The Rapture of the Nerds

Warning: This entry is probably only of interest to science fiction fans. I won't be offended if you skip it. There's a bit of general interest stuff towards the end.

Let’s see – where was I? I worked late in my hotel room again on Friday night after a day at the WorldCon. Saturday morning I got up around 7 and started a blog entry about Shanghai, and before I knew it, it was 9 and I hadn’t even showered yet. I got ready quickly and made my way over to the convention center by way of the Starbucks which was conveniently located on the second floor of the building my hotel was in. There are two other Starbucks between there and the Pacifico, so I had plenty of choices. I grabbed a latte and muffin and continued on my way. It had rained a little earlier, but was clearing up.
My first must-see wasn’t until noon, so I popped in on a session that was mostly in Japanese. A little background to set this up. Sakyo Komatsu (the Japanese Writer Guest of Honor) had been a prominent figure for many years, and been involved with a number of movies, so when the first Star Wars movie came out, producers there looked to him to capitalize on its popularity by making a Japanese space epic. The original plan was to actually get the movie done before Star Wars was released in Japan in 1978, but planning and production drug on and on and it wasn’t until 1984 that Sayonara Jupiter came out. Technical and budgetary constraints conspired to result in a very different movie than Komatsu and his collaborators had envisioned; there seems to be some disagreement about many points, but pretty much everyone agrees that Sayonara Jupiter was not the movie it could have been. Therefore – talks of a remake, doing it right this time.

It was kind of dark in the room, but you can see Komatsu (the small old gentleman) and the director of the 1984 movie (in black with his hand in front of his face). The others at the table were involved in various capacities, including co-writing, design, and so on.

There was a very helpful Japanese woman who sat with us foreigners at one side of the room and translated at least the gist of what was being said. The moderator (in blue at the far end of the table) spoke excellent English, and occasionally would repeat for our benefit as well. It’s hard to say at this point if the remake will ever get off the ground, but it seems that it might be a worthwhile project.
Next up was a panel called “Mundane or Transcendent?” which started out as a discussion about how important scientific plausibility is in science fiction. Panelists were (left to right) Patrick Nielsen Hayden (an editor at Tor Books), Charles Stross (writer), Cory Doctorow (writer and electronic rights activist), and Robert Silverberg (you remember him, right?). This is the modern version of a discussion that’s been going on in the SF world since it began: at what point does the science in science fiction become so far-fetched that you have to call it fantasy and not science fiction at all? Which leads to the differences between SF and fantasy and so on. Silverberg’s definition has fantasy as basically the fiction of the unreal, whether it’s magic and dragons or computers and aliens, and so SF is a subset of fantasy. The preponderance of elves and magic swords in fantasy over the last few decades has led us to forget that fantasy is really much more than that. But one dividing line many agree on is that modern fantasy is at its core fiction of the past, static and fixed, while SF looks ahead (or sometimes back) to change.

I think it was in this panel that the phrase “Rapture of the Nerds” came up. It refers to a possible phenomenon also called “Singularity” which (according to writer Vernor Vinge and others) is what happens when computer technology gets to a certain point that it cannot go beyond. There are many ways of describing it, but writer Ken MacLeod came up with “Rapture of the Nerds” as a humorous synonym.
This panel was called “The Killer B’s.” This is a nickname that has appeared in the SF world due to the names of three prominent practitioners: David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Greg Bear. Brin and Benford were both in Yokohama, but Bear was not, so we got Bob Silverberg. One thing they all have in common is that they have written works connected in one way or another with Isaac Asimov. Back while Asimov was alive, Silverberg wrote novel-length versions of three of his most famous short stories; Brin, Benford, and Bear have each written a volume in a series based on Asimov’s notes for unwritten volumes in his Foundation and Robots universe. Aside from talking about the Asimov-related writing, they got into quite an animated discussion about global warming. They are all in agreement that it’s a huge problem and governments have been tragically lax about dealing with it, but disagree strongly about what should be done. Benford is involved in a plan to seed the upper atmosphere with substances that will hopefully block sunshine and slow the planet’s warming trend. Brin strongly feels that this is foolish and possibly quite dangerous. He favors the simpler tactic of “fertilizing” the desert parts of the oceans where little life currently exists, increasing both food production for people and counteracting greenhouse gases with increased CO2 absorption. Please excuse me if I don’t have these descriptions right – I didn’t take notes.
Here’s the kind of thing you see in the halls at an SF convention – with a Japanese slant.
Many Japanese women wore kimonos.
Here’s a robot flashing his private parts in public.

Next I went to see a screening of the two pilots for ArchiTECHS, which was a proposed TV series for the History Channel in which David Brin and a panel of technical and design people would each week tackle a problem and have 48 hours to come up with solutions. In the first one (which we actually saw second), a retired general asked them to redesign the Hummer, since it is getting old and obsolete, and was not designed for the kind of use it now sees in Iraq and elsewhere. The team came up with a really cool design (all practical and using current technology) that used a small diesel engine primarily as a generator and used four electric motors mounted with each wheel. The wheels used a design from the Mars rover which doesn’t involve inflated rubber. It had lots of other improvements, including a clever shield design on the underside that should help protect from explosives hidden in roadways.

The second pilot found a slightly altered team visiting the New York Fire Department and coming up with ways to help fight fires in high-rise buildings. They came up with a whole raft of things, some pretty far-fetched, some very down-to-earth.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, but apparently the History Channel didn’t find it to their liking, so it remains an interesting might-have-been. It’s apparently been shown a couple times in odd late night time slots.

After that I walked back to the hotel, and in one of the malls, there was something odd and noisy going on.
It was some sort of promotion for an energy drink, and they had erected a climbing wall and kids were trying to get to the top.
Not far from there was a familiar-looking restaurant.
After dark, the Ferris wheel displays a light show. The patterns change, making spirals and all sorts of elaborate shapes.

I got back to the hotel, checked my email (no work!) and looked over the pictures I’d taken. I had music playing, but eventually I realized that I was hearing something else from outside. I looked out my window and saw that some musicians were performing outside the train station. I grabbed the camera and went down to check it out.
First up were two guys. They were pretty good, with melodic rock that reminded me a little of The Pillows (a Japanese band that will not be familiar to most Americans). When they finished their set, another group started playing.
This is Kaede and a guitarist. She was very good, with a strong, soulful voice (though she didn’t sound like she was trying to imitate American styles). She did three or four songs, and the other band resumed.
Meanwhile, Kaede chatted with bystanders and sold a few CDs.

1 comment:

  1. Getting all excited to hear about WorldCon and the adventures of JD in the land of Sci-Fi and what do I see when I try to visit the web page at work? This Page has been Blocked, company resources blah blah blah. How do they expect me to be productive at work if I can't see how things are going on across the world. Sheesh.
    What a very cool experience, I really hope Seattle gets it in 2011 so I can be relatively close.