11 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools IV: Speculative elements

A crucial tool in the spec fic author's toolbox is the speculative element. This can be future/alternative technology and/or science, magic, or any other supernatural element. It is imperative, however, that the speculative element(s) be fully integrated into the story. Without this, the story is not truly speculative fiction.

To illustrate my point, I examine Charles Stross' 2007 technology-laden novel, Halting State (HS). Stross has fully integrated future technology into his novel; for example, the novel's inciting incident is a crime that has been committed in virtual reality. Thus, the investigators must go into virtual reality to investigate and solve the cybercrime. In so investigating, the protagonists discover serious implications for cryptographic keys and the entire European computer network.

The references to computer jargon, cryptography, MMORPGs and virtual worlds are prevalent, e.g. Jack says during his job interview, "We were implementing a swarm-based algorithm for resolving combat between ad hoc groups with position input from their real-world locations--" (HS p66) And in his follow-up interview he says, "Zone games don't run on a central server, they run on distributed-processing nodes using a shared network file system. To stop people meddling with the contents, everything is locked using a cryptographic authorization system. ...It's based on the old DigiCash protocol, invented by a crytographer called David Chaum...." (HS p90) Near the conclusion, Jack realizes, "And there are much worse things a black hat troupe on a capture-the-flag rampage can do these days than just grabbing passwords and borking hospital networks. Lots of critical engineering systems rely on encrypted tunnels running over the Internet, lots of SCADA systems and worse..." (HS p288)

How does Stross integrate technology into his science fiction? He starts with the big picture. First and foremost, Stross claims "SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist...", and real SF is "...a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change..." (www.antipope.org)

Therefore Stross' method is to "...start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects...And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it." (www.antipope.org)

Stross actually criticizes some media SF for handling technology poorly: "The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating 'tech' to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization." (www.antipope.org) So, he is careful to always make sure his tech is an integral part of the plot and characterization. Kudos, Mr. Stross.


David E. Hughes said...

Interesting post, Lesley. I agree that there's some popular sci-fi out there that seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator. (ie and excuse to blow things up in space). On the other hand, some sf get so caught up in the science and the message that the story suffers. I'm seeing that in a book I'm reading right now.

lesleylsmith said...

Too much science in a novel? How is that possible? :)
I'm intrigued...what is the novel?

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm just rereading Halting State so I'm interested in your take on it.

What strikes me most about it is his choice to write in the second person and in the present tense - it reminds me of text games: "You are in a cave with exits north and south. To the east a fire is burning..." I think it only works because the subject matter and the style are so well integrated.

lesleylsmith said...

Hi fairyhedgehog,
Stross definitely did some interesting things with HS. I think the 2nd person povs, present tense are meant to put the reader "in the game". I view this book as more experimental/boundary-pushing than totally satisfying for a reader.
What's your take? :)

fairyhedgehog said...

I have trouble with any book where part of the time is spent in-game - I always wonder if they realise that games are not reality. I think that's quite well done in this book but even so I'm not completely convinced. I'm suspending my disbelief for the sake of reading on.

I won't really know whether it's satisfying until I get to the end but it's very entertaining. I'm amazed that some of his ideas e.g. the specs with game world overlay are not extreme enough: scientists are working on contact lenses that will do this very thing!

fairyhedgehog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
writtenwyrdd said...

Stross is probably one of the top five minds in sf these days--if not THE top mind. It's an education when he starts talking science in his books, and it's not intrusive at all. That's something.

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