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YLEM Journal "Science Fiction and Its Discontents"

by Loren Means, Editor
Volume 25, Number 10 and 12
YLEM San Francisco, CA, 2006
30 pp., illus. 13 b/w. Trade, $10.00
SSN: 1507-2031.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
School of Arts and Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas


YLEM, pronounced "eye-lem," after the Greek for the exploding mass from which the universe emerged, is an international organization of artists, scientists, authors, curators, educators, and art enthusiasts who explore the intersection of Arts, Science, and Technology. YLEM strives to bring the humanizing and unifying forces of art to contemporary culture. Their newsletter, YLEM Journal, provides periodic reports of the group's efforts.

This particular issue, Volume 25, Number 10 and 12, subtitled "Science Fiction and Its Discontents," collects interviews with four noted science fiction writers: Rudy Rucker, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, and Gregory Benford. All interviews are conducted/edited by Executive Editor Loren Means, who also authors an introductory editorial and a brief essay entitled "Low-Voltage: Ontological Currents: Robots in the Fiction of Brian Aldiss and Rudy Rucker."

Despite his omnipresence, Means never clearly defines, either overtly or through his editing, the discontents of science fiction. This determination is left to the reader, and the process becomes one of interpretation and extrapolation.

For example, in his review of depictions of robots by Aldiss and Rucker, paying particular attention to what he calls the "three provocative aspects of contemporary robotics," Means says each author deals with in "more or less predictive ways": robot emotions, emergence as a way of creating robot behavior, and mind transfer to robotic bodies (15).

According to Means, Aldiss contends that emotionless robots may be seen as a warning to humanity to retain some chaos instead of favoring automatic responses to given situations. Rucker, on the other hand, says Means, sees emotions as "weights" assigned to certain situations. Evaluations of outcomes predicted by alternative courses of action can, then, lead to a course of action (emotional response) with the highest satisfaction rating (16).

Both Aldiss and Rucker, according to Means, present robots that teach themselves to be intelligent. Both say unexpected behavior will emerge and Artificial Intelligence programs will merge, all through a randomly evolving process.

As for mind transfer to a storage device, both Aldiss and Rucker postulate how this might work, and some of the outcomes, which, according to Means, point to eventual positive acceptance of the practice by humans.

Where then is the discontent? Lacking clear evidence, the reader is left to infer the source when Means notes three new aspects of contemporary robotics not anticipated by Aldiss or Rucker: Emergence is exhibiting intelligence not programmed into robots, the reasonable anticipation that robots will make themselves into something unanticipated, and the increased effectiveness of distributed intelligence.

The interviews with Aldiss, Rucker, Moorcock, and Benford also hint at discontent, but again the reader is responsible for identifying its sources. Rucker's discontent seems to comes from his sense that the "market for science books these days is geared towards books having precisely one idea, which is then buttressed with water-cooler-level discussions of pre-digested news stories that have been fed to us by the media" (7). Science, says Rucker, must learn to synthesize multiple theories for strange phenomena, or if that is not possible, consider holding multiple views simultaneously.

In his interview, Moorcock says, "I saw science fiction as being able to develop intellectual ideas, new sorts of ideas, and to produce what people talked about existing rather than just talking about it" (10). Moorcock's discontent seems to be with the apparent failure of science fiction to fully evolve its ability to respond quickly to the news of the day (11). "That's why I gradually lost conventional science fiction, because it wasn't suitable for what a lot of writers wanted to say" (13).

Discontent for Aldiss seems to evolve from multiple sources. First, he admits to a lack of rapport with any particular professional role. He's a successful writer, which is supposed to bring status, but being a science fiction writer negates that status. Second, as Aldiss says, "things have advanced so far, that in that aspect, they are science fiction" (23). And finally, he notes discontent with the settings for science fiction stories. Localized stories are only interesting to readers in that location. But if you set a story on Mars, it will be interesting to more people across a broader number of places, says Aldiss (23).

For Benford, discontent seems to come from the fact that current science fiction rides a trend as a branch of fantasy, which, says Benford, is ultimately unsatisfying to a large percentage of science fiction readers and writers.

These points are buried in each interview. None are mined or questioned or clarified by editor Means. In fact, it would appear that each has emerged, quite by chance, from rambling interviews lacking an overarching thematic approach by the editor. Instead, by his own admission, Means inserts himself far too much into each interview, at times seemingly only to drop names or curry pedigree.

In his conclusion, however, Means makes a salient point when he says what is needed to dispel discontent is a viable new trend in hard science fiction, one that will invigorate its writers and inspire its readers. The particulars of this trend–its focus, application, and content (perhaps intelligent robots?)–are left unstated. Means only says the trend is "probably coming" to London (why?) or San Francisco (because of YLEM?) to be born (are trends born, or do they emerge, like robot intelligence?). So, in the end, Means exhibits the same lack of prediction he notes of Aldiss and Rucker, and the reader who has stayed this far will feel genuine discontent.




Updated 1st May 2006

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