The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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In Defense of Progress

I am, in general, quite the fan of Ken Liu and his (prolific) string of beautifully written and diverse science fiction. Yesterday, however, he tweeted two statements to which I take strong exception:

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 12h9:26 PM – 2 Jul 13
I don’t write scifi that tries to imagine a “better” future because I fundamentally don’t think human nature changes. There’s no “progress”.

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 9:27 PM – 2 Jul 13
The future is both better and worse because technology just magnifies our existing tendencies.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many people, including friends and colleagues, in recent times. I’m not sure if its the hangover from post-modernism or just an extension of the disaffection of the times. I suspect it is a combination of both, perhaps mixed in with a little neo-liberal angst about the fact that the civil rights movement, while a momentous step forward, hasn’t yet actually solved the problems against which it arose.

Whatever the cause, I think the belief that we never make progress (moral, social, political, or technological) is not only ideologically self-defeatist, but also simply wrong on the facts.

Here were my responses to Liu:

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:52 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 I respectfully disagree. We have a long way to go yet, but think of what we have accomplished with civil rights, disease, & war.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:53 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 For example see: I am often saddened by the world, but believe in humanity and scifi’s role in shaping it.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:54 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 Discrimination, segregation, & misogyny remain rampant, but few would say that we are worse off than 1960. Visionary writers help.

I am a teacher in an urban public school. I will be among the last to say that we are even close to solving the problems of structural racism, ethnic/class/sex/gender segregation and discrimination, and economic and social exploitation. And anyone paying even marginal attention to the news around the world today may find little that is heartening.

But to claim that we make no progress denies the hard-won successes on so many fronts by brave people that brought us closer, step by painful step, to the day when we actually live up to our stated ideals.

The article I linked to in my reply tweet to Liu is about Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes several points that many disaffected contemporary citizens might find surprising. Chief among them is this one:

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

The trend holds true even accounting for the advancement of destructive technology:

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Further, with respect to human rights:

The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)

I won’t rehash all of Pinker’s arguments and supporting points here. Read the article (and really, the book) if you are curious.

My point is threefold.

  • The advancement of scientific ideas has saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people through medicine and medical technology, agriculture, sanitation, informatics and data, structural engineering, civil infrastructure, and countless other applied fields, all of which rely on advancements in the pure sciences as their foundation. Science has also opened up our eyes to the big picture of who and where we are in the universe, and helped us to see ourselves as one species on a pale blue dot. It has also proven 19th century philosophers wrong by showing that human nature is essentially collaborative, not brutishly selfish1.
  • The advancement of moral, philosophic, and socio-political ideas2 has liberated countless people from slavery, bondage, discrimination, persecution, superstition, and prejudice through the spread of humanism and rational thought.
  • And last but certainly not least, the advancement of cultural ideas through the production and dissemination of art has repeatedly forced people, societies, and governments to face and analyze both the beautiful and ugly sides of our nature, and served as the catalyst for change in modes of thinking, living, and treating each other.

Of course these battles are not yet won, of course we’ve sometimes taken two steps back for every one forward, and of course many of the leading people and ideas in these movements were flawed3. But to focus on these narrow aspects with the smug satisfaction of neo-liberal hindsight is missing the forest for the mushrooms at the base of the trees.

These liberating forces (Science, Philosophy, Art) are not about individuals, but ideas — of grand movements that span generations, in which the contributions of individuals join like droplets forming a river.

Let’s bring it back around. Where is science fiction in all this? I don’t mean to unfairly single out Liu, as I think this goes well beyond any individual. And as I said before, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Liu, his writing, and what he has done for science fiction. He just happened to tweet something which irked me and now here I am on an idealistic rant.

Liu is a prominent writer, and deservedly so, in the field of science fiction. As a consequence, I think his remarks, even off-the-cuff ones, can do much harm. These remarks can propagate the myth that science is somehow “equally good and bad” (or worse) in affecting human condition (see above, I think it has been unequivocally an overall force for good4. These remarks can entrench the contemporary negative trends of looking inward, to what is about ME, rather than outward, to what is about US and what we could accomplish together if we tried. And these remarks can encourage other science fiction writers to abdicate their responsibility to further social, technological, and ethical discourse about both the present and our shared future.

There is progress. Science fiction is a genre that has both the power and, I would opine, the moral obligation to help shape that progress. To quote a progressive warrior from decades past, I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

And I think Liu welcomes it too, whether he consciously admits it or not — his fiction has arguably done more to increase diverse and progressive thought in science fiction than that of perhaps any other writer of which I am aware, at least in the past couple of years. Those are welcome drops in the river.

Eyes on the prize. March on.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Though I would say certain economic structures can definitely promote selfish behavior.
  2. For the western world, this means most particularly the Enlightenment. However, there are analogs of this idealogical reformation in the history of many cultures around the globe.
  3. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was by many measures a hypocrite; he also helped craft the very documents and ideas that the civil rights movement used to justify emancipation and desegregation, and the inspiration for other progressive movements around the globe. Yes, Hemingway was a chauvinist; that doesn’t erase his damn fine prose and insight into the human struggle for meaning. Have we become so polarized even in thought that we can no longer handle these gray superpositions?
  4. See also my philosophy of science education for further discussion.

Boskone: Writing Advice – The Next Level


Writing Advice: The Next Level (Saturday, February 16, 2013)

Writer Nick Mamatas says, “By the time someone finds their way to a panel at an SF con, stuff like ‘Don’t quit your day job’ and ‘Read widely’ and ‘You have to finish a story before you submit it’ is no longer necessary. There is certainly a need for higher-level advice. I had a student recently who had never heard of Freytag’s triangle.” So let’s elevate the answers, people — and the questions.
Jeanne Cavelos (M), Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, David Anthony Durham


Cavelos opens with a question to the panel: What are some pieces of advice you would give to a new professional writer just starting out?

Bear quotes a fellow editor: “I read a really great story the other day, but it fell apart at the end. It made me sad.” Says this quote points out two things. Firstly that endings are really key, you can’t just leave your story without a solid conclusion, regardless of how great the ideas and characters are. Secondly, the editor is your advocate, not a gatekeeper. They are looking for good work and the want to publish you. You need to give them a good reason why.

Durham remembers that as a young writer, he was a pretty arrogant artiste, focused disproportionately on the literary as opposed to the story. He says he had an attitude of “they should read this for their own good.” This led to problems, doesn’t recommend for getting you anywhere in the field. Also emphasizes that plot is essential. As a young writer he was all about the literary fads of character and mood, but something has to happen. As a writer, you should be  looking at your characters and asking yourself, can I *do* that, is it something that is actionable.

Bear agrees and admonishes new writers to simplify their prose, make it clear and sensible. Don’t use obfuscating words like obfuscate.

Cavelos observes that a lot of new writers seem to struggle with structure. Suggests a quick practical way that can do a lot of good is to think of the story in three stages. Protagonist needs a goal, always motivating everything. Then put this in a three-part structure: there should be two turning points before the climax. The turning point means that, due to some conflict or challenge, the protagonist has to change his/her goal or approach to the goal in some meaningful and emotionally significant way.

Cavelos continues into style, comments that it is under-appreciated by new writers. Should be aware that style has meaning. Long sentences increase emotional content, we are trapped and flowing with the sentence. Short sentences deliver punch and impact.

Durham says you must read widely, even the genres you don’t write.

Bear talks about the bane of her existence when she was a slush pile reader: “the curse of the Page 2 (or Chapter 2) flashback.” Start with the first interesting moment and NO EARLIER (and certainly no later).

Cavelos goes back to what Durham said about plot. It’s such a let down to have great situations and ideas, but no plot. Raise the stakes! The worst form of this is when writers don’t want to harm their characters. Bear continues with this thread and says you should get your characters into a corner that YOU don’t know how to get them out of. Then either stop, figure it out, or kill them. A lot of times you find that a story finally works when something has to break irrevocably.

Meacham finally gets a word in edgewise and comments on the importance of reading/writing nonfiction. She suggests that writing nonfiction, even blogging, is a great way to build the core skill of writing good exposition. She says the world in which the story is set is itself a character — treat it as such.

Bear talks about what makes worlds realistic: “The real world is inconsistent, but it’s inconsistent for a reason.” She gives the example of how Russian dashboard cameras were able to catch incredible video of a recent huge meteorite streaking across the sky. On the surface, there is no reason for why a bunch of Russian drivers randomly have dashboard cams. But it seems that there is a lot of crime and the police often are complicit, so citizens need their own evidence… so there is a reason for it.

[So basically, acknowledge that people’s behavior often doesn’t make sense, or make decisions that an outside perspective would consider rational. Compare this to J. Rios’s comments on what makes mythology credible in the panel Mythology in Science Fiction.]

Durham admonishes writers that readers can often lose track of the main story if you are distracting them with too many shiny things. Remember that side and back stories should be in there only to inform the main story. If the tangent is really that interesting, write that story instead.

Cavelos says that the questions editors leave on your manuscript are likely to be the questions your readers will have. Maybe you want them asking those questions, maybe not. But they are there to help you.

Bear says something that is hard for writers to do is remember that words and both malleable and expendable. Treat them as such. Learn to let go when you have to. Sometimes structural problems mean you just need to start over with the same premise and pieces. Also, confusion is not the same thing as ambiguity. And don’t preach.

Audience member asks what the panel’s opinion is on workshops.  Meacham says that they tend to homogenize the talent that shows up, but concedes that it’s always useful to receive informed criticism. Durham recalls that writers in a workshop often have such a diversity of genre that it’s hard to find a common base of what we are trying to say in our stories and why. Bear is very negative on workshops, saying they can break people, often unfairly. Cavelos (who runs the Odyssey Writing Workshops) counters that they provide opportunities to diversify your writing, build a network, and can also be very empowering.

Audience member asks about their writing process. Answers are so all over the place that I won’t even bother writing them. There is no consistent process. Find one by writing.

Boskone: The Changing Face of Science Fiction


The Changing Face of SF — Editorial Viewpoints (Saturday February 16th, 2013)
If you want the widest possible view of the ever-evolving science fiction landscape, ask a bunch of editors to tell you what’s really happening. (And who, and why.) So we did.
Jim Frenkel (M), Ellen Asher, Shahid Mahmud, Beth Meacham, Julia Rios

Frenkel (Sr. Editor at Tor) opens by commenting that it is becoming a “multiverse of media and genre” with many areas of writing that were once separate blending (gives examples of fantasy and manga). He says that in some ways it feels like the 1960s again, with political questions coming to the forefront and linger issues of civil rights and white backlash. And that there are counter-trends to these trends as well.  With regard to what gets published, he says “we don’t print anything that we don’t already have orders for”. He labels Steampunk a fashion statement, and comments on the prevalence of urban fantasy and paranormal, etc, says that in the face of these trends there is still good hard SF out there, for example from Stross and Vinge.

[I note that Stross and Vinge are, though certainly hard science fiction, also mostly concerned with electronic / cyber / AI / computer type subjects. I would suggest that these subjects, while remaining important, have taken a back seat to bioinformatics and bioengineering in the past decade. I would love to see more hard science fiction in those areas, rather than continue to beat the cyberpunk drum from the 1980’s and 1990’s.]

Asher notes the existential crisis of science fiction caused by the fact that it is now popular. Almost all top-grossing movies and many of the top TV shows are science fiction. SF has won the culture wars and doesn’t know what to do with itself. Geek is no longer an exclusive cult, and that is creating conflicts of identity, of who is a “real” geek or fan. She also claims that the audience for hard SF is now the smallest part of the field.

Rios highlights the recent trend of online magazines becoming respected places to publish work and look for award-winning science fiction.

Meacham says that SF has been leading the field (of publishing) in getting things online and into digital formats. Comments on how even Newsweek recently has changed over to digital only. She says that at F/SF moves further into the mainstream, we should start to act like it, demands the respect of a genre that is being such a leader.

Mahmud reiterates the popularity of the blockbusters of science fiction and fantasy like Tolkein and the new Star Trek movies. “We are living in Science Fiction now.” He recalls Nimoy once saying that the cellphone is now far better than the communicator. He hopes to see more crossing of genres and even leaving behind the idea of genre entirely. Asher counters and says that maybe genre will continue to create smaller and smaller subdivisions with the ease of dissemination and clumping with people who share your view. An extreming of genre as opposed to leaving it.

Rios bemoans the amount of steampunk, alternate history, and dystopia out there. Wonders if it is the fact that we now live in a world where so much is changing so fast. Is it impossible to predict in such a world?

Many of them go around about how science fiction has always been political (Frenkel mentions Apollo 8 earthrise photo), about how SF claims to be about the future but is and should be about the present, a commentary on our times. Meacham wonders then why we don’t see more climate change dystopia, or other scientific challenges that we face.

[Overall I really enjoyed this panel, but I am curious why — especially in a session called The Changing Face of SF — no one broached the subject of diversity in the genre. By my own rough estimates, the conference was about three-fourths over 40 years old, two-thirds male (and most of the females were artists, not writers), and about 99.8% white.]

Review of “Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction” (Anthology)

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science FictionMenial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction by Kelly Jennings (editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crossed Genres has released a great collection in MENIAL. Rating an anthology is always difficult, because my ratings for individual stories tend to vary. I would really like to give MENIAL a 3.5; alas, that is not an option, so I’ll go conservative and 3 it is.

Here’s the good. Firstly, I LOVE the theme of the anthology. MENIAL focuses on the people whose lives, hopes, struggles, and dreams would never have crossed the minds of the bridge crew of the Enterprise. They are the common folk, the laborers. The sometimes reviled, but more often ignored. And they are always at the mercy of the exploitation of those at the top of the food chain, and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of chance. Secondly, as with all of what Crossed Genres publishes, MENIAL features characters whose meta-identities are disproportionately ignored or invisible in the greater tapestry of speculative fiction (in authentic ways at least). By these I mean anyone but straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males. Not that such characters (or writers) are bad or need be eliminated from the genre, I hardly mean that at all. Just that their stories should not be 99% of the stories being told. CG does a fine job of advancing the genre on that front, and MENIAL is no exception.

For the above reasons alone, I strongly recommend taking a look at this anthology, especially if you are a writer. Exposure to the perspectives of the speculative working class and the conflicts of identity presented herein will make your own reading and writing more aware of all facets of the human element.

Here is my complaint. I’m not one who believes that “speculative fiction” means that you can do whatever you want. Believable worlds (even imaginary ones) must be self-consistent, and I believe many of the stories in the anthology fall short on that count. Advancing diversity in the genre should not come at the price of diluted rigor.

Science fiction should most certainly speculate on what we think could be true; and certainly no holds barred on anything we do not know for sure cannot be true. But if you are writing fiction that blatantly violates known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, there had better be a damn good (and explained) reason. Fantasy is not exempt: superheroes, wizards, and Jedi all must use their powers in particular ways, which are governed by rules that create consistent limitations (and interesting plot points).

As one example, if your story takes place in an asteroid belt (especially ours), then it is ludicrously improbable that one could be suddenly hit by one. The asteroids are hundreds of thousands of kilometers apart, with relative velocities perhaps in the tens of kilometers per second or less. It is highly unlikely that you would even be able to see another asteroid while flying near any particular one, and you’d have days or weeks to see one coming (especially with the level of technology required to have private spacecraft flying around). You’d have to intentionally try to hit one, and it it would be difficult to do so. This is simple math on facts that are not hard to look up. I’ll leave it there with this one example, but I highlighted close to forty instances.

In several stories, it was never really explained why such menial positions exist for humans at all, given the level of technology explicit or implicit in the milieu. Though several of these stories had interesting characters and consistent science and technology, it was hard to concentrate on the story when the engineering part of my brain would remind me every page or two that “we already have robots that could do this… faster, cheaper, and better.” This is of course a hugely unexplored consequence of the future trajectory of the “knowledge economy.” As Pournelle says, if you invent a technology that drives the truck for you, what do you do with the truck driver? No doubt this made writing stories for MENIAL quite difficult.

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an excellent job of seamlessly integrating the theme into a solid story without sacrificing rigor or consistency:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • The Belt, by Kevin Bennet (though I question the effect of one major collision)
  • Air Supply, by Sophie Constable
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet<
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen (absolutely fascinating projection of nanobot technology into military use)
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an exceptional job of rendering believable, authentic characters who promote diversity in science fiction without being gratuitous:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Carnivores, by A.D. Spencer
  • Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead, by Angeli Primlani
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

And double props to the following stories which made at least one of the above lists AND did it through great prose (i.e., the writing itself was also enjoyable):

  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

I note that Ember is the only one to make all three lists. I wish it were more science fiction than fantastic, but I can’t argue with how much I appreciated it as a work of speculative short fiction.

I will conclude with a positive as well. MENIAL has definitely been a strong influence on the process of planning a novella/novel I am working on, through which I am attempting to explore social justice issues projected forward into a near-future, space colonization setting. As one of my main characters would probably fit in with many of the protagonists in MENIAL, it’s easy to see how I have this anthology to thank for many new ideas which are now simmering.

In sum, notwithstanding my ranting about consistency, I think that MENIAL is worth the read (especially for the particular stories that I called out) and also to support the diversification of the genre.

View all my reviews

Boskone: Dataliths – Digging the Idea of the Programmer/Archaeologist


Dataliths: Digging the Idea of the Programmer/Archaeologist
Our GOH Vernor Vinge has posited that as computing-based civilizations age, layers upon layers of legacy code build up in vast — let’s call them dataliths. Who gets to dig through them for valuable info? How do they do it? Isn’t our data already in pretty deep doodoo in this regard?
Janice Gelb (M), Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Gary D. McGath, Dana Cameron

Stross opens by mentioning that we are obsolescing file formats at an ever-growing rate. Some of this is intentional, related to corporate greed, media consumption, and encryption, and DRM. Brings up the example of Microsoft’s .lit format, which was trying to compete in the ebook market but then was discontinued. Now the license servers for the protected format have been shut off, because there is no financial incentive to keep them up, which means that content that people bought in .lit is now unreadable.

McGath points out how ironic it is that we are in an age of so much data, yet so much of it is actually inaccessible. Calls it an approaching digital dark age.

Stross starts nerding out about an idea he has had for super-compressed solid state information storage, called memory diamond. Carbon-12 would be a 1 and Carbon-13 would be a 0 for example, and you could compress information into a very dense space. Note: I think this is a cool idea, but I also note that it still considers information storage in the paradigm of binary digits. What about quantum computing, which is near on the horizon? Or other natural phenomena which have many more possible states that two, and in which information could be usefully embedded?

Vinge talks about how we have so much redundancy of information. The same file has zillions of copies around the world, all of which have to be stored. He then moves to a larger topic of what do we do when civilization falls? How will we preserve our knowledge and culture for future generations and civilizations? We can’t rely on a particular data format that is proprietary and would never be resurrected. We would need stacked layers of ever more complex generations of data, that could be read and reinterpreted after a fall.

Cameron (the archaeologist): We would need something like a Rosetta Stone for data, for future civilizations to access our culture. I am trying to think about what an archaeologist of the future would want to know, and how best to store and format that information for them.

McGath counters that it is a tricky thing to try and determine the line between what we want to preserve and what we should preserve.

Cameron: culture through the eyes of individuals is the holy grail of archaeology and anthropology. With data we have an amazing opportunity to have that continuous spectrum of the broad down to the specific and then back up again. Even the mundane details of everyday life would help inform theories and ideas about the macroscopic scale system.

Stross wonders about convergence instead of divergence, citing figures that 80% or so of the operating systems out there have converged to either iOS or Android, and these have very similar architecture and heritage. (iOS is from Unix/BSD line and Android from Linux). Note that he is including the huge number of mobile devices out there, which more and more are outnumbering actual “computers” in the desktop and even laptop sense. 

Audience questions conclude with interesting discussion about the role of libraries, particularly public libraries in storing, archiving, and retrieving the data of an age. Calls for innovation on this front.

Boskone: The Year in Short Fiction – 2012


The Year in Short Fiction: 2012
Short fiction may be making a welcome comeback, in both print and e-media. Let’s discuss last year’s most notable stories. What new authors and markets are emerging? What promising trends are developing? What are we already getting tired of? What can we look forward to for 2013?
David G. Hartwell (M), Jack M. Haringa, Don D’Ammassa, Toni L. P. Kelne

Hartwell opens with the statement that is “an extraordinary time” for short fiction, and that we seem to be in the early stages of a revival that we haven’t seen the likes of since the 30s and 50s. He recommends reading “Old Paint”, which appeared in Analog last year. He remarks that he liked it despite that fact that it is “sentimental, which is hard to take in science fiction.”

(Note: Compare this to comments made in the Mythology panel, in which an audience member also commented about the expectation that science fiction be cerebral. My opinion is that if science fiction really does want to expand into new markets, its going to have to actively fight the image of being solely for cerebral-minded men who like spaceships. There is SO MUCH of current and past science fiction that does NOT fit this stereotype, and plenty of room to expand it outward as well. I’m not criticizing Hartwell… he is a giant of editing and no doubt knows the field better than I could hope to. Its just that the offhanded remark kind of struck me as a common theme that I’ve been seeing in a lot of the panels and other discussion around SF.)

Hartwell highlights the contributions of Robert Reed and Ken Liu to the body of short fiction produced in 2012, remarking that one of the hardest things about the year was deciding which Ken Liu story to include in just about everything.

Hartwell goes on to praise Liu’s recent work with translation, saying that he hopes this will become part of a larger trend towards more translated works. He says there is a huge untapped universe of non-US science fiction work out there since the 1950s that we simply don’t have adequate access to. Specifically, he would like to see true comparative criticism of science fiction across nations and languages, that compare movements, ideas, and reactions between cultures.

Haringa says that 2012 was a great year for collections and anthologies and thinks the trend will continue. He points out that the rise of POD and small presses does mean that there is more crap out there, but also that there are more avenues to get out there for formats (like novellas) that are hard for the big presses to touch.

(There is a back and forth here for several minutes between Hartwell and Haringa about the role, quantity, quality, and trends of small presses, particularly with respect to print periodicals. I was not able to follow the conversation, but my interpretation was that their disagreement came down to semantics on what constituted a periodical.)

I asked the question about what specifically they were getting tired of and what we could expect for 2013.

Hartwell: There is a proliferation of new markets and a fanning out of where the field is at any one time. The downside of this is that its impossible for any one person to really stay on top of what’s happening in the field, but the upside is that there are a lot of opportunities for new young writers. He sees trends in examining artificial intelligence particularly in light of the biotech revolution, and what the new bioengineering era will bring in terms of visionary futures.  He is tired of zombies and vampires.

Kelner: anthologies seem to be rising and hope to see more of them. Tired of stories that are all mood and no plot. 2013 trends will probably include more crossed genre work, blending of fantasy, science fiction, horror, urban fiction, etc.

Haringa: Noticed a lot more submissions for the Jackson awards from university presses. This seems like a good sign that we have infiltrated academia as a genre. Used to be they wouldn’t touch us as a serious genre. Tired of the dystopian boom, but thinks we’re probably dropping off of that anyway since it was likely jut a reaction to the sudden instability of the times. Hoping to see more short story collections and great themed anthologies in 2013.

(Note: I wonder if the reason anthologies and collections are selling well is the coherence of theme. A magazine issue is a collection of short stories as well, they generally aren’t related. Whereas an anthology can be marketed and sold as a diverse set of variations on a particular theme that may be of interest to the reader.)

Boskone: Mythology in Science Fiction


Mythology in Science Fiction
    How have myths and fables from our past affected SF writers’ development of fictitious off-world or future-world mythology? Are most of their myth systems just the old stuff dressed up with different names, or is anybody coming up with anything truly new? Does a mere hint of myth make an SF story a fantasy?
    Julia Rios (M), Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman, Margaret Ronald

Doyle: Myth is great for structure. Use it as a template.

Gilman: As humans we make patterns and map the heavens — this is how we navigate the unknown. Stories are mapmaking, stories are cosmography — little candles to help us along the way. They are the intersection of the familiar (story tropes) and the totally alien.

Rios mentions that Western stories are often the template, and wonders if we are telling the same stories over and over again, in space.Refers to the dichotomy between known myths on the one hand and the totally new on the other. (Note: I think there is room for the in-between. E.g. myths that are not totally new, at all, just unknown to the bulk of English-speaking readers. Why not bring in more eastern, middle-eastern, african, and native mythologies from around the world? Some of these are used more than others, in more or less “diversity-shopping” ways, but I think there is a huge set of untapped possibilities here.)

Panel and audience mention some sci fi that do mythology well: Stross’ Accelerando, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Anderson’s Goat Song.

What are the oppositions between science and myth? Cursory discussion.

I ask the question, what makes a mythology credible in fiction, and is that related to what makes it publishable? Ronald responds that she would have to believe that this is a story that would be voluntarily told over and over again, because it is really a story about the people who tell it. Gilman says that stories are the old way and the best way, those that are told over and over again. Ronald continues that the mythology can’t be “too tailored” to the story, e.g. too convenient to the plot or characters to where it seems contrived. There needs to be some sort of cognitive dissonance related to a sense of awe. Rios says that she thinks what makes a mythology believable is that everyone sort of has their own take, that the story is told over and over but in different ways, and that the whole thing is actually inconsistent leading to a modicum of instability and dissent. Real myths and real societies are inconsistent, and it is a mark of human authenticity to be so.

Gilman: A good mythology should give us “the illusion of a huge cultural space” behind what we see.

Audience member points out that the mythical tends to stimulate the emotional side of us rather than the cerebral side, which is counter to the purist notion of what science fiction is. (Note: I think some of the most wonderful science fiction out there is on the more human side… consider Flowers for Algernon, GATTACA, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… excellent books and movies that many don’t even consider to be science fiction because they are so human, though of course they are.)

Panel considers the difference between a story based on a mythological template (mythology of the writing) vs a mythology that is espoused and believe by the characters (or encountered by the characters).

Gilman wants to see more stories that alien races tell about themselves, with writing that has something to say about who we the audience are as humans. What would an AI that just woke up believe about it’s origins? If it were truly intelligent, would that mean that it would create a story about its own beginnings and purpose?

Boskone: Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?


Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration? Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon

Gannon opens with the observation that the internet has increased the speed at which debate and negotiation can move forward. A query or proposition can be researched to a shallow extent very quickly and responded to in minutes or seconds. This is now the speed of business. It is like a cold war if information speed… if you can’t respond faster than the competition you may lose the deal. So this is driving shallowly researched dialogue.

Kelly comments on information hopping and how distracting it is to look up something and then get fascinated by a whole trail of information and find himself hours later reading about something totally different.

Graykin says the internet has greatly improved her research, reduced her patience, and reduced her reflection. She finds herself wanting things instantly, even not on the internet.

Pournelle opens with a sociopolitical tack, quoting someone that a sufficient condition for the end of a totalitarian state is the fere exchange of information within it. Proposes a gameshow of sorts for Iran called “Name That Prophet” in which all the winners and everyone else wins ipads that can’t be blocked (say via satellite link). Then liberate the minds of the people using them as a “cultural weapon of mass destruction”. (No public comment, but as Gannon said in a later session, “silence is not consent”.)

Gannon changes the direction and cites a Pew study in which 73% of people thought that the internet will make us smarter, with enhanced intelligence over time. Murphy responds that he doesn’t think that it’s making anyone smarter, but it is increasing access to the tools necessary to do so. Pournelle points out that the internet allows access to information from anywhere, so that smart people even in the middle of nowhere can now access knowledge, and further that the internet will “make the smart people smarter.”

Gannon says that technology is like a lens, amplifying whatever trends are already there. Draws analogy to a supermarket. If everyone had unlimited access to a supermarket, you wouldn’t get a population that was healthier. People already disposed to eating healthy might be eating the healthy food, but you’ll find most Americans in a pre-diabetic coma in the Twinkie aisle. As a professor he observes that the depth of analysis and thinking of his students has gone down over time, but the number of ideas and threads that they can hold in parallel and combine at once is higher.

Graykin notes that IQ tests can be biased and only really measure the ability to take an IQ test. Gannon seems to agree by making a comment about how it definitely depends on what we claim intelligence is.

Pournelle speaks disdainfully of political correctness and goes off on a rant about how IQ tests are the best single measure of human potential ever invented. This rant last several minutes. (Again, I don’t really think I need to comment here.)

Murphy tries to bring the panel back to less polemical topics by trying to segue into the marshmallow test (kids who could resist instant gratification ended up doing better later on), and trying to connect that to how the neuroplasticity of our brains is possibly changing our response to stimuli.

Pournelle responds with another rant about how there is no credible evidence for Head Start.

Kelly steps in as moderator and diverts the conversation to depth of thought and distraction, which Gannon is quick to back him up on with a brief discussion of ADD/ADHD and a balanced summary of its increased prevalence in society. Graykin tries to join in by remarking that flipping focus is physiologically stressful and these hormones can have negative effects.

Gannon recommends two books for further reading, The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus,

Opened up for audience questions. I ask Graykin (since I had heard the least from her) what observations she can lend to a science teacher. She lit up and responded with great advice. Firstly, to ignore quasi-intellectuals and polemicals and get to the real science, which is moving faster than any textbook can be. Passing on facts in the age of the internet is redundant, but the need for the mental skills necessary to filter, process, analyze, and synthesize that information is more in need than ever before. (Note: See What is 21st Century Education? for related thoughts.)

Questions I didn’t get to ask: What is the role of the digital divide in this? If the internet is truly changing our brains, then does that mean that those who do not have access (or choose not to have access) are not changing, and what are the social consequences for this phenomenon?  Also, what about the homogenizing effect resulting from the fact that a single cultural hegemony controls a disproportionate level of the discourse and media on the internet?

Boskone: Reinventing Sherlock Holmes

As I’ve been mentioning on my twitter feed (but am now realizing that I forgot to blog about) I am at Boskone 50 this weekend. As New England’s oldest science fiction festival, Boskone annually brings together writers, artists, scientists, and fans of science fiction and related literary fields. I’ll be tweeting (@quantumcowboy) on hashtag #boskone and sending out rapidfire (and largely unedited and unrevised) blog posts whenever I get a chance.

I just hit my first panel and took a break for dinner since I was starving. So here’s my first report from the front.

Reinventing Sherlock Holmes
From Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. and beyond, how does the dashing Victorian detective keep pace with the changing times? How do the new films and television shows measure up their predecessors as well as to the fictional sleuth who first wound his way into the hearts and minds of the reading public through his unparalleled wit, tenacity, and relentless deduction? What more might be in store for the old boy in the future?
    Joe Siclari (M), Brendan DuBois, Tony Lewis, Vincent O’Neil, Toni L. P. Kelner

Overall a general discussion of fan favorites and how the interpretations of the great detective have changed over time.

DuBois pointed out that one of SH’s unique characteristics is his (“borderline asperger-ish”) obsession with his current task at hand. He referred to Holmes’ famous remark, in which Watson asked him if he didn’t know about the earth revolving around the sun, to which Holmes replied with something to the order of that it didn’t make a difference to him so why should he waste the brain space on it. Made me think: so much of the discourse now (certainly in teaching) is on interdisciplinary knowledge and how each subject study and mode of self-discovery can influence all of the others. “Cross-disciplinary ideas”, “STEAM” (Science Technology Engineering ART and Math), and the nonlinear nature of innovation are examples. I wonder if a single-minded character that relies so heavily on direct, linear logical deduction runs the risk of being seen as archaic in the modern world.

(As an aside, I am now thinking that whole Holmes character kind of assumes an underlying reductionist/deterministic view of the world, which fits perfectly with Victorian times I suppose. I love the BBC show, but in a “real” sense, is a Holmes-like character really credible in a more holistic age?  Or societies with more holistic worldviews than the Western tradition typically has featured?)

Tony Lewis clearly has a huge trove of knowledge on the subject and did have many thought-provoking points. I latched onto a remark he made about “Mary Sue” fan fiction (will need to look this up, but it’s something related to Star Trek and female fans wanting to melt Spock’s cold heart). He seemed to be implying (I’ll assume best intentions and say unintentionally) that women writers’ interpretations of Holmes can be lumped into the same category of mere fantasizing or fan fiction. I was happy to see Toni Kelmer (the only woman on the panel, btw) push back on this and rise to defend and clarify the role of female interpretations of a Victorian classic.

During the Q&A, I asked the panel if a non-Western Holmes could be both credible and authentic. DuBois, Kelmer, and O’Neil responded in the affirmative, but we were close to the end of time and I wasn’t able to press for much in the way of details. DuBois mentioned a character (didn’t catch the name) who channeled Holmes as non-Western character though still with “Victorian sensibilities”. Siclari mentioned that he had heard of Indian interpretations of detective stories and though he had never seen/read them, he knew that they existed. O’Niel followed up with the observation that Holmes’ take on crime was that “the more bizzare the crime, the easier it is to solve – it’s the simple crimes that are the hardest to solve” as a universal statement.

Other interesting topics that came up which I don’t have time to write about right now:

  • Lewis suggested that the three major hero archetypes (unsure of the scope) were: Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood
  • Moriarty as the archetype of the twisted genius, a truly brilliant criminal who is the spider at the center of the web.
  • Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” (bookmarked for later).
  • The possibility of Sherlock Holmes as a lower class hero instead of the Victorian elite.

More later.

Arc 1.3 Competition – Science Fiction

Link: Arc 1.3 Competition – Science Fiction

Found my writing project for the next month. Game on.

Arc, in collaboration with The Tomorrow Project, is looking for new, original stories – between 3000 and 5000 words – set in the near future. Technology, from robotics to synthetic biology to geo-engineering – should be featured prominently. But we’re looking for stories, not theses, and the human element will have to be compelling.

The current theme for submissions is “Post Human Conditions”. We want you to explore the post human condition and tell us what you see. Is humanity due for a make-over? Dare we change ourselves? And into what? Fifteen or twenty years from now, will we have made ourselves happier, or not? What will “happiness” mean to our children, and their children?

You’ll find our own approaches to that theme throughout Arc 1.2. Distinctive, thoughtful visions inspired by this theme are more likely to be successful, so it’s very important that you follow the first rule of writing and read the magazine first! Arc’s editors will select one story for publication in the next issue. We will pay £500 for that story and £200 for each of five shortlisted stories.