Orion’s Arm – The Beginning (Part 1)
M. Alan Kazlev
Editor’s note – Mr. Kazlev’s essays, based on personal notes and recollections, provide a fascinating look at the beginnings of the Orion’s Arm project. For another view of the beginnings, see co-founder Donna Hirsekorn’s article (insert link to V:FT article here).
- 1. In the beginning was the Singularity
The collaborative worldbuilding project known as Orion’s Arm began, appropriately enough, with the Singularity.
Well, not actually The Singularity; that hasn’t happened yet. I mean the Singularity meme, the idea of the Singularity (In the beginning was the Idea…).
The year was 27 After Tranquillity (1996 by the common reckoning). I had just discovered 21*C, a funky futurist Australian-American magazine (their aussie office was just a few klicks up the road from me) that was to only last a few more issues. At the time I was interested in cyberpunk, and had made a number of efforts at writing a novel. Like other authors, I had the usual problems –false starts, giving up half way, not having a good enough plot to hang my characters, and the like. I was also struggling, with even less success, with a SF story with a scientifically realistic background, set five centuries hence, at the time the solar system and oort cloud were being colonised. I had a very conservative timeline, inspired by the slow rate of progress in space exploration then (nothing’s changed!). I tried (still less successfully) to write assorted interstellar space stories. My views of far future technology were pretty conventional too – eventually FTL would likely be discovered and man would venture among the stars. Not that I ever articulated it in such a systematic manner (I knew that it was impossible to try to predict the sort of technological advances or social changes that would occur centuries hence), it was more a broad generalisation of how the future might be like.
Issue #23 was the first issue of 21*C I bought, the reason being that there were the letters “The Original Cyberpunk” on the cover (an interview with John Shirley, who established the genre before Neuromancer was a glint in William Gibson’s eye). Aha, Cyberpunk! (as I said, at the time I was right into that stuff). But when I took the mag home and read it, it was not the John Shirley piece that grabbed me. It was an article on the Singularity by a certain Steve Alan Edwards called “Mind Children”. Mr Edwards had emailed a number of extropians and transhumanists and wrote the article on the basis of their responses to his queries, prefaced by his own generic comments.
At this time I never heard heard of Vernor Vinge, or “the Singularity” for that matter (apart from the concept as used in physics and so on). But those five pages changed my life. After I read the article, I knew I would never be able to look at the future in the same way again. I gave up my rather lame (in the sense that the story wouldn’t come together) attempts at space stories, but still played around with cyberpunk, this time incorporating nanotech ideas and so on. Nothing really worked. In the end I gave up trying to write science fiction altogether.
One other thing about the Edwards article I forgot to mention. In the list of half a dozen transhumanists he corresponded with, and whose replies were included in his article, was a 24 year old graduate student from Sweden, by the name of Anders Sandberg — more on whom a little later.
- 2. Fans and Franchises
In 1997 I bought a new computer and finally went online. This was my first encounter with the internet, a whole new world to explore. I spent some time in the chatrooms and IRC subculture, and made some good friends. Especially I liked to hang around on the Star Trek IRC channel, where we had some good times. I was also fascinated by the whole concept of an internet community.
One thing I observed from my time on IRC was that it was not unusual for fans and enthusiasts of an Sci Fi franchise to be a lot more thoughtful and imaginative then the scriptwriters. This was both in coming up with ideas and concepts, and even story ideas, that were a lot better than those that appear on TV, as well as pointing out the numerous inconsistencies in the franchise’s universes.
Another thing I noticed at the time was the way that Viacom/Paramount (which owns the Star Trek franchise) treated the authors of the fan sites. You would think that if someone goes to all the time and trouble of putting up a website, praising or exploring some aspect of that franchise universe, without making any money at all out of it, you would think the executives would be pleased. But no, they stomped on them with jackboots, you are in breech of copyright, you are using photos and images from the TV series without our express permission, remove these images or face legal action forthwith… You know the story. (Viacom/Paramount is not the only one to act so. LucasArts appears to be just as heavy-handed with anyone who uses Star Wars material).
These two observations, that fans are smarter (often a lot smarter) and better at both science and science fiction then the people who actually create the franchises, determine the screenwriting, and so on, and that fans have a lot of enthusiasm for their franchise, led me over time to develop an amazingly subversive idea. Imagine if the creative content of an entire franchise was determined not by the suggestions and the vetoes of executives and producers (people with great money-making ability but unfortunately not so capable at speculative story-telling imaginative) but by the fans themselves.
To be continued…
More about M. Alan Kazlev here.