Fantasy, science fiction, and the future of derp.

June 13, 2015

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.

SF as Thriller/Thriller as SF

June 9, 2015

FoldFor various reasons I’ve been pondering thrillers as a genre lately, considering the directions of future projects.  One of the nice things about SFF is the fact that it is the universal donor of literary genres.  Tropes from science fiction and fantasy can be mixed with almost any other genre you can name.  They seem to do particularly well in mystery/thriller contexts, see the Dresden Files for an example marketed as SFF, see Repairman Jack for one marketed more more as thriller.

So, thinking thriller thoughts, I grabbed The Fold by Peter Clines from Audible.  If this is the first you’ve heard of this book, you are lucky.  If any book deserves to be read (or listened to) spoiler free, it is this one.  This is structured as an excellent thriller that’s best read without any preconceptions where it is going.  We have all the requirements: unexplained goings-on, an interesting protagonist, a research lab populated with a cast of characters that are keeping secrets, and a project that seems to be running perfectly fine. . . until it doesn’t.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, because the less you know where you’re going, the more fun it will be.

Utopias are scary

June 5, 2015

So SF Signal led me to a review of a rather odd play with the provocative title (review title, not play title) “Why Are So Many Fictional Utopias as Terrifying as Dystopias?

This is a subject I’ve touched on before.  But the review’s author hits on something I haven’t touched on, one that should be seriously considered by any writer who wants to tackle a real utopian setting:

The issue with the audience’s conditioned expectations:

In watching this play, we bring in all of our abundant, engrained ideas of what lurks behind the copacetic veneer of utopia. For that reason, when a character (played by Catherine Brookman, who composed and performs all the soaringly layered music) disappears, it doesn’t seem a stretch to wonder if she was murdered by the leader.

This is despite the fact that the intent, and text, of the play in question is utopian. However, as Moze Halperin points out, we just aren’t used to real utopias:

False utopias — art’s favorite variety — tend to be more sinister even than dystopias, because they initially present themselves as Solutions. The key difference — the thing that makes these communities seem utopian at first — is that they’re typically extra-societal. Their sylvan or generally remote settings start by providing a sense of beauty and a return to simplicity, of de-corporatization and a sort of society-wide re-personalization. But that woodsy setting also soon reveals its happy micro-society to be a smaller version of exactly what went wrong elsewhere: notably, leadership as pure megalomania. The “personalization” created by the smallness of most utopias means that tyrants can physically govern — they can actually oppress people with their own bare hands. (John Hawkes’ Patrick, the leader of the Catskills cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example, uses rape as an initiation ritual for the titular character — whom he also named as another assertion of his authority.)

And the woodland promise — the optimism of the marriage between humans and nature, of a return to nature as a symbol for wiping the slate clean — soon reveals itself to be a trap. In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Lepucki’s California, the central communities have built spiky ramparts (The Village‘s in the form of a spiky “creature,” California‘s in the form of actual massive “Spikes” made from sharpened detritus of a former society) to keep residents in and the outside world out. The below-the-surface tyranny of “utopias” — insomuch as they’re often small and rural — is also in some ways more direct than in urban, bureaucratic dystopias. These two prevalent forms of nightmarish society in art are disheartening because they suggest that imagining anything better than the status quo will lead to one of two options: either living in an urban center controlled by labyrinthine forces (which represent extremes of the private of public sectors) put in place only to keep you oppressed, or moving to the woods, donning braids, and getting sexually assaulted.

While this only refers to one particular type of utopia (there are as many kinds of utopia as there are political philosophies philosophers) the point holds for all of them.  How often, outside Star Trek, have you seen any fictional utopia and unconsciously primed yourself for the other shoe to drop, for the ugly secret to be revealed?  So, if you make the attempt, remember that I’m not the only reader who’ll poke around your utopian society looking for the mass graves.

A random thought about SFF and sexual politics

June 3, 2015

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

11-22-63

May 28, 2015

11/22/63I’ve always liked Stephen King.  He counts as one of the significant influences on me as a writer. And reading (listening to) one of his more recent works, 11/22/63, I came to an epiphany about one of the major techniques he uses to keep readers continually turning the pages. Maybe I just noticed it more when I listened to his work via audiobook than on the page, but once I noticed it, I remembered all the times he used this technique, bits from books I might have read decades ago.

It’s so damn simple too.

He foreshadows the crap out of everything.

He does it big, he does it small, he does it with the main story plot and he does it with the subplots about character relationships. He will flat out tell you something’s important behind this here door, and then he’ll walk the plot away leaving you desperate to know what’s behind it. 11/22/63 practically breathes foreshadowing simply because the nature of the premise, but the book itself is littered with smaller examples from the early mention of “the broom” to the narrator saying that placing a particular bet was a mistake long before we are ever shown why. It seems that rarely a scene goes by in the first two thirds of the book where he isn’t saying in some fashion, “You see this? Pay attention, it will come up later.”

It’s like crack to a reader, sprinting ahead to see each hint pay off.

Now pardon me while I go figure out how to do it as smoothly as he does.

Hugo Addendum

May 26, 2015

Over at Making Light there’s a serious proposal that seems a lot more constructive than the cries of “No Award” and looks as if it addresses the issue with slate voting. It seems to do so without being anti-democratic, needlessly arcane, or open to too much manipulation. I’d hope, despite the source, that those of the Sad Puppy side might get behind this since it would eliminate the disproportionate advantage given to a block of voters all nominating the same group of works, and therefore, possibly inadvertently, also dilute the consensus group-think that inspired the Sad Puppies to begin with.

IMHO, this proposal goes into the “constructive suggestion” bucket.

The 10 things I have to say about the Hugos

May 7, 2015

10) No, the Hugos weren’t captured by some sort of conspiracy. It’s silly to say it’s a conspiracy. So silly, in fact, that saying that someone else is saying it’s a conspiracy is a nice bit of rhetorical judo that makes one feel intellectually superior to the crazy wing-nuts who are saying— one is asserting— that it’s some sort of conspiracy. However, it does appear that, until recently, the pool of Hugo voters had shrunk to a few hundred people whose tastes, reading habits and circle of friends would graph out more like a bulls-eye than a Venn diagram.  But that’s the difference between conspiracy and self-selection bias.  i.e. It’s a clique, not a conspiracy.  But anyone who’s gone to high school knows that from the outside, the difference is sort of moot.

9) As I’ve said privately to some folks, I think bringing in more fans to the process is probably the best thing to happen to literary sf fandom during my professional career. I’m not going to qualify that, or hedge here. I think more fans = good. I give Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen full credit for that. For everyone else: Either the door is open or it ain’t. And if it ain’t, you might as well give up the voting entirely, make it a juried award, and let the Locus reader’s poll be the voice of the people.

8) Wailing and gnashing of teeth about the “destruction” of the Hugos is really unbecoming. We are talking about one single year of an award that’s been going on for well over half a century. Are we pretending, after all this time, that it all goes south and everyone packs it in because of this? Is the Worldcon Committee going to look at a thousand supporting membership checks and say, “The Evil One may have touched these.  Alas we must burn them and salt the earth so nothing ever grows again.”?

7) Speaking of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named; does everyone realize that everything he does is intended to piss people off? I mean every time you invoke his name you give him more power. People are withdrawing their nominations, specifically because of his endorsement. I suspect this gives him great joy.

6) This was also the greatest gift possible to those who wanted to smear Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen.  After all, everyone knows that proper debate on the Internet consists of finding the most extreme and unhinged example of something related to your opponent’s position and arguing against that. If you’ve stated anything about Larry and Brad being racist, sexist homophobes, and your argument consists of third party quotes by someone else entirely, you are an asshat. Really, there needs to be a Godwin’s Law 2.0 about invoking Vox Day’s name online.

5) “Gamergate” involvement seems only to have happened after the nominations, and only in the minds of a few online agitators who wanted them to be involved. Either as a crusading army of vengeance, or as a convenient sexist strawman to hang on the necks of the opposition.

4) The concerns about slate voting are valid. (Like #2 above, this is an assertion I do not qualify or hedge.)  But then the complaint is with The Evil One’s spamming the award with bloc voting for the Rabid Puppy slate. That was a destructive act, and was the major difference between the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. Brad Torgersen explicitly wasn’t encouraging that behavior with the Sad Puppies. A moment of reflection about that, and about the small voting pool of the Hugos, is enough to explain why the “Rabid” Puppies had more impact (i.e. the Rabid Puppies were the ones demonstrably engaging in this behavior while the Sad Puppies weren’t.) There are non-destructive strategies to deal with this from both ends, such as future Hugo ballots allowing only a couple of slots per category, and future “slates” suggesting many more works per category.  Whining is not such a strategy.

3) No Award is valid if you think the whole category is void of merit, for whatever reason. But doing so to “protest” slate voting, to “save” the Hugos, or to insure they still have “meaning,” strikes me as wrong-headed and kind of childish. (See point #8 above.) The 2015 Hugos are not going to contaminate the 2018 Hugos, or the 2008 Hugos.  Cooties don’t time travel. All that kind of reactionary voting strategy does is reflect the current year award’s mess— and, honestly, if you think this year is hopelessly broken and tainted, a protest vote does nothing but certify that taint.

2) Name calling isn’t helping. Mockery isn’t argument. And the vitriol I’ve seen expended on this is going to last long after everyone has completely forgotten this year’s Hugos. Especially some stuff from the pros out there. People remember who acted like a dick long after they forget exactly why they acted like a dick. This includes fans, the people supporting you by buying the stories we’re arguing about.

1) Once we start talking about literary merit in what is intended to be the popular fandom award we have descended into matters of taste. Once you pretend to know some ultimate objective truth about maters of taste, you have become a pretentious twit.

Ohioana

April 21, 2015

2015-Festival-Art-for-Website

This coming Saturday, April 25th, I will be attending the ninth annual Ohioana Book Festival  in Columbus.  There will be the book fair and panels at the Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  First thing, at 10:15, I will be on a panel “From Another Realm: Paranormal, Science Fiction & Fantasy” with Mike Resnick, Terry Ervin II, Brian McClellan. You can see the rest of the panel schedule here.  Food, books, dozens of authors… what’s not to like?  If you’re in the Columbus area you should stop by.

Cleveland ConCoction Day 3

March 15, 2015

Today is the last day of the con, and last day to catch me and my books.  I’ll be doing a signing in Author Alley today at 1:00pm.

Cleveland Concoction

Cleveland ConCoction Day 2

March 14, 2015

I’m back at Cleveland ConCoction today. . .Cleveland ConcoctionMy official schedule today:

  • Saturday 2:00 Mixing Genres with Sandra Gurvis, Brian Hagan, Sarah Hans
  • Saturday 4:00 Building Toward the Ultimate Literary Climax with Sandra Gurvis, Ty Schwamberger, Adrian J. Matthews, Christine Benedict
  • Saturday 9:00 Humor in Sci-Fi/Fantasy with Brian Hagan, Marcus V. Calvert, Addie J. King, Cindy A. Matthews
  • Saturday 10:00 The 10-Volume Trilogy with Addie J. King, Adrian J. Matthews, Cindy A. Matthews