Sunday, July 09, 2006

Charles Stross and the Fermi Paradox

Charles Stross is a former pharmacist, former programmer and journalist, certified geek, and current full time writer. Most people would tag him as 'science fiction' writer. From what I've read of his journals, and especially his books, he's terribly bright and very imaginative.

Accelerando is one of his commercially successful books (you can scan it for free before you buy). The amateur Amazon reviews are well done (one of the two 'professional' reviews is by someone who didn't read the book); I can't add much to them. The book does not fully succeed as a novel -- it was published as a series of short stories and it doesn't hang together all that well. There are some annoying plot holes (no security on the goggles? Did one of the lead characters flee to alpha centauri or commit suicide? Why is Pierre asking what happened - he was there?!), some dangling and overly fluid characters, and too many synopses of 'what went before'. The writing itself is professional, and that's no mean trick, but the work would have needed a harsher editor and a complete rewrite to fly as a novel.

That's ok, because it's really a series of speculative essays disguised as a novel -- and the thinking is deep and creative. I thought I was being a bit whacky when I blogged about the spanish inquisition as a corporation, and the emergent sentience of corporations in the ecosystem of economic interactions, but Stross goes much, much further. He plays with the idea that at some point the relationship between finance wizard and financial instrument might be inverted, so that souls would be traded by sentient financial instruments. That's not bad; I can just about see how it might happen ...

The embedded essay I most enjoyed reading, however, is on one of my all-time favorite topics -- the Fermi Paradox. This is one of those conumdrums that bothers a very few people a great deal and is irrelevant to most of humanity.

In short, we ought by all rights, to be overrun by little green beings. The puzzle is that we appear to have much of the galaxy to ourselves. To Fermi fan-boys this is the biggest question around, compared to which matters of theology or epistemology are merely derivative.

The answer to the Fermi Paradox is most often expressed in the terms of the Drake Equation. The best bet is that something utterly inevitable ends all technological civilizations like our own in well under a thousand years. The most popular candidate for an "inevitable fate" over the past 23 years has been the Singularity (Greg Bear's 1982 short story 'Blood Music' is the earliest version of the Singularity theory I know of, Vernor Vinge developed the ideas extensively in the early 1990s.) Stross takes these ideas and pushes the boundaries. Why might a post-singular entity find travel unappealing? Why would it be hard for entities like us to live near such a beast -- even if it didn't spend any time thinking about us?

Reading Stross is like having an extremely bright and free thinking fellow over for a beer (or something, these UK writers seem fond of a range of substances). He tracks all over the place, the narrative doesn't always hang together, but it's a heck of a lot of fun -- and where else can a geek get his Fermi fix?

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