Archive for July, 2009

Public Acceptance of Retrofuturism

July 24, 2009

I’ll start with an apology for not posting for several weeks. I have been back and forth to the city since my brother-in-law went into hospital and not had the tranquility needed to hone this draft into something I wanted to post. Now I’m home again and my wife’s brother is being discharged from hospital into the situation she wanted I’ve been able to make the necessary revisions.

I fully intend writing about retrofuturism in this post, but I cannot but point to a book moving to best-seller status that comes at the financial crash from the other direction than I wrote about. While I looked for a possible hero to save us from the effects of the crash, Barry Ritholtz has looked for the people who caused it. See his book, “Bailout Nation”, here – http://tiny.cc/L7fJ0 for the full story, but I have to post a couple of paragraphs here.

Several of Greenspan’s policies proved to be wildly misguided: the regular interventions to protect asset prices and bail out investors, the irresponsibly low rates after the post-2000 crash, and his nonfeasance in supervising lending.  Most of all, it was his deeply held philosophical conviction that all regulations are bad, and are to be avoided at all cost. We now know what that cost is, and it’s astronomical.

Alan Greenspan had spent his years at the Fed operating under an enormous philosophical misconception, as the former Fed chairman admitted in testimony before Congress on October 22, 2008: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such as that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders.”

Just as well I didn’t propose Alan Greenspan as a potential protagonist – hero – for my “Follow the Money”. I didn’t, did I?

Moving on to a new concern, I’m interested in learning where retrofiction fits within readers’ tastes. This is prompted by a perceived incongruence between it and science fiction. I offer a couple of examples that suggest most SF today comes with assumptions that are as good as set in stone. They are actually only crutches to help the SF writers, in my estimation.

Artificial gravity – this helps writers set their in-space scenes as if the characters were on a planet under conditions where their feet stay on the ground. It eases the logistical problems for the authors. The fact that there is no such thing as artificial gravity and only the most flimsy of (so-called) scientific assessments of its possibility seems to be an inconvenience swept under the rug. I have to note that it conflicts with the reader’s own knowledge of space as we are all too familiar with video from the International Space Station, where the occupants drift about weightlessly.

Faster than light travel – as if Einstein was nothing more than a bumbling idiot. While it is very inconvenient to write novels within the limitations the universe places on us, it is quite evident that a novel incorporating any form of hyper-drive is actually fantasy. Some physicists have suggested that there is room for such concepts as superluminal travel within string theory, but I’d suggest these statements are only attempts at headline grabbing by individuals looking for publicity.

Yes – I know that I used a wormhole jump as a device within my Iskander series, but I didn’t presume to show it working in scenes that allowed people to swan about all over the universe at will. Besides, since I’m extremely skeptical of such mathematical fantasies, I had it not work – at least not work in any reliable fashion.

I used the device as an off-stage prop to account for the presence of modern people in an earlier world. I suppose I could have used other devices, but it seemed to me that most of them were a form of magic – which didn’t fit the novels I wanted to write. If my use of this suspect worm-hole device makes my series part company with real SF, such as it still exists, then I’m not averse to being a fantasy writer – I have written in that genre too. Actually, I’d suggest that retrofuturism belongs as a sub-type between SF and fantasy.

In a new development, there have been a couple of predictions of world changes over the next 21 years in Der Spiegel and so I decided to take them as my starting point for a picture of the Earth my Iskanders left to take the ten year contract on N-3. I have previously been very reluctant to attempt any such prediction about the future Earth – since it is almost certain to be wrong – but these offer a starting point to develop the multicultural and multilateral world that I have hinted they come from. So the next few posts will be an exploration of the home world of 2309.

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Back to the Retrofuture.

July 3, 2009

I think I’ve belaboured the efforts of the current President of the United States enough – a thankless task in many ways. (His or mine?) One last comment on that topic – the Ayatollahs have solved one conundrum for him. He now has no need to distance himself quite as far from the religious fanatic Benyamin Netanyahu because the equally unbalanced Ahmedinijad has destroyed his regime’s credibility with every observer and policy wonk who felt Iran deserved a fair shake. Time to put engaging Iran on the back burner.

Did you ever wonder how much a gold sovereign bought in 1700 – or a French Livre, or a Piece of Eight? How much was a doctor’s visit or a lawyer’s fee? Having puzzled over the relative values of currencies through the ages, I have to welcome a new book from the historian Robert Allen, Oxford professor of economic history. Entitled  “The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective” it examines the economic underpinnings of the gradual developments in technology that blossomed into the Industrial Revolution.

Those who are familiar with my Iskander series retrofuturist novels will know this is a row I’ve also hoed at times – if in fiction. How do the prices and values of money in history relate to the events? Where Allen points out that strictly commercial factors such as pricing and capitalisation enabled the early inventions to last long enough to prove their worth, I picked my technologists to have knowledge some 400 years ahead of the Gaians of my alternate Earth. Once they had the venture capital to hand they soon demonstrated the superiority of every product they sold.

While Allen apparently credits free trade and imperialism as the factor that provided the necessary store of investment capital (aren’t they one and the same?) I had my Iskanders outright steal it – al la Hawkins, Drake, Henry Morgan and Admiral Vernon – by finding a pretext to attack the ports where Potosi silver was exported. This naturally plunges them into a feud, if not undeclared war, with the Empire who believed their own stealing the silver from the natives was a legitimate theft. Again, the Spaniards in our world considered their murder and conquest of the S. Americans to be more legal than the actions of other Europeans to part them from their ill-gotten gains.

While I haven’t detailed it in any of the novels so far, I do mention in The Wildcat’s Burden (due for release in September) that Iskander is conducting diplomatic discussions with the Empire – now no longer an open enemy – to arrive at a figure for reparations they might pay to wipe the slate clean. I suggest here, that the Iskanders expected the time would arrive that they would be financially secure and able to make peace with the Emperor over this little bit of diplomatic inconvenience. International politics a cynical sham? We calls ‘em as we sees ‘em.

Professor Allen also credits the Black Death of the 14th century with disposing of surplus English population and allowing the survivors to flourish among a more generous division of resources. The result was that the English of the 17th and 18th centuries were not as impoverished as the rest of Europe and had the money and better trained labour force to work with the new inventions. Also, the use of coal to heat London homes was caused by this relative prosperity, and it in turn developed the coal mining industry on a sounder economic footing when its product was needed to fuel the furnaces of the new steam engines.

My European Gaia – approximately equivalent to 1670s England – similarly has a developed coal trade from the north of Lingdon to the city, which is extended to the Iskander installations. Sweden (aka Tarnland) is deficient in metallurgical and steam coal – which was why its good magnetite ores are shipped to Germany etc, where the local coal is used to turn them into steel.

At least one reader has complained that the Iskander developments of steel and steam are starting the inevitable progression to pollution, carbon dioxide overload, and global climate change. There is one big difference between Iskander’s developments within a world population of about 500 millions and our circumstances. The Iskanders already understand the technologies beyond the fossil fuel age and once they have created the infrastructure – the trained people and the plant – they will be able to develop out of the carbon trap before the world population reaches its first billion. There is really nothing bad about burning fossil fuels – only by doing it inefficiently and by six billion people. Henrik Matah intends to develop cheap and clean public transportation based on fusion generated electricity before that monster – the automobile – can establish itself.