Quotulatiousness

December 5, 2016

The next Laundry Files novel from Charles Stross

Filed under: Books — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

They won’t be out until mid-2017, but here are the cover designs for the UK and US editions:

The Delirium Brief (UK edition)

The Delirium Brief (UK edition)

The Delirium Brief (US edition)

The Delirium Brief (US edition)

The UK edition is going to be published by Orbit, as usual, and that’s their cover on the left (or above, depending on your browser). But in the United States, the series is now moving to Tor.com Publishing; so there’s a whole new cover design coming. (To be clear: earlier books will remain with Ace, but The Delirium Brief and subsequent novels will come from Tor.)

November 2, 2016

QotD: Pournelle versus Bujold

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

[In Jerry Pournelle’s books,] Falkenberg’s men are paragons compared to the soldiers in David Drake’s military fiction. In the Hammer’s Slammers books and elsewhere we get violence with no politico-ethical nuances attached to it all. “Carnography” is the word for this stuff, pure-quill violence porn that goes straight for the thalamus. There’s boatloads of it out there, too; the Starfist sequence by Sherman and Cragg is a recent example. Jim Baen sells a lot of it (and, thankfully, uses the profits to subsidize reprinting the Golden Age midlist).

The best-written military SF, on the other hand, tends to be more like Heinlein’s — the fact that it addresses ethical questions about organized violence (and tries to come up with answers one might actually be more willing to live with than Pournelle’s quasi-fascism or Drake’s brutal anomie) is part of its appeal. Often (as in Heinlein’s Space Cadet or the early volumes in Lois Bujold’s superb Miles Vorkosigan novels) such stories include elements of bildungsroman.

[…] Bujold winds up making the same point in a subtler way; the temptations of power and arrogance are a constant, soul-draining strain on Miles’s father Aral, and Miles eventually destroys his own career through one of those temptations

Heinlein, a U.S naval officer who loved the military and seems to have always remembered his time at Annapolis as the best years of his life, fully understood that the highest duty of a soldier may be not merely to give his life but to reject all the claims of military culture and loyalty. His elegiac “The Long Watch” makes this point very clear. You’ll seek an equivalent in vain anywhere in Pournelle or Drake or their many imitators — but consider Bujold’s The Vor Game, in which Miles’s resistance to General Metzov’s orders for a massacre is the pivotal moment at which he becomes a man.

Bujold’s point is stronger because, unlike Ezra Dahlquist in “The Long Watch” or the citizen-soldiers in Starship Troopers, Miles is not a civilian serving a hitch. He is the Emperor’s cousin, a member of a military caste; his place in Barrayaran society is defined by the expectations of military service. What gives his moment of decision its power is that in refusing to commit an atrocity, he is not merely risking his life but giving up his dreams.

Falkenberg and Admiral Lermontov have a dream, too. The difference is that where Ezra Dahlquist and Miles Vorkosigan sacrifice themselves for what they believe, Pournelle’s “heroes” sacrifice others. Miles’s and Dahlquist’s futures are defined by refusal of an order to do evil, Falkenberg’s by the slaughter of untermenschen.

This is a difference that makes a difference.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Charms and Terrors of Military SF”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-13.

November 1, 2016

The weirdness that is the year 2016

Filed under: Humour, Politics, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

From Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “newsletter”:

This has been a weird year. But, frankly, things have been getting weird for a while now. For a few years, I’ve increasingly felt like someone was ransacking the conventional-wisdom warehouse and throwing away the old standards.

The D&D geek in me likes to imagine there’s some Gothic keep out there with a grand library full of jars containing the Unwritten Rules of the Universe, each filled with some kind of pixie or will-o-the-wisp free-floating within. Alas, a couple of precocious kids broke in, climbed up the sliding library ladder along the shelves, and then smashed each ancient jar on the floor. The ephemeral creatures within flew away, and took their rules with them.

The sci-fi geek in me imagines that maybe the code of the universal computer has been hacked or corrupted and so the dedicated and automated programs of daily life are weirdly misfiring. You laugh now, but let’s see how funny you think this is when Kim Kardashian cracks the formula for cold fusion or water starts boiling at 200 degrees.

[…]

As a Chestertonian at heart, I like and respect old things. I like it when stuff beats the law of averages for reasons we cannot easily fathom. The Hayekian in me thinks old things that last often do so for good reasons we just don’t — and sometimes can’t — know.

Unfortunately, we live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how.

For example, we know that kids raised in stable two-parent, religiously observant families will on average do better than kids who are not. This holds true despite differences in race, class, and religion. We all have theories for why this is so — but too many people think that if we can just isolate the variables, we can take the good bits and discard the husks we don’t like.

An even worse — and more prevalent — mindset is to not even bother with the why. If we can’t immediately grasp why some old practice, some ancient tradition, some venerable custom or Chestertonian fence is worthwhile, we tend to instantly dismiss it as outdated and old-fashioned.

But again, as Chesterton and Hayek alike understood, simply because something is “old-fashioned” doesn’t mean it wasn’t fashioned in the first place. And by fashioned, I mean manufactured and constructed. Customs are created because they solve problems. But they get less respect in our present age because they have no identifiable authors. They are crowd-sourced, to borrow a modern phrase for an ancient phenomenon. The customs and institutions we take for granted are crammed full of embedded knowledge every bit as much as prices are. But most intelligent people are comfortable admitting they can’t know all the factors that go into a price, but we constantly want to dissect the whys of every custom.

October 11, 2016

Lois McMaster Bujold interview at EverydayFangirl

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

“pattybones2” discusses the fan experiences of Lois McMaster Bujold in those dim, far-distant days before the internet brought everything to your desk (tablet, phone, etc.):

EFG:

When do you realize you were a Fangirl?

LMB:

Before the term “fangirl” was invented. I started reading science fiction for grownups at about age nine, because my father, an engineering professor, used to buy the magazines and books to read on the plane when he went on consulting trips, and they fell to me. Got my first subscription to Analog Magazine at age 13. So when Star Trek came along in 1966, when I was in high school, the seed fell on already-fertile ground; it was an addition, not a revelation. At last, SF on TV that was almost as good as what I was reading, a miracle! I would have just called myself a fan then, or a reader, ungendered terms I note.

In my entire high school of 1,800 students, there was only one other genre reader I knew of (later we expanded to 4 or 6), my best friend Lillian, and she only because we traded interests; I got history from her, she got F&SF from me. So there was no one to be fans with, for the first while.

EDF:

How has social media helped or hindered you?

LMB:

It has provided a great way to reach my readers with the latest word about my works, and vice versa; it’s also an enormous distraction and time sink. What I learn from it all makes it come out pretty even, I think. But due to the distraction issues, I keep my e-footprint small, mainly my Goodreads blog. Goodreads has also provided a handy way for fans to ask questions. 280 answered questions so far, so if you want to read more Bujold blether, there you go.

You can find her Goodreads blog here. Alternatively, you can subscribe to the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list here.

August 22, 2016

QotD: Terry Pratchett and the hacker mentality

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

I learned something this weekend about the high cost of the subtle delusion that creative technical problem-solving is the preserve of a priesthood of experts, using powers and perceptions beyond the ken of ordinary human beings.

Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series of satirical fantasies. He is — and I don’t say this lightly, or without having given the matter thought and study — quite probably the most consistently excellent writer of intelligent humor in the last century in English. One has to go back as far as P.G. Wodehouse or Mark Twain to find an obvious equal in consistent quality, volume, and sly wisdom.

I’ve been a fan of Terry’s since before his first Discworld novel; I’m one of the few people who remembers Strata, his 1981 first experiment with the disc-world concept. The man has been something like a long-term acquaintance of mine for ten years — one of those people you’d like to call a friend, and who you think would like to call you a friend, if the two of you ever arranged enough concentrated hang time to get that close. But we’re both damn busy people, and live five thousand miles apart.

This weekend, Terry and I were both guests of honor at a hybrid SF convention and Linux conference called Penguicon held in Warren, Michigan. We finally got our hang time. Among other things, I taught Terry how to shoot pistols. He loves shooter games, but as a British resident his opportunities to play with real firearms are strictly limited. (I can report that Terry handled my .45 semi with remarkable competence and steadiness for a first-timer. I can also report that this surprised me not at all.)

During Terry’s Guest-of-Honor speech, he revealed his past as (he thought) a failed hacker. It turns out that back in the 1970s Terry used to wire up elaborate computerized gadgets from Timex Sinclair computers. One of his projects used a primitive memory chip that had light-sensitive gates to build a sort of perceptron that could actually see the difference between a circle and a cross. His magnum opus was a weather station that would log readings of temperature and barometric pressure overnight and deliver weather reports through a voice synthesizer.

But the most astonishing part of the speech was the followup in which Terry told us that despite his keen interest and elaborate homebrewing, he didn’t become a programmer or a hardware tech because he thought techies had to know mathematics, which he thought he had no talent for. He then revealed that he thought of his projects as a sort of bad imitation of programming, because his hardware and software designs were total lash-ups and he never really knew what he was doing.

I couldn’t stand it. “And you think it was any different for us?” I called out. The audience laughed and Terry passed off the remark with a quip. But I was just boggled. Because I know that almost all really bright techies start out that way, as compulsive tinkerers who blundered around learning by experience before they acquired systematic knowledge. “Oh ye gods and little fishes”, I thought to myself, “Terry is a hacker!”

Yes, I thought ‘is’ — even if Terry hasn’t actually tinkered any computer software or hardware in a quarter-century. Being a hacker is expressed through skills and projects, but it’s really a kind of attitude or mental stance that, once acquired, is never really lost. It’s a kind of intense, omnivorous playfulness that tends to color everything a person does.

So it burst upon me that Terry Pratchett has the hacker nature. Which, actually, explains something that has mildly puzzled me for years. Terry has a huge following in the hacker community — knowing his books is something close to basic cultural literacy for Internet geeks. One is actually hard-put to think of any other writer for whom this is as true. The question this has always raised for me is: why Terry, rather than some hard-SF writer whose work explicitly celebrates the technologies we play with?

Eric S. Raymond, “The Delusion of Expertise”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-05-05.

August 1, 2016

QotD: Heinlein versus Pournelle

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

I took some heat recently for describing some of Jerry Pournelle’s SF as “conservative/militarist power fantasies”. Pournelle uttered a rather sniffy comment about this on his blog; the only substance I could extract from it was that Pournelle thought his lifelong friend Robert Heinlein was caught between a developing libertarian philosophy and his patriotic instincts. I can hardly argue that point, since I completely agree with it; that tension is a central issue in almost everything Heinlein ever wrote.

The differences between Heinlein’s and Pournelle’s military SF are not trivial — they are both esthetically and morally important. More generally, the soldiers in military SF express a wide range of different theories about the relationship between soldier, society, and citizen. These theories reward some examination.

First, let’s consider representative examples: Jerry Pournelle’s novels of Falkenberg’s Legion, on the one hand, and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on the other.

The difference between Heinlein and Pournelle starts with the fact that Pournelle could write about a cold-blooded mass murder of human beings by human beings, performed in the name of political order, approvingly — and did.

But the massacre was only possible because Falkenberg’s Legion and Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry have very different relationships with the society around them. Heinlein’s troops are integrated with the society in which they live. They study history and moral philosophy; they are citizen-soldiers. Johnnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity. One can’t imagine giving him orders to open fire on a stadium-full of civilians as does Falkenberg.

Pournelle’s soldiers, on the other hand, have no society but their unit and no moral direction other than that of the men on horseback who lead them. Falkenberg is a perfect embodiment of military Führerprinzip, remote even from his own men, a creepy and opaque character who is not successfully humanized by an implausible romance near the end of the sequence. The Falkenberg books end with his men elevating an emperor, Prince Lysander who we are all supposed to trust because he is such a beau ideal. Two thousand years of hard-won lessons about the maintenance of liberty are thrown away like so much trash.

In fact, the underlying message here is pretty close to that of classical fascism. It, too, responds to social decay with a cult of the redeeming absolute leader. To be fair, the Falkenberg novels probably do not depict Pournelle’s idea of an ideal society, but they are hardly less damning if we consider them as a cautionary tale. “Straighten up, kids, or the hero-soldiers in Nemourlon are going to have to get medieval on your buttocks and install a Glorious Leader.” Pournelle’s values are revealed by the way that he repeatedly posits situations in which the truncheon of authority is the only solution. All tyrants plead necessity.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Charms and Terrors of Military SF”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-13.

July 15, 2016

Even the Laundry have to scramble with the new UK government coming in

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

The Laundry, of course, is the unofficial name of the British occult secret intelligence service. Here, “Bob Howard” recounts the sudden organizational panic triggered by the unexpected change of government after the Brexit vote in CASE NIGHTMARE BLOND.

June 15, 2016

A sneak peak at The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Filed under: Books, Britain — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

If you’ve read any of the Laundry books, you’ll want to read the first chapter of the latest book in the series here.

The Nightmare Stacks (UK edition)

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross (UK edition cover)

If it follows the formal schedule, the book will go on sale on June 23rd in the UK, and the 28th in the US and Canada. You may see it offered a bit sooner in a few locations, depending on the vagaries of the book distribution system (and some retailers’ inability to keep to publication dates).

June 8, 2016

QotD: Categorizing science fiction

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

In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Cathryn Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.

Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”, not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.

I think I can go further than Hartwell or Cramer or Benford in defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field. To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls “radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category “fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype “apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already been sorted into the “like an apple” category.

Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”) whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”, “avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits are important and tend to be conserved across the entire radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while some are only weakly bound (color).

In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition, but traits that are common to the core prototypes nevertheless tend to be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as “fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable interior with a sweet flavor.

SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic story, eutopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound” — or, almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of the core (hard-SF) prototypes”.

The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics continues to be a fact of life in the field. It it is telling that the only form of politically-inspired award presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF fans.

Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.

June 4, 2016

QotD: Cyberpunk SF

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

In some respects, it took me thirty years to understand what I was seeing. I’m one of Heinlein’s children, one of the libertarians that science fiction made. Because that’s so, it was difficult for me to separate my own world-view from the assumptions of the field. In grokking the politics of SF, I was in the position of a fish trying to understand water.

Eventually, however, a sufficiently intelligent fish could start to get it about hydrodynamics — especially when the water’s behavior is disturbed by storms and becomes visibly turbulent. I got to look back through the midlist at the Futurian ripples. I lived through the New Wave storm and the pre-Startide-Rising doldrums. By the time cyberpunk came around, I was beginning to get some conscious perspective.

Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF. William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief ideologue of anti-Cambellianism in the late 1980s, called it “the Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard target.

Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality, pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism) had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge’s 1978 hard-SF classic True Names, and even further back in The Space Merchants. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes, buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated in dozens of computer games.

Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in 1992’s Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix and Walter John Williams’s Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk took for granted a background in which late capitalism had decayed into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass grin.

By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however (figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated on New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia Butler. While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian tradition — Golden age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1998 work Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).

Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.

May 15, 2016

QotD: The libertarian streak in science fiction

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

Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging — all these SFnal tropes are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures.

SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.

At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different place than the present.

SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that the future not only can be different but can be different in many, many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.

All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism, applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the terminology of radial categories.

Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. And it is is here that we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.

The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysekoism). In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.

Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.

March 31, 2016

QotD: The radical soul of science fiction

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

SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this. Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for storylines in which (as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who Sold The Moon) scientific breakthrough and and free-enterprise economics blend into a seamless whole. These stances are not historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of freedom.

This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.

Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian tradition: ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the enemies of the future.

The partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are thus victims of a category error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or “conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest imperatives of the genre.

The SF genre and libertarianism will both survive this mistake quite handily. They were symbiotic before libertarianism defined itself as a distinct political stance and they have co-evolved ever since. If four failed revolutions against Campbellian SF have not already demonstrated the futility of attempting to divorce them, I’m certain the future will.

Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.

March 26, 2016

QotD: The “Futurians” – the rise of the “New Wave” in science fiction

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

Hard SF was an art form that made stringent demands on both author and reader. Stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology wrong. The Campbellian demand was that SF work both as story and as science, with only a bare minimum of McGuffins like FTL star drives permitted; hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both internally and with known science about the real world.

The New Wave rejected all this for reasons that were partly aesthetic and partly political. For there was a political tradition that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by its chief theoretician (Campbell himself) and his right-hand man Robert Heinlein, the inventor of modern SF’s characteristic technique of exposition by indirection. That tradition was of ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion.

[…]

The New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one. Its inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.

But the New Wave was not, in fact, the first revolt against hard SF. In the 1950s, a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York had invented sociological S.F. (exemplified by the Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants). Not until decades later did the participants admit that many of the key Futurians were then ideological Communists or fellow travellers, but their work was half-understood at the time to be strong criticism of the consumer capitalism and smugness of the post-World-War-II era.

[…]

The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also reverted to the libertarian/individualist values traditional in the field. This time around, with libertarian thinking twenty years more developed, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the libertarian impulse was more explicit. At one extreme, some SF (such as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged, notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.

Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein’s legacy. Heinlein himself maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but counted himself a libertarian for more than a decade before his death in 1988.

Heinlein’s evolution from Goldwater conservative to anti-statist radical both led and reflected larger trends. By 1989 depictions of explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies were beginning to filter into mainstream SF work like Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time. Haldeman’s Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.

Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.

February 4, 2016

Goodreads interviews Lois McMaster Bujold

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

Lois’s latest book in the long-running Vorkosigan series, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, has just been published (my copy arrived at lunchtime on Wednesday), and she talked to Janet Potter at Goodreads about the book, the series, and other topics:

gentleman_jole_bujoldGR: Goodreads member Wendy asks whether you have considered a book that features the next generation?

LMB: Not at this time.

GR: You deal with social justice issues in a lot of your work. Goodreads member Becca asks how new perspectives on social justice issues (particularly gender and sexuality) have affected the worlds you describe in your writing? In particular, how have they affected Beta Colony and Cordelia?

LMB: It’s a little hard to figure out how to answer that question. These books were written over a 30-year span, and each one is now fixed like an insect in amber. Whatever new perspectives may arise in our world, these pieces of art are finished. Current events cannot affect them because time does not run backward. How the old stories will be received by new readers going forward will surely shift, but that’s not under my control.

GR: Tell us about your writing process.

LMB: My writing process has evolved over the years as my context has changed. I began writing in pencil in a spiral notebook, retyped on my old college report typewriter; advanced to a three-ring binder; acquired my first computer (it had a cassette-tape drive); traded up to my second computer; the Internet was invented, and so on. Small children grew to large children, we moved to a new state, kids moved out, back, out again, career-maintenance chores multiplied, and so on. A couple of aspects have persisted over the years.

“Making it up” and “writing it down” remain two different phases for me. I still capture the ideas for a story or a scene in penciled notes, as an organizational and memory aid. These could be thought of as a very rough draft or as a (quite mutable) outline. But in thoughts and visualizations (walking is good for this) and in pencil on paper is where I munge things around till they seem to work. Only then do I take the notes to the computer and bang out the first typed draft, usually in scene-sized units. One such bite at a time, chew well, swallow, making room for the next scene to form. Each scene written alters the ideas for what could come next, sometimes by a lot, sometimes by very little. Lather, rinse, pause to whine at my test readers, repeat until the tale is told.

Formerly, as I went along I would print out each chapter and put it in a binder, freezing it till a final edit. Lately I’ve switched to working paperless. It hasn’t made the process any faster — “thinking it up” is still the main bottleneck — but I find I do more micro-editing.

GR: What books have inspired or influenced you as a writer?

LMB: The books and writers who have the most impact are inevitably those one reads first, at a young age. In science fiction and fantasy, they were mostly the books I could find in school and public libraries in the 1960s, thus a trifle out of date for the modern reader. Not necessarily the most famous, but the writers whose stories got into my head and took root include: Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, Randall Garrett, Lloyd Biggle, Jr., L. Sprague de Camp with Fletcher Pratt, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Leiber, Anne McCaffrey, and James H. Schmitz. Outside F&SF I could name Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer, Rudyard Kipling, Dorothy Sayers, and Alexander Dumas. I read, and still read, piles of nonfiction, of course, but that tends to be memorable for the subject matter rather than the author.

December 19, 2015

Comparing Starship Troopers to Starship Troopers

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

Jason Fuesting compares Robert Heinlein’s novel with Paul Verhoeven’s movie “adaptation” (scare quotes here because Verhoeven never read more than the first two chapters of the book). I’ve never seen the movie, but the book is one of my favourites.

Taken in a vacuum, the film itself is passable for its time. Despite being released in November, the film clearly fits the summer action film niche and summer action films are not frequently known for in-depth intellectual dialog or for exceptional acting. Verhoeven’s work does not disappoint that expectation in the least. What effort is evident in the film remains focused primarily on either the fight scenes, particularly in special effects and explosions, or in finding ways to justify having the actresses expose some amount of skin in some form or fashion as frequently as possible. As such, Verhoeven’s film comes off not too dissimilarly from what one might expect of a Michael Bay film, except less subtle in every way.

Cinematography, editing, and score were not exceptional, but quite passable. The film remained fast paced and for multiple scenes camera placement complimented the special effects and other elements quite well. The effects themselves were as I remembered, great for the time period. As far as the individual components of the film in terms of film making are concerned, outside of the acting, the film is quite well done. As for the acting, what I remembered as campy and otherwise forgettable as a teen turned out to be far worse than I remembered.

When one steps back out of the vacuum, the film ultimately falls apart entirely on writing. Many would likely ponder how a summer action movie that has managed to succeed on the other points could ultimately be deemed a failure based solely off a feature movies of its kind almost universally ignore. For Heinlein fans, the film is unequivocally a thumb in the eye. From that perspective, the director took the author’s creation, fed just enough of it through a sausage grinder to get the flavor out, mixed in his own recipe of inanity, and laid out the resulting abomination in precisely the exact opposite direction. For those not particularly attached to Heinlein’s novel but still fans of decent writing, a multitude of plot holes and grave inconsistency errors abound, all of which were introduced by the writers meddling in Heinlein’s construct like children run amok.

Amok is sadly an understatement. The film and the book are two wholly different entities. A Joking comment along the lines of the script used by Verhoeven being the result of the soulless Hollywood machine itself parodied in Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player might be closer to the truth. Simply put, Verhoeven’s script shares names with the book.

[…]

Ultimately, the book’s message is one that stresses responsibility, personal, to one’s family, and to one’s nation. Heinlein repeatedly highlights how military service is not easy, that life is a lot harder than we think it is when we’re young, how war is not the cool thing most children believe. Verhoeven steadfastly ignores every bit of that and takes every point Heinlein made and twisting it to its opposite: war is great, service is so easy any idiot can do it, the military is filled with unthinking robotic idiots and evil right-wing fascists, and the only people who are held responsible are the ones who get caught without an excuse. Instead of a story that is more or less a post-hoc biography of a soldier, complete with his regrets, Verhoeven’s adaptation is little more than modern actors in remade Nazi uniforms acting out nonsense between scenes further adapted from Nazi propaganda films. Verhoeven is so over-the-top in his use of Nazi imagery and defacing the concept of patriotism that his attempted smear against the right-wing gets lost in the noise.

The film is offensive on multiple levels. First, as a veteran, the book is easily realistic science-fiction that carries multiple very pertinent messages and warnings, especially in today’s society. Many of these were messages I needed to hear when I was younger, but I had neither the maturity nor the experience to truly understand at the time. Second, as an author, I am utterly horrified at the wholesale gutting the film makers and their writers gleefully engaged in and the complete mockery of their creation. The idea that one of my prospective works could receive similar treatment sickens me. Third, as a Conservative leaning libertarian, Verhoeven’s film lampoons ideas central to the survival of any state, left leaning or right, and does so in such a poor fashion that it fails at being even amateur-level propaganda. Admittedly, hyperbole is a valid tool; however, when using hyperbole one must ensure both that one’s point is valid and that the use of hyperbole does not destroy your message. Verhoeven fails on both accounts.

Update, 20 December: Just realized I hadn’t included the original link to this review. My belated apologies to Jason Fuesting and Cedar Sanderson for the oversight.

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