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Aug 27, 2004



I can't think of one point in the history of science fiction where the vast majority of works *haven't* "mostly take the form of fantasy (elves and wizards), alternate history (what if the Black Death had been deadlier?) and space operas about interstellar civilizations in the year 12,000".

The hard sci fi which properly explores these sort of questions has always been rare. Further, I haven't seen it disappear either. If anything, hard science fiction has become *more* aware of the political and cultural necessities of future history than before.

"You have to think long and hard about the capabilities of a robotic pet cat with human-level intelligence, and then you have to ask whether it should have the right to vote."

I don't see how any one who has read any science fiction can claim that science fiction has been missing those important questions? Those questions have been so well trodden that they are even starting to show up in Hollywood.

- Brask Mumei


Much as I love seeing Cory and Charlie Stross get deserved kudos, a) there are quite a few more who do what's described in the article, and b) their styles often present a new future in stark unrepenting contrast to today's relatively "simple" society.

On the other hand, many authors intentionally highlight just one or two major social and/or technological changes they wish to explore and leave other elements of human nature largely unchanged.

There's a good reason for this. Too much change, even positive change, makes your head hurt, or at the very least leaves a reader feeling uneasy. For most stories, the author wants her readers to slip comfortably into the narrative voice -- this often means relying on elements the reader and narrator have in common, as opposed to banging a gong in their ear. Stross' prose, smart as it is, takes all of my brain cells to grok and often leaves me feeling vaguely uneasy about how I might survive in his bright, strange future.

So it's not for lack of imagination or daring, I think, but because the point of writing SF is still to tell a story, not (for most) to prognosticate on future tech or show how smart we are. On the other hand, some authors really do have a point to make and do have a future vision they want to realize, or even prevent. And so they put many of their story eggs into the futurist basket. That's an element of science fiction, but not a defining characteritic.

I think the thing that makes science fiction special is not how daring or how right it is about the future, but how it uses an imagined, focused future to subtly hone in on a particular facet of the _present_ or some element of seemingly immutable human nature without all of the _true_ complexities of life, the million shades of nuance we see in our own society.


ABZ> to subtly hone in on a particular facet of the _present_ or some element of seemingly immutable human nature without all of the _true_ complexities of life, the million shades of nuance we see in our own society.

I agree. People often criticize sci-fi (and place it in a literary ghetto) by calling it blind to the present and mired in the reader's intense longing for some better or more exciting (probably non-existent) future. Perhaps some space opera is like that, but the good stuff isn't.

People don't read Gene Wolfe or Phillip Dick in search of accurate predictions of the near future -- they can read Popular Science or talk with venture capitalists if they want to do that. The breed of fantastic literature known as science fiction, that covers themes like AI, future utopias/dystopias, supermen, and time travel, can be best understood, imho, and like ABZ says, as a genre that explores the essence of personal and social identity by placing the reader in a radically revised context--the kind of "what if" game that philosophers often play to get to the heart of ethical questions.

And standard fantasy, again imho, does exactly the same thing, it just abandons the requirement of plausibility.


Hrm, reading over the linked article, it seems to be very much a puff piece promoting Stross and Doctorow, and pushing them as the only people really doing near-future science fiction primarily because they focus on "the Singularity" which has become something of a prophetic religion among geeks. I'm more and more frustrated with how the Singularity is being taken for granted in spite of the fact that research into how humans beings think suggests that many of the claims might be overstated.

If you don't take a computational singularity for granted, there are quite a few authors working on near future timelines such as Kage Baker, Rudy Rucker and Pat Cadigan. Syne Mitchel's Changeling Plague proposes a biological singularity. And what of the buzz around Atwood's Oryx and Crake?

In terms of virtual worlds, I think there is a real tension. At least one of the issues with bringing near-future science fiction into virtual worlds as that much of this near-future science fiction is dystopian in nature. I don't want to live in a neo-Marxist dystopia envisioned by Gibson and others in which wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in a handful of corporate entities. On the other hand, no one wants to be a serf/bondservant in fantasy settings either.


In the opening scenes of Willow and LOTR, we are presented with a very prosaic environment. Basicly normal seeming people are doing basicly normal things. By the time the first really fantastic thing happens, we've already "bought in" to the premise the films are presenting, we feel like we know these characters and identify with them. Then we are introduced to the fantastic (Willow's glowing pixie, Frodo's first encounter with the Nazgul) in a way that is just a little bit surreal. By the end of the movie, incredible, over the top, fantastic things are happening almost every minute, and the audience is eating it up.

On the other hand, in the Dungeons and Dragon movie, the first thing they do is kill a dragon and have it's blood set a river on fire. Most of the audience at the theatre I saw it in responded with laughter, and not in a good way.

How do you boil a frog? We're all so fixated on the over-the-top fantastic elements and trying to give that experience to the players, we're failing to put them in any kind of context that makes them meaningful. Written Sci-Fi has been somewhat guilty of that as well in the last decade, trying *so* hard to present us with a fantastic series of events, that it loses us in the first chapter.



To bring it back to Nathan's point, if I understood it correctly, if we stipulate that Stross and Doctorow represent the "go boldly into the future" approach and other authors represent the "be accessable" camp, then I'd suggest that those virtual world designers wishing to be known as geniuses may take the first tack, but those hoping for success should stick to the second.

The mark of success of experience a virtual world, for me, is forgetting I'm in a world.

But Nathan can correct me if I've missed his point. :)


Nate said in post> Is it about building virtual worlds, imagined or not, that are palpable and exciting for their own sake. Should we try to get those right first, and hope for a game... or do we aim for the game and hope for the world. In the end, does the latter represent a creative pragmatism doomed to timidity? Or, alternatively, is the former wildly dangerous, but exciting?

So the original dichotomy offered was between "sci-fi as future prediction" and sci-fi as "story" -- and my point is that good fiction should be all about the latter.

And I would come out the same way in the world v. game question -- sure, you could do weird and wonderful world-building and focus on game emergence -- and that would be fun to do, but it is doomed to remain (well, "doomed" is too loaded a word) a niche genre of artistry.

In Unreal Tournament 2004, would it have made sense to design the virtual environments before knowing if they'd be used for deathmatch or capture the flag or even for a game at all? By analogy, architects are hired to design spaces with particular social functions in mind -- they don't just go building the most interesting spaces and wondering later what people might use them for.


And I would come out the same way in the world v. game question -- sure, you could do weird and wonderful world-building and focus on game emergence -- and that would be fun to do, but it is doomed to remain (well, "doomed" is too loaded a word) a niche genre of artistry.

Hrm, I don't know. A part of this gets back to the "game vs. simulation" debate that I keep reading about but never really see in practice. And another thing is how we keep talking about reinventing the wheel (or to be more precise, reinventing what people were doing in text in the 1990s.) Perhaps the in-depth role-playing muds of the past were niche genres, but they were niches that developed into thriving communities of rich participation, frequently built on emergent grass-roots world design. If you wanted to live on Pern or Ringworld for 4 hours a day, you could.

In addition, I think that thinking about world design allows us to explore other "game" options than "kill the monster, collect the loot, trade the loot." For example, a Star Trek style RPG focuses on the fact that different specialties get different kinds of information about a problem and must work together to solve a problem. Engineering needs raw materials to fix the engine. Science knows how to find the raw materials. Command has (possibly flawed) intelligence on enemy positions. Medical has critically injured personel that need to be transferred to a starbase. Weapons ops is dealing with limited capabilities.

A good cyberpunk RPG would involve different problems (and different strategies for solving them) than the "tank-healer-gunship-mage" that works in Fantasy RPGs. And so on.


Part of this does seem to back to the "game vs. simulation" debate. In turn, part of that debate would likely center upon whether a simulation provide an interesting enough backdrop (e.g. emergent content) for a game-based virtual world. The next question: what would be the basis of that sort of fun/engagement? {Btw, how is this different for social virtual worlds, perhaps different evaluation/metrics?}

Take a boundary case. Consider the RL world. A great number of us seem to manage to amuse ourselves, more or less,... but a fair question is, is this type of engagement relevant to a game experienced? If it were distilled, somehow, could it be?

Can one could build worlds where one can build/discover their own games within the existing world. If so, it would need to be sufficiently "logical" (quotes emphasized) and complete to lead to the kinds of interesting "problem solving," that is, well, characteristic of a game.

The Sci-Fi angle: to build a world that is based on a direct extrapolation of the present would require a degree of consistency and completeness (logic) that would test this.


Nathan> In other words, the question should never really about how to map proven team dynamics (e.g. Healer-Tanker-Nuker-Mezzer) into a "futuristic" setting, but should be about asking how to imagine real, touchable worlds, and then worry the dynamics

Well, the success of the MMORPG as MUD + graphics would seem to indicate that a successful short-term strategy is keep wrapping the same basic mechanics with newer and flashier graphics. Nothing wrong with that, although as others have mentioned, lack of innovation is a bad thing in the long run. Plus, relying on MUD gameplay immediately segments the potential market.

On the other hand, it is also pretty clear that simply creating worlds to chat in isn't enough, as Chip and Randy cover in a fairly complete way.

So, where does that leave MMOs and digital worlds? Obviously, I believe that trying new approaches is critically important. Every established business or model assumes that it is the One True Approach, and that all innovations are doomed to failure. Well, many of them will fail, but it is silly to think that MMORPGs, which are intentionally graphical MUDs that did their best to copy D&D, is the One True Online Game.

Of course, as in any other endeavor, the success of MMORPGs, and their need to support their existing base, makes it extremely difficult for any of the established players to really try something new. So, we'll continue to the new ideas the edge, like Puzzle Pirates, A Tale in the Desert, Project Entropia, Forterra nee There.com, and, yes, Second Life. Will all of these projects end up challenging EverQuest? Of course not. Not all of them will be in business a year from now.

But the usurper will arrive and the MMO mantle will pass and it won't come from a better Healer-Tanker play mechanic. It is only a matter of time. So, to answer Nathan's last question, I'll take wildly dangerous, but exciting, any day!


Nathan> Likewise, could our virtual worlds be similarly better served by greater world-building imaginative discipline? In other words, the question should never really about how to map proven team dynamics (e.g. Healer-Tanker-Nuker-Mezzer) into a "futuristic" setting, but should be about asking how to imagine real, touchable worlds, and then worry the dynamics:

These days, I’m more interested in alien worlds than familiar ones. What happens if you remove some of the props that make worlds familiar? Huge effort goes into make objects collide in virtual worlds. What kind of world would result if objects were light and insubstantial? What kind of world would you see if you lit a world using the OpenGL light model? Big chunks of that model are usually discarded as being “unrealistic”. But I think there is some unexplored beauty in there. A world without some of the complex code that makes it “familiar” would likely be too alien for most. But at least its pretty cheap to produce.

I’d agree that any world that wasn’t immediately familiar would likely lose the mass market. But a well chosen one might attract a few explorers. Myself, I’m delving into the world inside my graphics card (OpenGL 1.2 version), trying to figure out how a native of such a world would live there. I had some great times in EQ, adventuring from the mock medieval city of Freeport onto the mock African plains of The Commonlands. But the spate of recent worlds seems more of the same, so I’m off to somewhere new.

Now, is anybody producing a 4D world?


On the chicken-and-egg question for virtual worlds/games, I think there are lots of evidence that points to world-first as a long-term profitable position relative to game-first.

For example, in the establish movie entertainment, you can wrap a story around the basic action blockbuster formula (Anaconda II, AVP, etc.) or create a story and wrap action around it (original Anaconda and Alien spawning sequels).

In the video game industry, licensing IP has been an established way of bypassing world-building stage and skip to the formulaic stage.

Unfortunately, graphical virtual-world building has not reach the point where it can reproduce the richness of the source imagination. Star War Galaxies is a prime example.

Tolken took years to build his world and the world took even longer to find mass acceptance. However, in the current world of fast and faster, I don't think there is room left for old world craftsmanship.



Nate> Take a boundary case. Consider the RL world. A great number of us seem to manage to amuse ourselves, more or less,...

That's right -- in the RL engine we've got football, basketball, golf, chess, Pinochle, twenty questions, drag racing, synchronized swimming, and even MMORPGs. Which essentially makes my point, the engine/physics/world are an aspect of the game, but they are analogous to a board upon the game is contructed. RL gravity plays a large part in football, basketball, & pinball -- which would lead you to assume that in a place with no gravity, games like those would emerge into something different.

But simulating a 0-gravity environment and waiting for people to find a game in it would not be game design any more than handing a person a dictionary would be poetry. It might be a form of art, but (like I said above), it's not a game design form of art.

At GDC, Will Wright designed a game which takes place inside Battlefield 1942 -- "Collateral Romance" -- see: http://archive.gamespy.com/gdc2004/challenge/index2.shtml

Yes, you can create an environment and let the game emerge. (And emergement gameplay happens in MMOGs all the time.) But it was Wright who created the game -- Battlefield 1942 was just the world platform.


Greglas> But simulating a 0-gravity environment and waiting for people to find a game in it would not be game design any more than handing a person a dictionary would be poetry. It might be a form of art, but (like I said above), it's not a game design form of art.

Tying virtual world design to game design seems a bit narrow though. VWs can, and do, support other pastimes than games. Drinking in the pub, art shows, and gardening come to mind. A zero gravity world could support games of zero gravity basketball, but also zero gravity ballet. Doing familiar things in an unfamiliar setting seems potentially exciting to me. Myself, I’m experimenting with gardening in an alien world. I will likely call it a game for marketing reasons, but it has strong elements of the familiar world pastime. I’d agree that world designers should have a least one game or pastime ready made in their world for it to be attractive. If the world is rich enough, people will soon find other uses for it. And I’d argue that a VW that steps outside the everyday experience is where the real novelty is going to happen. Pretty much by definition though, novel worlds are going to be niche. At least until the early adopters persuade the masses that this is the next big thing.


(preview of a blog entry I'm working on...) I've been thinking a lot about this issue from two angles lately. I agree with the assessment of science fiction that's offered in the link, with some modest quibbles, but I don't agree that represent a retreat or loss for the form. At the least it's not narrowly an issue with science fiction. This is a question I work with a lot in my course The History of the Future: there's a very concrete "idea of the future" that late 19th Century and early 20th Century modernism invented that then disseminated itself all through popular culture. By the 1980s, it was mostly a trope that survived only in postmodern and ironic forms: no one seriously was pushing the high modernist utopian (or dystopian) future any longer as actual prediction or prescription.

Some of that has to do with the dire fate of 1950s-1960s era predictive social science, which sold itself very strongly as a kind of proto-psychohistory a la Asimov, able to confidently project the near-term future. Science fiction caught some of that wave. Almost all of those projections were wrong, sometimes staggeringly or hilariously so--Ehrlich's "population bomb" only one among many such. So anyone who has predictive ambitions and doesn't claim to be a psychic has learn to avoid such hubris. Science fiction can't--it needs something bigger--so it's moved off into the far future.

If you think about the "singularity" as a predictive claim, it has as its major feature an embrace of unpredictability--not just about what and when, but what comes after it. By its nature, it's about alchemy, a transformative or revolutionary schism.

So where does this tie into game v. simulation? Well, the most simulationist games and the "artificial societies" literature tend to acknowledge something similar: that things will happen which will move the simulation towards a point of criticality, after which it will become something which is either practically or ontologically unpredictable. That's really one of the central defining features of "emergence" as an idea. So it seems to me that the more simulationist we are, the more likely we are to join in the retreat from the hubris of near-term prediction--unless the idea of our simulations is more like conventional model-building in the hard social sciences, which I don't think any virtual world could possibly be, nor any truly interesting world-simulating platform.


No doubt some here have read Robinson's Mars trilogy. That's a writer taking the present day and extrapolating, allowing for slight changes in physics and setting, but not in human nature or government. As a result, it's extremely plausible. Reading those books (and playing a game of it?) takes very little suspension of disbelief.

I've always thought good sci-fi takes the current day and changes just that one little thing, and then sees what happens--the subtle change, rather than the world-shattering one--is what makes it easier to relate to RL. That's what Asimov tended to do.

In Robinson's case, the resulting fiction is the sort of game/sim that I'd see as the summit of game play: world creation with intrigue among individuals: Alpha Centauri meets 2L meets Diplomacy? You know, with less g.


currently working on a comic set in the near scifi future. nice site!


Perhaps authors are merely trying to make their works last. Most science fiction that attempted to predict the near future did not stand the test of time...


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