Lounging About

I just want to let people know about my continued effort to integrate myself into the social media landscape (or other buzzwords to that effect) I have launched myself a Facebook group called Swann’s Lounge. So, for those of you on Facebook, you can join a bunch of like-minded folks to discuss reading & writing genre fiction, particularly Science Fiction and Fantasy. Come on and join the discussion, or start one of your own.

Concoction

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I’m going to be at the Cleveland Concoction convention this coming weekend from March 10th through the 12th.  If you’re in the area, directions are here.

You can find the overall schedule here, as for what I’m doing:

  • Fri. 11pm – Fantasy and Rule 34
  • Sat. 12pm – Vampires, Werewolves, and Gods—Rewriting Legends
  • Sat. 2pm – Author Showcase (Session 3) [Wherein I will read a bit]
  • Sat. 3pm – Autographing (Session 3) – Author Alley
  • Sat. 9pm – Why Villains Matter
  • Sat. 11pm – Inter-Species “Relations”
  • Sun. 1pm – There are no Saints in Fiction

Looking forward to seeing some of my fans there.

7 Things in Every SF/F Story

Last weekend I had a fun time at the Confluence convention in Pittsburgh. One of the panels I attended was titled “7 Things That Every SF/F Story Contains.” Kudos to the panel moderator Joshua Palmatier who managed to be the best moderator of any panel I was on, and that includes the one I moderated. Somehow, going item by item, the panel managed to segue into each other’s points almost as if it was planned that way.

Since we each made up our own list, I thought I might as well share mine with everyone.

Seven Things That Are In Every Science Fiction and Fantasy Story

  1. Every SF/F story is going to have some major point of divergence between the reality of the story and the reality as the author understands it. i.e. THE IDEA. This can be magic or new physics, werewolves or some new invention, an alternate history or simply a setting in the nebulous “future.” However, without that, you’re writing something other than SF/F.

  2. Every SF/F story will engage in some form of extrapolation; some examination of the broader consequences that follow from THE IDEA’s existence. i.e. WORLDBUILDING. In other words, the IDEA doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t cause some other changes in the universe around it. In fact, the reader is sometimes going to be introduced to those changes before they’re shown the actual IDEA. (see #6 below)

  3. Every SF/F story will posit some type of PHILOSOPHY, an idea of how the world, and human nature, works. This can be implicit, or explicit, but is grounded in the choices the author makes when deciding what consequences of THE IDEA are most plausible. The author can try as they might, but the story will have some core ideology: imagine a novel about a future matriarchal society as written by Margret Atwood, then by Ayn Rand, then by John Scalzi, then by John C. Wright. . . not going to be remotely the same story.

  4. Every SF/F story will have some necessary connection between THE IDEA and character and plot (and probably setting). The story could not exist in its current form without THE IDEA. If the character, dialog and plot could be moved to any other contemporary or historical setting with only slight changes, it really isn’t SF/F, it’s just a mystery, western, thriller &c. dressed up in SF/F drag.

  5. Every SF/F story will have some proxy character to introduce the story world to the reader. Where general story construction impels us to select the POV that best illuminates the story, SF/F story construction also impels us to select the POV that best illustrates THE IDEA.

  6. Every SF/F story will have some pattern of discovery to the world, THE IDEA, and the consequences of THE IDEA. Often this is structured much as a mystery, revealing small bits here and there until the end when the reader has a complete picture. This is especially true when complex WORLDBUILDING is involved. Sometimes the amount of information about the world is so vast that there’s little choice— if one actually wishes to convey an actual story— but to show the world in multiple cumulative glimpses over the course of the work.

  7. Every SF/F story will echo the author’s reality in some fashion. It is unavoidable. Read any SF/F written in the mid-1950s and you will almost always be able to distinguish it from something written in the mid-1970s, even when the works are by the same author. Even when the style feels ahead of its time (say with Alfred Bester) there will still be multiple cues and assumptions about life, the world, and technology that will leak in from the outside. (see #3)

Fantasy, science fiction, and the future of derp.

I have read some stupid assertions about Science Fiction and Fantasy over the years.  As I have internet access, this is inevitable.  People say idiotic things occasionally.  Then I read this from the Daily Kos, and watched as the bullshit  reached such a density that the article collapsed through it’s own event horizon until the pull of the derp became so strong that not even a coherent thought could escape.

We start with a intro about the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is admittedly difficult on the margins. We already know we’re in troubled waters because the referents used seem to consist entirely of Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings.

This is going to be fun.

There’s an easier way to define the two biggest categories of speculative fiction, and it has nothing to do with which one has pointy-eared people called elves and which one features equally mucronate Vulcans. Instead, it’s all about time. More specifically, it’s about Time’s Arrow.

We then get a slug from this Wikipedia article after an explanation of all the Google hits we’re not referring to.

Ok, Second Law of Thermodynamics, gotca.

It’s like this: fantasy works backward. That’s not to say that fantasy fiction is filled with self-assembling tea cups. In fantasy, what’s reversed is progress.

Progress is simply the idea that the world becomes better at making buildings, better at making gadgets, better at medicine, better at communicating, better at explaining the world, better at providing a decent life for everyone. Better … over time. And surely the future shall be better for thee than the past, etc., etc.

In fantasy worlds, that’s often not the case. In many fantasies, there was once a time of Great Ones, a category including Noble men, Stately Elves, Impressive Giants, Personally Involved Gods, Bearded Wizards, and Interstellar Mollusks of Ill-Defined Colors. In this past time Great Deeds were done. Great Deeds that include raising of Impregnable Castles that stand still on lonely peaks, the digging of Great Mines that delved deep into Unknown Depths, the weaving of Great Spells that worked Mighty Wonders, the construction of Darkly Towering Towers that shielded deeds of unforgivable self-aggrandizement, and the forging of Great Items that no artisan today can match (this paragraph brought to you by Fantasy Capitals. Fantasy Capitals, lending Terrible Significance to ordinary words for a Very Long Time).

And thus begins the spiraling collapse of any intellectual heft this argument might have had. The above assertion is so mindlessly reductive that I doubt the author even read Tolkien, and simply formed an opinion on the genre based on the trailers for the Hobbit movies. But that’s not even the worst of it. We are using the concept of “Time’s Arrow” as a metaphor for the idea of “Progress.” Really? I know quite a few libertarians that would probably equate ideas about historical materialism with societal entropy, but I doubt that was the author’s intent.

Needless to say, the view of science fiction is also insanely reductive.

Science fiction, that is proper science fiction according to this 100 percent not original definition, has its arrow firmly pointed toward progress. Yes, things may be worse than they once were due to war, famine, or alien invasion, but it’s perfectly possible for our spunky audience surrogates to match and exceed previous achievements. You can build that spaceship, plant that flag, go where no one has gone before without regard to pedantic protectors of infinitives. Star Trek is science fiction not only because it imagines a future world where things are better than today, but because that world is firmly anchored in the idea that things can be better still. Transporters will transport over greater distances. Warp drives will be warpier. And both captains and crew expect to end their lives in a world that is measurably better than the one they were born into.

So Science Fiction is defined, pretty explicitly, as “that fiction that buttresses the stupid argument I’m making here.” Forget H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine. Orwell’s 1984. Most of Phillip K. Dick’s oeuvre.

Lord of the Rings is fantasy because everything of import originated Long, Long Ago. Our characters move against a backdrop of awe-inspiring ruins toting swords, armor, and rings embued with power by people that Knew Stuff. Stuff the likes of us are unlikely to ever cipher.

Thus, so is every single space opera that uses the trope of the ancient progenitors.

From that solemnly pronounced idiocy, the author devolves into the real argument he is attempting to make.

But there’s a problem with our politics. Somehow, for reasons that are not at all clear, we doubt the existence of progress.

Too often we treat an 18th century quote as if it’s the final card in an argument. Too often we look at yellowing documents as if they came not from politicians as venal and self-important as anyone on the stage today, but from marble demigods. Too often we weigh the best possible data available today, discover the best possible course of action available today, then say to ourselves, “Now how would a guy in a powdered wig have handled this?”

Oh, progress happens. There’s a sweet relationship between Time’s Arrow and the Arc of the Moral Universe. Greater knowledge has brought not only increased acceptance, but increased freedom. Only the arc isn’t just long, it’s much, much longer than it need be. A big part of that all too often we live in fantasy democracy … Fantocracy.

How do you know you’re in Fantocracy? If you’ve ever cited Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin as an authority in an economic debate, you’ve put a foot in Fantocracy. If you believe no politician today can match the erudition and political brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, you’re in at least knee-deep. If your philosophy of good governance is based on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even a Roosevelt to be named later, you’re fully in Fantocracy. If your argument for the Second Amendment is based on anything said by Noah Webster, James Madison, or anyone else who died before the invention of the rifled slug … well, Mr. Bilbo, let me see if I can rustle up some taters.

And there you go. The inane literary argument exists solely to reach a preordained conclusion.  To wit, if you reference prior philosophy in arguments about social policy then you politics wrong.

Not only do you have the arc of the moral universe’s descent into sweet sweet entropy, you have the ahistorical assumption that somehow continuing forward in time inevitably leads to more enlightened political thought. I mean, what the hell happened to the arc of the moral universe in Iran and Afghanistan between 1950 and now? The fact something is old or new has very little bearing on its worth. Especially since the “progressive” thought espoused herein is over a century old itself.

Really, this is just a case of whether you prefer 19th Century German political philosophers to 18th Century English ones.

Our knowledge is steadily increasing. That includes the knowledge in how to form and manage a stable government. That includes the knowledge in how to run an economy. That includes the knowledge of how to regulate business, how to manage the environment, how to provide the greatest freedom to the greatest number.

I got a book for you.

You. You. Yes, you. You can understand economics better than Adam Smith. You can grasp the relationship between church and state better than Washington, fathom the balance between legislative and executive branches better than Jefferson, and wrestle with a thousand, a million, ideas they never knew existed.

So, being able to Google stuff makes everyone smarter than those poor old white dudes that lived before iPhones. And someone who wrote an article as intellectually sloppy as this one understands the balance of powers better than the folks who designed the system.

Yeah.

I think this guy was the one in class who asked why Newton’s theory of motion still worked if Einstein disproved it all.

A random thought about SFF and sexual politics

Two things converged in my head recently.

I didn’t comment about the whole Game of Thrones rape kerfuffle last month.  Mostly because I don’t watch Game of Thrones. But the controversy about it seemed (to me) to spring from a deep conflict between the contemporary ethos of sexual morality and a fiction portraying a world that does not share that ethos. (In my mind, such arguments tend to sound similar to those who wish to ban or censor Huckleberry Finn because Twain wrote “nigger” too much.) I won’t argue the particulars here when others have done so much better and are familiar with the source material.

But today I read a post about children’s author Enid Blyton that referenced a post about gender roles in SF by John C. Wright (in addition to Eric Raymond’s post about “Literary Status Envy,” which is outside the point of this post, but of interest to understand the current puppyish Hugo divisions.)

Now Mr. Wright is very Catholic. He is also persona non grata in much of fandom for reasons that should be clear upon reading the above link, reasons largely similar to the reasons many folks in fandom despise Orson Scott Card. Both are shunned and derided because they do not share the same ethos of sexual morality as those doing the shunning.  Some might argue that this is not why they dislike Mr. Card, or Mr. Wright. They’d argue that their dislike stems from the “hate” ascribed to such views.  That, I think, is simply rebranding the source of the disagreement, since those who call the views of Wright and Card hateful would feel likewise about any moral framework that defined homosexuality as wrong.

Mr. Wright has a religious view of sexual morality that historically was developed around procreation and preservation of the family unit. The exemplar sin here would be homosexuality, the epitome of the non-procreative sexual act.

Those that dislike Mr. Wright have a secular view of sexual morality that is based on mutual consent. The exemplar sin here would be rape, the epitome of the non-consensual sexual act.

Circling back to Game of Thrones then. The current secular western view of sexual morality is a relatively recent invention. If one writes about different times and places, the sexual mores of that time and place will not duplicate those of the current era. It strikes me then that those who cannot understand John C. Wright’s point of view on these matters (not share them, mind you, simply understand them) will not be able to convincingly imagine a society significantly different then the one they happen to inhabit.  It also strikes me that those responding so viscerally to the Game of Thrones might be having the same internal moral panic that John C. Wright experienced watching Legend of Koraa

So, anyone want a book?

Dragon princessI was talking to a colleague about the non-writing part of this writing thing. Specifically, what a mid-list author might do to get some publicity for their book. The conversation hit the obvious points, signings, distributing ARCs and so on. But he did mention something I hadn’t ever considered: having his minions friends leave propaganda bookmarks at giveaway tables at cons for him. This is one of those ideas that are so simple that it’s baffling why I hadn’t thought of it before.

Here’s what I’m thinking of doing. And I’m going to offer this to anyone reading this post: If you are attending a SF convention or similar venue in the continental U.S. over the next 12 months, and are willing to drop off bookmarks/postcards promoting my Dragon* books, I will give you a signed copy of Dragon•Princess in return. (If you have that, I’ll send a copy of Dragon•Thief when it becomes available.)

If you are interested, e-mail me at author@sandrewswann.com at least one month before the convention you’re planning to attend.