November 16, 2015

QotD: The Great Filter

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The Great Filter, remember, is the horror-genre-adaptation of Fermi’s Paradox. All of our calculations say that, in the infinite vastness of time and space, intelligent aliens should be very common. But we don’t see any of them. We haven’t seen their colossal astro-engineering projects in the night sky. We haven’t heard their messages through SETI. And most important, we haven’t been visited or colonized by them.

This is very strange. Consider that if humankind makes it another thousand years, we’ll probably have started to colonize other star systems. Those star systems will colonize other star systems and so on until we start expanding at nearly the speed of light, colonizing literally everything in sight. After a hundred thousand years or so we’ll have settled a big chunk of the galaxy, assuming we haven’t killed ourselves first or encountered someone else already living there.

But there should be alien civilizations that are a billion years old. Anything that could conceivably be colonized, they should have gotten to back when trilobytes still seemed like superadvanced mutants. But here we are, perfectly nice solar system, lots of any type of resources you could desire, and they’ve never visited. Why not?

Well, the Great Filter. No knows specifically what the Great Filter is, but generally it’s “that thing that blocks planets from growing spacefaring civilizations”. The planet goes some of the way towards a spacefaring civilization, and then stops. The most important thing to remember about the Great Filter is that it is very good at what it does. If even one planet in a billion light-year radius had passed through the Great Filter, we would expect to see its inhabitants everywhere. Since we don’t, we know that whatever it is it’s very thorough.

Scott Alexander, “Don’t Fear The Filter”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-28.

November 15, 2015

The more likely explanation for the fall in eBook sales

Filed under: Books, Business — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt explains why you should be darned careful not to base your business plans on wishful thinking:

Of course ebooks from traditional publishers are a) unreasonably priced (No, really. There is a book I’m dying to get. It’s $17 for ebook. It’s $32 for the hardcover. You know, I have KULL subscription and the indie books aren’t as good as this particular book should be, but it takes a lot of not as good at 9.99 a month to compare to those prices.) b) often stupidly formatted/edited c) even more often on themes/by authors I have no interest in. (Other than Baen, I currently read two other authors. Period. Oh, and one in mystery.)

Or to put it another way, traditional publishers went to war with Amazon to be allowed to price their books astronomically high. Amazon let them. They priced books at same price as hardcover or a little under (a very little.) E-book sales fell, compared to what they were when books were tops 9.99. Um….

Let me see if I can explain this as I would a child: your little friends love and adore your cupcakes. So you decide to set up shop and make a batch in your easy-bake oven, and sell them for ten cents a piece. Since your friends’ on average have an allowance of a dollar a week, you sell out of the whole batch in hours. So you think “Hey, I can make more.” You set the price at a dollar per cupcake. No one buys them. Your conclusion is “My friends no longer like cupcakes and prefer to eat vegetable sticks.”

Would anyone but a two year old buy that narrative? Well, according to publishers this is a perfectly sane thing to say. I mean, if people won’t buy your overpriced ebooks, it must mean they are going back to paper. Happy days are here again. Let’s build warehouses for all those books we’ll be shipping out to the no-longer existent big-chain bookstores! We’ll be able to control what books make it by our push again! We’re rich, rich, I tell you.

But it’s not just publishers. A friend sent me this article, and I scratched my head and frowned at it and said, in my deep thinking way, “Wut?” This is sort of like if you told your mom your friends’ refusal to buy your $1 a piece cupcakes was because they liked celery more and she said “Sounds legit. For your birthday party we’ll have ONLY celery.”

November 13, 2015

The Making Of Thunderbirds

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 2 Jan 2014

Thunderbirds Documentary. Step into the twisted mind of Gerry Anderson, and see how he makes Thunderbirds. F.A.B. A favorite show from my childhood with more information than I ever wanted.

H/T to The Arts Mechanical for the link.

November 3, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Filed under: Books, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The book isn’t out yet, but it’s starting to get some interesting reviews, including this one by Gopal Sathe for NDTV Gadgets 360:


We will not discuss the plot too much here, but we will certainly say that the book is going to be one of the most divisive ones in the series. Not because of its writing, or the twists and turns that the plot follows, but simply because of the subject matter — Bujold has already confirmed to fans that this book is not a war story, and that it is about grown-ups. In classic science fiction fashion, Bujold uses her alien settings and advanced technology to directly address the questions and concerns we are facing today, about age and gender and relationships and modern culture. And she does a brilliant job of it, as usual.

The book does drop a rather big revelation about a major character, and although the groundwork has been laid out in earlier books in the series (if sparingly), it still feels like an unexpected surprise. So it’s a good thing that Bujold gets the twist out of the way quickly, and matter-of-factly. This means that the book is given the breathing room to tell its own story, instead of twisting itself into knots around this revelation.

Outside of the main story, the B-plot figures around some typical Bujold tropes — military and logistics feature heavily, as does urban planning, and inter-cultural relations — but these all feel a little underdeveloped in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. But despite a few small missteps, this book feels like one of Bujold’s most cohesive and mature works, and so it’s perhaps fitting that it’s in this book that she finally returns to the planet Sergyar, which was also the stage for Shards of Honor, the first full novel in the Vorkosigan Saga.

There are frequent references and callbacks to the first book, and reflections on how the story has matured over time, and this works really well in establishing a sense of history to the novel. Even if you aren’t familiar with the adventures that the various members of the Vorkosigan family have had, the sense of real characters who have lived storied lives is clear, and does a lot to ground some of the more fanciful creatures and creations that we find in the book.

October 19, 2015

The cyclic history of SF fandom

Filed under: Books, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I attended my first science fiction convention when I was 16, and being a science fiction fan in the mid 70s was ever so slightly more reputable than being a junkie or a drag queen in “mundane” society. Fandom was a tiny, tiny group of people compared to just about any other group of enthusiasts you could think of. At my first SF con in Toronto, there was a sharp dividing line between the “real” SF fans and the (euchhhhh!) Star Trek fans … even though the Trek fans were close to 50% of the attending fanbase. The “real” SF fans viewed the Trekkies as just barely tolerable (think of a guest bringing along a new and not-yet-housetrained puppy to your party). This was the first cycle of modern SF fandom history. On LiveJournal, wombat-socho outlines the pattern:

A short-lived show on NBC, Star Trek, generated massive fan interest in people who had never heard of science fiction fandom. The Trek fans flooded into fandom, and in the first of a sadly repetitive series of dumb mistakes, fandom turned on these newcomers and made them aware that they were most certainly Not Welcome. Fandom’s open and non-judgmental culture suddenly became harshly critical of “drobes” who ran around in Starfleet and Klingon uniforms they hadn’t even made themselves, and Trekkies who seemingly had no other interest in SF outside the series. This was horseshit, of course; perhaps predictable horseshit, given that so many SF fans (as I mentioned previously) were more than a little lacking in social skills, but horseshit all the same. Trekkies were in many cases SF fans fired up by the campaigns to bring the show back, fans writing fanfic, fans writing fanzines to publish fanfic and fanart in, fans starting conventions to which bemused actors were invited and besieged by legions of fans seeking autographs. In short, fans doing fanac, but not in the Approved Manner or on the Approved Topics. And so Trek fandom and its conventions, for the most part, went its separate way from traditional literary SF fandom.

Not too long after the hordes of unwashed Trekkies had been successfully repelled from the ghetto, a fellow named George Lucas showed up at the Kansas City Worldcon in 1976, promoting a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featuring starships, a courageous young farmboy with hidden psychic powers, a couple of amusing robots, two ancient masters of martial arts, and a brutal Galactic Empire. He got a warm reception, and a few years later millions of people around the world were flocking to see the movie we all know now as Star Wars. They, too, started showing up at science fiction conventions, and got the same warm reception shown to their older brothers and sisters the Trekkies, and they in turn started going to what were increasingly called media conventions. The media conventions, like the Trek conventions before them, were very different from the fan-run SF conventions that preceded them. More (if not most) of them were unabashedly for-profit, charged different membership rates with different levels of access to the guests, and sometimes seemed more like combination flea markets/autograph sessions, with some panels where the guests talked about the shows. And they drew tens of thousands of people, because after Hollywood saw the huge piles of money Lucas was making, they couldn’t wait to launch a new Star Trek movie, a new Star Trek TV series, and all manner of TV shows and movies with science fiction themes. And lo, the fans of these shows and movies were likewise greeted with a cold shoulder by the Big Name Fans, Filthy Pros, and Secret Masters of Fandom.

At about the same time, role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller) exploded in popularity, followed not much later by collectible card games like Magic. For some reason, gamers had always fit better with traditional fandom, perhaps because so many of them were SF and fantasy fans to begin with, but after a while (perhaps around the time video games started becoming affordable and popular) they, too, started feeling less than welcome at regular SF conventions, and began going off to swell the crowds at GenCon and other conventions that were mostly about games and gaming.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? Is a trend becoming apparent to you?

Fans, back before Star Trek, were an isolated low-status fringe group who banded together against the mundanes who looked down on them. Given multiple opportunities to live up to their declared open and tolerant mores, each and every time they tried to do to the newcomers (Trekkies, Star Wars fans, gamers, and so on) exactly what the mundanes had done to them. You can’t say fans aren’t human, because they certainly re-enacted the same social exclusion, belittlement, and shaming that almost every in-group in human society uses against almost every out-group. Oh, and look, the “real” SF fans did the same thing recently to the libertarian and conservative fanbase.

Having read the preceding, should the results of SP3 have been a surprise to anyone? The people running WSFS and the people running local SF conventions are the same people who for the last fifty years have been mouthing off about “openness” and “tolerance” and “not being judgmental” while doing their best to run off “fringefans” at every opportunity instead of welcoming new chums and introducing them to the wider world of science fiction and fantasy. In order to join traditional fandom, you are only allowed to come in through one door, only allowed to read certain books, only allowed to express certain opinions. Then you can be accepted as a “true fan”. Why would anyone in their right mind want to put themselves through that? It’s a good question, and one which a lot of fans have answered by ignoring traditional fandom in favor of geek culture events such as the San Diego Comic Convention, Otakon, GenCon, and Dragon*Con. Some fans have signed up for Sad Puppies 4, hoping to recruit enough friends and allies to retake the Hugo Awards from the Sadducees and Pharisees who have controlled it (and increasingly, handed it out to those favored by Tor) for going on ten years. In the long term, though, perhaps what fandom (as opposed to Fandom) needs to do is build up a fan organization that welcomes all fans of science fiction and fantasy, no matter what door they enter by.

September 13, 2015

Markets in everything, Fan Expo edition

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Walrus, Jonathan Kay explains how Ron Weasley (and the whole Fan Expo celebrity photo “experience”) made him both sad and $300 poorer:

Photo by Jonathan Kay. Click to see full-sized image at The Walrus.

Photo by Jonathan Kay. Click to see full-sized image at The Walrus.

Fans of the TV show Entourage will remember the second-season episode in which Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) heads to San Diego’s Comic-Con International, dressed in prop-wardrobe Viking costume. Drama, we learn, had appeared in a (fictional) show called Viking Quest, starring as the warrior Tarvold. On the fan-convention circuit, Drama explained, he could rake in big money by signing autographs, and set conventioneers’ hearts aflutter with Tarvold’s signature cry of “Victory!” On Entourage, this seemed funny. In real life, I recently learned, it’s sad.

On Sunday, I took two of my daughters to the 2015 instalment of Fan Expo Canada, billed as “the largest Comics, Sci-fi, Horror, Anime, and Gaming event in Canada.” More than 100,000 fans show up annually for the four-day exhibition, which now sprawls over both buildings of the massive Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Under one roof, I was able to meet a life-size My Little Pony, compete in a Catan tournament, playtest emerging console video games, commission custom panels from famous cartoonists, pose with life-size Futurama characters, buy a fully functional 3D-chess set, and generally revel in all the various subcultures that the rest of society stigmatizes as dorky and juvenile. My girls and I have been to Fan Expo Canada three years in a row, and we always have a good time.

But my daughters are getting older. This year, for the first time, they were after more than just a Harry Potter wand and a Gryffindor T-shirt: They wanted to meet the real-life Harry Potter movie stars appearing at Fan Expo. Expecting to encounter nothing more than a real-life version of Drama’s Viking Quest subplot, I acquiesced, and we wandered over to celebrity row.

I was shockingly naive about how this process works. Before Sunday’s celebrity adventure, I’d assumed that one could mingle about and snap pictures with fan-con celebs for free, taking out your wallet only when you wanted a signed photo.

In fact, the best way to describe Fan Expo’s celebrity protocol is as a sort of Chicago Mercantile Exchange for human beings. Instead of live cattle, lean hogs, skimmed milk powder, cash-settled butter, and softwood pulp, this big board (displayed above) lists prices for Billy Dee Williams, Gillian Anderson, Danny Trejo, Neve Campbell, Norman Reedus, Skeet Ulrich, Zach Galligan, and fifty other stars and quasi-stars. The precision of the numbers suggests a fine-tuned demand-driven adjustment process that any commodities trader would recognize. Williams (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars, but you knew that) was listed at $57. Anderson (X-Files): $91. Danny Trejo (Machete): $74. Neve Campbell (Scream): $97. Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead): $130. Skeet Ulrich (Jericho): $68. Zach Galligan (Gremlins): $63. Just my luck: Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s red-haired sidekick) was listed at $142 — highest on the board. I wanted to bail out. But having made the mistake of getting dragged this far, turning back wasn’t going to be a good-dad move.

September 6, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels

Filed under: Books — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Aidan Moher on approaching the Vorkosigan cycle of novels by Lois McMaster Bujold:

Every reader has a bucket list — oft-recommended writers you keep hearing about, whose books sound absolutely perfect, who, for some reason, you never seem to get around to reading. For years, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series hovered near the top of mine. The science fiction saga has been going strong for nearly 30 years, since the publication of Shards of Honor in 1986, and, to this day, remains a mainstay on the Hugo Award ballot every time a new volume is released. With several million books sold, Bujold is one of the most beloved and popular science fiction authors of the modern era, and, now that I’ve finally read Shards of Honor and its sequel, Barrayar, I’m beginning to understand why — though it wasn’t my first brush with the series.

An explanation is in order. The Vorkosigan series has a number of entry points. Many readers begin with The Warrior’s Apprentice. Set 17 years after the conclusion of Barrayar, it features a young soldier named Miles Vorkosigan, and many of the characters introduced in Shards of Honor. Confusingly, it was published after the latter but before the former, which themselves were published eight years apart. Miles, the main protagonist of the series, is like an adolescent Tyrion Lannister: he’s constantly pushing against the expectations of a military society that judges him for his physical disability, and uses his wit and ingenuity to climb out of the deep holes he often digs for himself. The book is fun and quick, with a preference for dialogue over exposition, but the economy of world-building left me feeling a bit lost. With some urging from ardent Bujold fans, I retreated back a generation and picked up Shards of Honor, which focuses on the first meeting between Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, Miles’ parents. I immediately adored it.

Cordelia and Aral’s first meeting, as ostensible enemies stranded together on an inhospitable world, is anything but romantic, though perfectly suitable once you get to know them. During a time of upheaval and interstellar war, the two have become lofty citizens and heroes of their respective planets (Beta Colony and Barrayar) without intention nor desire to do so. While the plot revolves around an escalating war between Beta Colony and Barrayar over a planet called Escobar, the bulk of the narrative, and the novel’s true strength, lies in its characters.

September 2, 2015

Guardian writer: Terry Pratchett was a “mediocrity”

Filed under: Books, Britain, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jonathan Jones lets all of Terry Pratchett’s fans know that they’re idiots for liking such a mediocre writer of “potboilers”:

It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.

No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular author, except that the huge fuss attending and following his death this year is part of a very disturbing cultural phenomenon. In the age of social media and ebooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom. Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.

But, despite never having read a single one, he’s willing to share his amazingly brilliant insight with us ignorant, barely literate troglodytes. What a prince! We should all feel honoured and all that if he’s condescended enough to point out our collective failings, shouldn’t we?

August 30, 2015

The nature, faults, and virtues of Science Fiction according to Robert Heinlein

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Library of America posted Robert Heinlein’s comments from a lecture series in 1957:

First let us decide what we mean by the term “science fiction” — or at least what we will mean by it here. Anyone wishing a scholarly discussion of the etymology of the term will find one by Sam Moskowitz in the February, 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I shan’t repeat what he has said so well but will summarize for our immediate purposes. The field has existed throughout the history of literature but it used to be called by several names: speculative romance, pseudo-scientific romance (a term that sets a science fiction writer’s teeth on edge), utopian literature, fantasy — or, more frequently, given no name, simply lumped in with all other fiction.

But the term “science fiction” is now part of the language, as common as the neologism “guided missile.” We are stuck with it and I will use it … although personally I prefer the term “speculative fiction” as being more descriptive. I will use these two terms interchangeably, one being the common handle, the other being one that aids me in thinking — but with the same referent in each case.

“Science fiction” means different things to different people. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra” — in which case the term science fiction has piled up a lot of expensive overtime. Damon Knight, a distinguished critic in this field, argues that there is no clear distinction between fantasy and science fiction, in which opinion August Derleth seems to agree. I cannot forcefully disagree with their lines of reasoning — but I wonder if they have made their definitions so broad as to include practically all fiction? To define is to limit: a definition cannot be useful unless it limits. Certainly Mickey Spillane’s murder stories could easily be classed as fantasies, as can many or most of the love stories appearing in the big slick magazines. But I feel sure that Mr. Knight and Mr. Derleth did not intend their definitions to be quite that unbounded and in any case my difference of opinion with them is merely a matter of taste and personal convenience.

Theodore Sturgeon, a giant in this field, defines a science fiction story as one in which the story would not exist if it were not for the scientific element — an admirably sharp delimitation but one which seems to me perhaps as uncomfortably tight as the one above seems to me unusefully roomy. It would exclude from the category “science fiction” much of Mr. Sturgeon’s best work, stories which are to my mind speculative rather than fantastic. There are many stories that are lumped into the class “science fiction” in the minds of most people (and in mine) which contain only a detectable trace, or none, of science — for example, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Fritz Leiber’s great short story “Coming Attraction,” Thomas F. Tweed’s novel Gabriel Over the White House. All three stories are of manners and morals; any science in them is merely parsley trimming, not the meat. Yet each is major speculation, not fantasy, and each must be classed as science fiction as the term is commonly used.

Reginald Bretnor, author, editor and acute critic of this field, gives what is to me the most thoughtful, best reasoned, and most useful definition of science fiction. He sees it as a field of literature much broader than that most often termed “main-stream” literature — or “non-science fiction,” if you please — science fiction being that sort in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact. This indispensable three-fold awareness does not limit the science fiction author to stories about science — he need not write a gadget story; indeed a gadget story would not be science fiction under this definition if the author failed in this three-fold awareness. Any subject can be used in a science fiction story under this definition, provided (and indispensably required) that the author has the attitude comprised by the three-fold awareness and further provided that he has and uses appropriately that body of knowledge pertinent to the scope of his story. I have paraphrased in summary Mr. Bretnor’s comments and I hope he will forgive me.

Mr. Bretnor’s definition gives the science fiction author almost unlimited freedom in subject matter while requiring of him high, rigorous, and mature standards in execution.

In contrast to science fiction thus defined, non-science fiction — all other fiction including the most highly acclaimed “literary” novels — at most shows awareness of the by-products of scientific method already in existence. Non-science fiction admits the existence of the automobile, radar, polio vaccine, H-bombs, etc., but refuses to countenance starships and other such frivolities. That is to say, non-science fiction will concede that water is running down hill but refuses to admit that it might ever reach the bottom … or could ever be pumped up again. It is a static attitude, an assumption that what is now forever shall be.

August 24, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold interview from Goodreads

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I meant to post this while it was still “fresh”, but I don’t think the content of the interview has gone stale:

[Q:] How do your family and friends relate to you and your writing? I imagine they would enjoy a special understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and values from reading your work. For instance, my wife and I have both completed the Vorkosigan saga and I’ve taken to quoting to her, apropos of family matters, “all true wealth is biological”, which benefits from what we’ve both experienced in the novels.

Lois McMaster Bujold
Mm, family is difficult. My parents passed away years ago, my father when my career was only starting. From one comment he made, I gathered that my adult content was a bit dismaying to him; I think that somewhere in his head, I was still twelve. My mother was not a F&SF reader, so while the writing part seemed sort of OK to her, the genre was not something to which she related. “If you want to write, why not try writing for the local paper?” she once inquired, when I was bemoaning my early lack of progress. Leaving aside the rural benightedness of The Marion Star, the noncomprehension of this question seemed profound.

Only one of my brothers is a reader — he does like my stuff, and I think reading it has brought me into focus as a human being for him, rather than a vague fuzzball labeled “little sister”. I gather he found this rather unexpected. (He loved The Curse of Chalion.)

My kids, well, my children are rather opaque to me. Cordelia’s apparent maternal telepathy is the most wish-fulfillment part of the character, from my point of view. My daughter has read at least some of my work, and we relate to each other as adults nowadays, or at least I think we do. My son has never, as far as I know, read any of my fiction. Not sure what to make of that. (I wish he would, for just the reasons you name above, but I can hardly make my books required reading.)

My friends pretty much consist of folks who like my stuff, because there is, after all, a selection process at work there.

Ta, L.

[Q:] Any chance of the story describing the episode “more than a simple assassination” that Miles mentions in A Civil Campaign? Or the one with a tenyearold girl as courier, mentioned in Komarr? Or are they doomed to be unvoiced backstory? Thanks for all the enjoyment you’ve provided already!

Lois McMaster Bujold
I’m afraid those are doomed to stay throw-away lines, along with the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant.

I am now having a vision of an annex to L-Space, somewhere, where all those unused characters and ideas from the whole of literature sit around getting drunk and complaining to each other about how they were robbed of their rightful places in the spotlight…

Ta, L.

July 31, 2015

Sarah Hoyt on being a time-traveller

Filed under: Europe, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Earlier this month, Sarah Hoyt explained how a time-traveller from the (recent) past might be able to handle the changes encountered on visiting our modern world:

Yesterday some point was raised about how an early twentieth century person would react to the modern day.

Well, give them some years to adapt. I know. You see, I am a time traveler.

I think I have mentioned in the past that I was reading a book on the Middle Ages (the Time Traveler’s Guide to the Middle Ages, I think) and kept coming across things that I went “so?” on. Because they were the same conditions I grew up in.

It’s hard to explain, truly, because we had buses and cars (not many cars. For instance there were two vans and one car in the village. When I had a breathing crisis in the middle of the night (every few months or so till I was six) we had to knock on the door of the grocer across the street who — poor man, may he rest in peace, he died with Alzheimer’s — is as responsible as my parents for my still being here. He would throw on clothes at any hour of the day or night and drive us to emergency in the city, then wait with my parents until he found out if I’d be sent back home or kept on oxygen.

We also had telephones. In the grocery store. If something dire happened to one of the relatives overseas, they’d call, and so when we got the knock on the door and “call for” we knew it was bad news. Only worse news was a telegram. Mind you, my brother used that phone to call in song requests to request programs on the radio. (Programa de pedidos.)

Oh, yeah, we had radios. Everyone had a radio, even my grandparents, and had had them from the beginning of the century. There were dead tube radios in the attics, which is how I built myself my first radio. (“Dad, I want a radio.” “Good, you can have one.” And then he went back to reading Three Men In A Boat. I’m not actually joking.)

And then there were televisions. Well, every coffee shop had a TV, which is how they attracted the after-dinner crowd who, for cultural reasons, were mostly male. Then again the nearest coffee shop was a mile away. Through ill-lit streets. So, yeah.

My godmother and the housekeeper for the earl’s “farm house” catercorner from us had TVs. We often went to watch TV with the housekeeper, when the earl and his family wasn’t in (which was 99% of the time.) And all I have to say about my godmother’s door pane is that she really shouldn’t have gone on vacation at the time of the moon landing. And besides we cleaned up and left her money for the replacement. (Sheesh.)


I not only didn’t see a dishwasher till I was 12 (I think) but, having heard of them, I imagined them kind of like the robot diners in Simak. Arms come out the wall and wash dishes.

I was by no means the person from the most backward environment to become an exchange student. I certainly didn’t come from as backward a place as my host-parents expected (look, host-mom was descended from Portuguese. What she didn’t realize was that it had changed since her grandma’s stories.) They showed me how to flush the toilet…

However there were myriad culture shocks. The all-day TV, for instance. (I watched for two days solid, then decided it wasn’t my thing.) But mostly, at that time, the culture shock was the prosperity. My host mother bought a small TV for the kitchen on a whim, at a time when, in Portugal, you’d still have to save for years to buy ANY TV. Or the things considered necessary. We had patio furniture, though I don’t think anyone but me EVER went outside. (Not to blame them. Ohio has two seasons: Deep Freeze and Sauna.)

The refrigerator. When I came over we had a fridge. We got a fridge when I was ten. But a) it was the size of a dorm fridge. b) mom was still in the habit of shopping every day. So the morning was devoted to shopping for the food for lunch/dinner. The main thing we used our fridge for was ice-cubes, one per drink, because more than that might kill you.

My host family shopped once a week, and kept stuff in the deep freezer, so you didn’t need to run out to get food every day.

July 13, 2015

Con Man trailer

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Con Man – Trailer from Con Man Web Series on Vimeo.

July 7, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest novella, Penric’s Demon

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:34

You can read a sample from the work here.

Penric's Demon cover

July 4, 2015

QotD: Literary status envy and the “deep norms” of SF

Filed under: Books, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.

Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.

June 17, 2015

QotD: Heinlein’s alleged misogyny

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

My friend Cedar, today, posted about one of those lies that “everybody knows” and that are absolutely not true. Not only not true, but risible on their face. The lie is that Heinlein was a misogynist, which is not only a lie but a whole construct, an artifact of lies. And one that humans, nonetheless seem to buy wholesale.

I’m not going to repeat the argument. Cedar made it. But I’m going to quote what she said:

    When the woman who had first made the titular accusation was questioned by multiple voices in startlement, she finally admitted that she knew it to be so, because she had read it in Asimov’s biography. Wait a minute, was my reply, you mean that man that Eric Leif Davin in his recent book Partners in Wonder wrote this about?” Isaac Asimov is on record for stating that male fans didn’t want females invading their space. According to the letter columns of the time, it seems that the only fan who held that opinion was… Isaac Asimov. A number of males fans welcomed their female counterparts. As did the editors, something Davin goes to great lengths to document.” (You can read more on the women that other women ignore here at Keith West’s blog) So this woman has taken a known misogynist’s claim that another man is a misogynist without questioning and swallowed it whole.

I run into this again and again. In a panel, once, questioning accusations of misogyny directed at Heinlein I got back “Well, obviously he was. His women wear aprons.” I then got really cold and explained that in Portugal, growing up, when clothes were expensive (how expensive. People stole the wash from the line. Imagine that happening here. People stealing clothes. Just clothes. Not designers, not leather, just clothes, including much-washed-and-mended pajamas.) we always wore aprons in the kitchen. And Heinlein was writing when clothes were way more expensive, relatively. (I buy my clothes at thrift stores. So unless it’s a favorite pair of jeans or something, I don’t wear aprons.) The difference is not “putting women in their place.” The difference is the cost of clothes.

And this is why I don’t get put on the “Heinlein, threat or menace” panels any more.

But 90% of the women who make the accusation that Heinlein hated women or couldn’t write women have never read him. They’ve just heard it repeated by people with “authority.” The cool kids. And so they can’t be reasoned out of this assumption, because it’s not an assumption. It’s glamor. (The other ten percent, usually, were primed to think he was a misogynist and read the beginning of a book and didn’t “get” some inside joke. Like, you know, the getting married after a tango. Which was pure fan fodder. They wouldn’t have thought anything of it if they hadn’t been primed. But they’d been primed. They were under a glamor to see what wasn’t there.)

Sarah Hoyt, “Glamor and Fairy Gold”, According to Hoyt, 2015-06-02.

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