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Phatic extropians

Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow collaborated on a short story entitled “Jury Service,” which has been serialized on The whole story is up now. Fun reading for geeks. Not entirely deep, though; I’d kind of have to classify it as what eluki bes shahar calls phatic text.

I.e., it’s very comforting fiction. To a certain class of extropian geek, reading this is like drinking a glass of warm milk. The story is in service of the extrapolation: Huw is secondary to the cool transhuman technology. I am, alas, not compelled by Huw — I’m compelled by what happened to him.

This is not a bad thing per se. Science fiction (as does most genre literature) has always had an element of the phatic to it; it’s part of the outsider culture that revels in the knowledge of difference. There’s a body of knowledge to science fiction reading, in that fans can be expected to know what a hyperdrive does (or what cyberspace is) without a lot of explanation. Elements of that shared body of knowledge serve as phatic signifiers, letting the reader know that he or she is in a familiar place.

Some books also progress beyond that, adding new elements to the vocabulary. Larry Niven invented the flash crowd. Daniel Keyes gave us the concept of enhanced intelligence. H. G. Wells gave us the Moon. There’s an importance balance; the comfort of existing elements provides a base on which to build the new. Phatic text is a necessity, in fact.

The interesting thing about “Jury Service” is that it’s extropian phatic text. It’s not at all clear to me that the extropian concepts inherent in the story are really part of the common memes of science fiction just yet; I think Doctorow and Stross are changing that with this and other similar stories. See also, of course, the father of extropian SF Neal Stephenson. I suppose, come to think of it, that Vernor Vinge is the grandfather. Bruce Sterling is the dirty old uncle, and any metaphor which resorts to a dirty old uncle should probably be put out of its misery around now.

Is this just cyberpunk? No. It differs from cyberpunk in that cyberpunk was not a product of technologically savvy authors. The stuff I’m talking about is informed by the cyber, and has not a whole lot of punk in it. The story of how Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter is legend, and it says a lot about the differences between the cyberpunk ethos and the extropian ethos.

Sterling reinvented himself as a tech-savvy writer pretty early on, mind you, but I’d argue that this really was a reinvention. Note that the top ten nonfiction book list in Cheap Truth #4 is more interested in social sciences than in geek cred.

So, yeah; phatic text, but perhaps not phatic in the usual ways. I’ll have to think more on this.

Edit: Cheap Truth,. not Cheap Trick.


  1. t.rev t.rev

    _Cheap Truth_, not _Cheap Trick_.

  2. Can I just run everything I write past you for fact checking? Galling, since I spent some time reading through them. The accurate reference wasn’t exactly unobvious.

  3. t.rev t.rev

    Sure, if you’ll critique my research statement.

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