Monday, May 11, 2009

Speaker for the Dead

I read Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead over the weekend (while on the road with my band). Can I post about science fiction here? I assume so (seeing as the first post started with a quote from a work by Rudy Rucker).

Of course, I loved Ender's Game. This second book is possibly even more emotionally moving in places (and Card seems to have said he considers it to be the more "important" book to him), but there's a number of notable structural flaws that I'm not able to shake off.

First is that it's very much working to set up further sequels; there's a whole number of major plot threads left hanging, and you can start detecting that about halfway through the book (furthermore, I see now that both this and Ender's Game were revised from their original format, so as to set up sequels, which takes away from the narrative thrust at the end of each). Second is that there's a central core mystery that the whole book is set up around, and in places people have to be unrealistically tight-lipped to their closest friends so as to prolong the mystery (I got really super-sick of this move from watching Lost). Third is that the central theme seems like a rehash of Ender's Game (you can very much feel Card wrestling with the rationale to the plot of Ender's Game; you can almost hear him musing "why would an alien race feel like killing is socially acceptable or necessary, anyway?", a central premise of the first book, and then constructing this second book so as to have an actual satisfying reason). There's also some obvious clues that the aliens should have been able to pick up when they kill humans (namely the visually obvious results of the "planting", as witnessed at the end of the book), that would have told them it's a good idea to stop doing such a thing, but apparently they miss them entirely.

But fourth is something that bothers me about lots of science fiction. Although the story spans many years, by way of relativistic time travel (over 3 thousand years, actually), technology never changes during that time. Ender can set off on a 22-year space flight, and when he lands, apparently all the exact same technology is in use for communications, video, computer keyboards, record-keeping, spaceflight landing, government, publishing literature, etc.

In fact, I've never seen any science-fiction literature that manages to deal with Moore's Law (the observation that computing power doubles every 2 years or so). It would be one thing if they conjectured that "Moore's Law ended on date such-and-such because of so-and-so...", but it's always a logical gap that's completely overlooked. Ender is honored to be given an apartment with a holoscreen with "4 times" the resolution of normal screens... but I'm thinking, in 22 years time, the resolution of every screen should be 1,000 times the ones he left behind on his space-flight. At that rate, I wouldn't bother walking into the next room for one with only "4 times" the resolution.

Maybe that's a subject that is simply impossible to treat properly in a work of centuries of science fiction, but the repeated logical gap (in the face of our own monthly dealings with new technologies) is something that's bothering me more and more. Maybe the Singularity will come and solve this problem for us once and for all.

4 comments:

  1. There's an impressive amount of depth to this story, and on these grounds alone I think it's worthy of its awards sweep (Card was the first, and to date only, writer to score the Best Novel Hugo and Nebula two years running).

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  2. First off, I want to say that I find your observation about having to deal with improved computers after a number of years to be a insightful, and a really good point—of course there should be technological change in the intervening time.

    That said, I feel like there wouldn't be much point to having a screen with 1,000 times the resolution of any screen resolution we have today. Past a certain point (whatever that point may be), individual pixels are too small to be seen, so you aren't really gaining any detail (unless you want to use a magnifying glass) and only adding more work to the graphics processor by adding more pixels.

    (Of course, that's assuming a sort of "normal" screen size, like for a large television. Obviously you could use a higher resolution for a digital billboard covering the side of a building, but for an average computer monitor or TV I suspect there's a point of diminishing returns where it just isn't worth it to stuff more pixels in.)

    Note that I don't think we're at or even particularly near that point just yet; I figure we've got a few more resolution 'generations' to go past 4K. But at some point in the next few decades I predict we'll see screen resolution reach a sort of plateau, where there may be novelty items with higher resolutions, but the vast majority will level off at a certain point. We'll see, I guess!

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    Replies
    1. That's a good point and you're probably right about that. I think something else I was recollecting, that I didn't include in the post above, was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where an alien race attacks (if I recall) to get access to the Federation's computers which are "twice as fast". And even when I watched it I was thinking "Interstellar war for a computer twice as fast? Hell, just wait until next Christmas instead."

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    2. Oh, ha ha! That's pretty funny. I definitely agree with the gist of the post, it'd be interesting to see an acknowledgment of progress in a story (or a decent reason given as to why it isn't happening).

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