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Sunday, 8 March 2015

Distributed futures: William Gibson and J-pop

This past week I discovered Japanese idol pop, thanks to the AV Club's Primer article offering an introduction to the genre. I was after something interesting to listen to while at work, because I was doing a lot of data entry, and I seized on this after having read and sampled the music from the more recent Primer article on UK synth-pop (which, incidentally, reveals the secret link between "Round & Round" by Dead or Alive, "I Should Be So Lucky" by Kylie Minogue and "Never Gonna Let You Go" by Rick Astley. Mind blown).

I didn't spend too much time actually reading the article, or even watching the videos, as I was looking for something to listen to while burning my retinas out staring at spreadsheets. But the little I did read confirmed my suspicion that Japan is a sci-fi society already.

This may be a strong statement to make about manufactured boy- and girl-bands purveying willfully inoffensive pop for tweens and teens (pervy old dudes). After all, Britain's Girls Aloud got their start on a TV "talent" show, and we've subjected ourselves to countless boy bands from the New Kids on the Block to N*Sync and the Jonas Brothers. Hell, even Menudo has a rotating cast of singers and a set of draconian conduct rules.

But where Japanese idol pop stands out is in its naked exploitation of talent for the explicit purpose of cultural supremacy. Here and in Europe, the manufactured pop bands always some kind of nod, half-hearted or not, toward artistic integrity - not there. It's not uncommon for bands to have strict rules about age (ie, can't have the singers be too old and gross, like over 20), and musical innovation and individuality appears to be pretty ruthlessly stamped out - I love the anecdote in the Primer about girl band Perfume's single Polyrhythm, for instance.

My favorite, however, is AKB48. The article notes that AKB48 has around 130 members, divided up into teams and subgroups. This division allows the band to be present at multiple events all at once - one group could be playing a live concert, while another does a TV appearance, while another opens a 7-11 in Chiba, etc. They also provide vouchers for meet-and-greets with the band in their physical CDs, which has ensured that listeners actually buy the music, rather than downloading or pirating it.

Reading about all this, it struck me that William Gibson's comments about the future being here already were really true - this all sounds like something you'd get in a dystopian novel, but it's actually happening right now. This article from Wired does a nice job of encapsulating why his fiction has focused on nearer times, rather than on predicting trends - which is what a lot of people seem to think SF is for.

There's a vein of writing that likes to point to all the things that SF has accurately predicted (like iPads) and an equally strong vein that likes to point out all the things that SF didn't predict, such as flying cars and robot butlers. But I find it interesting in that Wired article how Gibson realized that to make the future weird - which is the actual job of an SF writer - he needed to get a sense of how weird the present was.

And I think that's becoming a much more difficult task, as the rate of change, if not innovation, accelerates. Back in high school, I read Earth, by David Brin, a novel set 50 years in the future. In the preface, Brin notes that 50 years is a pretty difficult time range to create - if you only go 10 years into the future, all you have to do is take a particular trend and amplify it, whereas if you go 1,000 years forward, you can create pretty much any kind of society you want.

I suspect, though, that 10 years is starting to become difficult to portray now, because despite the fact that most of us will still be around, we really don't have any clue what it'll look like. Ten years ago Google had just gone public, Apple was rebooting the music industry, and Facebook was for college students only. Now they're some of the biggest companies in the world, but it's by no means implausible that their positions will be usurped by some other company.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that, if you want to write about the future, you need to do a lot more research about what's going on now. Positing a future where child sexuality is normalized by teen pop stars being leered over by grown men loses some impact when you learn that it's actually happening right now, in Japan, with that AKB48 group. A presidency that's both degenerately corrupt but insinkable exists in Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi's refusal to be excluded from national politics. And Russia's 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko could be the plot of a number of SF stories - as could the downing of MH17 over Ukraine this past summer.

Or to put it another way, there's a lot going on that we could be incorporating into our stories - our responsibility as writers is to make sense of it for everybody else. And if it seems too outlandish for some, well, we can always point to the real story that inspired us - which is half the fun of writing this stuff anyway.