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Stewart Hotston

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Why can’t we get there from here?

I was fortunate enough to speak at the LSFRC’s Productive Future’s conference yesterday at UCL’s School of Art. I managed to see a couple of other sessions too and they were universally well presented and provoked plenty of discussion afterwards in each case. I particularly liked Dan Hassler-Forest’s paper on the economics of the mega-franchise.

Below are my, edited, notes on the paper/speech I gave. Long story short – I have been concerned for a while now that much science fiction is lagging on the issues that really face us today – one of which is our relationship to energy. In the notes below I posit a couple of reasons why I think we struggle to develop that relationship as writers and I add one additional argument based in our relationship to neo-liberal capitalism which arose out of a question I was asked at the end of the talk.

Introduction

Thank you for having me. I’m coming at this as an economist, scientist and author. These three elements of my background will inform the construction of my argument and I’ll present my own thoughts based through these lenses. Before we get going though, a little bit about what we’re going to cover.

  • what we’re going to cover
    • Definitions – energy
    • Physical considerations – that is, the what, the who and the where of our relationship to energy
    • Theory – what would a physicist say about energy? How does that divert from socially constructed meanings ascribed to energy
    • Science Fiction and how what we write reveals about us
    • The future – what kinds of subjects would I love to see us thinking about more carefully
    • Conclusion – what can we hope for through literature
    • Time for questions
  • But first a little about me – physicist, economist, banker, author blah, blah, blah.

Overview of Energy – a question of definitions

  • Energy is a word used in all sorts of contexts – from hard science where energy is a fundamental building block of everything to new age philosophy through to synonyms for our gas and electricity supplies.
  • In science fiction we have energy weapons (just about any space opera), light sabres, psychic energy (c.f babylon 5, Star Trek, Transcendence etc. etc.). The list goes on. For me, the concept of energy is multi-variate in nature with definitions as poorly defined as they are widely spread.
  • For the purposes of this presentation I’m interested in three uses of the word
    • Energy as a physical resource – such as solar, oil and fission
    • Energy as in physics – a raw measure of joules, electron volts etc.
    • Energy as in useful sources of power for cars, ships, people and spacecraft – agnostic about the physical resources. i.e. how we use and consider energy as a motive force.

Physical Considerations – where, how, who – The Politics and Economics

  • The energy we use is not invisible or intangible. It takes up space, needs to be moved and managed and, in most cases, comes from a primary resource such as wood, water and oil.
  • The implications of this are perhaps well understood by companies and politicians but not by the average lay person – modern supply chains are complex, multi-national and hidden by design even from the individuals working within them. Getting oil from the gulf of Mexico to a car in China is a chain that crosses dozens of countries, navigates months of time and passes through companies employed hundreds of thousands of people. See here for instance for a fantastic infographic on the subject. Rutherford’s maxim that complicated ideas should be explainable to a barmaid does not stand.
  • This is partly a capitalist imperative – to reduce the agency of consumers who are forced into dependency because they cannot source their own supplies and cannot tinker. All innovation must be created by an economically motived agent, not a community agent because this is how you maximise profit for your shareholders.
  • Most ordinary people do not think about how their electricity is generated. They couldn’t tell you what green electricity really is – if you asked them how does green electricity get to your house they’d not be able to tell you it was a stupid question.
  • Furthermore the scale of the energy market – whose financial instruments, derivatives, futures and contracts with multiple benchmarks, currencies and timescales is too overwhelming for even experts to really understand. You only have to look at Goldman’s predictions of oil going to $200 a barrel in May 2008 about thirty days before it collapsed to less than $37 in Feb 2009 demonstrates the point well.[1]
  • So where does that leave us? There are a couple of strong narratives both in factual reporting and in fiction.
  • The first of these is that we don’t need to think about energy. We live, in advanced late stage capitalist economies, post scarcity. Energy is infinite (or at least abundant in the fact that it is ALWAYS there when we turn on the lights). The infrastructure we’ve built guarantees it fades into the background as a certainty we don’t need to consider – unlike for most of history where we’ve had to concern ourselves each day with whether we’ll have enough calories to make it through.
  • The second is well demonstrated in M L Ross’ book summarising the Curse of Resource Wealth first posited by Auty et al.[2]. Resource rich countries do not benefit from their resources. Or at least, the majority of the people in those countries. Consider Nigeria[3] where political violence between the state, local politicians, the companies and locals appear to be the only booming business despite the vast reserves of oil.
  • As always the truth is more complicated. Britain, Norway and the US, to name just three, have or have had deep resource benefits and did end up as ‘failed states’. In my mind it’s really more a sense of post colonial classification as post colonial powers look on at the eviscerated cultures they’ve then abandoned and scratch their heads to an answer. Any answer will do that doesn’t implicate their decade or centuries long pillaging as being largely responsible for environments in which these kinds of outcomes find fertile soil[4]. Better yet a narrative that blames those left behind for their own woes.
  • Contemporary thrillers understand that energy is politically volatile – there are many movies and novels about oil for instance (the very best of them being Oil! which was remade as the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood) but they often draw a straight line between governments and corporations as bad and people on the ground as good. They do not explore how those governments are often simply reflecting the actual exigencies of what their populations are demanding in terms of services and standards of living.
  • This comes back to the first idea – that we don’t need to think about energy and its intersection with the wider population.
  • Popular explorations of geopolitics and how societies survive have also entirely overlooked these links – Tim Marshal’s Prisoners of Geography and Jared Diamond’s Collapse or his Gun, Germs and Steel have strong central theses about why politics turn into guns being fired and they are not driven by the need for energy. Jared’s theories about scarcity and even his ideas about the impact of the horse skirt the edges of this but don’t take the heart of it seriously – that a need for energy security – be it fuel to cook, fuel to heat our homes and mine our bitcoin drives much of the conflict we’ve witnessed over the last 50 years.
  • The problem is, energy security is effectively at the heart of US projections of power. It also informs Russia’s tilt to supplying energy to China after Western sanctions hit, activity in the Yemen. I met a number of oil industry executives in 2003-2005 and they were exceptionally clear we went to war in Iraq because of energy security concerns over and above anything else. I remember one conversation on this matter with a CEO stood on their construction floor where they were building new drill bits which were ordered before the resolution was passed at the UN authorising the invasion.
  • Energy has huge social, economic and political meaning.

Theoretical Considerations – Domain, Range and Extensibility

  • Having explored the physical I want to step back a bit and think more abstractly before bringing these two threads back together and addressing speculative fiction’s coverage of energy more directly.
  • Energy is, in its purest sense – not dependent on people. The largest delivery mechanism of energy to the planet earth is the Sun, the second is our molten iron core. Neither of these need our input or can even be influenced by us.  
  • How does that come into culture and is it helpful where it does?
  • Most discussions about energy are filtered into common language designed to make them graspable. It’s that mechanism that more often than not leaves us unable to really grasp the neutrality of the science of energy. By which I mean we’re at its mercy not that it doesn’t matter.
  • For instance, Electron mass is ½ MeV. And the mass of that very famous particle because of which most people have heard  of CERN, the Higgs Particle is 125 GeV. Does this mean anything to anyone except physicists? If you tried to write a sci fi thriller about this where would you even begin?
  • How many calories have you eaten today? Most of us can’t parse that statement realistically without help from apps and information on the back of food containers. Why not? Because it’s hard, not because we’re dumb (although that’s often the underlying message of press coverage).
  • So forget asking what we mean by the horse power of your car? Or how much energy is there in the universe.
  • When thinking about how we can parse this into Sci Fiction, and perhaps into normal everyday language we should borrow an idea from mathematics about Domain, Range and Extensibility.
  • Energy is everywhere. This is its Domain
  • However, energy cannot be extracted from all things. Even if all work requires energy – this is its Range
  • Another way of saying this is as follows: not all types of energy are equally available to us (i.e. high energy photon which had 10Kcals of energy, enough to heat a cup of tea but no real way of harnessing it. Or when we burn petrol we don’t recoognise that the heat and noise oof the conversion are forms of lost energy which we’ve failed to capture).
  • We know energy is tough to harness and that laws of entropy mean there are ever diminishing returns for us. Carnot’s engine is learnt by undergrads but is not well known elsewhere. Yet it impacts what we can reasonably expect humanity to achieve. What energy can we expect to be able to harness? How can we do it and how do we cope with the possibility we will always be on the losing side of the equation?
  • These are questions not well addressed by a Science Fiction grounded in post scarcity economics. We tend to see worlds which have everything they need regardless of their energy system or we have apocalypse where there’s nothing (although they still somehow have enough to eat with some notable exceptions such as McCarthy’s superb The Road)
  • There is a religious impulse in this thinking – a strong desire to see one of the basics of a society which works as one where we have abundant energy so we can then focus on the surface elements rather than the infrastructure. You can see in many sci-fi texts (cf. Alita: Battle Angel) that the poor live among the infrastructure and the rich do not see it. In real life we are the rich in the West and we do not see the infrastructure of our energy consumption and so do not question either our position nor its impact on others except by waving our hands in their direction as if it’s their fault.
  • Further still, we are too often left with magical thinking in our forecasts about human energy consumption. Consider climate change, bitcoin and AI. I’m avoiding references here because I, too, am a writer and it’s just not done to highlight other people’s creative choices.
  • Mini-conclusion – energy is vitally important. Most people can articulate that but they can’t articulate why. They also have no grasp of what we mean by energy – be it theoretically or physically considered. People have no better idea what a barrel of oil can power, where it comes from or how many are produced a day than they do about HE photons or the impact of a gamma ray burst and its implications for a goldilocks zone within most galaxies.

Science Fiction – common flaws, notable successes

So now I want to discuss how all this scene setting influences the landscape of what we discuss in science fiction. We can all name the most common tropes:

  • Faster than light and other forms of space travel – Star Trek, Star Wars and any number of other texts such as Interstellar and Children of Time.
    • The flaws to this are beyond the lack of science supporting it.
    • The flaws are about the energy requirements and about how they could drive wars and conflict, cooperation and entirely new branches of science. c.f the energy requirements of the current writer’s favourite, the Alcubierre drive.
  • Cryptocurrencies – a new breed of thrillers and discussions from people like
    • Neal Stephenson, myself, Kim Stanley Robinson, Doctorow and Friedman
    • Bitcoin mining is energetically expensive and remains a poorly scaling store of value with no real economic application at this point despite its obvious libertarian political rationale – see the FT Alphaville blog for reams of articles on this point. Izabella Kaminska in particular.
  • Fusion – free energy. The Abyss! Space Opera.
    • It’s ok to completely ignore this stuff and just write soap. Personally, I’m not advocating we only see hard SF.
    • But sci fi can do so much more. It can present to us the challenge of energy and scarcity. Think about the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is the stand out example of addressing these issues.
  • The AI – from 2001 to Diamond Age to Ancillary Justice
  • Construction and maintenance of Cityscapes – Lavie Tidhar in Central Station, Rendevous with Rama and SevenEves and Red Mars.
  • Production of Metamaterials – relatively poor examples of how new materials can change everything. Again, we end up looking at people like Stephenson but too often they’re macguffins rather than realistic looks at how new tech changes everything. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is interesting.
  • The support of transhumanism – any Kurzweilian approach to humanity. Zero K by Delilo is a really strong mainstream example which crosses boundaries.

The thing is they rarely talk through the key technological and economic problems of these technologies because, most of the time the technology is magic – not necessarily even internally consistent.

  • After all, AGI is terribly expensive to run.
  • Who provides the power to maintain a brain in a computer?
  • Why mine for materials in space when the energy required to get there would out weight the benefits from what could be brought back to earth by orders of magnitude?
  • As we’re all aware, in the real world, pursuit of energy security drives politics. Science Fiction is all too often the preserve of a homogeneous (and by this we mean white) cultural artefact and so entirely misses the political and racial streams of energy security.

The Future – plausible, implausible, impossible

My thesis then is this: energy is hyperreal. It is too large and too broadly defined an idea to be grasped well, even by subject matter experts. Hence we see speculative fictions struggling with how we get from where we are today to other futures – we struggle with developing the idea of Asimov’s Future History when it comes to energy. Part of this is by the cultural/political design of neoliberal capitalism, part of it is simply the scale of the political energy economy is too large for people to grasp.

Our abiding energy myth in western democracy is about abundance. It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even have memes about it being added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We have no new myths about energy scarcity yet. No stories we tell of how we arrived as a post scarcity environment for some and not for others, how we fought wars to create this world and how those wars are going to be fought and fought again as long as there isn’t truly abundant energy for all.

Here’s a trio of ideas I’d love to see in the literature – stories presenting possible futures to us where these kinds of technology are present but are also central to the worlds we’re creating.

  • There’s already a burgeoning field of Energy Economics[5], [6], [7] with its own journals and conferences. This is an exciting real world development and its subjects of study are ready made for political science fiction. I really hope that given we’re developing a language and pattern of thought which actually addresses these issues today we will start to see stories picking up on this and bringing these ideas into the mainstream
  • Zero carbon footprints – the challenge of lifestyles which could accommodate this and the importance of deflationary economics – the conflict in the heart of capitalism against deflation. My own employer is working toward being carbon neutral – if large companies can do this then there is language and conflict to explore.
  • Deflationary economic systems – Nouriel Roubini interview on FT Alphachat

What can we do through literature?

As we see new language discussing how we get from here to there I truly hope speculative fiction develops stories about the journey and not just the aftermath.

Explore the challenges of developing new technologies which are fantastically energy hungry

What are the challenges for authors though? Economics of course – stories have to sell. But also audience tastes. Info dumping, political appetite and making a point all turn readers off.

But speculative fiction can change the dimensions of the Overton window to allow us to see discussions about the hidden infrastructure as normal, about peeling it back being what we do.

Additional references

https://www.frontier-economics.com/uk/en/sectors/energy/

https://www.nber.org/programs/eee/eee.html

http://www.biee.org/

https://www.nature.com/subjects/energy-economics

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy-economics


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/21oil.html

[2] https://press.princeton.edu/titles/9686.html

[3] https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/system/files/publications/wp120_maehler.pdf

[4] Political Research Quarterly, volume: 67 issue: 4, page(s): 769-782

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_economics

[6] https://www.iaee.org/

[7] https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publication-category/energy-economics/?v=7516fd43adaa

Reflections from a noob on the conservation of information

This weekend I went to Fantasy Con here in the UK and it was brilliant. This is the second convention I’ve been to, after Nineworlds a little earlier in the year. It was a little smaller than I was expecting but filled with people from across the industry – writers, readers, editors, publishers and even an agent or two. I was supposed to be at a LARP (but a broken tarsal put paid to that) but requests that I do a couple of panels sold me on going because, hey, I quite like talking about stuff when asked and in this case they were topics I felt I could at least contribute to without looking silly.

I also went to a bunch of panels and worked hard on BarCon (which as you can imagine included alcohol). There was a sinister room of which Allen Stroud kindly took a few of us on a tour – only to regret it almost instantly.

 

In terms of personal goals I wanted to meet people in the industry, get to know them, explore current trends and figure out where I go next. Talking to someone about pitches (I think it was Jon Oliver from Solaris/Abaddon) reminded me that I hate being sold to and although as an author I need to find a way to communicate what I’m passionate about writing, I was committed to actually having a good time, laughing and making some new friends (if that last isn’t too bold).

I was delightfully entertained by Nate Crowley every time we crossed paths and I hope we get to crew together at Empire next year because I think we’d make a frightening double act.

I have lots of people to thank, not least David Moore and Jon Oliver for always being around to chat to, Adrian Tchaikovsky (and Annie), Phil Sloman, Simon Bestwick, Allen Stroud, Jeanette Ng, Anna Smith Spark, Theresa Derwin and David Tallerman for all being sparkling company and having interesting stuff to say.

The highlight though was that after my comment last week that I wasn’t quite sure what to do next and entirely different option as presented as the most obvious answer. Roped into a discussion about cosmology (in the theoretical physics sense) I got a bit fanboy about information theory and how there’s a great first contact story in it and someone said – ‘don’t just talk about it, write it because I want to read that story.’

I was pleased to hear it but then it was pointed out that they were a commissioning editor. So guess what…I’m now writing out and planning that very novella. Which involves me reading information theory thermodynamics papers from Arxiv.org…oh, and the stages of grief as it’s that kind of story.

At the same time I got an open invite to pitch to another publisher whose work I love. I’m now also frantically editing that piece because it’s in need of it but there you go. I’m not sure it’s for them but everyone who’s read the alpha version thinks it’s the most compelling piece I’ve written so you never know…

Drafts, FantasyCon and taking over the world

Short post today. Really to ask for some thoughts.

Tonight I’ve finished an edit on the first book in the fantasy series I’ve got with Ticketyboo Press. This was mainly to tighten the opening based on some beta reader feedback and to bring the overall use of terminology and (some elements) of world plot into line with book two and where I’m going with the story. There’s now a full edit on their side to do – about which I’m pretty excited.

Which means I’ve reached a cross roads.

I’m not ready to start book 3 of that series yet. I need a little break from it to recharge. So I have the following options in front of me which I’ll be mulling over at FantasyCon in between going to panels, being on a couple of panels (which I’m totally excited about) and maybe having a few jars with friends.

  1. Write book 3 of The Oligarchy and finish that series
  2. Edit Immortal Daughter, a fast paced thriller set now which is basically Taken crossed with Logan
  3. Start book 3 of this series!

As we head towards book 1, Dreams of Darkness, coming out, I’ll also be sending out a free copy of a new anthology of stories to people as a thank you for all the support – that’s basically ready to go, it’s just about timing…!

I’ve actually got to sit down with my mentor in the next couple of weeks and work out a plan for drawing up the next story – they want me to focus within a specific genre and then write to its very edges. I’ve got two story ideas I want to rip to pieces with them and hopefully come out of that with something intentionally commercial without losing what I love about writing – the chance to explore my own ideas.

So…feel free to tell me what I should concentrate on next. And if you’re at FantasyCon, come by and say hello.

Nineworlds – observations from my first con

I went to #Nineworlds this weekend just gone in Hammersmith (which is in London, UK for those of you who may be unfamiliar). It’s a fan led conference that’s deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and how those help (or hinder) us when we try to construct our identities (whatever those might be). This could be dry, pretentious, domineering or just plain pedantic but #Nineworlds manages to engage with all of the things it cares about successfully – being witty, passionate, respectful and intelligent.

It was also very welcoming, compassionate and wonderfully cool.

I was lucky enough to be speaking on two panels; the first on how we might deal with historic texts which present us now with themes and subject matter that are difficult to reconcile with what we think of as acceptable – be that explicit/implicit racism, sexism or views on what gender identities are acceptable (or even normative). It was a really fun/deep panel and my co-panellists were interesting, from very different backgrounds to me and together I hope we managed to discuss some interesting angles on this subject – I’ve got a post on this theme coming soon and I’ll use that to re-present some of my thinking on this.

What was most wonderful about that panel though was that during the questions, one of the audience members was brave enough to challenge us on something we had been blind to – the trope of the disabled person being morally deficient and how villains were often disabled in some manner as if they deserved it and specifically because the physical circumstance tagged them as evil. That contribution meant the world to me because I was worried about the discussion being didactic and that someone could contribute as they did meant we succeeded in not speaking at the room but in talking among a community.

The other panel was on AI, Robots and the future of work – and was really an excuse to talk about all those subjects we read about weekly where another advance creates something for us to scratch our heads over – be it machine learning running data centres more efficiently, Amazon warehouses being in the dark because the robots don’t need lights or medical diagnoses being done through automated pattern spotting. And yes, we did also talk about socialist utopias, work, the price of labour and the impact of class, race and location on how we live that experience.

My favourite moments being twofold – a story that made people gasp with shock and seeing David Thomas Moore turn into Citizen Smith.

Aside from that I bundled along to a number of panels – my favourite ones being Dr Magnethands, which is a game I shall be inflicting on friends at parties and one on writing from different points of view. That latter one was the writer in me wanting to learn, wanting to see if how I approach my work makes sense and how I could be smarter about it.

Anyway, I’m now knackered, but home. So adieu to #Nineworlds and thanks again.

Oh, and particular thanks to people who shared drinks and panels with me like David Thomas Moore, Jon Oliver, Joseph Adetifa, Sasha Garwood Lloyd, Dolly Garland, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter Smallridge, D Franklin, Ed Boff, Sarah Groenwegen, Matthew Blakstad, Peter Ray Allison and Jeannette Ng to mention just a few. (And obvious apologies if I’ve missed you off this list – the fault is mine, not yours!)

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