None of these things is done “by instinct”. I sweat like hell to make it a rousing good story while getting in the preaching I want to preach … I suggest that to the extent that they are used unconsciously, unwittingly “instinctively”, they are sloppy craftsmanship and likely to be bad art.
There were four “themes” he did use over and over — deliberately and not “by instinct”:
One is the notion that knowledge is worth acquiring, all knowledge, and that a solid grounding in mathematics provides one with the essential language of many of the most important forms of knowledge. The third theme is that, while it is desirable to live peaceably, there are things worth fighting for and values worth dying for — and that it is far better for a man to die than to live under circumstances that call for such sacrifice. The fourth theme is that individual human freedoms are of basic value, without which mankind is less than human.
William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).
February 25, 2015
February 13, 2015
The son of Golden Age SF author Andrew Offutt talks about his father’s other books:
My father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, grew up in a log cabin in Taylorsville, Ky. The house had 12-inch-thick walls with gun ports to defend against attackers: first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At 12, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method — find it and land on it — using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than 400 books. Two were science fiction and 24 were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using 17 pseudonyms.
In the mid-1960s, Dad purchased several porn novels through the mail. My mother recalls him reading them with disgust — not because of the content, but because of how poorly they were written. He hurled a book across the room and told her he could do better. Mom suggested he do so. According to her, the tipping point for Dad’s full commitment to porn, five years later, was my orthodontic needs.
Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went. Most writers get more words per page as they go from longhand to a typed manuscript, but not Dad. His handwriting was small, and he used ampersands and abbreviations. His first drafts were often the same length as the final ones.
Manuscripts of science fiction and fantasy received multiple revisions, but he had to work much faster on porn. After a longhand first chapter, he typed the rest swiftly, made editorial changes and passed that draft to my mother. She retyped it for final submission. At times, Mom would be typing the beginning of the book while Dad was still writing the end.
His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.
Eighty percent of the notebooks described sexual aspects of women. The longest section focused on their bosoms. Another binder listed descriptions of individual actions, separated by labeling tabs that included: Mouth. Tongue. Face. Legs. Kiss. The heading of Orgasm had subdivisions of Before, During and After. The thickest notebook was designed strictly for B.D.S.M. novels with a list of 150 synonyms for “pain.” Sections included Spanking, Whipping, Degradation, Predegradation, Distress, Screams, Restraints and Tortures. These were further subdivided into specific categories followed by brief descriptions of each.
Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.
February 8, 2015
A few years back, Livejournal user Squid314 took issue with the idea that we’re somehow enjoying a great era of TV programming lately:
As I mentioned in my last entry, I’ve been watching Babylon 5 lately. It’s not a perfect show, but it has one big advantage: it’s consistent and believable.
Contrast this with Doctor Who. Doctor Who is fun to watch, but if you think about it for more than two seconds you notice it’s full of plot holes and contradictions. Things that cause time travel paradoxes that threaten to destroy the universe one episode go without a hitch the next. And the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor’s biology gain completely different powers no one’s ever alluded to depending on the situation. The aliens are hysterically unlikely, often without motives or believable science, the characters will do any old insane thing when it makes the plot slightly more interesting, and everything has either a self-destruct button or an easily findable secret weakness that it takes no efforts to defend against.
So Doctor Who is not a complete loss. But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.
I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called “World War II”.
Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.
I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.
Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.
…and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin’ unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you’re starting to wonder if any of the show’s writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.
I’m not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named “Enigma”, because the writers couldn’t spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means “Man of Steel” in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman “Man of Steel” and the Frenchman “de Gaulle”, whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).
So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don’t even try to make their stuff believable.
January 10, 2015
Charles Stross in full “beat up the optimists” mode over a common SF notion about sub-orbital travel for the masses:
Let’s start with a simple normative assumption; that sub-orbital spaceplanes are going to obey the laws of physics. One consequence of this is that the amount of energy it takes to get from A to B via hypersonic airliner is going to exceed the energy input it takes to cover the same distance using a subsonic jet, by quite a margin. Yes, we can save some fuel by travelling above the atmosphere and cutting air resistance, but it’s not a free lunch: you expend energy getting up to altitude and speed, and the fuel burn for going faster rises nonlinearly with speed. Concorde, flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 2.0, burned about the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 of similar vintage flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 0.85 … while carrying less than a quarter as many passengers.
Rockets aren’t a magic technology. Neither are hybrid hypersonic air-breathing gadgets like Reaction Engines‘ Sabre engine. It’s going to be a wee bit expensive. But let’s suppose we can get the price down far enough that a seat in a Mach 5 to Mach 10 hypersonic or sub-orbital passenger aircraft is cost-competitive with a high-end first class seat on a subsonic jet. Surely the super-rich will all switch to hypersonic services in a shot, just as they used Concorde to commute between New York and London back before Airbus killed it off by cancelling support after the 30-year operational milestone?
Firstly, this is the post-9/11 age. Obviously security is a consideration for all civil aviation, right? Well, no: business jets are largely exempt, thanks to lobbying by their operators, backed up by their billionaire owners. But those of us who travel by civil airliners open to the general ticket-buying public are all suspects. If something goes wrong with a scheduled service, fighters are scrambled to intercept it, lest some fruitcake tries to fly it into a skyscraper.
So not only are we not going to get our promised flying cars, we’re not going to get fast, cheap, intercontinental travel options. But what about those hyper-rich folks who spend money like water?
First class air travel by civil aviation is a dying niche today. If you are wealthy enough to afford the £15,000-30,000 ticket cost of a first-class-plus intercontinental seat (or, rather, bedroom with en-suite toilet and shower if we’re talking about the very top end), you can also afford to pay for a seat on a business jet instead. A number of companies operate profitably on the basis that they lease seats on bizjets by the hour: you may end up sharing a jet with someone else who’s paying to fly the same route, but the operating principle is that when you call for it a jet will turn up and take you where you want to go, whenever you want. There’s no security theatre, no fuss, and it takes off when you want it to, not when the daily schedule says it has to. It will probably have internet connectivity via satellite—by the time hypersonic competition turns up, this is not a losing bet—and for extra money, the sky is the limit on comfort.
I don’t get to fly first class, but I’ve watched this happen over the past two decades. Business class is holding its own, and premium economy is growing on intercontinental flights (a cut-down version of Business with more leg-room than regular economy), but the number of first class seats you’ll find on an Air France or British Airways 747 is dwindling. The VIPs are leaving the carriers, driven away by the security annoyances and drawn by the convenience of much smaller jets that come when they call.
For rich people, time is the only thing money can’t buy. A HST flying between fixed hubs along pre-timed flight paths under conditions of high security is not convenient. A bizjet that flies at their beck and call is actually speedier across most intercontinental routes, unless the hypersonic route is serviced by multiple daily flights—which isn’t going to happen unless the operating costs are comparable to a subsonic craft.
December 30, 2014
Charles Stross outlines the reason SF writers pretty much stopped writing short stories en masse in the mid-to-late 1950s:
A typical modern novel is in the range 85,000-140,000 words. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. The shortest work of fiction I ever wrote and sold was seven words long; the longest was 196,000 words. I’ve written plenty of short stories, in the 3000-8000 word range, novelettes (8000-18,000 words), and novellas (20,000-45,000 words). (Anything longer than a novella is a “short novel” and deeply unfashionable these days, at least in adult genre fiction, which seems to be sold by the kilogram.)
Genre science fiction in the US literary tradition has its roots in the era of the pulp magazines, from roughly 1920 to roughly 1955. (The British SF/F field evolved similarly, so I’m going to use the US field as my reference point.) These were the main supply of mass-market fiction to the general public in the days before television, when reading a short story was a viable form of mass entertainment, and consequently there was a relatively fertile market for short fiction up to novella length. In addition, many of these magazines serialized novels: it was as serials that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space were originally published, among others.
For a while, during this period, it was possible to earn a living (not a very good living) churning out pulp fiction in short formats. It’s how Robert Heinlein supplemented his navy pension in the 1930s; it’s how many of the later-great authors first gained their audiences. But it was never a good living, and in the 1950s the bottom fell out of the pulp market — the distribution channel itself largely dried up and blew away, a victim of structural inefficiencies and competition from other entertainment media. The number of SF titles on sale crashed, and the number of copies each sold also crashed. Luckily for the writers a new medium was emerging: the mass market paperback, distributed via the same wholesale channel as the pulp magazines and sold through supermarkets and drugstore wire-racks. These paperbacks were typically short by modern standards: in some cases they provided a market for novellas (25,000 words and up — Ace Doubles consisted of two novellas, printed and bound back-to-back and upside-down relative to one another, making a single book).
The market for short fiction gradually recovered somewhat. In addition to the surviving SF magazines (now repackaged as digest-format paperback monthlies) anthologies emerged as a market. But after 1955 it was never again truly possible to earn a living writing short stories (although this may be changing thanks to the e-publishing format shift — it’s increasingly possible to publish stand-alone shorter works, or to start up a curatorial e-periodical or “web magazine” as the hip young folks call them). And the readership profile of the remaining magazines slowly began to creep upwards, as new readers discovered SF via the paperback book rather than the pulp magazine. With this upward trending demographic profile, the SF magazines entered a protracted, generational spiral of dwindling sales: today they still exist, but nobody would call a US newsstand magazine with monthly sales of 10,000-15,000 copies a success story.
A side-effect of dwindling sales is that the fixed overheads of running a magazine (the editor’s pay check) remains the same but there’s less money to go around. Consequently, pay rates for short fiction stagnated from the late 1950s onwards. 2 cents/word was a decent wage in 1955 — it was $20 for a thousand words, so $80-500 for a short story or novelette. But the monthly magazines were still paying 5 cents/word in the late 1990s! This was pin money. It was a symbolic reward. It would cover your postage and office supplies bill — if you were frugal.
December 28, 2014
Larry Correia talks about how to write about firearms:
No matter what your views on guns are, you’re likely to eventually come across the subject in your writing, so I thought it would be prudent to bring on a guest to discuss how best to go about it.
I’m sure you’ve all seen wild west movies where someone gets shot and then flies backwards several feet. Or in modern movies someone shoots the bottom of a car, then it explodes easily on the first shot. With the dramatics that Hollywood adds to gun use, it’s not surprising that it eventually affects how authors write about them.
Ryan: What are the common pitfalls in fiction where it’s clear that the author has never held or fired a modern firearm?
Larry: It isn’t just guns, but any topic where the reader is an expert and the author is clueless. The problem is that when you write something that the reader knows is terribly wrong, it kicks them right out of the story and ruins the experience for them. Guns are especially hard because they are super common in fiction, and there are tons of readers who know about them.
Most of these really glaring errors can be taken care of with a little bit of cursory research. Technical things can be taken care of by a few minutes on the manufacturer’s webpage, which will keep your characters from dramatically flipping off the safety on a gun that doesn’t have one.
Beyond that, however, is the actual use of the gun. The character using it should have a realistic amount of knowledge based on their skill, knowledge, ability, and training. If you are gong to be writing about a character who is a professional gunslinger, then you need to do some research to make sure that person does what a professional gunslinger would do.
Ryan: If an author does not have access to a firearm or gun range, what are the best methods to brush up on them?
Larry: Actually shooting is best, but if you can’t, find friends who know guns and pick their brains. The problem here is like I mentioned, realistic amounts of knowledge for a particular character and your friends are going to vary just as much in real life. Just because somebody on the internet told you something doesn’t make it true.
Most online firearms forums are pretty cool about authors coming on and asking questions. Just don’t be a jerk about it.
Be careful because there are a lot of urban legends out there about guns. 5.56 doesn’t tumble through the air. A near miss of a .50 BMG won’t tear your limbs off. That is nonsense. So, the best thing to do is ask a group of people, and in short order you should be able to tell who actually has a clue and then disregard the crazy.
November 29, 2014
John C. Wright explains why Robert A. Heinlein was so important to the development of the science fiction field:
If you are unfamiliar with the name Robert Heinlein, he is rightly called the Dean of Science Fiction; his pen is the one that first broke through from the pulps into the slicks, and then into juveniles, and then into the mainstream. Were it not for him, we would still be a Hugo Gernsbeckian ghetto.
Heinlein was also a bold advocate for equality of all races and both sexes, at a time when such ideas were not discussed in polite society. He was the main champion in our little Science Fiction ghetto of all things Progressive and Leftwing, that is, the Leftwing of that time. (They have since reversed their standards, for example, swapping a principled opposition to censorship to a full-throated advocacy of it, or swapping an unprincipled opposition to monogamy to an even more unprincipled advocacy of abstinence combined with libertinism.)
The Left owe Heinlein an immense debt of gratitude. Ergo they are ungrateful.
While working on the novel that was to become Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein warned his agent that the inclusion of an ethnically diverse cast was not only deliberate — it was non-negotiable, and if an editor requested the removal of the Jewish character, Blassingame (the agent) was to take the book elsewhere.
This is from the letter Heinlein wrote to his agent about his wishes:
“I have deliberately selected a boy of Scotch-English pioneer ancestry, a boy whose father is a German immigrant, and a boy who is American Jewish. Having selected this diverse background they are then developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds. You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of the three boys is a “must” and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism. The use of a diverse group … is part of my intent; it must not be changed. … I am as disinterested as a referee but I want to get over an object lesson in practical democracy.”
Commenting on this is one Mitch Wagner, freak, writing on the blog maintained by Tor books — one of the largest and most well-respected names in science fiction publishing, as well as being my own publisher. This is not some overlooked corner or outlier opinion.
This is all admirable, but let’s keep in mind what’s missing from this cast: Asians; disabled people; non-Americans of any kind; lesbians, gays, and the transgendered; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or representatives of the other major world religions. Heinlein’s book was enormously ethnically diverse in that it included the full variety of American Judeo-Christian boys.
And even the notion that the ethnically diverse boys are “developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds” is a little creepy.
The freakish Mr. Wagner is not satisfied that Heinlein stormed the breach for them, being the first science fiction writer to put a Jew (Morrie Abrams from Rocket Ship Galileo), a Filipino (Juan Rico, Starship Troopers), a Negro (Rod Walker from Tunnel in the Sky implicitly and Mr. Kiku from The Star Beast explicitly) a Mohammedan (Dr. “Stinky” Mahmoud from Stranger in a Strange Land) or a Maori girl (Podkayne from Podkayne of Mars) in the spotlight as a main character and hero or heroine, but then criticizes Heinlein for not having as a main character … who? A cross-dressing homosexual castrati Hindu as a main character in a children’s book published in 1947? The Democrat Party still had Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South, and in those days the militant arm of the Democrat Party, the KKK, were still lynching blacks.
Do you understand to what the freakish Mr. Wagner is objecting? He is objecting to the melting pot theory that men of different races, locked into endless mutual hatred in the old world, can leave their hatred behind here in the new world. He is objecting to racelessness. Hence, he is a racist.
Heinlein showed backbone and gorm and ran the risk of being blackballed and put out of business by the Left (who, then as now, have major influence amounting to near total control in the New York publication industry) — and for this bold stance, unheard-of at the time, the gormless and freakish Mr Wagner criticizes Mr. Heinlein.
November 28, 2014
Charles Stross visits the closest thing to an O’Neill L5 colony:
To the eternal whine of the superannuated free-range SF geek (“dude, where’s my jet pack? Where’s my holiday on the moon? Where are my food pills? I thought this was supposed to be the 21st century!”) can be added an appendix: “and what about those L5 orbital space colonies the size of Manhattan?”
Well, dude, I’ve got your L5 colony right here. In fact, they turned it into a vacation resort. I just spent a day checking it out, and I’m back with a report.
So here’s what happens. One morning you get up early in your hotel or apartment in Berlin. You collect your swimming gear, flip-flops, beach towel, and sundries. Then you wrap up warm, because of course it’s November in Prussia and while it’s not snowing yet the wind has a sharp edge to it. You head for Zoologischer Garten station (or maybe the Ostbahnhof if you’re on that side of the city) and catch a train, which over the next hour hums through the pancake-flat forests and villages of East Germany until it stops at a lonely (but recently modernized) platform in a forest in the middle of nowhere.
You’re wondering if you’ve made some sort of horrible mistake, but no: a shuttle bus covered in brightly colored decals depicting a tropical beach resort is waiting for you. It drives along cracked concrete taxi-ways lined with pine trees, past the boarded-up fronts of dispersal bay hangers and hard stands for MiG-29 interceptors awaiting a NATO attack that never came. The bus is raucous with small children, chattering and screeching and bouncing off the walls and ceiling in a sugar-high — harried parents and minders for the large group of schoolgirls in the back of the bus are trying to keep control, unsuccessfully. Then the bus rumbles and lurches to a standstill, and the doors open, and you see this:
It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the thing. It’s one of those objects that is too big to take in at close range, and deceptively small when viewed from a distance. It’s like an L5 space colony colony that crash-landed in on the West Prussian plains: a gigantic eruption from the future, or a liminal intrusion from the Gernsbackian what-might-have-been.
Welcome to Tropical Islands, Germany.
You can get the history from the wikipedia link above: in a nutshell, the Zeppelin hangar was bought from the liquidators by a Malaysian resort operator, who proceeded to turn it into an indoor theme park. They stripped off a chunk of the outer cladding of the hangar and replaced it with a high-tech greenhouse film: it’s climate-controlled, at 26 celsius and 64% humidity all year round. (That’s pretty chilly by Malaysian standards, but nice and comfortable for the German and Polish customer base.) There’s an artificial rainforest, with over 50,000 plants and a 5km long walking trail inside. There are about a dozen different saunas, hot tubs, and a swimming pool complex: there’s a 200 metre long artificial beach with sun-loungers for you to work on your tan wrapped around an artificial tropical lagoon — a 140 metre swimming pool with waves. There are bars, shops, restaurants, hotels, even a camp ground for tents: and of course the usual beachside resort song and dance show every evening.
November 3, 2014
In The Federalist, Robert Tracinski responds to last month’s Reason.tv list of the top five anti-libertarian TV shows with a stirring defence of Star Trek:
… there are occasional statements by our lead characters, particularly in Star Trek: The Next Generation, about how the economy has evolved beyond money. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this is an unfortunate bit of pseudo-science: “A complex, technologically advanced economy that runs without money, prices, and markets is like a starship powered by a perpetual motion machine.” There’s a more detailed takedown at Hot Air which asks: “Who Mines the Dilithium?”
Some of this was toned down as The Next Generation got its dramatic feet under it and the writers gradually disentangled themselves from the mandates of Gene Rodenberry’s liberal utopianism. When you have to take an idea and project it into concrete terms, you quickly discover what really makes sense and what just doesn’t work. For example, having an empath as a part of the command team seems like a great idea — until you discover that she is only really capable of delivering the most banal insights. So that element of the story is downgraded. The same happened as Star Trek continued, particularly with the Ferengi, a race of galactic traders who start out as a crude anti-capitalist caricature (which borrowed uncomfortably from Nazi caricatures of Jewish bankers). Over the course of the franchise, particularly in Deep Space Nine, they were humanized (so to speak) and transformed more into lovable rogues, while Quark’s bar provided Deep Space Nine with its thriving commercial hub.
It’s important to draw a distinction between what a work of art tells you and what it shows you. In the world of Star Trek, there are a few, infrequent references in which we are told that the economy works (somehow) without prices. But the socialism all happens quietly off screen, and it’s not what the show is actually about. The show is about the culture and approach to life of those on board the Enterprise (or the other vessels in later spin-off series). And the culture of the Federation bears none of the hallmarks of a socialist society.
When people are provided with a guaranteed living, whether they work or not, they don’t generally devote themselves to self-improvement, the betterment of mankind, the writing of deathless poetry, or the peaceful exploration of the galaxy. Instead, they tend to stop working, striving, or putting forth any effort at all, not even the effort of changing out of their pajamas in the morning. To the extent they do work, since effort has been disconnected from reward, they tend to avoid as much effort as possible. In the Soviet Union, there was an old joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” And when rewards and advancement are no longer connected to a person’s productivity, they tend to be distributed according to an alternative currency of political pull. So all organizations end up being run by preening politicians, scheming bureaucrats, and drone-like functionaries who are skilled at pushing paper and going through the motions of production rather than actually producing anything.
What we are shown on Star Trek is the opposite. As Virginia Postrel has pointed out, based on a survey of her readers, the actual appeal of Star Trek is that it presents a kind of ideal capitalist workplace.
In Star Trek, the work is meaningful; the colleagues are smart, hard-working, competent and respectful; the leaders are capable and fair; and everyone has an important contribution to make…. Deep friendships develop from teamwork and high-stakes problem-solving. It’s the workplace as we wish it were.
October 23, 2014
Charles Stross tells a sad tale of woe about his “Laundry” series of SF/Occult novels:
There’s some kind of bizarre curse hanging over my Laundry Files series. Or maybe it’s a deeper underlying problem with writing fiction set in the very near future (or past): I’m not sure which. All I’m sure is that that for the past decade, reality has been out to get me: and I’m fed up.
My first intimation came a long time ago — in 2001. I’d just finished writing The Atrocity Archive and it was being edited for serial publication in issues 7-9 of the Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF (which folded a couple of issues later, in 2003). It was late September, and I found myself reading a terse email from the editor, Paul Fraser: “Charlie, about your story — do you think you can possibly find some new bad guys for Chapter 4? Because you’ve just been overtaken by current events …”
In Chapter 4 of The Atrocity Archive Bob learns from Angleton who the middle eastern bad guys who kidnapped Mo, intending to use her sacrifice to open a gateway to somewhere bad, really were … and when I originally wrote the story, in 1999-2000, they were a relatively obscure bunch of anti-American zealots who’d blown up the USS Stark and an embassy in Africa. I know this may boggle the imagination of younger or more forgetful readers, but Al Quaida and Osama bin Laden had not at that time hijacked any airliners, much less etched themselves into the pages of world history: they were not, at that time, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the New World Order.
October 14, 2014
A certain amount of this rings true:
Imagine you’re a college graduate stuck in a perpetually lousy economy. That’s a problem Japanese twenty-somethings have faced for more than 20 years. Two decades of stagnation after the collapse of the 1980s real-estate and stock bubbles — combined with labor laws making it tough to fire older workers — have relegated vast numbers of Japanese young adults to low-paying, temporary contract jobs. Many find themselves living with their parents well into their twenties and beyond, unmarried and childless.
Then again, they do have plenty of time to dress up like wand-wielding sailor girls and cybernetic alchemist soldiers from the colorful world of anime cartoons and manga comics. Indeed, Japan’s Lost Decades have coincided with a major spike in “people escaping to virtual worlds of games, animation, and costume play,” Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, recently told the Financial Times. “Here, even the young and poor can feel as though they are a hero.”
It’s hard to blame them. After all, it’s not that these young adults in Japan are resisting becoming productive members of the economy — it’s that there just aren’t enough opportunities for them. So an increasingly large number of them spend an increasingly large amount of time living in make-believe fantasy worlds, pretending they are someone else, somewhere else. This is a very bad thing for the Japanese economy.
And guess what: America has a growing number of make-believe “cosplay” heroes, too. Many of the 130,000 people who attend the San Diego Comic Con every year invest big bucks in elaborate outfits as a way of showing off their favorite Japanese characters, as well as those from American superhero movies, comics, and “genre” televisions shows such as Game of Thrones. And this trend is growing — the crowd at Comic Con was one-third this size in 2000. In 2013, the SyFy channel even created a reality show about the trend, Heroes of Cosplay.
H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.
October 9, 2014
Virginia Postrel on the barriers that slow down — or completely stop — innovation in far too many non-digital fields:
… I sympathize with science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson and venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, whose new books lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed. “I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” writes Stephenson in the preface to Hieroglyph, a science-fiction anthology hoping “to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.” In Zero to One, a book mostly about startups, Thiel makes the argument that “we have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it.”
Their concerns about technological malaise are reasonable. As I’ve written here before, “political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits.” It’s depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance — greeted with gloom. (“The trend is wreaking havoc in the blood bank business, forcing a wave of mergers and job cutbacks.”)
When a report about how ground-penetrating radar has mapped huge undiscovered areas of Stonehenge immediately provokes a comment wondering whether the radar endangers the landscape, something has gone seriously wrong with our sense of wonder. “There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,” Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, “and that there’s some cosmic balance at work — that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.”
Postrel argues that Stephenson’s fix would not work, and that our nostalgia for the early days of the Space Age blind us to the reality that most Americans in that era did not believe that the money for the Apollo missions was well spent (with the brief exception of July, 1969). She makes the point that our culture has changed significantly and those attitudinal changes are much more of the reason for today’s hesitancy and doubt about progress:
We already have plenty of critics telling us that our creativity and effort are for naught, our pleasures and desires absurd, our civilization wicked and destructive. We live in a culture where condemnatory phrases like “the ecosystems we’ve broken” are throwaway lines, and the top-grossing movie of all time is a heavy-handed science-fiction parable about the evils of technology and exploration. We don’t need Neal Stephenson piling on.
The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public. (Nobody else in my kindergarten was grabbing for You Will Go to the Moon.) People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.
Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and cultural influentially people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.
August 22, 2014
Another short work from the “Laundry” series by Charles Stross:
All bureaucracies obey certain iron laws, and one of the oldest is this: get your seasonal leave booked early, lest you be trampled in the rush.
I broke the rule this year, and now I’m paying the price. It’s not my fault I failed to book my Christmas leave in time — I was in hospital and heavily sedated. But the ruthless cut and thrust of office politics makes no allowance for those who fall in the line of battle: “You should have foreseen your hospitalization and planned around it” said the memo from HR when I complained. They’re quite right, and I’ve made a note to book in advance next time I’m about to be abducted by murderous cultists or enemy spies.
I briefly considered pulling an extended sickie, but Brenda from Admin has a heart of gold; she pointed out that if I volunteered as Night Duty Officer over the seasonal period I could not only claim triple pay and time off in lieu, I’d also be working three grades above my assigned role. For purposes of gaining experience points in the fast-track promotion game they’ve steering me onto, that’s hard to beat. So here I am, in the office on Christmas Eve, playing bureaucratic Pokémon as the chilly rain drums on the roof.
(Oh, you wondered what Mo thinks of this? She’s off visiting her ditz of a mum down in Glastonbury. After last time we agreed it would be a good idea if I kept a low profile. Christmas: the one time of year when you can’t avoid the nuts in your family muesli. But I digress.)
August 17, 2014
I’m quite a fan of the “Laundry” series of SF/horror stories by Charles Stross. I thought I’d read all of them (well, all that have been released, anyway), but a discussion thread on the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list alerted me that I hadn’t read “Down on the Farm“, which is available for free on the Tor.com website:
Ah, the joy of summer: here in the south-east of England it’s the season of mosquitoes, sunburn, and water shortages. I’m a city boy, so you can add stifling pollution to the list as a million outwardly mobile families start their Chelsea tractors and race to their holiday camps. And that’s before we consider the hellish environs of the Tube (far more literally hellish than anyone realizes, unless they’ve looked at a Transport for London journey planner and recognized the recondite geometry underlying the superimposed sigils of the underground map).
But I digress…
One morning, my deputy head of department wanders into my office. It’s a cramped office, and I’m busy practicing my Frisbee throw with a stack of beer mats and a dart-board decorated with various cabinet ministers. “Bob,” Andy pauses to pluck a moist cardboard square out of the air as I sit up, guiltily: “a job’s just come up that you might like to look at—I think it’s right up your street.”
The first law of Bureaucracy is, show no curiosity outside your cubicle. It’s like the first rule of every army that’s ever bashed a square: never volunteer.
If you ask questions (or volunteer) it will be taken as a sign of inactivity, and the devil, in the person of your line manager (or your sergeant) will find a task for your idle hands. What’s more, you’d better believe it’ll be less appealing than whatever you were doing before (creatively idling, for instance), because inactivity is a crime against organization and must be punished. It goes double here in the Laundry, that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multiverse, using the tools of applied computational demonology: volunteer for the wrong job and you can end up with soul-sucking horrors from beyond spacetime using your brain for a midnight snack. But I don’t think I could get away with feigning overwork right now, and besides: he’s packaged it up as a mystery. Andy knows how to bait my hook, damn it.
August 5, 2014
ESR on “requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week”
ESR discusses the ongoing civil war in the SF community that most non-fans — and even many actual fans — may not be consciously aware of:
On the one hand, you have a faction that is broadly left-wing in its politics and believes it has a mission to purge SF of authors who are reactionary, racist, sexist et weary cetera. This faction now includes the editors at every major SF publishing imprint except Baen and all of the magazines except Analog and controls the Science Fiction Writers of America (as demonstrated by their recent political purging of Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day). This group is generally frightened of and hostile to indie publishing. Notable figures include Patrick & Theresa Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi. I’ll call this faction the Rabbits, after Scalzi’s “Gamma Rabbit” T-shirt and Vox Day’s extended metaphor about rabbits and rabbit warrens.
On the other hand, you have a faction that is broadly conservative or libertarian in its politics. Its members deny, mostly truthfully, being the bad things the Rabbits accuse them of. It counteraccuses the Rabbits of being Gramscian-damaged cod-Marxists who are throwing away SF’s future by churning out politically-correct message fiction that, judging by Amazon rankings and other sales measures, fans don’t actually want to read. This group tends to either fort up around Baen Books or be gung-ho for indie- and self-publishing. Notable figures include Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Tom Kratman, John C. Wright, and Vox Day. I’ll call this group the Evil League of Evil, because Correia suggested it and other leading figures have adopted the label with snarky glee.
A few other contrasts between the Rabbits and the Evil League are noticeable. One is that the Evil League’s broadsides are often very funny and it seems almost incapable of taking either itself or the Rabbits’ accusations seriously – I mean, Correia actually tags himself the “International Lord of Hate” in deliberate parody of what the Rabbits say about him. On the other hand, the Rabbits seem almost incapable of not taking themselves far too seriously. There’s a whiny, intense, adolescent, over-fixated quality about their propaganda that almost begs for mockery. Exhibit A is Alex Dally McFarlane’s call for an end to the default of binary gender in SF.
There’s another contrast that gets near what I think is the pre-political cause of this war. The Rabbits have the best stylists, while the Evil League has the best storytellers. Pick up a Rabbit property like Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 and you’ll read large numbers of exquisitely crafted little numbers about nothing much. The likes of Correia, on the other hand, churn out primitive prose, simplistic plotting, at best serviceable characterization – and vastly more ability to engage the average reader. (I would bet money, based on Amazon rankings, that Correia outsells every author in that collection combined.)
All this might sound like I’m inclined to sign up with the Evil League of Evil. The temptation is certainly present; it’s where the more outspoken libertarians in SF tend to have landed. Much more to the point, my sense of humor is such that I find it nearly impossible to resist the idea of posting something public requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week. The screams of outrage from Rabbits dimwitted enough to take this sort of thing seriously would entertain me for months.