3 Nov 2005

While writing about the varieties of Singularity and people's reaction to it, I had a thought which perhaps might shed a photon on the phenomenon of "Scottish SF". The thought about the Singularity is that it is ultimately about taking materialism seriously: our bodies (and brains) are machines, which we can understand and then manipulate; this unifies the root concept of intelligence-enhancement with associated ideas such as uploads, backups, and immortality of the body.

"Scottish SF" is a disputable term, but here I have in mind the authors Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross (these three being a real social group), Alastair Reynolds, and non-Scots Wil McCarthy and Greg Egan. Frequent themes in the groups' writings are AI, uploads, nano-immortality, extensive genetic engineering, mental control (nanite, implants, Culture drug glands) along with the usual "post-scarcity" economics. Their writings tend to be a materialist revel in the possibilities (even if the world as a whole is sometimes bleak). Very transhumanist, in the sense of using our understanding (acquired as humans) to go past our human limits.

As opposed, say, to the writings of Lois Bujold and Terry Pratchett, which are comparatively very humanist, centered on the human condition. Bujold has a lot of advanced biotech in her SF, and some perfectly nice people have come out of the labs (quaddies, hermaphrodites, Taura), but I note that extensive human manipulation is not something any of the core, Good, characters do. Not even intensive selection of embryos, beyond minimal needs. A quaddie and a herm will select the attributes of their children, but their biologies make that mandatory. [Research: did they actually select more, such as appearance?] Miles and Ekaterin select the sex and timing of their children, and being clean of nasty recessives is taken for granted, but they didn't make many embryos and select the smartest or most social one. The attitude is still "take your chances and do your best with what you've got", vs. pushing for the top. That's left for the Cetagandan haut, who are kind of creepy. And no one, not even the haut, lives all that long -- 120 years for the Betans, most "like us", 150 years for the quaddies and old haut. Nice, but MacLeod had people born before the moon landing living to be 350, both as software and as continuous human bodies.

Pratchett is fantasy, so it may seem odd to mention him, but I think it works. Magic is usually kept off to the side, not used extensively as a technology, and the Igors are equivalent to advanced transhuman biotech, but on-page kept as simple but good doctors and comic relief, not allowed to resurrect Watchmen or even deliver Vimes's baby.[1]

At any rate, what's the putative Singularity-Scottish connection? Just that at least some of the Scots are openly socialist (with some market memes thrown in), and subculturally heir to a strong Marxist materialism, with roots perhaps going back to the Scottish Enlightenment. So perhaps they're more set up to embrace and exploit the possibilities of seeing humans as material objects and processes.

[1] Which was unfair. Dr. Lawn said Igor could only approach if he was boiled first, since Igors look so unhygienic, but while Lawn may know about boiling, Igors actually know why -- about germs. And if there was a real hemorrhage, I'd prefer having an Igor on the spot...

Back to me.