I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique. But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down. The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space. The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education. Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?
Panelists: Russ Handelman, James Cambias, Paul Calhoun
And here he is, That Annoying Guy From One Seat Over. This archetype shows up at every con, like a restless spirit.
One of the panelists pointed out that, more or less by definition, this would actually have to be about alternate historical fiction.
Examples of a missed technology:
- Handelman: Could steam locomotives have happened 50 years earlier?
- Cambias: Once you have cloth and fire, you can have balloons. Why did they wait until the 18th century? (Some people think the Mesoamericans had them.)
- Calhoun: complex calculators like the Antikythera Device.
All in all, Calhoun was far and away the least effective panel member.
Technology needs a use before it will be adopted. Muscle power is effective and cheap — you only get machines when the application is impossible or expensive to do with muscle.
Technology that disrupts existing power structures will be resisted by the people in charge of those structures. Until the modern age, societies were not tolerant of that disruption, so change came very slowly. If you want an industrial revolution in ancient times, you’re going to have change the form of antiquity.
Handelman mentioned a book called The Most Powerful Idea in the World, which posits that the Industrial Revolution occurred in England because the English had invented patent law. I wonder if the century of civil war and ongoing disruption was also vital.
Then, there was a fire alarm and we had to flee the building. That cut the session short.
Rating: 3 out of 5
I picked up Perdido Street Station because I was looking for a good steampunk novel, especially after Dreadnought, and the reviews were strong. This book was supposed to be amazing, sweeping, and alluring – a detaile new world to explore. After finishing it, I felt the praise was overblown. The world is complex and involved, but the steampunk setting was wildly inconsistent. Though the book starts as hardcore steampunk, it eventually decomposes into low fantasy – all the trappings of industrial magic but no clear concept of what that would mean. Though much of the setting is explicit in using steam, there are “aetheric flows” and, for some reason, literally miles of insulated cabling in a society that seems to have very little electricity. There are zepplins, of course, and steam-driven automatons. But it all seems, well, lazy.
The story is OK but hardly epic. Its initiation and its resolution both depend on astonishing coincidence, of the sort that sinks high school writing. The characters have moments of depth and substance but never really take off. Character threads start and trail off to no resolution. The first part of the book is quite slow. The middle third is well-done and sets up situations and themes that offer much promise. Once the actual action starts, though, it all goes out the window and the plot lurches to its frenetic end a complete mess.
My overriding impressions is that China Meiville bit off way more than he coukd chew, and left us with the partly-masticated glop that was left over.
- Better to Beg Forgiveness by Michael Z. Williamson
- Perdido Street Station by China Melville
Just to put it in one place, here’s what I’ve read and what I hope to read this summer.
- Neverwhere by Niel Gaiman
- The Engineer Trilogy by K. J. Parker
- Devices and Desires
- Evil for Evil
- The Escapement
- To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski (2010 0708)
- Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010 0715)
- Ghosts of Manhattan (2010 0720)
- Metatropolis edited by John Scalzi (2010 0722)
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman (2010 0724)
- The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction by Max Page (2010 0726)
- Tron by Brian Daley (2010 0731)
- 1453 by Roger Crowley
- The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin
- Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
- The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins & John Stauffer
- The Affinity Bridge by George Mann
On the agenda
- The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner
- The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree
Edited by Jack Scalzi
Rating on an arbitrary 5-point scale: 4 out of 5
Metatropolis is a science fiction anthology exploring, as it claims, the “future of cities”. That’s not strictly accurate. It’s really a collection of stories that explore the question: If we as a species are going to survive the mistakes of our forebears (particularly ecological mistakes), what will human society have to look like? It’s pretty clear that we won’t be able to ratchet up world living standards to the stereotypical 2.4 kids in the suburbs mid American ideal. Resources are too finite and indeed running out. If our profligate carbon society doesn’t right itself soon, if we face a Century of Judgment, then what will emerge from the drowned coasts and droughted interiors?
The five authors (Jack Scalzi, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder) don’t really offer blueprints and white papers, of course. They offer five distinct tales, appropriately interdependent, that explore a possible future. This is a shared world on the model of Aspirin’s Thieves’ World, though not quite so sprawling or tightly woven. It is clear that the authors spent considerable time together thrashing out their shared world — though, in keeping with the theme, much of that might have been online and virtual.
So, does the book succeed?