In order to tease out the subtler consequences of current trends, a complex fictional simulation is necessary; inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis. If I want to imagine, for instance, what our world would be like if ordinary objects like chairs or shoes were conscious, then the best way to make progress is to fictionally simulate a person discovering this. The kinds of thought experiments I enjoy are different in intent and in execution from merely futurological investigations. My primary goal is not to make useful predictions that businessmen can use.
Where to find material for our thought experiments? But SF writers have an ability to pick out some odd new notion and set up a thought experiment. Excuse me, shall I extrapolate that for you? The most entertaining fantasy and SF writers have a rage to extrapolate; a zest for seeking the gnarl. Wit involves describing the world as it actually is. And you experience a release of tension when the elephant in the living room is finally named.
The least-aware kinds of literature take society entirely at face value, numbly acquiescing in the myths and mores laid down by the powerful. These forms are dead, too cold. At the other extreme, we have the chaotic forms of social commentary where everything under the sun becomes questionable and a subject for mockery.
This said, laughing like a crazy hyena can be fun. This was something I picked up from the works of Philip K. In the gnarly zone, we have fiction that extrapolates social conventions to the point where the inherent contradictions become overt enough to provoke the shock of recognition and the concomitant release of laughter. At the low end of this gnarly zone we have observational commentary on the order of stand-up comedy. And at the higher end we get inspired satire.
Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. I have a genetic predisposition for dialectic thinking. We can parse cyberpunk as a synthesizing form. Discuss the ongoing global merger between humans and machines. Get in there and spray graffiti all over the corporate future. When I moved to California in , I fell in with the editors of the high-tech psychedelic magazine Mondo , and they began referring to themselves as cyberpunks as well.
Our society is made up of gnarly processes, and gnarly processes are inherently unpredictable. Rules like this can generate wonderfully seething chaos. But whatever richness comes out of a model is the result of a gnarly computationwhich can occur in the very simplest of systems. There are no tidy, handy-dandy rubrics for predicting or controlling emergent social processes like elections, the stock market, or consumer demand. Like a cellular automaton, society is a parallel computation, that is, a society is made up of individuals leading their own lives.
Each ant is driven by its own responses to the surrounding cloud of communication pheromones. But how to reconcile the computational beauty of a gnarly, decentralized economy with the fact that many of those who advocate such a system are greedy plutocrats bent on screwing the middle class? I think the problem is that, in practice, the multiple agents in a free-market economy are not of consummate size. Certain groups of agents clump together into powerful meta-agents.
Think of a river of slushy nearly-frozen water. As long as the pieces of ice are of about the same size, the river will move in natural, efficient paths. But suppose that large ice floes form. The awkward motions of the floes disrupt any smooth currents, and, with their long borders, the floes have a propensity to grow larger and larger, reducing the responsiveness of the river still more.
In the same way, wealthy individuals or corporations can take on undue influence in a free market economy, acting as, in effect, unelected local governments. And this is where the watchdog role of a central government can be of use. The central government can act as a stick that reaches in to pound on the floes and break them into less disruptive sizes.
When functioning properly, the government beats their cartels and puppet-parties to pieces.
Science fiction plays a role here. SF is one of the most trenchant present-day forms of satire. Harsh truths about our present-day society can be too inflammatory to express outright. Backing up a little, it will have occurred to alert readers that a government that functions as a beating stick is nevertheless corruptible. It may well break up only certain kinds of organizations, and turn a blind eye to those with the proper connections. Indeed this state of affairs is essentially inevitable given the vicissitudes of human nature.
Jumping up a level, we find this perennial consolation on the political front: any regime eventually falls.
A shattering novel. But all the people who denounced various Arab and Muslim governments and peoples for their protests against the Danish cartoons are strangely silent about this quite similar case. He was a cutting-edge hot shot at Stanford. The freestyle antifesto. Although there are quests early on that give you a taste of what's to come see Wake-Up Call Boss below , and many missions involve stealth, which is still applicable to these last sections, so you should be prepared anyway. We wanted to be sure that those who attended that day understood that while Triangle changed much for the better in the US for a long time, now workplace conditions had started to erode again, that there were still millions worldwide who worked in jobs that threatened their safety and even their lives.
A faction may think it rules a nation, but this is always an illusion. Some loops of this nature have lasted my entire adult life. But whether the problem is from a single regime or from a constellation of international relationships, one can remain confident that at some point gnarl will win out.
Every pattern will break, every nightmare will end. Here is another place where SF has an influence. One dramatic lesson we draw from SF simulations is that the most wide-ranging and extreme alterations can result from seemingly small changes. This means that, inevitably, very large cataclysms will occasionally occur. Buchanan draws some conclusions about the flow of history that dovetail nicely with the notion of gnarly computation.
History could in principle be like the growth of a tree and follow a simple progression towards a mature and stable endpoint, as both Hegel and Karl Marx thought. In this case, wars and other tumultuous social events should grow less and less frequent as humanity approaches the stable society at the End of History. Or history might be like the movement of the Moon around the Earth, and be cyclic, as the historian Arnold Toynbee once suggested. He saw the rise and fall of civilizations as a process destined to repeat itself with regularity.
Some economists believe they see regular cycles in economic activity, and a few political scientists suspect that such cycles drive a correspondingly regular rhythm in the outbreak of wars. Of course, history might instead be completely random, and present no perceptible patterns whatsoever …. The pattern of change to which it leads through its rise of factions and wild fluctuations is neither truly random nor easily predicted. This is, it seems, the ubiquitous character of the world.
In his Foundation series, Isaac Asimov depicts a universe in which the future is to some extent regular and predictable, rather than being gnarly. This is fine for an SF series, but in the real world, it seems not to be possible. One of the more intriguing observations regarding history is that, from time to time a society seems to undergo a sea change, a discontinuity, a revolution—think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Sixties, or the coming of the Web.
In these rare cases it appears as if the underlying rules of the system have changed. In the interesting cases, these possible values lie on a fractal shape in some higher-dimensional space of possibilities—this shape is what chaos theory calls a strange attractor. This range of patterns is a strange attractor.
During any given historical period, a society has a kind of strange attractor. A limited number of factions fight over power, a limited number of social roles are available for the citizens, a limited range of ideas are in the air. The basic underlying computation involves such immutable facts as the human drives to eat, find shelter, and live long enough to reproduce.
I mentioned that SF helps us to highlight the specific quirks of our society at a given time. Very many of the programmers were reading both of these sets of novels. And surely the cyberpunk novels instilled the idea of having an anarchistic Web with essentially no centralized controllers at all. The fact that that the Web turned out to be so free and ubiquitous seems almost too good to be true. In short, SF and fantasy are more than forms of entertainment.
This essay is a mash-up of five different versions of the material. Before the ICFA talk in Florida, I found a twisted branch on a nearby beach, and I brought it to my talk to display as an example of gnarl. Later some members of the audience took possession of the gnarl-branch as a kind of trophy.
I worked some of this material into my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, The Seashell, and the Soul in A different thread with some new material appeared as my introduction to my story collection, Mad Professor of Writing essays like this is a useful activity for a writer—it allows you to organize and clarify your methods of composition, methods that you otherwise might not be consciously aware of. And somehow we got the opportunity to start our very own cultural and artistic movement: cyberpunk.
What was the secret? How did you guys get so much ink? Kerouac is the most wonderful writer among the beats, and surely the one who sold the most books.
Gibson is a natural fit for this role. He writes like an angel, and everyone knows his name. Without Kerouac there would have been no Beat movement, without Gibson there would be no cyberpunk. Ginsberg is the most political and most engaged—here I think of Sterling.
At the beginning of cyberpunk, it was Bruce who was the indefatigable pamphleteer and consciousness-raiser with his Cheap Truth zine. His Mirrorshades anthology defined cyberpunk in many minds.
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Like Ginsberg, Sterling continues to roam the planet, making guest-lectures and writing up reports on what he finds. Of the beats and the cyberpunks, it is Ginsberg and Sterling whom one sees most often on television. Not so well-known as the other beats, Corso is a poet with a keen ear for ecstatic strophes and ranting invective. Corso also has the cachet, the bonus, of being the only one of the four still alive. A reasonable match for the dark, zany and strangely healthy John Shirley. For myself, as the oldest of the cyberpunks, I claim the role of Burroughs, with his wise, dry voice of hallucinatory erudition and his rank, frank humor.