Tuesday 25 April 2017


Whilst wandering around cyberspace with no particular place to go, I stumbled across the Wikipedia entry for the sci-fi author Robert Silverberg, which contained this odd phrase: "In 1959, the market for science fiction collapsed..."

Yes, collapsed.  Like October 1929, but for science fiction, not money, although they are, arguably, both abstract and immaterial concepts.

Something about this statement, the unequivocal nature of it, piqued my interest, and I thought that I'd dig a bit deeper and blog my findings.  Except, of course, an explanation far more eloquent - and possibly a tad more embittered - than any I could construct has already been written by Barry N Malzberg at baen.com detailing the various factors at play, not least the forced divestiture of the magazine distribution arm of American News Service.

That last point provides the explanation for the cliff edge nature of events of 1959, but there's a plethora of context to be taken into account as well.  One is that the parallels between 1959 and 1929 don't seem so far fetched: in both cases we're dealing with bubbles with an unrecognised oversupply or overvaluation leading to a market correction.  1929 is well documented; in 1959 it was the belief that the readership of science fiction could continue to grow exponentially whereas, in reality, it was made up of spotty youths who were just filling in the years until the family acquired a TV.

Which led me to wonder why the market for science fiction hadn't moved to television and cinema, rather than "collapsing".  Perhaps part of the reason was that, by Malzberg's account at least, the writers had become somewhat fat and lazy, needing to churn out a mere thousand words, derivative words at that, each day before indulging in whiskey and "wife exchanging".  TV would have demanded more, much more, and the market only actually collapsed for the dinosaurs.  Perhaps it was because, for Malzberg, the market is defined narrowly, as anthology and magazine publishing, and this marketplace was in New York whilst television and cinema was based on the opposite coast.  Perhaps it came down to personalities: the need to collaborate on a TV production doesn't sit well with a person who takes on a blank sheet of paper in single combat.

But I think there's another angle to this.  Compare, say, Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune with something modern, for example The Martian or Gravity (both of which score virtually the same on IMDB, albeit with Melies' classic ahead by a nose).  There's a sense of utter joyful, ridiculous fantasy to Melies' classic, whilst the modern yarns labour the accuracy of the science and technology.  Sure, there's plenty of cartoon fantasy courtesy of Marvel and DC, but it ain't science fiction in the sense that magic powers ain't science, even when science gone bad is supposed to have endowed them.  Melies takes science - a rocket - and creates a fiction.  And in 1902 that fiction could take us almost anywhere; today we know that a rocket can't realistically take us anywhere other than our nearest neighbours, and they're all barren rocks anyway.  We've lost a lot of the freedom of movement in constructing a story whilst retaining a straight face.

Malzberg alludes to this when he says, "Sputnik in 1957 had made science fiction appear, to the fringe audience, bizarre, arcane, irrelevant.". However, I don't buy this.  If anything, Sputnik should have moved science fiction up the agenda: it showed we could really leave the confines of Mother Earth without suggesting the impending failure to find anything out there.  That all came later.

Classic science fiction up to, say, Star Trek, exists in a Goldilocks zone between technology being invented for us to explore the stars and us discovering that there's nothing out there to find.  The joyful youth of sci-fi, I think, ran until roughly the same time that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon unwatched by native fauna - because there isn't any.  That's a full decade after 1959's "collapse".

Curiously, I found this extended timeline supported by some wonderfully unscientific research by Castalia House.  It makes an interesting read, even if you feel unable to sign up to its findings.

So where does this leave us?  Science fiction is dead?  Not at all.  It's just that the genre has moved on from stories that just happen to be set in space.  Think about how many spaceships are really just sea-going vessels with a different view out of the portholes, or aliens who are just re-employed redskins.  Science fiction in its cynical middle age has had to find stranger stories than a man wearing a goldfish bowl on his head wrestling a sentient octopus.  And, whilst that may make for the niche, cult, and distinctly un-populist, I think it's rather good at it.

Saturday 1 April 2017

Rise of the robots - I know how it begins...

Paperboy, barman, political speechwriter.  Physicist, engineer.  Aeronautical R&D.  Vacuum moulding machine operator, croupier.  Travel journalist, radio comedy writer, screenwriter.  In my case all of these jobs, careers and specialisms can be prefixed with either 'former' or 'failed'.  Which may be a cause for a massive shrug of the shoulders given the latest story on how robots will take all our jobs.

In the light of this approaching socio-economic apocalypse I'm all the more delighted that my current career choice (admittedly not the only egg in my basket) is as an author, given what fell out of the BBC's Secret Science of Pop. In this a rather sad looking evolutionary biologist, who professed no knowledge of or interest in pop music, tried to engineer a hit record by conducting deep statistical analysis on half a century's worth of top 40 hits.

And, guess what?  He fell on his arse.  He may have got back on one elbow by showing that his algorithms can pick a decent tune out of a bucket of pre-existing tracks by wannabe racket-making beat combos, but as for the actual creative process?  Pulling the inspirational hook, line, riff, melody or lyric out of the ether?  Sorry, no amount of coding will get you there.  At least not yet.

By extrapolation, my reading is as long as people want creative products then there'll have to be creative people to provide.  Including writers.  Not robots.  People.

Frank Lansink, chief executive for Europe at IPsoft is quoted as believing that fighter pilots are the least at risk of having their jobs taken by ones and noughts.  Given the rise of drones that aren't subject to the limits imposed by the human body's frailty under G-force I'm not sure I agree that they're even candidates.  Drone versus piloted aircraft in a dogfight?  I'm betting on the drone.

More prosaically, I've seen electricians and plumbers cited as protected species; their ability to combine practical, applied problem-solving with wriggling between the floorboards being something a robot can't yet deliver.  Of all the professions and specialisms in my CV perhaps paperboy is the one that comes closest - if it wasn't for the fact that the content is already delivered paperlessly to our devices, and will soon, in part, be written by algorithms.

I've mentioned Humans in previous postings.  Contrast it with - and this is a long way from sci-fi, I'll grant you- Further Back in Time for Dinner, which charted the changing culinary habits of a nation.  The servant class was represented by the irrepressible Debbie.  Skivvying at the start of the 20th century as a maid of all work, by the midpoint she has the vote, far greater social mobility and work options.  As somebody who has on occasion produced gender pay comparisons, don't think I'm saying that the back had been broken of gender inequality, but a great deal had been achieved between Britain losing and gaining a female monarch.

Debbie circa 1900 is, of course, the robot of 2030.  It took a couple of world wars, during which time the women took the men's jobs whilst the men lined up to be slaughtered, to upset the social order to the degree that the foundations of gender equality could be laid.  What will it take for a conversation about 'sentient rights'* to be started?  What will the robots have to do - be forced to do - to make the same transition that firstly slaves, then women have made?

Terrorists or freedom fighters, will this be what starts the robot wars?

* Bad news: I don't appear to have coined this phrase.  Good news: previous uses appear to apply to animals and New Zealanders, so perhaps I have expanded the definition.