Saturday, August 20, 2005

ArmadilloCon 2005: opening ceremony and space opera panel

Opening ceremony is one of the most memorable parts of an ArmadilloCon. The toastmaster tries to embarrass the Guests of Honor by poking fun at them on stage. The toastmaster in 2005 was a Canadian urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. In his speech he made a big deal of the fact that the writer Guest of Honor, Charles Stross, is a "computer wrangler" and that he is from Scotland. I don't know if perhaps Scotland is viewed by Americans as being primarily agricultural, but Charles de Lint drew a lot of parallels between computers and farming (and, by extension, wrangling). "Scotland doesn't have server farms, their computers are free-range".

Then he talked at length about Jim and Laurie Mann trapeze wedding. I missed most of it. I was too busy messing with my new recording gear, which is an MP3 player with a voice recording function, and a microphone that plugs into my laptop and allows me to record sound directly into the computer. It doesn't work very well. I don't know if it's a bug or a feature, but it stops every couple of minutes and then I have to press the Record button again. By then, some time has passed before I notice that it has stopped. So I'm sure my recording is missing large chunks of that speech.

Developments in Space Opera

Then I went to a panel "Developments in Space Opera". Charles Stross was on it. There were some interesting points made there, but I still don't know if my recording is of a good enough quality to capture everything that was said.

There was much wondering why so much space opera is coming out of UK nowadays, as opposed to America. Chris Roberson "accused" British authors of distrusting heroes. (I'm not sure if or how that was supposed to explain why British authors lead in space opera. :-)) Charles Stross said he doesn't so much mistrust heroes as doesn't think it's a realistic notion that one character in the right place could change the world, as in common in space opera and in science fiction in general. "In space opera, one shiny bright character always does the right thing, everybody revolves around him," he said. "In real world, we call people like that world criminals.

As may be expected for a panel with Stross, the discussion veered towards Singularity, although he didn't bring it up. (I'm actually surprised there are no Singularity-related panels in this year's ArmadilloCon, even though Stross is a guru on the subject. Two years ago, when Vernor Vinge, the writer who popularized the idea of Singularity, was the guest at the ArmadilloCon, several panels revolved around Singularity.)

Chris Roberson said we should ask Charles Stross to enumerate all singularities that the humankind has already been through. It turns out Stross thinks there had been a few. Apparently he does not define it as a very steep technological advance beyond which life becomes unpredictable: by that account we haven't had a singularity yet. I guess he has a broader definition: it's any kind of technological or social change beyond which life can't be predicted. If that's really his view, then it's almost like he is taking an easy way out. Because all these developments listed below, except the first one, are not the kind that would create an unbridgeable gap between the humans on one side and the humans on the other. You could take a person who lived before let's say, agriculture was practiced, and explain the concept to him or her; he/she would probably understand what it means to cultivate the crops, even though he/she may find that idea strange or silly. Even though it's true that the long-ranging consequences of agriculture could not have been predicted in advance, it still does not create an intellectual gap so deep that the "before" would have no means, no tools, no capabilities of understanding the "after".

In contrast, Vinge (I think) associates Singularity with an emergence of superhuman intelligences. In that scenario we have no chance of understanding what those intelligences are like, or what they are "about", or how they will begin to change the world, than a dog has a chance of understanding what human beings are about. That's probably why Vinge, in his novels, does not try to portray a post-Singularity society, but limits himself to the "left behind" societies, or scenarios where Singularity happened, but a particular society was somehow bypassed, or escaped it.

On the other hand, one guy in the audience commended Stross for not avoiding the post-Singularity scenarios, but "bear-hugging" them.

Anyway, this is Stross' list. It is probably incomplete (I might have missed something).

1. Development of language. Obviously, there is an unbridgeable gap between the primates that don't have language and those who do.

2. Agriculture. Once humans started farming, a given area of land could support many more people than it could when they were hunter-gatherers. Once the population density increased, it would have been impossible to go back to hunting-gathering. Or so his argument goes.

3. Writing -- ability to transmit knowledge from generation to generation.

4. Invention of finance and investing. He says, read Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" trilogy to get an idea how it changed society.

In the picture: the Space Opera panelists. Left to right: Chris Robertson, Charles Stross, Jim Minz, Sean McMullen, Jayme Lynn Blaschke. More pictures from Armadillocon 2005 are available in my photo gallery.

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