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.

December 9, 2015

SF “war in space” memes of improbability

Filed under: Books, Military, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Charles Stross explains several SF novel shibboleths that make him want to hurl the book against the nearest wall, including so many “war in space” stories:

Newton’s Second Law, for dummies. E = 1/2 * (mv2) — it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Notice the huge distances I alluded to above? Well, to get between planet A and planet B in anything approximating reasonable human time spans, you need to go fast. And if you go fast, your velocity relative to the bodies around you is also high. In event of an inelastic collision the kinetic energy transfer is proportional to the square of your velocity; and this has drastic consequences for space ships. Suppose you’re in low Earth orbit and you hit a piece of space junk, for example a screw that’s fallen off someone else’s ship. It’s traveling in pretty much the same orbit as you, but inclined at 30 degrees. What happens? What happens is you get a happy fun experience much like being hit by a bullet from a high-calibre sniper’s rifle, because (I can’t be bothered to do the trig here) it’s packing a velocity component angled across your path at a goodly fraction of orbital velocity, and at orbital velocity a kilogram of water packs kinetic energy equal to about ten times its mass in exploding TNT.

You know what a high-speed car crash looks like, right? Space ships travel a lot faster than that: if they hit something, it’s going to be very messy indeed. And that’s at sluggish orbital velocities; if you starship is barreling along at about 85% of the speed of light general relativity has something to say on the subject and it’s kinetic energy is equal to about half it’s rest mass — the equivalent of a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb for every kilogram of hull weight. (The pilot’s space-suited body alone packs the energetic punch of a Peak Strangelove 1980s USA/USSR strategic nuclear exchange.)

Human bodies are basically squishy sacks of goopy grease and water emulsions held together by hydrogen bonds and disulphide bridges between protein molecules and glommed onto some big lumps of high-grade chalk. We evolved in a forgiving, water-dominated low-velocity world where evolution didn’t bequeath us nervous systems able to comprehend and deal with high energy interactions other than in an “ooh, that lightning bolt was close! Where’s cousin Ugg?” kind of way. We can’t even see objects that flash across our visual field in less than 50 milliseconds — a duration in which, at orbital velocity, an object will have travelled on the order of half a kilometer.

Intuition and high energy regimes: do the math, or your space combat will be a whole bundle of nope.

(Other related cognitive errors include but are not limited to: Napoleonic navies clashing in space and firing broadsides back and forth at one another’s line of battle … spaceships with continuous high acceleration fusion-powered motors or similar that don’t glow white-hot then melt because vacuum is an insulator and shedding that much heat is a hard engineering problem (hint: a 100 ton spaceship accelerating at 1g requires 1 megaJoule of thrust: using a photon rocket for maximum efficiency that’s going to require 3 x 1015 watts of juice going in, if it’s 99.9% effective at heat dissipation that means it’s racking up around three terawatt of leakage, and that’s equivalent to about 45 kilotons of nuclear explosions per minute of waste heat) … warships using active radar to hunt for one another (hint: active sensor reach is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the emission strength, passive sensors obey the inverse square law) … warships using stealth in space (hint: infrared emissions, second hint: the background temperature you want to avoid standing out against is 2.73 degrees Kelvin, i.e. liquid Helium temperature) …

Oh for fuck’s sake, don’t get me started on war in space, we’ll be here forever unless we just throw physics to the winds of fiction and delegate all our hand-waving to magic hyperspace or cyberspace technology or something.

December 5, 2015

A life of crime … derailed

Filed under: Books, Humour, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At American Digest, Gerard Van der Leun recalls how his budding teenage life of crime was brought to a sudden halt:

As a teenager my addiction to science fiction paperbacks often came into conflict with my ongoing cash-flow problem. To wit, I hadn’t any. But, for a few brief, shining weeks I did discover a resource better than cash for acquiring science-fiction paperbacks — my pants.

Yes, at some point it dawned on my tiny teenage brain that, if I could just get these piles of paper down the front of my pants and walk without a waddle out the door of the store, the latest Asimov or Heinlein would be free. What was even better was my discovery that I could, after reading these stolen gems, take them back to the bookstore from which I boosted them and sell them back to that dull owner for a credit to buy other paperbacks. Cost of stock: $0, Price received: $0.25, Profit — infinite. What a business! I was a confirmed capitalist. I even thought of a name for my company, World Wide Pants, and was quite upset years later when David Letterman stole it from me.

Of course I knew on some level that stuffing things down my pants, waddling out of a store and then coming back later to sell the purloined items back was …. a teeny bit wrong. But the bookstore owner had so many science fiction books and I had so few. “From bookstores according to their stock, to me according to my need to read,” seemed to be my moral code at the time. Besides, I wasn’t “really” stealing them because I “returned” them for a fee. It was a way of letting the bookstore owner sort of reverse-rent them to me.

I started small — maybe a slim collection of short stories like The Green Hills of Earth, or a novella such as “Children of the Atom,” would find their way to their temporary home between my belt and my underwear. But then I decided to expand. After all, it seemed to me that my pants had room to spare especially if I let my shirt tails hang out. Once that was in my mind, I started to up the ante and began to go for multiple copies of Ace Doubles. My pants became, in effect, a small bookshelf.

The owner of the bookstore down in the slums of Sacramento was, I was certain, clueless as to what was going on. He was a wispy simulacra of William Burroughs with the gray haze of alcohol hovering about him and a tendency to give me a smile that was a little too warm whenever I came into the shop. He’d often disappear into a curtained nook with the sign “Special Titles — Ask for admittance” thumbtacked to the bookshelf next to it.

My undoing came one day when I think I had probably added a full two inches to my waistline in the science fiction section. I waddled to the cash register with one tattered copy of some space opera and slid my quarter across the counter. He looked at it, looked at me, took the quarter and slid the book into a flimsy paper bag and handed it back. “See you soon,” he said with a wink. I turned and had gotten out the door and a couple of steps down the sidewalk when the bony hand of retribution clutched my shoulder. “I see you’re gaining a little weight,” he said in a voice that betrayed an unhealthy interest in Lucky Strikes. “I think we need to talk to your parents about this. Come on back in.”

There’s no way to describe the churning, burning hunk of fear that forms in your stomach the first time you’re busted. If, at that moment, you could chose between death and juju, death would win every time — but only because you don’t know that you’ll get death only after juju.

November 30, 2015

Charles Stross cover reveal for The Nightmare Stacks

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

The Nightmare Stacks (UK edition)

The Nightmare Stacks (UK edition)

The Nightmare Stacks (North American edition)

The Nightmare Stacks (North American edition)

The next book in the Charles Stross “Laundry Files” series will be The Nightmare Stacks, to be released in June, 2016. There are two versions of the cover because Charles has different publishers for the UK and North American markets. This novel will not feature either Bob Howard or Mo (who featured in the most recent book The Annihilation Score), as Charles explains in the interview linked below. If you haven’t discovered the “Laundry” series, you’re missing a treat. Start with The Atrocity Archives and discover what happens when you mix secret agents and espionage with mind-numbing horrors from the Cthulhu mythos. Highly recommended.

Charlie Jane Anders talked to Charles about the book and the series:

How has the Laundry Files series changed and evolved in the dozen years or so that you’ve been writing it? Are there elements that you’re still surprised became so prominent?

I’ve been writing the Laundry Files series for 16 years at this point. When I began, I intended the short novel “The Atrocity Archive” (published with “The Concrete Jungle” in the book The Atrocity Archives — note the plural!) as a one-shot. It was only a few years later, when people began asking for more, that I had any idea of writing a sequel, and only with the third book, 8 years in, that I realized I needed a Plan. And because the book’s narrator, Bob, had been aging in line with the real world as I wrote the first three books, the most obvious plan was: track Bob’s career as he grows older, more senior, and more cynical.

This turned out to be a really fortuitous choice. It allowed me to fix some minor inconsistencies in the earlier books; because they’re Bob’s workplace memoir, he often gets the wrong end of the stick at first then learns better about some aspect of the job over time. It also allowed me to deepen him as a character, adding complexity to the narrative as he ages and possibly becomes more self-aware (although he doesn’t really have to grow up until books 8 or 9).

What I really wasn’t expecting was that Bob’s life would take over — and that the most important events in it would end up taking place off-screen, so far off-screen that I needed to pick new narrative voices! His wife Mo, for example, exhibits a very unvarnished perspective on Bob’s seemingly bottomless reserves of self-delusion in The Annihilation Score, and demonstrates that the series is very much about the Laundry as an organization, rather than just being Tales of Bob. And in The Nightmare Stacks I had to leave Bob behind entirely in order to give a worm’s eye view of the start of events that will give rise (eventually) to the climax of the series.

This book features a new character, Alex, instead of Bob. What’s the reason for switching focus?

In The Atrocity Archives Bob starts out as a twenty-something tech support guy who has blundered into a Len Deighton spy thriller (with added tentacles). By the start of The Rhesus Chart, Bob has leveled up so far that he can wade into a nest of vampires — admittedly rather inexperienced vampires — and escape with mildly damaged dignity and a stack of paperwork. Power-ups are a constant problem for any multi-book series that riffs off the Hero’s Journey: how do you engage with the underdog when your protagonist has risen from Midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet?

Alex is in some ways not dissimilar to Bob in his early incarnation. There are drastic differences: Alex has powers of his own — although they come at a drastic price. But Alex takes us back to the guy who gets sent to fix the cabling rather than spending all his time in policy meetings. And he’s got a young guy’s problems and social anxieties, unlike Bob (who by this point is in his early forties).

November 16, 2015

QotD: The Great Filter

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 15, 2015

The more likely explanation for the fall in eBook sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 13, 2015

The Making Of Thunderbirds

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

Published on 2 Jan 2014

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

H/T to The Arts Mechanical for the link.

November 3, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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

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


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

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

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

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

October 19, 2015

The cyclic history of SF fandom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 13, 2015

Markets in everything, Fan Expo edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 6, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels

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

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

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

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

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

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