your head, promising you a brave new world you'll never live to see. Instead, you vanquish the great enemy, and keep right on playing exploring and interacting with the new world that you've actually just changed. Oh sure, it does get boring once everything is all sunshine and dandelions; In a single player game you might actually just throw in the towel then, and that's a fine conclusion.... However, with a multiplayer game there's always someone else stirring up the pot, awakening ancient evils and generally being a thorn in your side or an ever adventuring partner.

    I come from a time before graphics, where asset creation was as easy as spilling words onto the screen, where we could actually live out the world of Peter Molyneux's dreams! I played and created highly immersive and open ended of games during the BBS era. My games were so vast and the world lore so rich that players were always trading details of the new areas quests they had discovered where none had ever ventured before. Unlike today's RPGs where you're spoon fed quests and skill trees, when you kill my Dragon it stays dead.... until some Necromechanic player discovers the secret to revive it.

    The trick is to Love your game world -- No, really LOVE it, with both hands. Get down into every crevice and detail the scent of the dead Cyber Knight's Skull's Eye Socket, just in case some fool decides to "sniff" at it. To do that you've got to realise something that's lost to today's game designers and story tellers: Pride is the Enemy. You have to NOT say, "Look at all the beautiful and clever crap I made!", and shove every bit of delicious content down each and every player's throat to be sure they don't miss any awesomely detailed texture or architecture. No, instead you have to truly craft the world as best you can knowing full well that much of what is made will never be seen by anyone! That's what gives a true sense of depth and vastness to a world, that's what makes players/readers keep coming back for more. You have to set the stage, fill it with a rich and interesting past and tangled web of subplots galore waiting to unfold, then set aside your desire to tell some amazing single narrative arc and instead turn the players loose to explore and forge a unique story of their own making.

    IMO, Neal Stephenson hasn't got what it takes, yet. He's never been there. He doesn't know how shitty his "app" book is in comparison to a living, breathing story that's never the same twice. He's never crafted a dynamic world out of text where NPCs and Players alike roam freely seeking adventure. He's never seen the logs full of players trading gossip, giddy with wonder while others retell epic adventures that no one could have ever pre-imagined in a billion years. I have. The MUD makers of old have. Neil may tell a single story with his great work, but to me that's nothing compared to telling thousands of tales with a single massive work. THIS [ifarchive.org] is where I'd like to see some ebooks go -- Not all ebooks, mind you, but at least a few?! Maybe even a MUD? You could do it without the real time component, even. Now the time is ripe again, it's foolish to be makin

  • "...It contrasts pretty vividly with the way we worked in the first half of the 20th century...."

    Well, yeah - the outlook on where technology would take us - rarely even considered before the 20th century (or the latter decades of the 19th) has always had its dystopians, but indeed was largely optimistic.

    When your life was nasty and brutish and little different than that of your ancestors 300 years before, technology solved a TON of your basic discomforts - health, food, housing, communication, travel, etc

  • Okay, read the article, doesn't actually say what he means by "app". Seems to me he is throwing a buzz word there.

    A book is a book. Unless it's get made into a movie, then it's a script.

    An app is a program. A book isn't a program, but an ebook needs a program. So, is this app the book with it's own reader? How fucking novel. (notice the play on the word novel).

    Look, I'm a fan, but seriously, "app"? Fuck off.

An optimist believes we live in the best world possible; a pessimist fears this is true.

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