The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Dates for your diary [updated]

Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 9 June 2010) at 7 p.m. I'm kicking off a discussion for Edinburgh Interdisciplinary Discussions on Science & Literature: is science fiction the missing link? at Sofi's Bar, 65 Henderson Street in Leith.

Science fiction is a literary genre that identifies itself with popularising science and imagining the social consequences of scientific and technological change. It might seem an obvious focus for overcoming the mutual misunderstandings of the ‘two cultures’ of the arts and the sciences. However, it’s often seen as an embarrassment to both: using illiterate writing to spread inaccurate science.

Is there any truth in this charge, or is it a symptom of ignorance and disdain for science in the arts establishment? Can science fiction writers and readers contribute to overcoming these divides?

We ask Ken MacLeod.

Ken MacLeod is an award-winning SF novelist and current writer-in-residence at the Genomics Forum. He will tell us about his experiences of addressing science and politics - in his own writing and in the work of the Forum - and will guide the discussion.

Join us for dissidence and revelry.
At 4 p.m. on Thursday 24 June 2010 I'm doing a spot at that fine pub The Illicit Still as part of the West Port Book Festival. They say:
The Night Sessions is Ken MacLeod’s latest novel, set in an Edinburgh under threat; ‘A bishop is dead. As Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson picks through the rubble of the tiny church, he discovers that it was deliberately bombed. That it’s a terrorist act is soon beyond doubt…’ Ken will be reading from his work, as well as telling us about the science and philosophy in his mind-expanding fiction. We are also chuffed to be pairing up with the Illicit Still: a pint, a sandwich and science fiction make for a heady afternoon in the West Port.
[Update 10 June] The West Port Book Festival is pleased to announce that they have an exclusive 20 advance copies of The Restoration Game for sale at this event, and that I'll be reading from that book. Be the first to get a signed copy! [end update]

On Sunday 22 August I'll be on a panel with Adam Roberts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (details TBA).

And finally ... alongside the official book festival, Edinburgh's radical bookshop Word Power runs the lively (and free!) Edinburgh Book Fringe, and on Wednesday 25 August at 5.30 p.m. I'm chairing an event with author Francis Spufford and computer scientist Paul Cockshott on Francis's latest book, Red Plenty, which I've already enthused about a couple of posts below. Details:
For almost two centuries, many socialists have claimed that a planned economy can do better than the market. Economists such as Mises and Hayek argued that this was impossible. The fall of the Soviet Union seemed to settle the question.

But what if it didn't? In the 1960s, a team of reformers led by the mathematical genius Kantorovich fought for a new system of planning that would use computers to optimise output. They won favour with Soviet leaders in the wake of Khrushchev's bold claim that the USSR would achieve abundance beyond the dreams of capitalism by 1980. Red Plenty is the fascinating story of this project, and how and why it was abandoned after Khrushchev's fall.

Could Kantorovich's plan have realised Khrushchev's dream of a red plenty? Or was it always a doomed and flawed vision? Francis Spufford (author of the widely-acclaimed Backroom Boys) discusses this intriguing history and its implications for the future with computer scientist Paul Cockshott, one of the best-known advocates of a new - democratic and cybernetic - socialism for the 21st Century.
In my pitch to Word Power for this last event, I claimed that it would be of interest to SF fans, socialists, economists, computer scientists, social scientists, and students. Everyone I know in Edinburgh in any of these categories is going to hear from me over the summer ...

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"using illiterate writing to spread inaccurate science"

Although the charge is -- obviously for anyone reading this blog -- generally false, it should also be noted that even some works of which it is largely true (e.g. Edgar Rice Burroughs) can nonetheless be very entertaining (and not just in the MST3K sense)!

Good point! I'll remember to make it tonight, alongside my other point that a lot of Golden Age SF has fringe or obsolete science but that as long as the authors were still doing what they could with the science of their day, we still read it as serious SF. My favourite example is Space Cadet, which has the wonderful image of an asteroid made of sedimentary rock (from the blown-up planet, see).

Good point Roderick. But what does MST3K mean? I would add A. Merritt to your list. His "The Moon Pool" is a fine piece of entertaining, good writing, with some wacko premises.

Those categories cover everyone I have ever met that reads your books, so it should be packed out.

MST3K? 'Mystery Science Theater 3000', an American show where a human and 2 robots make fun of especially bad old movies, mostly science fiction.

I should clarify that I meant not just that Burroughs was relying on bad science (my favourite instance, from Swords of Mars: the characters naturally grow smaller when they travel from a larger planet to a smaller one, because, you know ...) but that he was often bad from a literary standpoint (for example, in his heavy reliance on coincidences -- for example, we learn from the Tarzan books that any two characters wandering around in Africa will eventually come across each other, no matter where in that rather large continent they started from, and any shipwreck near Africa will land on the same stretch of beach as any other, even if one occurs in the Mediterranean and the other in the Atlantic); yet he's still genuinely entertaining, or at least I find him so.

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