A rare moment of concision

If “1337 in 2012” is an example of the type of story the optimists want, then they’re taking the idea of sf stories as “fantasies of political agency” a bit too literally for my taste. (In general I prefer where Jo Walton takes that idea, although if you prefer the literal reading then Paul di Filippo’s “Wikiworld” isn’t bad.)

17 thoughts on “A rare moment of concision

  1. Jason: well, Paul gave me the inclination to do so. But just to be clear, I didn’t mean “what the optimists want” in the sense of literally wanting the events in the story to happen, I meant it in the sense of being the type of story of which you would like to see more. I’ll edit to clarify.

  2. Yes, I didn’t read that story as being optimistic or positive at all. The future of elections is we get the guy who is best at gaming the system, regardless of what they plan to do? Not optimistic, and surely it only works if all the voters fail to communicate and realise that they’re all hearing a different message.

  3. Liz, as the comments over on Futurismic attest, a better name for this group of writers would be “positivists”, but that’s been taken and “optimists” seems to be sticking. And I do think “1337 in 2012” fits the characteristics that were being laid out over there — “in a positive story, things can be bad. The characters can even fail at changing it. But the thing is: they try. And they are in position to effect change”. “1337 in 2012” came across to me as so obviously excited about the potential of an election 2.0, and about the technologies that could enable that, that the supposed counterpunch at the end — oh noes, unintended consequences! — felt half-hearted at best.

  4. Putting aside its obvious poor quality for a second, it is also interesting to compare it to the manifesto platform. What the platform boils down to saying is that all change is good because it has the possibility of being positive. So Stoddard can write this dystopian story and then call it “positive science fiction” simply because it is about change. Well, great, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    The stuff about inspiring people to act is just idiotic. The space elevator would get here quicker if only more people wrote SF stories about it! If I wrote a dystopian novel would that stop me from producing workable nanotech? No, of course, not, I am not a nanotech researcher. If my friend who actually is a nanotech researcher read it would she down tools? Don’t be stupid.

    I don’t want to live in a world of slackers who can do nothing more than complain about “the man” and “the system.”

    Guess what Stoddard, you don’t.

  5. I think that’s it – the story seems really excited about the potential for technology to change the way elections work, while I don’t find anything positive about gaming the system like that, and so when the counterpunch came along it didn’t work for me because I found the first part of the story scary enough without the later consequences.

  6. I think Martin’s right. That story is dystopian from where I am sitting.

    This is mostly because I have no faith in online feedback mechanisms of the kind used on Digg and Reddit. Those sites tend to do little more than drive traffic to sites with large readerships (thereby supporting the primacy of old media and the benefits of advertising spend) and they tend to skew not for quality and intelligence but sensationalism and ease of consumption. As a form of media they’re even more dumbed down than 24 hour news channels.

    Also the story brought to mind all of those episodes of late-stage Star Trek where you’d get infodumps filled with physics jargon that never actually meant anything but sounded really impressive. However, rather than physics technobabble, the story is filled with this blend of web 2.0 buzzwords, Boing Boing talking-points and viral marketing bizspeak. I call this Doctorowese.

    However, setting aside the quality of the story, this does raise an interesting question about the intelectual content of optimistic SF. For example, could I write a story about a future South Africa in which using the power of… let’s say Twitter-based nanotechnology… the AWB returned to power and re-instituted Apartheid leading to the white middle classes’ standard of living going through the roof as all of a sudden everyone white would have slaves.

    That would be a story about people affecting clear social change using SFnal methods. Would that be ‘Optimistic SF’ then?

  7. Exactly. I was thinking of a very similar example: a racist armed revolution in the event of Obama becoming president. Hey, maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong but at least they are trying to change the world!

    Fantasies of political agency indeed.

  8. From the platform: ‘Positive science fiction begins with acknowledging … the fact that there are people out there trying to do good things.’ I’m struggling to think of a recent SF example that doesn’t do this. But examples that do probably start with Kim Stanley Robinson (clearly very positive in his view that humanity can dig itself out of its various messes).

    It makes me think of the criticism thrown at David Simon’s The Wire as being remorselessly bleak. It isn’t. It is filled with characters who aspire to a strong moral code, who repeatedly, despite the odds, try to do the right thing. They get knocked back, they get up, they try again. They have their successes and failures, and they don’t give up.

    Richard Paul Russo wrote a story about 4 or 5 years ago set in his Carlucci series, in a really bleak, post-cyberpunk decayed San Francisco and at one point Carlucci says to his colleague something like ‘It’s a fucked up world, but its the only one we’ve got, so lets do what we can.’ That, in a really dystopian setting, makes a seemingly bleak story positive.

    What the Platform seems to be doing is rant aimlessly, at ‘slackers who complain about “the man” and “the system.’ It’s like a Daily Mail editorial about ‘Political Correctness’ that uses the rhetoric, the buzzwords, to create a straw man for its own ends.

  9. I think that that continues to be my problem with ‘optimistic SF’; the complete lack of intellectual substance to it as a movement. It’s the literary equivalent of people who say ‘Cheer up! It might never happen!” to strangers in the street.

    I think something could be said for a re-politicisation of SF and you could read Optimistic SF as being about people exploring what they think a better world would look like. I think that much as The Culture asked questions of the right wing frontier politics of Space Opera, I think there’s a real need for fiction that questions the right wing libertarianism and middle class exceptionalism of books like Doctorow’s Little Brother (which seemed to suggest that tyranny is okay as long as they only direct it at foreigners and poor people).

    One of the things that most annoyed me about the Night Sessions was the difference between the leftist rhetoric and ideas of MacLeod’s early books and the simplistic idea that you shouldn’t persecute people unless you want them to turn into something nasty.

    If Optimistic SF were about people who seriously wanted to change not only the world but the way that we look at the world (a far more credible goal for the reasons Martin outlines) then there might be something in there to get excited about but at the moment it’s just empty. It’s not reacting against anything real and it’s not taking anything approaching a coherent shape or direction (you know… the kind of things that define a movement).

  10. Wow, Martin, you hate… most stuff, don’t you?
    It’s not brilliant-written, would’ve done better with some editing I suppose, but it wasn’t that bad.

    As for the manifesto, it seems a bit crazy to me, typically enough for these sf movements that seem to be springing up a bit at the moment. Yeah whatevs.

  11. Wow, Martin, you hate… most stuff, don’t you?

    Only the bad stuff. So yes.

    ‘1337 in 2012’ is a sketch towards a cartoon rather than anything approaching a finished story. Stoddard comes up with this not particularly interesting idea: the 2.0 election. He then creates two mouthpieces to give the pro and anti positions and doesn’t even attempt to give them any characterisation, they just act as the plot requires. This is all the characterisation Susan gets: “Blonde. Slim. Pretty in a knife-edged way.” Lame. Alexandra is even worse:

    Alexandra shrieked, pulled her little 9mm out of her shoulder holster, and pointed it at Susan.

    Does anyone believe this for a second? Alexandra is supposedly an FBI agent in her late Forties but she has the impulse control of a child. Finally we have Gary to provide the praxis between the two views which consists of him tediously explaining Stoddard’s idea to reader. Oh yeah, and he can also manage Alexandra’s pathetically womanly ways:

    Gary said nothing for a long time. Finally, softly, in a voice that didn’t even sound like his own, he said,“Don’t do it. Think of your kids.”

    Alexandra grimaced and turned away from Susan, dropping her gun towards the floor. She sobbed, quickly, twice, and put the gun back in her shoulder holster. “What do we do?” she asked. “What do we do?”

    Tell me what to do, I’m just an emotional girlie!

    It is crude, lazy and unedited – it reads like a first draft – and there is no way it would be published anywhere expect his own website.

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