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vernor vinge meets bret easton ellis

2003-03-01 - 11:02 a.m.

Some wandering thoughts about other people's comments about BF's novel:

When you're too close to something, you don't see it. I first read the outline (currently lost) for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect in 1983. It was scrawled in pencil. The creator was 19 years old. My thought, as best as I can reconstruct it now, was something along the lines of ho-kay, crazy idea, but it isn't clear how this subject matter could be tackled as a work of fiction. I recall the concept as being at least a project as large as the original Foundation trilogy.

The obvious influences were Isaac Asimov and Robert Anton Wilson. Asimov, of course, created the Three Laws of Robotics, which color thought about robotics and artificial intelligence to this day. To a certain extent, the whole debate about friendliness is a debate about how we can modify our creations to make sure they don't destroy us once they graduate from our care -- a more sophisticated Three Laws debate.

Wilson (and of course Leary as filtered through Wilson but I don't think BF had yet read Leary) gave us the idea of the exponential growth of human knowledge leading to what we now call the Singularity. Wilson thought, or was interpreted to think, that the Singularity would occur by the year 2000, a belief summed up in the late 1980s era New Age comment, "If you live to the year 2000, you will live forever."1

Between the time the novel was originally outlined, and the time that BF completed the current draft in the early 1990s, he did a prodigious amount of reading on a variety of topics involving computers, artificial intelligence, the mind, and human potential. There were popular books like The Holographic Universe and technical articles like "The Inversion of Sensory Processing by Feedback Pathways: A Model of Visual Cognitive Functions." There were the wild and wacky New Age/human potential books like Cosmic Trigger and The Archaic Revival. Any clue to the possible workings of the mind, and the possible workings of a future computer "mind," was faithfully followed 2.

It's fascinating to read the comments that people have left about BF's novel. It has got to be flattering to be read and discussed, but some of the comparisons make you wonder if you ate that magic mushroom instead of watching the squirrel do it. Samuel Delany? "The Riders of The Purple Wage" by Philip Jose Farmer (from the Dangerous Visions anthology)? I'm guessing it's a case of, we're just too close and have lived with this material for too many years, to see the comparisons with these excellent authors that we just tend to assume are way up there in the stratosphere.

Then you get names thrown out like Zardoz, the Sean Connery vehicle. Ho-kay, in that case, why not the Holodeck on Star Trek while we're at it? Or The Matrix?? Actually, now that I think about it, some people did mention The Matrix, which was a Philip K. Dick universe that didn't acknowledge Dick, proving that his ideas had, for once and all, become part of the mainstream.

Some comments are a bit startling because I know that the writers in question are, if anything, anti-favorites. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card? This cheesy "OMG, the video game is reeeaaaallll" novel gets mentioned more than I for one would like. Lord of the Flies by William Golding? Oh, you get the idea... the whole misanthropic cult of cruelty stuff. And this is just too weird, knowing that the actual inspirations were the life-affirming Asimov and Wilson. But BF himself has mentioned how writing the novel was like channeling, and how it sometimes made him angry to write what he was writing. Wasn't it Doris Lessing who said we don't choose our influences?

OK -- here we get to my favorite comparison -- "Vernor Vinge meets Bret Easton Ellis!"

BF has not read Vinge. I was pretty sure he hadn't but I asked again to be sure, and he just doesn't recall reading him. Our library system here in the Great White North buys very little SF, and Vinge fell through the cracks and became an author that we just haven't followed. Quite frankly, I had an impression of Vinge as an Analog "war and wiring diagrams" writer and, being female and hence the fetcher of most objects that enter the home (ask your marketing expert if you think this is a sexist unfair crack -- most of the time, it is women who do the shopping), I was pretty sure a Vinge novel had never darkened our door. Now I am intrigued, and we will both doubtless be scurrying to make up for lost time when we can. But I'm fairly confident that the Vinge influence people are detecting is actually the Asimov influence with a comfort level for sex and violence that Asimov didn't care to develop.

And what of Ellis? Certainly BF is familiar with Ellis, who is almost the same age, but who emerged into notoriety at the same time BF was turning away from family, college, and even a whole circle of friends.

Likes him? I don't know. Wishes to be influenced by him? I'm guessing he probably didn't even think about it. I'm thinking it's a question of convergent influences. It's weird that Ellis and BF were born in the same year. Or maybe it isn't weird. Maybe it's just as it should be based on their work -- one born to a privileged background who went on to attend Bennington College, the other born to a "nerd" background with the physics professor dad.

If Ellis's dad was a physics professor, and BF was brought up in Los Angeles, would they have written each other's stories? Speculation for a Twilight Zone episode...

Another commentator stated that The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, whose main character is an 106 year old grandmother from Arkansas, is a novel about a universe where everyone is a horny male teen-ager. Hmmm. For most of human history, all sagas, epics, and poetry were about horny male teen-agers, so maybe this isn't too much of a reach. Indeed, my high-school English teacher said that literature is about the adolescent questions -- who are we, why are we here, where are we going. Are other novels (say, Crime and Punishment or the Marquis de Sade) somehow not about adolescent males? Hmmm again.

Well, my mind is starting to explode so I think I'll stop rambling for the time being. It's like the thrill I used to get from visiting the Tawny Frogmouth at the zoo. I would be standing there looking at a dead snag in a cage and not seeing much and suddenly there's an entire living, breathing bee-yoo-tifully marked creature there.

My fun fantasy:

The Internet Underground Sensation Seen On Slashdot Now Available in Airports Everywhere!

Notes

1For example, in Crystal Power by Michael G. Smith, on page 193 of the 1985 edition we read:
"...anyone alive after the year 2000 will be able to choose to live as long as they want -- indefinitely."

2I used some of this material in a less ambitious work, about a CIA operative whose brain was copied into a large bird which could then be employed as a spying device. It started out as a full-length novel of some 60,000 words or so, but ended up as a novelette called, "Birdbrain," which was published in Aboriginal SF in 1990.

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