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To Boldly Go…Where We’ve Been Before

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and The Game of Thrones.

Single Crash

Last summer while staying with a friend, I watched reruns of the TV series Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as Paladin, a mercenary gunslinger and “problem solver” in the Old West.  The series presented a classic example of the myth of redemptive violence: Paladin preferred to solve problems without violence but was handy with a gun or fisticuffs when forced, and by golly more episodes than not the bad guys would still pull a gun or a knife and poor Paladin would be forced, just forced to kill them.

Violence has been and always will be part of our cultural narratives and entertainment, but the myth of redemptive violence resonates strongly with Americans. This is not surprising, give the birth of the American nation and concept of liberty in a violent revolution, as well as our self-perception as coming to the rescue of the world in two world wars.  Redemptive violence, and in particular the image of villain lunging forward with a weapon forcing the hero to kill him or her (see, for example, Dirty Harry, Fatal Attraction, even Jody Foster’s Anna and the King, and many, many, many more movies and TV shows), has become a ubiquitous trope in American entertainment; no wonder we, as a nation, are puzzled when our attempts to solve political problems by violence backfire.

Nonetheless, I found Have Gun Will Travel interesting, in part because the series provided a training and testing ground for a generation of television directors, not least of whom was Gene Roddenberry, whose Have Gun Will Travel episodes strongly reminded me of the morality plays he would later create in Star Trek.

Although Captain James Tiberius Kirk threw a mean punch and knew how to fire a phaser, in Star Trek Roddenberry sought occasionally, though not always, to undermine the myth of redemptive violence. In multiple episodes it is revealed that malicious aliens manipulated characters into fights, whereupon Kirk highhandedly throws down his arms and refuses to go along with the narrative of violence.

I don’t mean to overpraise Roddenberry and Star Trek, but in many respects it (and the science fiction of the 1960′s and ’70′s) was a high point for science fiction television and media, attempting to thoughtfully probe culture and society. Unfortunately, the late 1970′s and early ’80′s brought forth Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator, movies with science fiction tropes which didn’t just embrace redemptive violence but pledged unending love for it, and made bucketloads of money.  Thereafter Hollywood came to accept science fiction = blowing stuff up as an axiom.

Therefore it was disappointing, though not surprising, that the 2009 reboot of Star Trek was all redemptive violence all the time. The explosions and the snarky banter entertained the younglings for whom the original series of Star Trek was a vague topic their aged forebears enjoyed, in the same category as morris dancing and landline phones; but for those of us who grew up on it, it felt like a cynical betrayal.

Despite my disappointment, I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, the next installment by J.J. “I’m not a fan of Star Trek” Abrams, on opening night. And I’ll confess, I enjoyed it, at least while I was watching it. It was only later, upon reflection, that it became clear this was cultural cannibalism, along with the attendant cultural kuru.

Much of the cleverness and delight was situated in off-hand references to well-known characters and incidents (Nurse Chapel, Harry Mudd), and the remainder in the reciting and reversal of classic lines, to the point where I could whisper to my wife the line before the actor said it–and this was my first viewing of the movie.

Spock is well-written and well-acted by Zachary Quinto, and his struggle with his dual heritage handled deftly; and Simon Pegg’s comedy chops have pushed him to the forefront as a major player in this film.  While Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has more screen time and more agency, she is still one-dimensional, as if the white male writers had decided “We’ll write a Strong Black Female” and thought that ended their job; she was actually better drawn in the 2009 movie.  McCoy, who had been a vital part of the triumvirate of the original series, has now been relegated to the position of Comic Series of Overblown Signature Lines, which wouldn’t have been bad if Uhura had been allowed to truly take his emotional place in the Kirk-Spock-X triad.

Worst of all, Chris Pine’s Kirk comes across not as a brash, flawed leader, the Bill Clinton of outer space as it were, but as a whiny, know-it-all teenaged horndog. It makes William Shatner’s performances, by comparison, look nuanced and subtle.

And then there is plenty of blowing stuff up.

The writers and the director seem dimly aware that a Star Trek movie ought to be about more than blowing stuff up: characters are restrained from killing other characters, not out of morality but out of necessity; the militarization of Starfleet is deplored; and the movie ends with a belated speech against revenge.  But this seems to have looped back to the days of Have Gun Will Travel, excuses for violence with a veneer of a morality play.

Interestingly, Star Trek: Into Darkness echoes closely a theme found in another current blow-em-up movie, Iron Man 3. In both films acts of terrorism are revealed as rooted in the evils of the industrial-military complex, though Ben Kingsley makes a much more twisty and interesting villain than Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison.

While Kirk is slowly evolving into the wiser, more strategic Captain of the original series, and while, despite my complaints I found Into Darkness less irritating than the 2009 reboot, afterwards I found myself hoping against hope they don’t make a third movie. Unless they can find a director who can take it to a new level. I’d vote for Alfonso Cuarón, whose Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the Potter series, demonstrated both a nimble visual flare and a strong sensibility for characters.

But that would mean to boldly go in a  new direction, something Hollywood is, alas, loath to do.

Carol Marcus

Athena’s footnote: I have thoughts of my own on STID that parallel Calvin’s and Devin Faraci’s in Badass Digest. I’ll share them if I get a spare moment but they’re encapsulated in the images I chose to accompany this entry.

Images: 1st, summation of the reboot ST (aka ST||) universe; 2nd, Dr. Carol Marcus as comparison shorthand between ST|| and the original ST.

Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Note: this is part of a series in which I discuss works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky.  Other entries in the series appear at the end of each discussion.

Cover, Near & Far

Cat Rambo’s recent collection, Near + Far (Hydra House, $16.95 print, $6.99 digital), is a tête-bêche book containing 2×12 stories of wildly different lengths that previously appeared in such venues as Abyss & Apex, Clarkesworld, Clockwork Phoenix, Crossed Genres, Daily SF and Lightspeed.

Before I discuss the stories themselves, I’ll mention two secondary but important aspects of the book.  One is the attention paid to the presentation; as one example, the text ornaments are almost distracting in their beauty.  The other is that each story has an afterword in which Rambo gives its backstory and worldpath.  Personally, I greatly enjoy such fore/afterwords (I still fondly recall Harlan Ellison’s needle-sharp, needling introductions) and find that they invariably deepen my understanding and appreciation of the tale – provided that the writer knows their craft.  Which brings us to the content of the collection.

Cat Rambo is a chameleon – a type of writer as rare as a Hollywood actor who can submerge themselves into a character.  Rambo’s range is galaxy-wide: she goes from near-future quasi-dystopia to far-future space opera, from slapstick humor to Eurypidean tragedy, with deceptively effortless prose, like a prima ballerina executing grandes jetés.  She also has a flair for the telling snippet that brings a person or setting to sharp, vivid life, like the pass of a lighthouse beacon.

The Near and Far halves hew to their titles: the former keeps close to home in spacetime, the latter ventures further afield.  Yet common kernels underlie these thematically and stylistically far-flung worlds: the complexity of relationships (the frictions of long-term pairings in particular) and, obversely, the urgent desire for connection even at a steep cost.  Everything is scaled to personal dimensions, even in the space operas.  There’s a noticeable transhumanist overlay to the cycle (AIs of various sentience levels and nanobiotech-based modifications are ubiquitous), though it never devolves to the tiresome paradise/hell binary.  Instead, Rambo focuses on the dilemmas of autonomy, privacy and community.  She also eschews neat resolutions.  Most of the stories end ambiguously or remain open-ended; many are bleak, though in a pragmatic, low-key way that makes them poignant.

Several of the stories in Near are about failing connections.  “Peaches of Immortality” is a downbeat version of Groundhog Day that renews the frisson associated with high school cliques.  “Close Your Eyes” and “Not Waving but Drowning” are unflinching examinations of issues that corrode relationships: the friction between a sister taking care of her dying brother in the former, the unraveling of trust that results from excessive transparency in a marriage in the latter.  “Therapy Buddha” and “Long Enough and Just So Long” are investigations into consciousness: the first illustrates the placebo effects of an ELIZA-type program; the second is Tanith Lee’s Silver Metal Lover shorn of its romantic trappings.  “RealFur” is a story of suffocation on several levels whereas “Vocobox™” is about the loneliness of togetherness when the fit is bad.

My favorite stories in Near show harsh worlds where loyalty and companionship are nevertheless possible and make a difference.  “The Mermaids Singing Each to Each” is a retelling of The Old Man and the Sea in a universe where gender fluidity is easy – and an AI can earn forgiveness for a betrayal.  “Memories of Moments, Bright as Falling Stars” is what Strange Days could have been if Kathryn Bigelow had not pulled her punches about the repercussions of brain enhancements in a pyramidal-privilege society.  “Legends of the Gone” portrays the world going out not with a bang, but with a whimper… yet its subdued notes are oddly consoling, perhaps because dying humanity has remained humane.

Heading for the antipodes, some of the Far stories are actually between Near and Far.  Taking off from Near, “Zeppelin Follies” and “Surrogates” contemplate futures in which humans interact with the world through filtering devices.  Landing at Far,A Querulous Flute of Bone” and “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” explore desire in unique settings that are nevertheless reflections of our internal landscapes.

Far showcases Rambo’s prowess at creating intriguing, thought-provoking worlds and aliens.  Several stories in Far delve into the longing to belong and also explore other senses beyond the dominant human one of vision.  At the humorous end, “Kalakkak’s Cousins” is Deep Space 9 via Lucky Luke’s bumbling Dalton brothers.  In the still-hopeful middle are “Seeking Nothing” and “Angry Rose’s Lament” whose misfit protagonists voluntarily choose submersion into group minds to allay loneliness.  At the sorrowful end, “Amid the Words of War” shows a doomed alien outcast with surprisingly universal needs.  Aliens of a different kind are depicted in “Timesnip” in which a time-transported suffragette catalyzes a revolution (actually, a restoration) in a planetfall society that has turned the Oedipal configuration into a requirement for male adulthood.

Far closes with “Bus Ride to Mars”, a slipstream version of the Canterbury Tales.  However, the piece in Far that plucked a strong resonating chord in my mind was its opening: “Futures” is a flash story that encompasses all the universes in the anthology – plus many more.  With its limpid, lapidary glimpsed views through doors held ajar, it’s the most evocative piece in the collection, the one that induces the yearning triggered only by the highest quality SF.

I’ve kept the descriptions of the stories in Near + Far deliberately brief and vague; they’re far more complex and intricate that these soundbites indicate.  It’s my fond hope that the crumbs I dropped have made everyone hungry enough to devour the entire collection.  It’s a generous, savory meal that rewards the discerning palate.

In the same series:
The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized

Planetfall in Nowa Fantastyka

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

NW coverSome may recall that, back in January, the reprint of “Planetfall” at the World SF site caught the eye of Nowa Fantastyka, a prominent, long-lived Polish SF/F magazine. They asked me if they could publish the story in Polish.

I asked fiction editor Marcin Zwierzchowski if it was all right for my friend Aneta Bronowska to vet the translation, since my Polish is non-existent. Aneta combines three attributes that made her ideal for this task: she was born in Poland and has lived there all her life; she has exquisite antennae; and she’s intimately familiar with the Spider Silk universe. I knew the translation was good when Aneta said it made her cry, like its English original.

The Nowa Fantastyka issue with my story just appeared: here’s a link to a promotional copy of the magazine that shows selected pages. This is the second translation of my work — To Seek Out New Life came out in Japanese — but the first one of my fiction. The promotional file does not show that the story bears an illustration that Aneta was kind enough to scan and send me. It’s a lovely, otherworldly rendition that encapsulates nearly all the elements in the story – except for the amulet/command module that traverses each portion of the story like a falling star.

Planetfall NF W

My thanks to Lavie Tidhar, Sarah Newton, Marcin Zwierzchowski and Aneta Bronowska, who made this possible.

My Fictional To-Do List

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Whistling Wind

A while ago I saw this question: “What’s on your fictional To Do list?” Here’s a partial list of what I’d pursue if I had a semi-infinite lifespan and equivalent resources. The list doesn’t include real-life wishes, like learning a dozen languages and to play the bagpipes or refurbishing my advanced physics knowledge and small airplane pilot skills.

1. Become the astrogator of the first ship to Alpha Centauri;
2. Decipher the Minoan language and its script, Linear A;
3. Comprehend and translate cetacean songs;
4. Engineer biological nanobots that we can truly trust;
5. Identify the woman who wrote The Song of Songs.

Those of you who have read my fiction (whose published portion is the tip of the iceberg) know that in fact I pursue this list in it. In Planetfall we catch brief glimpses of how starship Reckless arrived at Koredhán (Glorious Maiden) under the leadership of Captain Semíra Ouranákis (Skystrider), how the travelers modified themselves genetically to fit the planet and how this choice eventually made them able to communicate with the mershadows, the native aquatic sentients.

What few have seen is the driven, haunted, blade-sharp loner who started the work that resulted in the genmods of the Koredháni, launched the Reckless, and decreed that Minoan (deciphered by her family, who are also part of this large universe) would be the ship’s lingua franca.

So here’s a tiny bribe: to those who read The Other Half of the Sky I will send Under Siege, a short screenplay that features the first captain of the Reckless. As proof, email me (helivoy@gmail.com) one of the unabbreviated names of the protagonist in Christine Lucas’s story. The screenplay file contains another reward layer: a link to my earliest published stories. Of course, reading the anthology should be its own reward… but consider this a coda, given the parameters I specified for the collection.

To whet appetites, here’s a passage from Under Siege:

CHRIS
Let’s try it on Loki.
(A few beats later)
It works!  I can’t believe he used a single encryption system.

JONATHAN
(skimming the file, aghast)
I can’t believe what I’m reading either. Somehow they attached thruster engines to the space station without anyone noticing. Armed it with nukes, too!

CHRIS
Subtle. Anyone adopts an agenda the Agency disagrees with, death rains from the skies. Or a solar flare hits the station’s gyrostabilizers, same result.

JONATHAN
They also sequestered all the first and second generation biological nanotech reagents up there.

CHRIS
(softly)
Ah. That might explain why I suddenly couldn’t renew any of my grants.

JONATHAN
You were involved in nanotech research?

CHRIS
Involved? I was the first one to use biobots to successfully regenerate brain neurons. Turns out they also augment brain function… not something the brass was happy with.
(Jonathan looks at her, stunned for once. She smiles tiredly, points at her head)
What did you think this was for, decoration?

Music: The Time Machine, Eloi by Klaus Badelt

The Other Half of the Sky: Liftoff!

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

other half  web

Today is the day!  Spread the word, our anthology is spreading its wings. Relevant sites:

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews
Goodreads

The book, both print and digital, is available on all major online venues (Amazon, B&N, etc) but our publisher combines the print version with a DRM-free bundle. More direct sales also make it likelier that we’ll break even.

Library Journal called The Other Half of the Sky “fearless writing… exciting storytelling”. I’m already dreaming a successor to it — an SF story collection with women scientists and engineers as protagonists. I even have a provisional title for it!

“…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”

The Other Half of the Sky cover: Eleni Tsami
Music: Start of Zoë Keating’s “Lost” from Into the Trees

The Other Half of the Sky: Launch Approaches

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

other half  webThe Other Half of the Sky lifts off on April 23. Inadvertently and serendipitously, that coincides with my dad’s nameday in the Greek Orthodox calendar (Ghiórghos – George). He considers it a good omen, and I concur.

In the meantime, reviews and interviews are starting to appear. The one by writer and editor Victoria Hooper is truly perceptive. Those who read my interview with Vicky may recognize/discover interesting names in my recommendations of SF by women authors. I’m compiling the reviews and interviews on a dedicated page (see blog sidebar) and Kate Sullivan, our intrepid publisher, is doing the same at the site she created for the collection, with excerpts as a bonus.

So mark your calendars and keep an eye for a comet in the sky!

Superficial Darkness and Luminous Ink

Friday, March 29th, 2013

InkThere has been a resurgence of arguments over grimdark fantasy, sparked by Joe Abercrombie’s recent second salvo after his earlier pas-de-deux with Leo Grin. This time around, Abercrombie equated “realism” (as in: non-stop pillage and teen-level gothness… or is it kvothness?) with “honesty” while arguing with a semi-straight face that he, unlike those who dislike gratuitous grottiness, was not making moral judgments.

Last time around, I was the sole non-anglomale to enter this fray. This time, several women responded (links below). All raised important issues (the exclusive focus on rape of women; the determined distortion/impoverishment of real history; the fact that several items are subsumed under “grittiness”), though Elizabeth Bear’s defense of (revisionist) grimdark bears this immortal phrase: “…sociopathic monsters can and do accomplish good – sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.” In other words, a soldier who participated in flattening a village is a force for good because he let one of the village children survive.

Having said my piece on grittygrotty fantasy, I don’t deem the subgenre interesting enough for additional investment. However, during these discussions journalist and author Sabrina Vourvoulias wondered if Ink, her debut novel, is classifiable as grimdark because it contains some of the items that are de rigueur in that domain: betrayal by friends; death of beloved and/or central characters; violence and violations; grim settings and unhappy endings. I had long intended to write a review of Ink, so I considered this my opportunity.

My verdict: Ink is not grimdark if only because it’s not the standard-issue SFF watery gruel. It’s also not grimdark because: it spends as much time showing beauty, heroism and honor as squalor, betrayal and violence; its violence (except in one instance) is neither gratuitous nor meant to titillate; it shows imperfect but functioning individuals, families and communities, not the baboon troops standard in grimdark; it doesn’t fridge its women (instead, it hews to the more traditional mode of “men die, women endure”); it shows mutual desire and consensual sex with neither prudery nor prurience; it’s layered and nuanced; and it’s politically engaged and grounded in reality while also containing doors ajar to other worlds.

Some reviewers compared Ink to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, because both show near-future US societies based on plausible extrapolations. But whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is straight dystopia, Ink is more than that. Ink is a nagual, like one of its protagonists: a twinned being, a shapeshifter – something common in non-Anglo literature that has left its genre boundaries porous instead of having them patrolled by purity squads. Ink combines mythic, epic, dystopian, urban and paranormal fantasy – it’s a direct descendant of the better-known Hispanophone magic realists. Its closest contemporary relatives are Evghenía Fakínou’s luminous works, famous in Hellás but unknown to Anglophone readers.

Ink describes a very near-future US in which the distinction between full citizens and the rest has become absolute and is enforced by biometric tattoos that specify status. Those who are not full citizens are subject to the customary abuses: curfews, job and housing discrimination, deportations, concentration camps, child abductions, involuntary sterilizations, vigilante violence. The story, spread over a decade, chronicles the reactions to this setting in both the real and magical realms.

The real echoes are multiple: there have been many near-silent holocausts in Latin America during caudillo regimes; biometric identification and surveillance methods are already with us; the treatment of “aliens” has been an endemic festering wound in many polities, the US prominently among them; tattoos and concentration camps have been used throughout history to isolate “others”; and “others” are routinely dehumanized across times and cultures – usually as a means of retaining power (for the strong), borderline privileges and self-esteem (for the weak), as well as an easy method for retaining social homogeneity.

Jaguar nagualThe magical echoes are subtler but just as layered: the naguales come from age-old shamanistic practices in Mesoamerica; the belief in magic linked to a specific location is ancient and universal; so are the concepts of shadow doubles and wereanimals, both good and evil. There are liaisons between the two realms – not only the half-dozen primary and secondary characters with second sight and/or twinned selves, but also the kaibiles, who appear as fearsome adversaries in dreamtime within Ink but in realtime were the infamous Guatemalan counter-insurgency special forces.

There are no “alpha” heroes in Ink; those of its characters who achieve heroic status do so without fanfare by simply being decent and taking risks despite fear and consequences – and while embedded in complex networks of blood and chosen relatives (the sole glaring absence is that of old women). The characters are economically but sharply delineated and their intertwinings are natural and believable. Where Ink approaches quotidian is in the choices of its protagonists’ occupations: Finn, a journalist; Mari, a liaison/translator; Del, a painter; Abbie, a computer wunderkind.

Ink also stumbles slightly by giving its two women protagonists remarkably similar fates. Both get violated – Mari by a decent-appearing vigilante, Abbie by a once-dear friend. The latter is the only point where Ink is in danger of entering generic grimdark territory: not only is Abbie’s sadistic scarring not really necessary to the plot, but it’s also totally out of character for the person who inflicted it. Also, both women have to carry on after the loss of the loves of their lives, with children as their main consolation prize (though they also reclaim other vital pieces of themselves that make them more than just custodians of the future).

Two secondary characters cast enormous shadows in Ink and almost walk away with the novel – I for one would happily read tomes centered on each: Toño, a gang leader with the charisma and code of honor that often goes with such positions; and Meche, who walks between worlds like Mari – and is also a formidable chemist, the inventor of synthetic skin that can give passage to legitimacy. [Note to self: the successor to The Other Half of the Sky will focus on women scientists; tap Sabrina for a Meche story.]

Stylistically, Ink commits all the “errors” excoriated in HackSFFWorkshop 101, though (repeat after me) they’re common in literary fiction and I personally love them: its four protagonists speak in first person and often in present tense; it makes unapologetic jumps in narrative time; it has an enormous cast of characters, without obvious telegraphings of who’s important and who isn’t; and its chapters have titles instead of numbers.

The language in Ink clearly comes from someone who is a fluent speaker of more than one tongue: it has the giveaway shimmer of submerged harmonies, of unexpected, felicitous word couplings. Ink also has snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions. Some exchanges made me laugh out loud or weep a little, and the erotic passages pack real heat. The peripheral characters are sharply drawn and distinct, and the Latinos are not generic. They’re Mexicans, Cubans, Guatemalans, with their unique histories, customs, dialects and magicks.

Some reviewers complained that the paranormal element in Ink was intrusive or not well integrated. I’d argue that the real problem is that Ink should be much longer than it is. Although it’s a saga of sorts, it has a strobe-light staccato effect that fits its current lean frame. But unlike just about any other SFF book I’ve read recently (nearly all infected with the dreaded sequelitis virus), the issues and characters in Ink – as well as its author’s talent for weaving richly-hued tapestries – cry out for a Márquez-size door stopper.

Sabrina-VourvouliasIf Ink had been written in any language but English, it would have become a bestseller with reviews in the equivalent of the NY Times. For Anglophones, Ink is an uncategorizable hybrid. These terms are invariably used to signify that a book is doomed because it doesn’t aim for an automatically defined readership. I, however, a walker between worlds myself, use the terms as rare praise.

Images: 1st, Ink (publisher: Crossed Genres); 2nd, a jaguar nagual (sketch from a Zapotec stela by Javier Urcid); 3rd, Sabrina Vourvoulias

Links to recent discussions of grittygrotty fantasy:

Foz Meadows
Sophia McDougall
Liz Bourke
Marie Brennan
Elizabeth Bear

The Hugo Awards: Tweeter Expands My Horizons

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Hugo Deb KosibaThrough the recent spike in the volume of tweets, I became aware of two things: 1) there is a Hugo award category called “Best Fan Writer” and 2) according to the rules, I’ve been eligible for it since 2008. At least in principle, because the real universe is significantly different.

The Hugos are essentially a popularity contest, which means you need to self-promote relentlessly to get nominated (being connected to insiders and gatekeepers doesn’t hurt either). These days, this means that people with the loudest blogs and most adoring acolytes are the likeliest to show up on the ballots. The configuration has also resulted in the seasonal listing of qualifying works – a litany as interesting as “the best/worst X of last year”, “my new year’s resolutions” and “what I did during my summer vacation.”

“Fan Writer” seems to have been established as a sop to people whose lives revolve around SF/F cons and to writers in the genre who want extra nominations beyond fiction writing. And whereas the criteria for some categories are almost absurdly high (particularly the two for Best Editor), those for Best Fan Writer merely require writing about the genre in a non-professional venue that, per the Hugo site, “includes publications in semiprozines, and even on mailing lists, blogs, BBSs, and similar electronic fora”.

By my count, of the 50 awards in this category given so far, 20 have been won by David Langford and 7 by Richard Geis, both whiteAnglomen. More recently, however, runaway diversity became fashionable: since 2008, winners in this group continue to be whiteAnglo, but a mere 60% (three of the five) have been whiteAnglomen! And this year there has been a spate of suggestions for nominations of non-whiteAnglomen (in several permutations), after which we will undoubtedly return to our regular programming.

In this climate of wild radicalism, my name finally came up: as a footnote in the relevant entry of the World SF blog by Lavie Tidhar; and more prominently in the livejournal of Nick Mamatas (thanks, guys!).  Given my habits, I will not list the blog posts that qualify for the Hugo. Those who read my blog saw these articles when they appeared. Those who don’t will not rush to read them. I do realize that being a practicing scientist and a voracious reader beyond the SF/F enclosure handicap me considerably: I was recently chastised for “not reading the classics” by someone whose concept of “classics” is AsimovClarkeHeinlein; someone else objected to my using (avaunt!) scientific terms in an article about “hard” SF.

In the extremely unlikely event that I should win, I may do something extravagant to celebrate. Maybe I’ll publish a passage of “positively portrayed” sex (yet another topic of recent conversations in SF/F) to give people a glimpse of what lovemaking in a polyandrous society of telepaths might be like. Since my view is that such descriptions need to use precise terms if they’re to be potent, don’t expect to see manual-reeking couch-fainting terms like “sensual”, “reponse”, “aftermath” and their ilk. But do expect to see focus on the woman’s pleasure.

Image: the 2012 Hugo trophy, designed by Deb Kosiba.

Damp Squibs: Non-News in Space Exploration

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

LaLaLa

Biologists interested in space exploration are consistently delegated to the back of the stellar tour bus, if we’re allowed on at all. We’re Luddites who harsh everyone else’s squee, you see. We keep pointing out that radiation is not kind to living tissue, whether gametes or neurons; that uploading to silicon chassis is not possible as an alternative to carbon bodies; that human babies cannot be hatched and reared by robots at planetfall; that living on extrasolar planets poses huge problems and dilemmas even if they’re quasi-compatible. And that since FTL and warp drive are and will always remain science fiction, we need to at least tackle, if not solve, some of these issues before we launch crewed starships for long exploratory or migratory journeys. This year, there were two non-news items in the domain that brought these matters once again to the fore.

The earlier of the two was the disclosure that “NASA scientists might achieve warp drive” based on Alcubierre’s theoretical concept (by using a Jovian weight’s worth of exotic matter as likely to exist as stable wormholes). Beyond its terminally wobbly foundation, the concept also doesn’t take into account that such folding of space would destroy nearby star systems (and almost certainly also the starship) via distortion of the local spacetime and/or massive amounts of radiation. It’s also unclear how the starship could be steered from within the “negative energy” or “tachyonic matter” bubble. This means that even if fast space travel were possible using this method, it would still take lifetimes to safely reach a planet within a system because local travel would by necessity be at sublight speed.

More recently came the non-news that radiation causes… brain malfunction, as if the term “free radicals” and “radiation damage” were not in the biomedical vocabulary since before I entered the discipline in the mid-seventies (let alone the in-your-face evidence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts or the Chernobyl meltdown). Radiation, especially the high-energy portion of the spectrum, breaks atomic bonds directly and indirectly by producing free radicals. Free radicals start chain reactions: lines of descendants, each of which can damage a biomolecule. Radiation causes mutations in the DNA, which is bad enough, but it can also result in other errors: protein misfolding, holes in cell membranes, neuron misfiring. And although cells have several repair mechanisms to counter these insults, they have evolved for the radiation burdens of earth.

All these effects at the molecular/cellular level converge into two large rivers: for dividing cells, cancer; for non-dividing cells (most prominently gametes and brain neurons), death. Kill enough cells, past the brain’s ability to rewire and reroute, and you get neurodegeneration: if the most affected region is the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s; if the cerebellum, ataxia; if the hippocampus and parts of the cortex, Alzheimer’s; if the frontal lobe, frontotemporal dementia; if the Schwann cells of the myelin sheath, multiple sclerosis. Incidentally, radiation also affects electronic devices – something to keep in mind for even short interstellar journeys.

Stating-the-obvious-7

On earth, we are subject to a good deal of radiation from natural causes (radon, solar flares) as well as human-made ones (industrial, occupational, medical, airport X-ray machines). Cosmic radiation constitutes about 5-10% of our total exposure. That will be very different in space, where bombardment by galactic cosmic rays will be both chronic and acute. And whereas cosmic radiation on earth is moderated by the solar wind, the earth’s magnetic field and the layers of atmosphere, none of these protections will be present on a starship. Shielding options are inadequate or, like warp drive, sheer fantasy – which makes this risk one of the major showstoppers to star travel. The best candidate is the most low-tech: water.

Scientific papers that discuss these outcomes, from both inside and outside NASA, have been around since at least the early nineties. So what exactly is new in this study that is making the customary rounds in various space enthusiast sites and blogs? In a word, nothing. In fact it’s a bits-and-pieces study that reaches miniscule, non-surprising conclusions. The adage “labored as if for an elephant and brought forth a mouse” is particularly apt here. As for the originality of its discoveries/conclusions, it’s like hitting someone’s head repeatedly against a cement wall and concluding that such blows eventually cause, um, skull fractures.

At the same time, the authors of the study decided to gild their tinfoil lilies. They used a double transgenic mouse strain engineered to develop amyloid plaques of the Alzheimer’s-associated variety. Despite this loading of the dice, they saw changes in plaque size and numbers and in amyloid processing only in the male irradiated mice. Even the small shifts they saw are far less important than laypeople think: for a while now, the consensus in the field is that plaques may be neutral warehouses. In particular, plaques seem to be a sidebar for sporadic Alzheimer’s which is 90-95% of the disease cases. Many people have heavy amyloid plaque loads with zero cognitive impairment. As is often the case with mice studies, they subjected them to overwhelming amounts of the perturbing parameter (in this case, iron nuclei) that nevertheless represents a simplified subset of what they’d encounter in a real journey. Finally, they saw neither inflammatory microglial activation nor changes in amyloid clearance. They did see changes in a couple of behavioral tests, although in most of them the error bars overlap, which means “not statistically significant”.

The obvious experiment that might give remotely useful results would be to do such studies with a mouse strain that is not merely wild-type but aggressively outbred. However, that would still be superfluous, even if we set aside the limited usefulness of mouse models for human brain function. We already know what would happen during long interstellar journeys, and more or less why. I propose that we use the time and funds spent on irradiating guaranteed-to-develop-disease mice to develop effective, and preferably low-key, shielding. Radical-clearing drugs are also an option, although the favorite defaults bristle with their own host of problems (teratogenicity for retinoids, tumorigenesis for mitochondrial boosting). Like most complex problems, there are no silver bullets to counteract the iron-nuclei ones of galactic radiation. It will have to be done the hard, slow way – or not at all.

harsh-my-mellow

Relevant papers:

H White (2012). Warp Field Mechanics 101.

JD Cherry, B Liu, JL Frost, CA Lemere, JP Williams, JA Olschowka, MK O’Banion (2012). Galactic Cosmic Radiation Leads to Cognitive Impairment and Increased A? Plaque Accumulation in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS One 7(12):e53275

A Micro-Triplet to Usher in 2013

Friday, January 4th, 2013

catsaxTo increase my already wild popularity, I penned two bookend articles that gore sacred oxen. A contribution to a Mind Meld at SF Signal about “Books we were told we’d love but didn’t” appeared two days ago. “Invisible Ink”, a response to Mike Brotherton’s olden mouldies (aka whiteanglomen) “hard” SF list, just appeared in SFWA.

Also, the republication of “Planetfall” at the World SF site caught the eye of Nowa Fantastyka, a prominent, long-lived Polish SF/F magazine. They want to republish the story in Polish. This would be the second translation of my work — To Seek Out New Life came out in Japanese — but the first one of my fiction.

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Note: for a larger context of this discussion, interested readers may want to look at A Plague on Both Your Houses.

Arwen Ford

I did not write a review of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (henceforth LotR) trilogy. One reason was my extreme ambivalence over Tolkien and his oeuvre. Another was that the potential for LotR to be a cinematic disaster was so great that anything short of a shambles would do. In fairness, the film version of LotR was a great achievement within its context. It says much that a Kiwi schlockmeister gave us a far better work than any Hollywood director ever could.

I was introduced to Tolkien in high school by one of my exchange US teachers. He intoned solemnly (and with zero sense of irony, given the cultural background of his students) that here be immortal myths. In fact, most of Silmarillion and LotR are rechurned mythic/folktale tropes coupled to something remarkably close to the “Aryan paganism” promoted by the German national socialists with an uneasy overlay of Manichean catholicism. The Nordic components are most prominent in the myth salad (Húrin’s Children is Sieglinde and Siegmund without even the serial numbers filed off), per Tolkien’s wish to create a Saxon mythology free of Frenchified corruption; and the works literally swarm with Miltonesque angels and demons, Lucifers and Messiahs, falls and redemptions, smitings and apocalypses (sorry, “eucatastrophes”).

Tolkien may have disliked Nazism on record, but his work says otherwise. It is telling that in his universe dark skin and lack of mainstream beauty equal moral depravity (them honorless swarthy Southrons!) and “blood purity” is the sole criterion for legitimacy of rule: Denethor can never become king, no matter how capable he is, because he comes from a line of “lesser men”. Propagation also looks fraught, given that none of Tolkien’s races seem to have more than about one woman – and they’re all pedestalized, fridged or both, with rape the most frequent cause of death (an odd obsession for an otherwise ultra-prudish permanent-Victorian-by-choice).

The less said of Tolkien’s style, plot, pacing, characterization and dialogue the better, so I won’t analyze these aspects except to say that he sounds unstrained only when he describes environments close to what he inhabited in real life: a place where everyone knew and kept their place, industrialization hadn’t reared its ugly head, country squires led guilt-free lives secure in their righteousness, and gentlemen of privilege and leisure spent their time discussing lofty matters and puffing pipes in comfortable Oxbridge rooms, their every need attended by angels in the house and servants. In short, the Shire.

Despite its eye-gauging problems, Tolkien’s work launched a thousand careers of both dutiful and rebellious acolytes to the everlasting detriment of epic fantasy (respective examples: Guy Gavriel Kay and Joe Abercrombie). The most common defense of Tolkien (beyond “he is the bestestest and your limited unsophisticated mind cannot encompass his greatness”) is that “he was of his time” – and a don in an ivory tower besides, plus a survivor of WWI. However, here are a few of his broad contemporaries, and I’m restricting myself solely to Britain: Wells, Orwell, Woolf (who was ten years older than Tolkien). In 1938 Virginia Woolf wrote her incandescent criticism of fascism, Three Guineas, some sixty years before “intersectional” became the fashion du jour for internet social justice warriors. In 1936 Tolkien wrote… The Hobbit. Tolkien’s true soulmates are the pre-Raphaelites, who consciously withdrew into an idealized past that confirmed their bedrock conservative values. I find Waterhouse and the late Rossetti very beautiful; but I cannot help but be aware that these were contemporaries of the Impressionists and early Cubists.

So when I heard that LotR was about to be filmed, I was wary – although some signs boded well: the director was not from Hollywood, though he was best known for splatterfests; and the film would not only be a trilogy (aka no Procrustean shoehorning to fit arbitrary length standards, like Ralph Bakshi’s pathetic attempt) but would also be filmed in New Zealand. Aotearoa is one of my Tír na nÓgs, and I had already seen enough of it in Mr. Snacho’s photos and in Xena to know that a movie filmed in that spectacular scenery could not be a total loss.

Aotearoa Kaso

But Jackson achieved far more than that. By integrating acting, scenery and sound, he managed to create a secondary world that felt almost real – real enough that you let yourself be carried in its current even if, like me, you don’t really like LotR. Despite the longueurs (especially the boys’ treehouse intervals), he managed to elicit the difficult chemistry of camaraderie among most of his principals. And perhaps influenced by his two women screenwriters and advisors, he also chose wisely what to include (Arwen’s vision of her fate; Éowyn’s dream of the fall of Númenor) and what to omit (Radagast and Bombardil, of which more anon), where to stick to canon and where to abandon it.

In my opinion, Jackson’s best departures from canon were the decision to have Arwen, rather than Glorfindel (who?), convey Frodo to Rivendell; and the appearance of the Elf army, dressed in its best finery like Hellenic freedom fighters, to aid the Rohanese at Helm’s Deep. The former made Arwen more than the passive prize Aragorn will reap if he succeeds; and the latter underlined the Elves’ love for Middle Earth and their investment in it – especially if, as some “Tolkien scholars” believe, Elves killed in battle forfeit eternal life in the West.

Jackson made some serious missteps as well. The portrayal of Galadriel kept veering towards evil queen bee and Arwen became another generic couch-fainting damsel as the trilogy progressed. The choice to depict tragic Denethor as a crazed coward needlessly added yet another single-note character to the ones already amply present in the original. And of course the jokes about Dwarf women and Éowyn’s cooking got old after the first second or so. Also, it was a pity that Jackson chickened out of showing Sauron incarnate in the last battle, especially if he had presented him as the beautiful tempter he once was and could still become. More disturbingly, Jackson hewed faithfully to Tolkien’s distinctions when casting: all his Orcs had cockney accents, all his Uruk-hai were Maori and all his Southrons were Indian, Iranian or otherwise olive-skinned.

But with all these caveats and more, the LotR trilogy aspired to Gesamtkunstwerk status and to a large extent attained it. That’s more readily visible in the director’s cuts that smooth over some rough patches (the worst being Aragorn’s nasty dismissal of Éowyn in the theater version; on the other hand, Jackson relaxed his grip on schlock control in the totally unnecessary skull-stomping scene). The films received their due: awards up the wazoo, billions in ticket receipts and merchandise, serious career boosts to the less famous participants (most notably Viggo Mortensen, a maverick journeyman who enjoys unconventional roles) and the funds and clout for Jackson to do his disastrous King Kong.

So it came as no surprise when it was duly announced that Jackson had decided to also film The Hobbit. What came as a surprise was that it was to be… a trilogy. The Hobbit is wee and twee, including Tolkien’s intrusive coy asides. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a childish children’s book: it’s not an expurgated fairytale, like the ones written for adults and later laundered for the supposedly delicate childish earshells (in fact kids are supremely bloodyminded and take folktale atrocities in stride). The Hobbit was bland and quotidian from the get-go, written by a Victorian for Victorian tastes and mores.

Making a trilogy out of that flat pillow requires a huge amount of straw. And apparently that’s what Jackson did. We now get Radagast in all his non-glory – borne on a chariot pulled by bunnies, no less. We get expositions and declamations and endless walking (through admittedly breathtaking landscapes). We get more of the crude humor that jarred and clunked so badly when Gimli had to be its vehicle in LotR. We get stormtrooper-type adversaries and battles that blur into sameness. We get Thorin as a quasi-Aragorn, robbing Bilbo of any reason for being included in the adventure. We get Galadriel posed as a mannequin in a shop window, to paper over the fact that there were exactly zero non-males in The Hobbit. And of course we get ecstatic fanboys (and not a few fangirls) who want moremoremore of the same, even if it’s gloppy corn syrup covered with red food dye instead of fresh strawberries.

It’s true that ever hoarier iterations are the essence of franchises: feeding the fans increasingly watered-down gruel while selling more lunchboxes. But Jackson, like Lucas, seems to also have succumbed to his sense of his own sacred mission. Whereas Lucas wanted to be a Jedi Master (an ambition most people outgrow by the emotional age of seven), Jackson apparently wanted to be the perfect Tolkien worshipper. It seems that people in such large-scale ventures have lost the capacity to discern when they have reached whatever peak is possible. For Star Wars, that point was The Empire Strikes Back. LotR did better – the entire trilogy stands as a seamless whole that invited people who knew nothing of Tolkien into Jackson’s enticing universe. In stark contrast, The Hobbit is for insiders, a members-only fan club; a creation that demands adoration not of its strengths but of its weaknesses, like a whiny godlet.

Three GuineasI was elated to watch LotR consistently exceed my (initially not very high) expectations. But after The Hobbit, I feel dread at the thought that Jackson may decide to embark on The Silmarillion next. Perhaps he should read the folktale of the fisherman’s wife. Or read what Marx said about repeating history: the first time, it’s tragedy; the second time, farce.

Images: 1st, Arwen’s stand against the Nazgûl; 2nd, a still from Nathan Kaso’s Aotearoa video; 3rd, Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (original edition, cover by Vanessa Bell)

Discussions of other SF/F demigods:

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars

The Star Trek reboot

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

“As Weak as Women’s Magic” (Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises)

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

The Other Half of the Sky: Cover

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of the Reckless (“Planetfall”).

I’ve been barely able to contain myself while waiting to share this cover.  As with the story teasers, I won’t say more — I think the art speaks for itself. The artist who gave such eloquent expression to the stories is Eleni Tsami, whose work has graced other book and magazine covers.

One of the many marvelous attributes of the cover is that it’s not pegged to a specific story — the figure could be almost any of the protagonists in the collection. The wraparound version is as breathtaking as the front shown here and I will link to it when it appears on Eleni’s site [ETA: see link at the end of this entry]. Among other things, the back contains the full list of contributors. Be sure to click on the image to see a larger version that does justice to the work.

For those who missed it the first time, here’s the anthology TOC:

The Other Half of the Sky

Athena Andreadis, Dreaming the Dark

Melissa Scott, “Finders”
Alexander Jablokov, “Bad Day on Boscobel”
Nisi Shawl, “In Colors Everywhere”
Sue Lange, “Mission of Greed”
Vandana Singh, “Sailing the Antarsa”
Joan Slonczewski, “Landfall”
Terry Boren, “This Alakie and the Death of Dima”
Aliette de Bodard, “The Waiting Stars”
Ken Liu, “The Shape of Thought”
Alex Dally MacFarlane, “Under Falna’s Mask”
Martha Wells, “Mimesis”
Kelly Jennings, “Velocity’s Ghost”
C. W. Johnson, “Exit, Interrupted”
Cat Rambo, “Dagger and Mask”
Christine Lucas, “Ouroboros”
Jack McDevitt, “Cathedral”

Update: Eleni discusses the evolution of the cover and shows the full wraparound on her blog.

Planetfall at the World SF blog

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

The World SF blog just republished my story Planetfall, which first appeared in Crossed Genres issue 13, December 2009.

Like many of works, Planetfall is mythic space opera and belongs to the larger universe I discussed in The Next Big Thing.

Image: Tanegír Sóran-Kerís, by Heather D. Oliver (click on the image to see a larger high-resolution version).

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Ever since SF/F came into existence as a (self-)conscious genre, it has prided itself on its imagination: far-out concepts, what-if premises, new worlds and cultures. But our experience is still, well, local. We all share the same planet, with its limiting intrinsics and dizzyingly rich but finite configurations, even among non-human species. And all humans share the same baseline brain configuration which does constrain certain aspects of our behavior. For example, we’re not true solitaries, even the attic- or cave-dwelling misanthropes and anchorites among us. So the genre’s new human(oid) worlds are inevitably mixes of ones that already exist – seamless fusions at best, staple-strewn frankenmonsters at worst. As media like the Internet give people a veneer of global knowledge, SF/F writers, willy-nilly, include in their works pieces of disciplines and cultures that are not their own, unless they are content to remain within the suffocating “write what you know” straitjacket. This, to put it mildly, has created a Gordian knot.

Language is a great bridge but an equally great barrier. At this point, SF/F is still heavily Anglophone and most of its practitioners are either Anglosaxons or live in an Anglosaxon country. As I discussed in several previous forays (relevant links are at the end of this article), this has resulted in the parochialism of unquestioned dominant-group assumptions: stories written by armchair tourists (Bacigalupi, MacDonald, Roberts) get accolades and awards while those by outsiders (whether “natives” or “immigrants”) are discounted as too alien. Many works that attempt to portray other cultures carry an unmistakable whiff of the colonial outlook with its propensity to casually exoticize/dehumanize/homogenize non-default Others: Chinese swords aren’t called katanas and Krishna’s primary weapon is a serrated disc, not a pointed missile.

At the same time, the discussions about what constitutes verisimilitude or authenticity in an SF/F work have been long and heated. One outcome, also parochial but along a different axis, is that purists of specific stripes exhaustively critique the domains that interest them while blithely ignoring the rest of the discrepancies: food descriptions must be correct but who cares about accurate depictions (or even the basics) of planetary orbits or reproduction!

Personally, I’m “between” in too many ways to avoid or count – between cultures, between languages, between gender roles, between mindsets as a practicing scientist who’s also a feminist; these attributes have made me a feral non-joiner who has no clearly defined “tribe” (a term used with great frequency and approval in SF/F workshops and conventions)… and, believe it or not, a “between” in questions of authenticity because of the ever-shifting vision that results from such an existence. Of course, I have flung plenty of books summarily into recycling bins when they cavalierly mangle contexts I know well. As is my custom, I’ll put my conclusion up first: writers walk a tightrope even when they write about their own culture. They must be explorers and scholars at the same time, use both telescopes and microscopes, build photon sails while consulting dictionaries.

If someone writes historical fiction, authenticity is easier to judge. To give but one example, stories in which wives in medieval western Europe run around with their hair floating in the breeze are simply ridiculous. On the other hand, stories of future- or alternate-X (X=India, Brazil, Hellas, Turkey, Russia, China, Thailand… plus hybrids thereof) are rooms in fiction’s mansion that bristle with potential for both achievement and disaster.

What makes a treatment “respectful” (a far better criterion would be simply beyond-surface knowledge plus quality of inspiration and execution, but we’ll let that go for now) is a combination of factors that are hard to optimize simultaneously: the author’s imagination and ability are certainly involved, but so is their willingness to absorb and apply new, often discomfiting knowledge; the distance of the new world from its original and the degree of hybridization also play significant roles. Most invented/extrapolated languages and cultures are as solid (and as attractive) as wet cement. Nevertheless, I’ve seen many that are interesting, even though all but the very best lack the complexity, arbitrariness and depth that comes from being ground and sifted over time by different peoples. And so it comes to pass that Alexander Jablokov’s Russian/Byzantine-tinged future Earth works for me and so does – with some reservations – Sherwood Smith’s Colend culture (a fusion of Renaissance Florence with Heian Kyoto), whereas nearly all steampunk alt-Europes and cyberpunk alt-Earths look like Diogenes’ plucked rooster to me.

A quick-n-easy way to fake authenticity is to drop crumbs of the relevant language/jargon. I think it’s fine to use culture-specific concepts that are hard to translate eloquently or briefly – from mono no aware to palikári (plural palikária, not palikáris, dammit!). However, subjecting readers to an eye-poking parade of tourist guide words (yes, no, and their ilk – hello, Winds of Khalakovo!) indicates near-lethal laziness on a writer’s part. In that respect travelogues are far worse, leaving aside their usual breathlessness.

While I’m on the subject, there’s no intrinsic taint to apostrophes and accents, contrary to HackWriting 101 injunctions. My own language uses/ed both for concrete functions: apostrophes were soft consonants (dhaseía represented the H in Helen, just as the French circumflex represents a silenced S: hôpital, forêt), while accents show where stress falls within a word. Default stress differs across languages (French always stresses the last syllable, English defaults to the penultimate), so I often find it necessary to use accents when I want to convey this information. It’s Athiná, not Athína, and that “th” represents a theta, not a tau, phoneme.

At the same time, the engineers are right when they say that the perfect is the enemy of the good. True, I still have to fight my instinctive reactions when I see foreigners use my culture and language in their fiction, although I will read – even like – a work if the writer has absorbed enough for the story’s purpose. However, if I were to demand that a writer should never use any Hellenic words or myths whatsoever in their alt-Alexander fantasy unless they also reproduce all the historic/cultural background that made the words and events in their story possible I’d essentially be arguing that only minutely researched historical fiction is legitimate – and, more distally, that no context-specific fiction is really legitimate at all. This does not even take into account the precipitous linguistic poverty such a stricture would impose: the endpoint of this logic is that only grunts would be acceptable and legitimate in extrapolated or imagined settings.

Although a “native” reader can instantly tell if a setting borrowed/adapted from her culture, discipline, etc is generic and can legitimately criticize the work if that’s the case, standards of absolute purity are impossible to uphold even in real life (as demonstrated by the internal language wars across cultures and eras; the demotic versus puristic and polytonic versus monotonic fires in my corner or the world have been smoldering for at least four centuries). A purity policy would erase most of the SF/F landscape, including Paul Preuss’ beautifully crafted Secret Passages and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books that present a fascinating alternative Renaissance earth (the first trilogy, at least – I haven’t read the rest; I lost interest when Phèdre nó Delaunay became monogamous with a crashing bore and both she and Melisande Shahrizai were sidelined in favor of their shared son). Which brings me to the “native” writer’s plight.

This may come as a surprise, but all nations/cultures are heterogeneous and when people write they do so as individuals, not representatives-at-large of their “kind”. So even when “natives” write about their own culture, whether history or fantasy, they transmute it through their personal experiences and filters. How I deal with customs, relationships, historical events in my fiction will not be necessarily palatable to fellow Hellenes, just as Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death raised hackles among Nigerians. Some have read my stories Dry Rivers and Planetfall, which are part of a larger universe. My Minoans, Kushites, Sarmatians and Celts are as non-canonical as Carey’s, though in a different direction. More importantly, so are my contemporary Cretans. If I succeed in what I set out to do, non-native readers won’t be able to discern the seams between history and invention – and for those who do see them (and Hellenes definitely will, trust me) my hope is that they will like the story enough on other grounds that they’re willing to go with it.

The balance between authenticity and imagination is an intrinsic dilemma for writers. All who write walk that rope, but in contemporary SF/F it’s strung across a potentially killing gorge. If we walk that rope, we must do so fully prepared, in full knowledge of the abyss below us, and fully aware that we’ll invariably fall. That’s the risk explorers take.

Images: 1st, Scott Rolfe, Boxes of Shipwreck; 2nd, Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker; 3rd, unknown artist, SF version of Plato’s cave.

Related articles:
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture
Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon
As Weak as Women’s Magic

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.


Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

Images:
1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

Monday, October 8th, 2012

A blog game called The Next Big Thing has been making the irounds. It involves answering questions about your work in progress or new piece that you’d like to become the next big thing, then tagging more writers to propagate the wave.  I rarely write about work in progress, but I got tagged by Ann Leckie, the editor of GigaNotoSaurus, so here we are.  For the next round, I name Laura Mixon, Christine Lucas, Alex Jablokov, Melissa Scott and C. W. Johnson.

The Stone Lyre main cast, clockwise from top left: Nifar of Drige (Veldir); Kevrad tegri Durath (Nireg); Ardenk tegri Durath (Nireg/Behtalka); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Linarme of Drige (Veldir)

1. What is the title of your book?

Except for occasional standalone pieces, my fiction takes place in a large universe that starts in Minoan Crete and goes into the far future when humans inhabit distant earthlike planets (my story Planetfall also takes place in it).  Within this context, I currently have two works in progress.  The first is a novelette, The Stone Lyre, that has a completed sister story, The Wind Harp.  The second is a novel that is the beginning of this universe, titled Shard Songs.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sea with many tributary rivers.  Myths feed into it, and my people’s history; my love of languages and songs; the desire to envision women-equal or women-dominant societies that are not reverse-oppressive; the concepts of genetic engineering that allows non-destructive human adaptation to earth-like extrasolar planets and of stable wormholes that enable fast interstellar via neuronal interaction with the ships.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a hybrid of epic myth, kinship saga, alternative history and space opera.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have a very strong sense of my characters: what they look and sound like, what they feel and think beyond just the plot matters at hand.  So I envision not specific actors, but specific age-frozen characters played by actors.  Shard Songs has too many dramatis personae to show because it extends from the deep past to the far future (with jumps – it will be neither a doorstopper nor a first of endless sequels).  The main casts of The Stone Lyre and The Wind Harp are shown above and below.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

The Stone Lyre is a reversed-gender Orpheus story fused with the distortions caused by interstellar colonization.  Shard Songs tells of the decipherment of Linear A (the Minoan script, later used to write Mycaenean Greek), of past and future women rulers and their consorts (polyandry is fairly common), of lost homelands, and of rifts and time loops created by stable wormholes.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Given the content and style of these works, their chances of becoming agented are close to nil.  Editors of semi-pro magazines, themed anthologies and small presses have expressed provisional interest in all three.  If none of these pan out, I may publish the two novelettes as a singlet on my own or bide my time until I have enough linked stories to approach a small press.  The appearance specifics of Shard Songs will depend on several parameters.  One of them is the trajectory of The Other Half of the Sky, the upcoming feminist mythic space opera anthology that I conjured into existence.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I essentially write my fiction like a palimpsest: a continuous single draft with multiple passes.  When I sit down to write a story, I know the beginning and the end and I tend to write that kernel in a single burst.  What is usually hazier is the middle.  I write the scenes that are clear, then let the back of my mind meander and weave.  As soon as another scene becomes clear, I write it down, polishing as I go.  I wrote The Wind Harp in two bursts of about three weeks each.  The same is happening with The Stone Lyre.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

That’s a hard question to answer, since they don’t really belong to a specific genre.  Within SF, their closest kin are probably Cherryh’s Union/Alliance cycle and Jablokov’s twinned novels – Carve the Sky and River of Dust.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have no idea, unless it was my chronic insomnia.  The various segments sprang into my mind almost fully formed as far as the scaffolding went.  I continue to elaborate the plots, characters and cultures, of course – but I have lived in this universe so long that its foundations are lost in the mists of time (*laughs*).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, nothing like the thing itself.  Here’s a passage from The Wind Harp.  The narrator is Antóa Tásri, a young diplomat on a mission that may save hundreds of lives – and perhaps persuade a very difficult culture into an alliance:

Just then, I heard a low hum behind me.  Through the barrier came the Tel-Kir who had harassed the Sedói.  A whiff of barely suppressed triumph hovered around him.  He went to the dais, touched the edge of Teg-Rav’s over-robe.  A discharge ran through his fingers and the musk in the room got overlaid with the acrid scent of burnt flesh.  When he withdrew his hand, I saw spots of blood glisten on the garment.  The dull throb behind my eyes sharpened to a fiery spike.  I felt such spikes whenever I faced a Tohduat who could not – or would not – control his Talent.

“Please greet our guest,” Teg-Rav told him.  He stood stock-still, looking down at me from his great height.  “Properly this time, Tan-Rys.”  The scent in the room turned slightly bitter and his yellow eyes flickered like brush fires.  He ostentatiously went on one knee, touched my ankle.  Unlike her, he was easy prey, I sensed him think.  We’ll demand his ship’s weight in water.

“Do you wish to best your adversaries?” I challenged him as he snapped upright.

“With your puny help?” he jeered.  I inhaled and spoke as fast as I could, switching to the tonals forbidden to all but the Dor-Nys.

“I brought a drug that can put some of your people into temporary suspended animation.  This will let you repair the reservoir ducts without a Whittling.”  I kept addressing her but pinned my gaze on him.  “Do you want to protect your people as you have vowed to do?  Or do you seriously think that capturing the Melhuat’s low-Talented brother will be your salvation?”

“I should have pulverized you when I had the chance!” he growled.  I dove for the floor.  A needle from his arm darter flew through where I had just stood and buried itself in the wall.

The Wind Harp main cast, clockwise from top left: Antóa Tásri (Ténli); Teg-Rav, Dor-Nys of Kem-Fir tower (Gan-Tem); Tan-Rys (Gan-tem); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Serkadren, Melhuat of Behtalka (Behtalka); Talsekrit (Behtalka)

Galley Cover for The Other Half of the Sky

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Few people see galleys and galley covers, the crucial but invisible scaffoldings upon which a book is erected. Yet as much thought and care goes into their preparation as into that of the final book, because they’re its early scouts into the world.

The cover of The Other Half of the Sky is unfurling, and it will be a nova. Until that ignites here’s the galley cover, designed by our publisher, Kate Sullivan of Candlemark and Gleam (click on the image for a larger hi-res view):

When I released the anthology TOC, I included teasers for each story but not for my introduction. Here is its opening:

Athena Andreadis, Dreaming the Dark

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” – Monique Wittig, Les Guerillères

Being a voracious bookworm, I came to science fiction very young. My first well-remembered book was the unexpurgated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. By cultural background and temperament, I didn’t like the Leaden … er, Golden SF Era. I preferred the Silver Age and the New Wave, with their explicit charters to push boundaries and write worlds and characters with more depth and flavor than cardboard. And since my mythology and history haunt my dreams and steps, it’s also not surprising that one SF mode I like is space opera.

Most people conflate opera with Wagner. Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And herein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination.

Postscript: the authors participating in the anthology have their own takes on it. Two particularly entertaining views are those of Alex Jablokov and Sue Lange.

The Other Half of the Sky: Table of Contents

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony. At the end of this post is a widget designed with great care and flair by Kate Sullivan, our publisher, that displays the excerpts as a beautiful mini-book.

I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves. [ETA: so does the cover, which eloquently embodies the anthology's contents.]

The Other Half of the Sky

Athena Andreadis, Introduction: Dreaming the Dark

Melissa Scott, Finders
Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel
Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere
Sue Lange, Mission of Greed
Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa
Joan Slonczewski, Landfall
Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima
Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars
Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought
Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask
Martha Wells, Mimesis
Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost
C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted
Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask
Christine Lucas, Ouroboros
Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Let the storytelling begin:

Melissa Scott, Finders

A thousand years ago the cities fell, fire and debris blasting out the Burntover Plain.  Most of the field was played out now, the handful of towns that had sprung up along the less damaged southern edge grown into three thriving and even elegant cities, dependent on trade for their technology now rather than salvage.  Cassilde Sam had been born on the eastern fringe of the easternmost city, in Glasstown below the Empty Bridge, and even after two decades of hunting better salvage in the skies beyond this and a dozen other worlds, the Burntover still drew her.

Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel

Dunya stopped just outside Phineus’s unit to calm herself down. Otherwise she would burst in and start screaming at him. That was no way to start a check-in meeting with one of her refugees.

That gave her a chance to realize that she looked like hell. She’d already had one fight that morning, with her daughter Bodil, and afterwards she had rushed out, unsnapped and unbrushed. It was hard enough to manage someone like Phineus, all Martian and precise, without giving him more ammunition about how lax things were here, among the asteroids.

Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere

Trill walked home through the Rainshadow Mountains with Adia, her former mentor.  Not alone.

The sky had been high all day.  Now, with evening, it came low, wetting them and their surroundings with mist.  Silver beaded the fuzz beneath their feet.

Adia was tough, though an elder.  She walked steadily, without complaint.  She ought to have been tired even before they started; she and Trill had spent the week teaching a cohort of tens-to-thirteens how to weave buildings.

Sue Lange, Mission of Greed

In the third week after gagarin123 landed on an unnamed planet sweeping through a solar system claimed by ValeroCorp, First Mechanic Bertie Lai’s chance for fame slowly swirled down the shitter.

And just yesterday things had been moving along swimmingly. René Genie, the mission biologist, had not yet found sentient life; the geologist, Aadil Alzeshi, had discovered beautiful 1.4.  Specifically, he’d hit some pitchblende with enough uranium in it for ValeroCorp to recoup the cost of this mission.

Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa

There are breezes, like the ocean breeze, which can set your pulse racing, dear kin, and your spirit seems to fly ahead of you as your little boat rides each swell.  But this breeze!  This breeze wafts through you and me, through planets and suns, like we are nothing.  How to catch it, know it, befriend it?  This sea, the Antarsa, is like no other sea.  It washes the whole universe, as far as we can tell, and the ordinary matter such as we are made of is transparent to it.  So how is it that I can ride the Antarsa current, as I am doing now, steering my little spacecraft so far from Dhara and its moon?

Joan Slonczewski, Landfall

Most college sophomores spent their summer running toyworlds while catching sun at air-conditioned disappearing beaches.  Jenny Ramos Kennedy spent hers at the Havana Institute for Revolutionary Botany, which students called the Botánica. At the Botánica, Jenny worked with ultraphytes, Earth’s cyanide-emitting extraterrestrial invaders. Could she discover how to engineer ultraphyte chromosomes–to control them genetically, before they poisoned the planet?

Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima

When Dine Paloan asked this woman, Alakie, to leave before destruction arrived, she refused at first.  She had trained to be Paloan’s pilot, but this Alakie had never thought she would be leaving without Dine.  So instead of accepting the Dinela’s wishes, this Alakie helped to send Paloan’s other tokens back to Cassin, and she stayed.

Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars

The derelict ship ward was in an isolated section of Outsider space, one of the numerous spots left blank on interstellar maps, no more or no less tantalising than its neighbouring quadrants.  To most people, it would be just that: a boring part of a long journey to be avoided–skipped over by Mind-ships as they cut through deep space, passed around at low speeds by Outsider ships while their passengers slept in their hibernation cradles.

Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought

Cat’s Cradle turns into Painted Handkerchief turns into Dish of Noodles turns into Manger turns into Fishing Net.  These are but the first of the Two Hundred Variations developed by bored human children on the Long Journey.

I was once one of them.

Young Ket hums as zie holds up zir hands, the string wound tight around the fingers. Zie glances at me and I wave back. Zie has the same long graceful neck and bulbous body as zir parent, Tunloji. Watching zem is like watching a younger version of my lover.

Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask

Mar-teri broke her confinement to burn alsar for her dead sisters.  Under thin moonlight she stepped out of the unmarried adults’ caravan for the first time in two months–stones crunching under her feet, chives brushing against her bare ankles–carrying the bunch of alsar she was supposed to burn in her caravan. As if honouring them from afar could be enough.

The opening lines of Falna’s song slipped into Mar-teri’s head. Such a fierce song, when the woman wearing Falna’s mask channelled generations of anger–how Mar-teri had longed to wear that mask!

Martha Wells, Mimesis

Jade spotted Sand as he circled down from the forest canopy, a grasseater clutched in his talons.  She said, “Finally.”  It would be nice to eat before dark, so they could clear the offal away from the camp without attracting the night scavengers.

It was Balm who said, “I don’t see Fair.”

Jade frowned, scanning the canopy again.  They were standing in the deep grass of the platform they had chosen to camp on, and it was late afternoon in the suspended forest and getting difficult to hunt by sight.

Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost

I hate planets.  Filthy, heavy, smelly, and this one was leaking.

“It’s rain,” Rida said.  “It’s not a leak, it’s part of their exchange.”

“It’s snow.”  Tai lurked just up corridor, close enough that I could hear him both hard and via the uplink.  “Rain is the wet one.”

“This is wet,” Rida objected.

“Can we focus?” I demanded.  “Rida?”

Braced on the rim of the rock pool by the bistro hatch, Rida flashed me a capture of his desk screen, with the vid of our target unshifted.  “She’s still talking, boss.”

C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted

The Door wasn’t so much heavy as reluctant to move, as if they were carrying it, one at each end, through molasses.  “Why is it like this?” Saiyul asked as she leaned into the resistant thing.

Ashil shrugged the best he could with his hands full. “How should I know?”

A bead of perspiration slid down Saiyul’s face, right into the scar on her cheek. It had healed, mostly, but it itched where her oxygen mask rubbed against it.

Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask

If you had asked Eduw if he loved Grania, he would have been indignant. Naturally he did. He loved all his targets.

Not at first, of course. He was put off. That scar that marred her face, it hurt to look at. It wasn’t an uncommon condition, despite what the meddies said. Some people rejected plas-flesh. It didn’t take, didn’t renew lost skin, didn’t rebuild damaged features. For some it even seemed to make things worse.

Christine Lucas, Ouroboros

The dead philosopher came out of his cavern only when both the moons of Mars were below the horizon.  Or so the legend claimed.

Under a clear sky over the Martian wilderness, Kallie focused her hearing and sought the faintest sound that might confirm his existence.  Nothing. The nanobots lining her auditory nerves redoubled their efforts. Still nothing. Yet. She turned her attention towards the base at northeast, under the shadow of Olympus Mons. No alarms, no sirens, no one on her trail. They hadn’t noticed her absence. Yet. But they would, and they’d unleash the Enforcer.

Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Matt Sunderland gazed at the Earth, which was just edging out from behind the Moon. From the L2 platform, Luna, of course, dominated the sky, a vast gray globe half in sunlight, half in shadow, six times larger than it would have appeared from his Long Island home. Usually, it completely blocked the gauzy blue and white Earth. On the bulkhead to his left, the Mars or Bust flag still hung, its corners fastened by magnets.

Mars or Bust.

www.bookbuzzr.com

Image: Girl under the Milky Way, by Babak A. Tafreshi

The Launch of the First Stage Approaches

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

As many of you know, I decided to conjure an anthology of original stories that are (broadly interpreted) mythic space opera with women protagonists. I will be releasing the TOC of The Other Half of the Sky in the next few days.

In the meantime, Charles Tan interviewed me for the World SF blog specifically about the anthology. This interview is a bookend to an earlier one I gave to SF Signal. The two give a lot of insight into what I wanted to achieve with this venture:

The World SF interview

The SF Signal interview

Keep eyes on telescopes for the next stage of the launch!

Image: Eleni Tsami, A Fisherman of Ares Vallis

The Charlatan-Haunted World

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.