Geoff Ryman, 2004

It's the year 2020 and the next generation of the Internet has arrived. This one, called Air, requires no machinery: it is accessed directly by the brain. First, however, the brain must be formatted, and it's not an elective process: the program is beamed around the world, and anyone in the broadcast area is affected. To Westerners, with a quarter century of web surfing behind them, moving from virtual to literal cyberspace is a fairly seamless transition. But to the villagers of the hinterlands of the Central Asian republic of Karzistan, most of whom have never made a telephone call before, it is seriously traumatic.

During a test of the brain formatting program, one of these villagers, an illiterate middle-aged peasant woman named Chung Mae, encounters a glitch in the software and absorbs the psyche — one might even say the soul — of a dying elderly woman, Mrs. Tung. For the rest of the book, Mae and the old lady struggle for control of Mae's body. Meanwhile, Mae commits herself to getting the recalcitrant village, whose technology tops out with a single television set, to get caught up with the modern world so that it can handle the coming of Air. And even though it's not scheduled to go online until the following year, Mae discovers that thanks to the bug, she can actually access Air at will — and that it's much more than just a fancy version of Firefox.

I read this book because I had disliked so many of the books I had read recently that I had begun to wonder whether I liked fiction at all. Geoff Ryman had written one of my favorite books so I thought I'd try another of his novels. It was very similar to Was in a lot of ways, both thematically, in its exploration of the power of the past, and stylistically — both books have a virtually identical melancholy tone. Was clicked for me more than Air, partly because the characterization in the former seemed to me a little more deft, but largely because I care more about Kansas than about Karzistan and care more about broken girls than about sour middle-aged women. Still, it was nice to read a book I liked, even if I didn't love it.

Commentary: the technological singularity
I first encountered this phrase a little over a year ago, in Mike D'Angelo's article on the subject. The basic idea (for those who didn't click the link) is this: For ages, people expected that humans would live their lives in more or less the same way forever. And for hundreds of thousands of years, this was basically true. Then, with the advent of agriculture and the development of settled communities, they began to develop a sense of history, of change over time — sure, the world in which you died would be little different from the one into which you were born, but over the generations, your village might become a city, or your people might move to the other side of the mountains. By the 19th century, some were finally beginning to expect to see significant changes within their own lifetimes; Mark Twain asserted that his was the first generation for which this is true. Twain's father grew up with horse-drawn wagons and longhand mail sent by sailboat. So did Twain himself. But Twain's father never knew anything else, while Twain died in 1910 having spent his later years riding on railroad cars, talking on telephones and tapping out his books on typewriters.

I am old enough to remember when typewriters were ubiquitous. My dad's office had three of them, and I had one of my own to use as a toy. But by the time I was old enough to need a typewriter for serious schoolwork, the process of composition had fundamentally changed. Mine was the first generation to take word processors for granted, the first for whom the ability to take a printed paragraph apart and rearrange the pieces with little more than a thought, the way I've been doing while writing this article, was nothing out of the ordinary. The two generations before mine called it amazing technology. Previous generations would have called it magic.

The idea of the singularity is based on the notion that the pace of technological progress has been accelerating so quickly that not only can we expect the way we live to change radically over the course of our lives, but that it will change in a way that alters the very definition of what it means to be human. Since we currently are human, this means that the future — not the distant future, but the near future, the future of pretty much everyone under about the age of forty — will be basically impossible for us to imagine. Air takes a shot at imagining one possibility, and even its relatively humble projections hint at how inconceivable the future could turn out to be. For instance, let's talk about porn.

One of the first people to get on board with Mae's plans to modernize the village is a teenage girl named Sezen. When she imagines what Air will be like, her first thought is nonstop music. Her second thought is nonstop porn. And then she realizes the implications of what she's just said: " will grow as normal as birds. We will all be birds, we will all be naked, all be brave. The clothes will drop away..."

Erotic statuary and the like have been around for millennia, but until recently, if you wanted to masturbate to something other than your own imagination you were probably out of luck. Porn was all either public or restricted to the very rich until the era of mass production. Even in Twain's time, the only readily available pornography was textual, as photographs were more expensive than prostitutes. Heck, even as recently as my own adolescence, porn was difficult to get hold of. I remember that when I was in junior high I saw kids swapping Playboys they'd nicked from their dads and older brothers — they were considered precious commodities. (At the time, I was years away from puberty, and by the time I was old enough to be interested in such things, I'd learned how to set the VCR to secretly record Cinemax at three in the morning.) Even those old enough to simply buy porn couldn't do so privately — there was a cashier to deal with, or at least a mailman. But then came the Web, and suddenly an endless amount of porn was instantly available to anyone with a computer, for free. In its own way, it's as important a development as running water. And yet it still pales in comparison to what Ryman posits in Air.

Because as Sezen realizes, in Air, everyone's brain is linked together, all that input available to everyone. Before about 1895, if you wanted to see a depiction of a certain sex act, you couldn't; before 1995, it was a laborious and embarrassing process; now it's easy, no matter how obscure the act in question; but Air is more than just one more step in the same direction. See, on the Internet, I can see any number of porn stars naked; I can even see quite a few celebrities naked; what I can't do is see the girl I have a crush on naked (unless she likes me back and has a webcam). But in 2021? If there's someone who catches my fancy, I can just wait till she's taking a shower or something and be her for as long as I want — see through her eyes, feel what she feels, and all without ending up in a ditch in New Jersey afterwards. The Internet of 2006 allows me to communicate effortlessly with people around the globe, but the telepathy of 2021 isn't just another form of communication; by networking everyone into a hive mind, Air creates a new kind of organism.

And the thing about the tech singularity is that something like this might well happen, much sooner than we think. It seems crazy to set the date for the transcendence of humanity a touch more than fourteen years from now... but fourteen years ago it was 1992, and while that doesn't seem like very long ago — hell, I was more than halfway through college — it was long enough ago that I couldn't imagine the world of today. I know, because I tried. I wrote a story set in 2002 and thought that it'd be really clever and futuristic to have one of the characters be a reporter for a version of the Los Angeles Times... that you got through your modem! That's right, she was one of a handful of people writing for the online edition, which was a few pages long, and appeared in ANSI text, and was only available to subscribers, because you had to call in directly to download your copy onto the enormous computer on your desk. Ah, the far-flung future of 2002! Hell, Ready, Okay! was set in 2005 and I still had people using diskettes and treated cell phones like fancy toys for the rich. When I think of 2021 I tend to think of it as being pretty much the same as today, only with hoverbikes. The idea that by then something fundamentally transformative, like teleportation or immortality, might have made our lives and our very selves unrecognizable seems farfetched. But it's probably more likely than the alternative.

So is that good or bad? That's also in large part what Air is about. Most of the villagers are in denial about the coming of Air; Chung Mae is initially the only one who insists that they prepare for its arrival, but even she tends to think of her task in much the same way as the survivalists in the nuclear war books I read this year. It's only after Sezen starts in on the porn and teases out the implications — "we'll jump out of our bodies and fly, and the world will all be dream, and the dream will be all of the world" — that Mae has an epiphany: "Air will be wonderful. I didn't know that."

Others are not so sure. The old lady who occasionally takes over Mae's body interprets any change to her way of life — boiling laundry in a pot and hanging it on a line, collecting rice and trading it to the village down the hill for chickpeas, young people dancing the traditional dances to the traditional music — as an attempt to kill her. Which, in a sense, it is, insofar as her definition of self includes the vanished world she came to know as a child. One of ifMUD's conventions is to refer to your past or future self by appending the relevant year: Liza1978 might request a pony or Iris2017 might ride off on her hoverbike. In Air, the village party of progress argues with the luddites that in these rapidly changing times, you have to "live the change": that just as Mae2018 became Mae2019 became Mae2020, Shen2019 must become Shen2020 instead of screeching about how the year 2020 is trying to kill Shen2019. But again, this is a fairly new development. Mrs. Tung was able to live as MrsTung1959 for sixty years, because she lived in a village on the top of a mountain in Central Asia where nothing ever changed.

Commentary: Third World
One of the striking features of Air is that it is set entirely in the fictional republic of Karzistan. I am no science fiction aficionado, but I don't imagine that there are many SF novels in which every single page takes place in the Third World. It's one thing to depict the arrival of the transhuman age from the perspective of people who are already wealthy Western geeks; it's quite another to portray it from the perspective of characters — representative of more than half the world — who can say, "My mother keeps a goat in the living room and we sit on the corn cobs we eat for furniture." I suppose this isn't surprising, coming from Ryman: the 19th-century Kansans he writes about in Was are basically peasants themselves, just under another name. (I guess that name would be "hicks.")

Air has some interesting observations about the Third World mentality which dovetailed both with something else I'd read recently and with my own life. Chung Mae (like some of the characters in Was before her) is utterly contemptuous of anything she views as naïveté. There's a government official, Mr. Oz, whom she considers a little boy because of the way he earnestly tries to help her. He secures for her a government grant to start a business and create an online presence for her fellow villagers, and when Mae learns the terms of the grant, her reaction is very interesting: "Mae kept listening for serious conditions. But there were none. No interest? No percentage? Mae was enraged. What kind of foolish government was that, to arrange its business so badly? How could it prosper? Were they all children, like Mr. Oz? But praise the gods — Luck, Happiness, whatever — for giving them masters who were so naive." So the government is genuinely attempting to serve its citizens, and the citizens take this as a sign of weakness.

Not long ago I read an article about the implications of trust in the government. It discusses a book called Ar svensken manniska? by two Swedish historians. According to the article, the thesis of the book is that while many people look at Swedish socialism and assume that the Swedes must be a collective along the lines of the Borg — the Bjorn Borg, as it were — Swedes are in fact much more individualistic than any other people in the world, including Americans. Swedes pay half their incomes in tax, and in turn, they have created a welfare state that offers such services as child care, unemployment insurance, care for the elderly, and so forth. This means that unlike people in other countries, Swedes do not have to rely upon interpersonal relationships for such services. They don't have to stay on good terms with relatives they don't like in order to hit them up for loans later on or ask them to look after the baby for a while. They don't need to get involved with a church for the sake of a safety net, or maintain the appearance of friendship with people in order to trade favors. Far from hampering people's freedom, in short, the welfare state ensures true independence.

Of course, that assumes that the welfare state actually works as it is supposed to rather than as a kleptocracy. The article notes that Swedes have "an incomparably high trust in the biggest collective of all: the state." This trust appears to be well deserved: Transparency International ranks the Swedish government as the sixth least corrupt in the world, behind those of Iceland, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark, and Singapore. It's no coincidence that these are also routinely rated among the most livable countries in the world. Mae, in her disdain for honest officials, is like someone from a bad part of town coming to an affluent neighborhood and sneering at all the rubes too stupid to lock their doors and put bars on their windows.

In my job as a tutor I encounter people from a variety of backgrounds, and dealing with those from the Third World can lead to a bit of a culture clash. I work for a company. Sometimes these families will try to get me to violate the terms of my contract and cut the company out of the picture: "Don't worry so much about the rules! We want to have a personal relationship with you!" They don't seem to understand that I like rules more than I like people. Even when they don't do exactly this, the same sort of mindset tends to make itself evident somewhere along the way. Recently I dealt with a family from Kashmir. Nice people, but again, they seemed to imagine that they wouldn't get my best effort merely by paying the going rate for my services. "Don't think of this as just a job — I want you to feel like you're part of the family, doing us a favor that will someday be repaid..." To a lot of people — including many Americans, which is part of why I consider the US to be in many respects a third-world country — family ties are one of the only things they feel they can rely on. A client at work you try to rip off, but you do whatever you can for your kinfolk. Me, I'm the opposite. I take my duties as a tutor extremely seriously. Any sense of obligation based on mere genetic similarity pales in comparison. I guess that culturally I'm a Swede at heart. But I can't move to Sweden because I don't eat herring.

Commentary: talking dogs
This book has a talking dog in it.

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