Friday, March 27, 2009

Bee Home, and the decline and fall of Hard SF

Last week in New Scientist, on the back cover where they do queries, there was a piece on Bee Homes.

There, I said something positive about New Scientist.

At the time, Clare had a hunt around and found some bamboo canes, but they were only half the required size - only 4 mm in diameter. Today, however, in Sainsburys we were able to purchase the Bee Home pictured below for a modest sum. It will go up in a south-facing kind of way over the weekend. Come on, Bees!

Bee Home-to-be

Dmitry Portnoy wrote the following as part of his 5-starred review of Neal Stephenson's book "Anathem".

"Anathem" is a work of Hard SF, meaning that everything that's weird or new in it is a rigorous extrapolation of science, mathematics and philosophy. It's the kind of book Arthur C. Clarke used to write in the 40's and 50's. He wrote about rockets and satellites because scientists were working on rockets and satellites.

Most (I would argue all) recent Hard SF, however, is about "rockets" and "satellites." Science Fiction has become an exclusively literary genre, with books inspired less by new scientific research than by previous science fiction books, and, regrettably, movies. Ideas turn into tropes, and instead of extrapolation, we get variation: of the generation star ship, the space alien, the artificial brain, the parallel universe.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Writers like Ted Chiang and Gene Wolfe write brilliant books by breathing new literary life into these old tropes. But their concerns are ultimately moral. They're not interested in New Ideas About Everything as much as in the problems and choices those ideas pose.

In the last thirty or so years, the only sub-genres of Science Fiction willing to take on new science and technology have been cyberpunk and its cousin ribofunk (addressing respectively info- and bio-tech.) But recently, both these sub-genres have been petering out because, I would argue, real-world progress in both those areas has been both too fast and too gradual: fast enough to make most writing obsolete shortly after, or even before, publication; too gradual to produce anything truly transformative for the long view (we're still waiting for AI, immersive VR, and genetically modified humans.)

(This is probably why Stephenson left the field.)

There were, however, too many negative reviews to persuade me to buy it. Maybe the library will have a copy.

However, Dmitry's points about the collapse in new ideas in SF seem to me to be spot-on. As fundamental science has either stagnated or gotten too speculative and far-out (string theory/landscape theory/brane theory anyone?) so the old awe-inducing excitement seems to have evaporated, the paradigms just mined-out.