Friday, June 03, 2005

Fictional systems

In my ongoing campaign to demonstrate that successful computer scientists have interests outside of computer science, I will use this issue of OS Junkie to introduce you to some of my favorite fiction, written mainly by and about... computer scientists. So much for diversity of interests. However, I find that I derive a strange sense of self-worth from reading fiction in which the main characters identify themselves as "programmers-at-arms" and the like. Professional computer-wrangling, while vital to the modern world as we know it, is still an arcane, out-of-the-way occupation whose practitioners are viewed with good-natured incomprehension and pity by society at large.

This fiction about computer scientists, as you may have already inferred, falls under the heading of science fiction. "Ew," you cry, wrinkling your LCD-tanned nose, "Science fiction, that's low art, unfit for serious personages such as myself. In what little time I spare from the pressing my nose to the grindstone of Serious Science, I read real literature, such as Bridget Jones' Diary and the 10th novel in the Wheel of Time series." It is true - as in any genre, science fiction has its share of total crap. However, you, dear reader, have already self-selected yourself as a person very likely to enjoy what I am about to recommend, by the virtue of reading a weblog about... systems papers. (Really, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!)

The first author I recommend is Charles Stross. I heard him speak at a panel on the Singularity at the 2003 World Science Fiction Convention and bought the only publication of his available on Amazon.com on the strength of about 5 minutes declamation. I knew Stross was my kind of writer when I read the following, from "Antibodies" (part of the Toast short story collection):

I was elbow-deep in an eviscerated PC, performing open-heart surgery on a diseased network card, when the news about the traveling salesman theorem came in. Over on the other side of the office John's terminal beeped, notification of incoming mail. A moment later my own workstation bonged.

"Hey, Geoff! Get a load of this!"

I carried on screwing the card back into its chassis. John is not a priority interrupt.

I think this was one of the all-too-rare occasions when I severely irritated my seatmate on the plane by gasping and giggling repeatedly throughout the story. It was like someone plugged into my brain and started beaming dreams directly into my cortex.

It gets better; Stross's best story (in my opinion) is available online: Lobsters. A good quote:

The box rings. Manfred rips the cover open and pulls out the phone, mildly annoyed. "Yes, who is this?"

The voice at the other end has a heavy Russian accent, almost a parody in this decade of cheap online translation services. "Manfred. Am please to meet you; wish to personalize interface, make friends, no? Have much to offer."

"Who are you?" Manfred repeats suspiciously.

"Am organization formerly known as KGB dot RU."

"I think your translator’s broken." He holds the phone to his ear carefully, as if it’s made of smoke-thin aerogel, tenuous as the sanity of the being on the other end of the line.

"Nyet–no, sorry. Am apologize for we not use commercial translation software. Interpreters are ideologically suspect, mostly have capitalist semiotics and pay-per-use APIs. Must implement English more better, yes?"

Perhaps the best part about Charles Stross's fiction is that it makes me want to go out there and create the future. Most fiction is escapist, about retreating into a fantasy world where, paradoxically, your inability to effect change allows you to let go of feelings of responsibility and enjoy the show. Even most science fiction falls into this category. But reading a Stross story hits me like a handful of Benzedrine, leaving me hyped up and ready to go found a start-up. I don't just want to see the future, I want to make it, starting now! Where's a keyboard and the nearest agglomeration of supergeeks?

I recommend starting with the Toast short story collection and moving on from there to The Atrocity Archives. If you find it worthwhile, email me (use Google); if you don't like it, especially email me. I'm curious to see the inside of a head that likes this blog but doesn't like Charles Stross's writing.

My next two recommendations require less introduction. Vernor Vinge, recent winner of innumerable Hugo awards, wrote about a programmer-at-arms (how I do love that title) in A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Attempting to ascertain which of these novels is better leads to an interminable Emacs-vs-vi style argument among the cognescenti; I have concluded that it's a matter of personal taste (for me, A Fire Upon the Deep and Emacs). Neil Stephenson is perhaps already well known enough that I am wasting precious bandwidth and wear-and-tear on my carpal tunnels by even typing this, but perhaps one or two of my readers have not yet read Cryptonomicon, another novel that makes me want to run out and found a start-up.

And now, an open invitation to send me email about your favorite systems papers, leisure time reading, or hot new start-ups. I usually respond to most email; use of three syllable or longer words, traditional punctuation, and succintness will get you a response sooner. Discovery of my email address is left as an exercise for the reader.