Friday, June 03, 2016

Scary future, cool future, or both - on Firefall and Jean le Flambeur

Recently, I have read Blindsight + Echopraxia (a.k.a. Firefall) by Peter Watts, on one side, and The Quantum Thief + The Fractal Prince (a.k.a Jean le Flambeur) by Hashi Rajanemi, on another. (Not that I had both books on different sides simultaneously, of course - I wish I could!)

That was an interesting experience. Both authors mentioned that their books did not come out lightly. Both authors have put a lot of effort into their creations, providing many impressive details for their stories, and appear to be qualified to describe what they chose to. But the impression left by their work is quite different. From my, very personal and possibly biased, point of view, Peter Watts' books create one of the gloomiest near-future visions I've got acquainted with recently (which does not make these books less interesting to read, but they do describe the world quite dreary to live in). Hannu Rajanemi, on the other side, paints the picture of the world which seems to be quite fascinating (some parts of it, at least). Where his books might lack in depth, they try to compensate it by describing what could be defined as "poetry of existence". From that point of view, it's a space opera all right.

Rajanemi attempts to describe postsingularity/post human world by trying to imagine how much of the humanity would remain in it. I would list Roger Zelazny and Charles Stross as predecessors for (some aspects of) his style. I thought about Rajanemi first as Alastair Reynolds Lite, too. And perhaps Anthony Burgess, because Rajanemi also uses a few Russian words as labels for some of the concepts, and it makes a lot of sense from the native Russian speaker point of view. For example, he calls the gigantic agglomerates of conjoined minds Sobornost, which is a very special word, up to date used mostly in the religious context, to describe the concept of "togetherness" ("sobor" is a congregation of many Orthodox entities which becomes a legislative power for and because of those who joined in). Using this term in the new context of post-singularity feels like adding a bit of unexpected depth to the narrative. Calling the computronium superbrains gubernyas is a bit funny ("gubernya" is the old word for province), but it helps a bit to keep things consistent. I am not sure about the etymology of the term gogol, which he uses to describe the mind-copies. It can be associated either with a name of one particular company or with Nikolay Gogol, the Russian/Ukrainian writer who gave birth to a tale about a guy buying "the dead souls" (essentially passports of the peasants who have died but weren't yet reported as such, so not the souls themselves, but very shallow copies of them). I haven't researched what Rajanemi himself says about his terminology but I wouldn't be surprised if he chose this word as a homage to that story. A biggest grumble which I could have for Jean le Flambeur series is that the protagonists don't always seem convincingly real to care much for - they appear to be more like characters in a colorful cartoon or 3D-rendered scene rather than the creations of flesh and blood - though as post-singular beings, they are supposed to be anything but, except perhaps the Earth inhabitants (the book doesn't dwell much on the gory details). Nevertheless, the narrative is still elaborate enough to hold the readers' attention during the span of the book, and leave them willing for more.

Going back to Watts, I'd mention Stanislav Lem as his possible predecessor (The Invincible feels like a close call). I could imagine that some movie director would be able to do to Watts' works what Tarkovsky has done to Lem's Solaris, but that would have been a tough ordeal. Watts debunks most of the assumptions both about what being a human could be like and about the importance of humanity and human knowledge per se. Rajanemi builds his intricately colored sand castles in the rarely used, but well-kept sandbox, or perhaps, on the quiet seashore; Watts tries to build a fortress while the roaring ocean keeps throwing lumps of white foam and splashes of brine at his work, eventually gives up, stays to watch how his creation melts, overcome by some barely understood eerie forces of nature and invites the reader to appreciate the view. It is quite disheartening: concepts like friendship, love, conscience and ultimately the self-awareness itself appear to not be necessary to move forward there. More to say, they happen to be getting in the way of progress, which is all about getting more knowledge over the world and being able to change it at will. There come super-efficient humanoid predators, super-adaptive and super-intelligent grey mold and people who become zombies, cyborgs, uploaded pot plants or something that no longer has human reactions at all. Who said that the ultimate goal of the evolution was creating a human being? No one. We might stay behind as "baseline humans" while the further progress takes off without us. We might temporarily surge to certain heights, build efficient energy sources and create what we'd think represents a post-scarcity society, only to see it destroyed as by the first unexpected knocking from the outside world, which - surprise, surprise - neither plays by our rules nor cares much for them.

I wonder if the actually existing humanity gets much say in what its future should look like, but it's not unreasonable to start enumerating and reviewing the options. Which is why good SF makes a lot of sense to read. Even if some books seem to say "Look how scary, but cool the future could be" while the others go in the direction of "Look how cool, but scary the future could be". We need both fears and hopes in order to have a meaningful life, don't we?