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gives us
Three Reasons Why It Sucks
to Be a Science Fiction Writer,
and One Reason
Why It Maybe Doesn't

[Author, marine biologist and computer-based game writer Peter Watts was the guest speaker at the Hudson Bay Open Meeting on June 16, 2001. His goal was to combine the questions "Can authors write about the near future without getting stale-dated?" and "Can authors write about the far future and remain comprehensible?" into the lecture topic "Eating the future Before It Expires; or, You Too Can Predict the Past!" He believes the following talk fell somewhat short of that goal, but Karen Bennett transcribed it anyway...]

My actual talk today might best be described as "Three Reasons Why It Sucks To Be a Science Fiction Writer, and One Reason Why It Maybe Doesn't." I'd like to start it off by asking if anybody recognizes this book, The Physics of Immortality [The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead by Frank J. Tipler (Doubleday, 1994)].

Yes.

This book claims to put forth a rigorous, scientifically testable proof for the existence of God and the afterlife. According to the mathematics and the argument in this book, God is essentially the mother of all super-computers, perched on the edge of the event horizon of a supermassive black hole at the end of time. Heaven is a simulation model that is running on God's hardware, into which we will all, at some point in the far future, be reincarnated.

Tipler's a real romantic when it comes to certain aspects of the afterlife, such as sex. I'm quoting here: "That is, the psychological impact on a man of meeting a woman who is, to him, the most beautiful woman in the world is roughly nine times the impact of meeting any woman in the top 10%, since there are roughly one billion women in the world." He has a lot of equations here to justify that, although I don't know where he comes up with "one billion women in the world." "To compute a lower bound on the psychological impact of meeting the most beautiful woman whose existence is logically possible, let us suppose that beauty is entirely genetic. I pointed out above that there are about 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 6 genetically distinct possible women. Assuming the validity of the Fechner-Weber Law"—footnote 28—"at large stimulus the relative psychological impact of meeting the most beautiful of these is thus"—he gives us another log equation—"or 100,000 times the impact of meeting the most beautiful woman in the world, including personality, surface appearance," and so on and so forth. He goes on like this for several pages, essentially making the argument that in the afterlife we will all enjoy grand and glorious sex, which would not be possible in the real world because we would neurologically short out our own brainstems through sexual overload.

This was about the point at which Tipler started to lose me. I started thinking that perhaps the reason he was so hot on predicting a next life was because he obviously wasn't getting out much in this one. Nonetheless, this is officially a non-fiction book, a mathematically dense, a—previously, at least—credible physical source claiming that God is a supercomputer at the end of time.

Well, naturally, we science-fiction writers were all over this like white on rice. It inspired Rob [Charles] Wilson to write Darwinia, which—has anybody here read it?

Tried to.

It's worth your time. I actually thought the first half was better than the last.

Frederik Pohl actually managed to milk two novels out of this premise, and I wrote a story called "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald" [in Peter's collection Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, Tesseract Books, 2000], which is one of my favourite stories. It's about one of the hardest SF stories—as in most-hard SF, as opposed to the hardest to write—that I've ever written, and I really like that story.

I really like "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald," but I really hate this book. I especially hate the scientists who proved that everything in this books was bullshit before "Jasmine Fitzgerald" ever made it into print.

The basic premise of both the theory and my story and the other fiction is that the universe is going to collapse at the end of time—a Big Crunch to complement the Big Bang that got everything started. This Big Crunch is necessary to power the supercomputer which is God. It was very plausible premise at the time I wrote the story. There was a lot of debate on the subject of whether the universe is open or closed, but it didn't look like anyone was going to solve the problem anytime soon. We're talking about something that happens at the end of time. If you really are worried about being obsolescent, it should be a pretty safe thing to write about.

Nonetheless, between the time I sold "Jasmine Fitzgerald" and the time that it actually appeared on bookstands, five independent studies appeared, all of which proved that the universe was not going to collapse; it was going to continue to expand. Worse now: we know that not only is it going to continue to expand but that the expansion itself is accelerating, which nobody can figure out.

So consider this [book by Tipler] Exhibit A, why it sucks to be a science-fiction writer.

The first thing that's wrong with being a science-fiction writer today is that the present has caught up with the future and surpassed it. If you're the kind of person who writes extrapolative science fiction—that is, you look at a technological or a sociological trend and you say, "Hey, if this goes on..."—then it is getting increasingly difficult to stay ahead of the curve.

This is the curve I'm talking about. This is your classic y-versus-time exponential. It applies to everything from compound interest to animal populations to technological and scientific advancement. Everybody agrees on [the first part of] this curve. Whichever one of these end points you go to basically depends on whether you're an optimist or a realist.

For purposes of our current argument, of course, we're talking about scientific knowledge and technological advancement. The thing to notice is not just that things change, but that things change faster with time. This should completely be old news to all of you. Alvin Toffler popularized this curve back in the 1960s with a book called Future Shock—the basis of that term being that we'd reached the point in the curve where change was happening sufficiently fast (this was back in the Sixties) that normal people were finding it increasingly difficult to cope. We were essentially being shell-shocked by rapid change. That was one of the things you needed science-fiction writers for back in the Sixties, because we could cope with the future. The future was basically where we lived, as opposed to the present day, where most of us were miserable failures. I know I pretty much was.

But of course we (i.e., SF writers) are on this curve too; we always have been. I don't know if there's anybody here who remembers what was going on scientifically back in the Fifties. You may remember that astronomers in the earlier part of the century were assuring us that Mercury was tidally locked, for example, so that it always kept one face to the sun. There was a whole slew of stories that were written, based on this endless Mercurial day premise. [Larry] Niven wrote one; I think [Isaac] Asimov wrote one, just off the top of my head. So when, in the early Sixties, astronomers said, "Oops, sorry; we were wrong. Mercury is not tidally locked," well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. A whole subgenre of stories got stale-dated overnight, but it only happened once in a while. It was easily manageable.

That's nothing. That was back here on [the flat part of] the curve. Now, I've written a story based on cutting-edge, far-future theory which was obsolete before it even got published. It wasn't just that one story, either. It happened to some extent in Starfish. In Maelstrom, which is my next novel coming up, I describe a world in which the Internet has mutated into something called the Maelstrom Ecosystems, which is essentially this seething biome of various electronic species that have evolved from Trojans and bots and worms and so forth. There are storm fronts that pass through the Internet as the result of user load and so on. It all seemed like pretty radical stuff when I was writing it. But you can now click on a URL that allows you, even today, to click on an Internet weather report that shows the same storm fronts. About two or three weeks ago, a guy from the theoretical biology department at Princeton published a paper in Science in which he commented on the remarkable similarity between viral ecosystems in the real world and inside computer networks.

Maelstrom doesn't even come out for three months yet, and when it does come out, it looks like it's going to be doing a really kick-ass job of predicting the past, which, when you actually get right down to it, isn't all that difficult. You can probably do it right now. Just think about World War I; you're predicting the past.

It's not just me. I think I may have set a record for speedy obscurity, but it's happening to everything. Neuromancer, one of the most visionary novels of the Eighties when it came out, was looking remarkably quaint even 10 years after publication. Michael Crichton's books tend to age very badly.

Basically we are on this [really steep] part of the curve now. We're about 20 minutes away from the point where Clarke's law kicks in and technology becomes indistinguishable from magic. If I told you, for example, that we had a working rotary motor that was only 78 atoms in size, I would not even be telling you news; I would be giving you ancient history. That's something that appeared in Nature three years ago. This year, Science is putting out papers that talk about the theoretical underpinnings for building a time machine. Oxford and Caltech are both working on time travel. Clones are already passť. We've got at least one expert in the field of computers saying that in 10 or 20 years not only will we be able to buy a desktop computer with superhuman intellect but we will be able to pick it up at Wal-Mart for under $1,000. Ten or 20 years after that, this guy claims, these computers will rise into the realm of the literally spiritual. How in God's name am I supposed to compete with something like that?

So the bottom line is, if you want to know what your future looks like, don't waste your time on Analog; read Time magazine. We are already saturated in the future. You don't need me or any other SF writer to tell you what the future looks like. And if we do tell you what the future looks like, we will not only be wrong—which we pretty much always were anyway—but we will be immediately and spectacularly wrong in record time, because the corollary to this whole exponential increase in knowledge is that although the population at large is getting dumber and dumber with each passing day, the target audience for science fiction by definition has an interest in science. They're scientifically more savvy, so their rate of intolerance for bad science basically follows the same curve. So in one sense, not only has the future caught up and surpassed us, but you guys have as well.

There are some tricks we can use, as science-fiction writers, to cover our asses. You can always throw in a holocaust of some kind—a nuclear war, a biological holocaust—and knock civilization back into the Stone Age. That's mighty tempting when the alternative is trying to predict what's going to happen in 50 years without some sort of a cataclysm resetting the odometer. The problem, of course, is that you can only rewrite The Chrysalids so many times before people start catching on.

You can also narrow your prediction horizon. If it's too much of a stretch to envision 2050, set your story in 2010 or 2005 or even the present day. That way you avoid most of that really self-destructing and embarrassing world-building. I get the impression that Robert Sawyer is starting to do this with his novels. He seems to be putting more and more of them in the present day.

Finally, of course, you could just throw up your hands and start writing high fantasy—a lot of science-fiction writers have started doing that—or parallel-universe stories. One of the constraints of writing extrapolative science fiction is that you've got to come up with a plausible road map for how we got there from here, and if you're writing fantasy or parallel-universe stuff, you really don't have to.

Those are ways that you could cover your ass—but for those of us who want to hang in there and write the kind of SF story that starts with the idea, "Hey, if this goes on," it truly, truly sucks to be a science-fiction writer these days.

That is, of course, only one kind of science fiction, and you could argue very plausibly that predicting the future was never really what this whole trip was about anyway. A lot of us are getting really irritated every time some peppy TV pseudo-journalist with Donny Osmond teeth starts off the latest news story by saying, "Ten years ago, we thought it was science fiction, but today scientists have announced..." The reason we resent this is because of the implication that science fiction's main job is to predict the future, that we exist as some sort of soothsayer so that we can tell rich, aging yuppies what kind of tech stocks to invest in 20 years down the road.

Of course, one of the best things about science fiction is that it can get us past all of that near-future dystopian bullshit and get us out into this grand and glorious space-opera universe that's full of Dyson spheres and Ringworlds and Rama cylinders and so on. We want to see cool space aliens; we want to see great space battles. The classic label, of course, is "sense of wonder." Nothing gets it going like big, dumb objects that fill the sky, and if you write this kind of science fiction—well, sorry, folks, but it really sucks to be an SF writer even more, because although reality won't exclude this, the Bruckheimers will. There was a time when you needed someone like Arthur C. Clarke to describe what a giant city-size spaceship would look like, hovering over the New York skyline. You don't need that any more. Independence Day showed that. You didn't have to read it; you didn't have to imagine it; you didn't even have to think. In fact, as far as Independence Day went, thinking was an actual impediment to enjoying the film.

Industrial Light and Magic has gotten to the point where they're doing all the heavy lifting for us. They specialize in big, dumb objects that fill the sky. They're very good at it, it's easier than having to use your brain to imagine something on the basis of these little scraps of ink on paper, and perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised that people are abandoning the written word in droves.

(Incidentally, I find it kind of interesting how we guardians of the written word respond to this exodus. A few years ago, we gave a Hugo award to a historical period piece, a historical drama called Apollo 13. This implies that a significant chunk of the science-fiction community believes that a trip to the moon still qualifies as science fiction. The other alternative is that we are just simply so desperate to get a seat back on the bandwagon that we're willing to whore our most treasured awards off to anybody who might be willing to let us hang on their coattails. Either way I think we're dating pretty badly in this regard.)

It actually gets worse than this, because Hollywood is the least of our problems today, I think. The computer game industry makes anywhere between four to seven times as much money as Hollywood does—estimates vary—and most of those games are overwhelmingly SF-related. It's not necessarily good SF, of course, but they are at least targeting the same market. And if we are talking about "sense of wonder" and eye candy, we have to take computer games very seriously indeed.

Has anybody played this game, Homeworld? In a lot of ways, it's a kick-ass game. For those of you who haven't, it's a retelling of the Moses myth, except instead of the Israelites wandering across the desert for 40 years, they wander across the galaxy and there's an evil empire trying to kick their ass every step of the way. It's kind of a lame plot.

Battlestar Galactica.

Yes, but we (i.e., the Homeworld team) have much better music.

Have you noticed that a lot of people in the sci-fi area hardly recognize Battlestar Galactica as part of science-fiction history?

I think aficionados of science fiction have a real problem trying to accept anything that [creator] Glen Larson does as being legitimate science fiction. The man is on record as being openly contemptuous of anything that's the slightest bit science fiction.

How I look at it is, a lot of times we see computers going wild, when a perfect example is the Cylons, which were, I believe, supposedly made by humans in the first place.

Yeah. Is this completely apocryphal, or did the Mormons have something to do with Battlestar Galactica? My understanding was that there was some sort of a religious implication, that the reason the Cylons were brought in was not because of any sort of cautionary idea about machines going amok, but that simply we couldn't have our heroes killing other living beings, so we decided to make the villains tin cans. Does that strike anybody as familiar?

Yes.

For example, in the original Battlestar Galactica, when people were being massacred, they weren't allowed to show anybody actually being killed. Apparently even the writers of Battlestar Galactica thought that it was kind of hard to portray a holocaust without anybody actually being killed.

I would take Homeworld over Battlestar Galactica. I would take Plan 9 from Outer Space over Battlestar Galactica. But anyway, none of this is the point. The point is that my partner has a complete indifference to computer games. Anything beyond the level of Minesweeper or Solitaire she just can't be bothered with. She just finds it a complete waste of time, and yet it was this same woman who, for three solid months of Saturdays, was kicking me out of bed at 6:30 every morning, demanding that I go in and play Homeworld so that she could watch. This is really interesting. She did not want to play, she had no interest in playing, but she could not get enough of the luminous starscapes and nebulae and the supercool soundtrack and the glorious zooming choreography of the space battles. The artwork and the screenshots on this box are so far below doing justice to how this game looks on the screen that I'm not even going to show it to you. But this is a glorious game to look at. If we're talking about engaging your sense of wonder, if we're talking about eye candy, this is major competition, and it's interactive to boot.

Laurie didn't care about interactive; she just wanted to watch. She's kind of an exception because she also likes to read, and it's old news now that a lot of people, younger ones especially, don't. I've been running into this new word lately—actually it's an old word that's been getting a fresh workout—aliteracy. As opposed to illiteracy, where you can't read, aliteracy means that you can but you just can't be bothered. They say aliteracy is on the rise these days. People are choosing to allow television and Electronic Arts to do all their imagining for them. This is probably the reason why you can go into pretty much any science-fiction convention these days and hear at least some of the pros grumbling about "the greying of the SF audience." You guys are all probably familiar with the classic outsider's stereotype vision of an SF geek. We're all pimply teenagers who belong to the high-school chess club. And yet I'm told by Karen that the average age of this group is 35. We're certainly not getting any younger. As a demographic, science-fiction readers and fans are approaching senescence. We are aging and we are not bringing in new recruits. The up-and-comers, the people who should be turning on to science fiction in their teens, are getting seduced by Lara Croft and Star Control before they learn the pleasure of the written word. (In terms of Lara Croft, really who can blame them?)

I do know the standard objections to this: Independence Day was beautiful to look at but it was brain-dead; Homeworld may be beautiful but where's the character development; games and movies don't offer us the literary richness, the consistent science, the subtle nuance of characterization that you can only get from written science fiction. That may be true, but let's face it: that's not why people come to science fiction in the first place. Has anybody here heard anybody say, "I want strong characterizations in my fiction, and that's why I read science fiction and nothing else"? It doesn't happen.

This is not to say that science fiction lacks good characters and strong plots. Granted, I think there are a lot of successful writers out there who could barely write their way out of a fortune cookie if their lives depended on it, but there are also others who could make words sing to break your heart. I would die a happy man if I achieved half the fluency of someone like Samuel Delany or Robert Silverberg back in their primes. But my point is that justifying science fiction on the basis of its good characters and strong plotting is roughly equivalent to saying, "I'm going to buy a Pontiac Sunfire because I want my car to have four wheels and an engine." Every genre has its hacks and its masters. You're going to want strong plotting and characterization in science fiction as you do in anything else, but that's not why you come to science fiction as opposed to, say, westerns or, God help us, romance.

We read SF for a number of reasons: a peek at the future; exploration of scientific ideas; expectations of big, dumb objects; a sense of wonder. The problem is, now there are a lot of other players on the market who can do the same things and who can do them better, and I think they're stealing our audience. The $64,000 question is: Is there anything that science fiction still does better than these other guys? I think there is, and I think that's one reason why it does not necessarily suck to be a science-fiction writer.

Who here was at the last Ad Astra? You may have seen David Hartwell and me sitting on a panel. [David] was paraphrasing someone else, and he described science fiction as a collection of possible futures from which we pick and choose. I think that's great, because it looks at science fiction as a population, not as a bunch of individual tales, so you don't end up trying to judge things on a story-by-story basis: "Whoa, is this science fiction or is this fantasy?"

It was great because it got my biologist's brain going, and it led me to the conclusion that science fiction is a lot like sex—or, more precisely, it's like the genetic variation that results from sex. From a biological point of view, if you live in an unchanging, stable, predictable environment, the best reproductive strategy is to simply clone yourself—once you work—a million times over and forget about it. But if the future is uncertain, if things could change without warning, it makes sense to have a wide variety of divergent adaptations as a hedge against unexpected change. It doesn't matter that most of this variation is not going to do you any good or may, in fact, even be harmful in the long run; some of this variation is going to work. And since there's no way of telling in advance which particular variations are going to come in especially handy when the environment changes, you hedge your bets by investing in a wide range of options.

So maybe I'm thinking that science fiction is sort of like a sociological genome. It's a huge range of possible futures, most of them useless; some vital. You never really know in advance. But the point is that being predictive, being right about the future, is not the point of any given story or novel. The point is about exploring as wide a range of possibilities as possible. So I think science fiction does not have to have its facts right, not even hard science fiction.

Any Niven fans in the audience? Yes? Early Niven or late Niven? (Early Niven I'm describing as his Known Space cycles; late Niven is where he sort of got in bed with Jerry Pournelle and became a rancorous old fascist. Kind of a leading question, I guess...) Larry Niven's Known Space cycle is frequently touted as one of the masterworks of hard science fiction—that is, based on plausible, realistic science—and this is crap. There's lately been sort of a backlash where people seem to take endless delight in poking apart all the things that Larry Niven got wrong in his science, and that also is crap. The fact is, a lot of the Known Space cycle is predicated on really absurd assumptions. They were even absurd at the time he wrote them. This isn't a question of new information rendering something that was previously plausible obsolete; this is stuff that he should have known. He should have known in the 1960s that the human race did not evolve from Erich von Daniken space aliens. He should have known that a gene which codes for good luck—and it's a brilliant literary device. I love the originality and the implications of it. But a gene is a molecular punchcard that tells a ribosome how to build a chunk of protein, and anybody who believes that a chunk of intracellular protein is going to have any way of affecting the laws of statistical chance in the universe—we're not talking science; this is straight-ahead astrology.

So Larry Niven's facts, biologically and apparently even physically and in terms of the engineering involved—I'm not an expert on that—are generally pretty bad. Yet, speaking as a professional biologist myself, I really like his aliens. I think his aliens are among the best in the business—not because he got his facts right, because he didn't—because he got his principles right; he got his approach right. Larry Niven aliens are not the little Spielbergian Pillsbury Doughboys that come out of the flying chandelier at the end of Close Encounters and say, "Hey, we're going to save your ass." These guys evolved according to the laws of natural selection. You can see that in the way they're built; you can see that in the way they behave. His Protectors are super-intelligent spacefaring technological beings who nonetheless are driven by their genes and their brainstems and engage in a series on ongoing genocidal race wars based on the principles of kin selection.

Niven's science fiction, therefore, I think is good not because he got his facts right but because the philosophy underlying these things says, "The universe behaves according to consistent laws. We can figure out what those laws are and then we can understand everything." It's a very pro-rationalist point of view. Compare this with, for example, fantasy. Fantasy has got a lot of the same special effects. (When you strip away the technobabble, magic crystals and dilithium crystals really aren't that much different.) But whereas the attitude of science fiction is, "Let's crack the hood and see what makes this baby run," the basic theme of fantasy is, "Believe in magic. Use the Force." It's much more of a mystical rather than a rationistic point of view.

Science fiction operates a little bit like science itself, in principle. You've got thousands of people exploring ideas, putting forth their own hypotheses. Most of them are dead wrong; a few stand the test of time; everything looks kind of quaint in hindsight. The field evolves to reflect our changing world-view and new scientific discoveries. Bottom line: Science fiction is a huge sea of thought experiments that aren't really characterized by saying, "If this goes on," but are characterized by saying, "What if this was this case? What if that was the case?"

I think we're still better at that than anybody else. I also think we won't be better at it for much longer, because there's a certain type of computer game that is catching on fast, which would be another reason for me to moan on about why it sucks to be a science-fiction writer, except in this case I actually think it's a good thing.

You might think that computer games—and I'm talking about those that have any kind of a storyline; I'm not talking about the arcade shooters like Doom and so on—you might think that those kind of games would actually have a lot of potential for thought experiments because they allow you to branch, to go down different routes, explore different avenues. They're a lot more flexible than your standard written science-fiction story. In reading a story, you have absolutely no control over the action. You're not really engaging in a thought experiment yourself; you're just reading somebody else's thought experiment. So you might think that computer games should be mopping the floor with us, even in this regard.

But they're not, because—and this is the game designer's dirty little secret—when it comes right down to it, computer games are every bit as linear as novels are. There is the illusion of choice, but it's kind of flat. You're stuck in a room; the only way out is through the ventilation duct. If you go off the rails at one point, you die. You can go left or right. You can encounter Gornak on the plains or in the caves, depending on how the random number seed turns out. But you still have to go from A to B to C in that order, solving puzzles and challenges in a predetermined order because game designers simply can't code for every possible option that an individual could run into in the real world. The trick is to make the player feel as though he's a free agent, as though he's explored all the available options, and the way to do that is to keep the number of available options really limited. And that, of course, is why so many of these games take place in underground mazes.

It's possible to have a very cool story underlying all this action that's every bit as good, at least in principle, as a good science-fiction novel. The reason you can do that is because the player does not get to mess with the story. The player has no control over the story at all. In fact, the story isn't even central to the game. The story is just something you use to string various puzzles and challenges and missions along, like beads on a thread. You do not play the thread; you play the beads. So if you want to turn computer games into real what-if thought experiments that surpass written SF as a thought-experiment medium, here's what you do: You scrap the story entirely and let the players make it up as they go along.

There's a kind of computer game out there that already does this, after a fashion. It's not a typical game at all, as I have described games; it's what you call a simulation model. Most games are guided tours where you hop on the Universal tour bus to go through Universal Hollywoodland and you can perhaps choose which of several predetermined rails you want to go along, but you can never make your own rail, you can never leave the train, and the final destination is set in stone before you even pull out of the gate.

In contrast, a simulation model is open-ended. It starts with rules and variables and transition states, mixes them all together, starts the plot running, and not even the game designers know how it's going to turn out. In fact, that's the entire point of the exercise. I spent a large chunk of my doctorate working on simulation models for harbour seal and killer whale behaviour and so on, and I certainly wasn't expecting the kind of stuff that fed back to me.

So build a future society with no agenda, other than to say, "If this was the way the world worked, how would we, as human beings, respond?" That's always been a fundamental question at the heart of science fiction in the first place, but until now it's been the author who both posed the question and came up with his particular answer. The reader has just been a passive observer.

Not so in a simulation. Computers are still pretty bad at improvising things like dialogue and characters on the fly, so today's single-player simulations, things like Homeworld and Alpha Centauri, tend to focus on large-scale panoramic issues like fleet command or colonization strategies for a planet—things that are impersonal, that can be modeled from the top down without much in the way of individual characters.

On-line gaming environments are completely different things. They do allow you to get up close and personal because you are not interacting with a computer; you are using a computer to interact with other real people. Essentially it's massive global role-playing. A perfect example of this is Ultima Online. Any players? Ultima Online is great. It's a persistent universe. I myself have not played this; I've been hanging out with gaming people lately, so I'm telling you a story that I have heard. What we have is a virtual sword-and-sorcery environment [called Britannia] that players sign on to in the guise of their chosen persona. They start off as something low-level—a blacksmith or a stablehand, for example; it's pretty much like Dungeons & Dragons except that it's computer-based-and they gradually gain their experience points and work their way up to adventure.

Ultima is not a science-fiction game; that's not what makes it such a good example here. What makes it a good example for my argument is that it underwent what you might call an unexpected economic downturn a few years ago. What happened is there were so many adventurers bringing back treasure from plundered dragon hoards that they devalued the work of things like blacksmiths and stablehands. Why hire a blacksmith to give you a breastplate when you can just steal a magical breastplate in your latest adventure? As a result, you had this huge economic instability built up where beginning players simply couldn't drum up—if you were a blacksmith, you simply couldn't get anyone interested in hiring your services. Your work had become so undervalued that there was no way for you to gain the experience points that would allow you to go out and be an adventurer.

The economy collapsed. The entire economy of Britannia collapsed as a result of this. They fixed it; they tweaked it. I always thought this was kind of ironic, because you had a bunch of salespeople and accountants who have escaped their boring, humdrum lives by logging onto this virtual universe and becoming kick-ass fighters, adventurers and sorcerers and then finding that the biggest threat to this virtual universe is an accounting problem at the retail level. It pissed off the accountants.

It's interesting to note that the same thing happened to the Spanish Empire in the 1500s when they brought all the gold back from their conquests in North America. They had exacerbated the problem by kicking out their Jews and Moslems and thereby ruining their silk industry and their wool industry and their citrus fruit industry and everything else, but all this gold that was brought back was such a glut of money that the Spaniards who had it were not supporting their local tradespeople any more. They were buying stuff from Italy and Germany, and the local economies fell to pieces.

That's wild. It fits in perfectly with my thesis here, which is, nobody was expecting this to happen. This game was set up as a simulation model. It was completely inadvertent, but it answered a what-if question. It was inadvertent, but that's sort of the point: to get unexpected results.

There are other examples. There are other on-line games that I could mention, and all of them are presented to the gaming public as nothing more than very cool role-playing games.

But imagine an on-line universe that explored, for example, the society that Bester portrayed in The Stars My Destination, where you had routine personal teleportation. That's something you could program into a persistent shared universe, and you could get 1,000 variations overnight. Here's a substantial part of the science-fiction experience, the thought experiment, and I'm saying that the gaming market is not only stealing our thunder but it can potentially do a better job of it than we can.

So why am I not whinging now about why it sucks to be an SF writer? One reason is because I've jumping on the gravy train. Relic [Entertainment], the guys behind Homeworld, have contracted me to write the scripts for Homeworld 2. There were two or three other guys I know of in line for that particular job, and they also were professional science-fiction writers. Before Homeworld there was Half-Life, and a lot of you guys have to have played this because somebody's playing it; it's one of the most popular games of all time. It's a shooter. It doesn't have a plotline, it doesn't have a story, but what it has is a premise. This premise was written and set up by a guy called Marc Laidlaw, whom some of you may know is a science-fiction writer of some renown in his own right.

I think this is the beginnings of a breakthrough, because traditionally science-fiction computer games are not written by professional science-fiction writers. They never have been, and now I think they're starting to be. We have been complaining about the Silicon Valley bloodsuckers who've been bleeding off all our readers, and in fact those same bloodsuckers seem to be realizing now, en masse, that they need us along for the ride. They are not going to need us to write brilliant characterizations or to build plots; that's up to you guys now, and more power to you. But they do need us to build the world, they're going to need us to help set up the rules and the transition states, and they'll probably even need us to write some dialogue every now and then.

I consider myself a hard science-fiction writer in the conventional sense. I'm going to continue writing the old-fashioned, tree-killing, ink-on-paper stories as long as I can. But I've got to say, I've sort of dabbled my toes over there in the seductive embrace of the dark side, and I can see possibilities. I think there is a potential to turn real science fiction into a group exercise, and that potentially is very cool, especially if I get to be group leader.

You were talking about the future of the written word, and I just want to suggest that every medium has its own peculiar pleasures which you have to be introduced to. Reading is one of the harder ones to learn to enjoy, but the thing is that once you do, you can't get full satisfaction from any others. It can be complemented by visual, auditory media, but you can't get full satisfaction from them. I suppose that if we are writing for the page as opposed to writing for tape, which is another thing altogether, you've just got to hope there are going to be enough other people around who, whether because they had an exceptionally good English teacher or two during high school or whether because they had a lot of time on their own when the TV was down, they are going to have learned at some point—or maybe because their mother read to them when they were three years old before she put them to bed, and they want to find out what's in those funny things with the folding pages. They are a minority, but even if there's only a minority of people who want to read, out of a population of six billion that's still going to be a lot of millions who are potential audiences for the written word.

It's in my own vested interest to agree, but yes, I agree profoundly that there is something you get out of the written word that you can't get out of other media. I agree that people aren't learning the skills and they're giving up before they discover them. But there are two things I would like to say about that.

One is, I am sort of guilty of it and I guess most of you people are, because after all, you belong to something called IDIC, and that is, novelizations and tie-ins.

Never read 'em.

Don't you? I used to. In fact, I've still got a lot of the tech stuff. I've got the original Franz Josef blueprints for the Constitution-class starship; I've got the original Starfleet medical reference manual; I've got the concordances and the tech manuals and stuff. I used to have huge slew of Star Trek novels until I realized how abysmal they mostly were, even though you've got people like Vonda McIntyre and Joe Haldeman writing them occasionally.

This gives me a chance to rant about something. People have always said, "See? These things are good." But there's this argument out there that says, "The Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Star Trek, the Star Wars novels—they're great, because people who otherwise wouldn't read, read these books, and then these books teach them the pleasures of the written word. Then they will go off and read Dhalgren or Nineteen Eighty-Four." I don't think that's the case, for exactly the reason you said: that there is a pleasure in the written word that comes from the written word, and what a lot of these novelizations do is they deny you that pleasure. They're written as fixes for Buffy fans to fill the yawning emptiness between new episodes. When you read this stuff, technically you're reading the words but you don't have to imagine anything. We know everything about how the Borg look except how they smell. We know how the bridge of the Enterprise is laid out. We know what all the characters look like and how they talk. So when you're reading a book, you're not really imagining anything as much as you're remembering stuff that you've already seen on television, and I think that's a fundamentally different experience from actually having to conjure up the images in your mind.

That leads me to my second point, which is: How many people here are planning on going to see Lord of the Rings when it comes out? [Only a few people respond.] I can't believe it; you guys aren't going to see Lord of the Rings.

We'll probably go to see it after a meeting. You have to see some of the stuff that's hyped up like you wouldn't believe. Even if it's terrible, you have to be able to say, "Yeah, I saw it and it was really the worst thing we ever saw."

I've got to see it, and even if it's good, I'm really scared because I know what Gollum looks like. I even know what Hobbits look like. They're kind of like a dirty hamster. They have grotty feet with hair on them. They're overweight. This is what Hobbits are like, and every time I've seen a rendition of one, and that includes the trailers I've seen for the film, they're like little cute Smurfs with pink skin. Having read Lord of the Rings, I've got very strong images in my mind about what all these characters look like and especially what Gollum looks like. I'm just scared to death that they did not read my mind; they came away with their own dumb little vision of what Gollum looks like. It's not going to look the same, and I think people who read Lord of the Rings after they see the movie aren't going to get the same richness of evocation.

And what really pisses me off is that they are apparently planning to release a novelization of Lord of the Rings based on the screenplay. Has anyone heard that?

Yes.

If there was ever a reason for serial murder...

There's a solution to this, and that is, you treat it as two separate works. You don't go into the movie expecting to see what was in the book. It's another production. If it disturbs you to try to compare, then just forget that you read this book that has the same title as the movie.

But is not the movie version of Lord of the Rings acting as a vaccination against the written one? People will go see the movie, and then if they're inspired to go get the book, they will have been vaccinated against their own imaginations. They will remember the movie.

There used to be that show on TVOntario called Prisoners of Gravity where they were talking to all these authors. One author, Bruce Sterling, jokingly called science fiction a testing ground so that today's society could determine what they like from science fiction and decide what they want to put into today's society.

Yes, pretty much like what Hartwell was saying. I like that idea because there are just so many bloody boring panels at cons on "How Do You Define Science Fiction?" I really like that idea because it gets away from "What is science fiction" and looks more functionally at "What does science fiction do?", which I think is a much more productive avenue of exploration. I forget who actually said this, but it was, "Academics fight so viciously because so little is at stake," and I think to some extent that applies to the science-fiction community as well.


Also on this site: an interview with Peter, conducted a few weeks before the lecture.


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