So What’s Faction Paradox Actually About?

This is less of an essay, more a stream of consciousness braindump that I’m going to type until I fall asleep on the keyboard. I’m too tired today to write my Mindless Ones piece, and certainly too tired to work on the other projects I’m working on, so I’m going to dump a lot of thoughts I’ve been having here, specifically about the vision of the Faction Paradox ‘universe’ presented in Dead Romance, This Town Will Never Let Us Go and (what I take to be) Lawrence Miles’ parts of The Book of the War. Faction Paradox is the work of multiple writers, all of them very good, but here I’m going to look at a thread in, specifically, Miles’ writing. I’m writing this now so I can come back to it later and sift it for the good stuff…

So anyway… the Singularity.

I first came across the argument used by Singulatarians (who despite the name are not Doctor Who villains, although Eliezer Yudkowsky seems to aspire to being one) in the preface to a Robert A Heinlein book, which I read when I was 14 or so but which was written in the 1950s. In this he plots a chart of the top speed attainable by human beings, and shows that up to about 1800 it was maybe 20 miles per hour, then after the railways it was 50mph, and then there were jet planes, and then rockets…

Heinlein goes on to say that most people would predict progress to flatten off or continue at the same rate, but that while he didn’t necessarily believe the result you’d obtain “the correct way to extend an exponential curve is exponentially” and that that prediction said that by the year 2000 we’d be travelling faster than the speed of light.

Of course, as we now know, humanity’s top speed essentially plateaud right at the moment Heinlein wrote those words, because when looking at physical events, rather than mathematical ones, the proper way to extend an exponential curve is as a sigmoid, because rather annoyingly the real world has far fewer infinities in it than mathematics does.

In the 1990s and 2000s, this argument was used by people who were actually in many ways Heinlein’s intellectual heirs — usually right-wing libertarian technofetishists — but with speed replaced by information processing. The argument, as laid out in such books as The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil, runs roughly thus — two hundred years ago, there were no computers. Sixty years ago, there was one computer. Now, there are loads of computers. Therefore, by wishful thinking mathematical induction, soon there will be infinitely many computers, and we can all go and live in them as software ghosts and make the entire universe into a computer.

There’s more to the argument than that — well, to be accurate, there’s more to some versions of the argument than that, Kurzweil himself being the kind of cretin who seriously argues that in a post-scarcity economy where anyone can have all the material goods they need without expropriating others simply by pressing a button, some sort of mechanism to protect intellectual property would become necessary — but that’s the basis of it.

(What’s this got to do with Faction Paradox? I’ll get there, but I’ll take the long way round).

And speaking of right-wing libertarian idiots, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. Widely regarded as a masterpiece of political thinking by a great political theorist, it was in fact for the most part a restatement of the ideas of those great thinkers Sellar and Yeatman — “America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .”

(In fact, in 2002, Fukuyama came into conflict with the singularity people, because he wrote a book called Our Posthuman Future, which as far as I can tell from the summaries I’ve read (reading one book by that idiot is enough for me for this lifetime, I think) says “we’d better stop doing science, in case we accidentally have some more history).

The difference was that Sellar and Yeatman thought that America coming out on top was A Bad Thing, because obviously Britain is best, whereas Fukuyama’s book argued that it was, in fact, A Good Thing.

America taking on Britain’s old role and destiny in the world, leaving Britain purposeless, with British imperialism being revealed as a rather shabby thing — hold that thought for me, before it drifts away.

So anyway, the bit about speed (you remember the bit about speed?) is essentially the basis for all science fiction before about 1980ish. We can quibble about dates and how general that is and so on, but in pop-culture terms, certainly, it’s true to say that SF was the literature of fast travel. It’s practically a cliche now to point out that as well as being about Marxism and eugenics, The Time Machine was about bicycling (Wells clearly modelled his machine on the bicycle), but it’s no coincidence that the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of SF was also the period when the human race’s top speed was increasing. In a handful of generations, the horizons of normal people went from an area a few miles across to, potentially, the world. If that continued, why, we’d reach the stars in no time — and given how strange the people in those other countries were, what kind of people would we find out there? It’s a literature of exploration, whether in time or in space.

Post-1980 SF is, on the other hand, more concerned about the idea of the Singularity, in a very loose sense. Writers like Greg Egan, for example, will write whole novels about the implications of ‘uploading’ one’s consciousness into a computer, or about how faster-than-light travel becomes unnecessary when one can spawn multiple immortal copies and send them through space by radio wave, then merge the copies when they get together again. Post 1980, SF has been about information processing, far more than about travel.

Doctor Who was actually in a perfect position to go in this direction in 1980. While Christopher H Bidmead was script editor of the show, there was an extraordinary run of stories (roughly from State Of Decay through Logopolis) which dramatised perfectly ideas from mathematics, information theory and cybernetics, but in a BBC costume drama sense in which these abstract ideas were reified as places and environments.

It was utterly unlike anything else in SF that I’ve come across (though Neal Stephenson’s Anathem has some of the same flavour, or would have had he had an editor who could have cut three quarters of the book out). The closest piece of TV I’ve ever seen to this run of stories is Jonathan Miller’s The Drinking Party, which like the Bidmead stories basically sticks Plato on screen, though Miller’s film has fewer vampires and aliens in it. Bidmead’s version of the show also followed neatly from some elements of the show up to that point (basically, all those stories either written by David Whitaker or Robert Holmes or directed by David Maloney) (another way of phrasing that parenthetical would be ‘the good ones’).

But then Bidmead left the show, and after some of the usual musical chairs in the Doctor Who production office he was replaced by Eric Saward, whose style has been aptly described by Alex Wilcock as “guns with a capital GUNS!”

The show had lost its way, and from then on no matter how good the TV show or the books and audios based on it were (and sometimes they’ve been very, very, very good), they’ve not escaped from the 1960s paradigm of travel and expansion. The brief promise of a Platonist, intellectual, progressive show was recplaced by one that would always be stuck in the past, and one that would always be materialist in the crude sense.

And the Doctor Who notion of ‘future’ is likewise one that is stuck in the past, and has to be. It’s a future of spaceships and Galactic Empires, not a future of disembodied intelligences whose minds span galaxies.

But of course, a cybernetic, game-theoretic, information-driven view of the world has its own problems as well.

So in the Faction Paradox universe, humanity’s destiny, which was always to transcend the material and become, essentially, gods, has been diverted by the Time Lords Great Houses, at some time around the early 21st century. A few quotes here from The Book Of The War (which you should all own already), specifically the entry on humanity. I’m assuming these are by Miles, because they fit so well with his preoccupations, but of course many other authors contributed to that book, so they could be by any of them:

Thus, it became the prevalent belief among human societies that the body itself was a tool, an extension of the “real” inner self. The result were belief-systems centred on the idea of a soul or spirit, and as scheduled this became the cornerstone of most human progress for years to come.
Anthropologically speaking, it’s clear from this evidence what the ultimate fate of humanity should have been. With every society believing itself to be made up of spirits-trapped-in-flesh, from humankind’s earliest years there was a clear unconscious desire to leave its collective body behind and achieve a non-corporeal state…

By the early-to-mid twenty-first century, intelligence-form technology was certainly in existence. All humanity needed was the will. But somehow, after millions of years of effort, the will had unexpectedly vanished. On the brink of finding its own personal kind of enlightenment, it was as if the human species had backed down and decided to enter a period of stagnation instead.

The Great Houses take over humanity’s role, becoming the embodiments of time and history in the universe, and being more like concepts than people. But they, too, stagnate — the replacement paradigm is just as stale as the old one. By creating a settled history, they literally do end history, both for humanity and for themselves. Earth is reduced to merely having an empire, not being really important, but the Great Houses turn inward and don’t bother about the universe. Because the growth of information processing is just as much a sigmoid curve as the growth of speed (and in fact, it’s about to flatline right about now).

But then an enemy appears, and manages to find a weakness in the Great Houses, who were previously thought invincible. A new concept, a way of thinking that is totally alien to them.

But that new concept isn’t the real threat… the real threat is what the Houses do to themselves when confronted by it…

The War is not, of course, the War On Terror — the concept was created years before the September 11, 2001 attacks — but Faction Paradox is at least in part about the larger cultural problems of which they were a symptom.

And I’m too tired to continue this now, so the stuff about Islam, steampunk and identity will have to wait for another of these posts.

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5 Responses to So What’s Faction Paradox Actually About?

  1. Richard says:

    Totally agreed with your assessments of Fukuyama and the Singularitarians and Heinlein, and not having read any Faction Paradox books I have no opinion there.

    One question about the Doctor Who stuff: do you have any reason to omit Full Circle, the first aired serial to really show signs of Bidmead’s influence, in favor of State of Decay as a starting point? I could even argue that Full Circle is thematically relevant here: the Starliner descendants are never especially bothered to learn they’re actually [spoiler], and we come away with the impression that an absolutely perfect copy indistinguishable from the real thing might as well be the real thing.

  2. plok says:

    Henry Adams has some interesting things to say in his 1907 memoirs, in the oft-mimeographed chapter “The Dynamo And The Virgin”, about the extrapolation of speed…he takes oceangoing ships to be the site of the plainest future intersection of power and economy, something that could’ve been plotted out in the 1890s, even assuming electricity to supply infinite cheap power (the same thing as costless power?) by the first decade of the 20th century. Then he goes on to say that there’s no accounting for occulted and supersensual phenomena like X-rays, but then again once he thinks about it should an X-ray be considered any more occult a phenomenon than a child’s toy magnet?

    Not an easygoing read, but valuable for the insights of the guy who proclaims himself essentially an 18th-century intellect living in a Victorian age and always trying to catch up with it. Then the 20th century hits his worldview like an atom bomb. Recommended for the stubborn.

    The only reason I haven’t bought any FP stuff is because I don’t have a credit card. But I’ve nurtured a sort of Singulatarian spin on Doctor Who for a while now — the idea of Galli (mauf) frey as a time-travelling festival rather than a place, a movable city and civilization that touches down on the Earth occasionally, just for a few days perhaps, in a sort of Charlie Stross fashion…

    Man, I really need to get those books, don’t I?

    Very nice post, definitely suitable for inclusion in a book. Funny! And also, Andrew you scamp, do I detect a reference to ol’ Anna’s Opera At The Met radio essay about Wagner’s Ring?

    “D’you remember Alberich?”

  3. Alex Sarll says:

    It’s so rare to see Old Who in a comparison where it represents the taut, streamlined version of a story rather than the one which bloats horribly because of a bunch of unnecessary running around corridors tiling problems…

    And presumably this is where you’re going next, but I took This Town Will Never Let Us Go to be the reaction of Miles – who had said in the Who context ‘Hey! A big war on the horizon would liven this up!’ – to how very *dulling* of culture a war can be when it arrives.

  4. If this is the sort of thing you write when you’re feeling a bit knackered, all I can say is ‘wow’. For me, the whole thing about the ghost point is possibly the most fascinating aspect of LM’s fiction (also tellingly why Daphne Lawless insists that TTWNLUG in non-fiction with some justification in my view).

    Still not entirely sure that all SF was about velocity up until a certain date, but I take your point.

    And on that note, and quite incidentally, I read Simak’s A Choice of Gods (1970) quite recently and was surprised to find it centered upon a thinking machine designed by another, less advanced thinking machine (all rendered in the usual Waltons terms with robots named Thomas and so on, probably talking dogs too), although as early as 1960 Simak seemed to be writing around ideas of conventional (?) FTL (etc.) space travel being either impossible or pointless, focusing instead on evolutionary matters (thought, form, nature). A Choice of Gods is actually a bit impenetrable I thought although tellingly it was Simak’s favourite of his own work.

    • Alex Sarll says:

      I’ve not read A Choice of Gods, but as a massive Simak fan I do love his recurring topic of humanity pretty much giving up, whether that be to potter around the Missouri bluffs or become giant loping beasties on a gas giant’s moon.

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