David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Science of Infoquake

Norman Spinrad recently wrote a review in Asimov’s of my novel Infoquake wherein he discussed the scientific accuracy of the book. Mr. Spinrad had this to say:

Asimov's 30th Anniversary issue[W]hether or not such a novel could be considered “hard science fiction”… might be moot if Edelman himself were just blowing rubber science smoke and mirrors. Instead, he is actually trying to make bio/logics and MultiReal seem scientifically credible in the manner of a hard science fiction writer and doing a pretty good job of it, at least when it comes to bio/logics.

Edelman seems to have convincing and convincingly detailed knowledge of the physiology and biochemistry of the human nervous system down to the molecular level. And cares about making his fictional combination of molecular biology and nanotech credible to the point where the hard science credibility of the former makes the questionable nature of the latter seem more credible even to a nanotech skeptic like me.

A week or so later, SF Diplomat took a potshot at the scientific credibility of the book in his smackdown of Spinrad’s piece, saying that though the book is enjoyable enough, “Infoquake is practically fantasy.”

This has led me to give some thought about the scientific credibility of Infoquake and the scientific credibility of science fiction in general. Should the reader care whether my book — or any SF book — has good science?

For the record, my knowledge of science is fairly rotten. I don’t have the foggiest idea what the spleen does, I can’t really tell you anything about Planck’s constant, and I had to put down A Brief History of Time about 40 pages in because I was overwhelmed. As you might imagine, I’m very pleased that Spinrad thought I have “convincingly detailed knowledge of the physiology and biochemistry of the human nervous system down to the molecular level.” Greg Egan and Arthur C. Clarke are probably climbing into graves right now specifically for the purpose of rolling over in them.

But when I started the process of writing Infoquake, my intention was to write a novel about high-tech sales and marketing. It was only supposed to be accurate insomuch as it wasn’t supposed to make people with real scientific knowledge snicker. So I set the book at some undefined time in the future, about a thousand years from now, and I stuck an apocalyptic AI revolt in the interregnum to really wipe the slate clean. Then I made three suppositions:

  1. Give the scientists (virtually) unlimited computing power.
  2. Give the scientists (practically) inexhaustible energy reserves.
  3. Give the scientists a few hundred years to tinker, without all the regulatory, governmental, religious, and socioeconomic chokeholds in place today.

Supposing all that… What kind of world would we end up with?

I started doing my initial research through your typical high-level Encarta searches and the like (Wikipedia wasn’t around then). And I discovered that we’re really, really close on so many “science fictional” technologies already. Teleportation? We’ve got teleportation, believe it or not. (Okay, so it’s only on a quantum level at this point, but why quibble?) Orbital colonies, medical nanobots, virtual reality, and neural manipulation? All possible, based on the evidence we have now.

Classic Astounding Science Fiction coverThere are a million possible technologies out there whose only real barriers are time and economics. Why aren’t we all flying around in personal spaceships by now like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke predicted we would be? Because these authors didn’t have scientific chops? No, because it’s too fucking expensive, that’s why. We have flying cars and jetpacks and space stations and the like, they just haven’t proven practical enough to mass produce. And unfortunately, nobody really had any way of knowing that they weren’t practical until the engineers sat down at the drawing board and tried to do it.

I’m convinced that the same is the case with the technologies in Infoquake. Take the multi network, for instance, wherein you’re fooled through nanotechnological neural manipulation into believing that you’re somewhere you’re not. Scientifically feasible or infeasible?

From a theoretical standpoint, we can practically build the multi network already. Put someone on a slab in the ER, saw off the top of their skull, and start stimulating pieces of brain tissue with tiny electrodes; they’ll start seeing and hearing things. So why don’t we have a functional multi network today? Because we need (1) much smaller electrodes, (2) much more detailed mapping of which pieces of the brain do what, and (3) ultra-fast computers that can keep track of all this information and manipulate it in real time. Once we have that: voila! Virtual reality! Right?

Obviously, once someone digs in there and tries to build something like this, they’re going to discover that it’s not quite that simple. There might be no practical way to power those electrodes, for instance, or maybe there’s some bit of brain chemistry we don’t quite understand yet that will make it impossible to host lots of little nanobots inside your skull. We’re going to have to wait for the chemical engineers to synthesize a finer type of wiring, which will require access to cheap cobalt from Bolivia, which is impossible because Bolivia’s in a state of civil war, which is caused by blah blah blah et cetera ad nauseum.

That’s life. That’s the slow march of progress. All we can do in the meantime is theorize and then sit back and hope the results in the lab match the equations on the chalkboard.

Charles DarwinI often think about the 19th century debate in scientific circles between the Darwinian and Lamarckian models of evolution. Take the evolution of the giraffe. Jean Baptiste-Lamarck figured that a lifetime of stretching and craning his neck to get that good stuff high up in the trees would actually alter a giraffe’s biochemical composition. The giraffe would then pass on some kind of beefed-up genetic heritage to its offspring, causing the species to evolve over time with a longer neck. Darwin came along later and said that what the giraffe does makes little difference. The reason the species evolves is because the giraffes with taller necks are more likely to survive and thus pass on the tall-neck genome.

Both of these explanations sound perfectly plausible. I’m sure Lamarck had plenty of reason for believing what he believed, and in fact, his theory was widely accepted as truth for fifty years. Now it turns out that Lamarck was wrong on this particular business, and Darwin was right. But again, there was really no way for anyone to know that right off the bat until generations of scientists kept digging through fossils and Gregor Mendel did his whole thing with gardening peas. There are still a few stubborn holdouts who don’t accept Darwinism.

And that’s the thing that laypeople tend to forget about science. The guy shouting “Eureka!” and madly scribbling equations on the chalkboard is only the first step in a very, very long process. Scientists need to get in the lab and get their hands dirty. They need to collect evidence and subject that evidence to rigorous tests. They need to present that evidence before their peers in scientific journals. All kinds of alternative explanations need to be thoroughly vetted and debunked. And all of that stuff takes time. Years, decades, centuries. There’s a reason why it’s called the Theory of Evolution, just like there’s a reason why it’s called the Theory of Gravity.

The real world tends to get in the way too. Scientists’ funding gets cut. Their agendas for pursuing particular lines of research get questioned. Governments come in and make executive decisions about what science they can pursue and what science they can’t. Security issues abound. Patents must be filed, lawsuits must be litigated.

And when you’re a science fiction writer, of course, you don’t have time to do any of that. All you can do is the very first step, which is to try to recreate that proverbial “Eureka!” moment when the guy runs to the chalkboard and scribbles out his equations. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the laboratory to support our theories. We don’t know how the fossil evidence is going to weigh in. We can only offer vague conjectures about how much it’s all going to cost.

So anyone who believes they’re reading an accurate depiction of the future in a science fiction novel is deluding themselves. Future science has too many unknown variables for anyone to possibly predict. If we do end up someday breeding über child warriors to fight bug aliens on virtual terminals in outer space a la Ender’s Game, I’m sure Orson Scott Card will be the first one to admit that he was just lucky.

As for Infoquake, you can call it fantasy or you can call it science fiction. I don’t really care. I would just caution against mislabeling it for the wrong reasons.

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  1. Crash Solo on April 9, 2007 at 5:49 pm  Chain link

    Saw this post in Ars Technica today, and was reminded of Infoquake. I’m not a hacker, so i don’t know if bounties are a normal business model, but regardless it made me think of your characters working like crazy to put something together fast enough to get the purchase.

    http://arstechnica.com/journals/apple.ars/2007/04/09/boba-fetts-rejoice-1000-bounty-for-apple-tv-usb-storage-patch

    I also have no idea about the scientific accuracy of the book, but I thought this article was very timely for your post, in that it shows a little of the business accuracy of Infoquake.

  2. David Louis Edelman on April 9, 2007 at 6:45 pm  Chain link

    Thanks, Crash. That is pretty cool. I know that there are lots of companies that offer “bounties” like that now, and even companies like Microsoft will open (parts of) their code to hackers and offer a big fat paycheck to anyone who can demonstrate how to trash it.

    The science takes time to develop, but man, social change happens just like that. When I first started writing Infoquake and thought of “drudges,” there was no blogosphere. Now? Old news.

  3. GailB on April 9, 2007 at 8:48 pm  Chain link

    Should the reader care whether my book — or any SF book — has good science?

    What I require of a story is to be entertained. Whether the science of the author is strong does not matter nearly as much as how the author tells the story.

    I can remember being baffled (and bored) by the learned discussions about the science of the Ringworld. I never understood why anybody would argue the science when the point was this glorious, fun idea?

    Should the reader care? The author has no control over the reader, so it’s a moot point.
    Should the author care if the reader cares? Depends on your target audience. I say no.

  4. Josh on April 9, 2007 at 11:52 pm  Chain link

    I enjoy a story that is well-written, and often enough I don’t have a deep knowledge of the science that is involved, so I never really concern myself with dissecting the mechanisms and figuring out if it makes sense, unless it is blindingly obvious that something is wrong. I think the author should at least try to have it make sense, even if in people’s heads. Of course, this also depends on whether you’re trying for hard/soft science fiction, or if the reader is a purist type who tends to see the science as the core of the story, and the characters are the expendable crew on the ship. I also think it’s intriguing how sometimes I have seen, in the fantasy genre, how writers have basically formed a science out of their system of magic, almost to the point of having laws of physics involved, and where the magic is used as just a more energetic form of technology. That’s what I enjoy though…how intertwining those aspects of the story can be.

  5. David Louis Edelman on April 10, 2007 at 8:25 am  Chain link

    I agree with both of you that the author’s ability to tell a story matters more than their scientific chops. But I wonder if there’s some kind of trickle-down effect here, where readers who have the skills to discern real science from fake science influence the purchases of those who don’t have these skills.

  6. Neth on April 10, 2007 at 10:19 am  Chain link

    Personally, I think a critical discussion on the details of the scientific accuracy of a science fiction book set thousands of years in the future is a bit silly. In that respect I suppose calling it fantasy isn’t far off – but it is just semantics at that point.

    The word fiction is the key and any ‘hard’ science fiction looses relevancy the futher in the future it is set. The most important thing is to present the science well and convincing without being too improbable. You did a fine job in Infoquake.

  7. Jonathan M on April 10, 2007 at 4:18 pm  Chain link

    This has led me to give some thought about the scientific credibility of Infoquake and the scientific credibility of science fiction in general. Should the reader care whether my book — or any SF book — has good science?

    For the record, I don’t think that the fact that Infoquake isn’t hard SF makes it a bad book (I don’t think it’s a bad book as I said in my post). However, I do think that it means that Spinrad’s attempt to shoe-horn your book into a discussion of hard SF is a little… odd.

  8. David Louis Edelman on April 10, 2007 at 4:26 pm  Chain link

    Noted, Jonathan. I don’t think you came off looking like you hated the book in your blog. And I hope I didn’t imply that I disliked your piece either.

  9. Jonathan M on April 10, 2007 at 7:19 pm  Chain link

    And I hope I didn’t imply that I disliked your piece either.

    Not really, I was just concerned that you seemed to take an off-hand remark as a reason for intellectual self-justification.

    The Spinrad article does raise an interesting critical question though, namely at what point is it fair to judge a book by the quality and rigour of its ideas?

    In the works of Stephen Baxter and most recently Peter Watts, there’s a real desire to engage with the cutting edge of scientific theory. If you’re reviewing books by either of these authors and you don’t get stuck into the ideas then you’re not giving the book sufficient credit.

    Meanwhile, if you take a book such as Infoquake to task for its lack of detail in scientific matters then you’re also doing the book a grave disservice.

    I think one of the reasons why Infoquake popped up where it did is because you did make an attempt to create a credible technology and expressed some scientific basis for your ideas when you could, as you were writing a book mainly about business, have glossed over what the characters were actually selling.

    So I think, from a critics point of view, that Infoquake is a bit tricky :-)

  10. David Louis Edelman on April 10, 2007 at 7:36 pm  Chain link

    you were writing a book mainly about business, have glossed over what the characters were actually selling.

    I glossed over it in book 1. Wait’ll you get a load of book 2. Then everybody will have lots of excuses to dissect my science.

    Thanks for participating in the discussion, Jonathan, I appreciate it.

  11. Matt Jarpe on April 11, 2007 at 7:47 am  Chain link

    I’ve got to say, Dave, I actually do have “detailed knowledge of the physiology and biochemistry of the human nervous system down to the molecular level” and I’ve got no beef with the science in Infoquake. I had a problem with Cory Doctrow’s similar story “Own0red” (sp? some kind of L33T word I think) in which hackers improved the human body by utilizing their programming skills. But mostly because the story was taking place now and the technology to affect human physiology was pulled out of his ass.

    Of course we always pull the technology out of our ass, but the trick is to make it part of a deeper world. Making the science acurate is just one way of enhancing the world building. You can create a consistent framework of magic and stick to it and that creates a big, interesting world to play in. Or you can learn the science and use that as the basis for your world building. Since I have to learn the science anyway, it’s better for me to go the hard sf route. Unfortunately that makes it tougher for me to enjoy the stories that almost get the science right. I wish the author hadn’t even tried.

  12. David Louis Edelman on April 11, 2007 at 8:15 am  Chain link

    Thanks, Matt.

  13. dave on April 11, 2007 at 10:41 am  Chain link

    For me, at least, a good science fiction novel doesn’t have to have “good” science. It just has to have the plausible kind. Enough to hang hat on, you might say.

    I’m more interested in the implications of a cool idea, such as your Multi-Real, than I am in the nitty-gritty details of how it works. “What would it mean if we could do this?” is the kind of question that really fires my imagination and keeps me reading.

    That’s with the caveat, btw, that the author keeps his “plausible science” internally consistent. If I find contradictions, or see an obvious way said science could be used, and yet isn’t for arbitrary story reasons, then it starts to throw me out of the story.

    But honestly, that caveat is more about good story telling than iffy science.

  14. Mike Glyer on April 11, 2007 at 2:56 pm  Chain link

    Just wanted to add a note thanking you for this valuable and highly-entertaining discussion of what role science is intended to play in many sf stories.

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