"Red Mars" / Life is so Uncertain
On the offhand recommendation from Termie my first addition to the new Kindle (which I named "Dark Future") is Red Mars, a step back on the literary skill ladder from Jonathan Franzen, but plenty interesting. It's sociological science fiction; a story about the colonization of Mars, but not about any of the usual tropes. Or at least not yet, and it doesn't feel as though little green men are about to crop up.
It's about pioneer society. There's lots of hard science-fiction about machines and atmospheres and landscapes and whatnot, but really it's about people, how they form consensus or don't, how they deal with the powers that be back on Earth — which are still in close communication, but functionally cut off — and what ultimately drives them to engender the reality in which they live.
It's entertaining so far (1/3 of the way in) and thought provoking too. You can just imagine Arkaday (the "frack the Earth and let's make things awesome our own way" radical) speaking in the voice of Slavoj Zizek, down to the pointed critiques followed by "I don't know." My enduring affection for the sci-fi genre is precisely its ability to explore large amorphous human topics such as "what makes a worthwhile society" without having to thrash about in the bounds of realism. Literature that can do this successfully is brilliant, but bloody hard, and often runs afoul of obtuse or didactic failure. Just stick 100 scientists on Mars and make 'em work it out with no existing authority structure, and there's a pretty good pretense.
Anyway, reading about a fictional engineer's amazement at exploring the Martian north pole made me wonder a bit at how I'd gotten to be where I am, sitting in bed reading this book on a fantastic technological device, listening to my other roommate named Andy play improvisational guitar — he works on the Google for serious (the index) and is a talented musician too; left brain/right brain in full effect — sounding kind of spanish, kind of western, kind of awesome, thinking about how my big plans for the weekend are getting some rest, not getting sick, talking to my mom, Skyping with my girlfriend — another technological marvel — and seeing my friends and family in the East Bay. I'm thinking about how the latest contest of the establishment vs the web is underway. I'm thinking about what the next decade will bring.
I've always had a little of the pioneer spirit; don't take naturally to the institutional bubble. I like owning my own business. I like the freedom to be creative. I like the open road. At the same time I've grown a hearty appreciation for the focus and springboard that (the right kind of) structure can bring. Institutions feel cramped and lazy-making, but a good set of rules is the proverbial lever by which one might move the world. The right set of circumstances, environment, set and setting; that's really where I smell opportunity. My next venture is aimed squarely at making it radically easier, faster, cheaper and safer for people to share and create information online. It's a good business case, but it's got some important moral heft to it as well.
Tonight it feels good to feel grown up. Tonight it feels like the past few years out in the country were a sort of seasoning time, a necessary removal from the busy day-to-day of city life that I might re-enter the crush of human affairs with a stronger sense of self. Having a special lady friend doesn't hurt either; keeps me grounded. What better to do with my weekends but hang out with best friends, their babies, and read books? Not a lot. Ten years ago I wouldn't have believed it; ten years from now what will I think? Hard to say. Life is uncertain, but I'm looking forward to finding out.