Posts tagged “speculative fiction”

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

We’ve been doing some work lately with an organization who is trying to understand and respond to the evolution in telework – people who are working out of a dedicated home office but have a corporate job and maybe a formal workspace in their corporate office.

As we collected more stories from people, I was reminded of an old science fiction story (and I remembered the title, even) – The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. I didn’t realize it was from 1909! The story powerfully describes a world of people each living alone and communicating with all the people in their network, anywhere on the planet, from the comfort of their chair.

It’s a pretty cool story in terms of how many themes of modern life, home, and work are captured or predicted from 100 years ago.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:

“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on “Music during the Australian Period”.”

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

“Be quick!” She called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”

But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

Vinge Binge

Months ago Troy Worman posted a tip where he suggested that I write something about the Singularity.

“What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?” Vernor Vinge, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, Thursday, February 15. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is always welcome, not required).

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge invented the concept that dominates thinking about technology these days. He called it “the Singularity”— the idea that technology (computer tech, biotech, nanotech) is now accelerating so exponentially that it will lead to a massive, irreversible, and profoundly unpredictable transformation of humanity by mid-century.

This Thursday evening Vinge will challenge his own idea for the first time: “I have some plausible, non-singularity scenarios that get us into a human-scale world with long time horizons. I’ll describe the near-term peculiarities I see for such scenarios and then discuss what such a world might be like across ten or twenty thousand years. Finally, I’d like to talk about dangers and defenses related to these scenarios.”

Put on by The Long Now Foundation, with info on seminars (and downloads of previous ones) here. We saw one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen – Will Wright and Brian Eno – at a previous Long Now Seminar.

A few months ago I read The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. Now, I grew up reading Golden Age science fiction (Asimov, and others who I can no longer name on a whim), and then moved into Heinlein, Silverberg and the like. I read those books when I was young and the books were old. Even if Heinlein was challenging sexual mores (i.e., Time Enough For Love), it was more about the novel than the ideas for me. The ideas seemed secondary. Maybe I just liked stories about robots, spaceships, and planets.

This changed for me about 10 years ago when I read Snow Crash, a book that took the ideas of right now (or right then) and played with them, taking some things to an extreme, but always with a clear line back to today. Given a lifetime of reading science fiction, this was a sea change. Indeed, much of the sci-fi I’ve read or watched since then has been along those lines (just like I posted yesterday).

But where’s that balance between being a visionary and being a storyteller? I tried to read Accelerando a few months back, but the story merely served as a carrier for the torrent of ideas/social commentary Charlie Stross wanted us to think about. It was fun for the first 50 pages, trying to keep up with it all, enjoying the stimulation, but after that it started to get annoying, then ultimately untenable. I hurled the book across the room, giving up in frustration.

Vinge’s collection of stories didn’t provoke such a strong reaction, and I was easily able to finish it. But it left me cold. The older stories seem more about current ideas, now dated, and less about the characters and the plot. I didn’t care about most of it and I couldn’t connect with most of it. Only the most recent story had any cultural or technological currency (in both senses of the word) and was therefore entertaining to read.

Obviously much of this has to do with where I’m at in engaging with the world when I come across these stories. Comments or ideas about culture are obviously more resonant than when I was 10. But I wonder if this is always how science fiction was read and written, or if the landscape has changed?

A quick look at dystopia

Children of Men is an intense and incredible movie, but also a tough one. There are very few typical futuristic elements in a movie set 20 years hence, basically since things have gone to shit in a big way. But here’s a couple:

A virtual keypad used by a wealthy young man who may have been autistic. He was not able to interact with other people and he was required to take pills. That’s all we know about him.

The buses are old and run-down, but they feature digital billboards with full-motion advertising.

The film played with time in an interesting way. Very little obvious sense of the future, fashions resembled today’s, London simply looked more like Mumbai (or Mexico, as the directed had suggested) than what we might think of today. And familiar songs (i.e., King Crimson) swing between the soundtrack and Muzak-like background that the characters hear in posh settings. And so the Battersea Power Station (where art is being preserved) is a location…with a pig floating in the background.
Yes, the pig from the Floyd album cover for Animals.

Update: a reel of displays, interfaces, fake ads, and other visual artifacts is here [via DesignObserver]


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