Sunday Dec 09, 2007

Chasing Perfection

Spoiler alert for Cory Doctorow's "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow"

Someone asked for my favorite output of Cory Doctorow's. Easy choice for me, as it's the short story "Craphound," the lead-off entry in the "Place So Foreign" short story collection and the piece that lends its name to Cory's website. I love Craphound because of the contrasts it paints, in very short form, reminding us of what it means to be human. Doctorow is a sci-fi author who eschews aliens, at least on space opera stages, and yet an alien figures prominently in this story - not to imagine perfection or advanced evolution, but to serve as a both a sidekick and foil for the human hero.

The story also reminds me of why I collect pucks and hockey cards and Hard Rock Cafe pins and hockey jerseys and biblical era coins and neatly organized and classified other piles of things, because they remind me of my childhood, or a place, or a time. Collecting is about searching, whether for the perfect piece to complete a theme or for the last of an item that you need to have for the sake of having. Sometimes there is perfection in uniqueness. Uniquely and decidedly human, yet touching on perfection. That's why I continue to re-read and listen to the podcast of "Craphound," because Doctorow reminds us of the joys of being human, and of remembering the joys of our childhoods, as expressed through things that trigger that joy in that memory.

Contrast that endpoint with the story line segment drawn by Thomas Klise in "The Last Western," a book referenced by Doug Horning in his baseball tome "The Boys of October." In Klise's book, a poor boy emerges as the ultimate professional baseball pitcher, commander of an unhittable fastball. As the perfect games mount, Willie, the protagonist, goes from hero to villain, reviled by fans for ruining their pastime with his perfection. Most people refer to "The Last Western" as a religious book, part fictional biography and equal elements hagiography, putting perfection into the light thrown by our respective belief systems. When encountered, whether through a perfect fit for that hole in your collection, a perfect baseball game, or a perfect number, perfection reminds us that most of the time, we live in a world of chance and choices, not all of them ideal or best, but all adding to the unpredictability of being human. Perfection in small doses is massively fun; experiencing it creates a short story to be retold of witnessing a perfect game, a perfect goal, or closing the last-minute eBay bid on the perfect bit of historical context. If we believe that sports performance is based on equal mixes of science and intent, it is a small leap of faith to understand how people mix sports and religious metaphors with zero intent of blasphemy. Lake Placid's Miracle on Ice anyone? The Immaculate Reception in Steel Town? Barry Bonds looking up to his father, still, after hitting a home run? Princeton University president and noted researcher Shirley Tilghman said "we must avoid the suggestion that science and faith are mutually exclusive — they are different manifestations of the human experience."

Perfection, faith, science and memories of our youth: there you have the ingredients for Doctorow's "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." The 3-part story is set in 20-year increments, paralleling the timing of the rotating stage of Disney's Carousel of Progress, a Tomorrowland attraction whose theme songs lend their titles to this story. Jimmy, the protagonist of the story, is given immortality by his father through a set of genetic experiments. It's the stuff of science, not religion. Through the first two parts of the story Jimmy works hard to undo his brush with perfection, at least from a chronological point of view, while simultaneously decoupling his being from the Carousel of Progress itself, which his father had rescued, cared for, and effectively turned into the moss-covered family credenza of Jimmy's lost family. The Carousel isn't just a family heirloom; it's the future perfect, the plus parfait view of what might happen.

Genetic manipulation and immortality conspire against Jimmy, as he ends up in truly virtual form. A scientific and computational view of perfection, perhaps, until Jimmy discovers that there are bugs in his perception of his avatar that make perception clash with his long-lived human experience. Is he perfect, and yet still affected by the work of humans? Is he human, reflected in the tag line and title of the story, always looking to the great big beautiful shining through the night, or at least through some variable transparency in his rendering platform?

I'll admit that at the end of the podcast, I felt elated, that Jimmy had merged immortality and humanity in some way; I felt relieved, that Jimmy's extended family was united in a construct that felt destructive until that point; and I felt confused, in that the resolution felt less human, and therefore less real. I extruded equal elements of Robin Williams in "What Dreams May Come," Chris Moriarity's "Spin State" and the very end of Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, all of which blur the line between perceived experience and physical being. If, as Doctorow suggests, we can rest assured that "now is the best time of our lives," then there's really no difference, and Jimmy should enjoy an endless ride around the carousel, each circuit shared with the ever-changing experience of his family.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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