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New golden age for science fiction in China →

Rachel Cheung writes about the Chinese sci-fi scene, for the South China Morning Post.

It’s not the first golden age of sci-fi in China, though. Wang Yao says that was between 1978 and 1983 during reforms initiated by late Deng Xiaoping. “It was thought that science fiction could cultivate a scientific spirit, and the authorities assigned authors to write books in the genre,” says Wang.

More than 30 years later, the new golden age is very different but also being supported by the government. In its science and technology progress plan, published last year, the State Council cited a need to improve the population’s scientific literacy. Policies include the establishment of national science fiction awards and international sci-fi festivals.

Although investors are eyeing sci-fi’s entertainment industry potential, the literature itself is not so highly valued. “The payment writers receive for fiction writing is very small. I also write for fashion magazines, which pay a lot more,” says Regina Wang. Since it is impossible to make ends meet writing sci-fi, most authors do it simply as a hobby.

… ​> Although the Hugo Awards have brought global attention to the Chinese sci-fi scene, as an industry it still has a long way to go.

“Unlike Western countries, we do not have a long tradition of a cultural and creative industry,” says Wang Yao. There are only about 100 writers, publishers and filmmakers in the Chinese sci-fi industry, compared with more than 4,000 sci-fi writers in the United States, she adds.

​That's a surprising discrepancy to me, especially given the overall population advantage that China has over the United States. That, combined with the government sponsorship of both "golden ages" of Chinese science fiction, makes me wonder how much staying power the genre has in Chinese culture. SF is great at shining a light on society, but only if it's coming from a place of genuine enthusiasm and grass roots support.

This entry was tagged. China Science Fiction

Reading Idea: Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets
by Ken Liu
$11.99 on Kindle

What I've been reading - Marginal REVOLUTION

  1. Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

Tyler Cowen's recommendations are always worth considering. And this one is a two-fer, as they say: it's science fiction and it's genuinely a glimpse into another culture.

Reading Idea: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
$11.99 on Kindle

I heard about this book on an episode of The Cato Daily Podcast. I've roughly transparaphrased the description that Kimberly Hurd Hale and Caleb Brown gave during the episode.

WARNING: Their description is filled with spoilers, so don't read it if you would like to just read the book.

The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film

The book describes children at Hailsham, which is a boarding school, but not really a boarding school. It's gradually revealed that the wonderful education they are receiving at Hailsham is just a cover for the very dark destiny that awaits them.

The story is set in the late 1990's, in Britain. The premise is that following World War 2, rather than the breakthroughs in nuclear power that we experienced, there were breakthroughs in medicine. We figured out a way to clone human beings and use their organs to, essentially, cure cancer, cure heart disease, and all of the other great, mass killers of our society. We can use the clone organs to cure them. This means that ordinary human beings no longer have to fear cancer, or heart disease, or liver disease. They no longer have to worry that their family members will die prematurely from these things. The society is willing to accept this program of breeding and raising and slaughtering clones in exchange for longer, healthier life.

It's told from the point of view of one of the clone children. It's not a story of revolution. It's a story of her growing up, having friends, falling in love, and reconciling herself to the fact that she will die before she reaches middle age. She will donate her organs, one at a time, in a very cruel manner. She will spend her last years caring for her fellow clones, as they make these organ donations. She will have to watch her friends be slaughtered by this bureaucratic system. It has been solely responsible for her creation and education and has controlled every aspect of her life, to the point where she does not resist it. None of the clones resist it. They accept their fate and show no indication that they would be able or willing to escape their destiny. They think that that is what they were bred to do and, really, there's very little indicating that they find it morally objectionable.

Never Let Me Go examines it from the point of view of a society that wants these organs desperately but also seemingly recognizes that it is a serious inhumane, unethical thing that they are doing. Then you get Hailsham, you get the idea that if we educate these clones in a classical sense, give them a classical education where they read the great novels, learn about philosophy, spend most of their time doing art, then, somehow, what we're doing to them is more humane. They're given names. It's recognized that they have human drives, that they benefit somehow from these educations.

Reading Idea: The Sector General Series

Zak Zyz, writing at Tor.com, clues me in to a science-fiction series that I was previously unaware of. I'm a sucker for Golden Age SF. This sounds right up my alley.

The series takes place in Sector 12 General Hospital, a sprawling 384-floor hospital space station built in order to cement a lasting peace after humanity’s disastrous first interstellar war. A notable departure from the militaristic space operas of the time, the story of Sector General is explicitly pacifistic, eschewing conquest and combat in favor of the struggle of doctors to understand and heal their alien patients.

It has diverse alien species and environments.

The Sector General series is often commended for its depiction of extraterrestrials that are more than just humans with cosmetic differences. White’s aliens are physiologically far outside of the human experience, with asymmetrical bodies, unusual metabolisms, and strange and often monstrous appearances. Critically, they are also psychologically different. Empathic Cinrusskin aliens are aggressively agreeable peacemakers as they find negative emotional radiation physically painful. Predatory Chalder become too bored to eat when given food they don’t have to chase down and devour alive. White’s aliens are bemused by the human nudity taboo, described as unique to the species.

Designed to treat patients from all the intelligent races in the galaxy, Sector General has wards that replicate living conditions for a vast array of life forms. There are murky undersea wards for the forty-foot long, armored, crocodile-like Chalder, poisonous sections for the chlorine-breathing kelplike Illensans, sub-zero wards for the crystalline methane-breathing Vosans and superheated wards near the hospital’s reactor for radiation-eating Telfi hive-mind beetles.

​And it has the tape learning, so common to the stories of the era.

Facing this incredible menagerie of patients, no doctor could be expected to know how to treat them all. On Sector General, physicians overcome this impossibility by using “educator tapes,” the stored experience of famous alien specialists which the doctors download directly into their brains. The genius psyche temporarily shares space with the doctor’s own persona and advises them as they aid patients. The process is described as intensely jarring, since the educator tapes contain not only the expertise, but the entire personality of its donor. Inexperienced doctors find themselves struggling to eat food that the taped personality disliked, suddenly enamored with members of the expert’s species to whom they wouldn’t normally be attracted, and in some cases they must struggle to maintain control of their own bodies in the face of a personality stronger than their own.

Most doctors hurriedly have their educator tapes “erased” when the emergency at hand has run its course, but some working closely with patients from another species will retain tapes for long periods. The highest ranked medical staff in the hospital are the lordly diagnosticians—senior physicians capable of permanently retaining as many as ten educator tapes in a sort of intentional multiple personality disorder.

​Most importantly:

The Sector General novels are available in omnibus editions from Tor Books.

I looked up the stories. Apparently, I can get all but two in Kindle editions.

Reviewing the 2015 Hugo Awards

Worldcon presented the Hugo Awards last night. The Hugo's are science fiction's oldest and most prestigious awards, given by the science fiction fans of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). These were the results in the categories I cared about and voted in.

  • Best Novel went to The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator.
  • Best Novelette went to “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form went to Guardians of the Galaxy, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman.
  • Best Novella, no award given.
  • Best Novelette, no award given.
  • Best Short Story, no award given.

Worldcon gave the Best Novel award to the right book and I'm thrilled how that turned out. Aside from that, I'm disappointed in these results. They show me that the Worldcon membership has become political and is no longer interested in science fiction.

This was the year that the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies both published slates of suggested works for Hugo nominations. The Sad Puppies are led by a man who's Hispanic, former gun shop owner, and NRA member (Larry Correia); alongside a man who's a naval chaplain married to a black woman (Brad R. Torgersen). The Rabid Puppies are led by Vox Day (Theodore Beale), a performance artist (one hopes), who loves to provoke with inflammatory rhetoric that openly flirts with racism and misogyny.

Larry and Brad have both long felt that science fiction has become a boring wasteland of message fiction, more concerned with political correctness than with entertaining stories. The stories they dislike tend to be written by racial, sexual, or religious minorities. Naturally, Larry and Brad were attacked as racist homophobes, who wanted to keep science fiction pure for white, male authors. (Wired published a fairly even-handed overview of the whole Puppies saga.)

I'm disappointed that the Worldcon membership had such a political reaction to the Puppies. Many of them vowed to give no award, rather than give an award to a work that the Puppies had nominated. Now that the results are out, we can see that many voters did just that: no award was given in five different categories. This was overtly political voting. It wasn't based on the quality of the stories. The "trufans" voted according to whether or not they liked the fans of a given story. I'm disappointed that a fan base that supports tolerance and diversity would judge a work not on its own merits but on the merits of its supporters.

It has also become clear to me that the Worldcon membership is less interested in science fiction than it is in literary merit and stories of the fantastic. This is most clear in two of this year's winners: “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” and Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Hugo Voter's Pack included a copy of “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, alongside an interview with the author, Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Heuvelt said:

The whole turning upside down was a metaphor to begin with, so I think this is more a love story, or a humorous-grief story, or a fantasy than a real SF.

Having read the story, I wholeheartedly agree. Heuvelt constructed the story around the grief that Toby (the narrator) feels after breaking up with his girlfriend, Sophie. This breakup turned Toby's emotional world upside down, even as gravity reverses all over the globe and the real world literally turns upside down.

It's an interesting concept, but it has everything to do with emotional upheaval and nothing to do with science. It's a good story (although not to my personal taste), but I don't think it should be a candidate for (let alone a winner of) science fiction's foremost award.

It was up against three stories featuring various elements of science. All were well written and would have made deserving winners. The Worldcon membership chose instead to give the award to a literary tale that didn't include any science fiction.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a fantastic film. It was brilliant, fun, and funny. I've watched it three times and even bought a copy. But it's a movie based on a comic book. True, it happens in space and features ray guns, space ships, and a world destroying energy source. But there's no science involved anywhere in the story. It's a story of the fantastic, not a story involving science.

The Hugo membership chose Guardians of the Galaxy over Interstellar, a movie that involved true science fiction in its best elements. Interstellar showed a world ravaged by blight and the scientists and explorers that risked everything to build a ship and fly through a wormhole, to find a new home for humanity. The story involved real science, was well written, well acted, and entertaining. In my opinion, it was everything that a Hugo winning movie should be. But it lost to a truly entertaining comic book movie.

Based on this year's nominations, reactions to who nominated works, and which works won awards, I think it's clear that the Worldcon membership is no longer interested in the science part of science fiction. Instead, they're interested in fantasy, stories of the fantastic, and literary stories. I enjoy those, but I want to find a group of fans who still appreciates, and honors, the fiction of science, stories that can both entertain and teach you about the laws of the natural universe.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction

You'll Never See It In Galaxy

Horace L. Gold, the first editor of Galaxy, published this ad in Galaxy 1 (October 1950).

Galaxy Ad

(Image taken from Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.)

First Story

Jet's blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing…and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.

"Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."

Second Story

Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rimrock…and at that point a tall, lean wranger stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand.

"Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts."

Sting

Sound alike? They should—one is merely a western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet. If this is your idea of science fiction, you're welcome to it! YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!

What you will find in GALAXY is the finest science fiction…authentic, plausible, thoughtful…written by authors who do not automatically switch over from crime waves to Earth invasions; by people who know and love science fiction…for people who also know and love it.

Reclaiming Heinlein

Early last year, MetaFilter had a spirited discussion about SF. Various people were arguing about supposed Progressive bias in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and whether an author like Robert Heinlein would even be welcome in SF today. Several people doubted that he could even win a Hugo today.

John Scalzi stepped in to say that not only could he still win, but that he would definitely win today. Scalzi essentially argues that today's SF field is broader than yesterday's. Yes, there are more Progressive voices. But authors are still writing stories in the Heinlein tradition, they still sell well, and they still get nominated for awards.

If we grant that a resurrected Heinlein would read the lay of the land, commerce-wise, could he win a Hugo today? Sure he could -- or at the very least could get nominated. Charlie Stross wrote a homage to late Heinlein called Saturn's Children which was nominated for a Hugo in 2009; its sequel Neptune's Brood is on the ballot this year. Robert J. Sawyer, who writes in a clear, Campbellian style, is a frequent Best Novel nominee, most recently for Wake, which has a clear antecedent in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. James SA Corey rolled onto the Hugo Novel list in 2012 with Leviathan Wakes, which is solidly in the Golden Age traditon, updated for today's audiences. And I can think of at least one recent Hugo award winner who has a thrice-Hugo-nominated military science fiction series, who has been explicitly compared to Heinlein all through his career. So could Heinlein win a Hugo? Hell yeah, he could -- and if he were as commercially smart today as he was back in the day, it wouldn't even be question of if, but when.

Virgin Galactic and the Future of Transportation →

Virgin Galactic is working to offer tourist trips to space in the next months to year. But they're looking beyond that too.

"If we can make significant progress on the challenge of reusable space access then I think that opens up all kinds of opportunities in the future," he said. "One of the directions that might open up is high-speed point-to-point travel on Earth -- so that you could go from London to Singapore in an hour or go from London to Los Angeles in a couple of hours.

Regular passenger service to the moon and super fast travel around the globe—this was a staple of the Golden Age SF that I read as a teenager. I hardly know how to process the idea that it might actually come true. If it does, I'll be positively giddy.

ESR Reviews Irregular Verbs and Other Stories →

Eric S. Raymond reviewed Matthew Johnson's short-story anthology Irregular Verbs and Other Stories. He used it as an opportunity to talk about the differences between SF, literary fiction, and other genres. It caught my eye because I've been doing my own ruminating on what SF is and what literary fiction is.

I will use Johnson's work to explore some of the boundary conditions of the SF genre—how it differs from literary fiction and from genres such as mystery and fantasy.

Because I'm going to be saying a lot about genres of writing, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It's two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.

This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany's observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.

We will also require the following definition of science fiction (due in its most developed form to Gregory Benford): that branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough—of having understood the universe in a new and larger way. Every constraint in this definition is important; removing or relaxing any of them lands us in other genres.

It made for some interesting reading. I also learned from the discussion in the comments.

Against Steampunk

I've said a time or two that I don't like steampunk. I find it terminally silly and I can't understand the attraction of it. At all.

I posted last week how much I liked Norman Spinrad's definition of speculative fiction, in a recent issue of Asimov's. In that essay, he also expressed a dislike of steampunk. I appreciated his dissection of steampunk, as it confirms my own distaste of the genre. I liked it so much that I decided to share it with you.

Build a past with pseudo-Victorian technology that never was, much of which could never have worked, and extend it into the present or even the future. Instead of airplanes, dirigibles. Instead of electronic computers, mechanical "difference engines." Cars and trucks running on steam engines. Maybe even gas lighting instead of electric lighting. In many cases, public domain characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Queen Victoria dragooned into story service.

Now some of this fiction can be well written and amusing, though I must admit I am generally not amused by it, because I am generally not amused by Victorian nostalgia. But what it cannot be is speculative fiction, let alone "science fiction," because it is inherently retro fiction, whose entire esthetic is a nostalgia for a past that never was and mostly could never have been. It can only be nostalgic fantasy.

Again, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the reading of such stuff, as many people do, and there is nothing wrong and much that is therefore lucrative in writing it, nor any literary reason it cannot rise to high art. What is wrong is that, commercially, it tends to be marketed as "SF," and, indeed, as often as not, even "science fiction." What is wrong with that, literarily speaking, is that the speculative element, ipso facto, is phony Victorian technology that never existed because technologically speaking, it couldn't have actually worked.

Exactly. It's not silly because it is unlikely to work or doesn't work. It's silly because supposedly science loving people are fawning over "technology" that never will work and never could work. It's not science, it's faux science. It's anti-science. That's not fun, that's just a waste of time.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction

What is SF?

I've called myself a fan of "science fiction" or "sci-fi" for years. I'm going to change that. I'm going to start calling myself a fan of "speculative fiction" or "SF". Why? Norman Spinrad.

Spinrad writes "On Books", a monthly book review column for Asimov's. In the July 2014 issue of Asimov's, he discusse the difference between speculative fiction and fantasy.

[L]iterarily speaking, fantasy is any fiction based on an element of the impossible that both the reader and the writer believe is impossible, that being the literary game. But literarily speaking, science fiction must be fiction based on a speculative element that does not knowingly violate the current scientific concept of the laws of mass and energy; the improbable for sure, the highly improbable, why not, but not the forthrightly known impossible.

Does the speculative element have to be scientific or technological? Not really. Literarily speaking "science fiction" is really an accidental misnomer for "speculative fiction"—that is, fiction with a speculative element of the currently non-existent but possible.

We generally count Orwell's 1984 as speculative fiction, whose speculative element is political. Or Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, whose speculative element is psychological. Or Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, whose speculative element is cultural. The speculative element doesn't have to be scientific or technological. But speculative fiction does have to be something set in the future, at least in the immediate future, not the past, and not in a knowingly impossible realm of fantasy.

For a speculative element must be currently non-existent but perceived as possible, something that could exist—in the future.

So speculative fiction by its very literary nature does have to be set in a future, however far or immanent that future may be. The change or changes it postulates cannot be known impossibilities, because if they are, the story is inherently fantasy.

That's what makes it speculative fiction.

There is much that is called "science fiction" that is not science based, that is not truly speculative, and that, by this definition, deserves to be called fantasy. Spinrad believes this is a problem because it confuses "science with magic, wishful thinking with real possibility". We should, instead, look forward "with a visionary eye, heart, and mind to multiplex possible futures that are not merely futures that we will make, for better or for worse, but that we cannot avoid making, one way or the other."

This encapsulates what I have always loved about SF. Good SF acts a little bit like a car's headlights. It partially illuminates what's coming next and either excites me or warns me. It can give me an advance glimpse of the good times that are coming or an advance warning of the dangers that lurk just out of sight.

I want to refocus on reading true speculative fiction and not just "science fiction". I still enjoy fantasy and I still plan to read plenty of it. But it's the true speculative fiction that gets me excited and that I want more of.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction

Talking About Literary Fiction

After I posted my thoughts about literary fiction, I asked Adam to comment on them. After all, he was an English major and a quick look at our Goodreads profiles will confirm that: he reads far more literary fiction than I do. Two weekends ago, he commented and it turned into a discussion over Twitter. He certainly gave me a lot to think about. I'm open to mixing more Literary fiction into my reading.

Here's a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Adam:

My proposal: literary fiction is most interested in us and our world, nonliterary fiction in escaping those things. Plus: skill. Skill is what earns you the capital "L" in "Literature" and a place on a professor's syllabus. My suggestion is essentially in line with academia, I think, but they are much more fundamentalist about it.

Joe:

Where would that put, say, mysteries or Grisham style stories? I'd put Agatha Christie or Grisham in our world. I took skill as a given. I've seen very skillful SF/F authors that still get ignored by the academy.

Adam:

They are SET in our world, but Christie and Grisham write escapist novels. Let us grant that this is so. To what purpose do they employ those skills? What are they interested in? People? Rarely. It just so happens I have a case study handy for my personal principle of literature handy...

I reserve my five-star Goodreads rating for Literature and recently gave it to Hyperbole & A Half, a humor collection. Now one might reckon - and as a rule - the highest that, say, a side-splitting humour collection might get from me is 4. You can accomplish your mission of making me laugh in the hardest possible way and I'll give your book a 4-star rating. But included in the book are, among others, her 2-part piece on her depression. Clinical, that is. So she writes this half-prose/half-comic (modeled after "rage art", tho' she's actually a great artist) achieving a very specific effect, and talking about something very serious - well - while making us laugh. It's very impressive. The entertainment value in that 2-part series doesn't take precedence over her discussion of how it feels to be depressed.

This is also why I see an interest in Literature as an expression of maturity, and a diet of 100% geekery as stunting. To enjoy (& learn to enjoy) Literature is to show interest in others, in your world, in thought - to find them entertaining. In a sense, it comes to the adage "The less you find interesting, the less interesting you are." In film, tentpole films are meant to capture the most viewers by appealing to what even the boring find interesting.

Reckon I'm done. Am I making sense?

Joe:

Yes. Not surprisingly, I don't 100% agree. I think. I'll probably be considering for a while. But you are making sense.

Interestingly enough, my taste in TV shows is beginning to run strongly towards the Literary and away from mass market. At least, what I'd consider literary. Mad Men & Breaking Bad strongly caught my interest. I surprised myself with how much I like Mad Men. It's odd too. I suspect that if I read Mad Men as a book, I wouldn't like it. As TV, I love it.

One area where I disagree: I think hard SF can really open the mind to potentials yet unrealized and encourage optimism. I see many people who's focus is on our world who get obsessed with the negative in our world. True, it's there. But it doesn't have to be there forever. There are vistas over the horizon just waiting to be seen. I think people who are unable or unwilling to see those vistas, are very boring people indeed.

I see an interest in SF as an expression of maturity as well and a diet of 100% Literature as equally stunting. I think there needs to be a balance, which is why I disagree with elevating Literature to the top ranks and consigning everything else to a lower plane.

There, now I'm done. :)

Adam:

Well, don't forget I enjoy SF, F, et al. I often use the metaphor of a "diet" b/c I'm not dogmatic. But what you describe is escapism. And also, notably less challenging for the reader than Literature. That suggests something, to me. (although to be fair I generally use difficulty as a signifier of the better course, which is not always true)

So a balance? Yes. Just like there should be a balance between rest and study. And both have their benefits. But I think SFF fans like to pretend the former is the latter so they can avoid the latter altogether.

Your turn.

Ah, sorry, 1 more thing: I think the real world tends to look overwhelmingly dreary to people adrift in fantasy. No, I take that back. It's not what I meant. Badly said. And god, the world looks dreary to me often enough. When I think of a better way to say it I will.

Fin, for now.

Joe:

I'm going to accept your retraction but it did spark a half-though here. I sort-of agree with that statement. I think the real world offers both immense dreariness and reason for optimism. The Lit I read in college seemed more steeped in the dreariness side. So I tend to view Lit as overwhelmingly dreary. That it focuses on the dreary to build street cred and has a tendency to make the world look worse than it is. But maybe I'm just reading all of the wrong Lit books.

Back to the main thread. I could fairly easily rank some of my favorite authors along an escapism <-> reality scale. There's popcorn literature as much as there's popcorn film. More even, probably. I can definitely tell when I'm reading because I'm tired and I don't want to think and when I'm reading something that I know will make me think.

When I think of reality vs escapism, I think about the regulator pondering what regs to write. What's easier for him to envision? The world he lives and breathes daily, where everything must be spelled out in great detail, to prevent anyone from finding any loopholes for wrong doing? Or the world of tomorrow that might be and that his regulations of today might strangle stillborn and prevent from ever coming to be? For him, I think escapism is a necessary component of life.

If you can't imagine tomorrow, you can't make sure we're in a position to build tomorrow. I also think of all of the engineers who were inspired by 60's SF (written and visual) to invent what they did. Their inspiration, from their escapism, helped create the reality that today's Lit writers live in and write on. I think it would probably do some engineers good to read more Lit, to consider how their work might be used and abused. Contrariwise, it might do some Lit writers good to read some hard SF, to see not just how broken humanity loses themselves in tech now but to see why those who work on tech do so and to understand the what engineers gain from their escapism and how that drives them. I think taking SF seriously is a step towards understanding certain types of people better.

To, maybe, some up: I think what is rest and what is study may be in the position of the reader. For me SF is rest and Lit is study. Was is the same for Hitchens? Is it for Franzen? Or would understanding SF be study for them?

Over.

Adam:

I just spent a moment trying to think of SF/F books I would consider Literature, since I don't believe, in theory, the title excludes them. Came up w/ 1984 and Atlas Shrugged. Also The Handmaid's Tale. Other contenders?

Joe:

I haven't read all of these, but these are what I've heard. Some of them will probably end up on next year's reading goals. Gene Wolf's novels. Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union. The Dispossessed, China Miéville's stuff. I'm less sure about that last one. But I've heard it could qualify.

Adam:

OK, I'll give you China Mieville's The City & The City, actually. In fact I gave that one 5 stars last year.

Joe:

See, I knew someone reputable had spoken approvingly of it. :)

Adam:

Chabon's The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay actually won the Pulitzer. Ever check it out?

Joe:

No, but it looks like a definite candidate for next year's reading list.

Adam:

I don't think Yiddish counts for me. I mean, Yiddish is cute as hell and thoroughly entertaining, but it hasn't much ambition, really. Chabon's Telegraph Ave, now is a great thing. You would absolutely hate it, I think. Maybe I might make you read it after you lose this year's bet?

Joe:

Ha! I'm picking my bets more carefully this year. Wait 2 years for when my heart leads me to bet on Paul winning the Presidency.

Adam:

If Paul was the nominee I could conceivably see myself voting for him too. Without a hope in the world, likely, but I could.

Joe:

You've answered my unasked question though, on whether a story must be set in our world to be Lit. I would have said no and apparently you agree. A continuum between not of our world popcorn and character studies. Whereas "our world" stories can span the continuum from popcorn thrillers to character studies. Or, going back to my post, the difference between under the surface and above the surface plots. Your proposal was "interested in us and our world" vs "escaping those things". I'd argue for shortening it down to "interested in us", whether in our world or not.

Adam:

Thought of saying just "interested in us", but I dunno, didn't want to leave out something brilliant about environments, etc. Asimov's Foundation series, etc. always left me wondering if someone couldn't successfully write literature about a Thing. Say, the environment or a corporation. But without reducing them to themes.

I don't know, it's still a half-formed thought. The problem being that an inhuman Thing doesn't engage our empathy, which makes it damned hard to hook an audience. Anyway: was trying to be really inclusive and leave myself open to possibilities. But as a rule, sure: "interested in us".

Joe:

I can almost see it. Environment, yes. Corporations or nations would seem to boil down to the people who make them.

"Corporations are people, my friend".

Adam:

HA... OK. That's the first time I've laughed at someone using that damn line.

Joe:

I will say that I'm open to reading any Lit that isn't dreary. Or perhaps is only 50% dreary. I refuse to believe that it's impossible to write about humanity and only get dreariness out of it.

Adam:

I'd be willing to trade novel choices with you.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction

Review: The City on the Edge of Forever [★★★★☆]

The City on the Edge of Forever Cover Art

The City on the Edge of Forever
by Harlan Ellison

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 14 March 2014 – 17 March 2014
Goal: Non-Fiction

"The City on the Edge of Forever" — quite possibly the best Star Trek episode ever filmed. I always knew it was one of my favorites. I didn't know, until I read this book, that it's also been dogged by controversy. The script that was filmed was far different from the story that Ellison envisioned and the script that he wrote. Gene Roddenberry spent years telling everyone that Ellison's script was horrid, too expensive to shoot, and "had my Scotty selling drugs on the Enterprise".

Here, Harlan Ellison lays out his defense in great detail. The defense often veers into (and dwells in) cranky old man territory. But, reading the defense, Harlan Ellison is quite justified in his cranky anger and exasperation. His script wasn't horrid, didn't have to be expensive to shoot (and, in fact, wasn't), and definitely didn't feature Scotty selling drugs. In fact, Scotty never even appeared in the episode.

This book includes Ellison's original draft script and several revisions of the script. Any one of them is better than what actually aired. Ellison is right to say that the produced version is a butchered shadow of his original vision. His story was richer and more morally ambiguous.

Ellison's script featured a drug dealing Enterprise officer (not Scotty!), who changed human history during an escape attempt. It included Kirk who, paralyzed by love, was unable to let Edith Keeler die in order to save history. The drug dealing officer, evil throughout the script, stepped forward to save Keeler. Spock, more coldly logical and alien than ever, bodily stopped him, forcing Keeler to die.

The script forced you to ask whether, in this moment, Spock was the better Starfleet officer and Kirk the better man. Or was Kirk a worse man because he was willing to save the woman he loved and condemn everyone else he ever knew to oblivion? Was Kirk a hero or a monster? Was Spock a hero or a monster? And why was it that the drug dealing officer had to be prevented from doing his one selfless act of the episode?

The script didn't give easy answers and it didn't portray a perfect humanity, free from problems. Of all of the Star Trek episodes I've seen, this unaired version was the most ... human. I wish it had been aired and Harlan Ellison is absolutely right to have defended it as vigorously as he did. This book is worth reading even if you just flip directly to the scripts and read the various treatments and afterwards.

Review: The Man Who Sold the Moon

The Man Who Sold the Moon Cover Art

The Man Who Sold the Moon
by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 15 September 2013 - 19 September 2013

This is another collection of some of Heinlein's early stories. In this case, more of his "Future History" stories. The volume is almost worth reading just for John Campbell's introduction, explaining why Heinlein was such a great writer.

Simply put, he faced the challenge of conveying the mores and patterns of a strange cultural background, the technological background that created and sustained that culture, and the characters that inhabited that culture. He managed to do it brilliantly, over and over again, without resorting to the info dumps that are so often present in literature.

These stories, "Life-Line", "Let There Be Light", "The Roads Must Roll", "Blowups Happen", "The Man Who Sold the Moon", and "Orphans of the Sky" all illustrate that part of Heinlein's talent. And they're all enjoyable.

"Life-Line"—how would the world react if someone could predict the instant of anyone's death?

"The Roads Must Roll"—Cars do not roll upon the roads. The roads themselves roll. What might force that innovation, what kind of world would it create, and what risks would come with that world?

"The Man Who Sold the Moon"—The one man who most wants to visit the moon, who will do the most to push humanity to the moon, may be the one man who never sees the moon. Poignant.

"Orphans of the Sky"—Residents of a generational starship believe that The Ship is all there is to the universe. They've systematically reinterpreted all of the scientific texts as various forms of allegory and myth. But what happens when one man is convinced of the truth and tries to act the missionary to his fellow voyagers?

This collection is definitely worth a read.

All Summer in a Day →

by Ray Bradbury

It rained.

It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.

"It's stopping, it's stopping!"

"Yes, yes!"

Margot stood apart from them, from these children who could never remember a time when there wasn't rain and rain and rain. They were all nine years old, and if there had been a day, seven years ago, when the sun came out for an hour and showed its face to the stunned world, they could not recall. Sometimes, at night, she heard them stir, in remembrance, and she knew they were dreaming and remembering gold or a yellow crayon or a coin large enough to buy the world with. She knew they thought they remembered a warmness, like a blushing in the face, in the body, in the arms and legs and trembling hands. But then they always awoke to the tatting drum, the endless shaking down of clear bead necklaces upon the roof, the walk, the gardens, the forests, and their dreams were gone.

This is a beautiful (and haunting) short story by one of the best craftsmen to ever write.

Reading Idea: Human for a Day →

This book sounds really interesting. I may have to pick it up and give it a shot. Fortunately, it's only $7.99, on Kindle.

What does it mean to be human?

This was not the question I meant to ask when I set out to create the anthology, Human for a Day. But it is the question that was answered by my authors.

… What I came away with was a better sense of life bordered by death. By giving such a short timeline—one day—I required each author to tell a tale of birth, life, and death. Though the stories ranged from the far past to the far future and into worlds that never were but could have been, there was single thread of familiarity. There was a sense of wonder and emotion that was at the heart of it all.

In the end, I discovered that becoming human was an emotional thing rather than simply a biological one.

That is the big idea.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction

My Haul from Amazon’s “Big Deal” eBook Sale

Amazon is running a Big Deal sale on Kindle books. It includes about 970 books and ends today.

Like most sales, there is quite a lot of dreck in there. But I waded through it all and I did manage to find a few good bargains.

Not a bad haul for $21.00.

That's How a Dark Age Begins →

Jeff Greason, President of XCOR Aerospace, talks at TEDx about being a rocket scientist and making space pay — and why he got into commercial space travel in the first place.

"Daddy, is it really true that they used to fly to the moon when you were a boy?" That shook me and it still does. It shook me because that's how a dark age begins. A dark age is not just when you as a civilization have forgotten how to do something. It's when you forget that you ever could.

... We have done fewer than 500 space flights since the 1960s. The Wright Brothers did more than 700 glider test flights, in preparation for their first powered flight. The space age has not yet opened. We are at the very beginnings of it.

I think commercial space travel, research, and development is one of the coolest things to happen in a long, long time. The resources in space are limitless — water, minerals, metals, energy and more. Let's get out there and get it. There's no reason that earth's billions have to remain poor.

I can't wait until I can book a flight on a rocket.

Age of Wonders

Bill Quick sends an e-mail to Glenn Reynolds:

So I'm out on my bike today - it's gorgeous in SF - and I stop by the Bay for a breather and just to sit and watch the sailboats gliding under the Bay Bridge.

I open my backpack and drag out my 3 lb Lenovo with builtin EVDO, fire it up, and check my blog. Then yours - and see your post about The Mirrored Heavens. I click the link and check it out at Amazon. Sounds right up my alley. So I open my Sony eReader, connect it to my laptop, and buy the book for ten bucks, download it, and watch it join the 400 or so other books sitting in my reader.

It's next on the "pile," after I finish crunching my way through Peter Hamilton's endless, but fascinating trilogy.

Speaking as a SF writer, I can tell you that intellectually this shouldn't amaze me (and intellectually, I expect the process to be a lot more seamless in a couple of years), but as a 62 year old person who can remember when phones were black, tvs had tiny round screens, and the "network" was The Lone Ranger on CBS radio, there are times it seems downright miraculous.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Warp Drive: Closer Than You Think

An obscure German scientists publishes some intriguing formulas in the 1950's, then proceeds to shun the limelight. He writes three books, but only publishes them in German. Most physicists never hear of his work. Another scientist expands on the theories in the 1980's, but they languish in obscurity for another 20 years. It sounds like science fiction, but this is science history. The result could be a real hyperdrive and real anti-gravity -- if today's scientists can only manage to understand these arcane formulas.

The general consensus seems to be that Dröscher and Häuser's theory is incomplete at best, and certainly extremely difficult to follow. And it has not passed any normal form of peer review, a fact that surprised the AIAA prize reviewers when they made their decision. It seemed to be quite developed and ready for such publication, Mikellides told New Scientist.

At the moment, the main reason for taking the proposal seriously must be Heim theory's uncannily successful prediction of particle masses. Maybe, just maybe, Heim theory really does have something to contribute to modern physics. As far as I understand it, Heim theory is ingenious, says Hans Theodor Auerbach, a theoretical physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who worked with Heim. I think that physics will take this direction in the future.

It may be a long while before we find out if he's right. In its present design, Dröscher and Häuser's experiment requires a magnetic coil several metres in diameter capable of sustaining an enormous current density. Most engineers say that this is not feasible with existing materials and technology, but Roger Lenard, a space propulsion researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico thinks it might just be possible. Sandia runs an X-ray generator known as the Z machine which could probably generate the necessary field intensities and gradients.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction