sábado, novembro 25, 2017

An Operating System for a New World: "The Algorithm of Power” by Pedro Barrento


“ ’Are you saying that ecological balance has been achieved through the collapse of the consumer society, media and democracy?’ ”

In “The Algorithm of Power” by Pedro Barrento

The idea that authors have to know science to write SF is laughably reductive, comically self-important, Mr Science Degree probably, and just provably untrue, as non-scientists Ballard or Banks demonstrated, as but one of many. You can describe a technology without knowing how it works, as a character this might work better than any attempt at omniscience... depends on the book! Exposition can be narcotic but often needs resisting.

We've got 6, no wait 7.5, soon to be 10-11 billion people all shitting in the ocean (metaphorically),  and we've got all kinds of other problems besides global warming. Fixing global warming would just get us on a path to be able to even talk about the root causes (late-stage capitalism and overpopulation) that we can't even mention today without freaking people out. Mostly, but we could get along with many more people if all those people weren't operating under the belief that their lives will only have meaning if they have MORE. The economic system/cult we are busily exporting around the world puts very near zero value on all the valuable things in the world like human life and nature and water and air and our very biosphere, while making greed and waste and obsolescence and evanescent zeroes in bank computers the highest possible aspiration for any human culture. With our values so screwed up, we would still be slowly murdering the planet with a far lower population.

No, the idea of the novel as a piece of esoteric, self-indulgent showmanship aimed at making the reader feel part of some occult intellectual elite is dying a welcome, although belated, death. Barrento's novel is anything but.

Before the 20th century there were many great writers, many who we still consider to be literary giants. Mostly they wrote their novels and their plays to entertain, not as an exercise in intellectual masturbation. Yes, their writing contained high concepts and demanded intelligence and thought from the reader, but that is because the best, most sophisticated entertainment challenges people, not because challenging people is in itself entertaining - in fact iconoclasm and challenge for the sake of challenge is usually juvenile and boring. Even those great writers who wrote for other reasons - to enlighten, to persuade, to educate, were also mindful of the need to entertain and to elucidate, rather than to obscure. Which is why Aristotle and Plato remain largely unparalleled writers of philosophy (their philosophical work may have been surpassed, but not their ability to communicate their thought). People, outside of a dwindling self-proclaimed faux-intellectual elite whose position relies on the veneer of superiority of taste they project, have finally started giving up the pretense of giving a shit about meaningless, dull, drivel, and not before time. I think being challenged is entertaining; the best moments I have had in reading have been when a difficult text finally begins to yield something up, finally begins to make sense for me. That is, of course, a personal preference and, as you correctly point out, I'd rather read Aristotle or Plato than some of the self-reflexive guff pumped out by continental theorists in the 60s & 70s. I don't think challenge for the sake of challenge is particularly entertaining. Being challenged is fun when there is something to be gained from the challenge e.g. satisfaction in besting an opponent, a new understanding of a certain subject, an interesting new perspective, satisfaction in viewing the progress of a character or plot.

Naturally taste is to a degree subjective, and perhaps I am overly dismissive of work that I dislike, but I think that work can be difficult and demanding and also entertaining. I also think it can be difficult, demanding, and have no real merit, or at least little merit taking into the account the effort required to understand or decipher the work. There is no inherent value in being challenged for the sake of it. I was (and still am) curious as to what one may define as "meaningless, dull, drivel", though, as I suspect that the "meaningless" is probably redundant. Ok, there you have a point. To an extent whether someone derives value from a work is a matter for them, therefore to claim that a work is devoid merit is in most cases going to be unfair. I think my forceful words about this are more down to my personal experience in dealing with the type of condescending git who sneers at anything that doesn't bill itself as 'literary', although denying that anyone can find legitimate value in these works I suppose is premature and little better. Any reason to think that writing itself will be around in the future? Once upon a time, not that long ago, people lived without it. In a future of virtual reality and brain to brain interfaces who says it will still be needed? We've gone from oral storytelling, in which small groups made their own imaginative creations from the ever varying iterations of various storytellers - to writing in which one storyteller addresses the imaginations of millions - to cinema in which one storyteller eliminates the need for anyone to imagine anything. Maybe the next step is one story, one storyteller, one humanity, and no ability to imagine anything individually.

To produce difficult literature these days carries with it the stigma of being either anti-social or pretentious rather than being seen as a creative attempt to understand the world or at least, for the more ambitious, one's self. Big words, strange words, nuanced words, new words that open new doors of meaning and association - these are seen as failings rather than achievements, which makes me wonder just how lazily intolerant we are becoming. And this prejudice is coming from readers of the Books section of a rather intelligent portuguese newspaper which, on the whole, one would expect to be more inclined than most people to honour the exploration of our language and applaud attempts to use it to its limits. If you like simple reading, requiring fairly simple thinking, that's all well and good. Enjoy it as much as you can. And, if anyone should be critical of you for doing just that, I shall be among your defenders. Yet, why do you demand the right to simplicity and ease without criticism, but see fit to abuse and criticise those who prefer something different? Why is simplicity fine but difficulty not? Those who complain that some SF is pretentious are an unnecessarily difficult and boringly prolix of smug hypocrites of the worst kind.

We are, perhaps, in worse shape than I thought.

Technology does not equal progress in cultural manners. Our is an era in which high art has been relegated not by middlebrow work (which is also heading toward the sidelines), but rather by the innately vacuous. The tweeted novel, or the online game as narrative is, in nearly all cases, puerile, but these "efforts" seem to offer some immediate gratification. Once upon a time, no one would pretend they were anything but a trifle. Count on your fingers the living writers or choreographers who meet the standards of the ages -- compare that to the number who were working in the first half of the 20th century, the second half. Where is the next Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Stein, Bessa-Luis or Zukofsky; the next Balanchine, Ashton, Cunningham or Bausch? We do have John Banville, but he keeps slumming on detective fiction. In contemporary poetry, the field is filled with a new type of academic poet -- trained by and for the proliferation of more academic poets -- none of whom seems to know the first thing about language. So long as the schools keep hiring them, they can keep the charade rolling, but for what? A paycheck and the ability to preen (my guess)There's no stopping the trend toward literature's marginalization, but it is very sad. Will this mean that in the future, some hypocrites’ canaries won't have the tools to appreciate the great works (Shakespeare, for instance), and will be satisfied by spreading virtual moon manure over patches of digital daisies on Mars?

Think we live in an age of fast pace and the novel has to and is changing to ride that. Look at action films today and compare them to the fifties for example and there is little comparison. Where films of the day built up to periods of action that involved being part of a story, today we have action and on occasion there may be some sort of story plot or not along the way. The up and coming generations have a tendency for fast paced and graphic action, whether cellular or written. Part of this fueled not only by cinema but video games that craft almost ceaseless action of varying degrees of realism and plausibility. The days of a crafted novel that brings you the age of Dickens or Shakespeare or even novels of even 3-4 decades ago, fall onto decline of popularity. They fail to move fast enough or evolve into something of riveting action. There will of course always be a percentage of patrons for the crafted novel but the percentage is dropping. We live in a culture of we want it and we want it now, everything has to be done by yesterday and for the younger generations rightly or wrongly the concept of reading is going the same way. Or maybe it is the uniformisation of many, where they only see themselves as a computer component in the scheme of a life and work that walks on the edge of boredom, that they demand action form such pleasures as film and book.

Whatever the reason the times are definitely changing.

Most people can send an email or browse a website, but asking the public to fully understand the issues here was like giving them the source code of the operating system and asking them to work out what wasn't working properly. Most people couldn't name a single person in the Cabinet. Half can't name their MP. Even people who ought to know better confuse the offices of the EU with those of the Council of Europe. And as for the public's knowledge of history - even Portuguese history - it is depressing. All of us have the odd gap in our knowledge, somewhere... a dangerous road that all western democracies have taken: reducing democracy to voting. Voting is an essential thing, but not the only thing. If enough people vote enough times but get no change, trouble awaits. (And how angry are the Brexit voters going to be when it turns out that EU citizens will still be able to rock up and work? When millions of pounds per week are still paid to Brussels? When all sorts of regulation still comes from Brussels?) In other words, when voting is little more than a charade, a sop to our sense of fairness, sooner or later people will feel cheated.

Is this SF dealing with climate change, new modes of ruler-ship, overpopulation, the collapse of ecosystems, T-Shirts-with-Satellite-Transmitters, how the Americans eat Portuguese stew, how a Portuguese Hari Seldon developed his own mode of psychohistory, and AI (incidentally, the ultimate question asked therein is whether an intelligent operating system can fruitfully direct human history or should be allowed to do so, a question that will surely figure in humanity's not-too-distant future; this is also asked in Dan Simmons' “Hyperion Cantos”; Simmons answers this question in favour of humans directing their own destiny galaxy-wise; Asimov leaves it unanswered; Barrento makes a brave attempt at explaining it in a Earthbound way).

Would this be the sort of novel where a small group of survivors spend all their time locked inside a small building breathing recycled air wondering whether it's time yet for their evening supper of arugula and peanut butter? Kind of like being on a space ship only it doesn't actually go anywhere because it's on a bigger space ship that keeps orbiting a star in a hostile universe that doesn't care if we live or die? The passengers just keep worrying about the hydroponic arugula crop and what they're going to do when they run out of peanut butter? Sort of like a really boring version of Red Dwarf? Nope. The “answer” needs SF-DONE-RIGHT and that’s what Barrento’s novel was able to do.

I hadn’t been so enthused by a SF novel written by a Portuguese author, since the publication of “Terrarium” by João Barreiros and Luis Silva in 1996 (I’ve recently read the 20 year anniversary re-edition and the novel still holds up pretty well after all these years).

NB: Pedro Barrento is a Portuguese Author writing originally in English. I received an ARC of this book in return for an honest review. The novel will be published January 2018.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

5 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...
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Manuel Antão disse...
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Book Stooge disse...

You say this was written originally in English, but the kindle edition I got from amazon has a translator listed in the book.

Any thoughts?

Manuel Antão disse...

I think he was a sort of technical adviser.

Are you embarking on it? I'm extremely curious to hear what you make of it; off-the-beaten -path-of-the-usual-SF...

Book Stooge disse...

Read, reviewed and review scheduled.

Short version? 1 star.
Long version, you'll have to read the review when it pops out Wednesday.

I do hope you comment on the review...