Further west : does the developed world need a new America?



NASA have plans for manned missions to Mars by the 2030s. There’s some guff about capturing an asteroid and dragging it about space during the 2020s. To give us space legs or something. Listen to me NASA – this is all too late!

In September, Elon Musk told Wired magazine he will take us to Mars and save humanity. He is cagey about when though and the estimate is it could take another 10 years. Even that’s too late!

There was a bit of news recently concerning a new space colony: Asgardia. As of tonight it apparently encompasses more than half a million people – it’s bigger than Cape Verde. Except that there’s nothing there. Beyond a nifty website and some pleasing sentiments regarding peace and knowledge. It’s a great concept. Is this the way we need to think?

Then there are the Seasteaders. To lift some of their blurb: “Seasteaders are a diverse global team of marine biologists, nautical engineers, aquaculture farmers, maritime attorneys, medical researchers, security personnel, investors, environmentalists, and artists.” Could this be what we’re looking for? Is this the solution? Massive colonies on the sea? Like the idea but the list of who they are seems a little exclusive.

We need somewhere new. Where we can stake a new claim. Without having to disrupt already settled communities.

But why? What is the problem I’m trying to solve?

In essence, what I’m calling for is a new America. Not as in the land mass to the west of the Atlantic Ocean, I mean as in the concept ‘America’ (embodied by the United States but also prevalent in some of the South American countries and Canada). That is, to act as a place where dreams can be made real, where your old status should not matter, where you can actually realise your potential without barriers. Whether this was actually ever true, I’ll let somebody else decide (and we’ll not bring up the fact that the lands were already inhabited). But we cannot argue that there was never an American Dream. Or that there was a period in history where you could leave behind all your class-bound, religious, even racial baggage and make a fresh start. America used to drag in young people, energetic people, people with ideas and energy from all over the world. Particularly from Europe.

Europe, at the time, was a place stuck in class-bound stagnation. There was little chance of social mobility. Agricultural workers being replaced by machinery, small-time farmers having to move out for the big landowners, urban working-class being left high and dry by boom and bust cycles of industry.

That was then. But now, what do we have? Social mobility has stalled in the US, in the UK it’s going backwards. Across the rest of Europe, the baby-boomers have all the rest of the wealth tied up. And all the power. The downside of democracy: tyranny of the majority. Direct action and sit-ins will only do so much.

Then something weird happened. Brexit. Trump. We don’t realise it but all the young activists (distraught by recent events) and all those who have felt their wealth drain away over the last thirty years (who caused the recent events) are all in the same boat. Their future is in doubt. Their future is stalled. Brexit. Trump. Hand grenades thrown into the west. Likely to make things worse rather than better. But, unless something is done, they realise their children are likely to be poorer than they are.

Go back a couple of hundred years and those same children would know exactly what they had to do to avoid such a fate. They had to get onto a boat to New York.

But where is our new Statue of Liberty? Our new Ellis Island? Could it be on the sea? On Mars? In space? Possibly one or any or all of those places. The one thing I do know is that it will all be a little too late. We need our new America now.

I am not Galilean. I am Alim. (… or how Brexit can help provide backstory for my third book)



I am now working on plotting the third book of the Lost Archive, where our lead characters (Qira, Li and Nessum) return to their homes on and around the Galilean moons. The whole book will be framed within the history of the Galilean break up and the retraction of the ummra (or ‘influence’). How should I approach this? Can I draw on what’s been happening in the world at the current time? Can I apply some of this to the Galilean moons? Is this reflective of deeper natural systems? And if so, must these apply far into the future as well?

Beyond the loud, local noise concerning British exit from the EU there are wider convulsions in the world. Across Europe, old certainties in politics are changing. John Harris in the Guardian has written an interesting piece about the left as a political force undergoing rapid change (here). His essential argument being that the old working class foundation for left wing politics has been taken away (by technology, changes in working practices, globalisation and suchlike).

Further away from Europe, but still in the ‘West’, some of the core visions of shared nationhood are dying. Two countries whose sense of a whole has held together by a grand narrative (US and Israel) are now starting to show cracks. Warnings of splits across political and cultural heritage lines in Israel has been identified as leading to potential civil war (here), while in the US, we have started to see the long rumbling ideological divisions starting to surface (here) linked to stagnation of opportunity and expectations.

And, of course, we have Brexit. What can we learn from Brexit? Possibly, that you can’t plug an established ‘nation’ into a union of other nations, together with a complex network of rules and public-funding streams without somebody yelling ‘what about our sovereignty’ at some point. Possibly, Brexit won because there was a drip-feed of negative stories about immigrants together with localised evidence of immigration putting a strain on services together with austerity (oh, and a few racists). Possibly, it was simply that not enough people in Britain were that excited, or emotionally invested, in being a ‘European’ while those who were emotionally invested in being part of a nation, being ‘British’, outnumbered them. (And by the way, those who claim they still are ‘European’ but just don’t want Brussels to rule their life and demand cash, I say you don’t understand the question – it’s not about which continent you were born on or whether you love French wine and Italian holidays).

Let’s try and apply a little systems thinking to the problem. First off, let’s set out the general principles: properties of systems emerge when they are constituted by appropriate property-bearing sub-systems which are appropriately configured in an appropriate environment.

Let’s start by defining a ‘state’ as a population in a given territory under a given government, where the former has given the latter a mandate to lead and rule them and given up some freedoms as a result. If we conceive a ‘state’ as a system, then a state is composed of multiple sub-systems (people, institutions, laws etc) configured in an appropriate way which instantiate particular properties.

But what makes this system whole? A shared sense of being part of a given ‘state’, a Hobbesian compact that we are part of a greater Leviathan, or Rousseau’s ‘social contract’. In system terms, this means that there is an attribute shared across all populations that simply reads: ‘I am a member of State X’. If there are sufficient numbers of people with this attribute, all working together, developing and following laws and processes that support this attribute, then the state is constituted. You may still have some sub-systems who disagree but they can be managed and their feedback often acts to improve the whole. However, should there be sufficient numbers who no longer share this attribute of membership, a critical mass or a tipping point is reached and the state collapses and can no longer be conceived as a system. And all its properties fade away.

It should be possible for us to have attributes of being members of multiple ‘states’ – in Britain we have local and national government and if I lived in Scotland or Wales there is another layer. In a Federal system such as the US, you would be a Texan and an American. So, it is not as though human beings are incapable of being members of multiple states (although, I will admit, there are tensions).

I think there is something here about a shared vision, a shared emotional investment. Yugoslavia was held together by a shared communist vision (and an effective and charismatic leader) but when the leader was replaced and communist narrative turned sour, then there was little that kept those Balkan countries together. I predict that we will see similar events (although not for about 50 years) in the US. This is because the American Dream has died: that is, you can no longer easily make it from pauper to millionaire in the US. There is now an entrenched privileged class and they are passing their wealth down through family lines. America’s only solution is to ‘do a Russia’ and re-distribute the wealth across the entire population, pinned to some new grand narrative (no so far-fetched – link here about how 49% of under 30s in the US have a positive view of ‘socialism’). Or perhaps the US will split apart across ideological / cultural lines.

But back to the Galilean moons. What has all this noodling on a theme revealed? That I believe there are natural systems that can allow understanding of current events, and historic events and thus be used to predict similar patterns of human politics far into the future. Within these natural systems, there are two key areas to consider when larger states disintegrate: the critical mass of sub-systems who hold the property ‘I am a member of State X’; and a change in the wider environment.

Globalisation, technology and change in working practices reflect the environmental changes affecting today’s convulsions. And I believe that Brexit was caused by (and Scottish independence will be caused by) a tipping point being reached of individuals within the system who no longer feeling that they want to be members of the EU (or the UK). Why exactly this is the case would require a university research department (some might query whether it’s possible) but I’m going to pin my colours to the dying of a dream, the fizzling out a grand narrative that never delivered on its promises.

So, in terms of the wider environment, what contextually changed for the Galileans? It must be connected to the Lost Archive but also the corresponding loss of the Configurations, the breakdown in their systems and ideologies, the rise of competing ideologies.

And their sense of being members of a wider Galilean union? We have learned that it is possible for people to consider themselves at once Alim and Galilean. But that for somebody to state that they are one and not the other indicates that a vision, a grand coalescing narrative has gone sour. What was the grand vision that the Galileans clung to? What transcendence were they seeking? Where was their knowledge going to take them? And how did it die?

This has helped. I’ve got a few ideas now.

Reflections on The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Having completed Christopher Booker’s chunky The Seven Basic Plots, I took a few days to digest what I have read before writing this. It needs a few days to digest and even now, I feel like I might write further reflections.

My initial impressions are that of slight betrayal; I feel like I was ushered down interesting pathways of a formal garden, only to get dragged into thickets of undergrowth and then made to witness scenes of seedy nature. It has left a bad taste in the mouth.

Part One begins brilliantly, working way through the seven plots that he has identified across epic poetry, plays, novels, plays and films. I’m not going to detail them verbatim but, in summary, they are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

As it normal in any of these meta-analyses, there are inevitable issues with application of a neat abstract model to reality. The boundaries are blurred and Booker often plucks out an exemple, only to have to explain why it doesn’t quite fit the mould. However, it’s not about finding precise matches. By applying the model and identifying the gaps helps to inform one’s understanding of the story underneath, perhaps why it doesn’t quite ‘work’. And this is the real insight, for it tells us something about the mind and how stories work in the mind.



Part Two starts to focus in on the archetypal characters in stories. This is interesting and really explores that old chestnut of how-to-write classes: ‘story is character’. The idea of ‘imbalance’ in a protagonist is especially good. Booker plays with ‘light’ and ‘dark’ archetypes (the Dark Mother, the Light Father and so on). Unfortunately, this is also the point he also introduces his core thread, namely the ‘ego-consciousness’ and how it has separated itself from the Self. This is where we start to get pulled in uncertain directions.

From Part Three onwards, thing really go adrift. Booker riffs on his theme on the rise of the ego and tries to crowbar it into the twentieth-century canon. Modernism gets a going over, the kitchen-sink dramas of the sixties, the sex and violence of seventies Hollywood. It’s quite entertaining to read a closely-argued position explaining that Waiting for Godot was rubbish and Chekhov didn’t have a clue (I paraphrase). But it’s wears thin when you stop believing it.

It seems anachronistic for someone to be quoting Freud and Jung with such earnestness in 2004. I’m not a qualified student of psychology, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment, but I do get the feeling that when people drag out concepts such as the ego and the Self and relationships to the unconsciousness, it’s not dissimilar to discussing the universal ether or vital forces. Its a little bit passe.

That said, it has always been a pet theory of mine that the best stories arise from the tension between the ancient animal we once were and the rational, self-conscious builder of civilisations we have become. When I discussed this with a friend, they suggested immediately that I read Freud, so perhaps there is something worth exploring here – I think the dogmatism with which Booker approaches it is wrong, though.

When we get to Part Four, we are promised ‘Why We Tell Stories’ but really, it descends into little more than a moan over how things went really wrong following the Romantics. He doesn’t like the Enlightenment much, he hates the 1920s and the less said about the sixties the better. Apparently it all got better in the 1980s, because we went to war with Argentina. And by this point I just wanted to put it down.

I think the end of the book is a massive confusion between disciplines: are we talking about literature or history or sociology or psychology here?  I don’t think Booker should conflate these areas. Stories are stories. Real life is real life. While you may find yourself tracing some Quest or Comedy or Rebirth plot during your lifetime, most of the 657,450 hours of your existence are going to be spent just living (you know, doing stuff). Living has no narrative art. The seven basic plots identified are powerful because they happen to work powerfully in the mind, not because they remind us of what we did last week. 

This is an important point – what we enjoy in stories is not what we (necessarily) enjoy in real life. I can enjoy Tolkien and George RR Martin and fantastical stories of the inherited power of kings regaining thrones through savagery. However, I still want to live in a democratic, peaceful society where there are laws that mitigate against all forms violence. I may have an interest in the collective formation of a more accountable state apparatus through applied technology … but I’d hate to read an (unironic) story about it!

There is a brief mention of news being edited to adopt stories but what Booker has missed (possibly due to the 2004 publishing date) is the most contemporary appropriation of the seven basic plots. You need look further than the Apprentice, the X Factor, I’m a Celebrity … (and the creepy TOWIE and its clones) in order to see the Tragedy, the Rebirth, the Quest all played out. These shows purport to ‘reality’ but they are not, again, like real life. Even Big Brother, which has a continuous live stream, cuts footage and starts to overlay narrative. The producers make stories out of the material they’re given. The stories they create are character-driven, and conform to the archetypes identified in Booker’s tome.

If you decide dip into The Seven Basic Plots, I wouldn’t advise trawling through all the chapters. And definitely stop before the last section. It has nothing to do with the seven basic plots (and I believe it has naff all to do with Jung either) and should have been heavily edited as result. 

(It is quite funny though, when he sticks the knife into Ulysses. He’s wrong, naturally. But it’s still funny).

Consciousness, Chinese Rooms and the emergent property of Treyr

When I started researching for Monastery, I found myself dipping back into areas I hadn’t thought about since sixth form.  At the time I ended up choosing English Literature as a university course but, for a long time in my teens, I was intent on studying Artificial Intelligence (AI).  I was one of those indecisive A-Level students that had selected both Maths and English.  One of my teachers suggested that I look into philosophy. Taking his advice, I read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  It was short (which is good for a teenager) and I thought I could understand the questions that were being posed. Then I started reading History of Western Philosophy and didn’t last two chapters. In hindsight, I know I didn’t really ‘get’ philosophy.  I like to think I’m catching up now, mind.

I’m not worried that I never went down the path to a philosophy degree, for I wasn’t ready and I would have hated it.  There’s still a little bit of regret, though, for not following the AI track.  I chose English because I repeatedly got good marks in it. After all, we can’t find the principle of the path-of-least-resistance all the time. Plus, the real reason was that I’d always wanted to be a writer.



Researching AI for the book meant I inevitably came across the philosopher John Searle’s thought experiment: ‘‘The Chinese Room’.  Here’s a link to it, so I won’t explain it in detail but, in summary, Searle imagines a man in a sealed room, being handed words on pieces of paper and translating these into Chinese characters using a book or some other system, then pushing them back out.  From the outside the room, it looks like he can understand Chinese.  From the inside, we know that he’s just following instructions.

This thought experiment was Searle’s response to a strand of AI that believes it is possible to produce a machine that can think and understand like a human being (and could be tested using the ‘Turing Test’).  Searle calls this ‘Strong AI’, as opposed to ‘Weak AI’, which is concerned with developing useful tools for pattern recognition and suchlike and using a computational approach to better understand the human mind.  His key point regarding the impossibility of Strong AI is that computers deal in ‘syntax’ (i.e they are ‘coded’) but human understanding is all about ‘semantics’ (they get the ‘meaning’).

Of course, there have been endless responses to the Chinese Room and counter-responses and counter-counter-responses.  However, perhaps because it’s quite an elegant idea, or perhaps because of complex reasons beyond our current understanding of academic debate, it still keeps cropping up.  Having read widely concerning the Chinese Room, I do believe the thought experiment itself is flawed and not reflective of how AI might work.  However, I do believe that an AI would never have consciousness in the sense that human beings understand it.  Simply, they would not be human so they couldn’t.  You could respond (and some have) that this is the point of the ‘A’ in AI but that just takes us into Weak AI territory.

For Monastery, I was in a quandary.  I knew I wanted this to be ‘hard sci-fi’, in the sense that it doesn’t break any significant rules of physics.  So, humanity has hit the limits of the light-engines, can’t escape the solar system, hasn’t rigged up a wormhole, hasn’t developed time travel.  But they developed (or allowed to evolve?) these superior machine intelligences. And these machine intelligences need to be exciting, to send a little shiver down your spine, like a HAL or a Wintermute.

Since reading all these cognitive science, AI and philosophy articles and books, I’ve come to the one conclusion: each author will vehemently argue a position based on what they learned in their mid-twenties and their mid-twenties alone.  So, I’m going to adopt the same rule.  I was studying systems thinking at that time.  So, from a systems thinking perspective (which, incidentally, is the most coherent response to the Chinese Room), consciousness is nothing more than an emergent property of the mind system – just one of those things that occurs when you have an appropriate number of neurons, in an appropriate configuration with appropriate properties.  (You can see where I got the name from.)

So, this got me thinking about what emergent properties might a Configuration have?  And that’s where the concept of treyr came in. It’s a difficult concept to explain, in the same way that explaining human consciousness to a machine would be difficult, but we can make a broad approximation.  In essence, treyr is the phenomenon where a Configuration experiences multiple near futures (and even a few distant futures) all at the same time.  This is a result of their continually cascading models of reality. I like to think it keeps the AI element in the book still interesting, while not upsetting Searle too much (and he’s a VERY grumpy man, so I was relieved about that).

I’m still reading about AI, Philosophy of Mind and emergentism.  Keep checking back – I’ve got a few more of these posts still to write I think …

Eee PC – goodbye to a legend!

EeePC

I know … look at it! Bless. It’s only a wee little thing. But I’m afraid it’s no more.  It’s finally gone to the digital graveyard in the bottom drawer of the spare room, buried amid the coiled cables of its digital ancestors.  Coiled cables that may return, like a mythic triumvirate of kings, to prove that nothing will destroy the names of Parallel, Serial and Null-Modem.

And I’ve not made the choice lightly.  It’s been a wrench.  That Eee PC had been a trusty writing tool for me for nearly six years now. I even did some coding on it – wrote my wife’s website on it, started designing an overly complicated spying game on it and started a few other (shelved) projects.  Yes, that Eee PC could run a local LAMP stack.  It did it pretty well as well. But it got too slow.  Website design outpaced that tiny 7″ screen.  You ever tried to use Google Docs on a 7″ Eee PC?  You get about an inch of workable screen.

I know there are people out there who hated the Eee. I can understand why, as well. If you’re sat at home, waiting for it to chug through a picture-heavy news site, it was quite a wearying experience. If you wanted to work with pictures or (God forbid!) video, you were struggling.  Even, if you had to run any kind of serious word processor, you had to manage your expectations.  That was why I worked with the basic text editor.

But I don’t think these Eee-haters have ever commuted by train. That’s where it came into it’s own.  It was light, it was small, it was cheap.  You could type without getting your elbows in your neighbour’s face. You could carry it in your bag without needing to bulk up on whey powder and skinless chicken. You could have it stolen safe in the knowledge that your thief was going to struggle to make any money from it.

Nearly all of Monastery was written on that little Eee.  Dozens of little txt files written on the train, all saved locally (no need for wifi).  Then I’d email them to myself later on. Backup and transfer at the same time!

However, I’ve replaced it at last with something whose battery doesn’t leak away within five minutes and where I can at least surf the internet on the sofa.  I went with ‘light’ as being the major factor (no netbook was ever as light as the the Eee) and also cheap, so it had to be a ChromeBook.  One of the cheapest ones, mind – I’m not going to push the boat out!  I know, I know, I’m a cheapskate.  But if it works, it works. Can’t justify giving up my hard earned pounds to pay for some overly-tanned Apple brand manager to pay for his fourth yacht.  And I’ve had it Windows, so never going back there again.

Writing this post on the ChromeBook, in fact … fingers crossed it lasts me another six years!!

Writing science fiction – imperial or metric units?

These are the little problems that you hit when you’re trying to write sci-fi. It’s quite often not about the epic narrative arc or the coherent vision for the future; it’s all about the mundane stuff. What do people drink when they need to wake up of a morning? Are colds now extinct? Do people still celebrate Christmas? What’s an appropriate term of endearment?

One of the ones that I battled with for a while was the ‘Metric vs Imperial’ debate. I was half tempted to give up on it totally and make up my own units but that quickly retreated from that complicated little idea. The whole point of words – especially words in fiction – is that they spark off the appropriate images and connotations in a reader’s mind (and I’d given myself enough of a headache by creating a brand new military ranking system). The more shorthand you can use, I think, to achieve this the better, hence the ubiquitous rule about chopping out any adjectives and adverbs.

In the brilliant TV Tropes site they suggest it’s most common to use metric system for science fiction and imperial units for fantasy. There’s no real rational reason for this, of course, beyond a ‘feeling’ that metric sounds more futuristic.

I thought I’d check what other classic science fiction authors have done in the past, so picked a few books at random off my book case.  Arthur C Clarke goes with ‘kilometres’ and ‘metres’, Iain M Banks has ‘kilometres’.  But Larry Niven had ‘miles’, which surprised me. Neal Stephenson (for Anathem) has gone for ‘miles’ and – I love this one – ‘paces’ for his ‘metres’ equivalent.  But then Anathem is the kind of book that needs this, I think.

There may be a UK vs US writers divide here … or it might be a ridiculously small sample size.  I’ll let you decide.

Anyway, in the end, I went with metric.  It still feels correct, more futuristic.  What I couldn’t find myself doing was denoting smaller sizes in centimetres, though. I’m not sure why … but just it just felt wrong, to describe something as ‘thirty centimetres high’. That was when I itched to be able to write ‘about a foot’ again!

Ghirde n.

Just finished setting up my blog site and this is the first post.  I’ve selected my blog header image – a cropped corner of a shot of Titan from Cassini (added it in below in full).

This picture gives me ghirde. It was the picture that first made me think up the word. I knew that I needed to invent a word for that feeling. So many of the moons on the solar system are finely detailed, pitted, scored and … well, a little dead really. Titan, with its complete cloud-cover, seems to be hiding something. It makes me want to peek below that cloud layer and see the methane lakes …

Cool Titan