Monday, November 24, 2008

Sign of the Times

and it's not a good one, either.

According to GalleyCat, Houghton Mifflin, one of the biggest New York publishers, has stopped acquiring new manuscripts. This is supposed to be a temporary measure, but it is still unnerving in these uncertain economic times.

We can only hope that the publishing industry as a whole will be able to weather this storm and come out stronger in the end.

Friday, November 7, 2008

It Doesn't Work Because It Hasn't Really Been Tried

Today is the 91st anniversary of the Great October Revolution (which occurred on October 25, 1917 in the Julian Calendar, which Russia was still using at the time). It ushered in a time of high hopes and utopian dreams that were based upon a system doomed to fail for the simple reason that it runs counter to the fundamentals of human nature.

However, at the same time we live in the midst of millions of successful communistic societies -- ask any exterminator about the resilience of an ant or termite colony. And not all of these are harmful pests, for many familiar fruits and vegetables depend upon bees to pollinate them.

The eusocial insects' societies work because of their reproductive strategy, in which there is only one reproductive, while the others are sterile children or siblings of the current reproductive. As a result, kin selection leads them all to pull together when a society in which all are reproductives would pull apart.

The phenomenon of kin selection also helps explain why what Marx called "primitive communism" can actually work -- the societies involved are small enough that the community is effectively coterminous with the kin group. Since everybody is family, there is a strong incentive to help one another out without worrying about one's own benefit accrued -- a benefit to a close relative is essentially a benefit to one's own posterity.

As a result, science fiction writers have often tried to imagine a society where different reproductive strategies enable communism to actually work on a large scale for intelligent beings. For instance Eric Flint, an avowed Trotskyist in his politics, populated the world of Mother of Demons with the owoc and gukuy, eusocial mollusks who are just beginning to develop cities and a roughly Bronze Age civilization.

But the possibility of eusocial strategies doesn't have to be limited to weird aliens in a universe that includes the ability to modify human beings at will. The Borg of Star Trek have used cybernetic technology to turn themselves into a hive society with a single Queen who seems to serve as much as a controlling brain as a mother of all living. Less grotesquely but still rather disturbing, the First Family of Patrick Tilley's Cloud Warrior and its various sequels are portrayed as being the genetic source of mass of the populace of the Amtrak Federation, who are apparently sterile.

And Charles Stross in his fascinating, almost surrealistic Missile Gap
suggests that the Communists, faced with the enmity of eusocial insectoid races, may well have resorted to transhumanism to realize their own ideals in one or more iterations of human history found on the giant disk.