Monday, September 22, 2008

On speculation...

I have not posted in three weeks. I reckon that I will be fixin' this now.

I decided to start a book club for speculative fiction. The idea formed over coffee on a Sunday with a good friend of mine and her friend. We got together for Scrabble and conversation (I did tell you I was a nerd, right?) and had a long discussion about 3-letter words and science fiction.

It's real hard to convince a book club to discuss science fiction. This is due to a bad rap the genre has received. Some of it is deserved; good science fiction depends on not only a modest understanding of the science, but also a sharp understanding of fiction. This makes it at least twice as hard to write as other forms of fiction. Now a great sci-fi novel will also take in elements of sociology, history, anthropology, psychology, and common sense in realistic amounts just to rattle your bones. The best sci-fi will do this to make you really think and learn from it. It's so easy to fall short of this mark, thus no wonder that there's so much crap out there to sift through.

I decided upon starting not a science fiction group, but a speculative fiction group. There is a slight distinction; speculative fiction centers more upon the concept of speculation, or the forming of hypotheses. These are predictions, and are notoriously fickle. The key is that it doesn't need to be about technology, just a hypothesis with a fleshing out of the consequences of what that hypothesis entails. This includes books like 1984 and A Handmaid Tale which are more about utopian and dystopian futures than about science, books like the Difference Engine and The Man In The High Castle which are more about alternative history than science. The thread that connects all of these books is the idea of asking "What if?" and not the science, even if the act of forming hypotheses is at the root of science.

I call the group S3 and we're listed under meetup. I won't link directly due to google's nosiness and my persona firewall.

It is SO important to ask this question, especially in our times. I just listened to this wonderful Web 2.0 seminar about the information overload being more about the failure of filters than the sensory overload. He goes one step further in the talk to conclude that the shift in economics caused by the Internet (a post-Gutenberg economy) changes the responsibility of a filter on content that breaks many social systems that now need repair. Our technology is changing so fast that we need to think ahead of it to make sure we're ready for it when it gets here. And that's where speculation will save us. At the speed we're going, we can no longer afford to be blindsided.

I read 1984 when I was a teenager and it changed my life. I would never believe that people would fall into such a regime, or allow themselves to be so brainwashed. Then I read the book and was crestfallen at Winston's prediciment. Orwell really knew how to ask "What if?" and how to make you feel for the main character and understand his points on an emotional level. We use the term "Big Brother" now in honor of Orwell's work.

The only thing I felt that was missing from 1984 was a lesson. It wasn't meant to have one of course; "He loved Big Brother" says much more to force you to get your own conclusions. However, it doesn't give good instruction to fight the dystopia. Nowadays, we need it spelled out. Our society is facing the abyss of a Eurasian totalitarianism due to the very filter failure mentioned two paragraphs ago. It's just as serious as the impending crash in the markets, and will blindside us just as quickly, even though people have been talking about it for years before it happened.

Tonight I read a WONDERFUL speculative fiction novel written by Cory Doctorow called "Little Brother". I can link to the entire text because Doctorow in his wisdom released it under Creative Commons. This (advanced) juvenile novel tells of a totalitarian state caused by a second terrorist attack. It was one of the quickest reads I have ever encountered. The story parallels and evokes many 1984 themes; even the protagonist starts off with a handle "W1n5t0n". It grows wildly from this trope though, and extends into many subjects that touch on the state-of-the-art. It hits some very serious subjects in an intelligent manner. The biggest plus though is that it forces you to ask "What if?" and feel it on an emotional level. You really get to care about Marcus and his situation, and compare it to real life. Finally, Doctorow gives us some really good lessons, some of them highly subversive. This is one of the most patriotic novels I've ever read, and it really is a MUST read in our times. I'll be dedicating another post to just reviewing many of the topics of this book in the next couple of days.

These are the kinds of books that need to be discussed in book clubs. Fervently. With high amounts of disagreement. And lots of growth in knowledge, wisdom, and character. We will be discussing this kind of fiction in the S3 (maybe not as heavy, but just as playful).

Okay, now to get some sleep. The markets should prove to be interesting, as there was some aftermarket activity that makes me think tomorrow will be a really down day. Of course the real fun occurs when the short-selling rules are no longer in effect on October 2nd. That day will be filled with a completely different form of speculation, and it won't be good.