One of the major innovations in SF has been a turn to a whole new basis in the physical sciences—the quantum theory. In Newtonian/Einsteinian physics, reality has a definite existence, and conforms absolutely to the rules of the universe. Furthermore, these rules are, at least to physicists, relatively simple; they give law and order to a universe that we assume is knowable. Quantum theory, on the other hand, forces us to revise all our thinking about the construction of the physical world. Whole books cannot manage a complete layman’s discussion of quantum theory, so here we can only look at some major features of the revolution in thinking that quantum theory represents.
Scientists long enjoyed the assurance that at the visible level of reality matter behaves according to Newtonian/Einsteinian laws. And because objects behaved orderly at the visible level, they assumed that matter would behave orderly at the subatomic level.
But as physicists looked closer and closer at the atom, they found that its particles (its “quanta”) behaved unpredictably, even randomly. Quantum theory seriously challenges the centuries-old assumption that beneath the complexities of appearance lies the simplicity of law. (Einstein, in arguing against the assumptions of quantum theory, protested that God does not play dice).
Physicists discovered that a thousand electrons moving from point A to point B will move along a thousand different paths. This discovery was against all expectations of how subatomic particles would behave. The only way to predict the movement of particles is through statistical average. That is, the average path from A to B is straight—but no one path necessarily is.
Although we cannot predict the movement of any one electron, each electron seems to know where to go. This is yet another startling feature of the behavior of subatomic particles. The famous two-slit screen experiment shows that individually fired electrons know where to go to form an appropriately distributed light interference pattern.
How can any one electron know where to go (especially as no one electron has to go anywhere)? Some interpretations of the two-slit screen experiment involve the existence of alternate realities. The actual path that the electron takes in our reality is influenced by the paths in other realities. Because the available paths in the other realities are taken, the electron must take the path that is available to it.
The several schools of quantum theory have different approaches to the alternate realities. One school says that the alternate realities are merely mathematical models, having no concrete reality. But another school theorizes on an infinite number of concrete, existing alternate realities for every instance of reality that we perceive. Where are these realities? Presumably they transpire in some dimension totally inaccessible from our reality (unless, of course, you read or write SF).
It is this last version of quantum theory that interests SF writers. The alternate worlds, after all, make for an infinite number of new conditions under which to write SF. At the simplest level they provide a scientific basis for “what if?” stories that illustrate the probable results of taking a different turn at a significant historical juncture. Michael Moorcock (The Warlords of the Air, 1971), Norman Spinrad (The Iron Dream, 1972), Harry Harrison (Tunnel Through the Deeps, 1972), Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1975), and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle, 1962)—just to name a few—have set stories in alternate time tracks. Whether they are in any significant way illustrating the role of quantum theory in our daily lives is another matter.
It is an open question as to whether quantum theory has any significant relationship to human behavior. The moral extension of Newton and Einstein was that the universe was comprised of relatively simple and consistent laws (to the end-of his life, Einstein was looking for the unified field theory that would place all phenomena under one set of laws). The orderliness of the physical world translates, according to some, into orderliness in human behavior. If we follow nature, we at least have a reasonable model to imitate.
Does quantum theory make any similar kind of impact on human values? It is perhaps too easy a generalization to say that quantum theory reflects the indeterminableness, the randomness of modern civilization. Still, a writer like Philip K. Dick seems to reflect a chaos in the moral realm that he often links with the physical realm. And other writers have used quantum theory to illustrate a universe that is queerer than we can know, a universe that ultimately is indecipherable. It doesn’t seem unlikely that the physics of the quanta could provide a framework for pessimism, if pessimism is what we want.
Whatever our feelings about the moral dimension of the quanta, the theory has an important role in SF. Space-time SF is still a viable direction, but it cannot sustain another generation of creative writers. Quantum theory opens up a considerable amount of new and strange real estate for SF writers to build on.
Most people don’t openly profess an interest in serial killers or the subject of murder, as these topics are considered morbid and untoward. But the 24 hour news cycle has it’s own sardonic obsession with brutality, and you can see evidence of this every night on the local news and CNN. For months at a time, people crowd around their television sets, listening with bated breath for the salient details of a buried baby or a raped teenager. But we are not obsessed with violence and terror. I repeat, we are NOT obsessed with violence and terror!
But for those of us who do secretly wonder about the final thoughts of a tortured soul, or the sounds a serial killer makes when no one else is around, have I got a film for you! My film, HELLHOUSE, which I am co-writing/directing with my friend and fellow horror movie fanatic, Jared Salas. We have launched a KICKSTARTER campaign for our movie and are expecting to begin shooting principal photography in spring.
HELLHOUSE is about a financially desperate couple, Collin and Aria, who decide to start robbing houses in order to pay their bills….they pick the wrong house. What they find inside will keep law enforcement officers and scientists baffled for years to come, and hopefully moviegoers too!
Right now we need help funding this movie. We’re not asking for much and the money we do get will be used for camera equipment, lenses, and for the creation of a haunting prosthetic mask for the film’s antagonist. Anyone out there who wants to support an independent avante garde horror film in the vein of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The House of the Devil, and Quarantine is encouraged to visit our KICKSTARTER page, watch the teaser trailer and get on board the HELLHOUSE production!
Guerilla Marketing And The Singularity
Could we find there’s no limit to the reach of guerilla marketing? As we hurl ourselves toward a future of sentient nanobots and global AI networks, what will become of advertising and its sneaky, drug-addled step-brother, marketing? I found myself thinking about this at the 2011 Singularity Summit, when filmmaker Jason Silva (a self-described “techno-optimist transhumanist wunderkind”) presented a film in the vein of his “The Immortalist”, a work of ‘art’ that feels more like Ashton Kutcher describing quantum mechanics at a poetry slam. This film, and in fact Silva’s entire presentation, felt curiously out of place. Smacking of hackneyed Hollywood orchestration, the film wielded roughly the intellectual curiosity of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” video.
Roland Emmerich Likes The Singularity
What makes this guerilla marketing? Well, Jason Silva’s presence there, and his presentation itself, was being filmed by a documentary film crew embedded by director Roland Emmerich, who is in development on a 2013 feature film called Singularity, which has reportedly tapped Ray Kurzweil as its top consultant. My theory is that Jason Silva will play a naïve proponent who cheerleads the positive possibilities behind the singularity before being killed off by either rampant self-replicating nanotechnology or malevolent artificial intelligence. I submit that his short films and his appearance at the Summit will be featured in the film, as a fictional cautionary tale. Speaking of fictional cautionary tales, the fact that Silva is dating Heather Graham, who was present at the Summit and appeared in some of the shots, bodes well for my theory. If it turns out Graham is in Singularity you can be sure Silva’s appearance at the Summit was a cunningly leveraged marketing ploy by Emmerich that will pay off big time in 2013.
Advertising In An Accelerating Future
I found myself shocked that even a community as savvy and future-shocked as the Singularity Institute could let themselves be infiltrated by a Hollywood guerilla marketing team. While some analysts have speculated that the actual Singularity will make human endeavors such as advertising and marketing obsolete—as this staggering schism in history will surely render new industries and modalities that will fundamentally change the nature of capitalism—I have to respectfully disagree. The global economy relies on advertising and consumerism as its bone marrow. In the coming decades I see us likely to descend even further into a technocratic nightmare fueled by a savvy corporatocracy that harvests consumers like an abbatoir to lifestock, using new technologies to vacuum away the noxious fumes.
“Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”
The Methuselah Generation, a documentary about life extension, biotechnology, and the doctors working at the edge of science and philosophy, needs you! Anyone interested in the delicate balance between life and death and humanity’s tenuous tightwalk rope between exponential growth and self-destruction, should take a keen interest in this film, which features Terry Grossman, Aubrey du Gray, Gregory Benford, and Robin Hanson. Please vote for it as IndieWire’s Project of the Week, and also donate to the Kickstarter campaign. There are rewards for pledging, including being a Producer on the film. Who knows, it may just grant you an extra hundred years of life, though that’s not one of the official tiers!
The hacktivist collective Anonymous, a decentralized critical mass of civil disobedients, creatives and situationists, made headlines a few years ago by launching a DDoS campaign that exposed some of the Church of Scientology’s privileged documents. In order to punish the Church for its attempts to monetize truth-seeking and intimidate followers, Anon decreed nothing less than the destruction of the entire religion. After the dust settled, rumors of collective’s death were greatly exaggerated. Now with the rise of WikiLeaks as a global force and calamitous economic conditions brewing civil unrest among the populations of the world, the second decade of the 21st century is fertile ground for bold culture jamming, led by a technologically savvy cabal of revolutionaries with no central authority and a catch-all message broadly interpreted as being warm and cuddly with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Recently, the group has been active again, cracking a massive child pornography ring and infiltrating government and law enforcement agencies all across the world. There were even rumors afoot of an Anonymous plan to attack Facebook, which turned out to be false, or perhaps just premature. But murmurs still persist about an Occupy The Airwaves campaign to hack into the FEMA Emergency Alert System, essentially hijacking all radio and TV stations, with a pro-Occupy message.
Ideas don’t bleed…
Over the weekend I attended the 2011 Singularity Summit in New York to assist my friends, filmmakers Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado, who are shooting a documentary, The Methuselah Generation, about the science of life extension. Along the way, we filmed a lively conversation between life extensionist Aubrey de Grey and economist Robin Hanson about the implications and probability of extending the human lifespan through biotechnology and cryonics. And I was lucky enough meet science fiction author David Brin (creator of the Uplift series), who agreed to give my short story about an AI charter city a shake.
Ray Kurzweil started up the Summit with a presentation about how accelerating computational powers and AI technologies will lead to the Singularity sometime during the 2040’s. Perhaps to his chagrin, Kurweil has become somewhat of a guru for technophiles who wish to herald a “Rapture for the Nerds”. To his credit, Kurzweil fans this fire only with scrupulous research and a fairly remarkable track record for predicting trends in technology. Much has been said in recent years about Kurzweil shaping the timeline of the Singularity to coincide with his lifespan (the man has openly said he does not expect to die), and there is probably some truth to this—the part not in parentheses, that is. But as far as delightful ruminations and thought experiments, backed up by hard science, Kurzweil’s a powerful force in the world of futurism.
Other presenters included Peter Thiel, Sonia Arrison, Jason Silva (who I believe was doing guerilla marketing for a Roland Emmerich 2013 feature about the Singularity—more about this theory in future blog), David Brin, and Ken Jennings, former Jeapordy champion who recently lost to IBM’s Watson. Elizier Yudkowsky presented research pertaining to problems we are encountering in trying to program friendly AI. Max Tegmark attempted to explain why he thinks we’re alone in the universe and why it will be up to humans to allow for the meaningful dissemination of intelligence throughout the universe.
Mix that in with interviewing a 16 year old cryonics customer who fully expects to be amphibious someday, screening the trailer for The Methuselah Generation (parts of which will be in 3D!), and taking an inside tour of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zucati Park—thanks to my new friend Sage—and I’d have to say my first trip to New York was one big miraculous mind-fuck.
Curiously enough, I saw the same meme presented at both the Singularity Summit and Occupy–“The Beginning is Near”. It seems as though both advocates of transhumanism and protesters against rabid economic inequality share subtle religious undertones: the faith in vaguely defined concepts bringing clarity to a chaotic and unjust world that is in dire need of planetary evolution. Part of me still fears that the Singularity may end up exponentially fueling the very Corporatocracy that Occupy and myself fear is currently strangling the life out of our mental and physical environments. Though, perhaps it’s nothing a few nanobots can’t fix.
Frankenstein the novel is a significant enhancement on one of the most important mythic trends in western civilization. In Greek mythology, Prometheus, a god himself, steals heavenly fire for man. Having violated the heavenly order, he is punished (the subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus). In Medieval legend, Faust made an unholy—and supernatural—bargain for knowledge, and his eventual punishment was to be dragged off to Hell. Frankenstein the character has both Promethean and Faustian elements, but he’s also different in an important way. He carries the responsibility for his own creations, whether for good or ill. Nobody, not even god, can bale him out.
Frankenstein is about bearing the responsibility for having broken the natural order of things. And that is the source of the dark agony in this story—Victor Frankenstein breaks the natural order; he causes a rupture in the wholeness of things that no external agency could repair. But this is common in SF: characters who have broken the natural order of things. Or if not characters who have themselves broken the natural order, then characters who must nonetheless suffer the consequence—or the responsibility—of the broken order.
We assume that the factories of the Industrial Revolution had some influence on Mary Shelley’s fable. Couldn’t that be seen as a breaking of the natural order? and wasn’t there a responsibility there to be taken? Do we not continue to break the natural order?
But there are other features to consider. The vastness of external nature is here—Victor Frankenstein visits the Alps, even confronts the creature there. And in a sub-plot, we have a character trying to circumnavigate the globe, to explore the farthest reaches of vast nature. The universe will get bigger and bigger—and bigger. But never bigger than the capacity of SF to hold it. This capacity to hold external nature in a narrative is a trait that grew out of its Gothic origins.
The novel offers, too, an apocalyptic vision of the new age to come. Mary Shelley’s own impulse was somewhat conservative. Her tone is moral, as she seems to be pointing out the dangers of breaking the natural order, the unleashing of the forces that would sweep us into a new age. Yet one of the most the attractive features of the novel is the vision of that energy unleashed.
SF has never stopped flirting with the new age that is always on the horizon. But, then, neither have we.