July 21, 2014

A few mitigating words for the late Senator Proxmire

Filed under: Government, History, Politics, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:35

Many of you won’t even remember the heyday of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards: his personal choices for the worst public spending boondoggles each year. Most space enthusiasts remember him for his adamant opposition to NASA (for which he could never possibly be forgiven). As an early supporter of the space program, I thought Proxmire was a terrible man and that we’ve have had a much bigger, better space program without him. He left the senate in 1989 and died in 2005, so I’d almost completely forgotten about him until I saw this article in the latest Libertarian Enterprise by Jeff Fullerton:

The things I discover while googling for things. Such as in my efforts to substantiate that Senator Proxmire quote: Not a penny for this nutty fantasy for my previous article. Found an online version of the newsletter of the old L5 Society [PDF]; a space colony advocate group that was around back in the late 70s. Which was sort of a trip down Memory Lane. Remember seeing them on Phil Donahue’s show circa 1980. It’s kind of sad when you look at something like this on the boulevard of broken dreams. But also at times amusing.

Darth Proxmire?

The man space enthusiasts loved to hate like J.R. from Dallas! He was definitely the sort of villain that could grow on you!

The name Proxmire sounds Germanic — but he was no Werner Von Braun — his mindset was typical for the down to Earth culture of the Midlands and being a Wisconsin democrat, he surely had solid connections in Madison — the regional snake pit of Progressivism. Yet he was a conservative democrat — as in fiscal conservative being he gave his “Golden Fleece Awards” to many federal projects that really were an atrocious waste of tax dollars. His disdain for the space program may have stemmed in part from populist disdain for technology — I remember SF writers like Ben Bova and others calling him a Luddite — and that sort of thing was politically fashionable in those days (often referred to as a knee-jerk reaction) so part of his reason for jumping onto the anti-space bandwagon may have been a political calculation. Some of it was probably born of a zero sum mentality that was also vogue at the time. A few space advocates wrote funny editorials about converting Proxmire to supporting space exploration and colonization by finding a way to turn butter into rocket fuel — being that the Senator’s primary constituency were Wisconsin dairy farmers!


As for William Proxmire — I can’t be too hard on him anymore. Especially when you consider all that NASA has done to thwart any hope of establishing human settlements beyond Earth. At best a lack of vision being the space agency had long ago lost its mojo and is nothing like it was in its early days when could actually meet the challenge of JFK’s vision of putting boots on the moon in a decade — as opposed to shrugging and saying “maybe in three decades”? At best they are slow walking because NASA is much like the establishment of the Republican Party that sometimes talks “small government” but is in no hurry to deliver on it. And worst of all — NASA seems to have an ideological agenda aimed at preventing the colonization of space deeply entrenched within the bureaucracy and the story is the same within most other federal agencies and institutions.

Wikipedia (not traditionally staffed by fans of small government) has this to say about Proxmire’s legislative career:

He was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects. His Golden Fleece Award was created to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. He was also head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport. Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he normally sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.


Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Award, which identified what he considered wasteful government spending, between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were “awarded” to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel (“The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy,” reported the New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying “the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the ‘length of the buttocks.’” Proxmire stopped numerous science and academic projects which were, in his opinion, of dubious value.

Proxmire’s critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs, such as the Aspen Movie Map (though the Aspen Movie Map project did not receive the award). For example, Proxmire was criticized in 1987 for the Aspen Movie Map incident by author Stewart Brand, who accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy. Proxmire later apologized for several of those, including SETI.


Proxmire earned the unending enmity of space advocates and science fiction fandom for his opposition to space colonization, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA’s budget. In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone …. I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy”. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven retaliated by writing the award-winning stories Death and the Senator, Fallen Angels, and The Return of William Proxmire. In a number of circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in “the project has been proxmired”.

July 14, 2014

Lois McMaster Bujold interview

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:05

Published on 29 Apr 2013

In 2012 we had the unique opportunity to interview Lois McMaster Bujold about her writing. As one of the most highly awarded science fiction/fantasy writers, her insights and story about her writing life makes an excellent addition to our collection of master writers on The Authors Road.

July 8, 2014

Virginia Heinlein and posthumous bowdlerization

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:57

A tweet from the Heinlein Society linked to this excerpt from Fred Pohl’s The Way The Future Blogs, talking about Virginia Heinlein’s role in “neatening up” Robert Heinlein’s literary legacy:

Robert Heinlein’s next, and final, wife was Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld. She worked with (and outranked) Heinlein at the little wartime research group in Philadelphia that was charged with trying to figure out what a high-altitude (read: space) suit should be like.

Politically, she and I were nowhere near close, but we agreed to disagree and generally talked about something else. That didn’t really matter. Bob had picked her and she was his loyalest fan and ferociousest protector, and as long as he lived that was plenty good enough for me.

But then he died, and Ginny didn’t stop protecting all that was left of him. Specifically his image — or rather her image of him, which I believe was of a chivalrous, well-mannered and quite refined Annapolis man.


Then there was Grumbles from the Grave. Robert had talked about allowing posthumous publication of his real feelings about a lot of things that he didn’t feel comfortable to talk about while he was alive, and indicated that some of his private letters would be a source for the book. Then some posthumous book with that title did come out, and it was a great disappointment. Someone — it could have been only Ginny — had washed his face and combed his hair and turned whatever it was that Robert might have wanted to say into the equivalent of thank-you notes for a respectable English tea.

I know that Robert wrote some much more raunchy letters than any of those, because I myself got one or two. But all the raunch has been edited out. What’s left is actually rather boring and does a great disservice to the real Heinlein, whose physical person may have been embodied as a conventional hard-right conservative but whose writing was — sometimes vulgarly — that of a free-thinking iconoclast.

July 7, 2014

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:32

In the Edinburgh Reporter, Rosemary Kaye gives us a quick introduction to “the Laundry” and how the next book in the series gets underway:

Bob is a civil servant. Not any old civil servant though: Bob works for The Laundry, a secret department set up to protect the population from occult powers. In a Google-esque attempt to raise morale he and his colleagues have been told to devote 10% of their time to following their own ‘creative, innovative research ideas’ – but they’re far too busy to find space in their working days to regain their va-va-voom, so they have to develop their projects at night.

One night Bob returns to his office to find a colleague, Andy, conducting a ‘hello spirit world’ experiment. He’s intending to summon a demon, a ‘class one manifestation’, but whatever he’s called up, it’s not that. Everything is feeling rather cold. Bob drags Andy from the room and shuts the door, but soon realises that;

‘elephant size termites appear to be chewing on the edges of reality.’

Andy has used his own code instead of the regulation issue;

‘there’s nothing worse than an IT manager who’s getting creative…’

Bob’s boss Angleton is soon on the scene; an old school presence ‘as chilly and powerful as the thing behind the door’, he instructs Bob to call the Night Watch. The Night Watch appears ‘in classic Bela Lugosi style’, its members being zombies or, as the civil service now requires them to be designed, ‘Residual Human Resources.’ It becomes clear to a horrified Bob that Angleton’s intention is to send one of them into the room;

‘I’ve gotten used to dealing with the metabolically challenged, but …….you can’t just go using the Night Watch as meat probes’

Bob sees that even the zombies are uneasy about this one, but Angleton is determined. The poor zombie’s bony hand ends up frozen to the door knob, but eventually the door is opened, to reveal;

‘tentacles and lobster claws, eyes the size of my head…..total sensory overload…voices like telemarketers in hell…’

And to find out what happens next, you need to buy the book – which many of the audience already have.

July 5, 2014

Harry Turtledove’s “revolutionary” alternative history

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman talks to Harry Turtledove about other futures that could have occurred if the American Revolution hadn’t gone quite as it did historically:

Turtledove told me that it was Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, who first gave him the idea of the American Revolution as a subject for alternate history. The two collaborated on a novel, The Two Georges, that is set in the 1990s and based on the premise that the Revolutionary War never happened. Instead, George Washington and King George III struck an agreement in which the United States and Canada (the “North American Union”) remained part of the British Empire. The artist Thomas Gainsborough commemorated the deal in a painting, The Two Georges, that is emblazoned on money and made ubiquitous as a symbol of the felicitous “union between Great Britain and her American dominions.”


Turtledove told me by email that he had an “epiphany” when he traveled with his family to the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg, Canada in 1994, shortly before he published The Two Georges.

As he read a book from the Little House on the Prairie series to his daughter at the hotel, he came upon a section about a Fourth of July celebration “on the plains in the late nineteenth century, with fireworks and with tub-thumping speakers talking about how the United States had broken away from British tyranny and was the freest country in the world as a result. And there I was reading this in the country next door to mine, a country as similar to mine as any two nations on earth, a country just as free as mine — and a country that had never broken away from Britain at all. It was a thought-provoking experience.” Canada, of course, merely shares a queen with the United Kingdom at this point, but its relationship with Britain has certainly evolved differently than America’s has.

You could think of 1776 as a British political experiment, with Canada as the control (“British” here meaning both the British government and the colonists/revolutionaries). At this point in history, the control appears to actually be more free than the experimental subject.

H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.

June 26, 2014

The second volume of Patterson’s biography of Robert Heinlein

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:43

RAH by Patterson Volume 2In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda reviews the second (and final) volume of William Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century.

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) possessed an astonishing gift for fast-paced narrative, an exceptionally engaging voice and a willingness to boldly go where no writer had gone before. In “— All You Zombies—” a transgendered time traveler impregnates his younger self and thus becomes his own father and mother. The protagonist of Tunnel in the Sky is black, and the action contains hints of interracial sex, not the usual thing in a 1955 young adult book. While Starship Troopers (1959) championed the military virtues of service and sacrifice, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) became a bible for the flower generation, blurring sex and religion and launching the vogue word “grok.”

Heinlein’s finest work in the short story was produced in the late 1930s and early ’40s, mainly for the legendary editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell. But by 1948, when this volume opens, “The Roads Must Roll,” “By His Bootstraps, “Gulf” and “Requiem” are behind him. The onetime pulp writer has broken into the Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Life, married his third (and last) wife, Virginia, and settled in Colorado Springs, where he designs and builds a state-of-the-art automated house. Apart from his occasional involvement with Hollywood, as in scripting Destination Moon, he will devote the rest of his career mainly to novels.


Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.

Though Heinlein can do no wrong in his biographer’s eyes, if you use yours to look in Patterson’s voluminous endnotes, you will occasionally find confirmation that the writer could be casually cruel as well as admirably generous, at once true to his beliefs and unpleasantly narrow-minded and inflexible about them. Today we would call Heinlein’s convictions libertarian, his personal philosophy grounded in absolute freedom, individual responsibility and an almost religiously inflected patriotism. Heinlein could thus be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.

For the record, I loved this volume even more than I loved the first one. But Dirda’s comments are fair: Patterson worked hard to present Heinlein in as positive a light as possible, so it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the great man’s character quirks could make him difficult and awkward to deal with at times (to be kind). In the last post, I talked about the adolescent Heinlein as being “probably a pretty toxic individual” and that aspect of his character can still be discerned in the recounting of his later years.

May 20, 2014

Charles Stross on heroic archetypes in fiction

Filed under: Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:00

Charles Stross doesn’t typically write stories with traditional hero characters, and he explains why, before digging deeper into the likely origins of the stereotype:

I will confess that I find it difficult to write fictional heroes with a straight face. After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?). And people who might consider themselves virtuous or heroic within their own framework, may be villains when seen from the outside: it’s a common vice of fascists (who seem addicted to heroic imagery — it’s a very romantic form of political poison, after all, the appeal to the clean and manly virtue of cold steel in subordination to the will of the State), and also of paternalist authoritarians.

[...] it seems pretty damn clear that the superhero archetypes hail back to the polytheistic religions of yore, to the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons and their litany of family feuds and bad-tempered bickering. (And is it just me or are half the biggest plots in superhero pre-monotheist mythology the punch-line to the God-Father (or occasionally one of his more troublesome sons) failing to keep his cock to himself, and the other half due to a jealous squabble between goddesses that escalates into a nuclear grudge-fest until suddenly Trojan Wars break out?)

We have this in common with our 5000-years-dead ancestors: we’re human beings, and our neural architecture hasn’t changed that much since the development of language and culture (unless you believe Julian Jaynes — and I don’t). We still have the same repertoire of emotional reactions. We still have a dismaying tendency to think it’s all about us, for any value of “it” you care to choose. We fall for a whole slew of common cognitive biases, including a complex of interacting heuristics that make us highly vulnerable to supernatural beliefs and religions. (The intentional stance per Dennett means we ascribe actions to intentionality; confirmation bias leads us to assume intentionality to natural events because this is something that’s been bred into us throughout the many millions of years of predator/prey arms races that weeded out those of our ancestors who weren’t fast enough to correlate signs such as lion prints at the nearby watering hole with other signs like Cousin Ugg going missing and realize there was a connection. So our ancestors looked on as lightning zapped another unfortunate Cousin Ugg, felt instinctively that there had to be a reason, and decided there was a Lightning God somewhere and he’d gotten mad at our tribe.)

We have other biases. We look at people with good skin and bilaterally symmetrical features (traits indicative of good health) and we see them as beautiful (hey, again: we’re the end product of endless generations of organisms that did best when they forged reproductive partnerships with other organisms that were in good health), so obviously they’ve been blessed by the gods. And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin …

January 30, 2014

James T. Kirk, a character who regressed from the first season onwards

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Steve Muhlberger is between major history projects right now, so he takes a bit of time to find out why so many of his friends are fans of the original Star Trek TV series.

So what about the original series? My memory of the original series is that it was not really very good. I was only about 15 when it came on, but I’d already read a lot of high-quality science fiction in print, and I thought that the TV show was not really giving the best selection of science-fiction ideas available. The series was better than most of what was on TV, but most of what was on TV was pretty lame.

Part of me wondered why the series had such a tremendous impact. I knew plenty of people who really loved it.

I’m a bit younger than Steve, so I didn’t watch the original broadcasts on NBC from 1966-69. For me, it was an after-school show in the early 70s that so far as I can remember was not shown in any kind of order. It left me with no sense of how the show changed over time (improving, in some respects). Steve points out one thing that didn’t improve:

A good half of that season focused on exactly one idea, which is not really much of a science fictional idea as much as a horror genre idea. That idea is that universe is filled with things that look like human beings that are actually monsters; or alternatively things that started out as human beings have turned into monsters, sometimes only moral monsters. There’s a lot of betrayal and menace in those early episodes, and they’re not really very good episodes otherwise.

But about halfway through that first season, what people have loved about this series begins to emerge. By that I mean the characters and the interactions between the characters on the ship and particularly on the bridge of the ship start making you really care about what goes on with them.

What really surprised me was that I liked the first season James T Kirk. I have always been someone who put James T Kirk down as a borderline maniac whose prominence in Starfleet reveals a weakness in their whole system, especially the recruiting efforts. My image of Kirk is a rather smug character who relies on his physical charisma (which did not really speak to me) to get his way. But the first season Kirk is not really like that. He’s trimmer, fitter, handsomer and — can’t believe I’m saying this — more intelligent and more philosophical than he was later on in the series or in the movies. He says a lot of things are actually smart. He looks smarter than Spock!

January 12, 2014

QotD: The real-world economics of children

Filed under: Economics, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

“Oh, certainly, you could produce quantities of infants­ — although it would take enormous resources to do so. Highly trained techs, as well as equipment and supplies. But don’t you see, that’s just the beginning. It’s nothing, compared to what it takes to raise a child. Why, on Athos it absorbs most of the planet’s economic resources. Food — of course­ — housing ­education, clothing, medical care — it takes nearly all our efforts just to maintain population replacement, let alone to increase. No government could possibly afford to raise such a specialized, non-productive army.”

Elli Quinn quirked an eyebrow. “How odd. On other worlds, people seem to come in floods, and they’re not necessarily impoverished, either.”

Ethan, diverted, said, “Really? I don’t see how that can be. Why, the labor costs alone of bringing a child to maturity are astronomical. There must be something wrong with your accounting.”

Her eyes screwed up in an expression of sudden ironic insight. “Ah, but on other worlds the labor costs aren’t added in. They’re counted as free.”

Ethan stared. “What an absurd bit of double thinking! Athosians would never sit still for such a hidden labor tax! Don’t the primary nurturers even get social duty credits?”

“I believe,” her voice was edged with a peculiar dryness, they call it women’s work. And the supply usually exceeds the demand — non-union scabs, as it were, undercutting the market.”

Lois McMaster Bujold, Ethan of Athos, 1986.

January 1, 2014

Isaac Asimov’s predictions for 2014, written in 1964

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:51

VA Viper dug up an Asimov essay from 1964, where he speculated on what life would be like in 2014. It’s an interesting read:

What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D., 50 years from now? What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?

I don’t know, but I can guess.

One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.


Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid: large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)

General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotope batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.

An experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas — Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.


Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the ’64 General Motors exhibit).

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires: intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.

Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.

December 26, 2013

Socialism and science fiction

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:01

Todd Seavey declares that science fiction is inherently socialistic:

Tim Kreider called for visionary — and anti-capitalist — science fiction in a recent article in New Yorker. Tyler Cowen replied that we may be safer if plans to remake society, sometimes in violent fashion, remain the stuff of fiction, and he wonders if any sci-fi captures that point.

I suspect Kreider would reply that he’s not calling for the immediate remaking of society so much as a tentative effort to understand it in all its complexity — but any social conservative who has watched deconstructionists ignore the lessons of tradition, and any free-marketeer who has heard intellectuals’ warmed-over Marxist attempts to understand economics, can tell you where overconfident explanations of society often lead.


Since Kreider appreciates the science of ecology (central to Kim Stanley Robinson’s books), he might think of the problem of overly-simple models as comparable to the dangers of creating a terrarium and expecting it to replicate all the nuances of an entire rain forest. Such an experiment might well be worth a try but probably only if done with its drastic limitations in mind — perhaps even with the primary purpose of illustrating those shortcomings. Frank Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Kim Stanley Robinson just barely begin to gesture feebly at the rich complexity of real societies – which have subtle, often unnoticed, subsidiary systems — and all three writers notoriously had to put a hell of a lot of work into it even to get that far.

Most writers, understandably, are still struggling to capture accurately what something as simple as, say, an awkward Christmas dinner feels like. They struggle even when drawing heavily from their own family experiences. We probably ought to admire the humility of their ambitions.

Coincidentally and tragically, as I write this, word reaches me that Ned Vizzini, one of my fellow New York Press veterans and the young author of the sci-fi novel Be More Chill, about the difficulty of fitting in in high school, has committed suicide, despite much of his short writing career having been devoted to trying to understand depression. His very life depended on figuring out one phenomenon with which he had direct experience, and he still couldn’t quite master it. Should the rest of us pretend to have figured out civilization?

December 12, 2013

Heinlein’s biographer talks to the Cato Institute Book Forum, 2010

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

Uploaded on 10 Jun 2011

Featuring the author William H. Patterson, Jr., Editor and publisher, The Heinlein Journal; moderated by David Boaz, Executive Vice President, Cato Institute.

Robert A. Heinlein is regarded by many as the greatest science fiction writer of the 20th century. He is the author of more than 30 novels, including Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and the libertarian classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. According to biographer William H. Patterson Jr., Heinlein’s writings “galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century: science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank; the counterculture; the libertarian movement; and the commercial space movement.” This authorized biography, reviewed enthusiastically by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, is the first of two volumes, covering Heinlein’s early ambition to become an admiral, his left-wing politics, and his first novels. Heinlein later became strongly libertarian.

November 22, 2013

Funding the Arthur C. Clarke award

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:34

Charles Stross has just posted a link to a recent short story of his (from 2011) which was written as part of a fund-raiser to help keep the Arthur C. Clarke awards going and an explanation of why most short stories can be improved by adding dinosaurs and sodomy:

Now, I don’t write many short stories these days, but I’m a sucker for the right kind of charity approach. And besides, I had a hypothesis I wanted to test: that every short story can be improved by adding dinosaurs and sodomy.

No, seriously: click that link, it’s work-safe but side-splittingly funny if you’ve ever been to a writers’ workshop. And probably utterly incomprehensible if you haven’t, so I shall have to unpack it for you …

In Michael Swanwick’s oeuvre — and he’s one of the most perspicacious, indeed brilliant, exponents of the short story form in SF today — dinosaurs are a short-hand signifier for action, adventure, thrills, and chases: whereas sodomy is a placeholder representing introspection into the human condition, sensitivity to emotional nuance, and a great big bottle of lube.

So when he’s telling students they need to add dinosaurs to their work, he’s eliptically hinting that sensitive emotional nuance needs to be balanced by a bit of GRAAAH!! BITE!!! CHASE!!!!1!!!ELEVENTY (sorry, I got a bit carried away there). And when he tells them to add sodomy, he’s hinting that there may be too much focus on the performance stats of the space super-dreadnought and not quite enough insight into the emotional trauma the steel-jawed captain is grappling with from her seat on the bridge.

Yeah, right. But what happens if you take the advice literally? After all, SF is the genre of the literal space ship, eschewing ironic metaphor in favour of naive wonder at the immanent apprehension of the unreal.

So I was thinking about dinosaurs, and Sodomy, and the challenge of writing a story in the style of Arthur C. Clarke that applied Swanwick’s principles in a deliberately naive and unmetaphorical manner, when I saw this video (which is definitely not safe for work, unless you’re me — you have been warned).

October 2, 2013

QotD: Day two

Filed under: Government, Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:38

I don’t know who’s more foolish: the greeter standing there, cheerfully helping shoppers, or the other customers who weren’t panicking and hoarding like I was. Don’t these idiots realize that the government is shut down?!?!

The lack of rioting at Petco encouraged me — might there still be actual human food on the shelves at other stores? Swung by Whole Foods where I saw canned goods … and large cuts of beef and pork on sale at $1.99 / lb. Remembering a trick from Lucifer’s Hammer, I bought all the meat I could fit in the shopping cart, took it home, sliced it thin, and dehydrated it.

As I stayed up until 4am slicing meat I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that the customers at Whole Foods are just as deluded as those at Petco. Fools. Pathetic fools. The societal breakdown might not be that obvious yet, but by day three of the government shutdown they’ll be hammering at my door, looking for salted beef.

Sadly, I’ve realized that my preparations aren’t as far along as they should be. Ammunition will soon grow scarce, and I’ll need other weapons to defend myself from bikers and feral children once the government shutdown really hits. I recall from Dies the Fire that crossbows can be made from truck leaf springs. I’m going to go onto Craigslist to try to find a blacksmith or craftsman I can barter with, but I fear it may already be too late — has Craigslist survived this long?

Clark, “Government shutdown: day two”, Popehat, 2013-10-02

September 26, 2013

The Crazy Years – you’re soaking in it

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

Robert Heinlein plotted out the entire arc of his “Future History” stories on a chart that included technological, social, and political events that either featured in or were key drivers for individual stories:

Click to view full size

Click to view full size

While our actual technological advances haven’t matched Heinlein’s predictions, you could make a strong case that the sociological column got it right by calling the era from the late-sixties onwards “The Crazy Years”. Samizdata‘s Johnathan Pearce linked to this post by Charles Steele which makes the case quite well:

In his Past Through Tomorrow and other works, Robert A. Heinlein explored a possible future history for homo sapiens. One of things he foresaw was a period at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st that he called “the Crazy Years,” in which cultural fragmentation and decay in advanced countries generates political and economic decline and social disruption. He was prescient in recognizing what happens when commonly accepted principles such as an individual’s responsibility for self are forgotten and political correctness and multiculturalism run amok. As advancing technology places increasing power in human hands, human ethics fail to keep pace. In Heinlein’s world, humans do manage to navigate these shoals without destroying themselves and eventually do settle on a MYOB sort of libertarian ethic…but only narrowly averting nuclear self-destruction and environmental self-destruction, and not without going through periods of dictatorship as well as societal chaos.

Heinlein’s story isn’t just fiction. In the course of the development of the Soviet SETI program, astrophysicist Nikolai Kardeshev developed a theory of civilizations and what we might look for in trying to detect them. Kardeshev’s work — which has been further developed by others — gives a classification system based on the scale at which a planet-based civilization can harness energy. The lowest level of civilization, Type I, has the capability of harnessing the entirety of the energy of its planet. As a sort of corollary, it’s hypothesized that a species that is approaching Type I mastery potentially goes through a very dangerous period, akin to Heinlein’s “Crazy Years.” Their advanced level of technology gives them power capable of destroying the civilization if misused. If the species fails to develop behaviors, ethics, institutions, etc. that prevent this it can annihilate itself. I’m uncertain how much of this corollary is in Kardeshev’s original contribution, but physicist Michio Kaku suggests that one thing we could look for in SETI is the wreckage of civilizations that failed to make the transition to Type I. And of course, our civilization is our one example, so far, of a civilization entering this transition.

What’s the connection between Heinlein and Kardeshev? Think of just a few examples of the dangers we face today:

  • Iranian or Al Qaeda religious fanatics obtaining nuclear weapons…
  • An American federal government — especially the executive branch — working to acquire unlimited power, and already apparently having the power to spy on essentially all communications, everywhere…
  • A growing segment of the population — some poor and some very rich (think Goldman Sachs) — who live as parasites on the productivity of others while creating nothing of values themselves…
  • An intelligentsia that cannot bring itself to condemn Islamism for fear of being seen as insensitive or racist or ethnocentric, but which regularly denounces, in the most hateful terms, anyone who opposes the continued expansion of state power…
  • An intelligentsia that praises socialism, hunter-gatherer economies, massive interventionism, anything but the one system that actually works, free market capitalism, a system they bitterly condemn…
  • A “press,” our mainstream media, that sees its job as promoting political positions and readily lies when lies serve this goal better than truth, and spouts nonsense the remainder of the time, apparently because reasoned analysis is too hard.

Yes, we’re in the crazy years, for sure.

And yet, in spite of all this, he’s still optimistic about the future.

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