Am being delinquent tonight

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FeatherPenClipArtI’ve been working on a novella about time travel instead of writing for the blog. Will get back to it tomorrow night.

In other news, I hear I have a poem and a photograph published in the Florida Poetry Association’s 2015 Anthology 33 this year. I don’t have my copy yet, so can’t say much more about it. The poem isn’t a surprise, but the photo is. If this sounds interesting, you can pick up a copy here.

The Sad/Rabid Puppies as a fringe group

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Reviewing the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy initiative, they look like a fringe group according to Kuhn’s thesis. Whether anyone there has the spark of genius that would cause a new paradigm shift remains to be seen. The Puppies are actually the remnants of the last paradigm shift, who are apparently just now discovering that the paradigm is no longer what they thought it was. The best strategy for this position is not to agitate to go back to the old paradigm. It ain’t gonna happen. Instead, this group should be looking to the future to see where the earthquake of alternative publishing opportunities might take them.

This is the new paradigm I identified a while back, by the way. It is so earth shattering that it’s threatening the publishers and writers currently at the heart of the speculative fiction field. The upstarts include writers like Andy Weir, author of The Martian—who actually published the book on his blog first. Another is E. L. James, who first posted installments of Fifty Shades of Grey on an Internet forum. These examples show it’s possible to bypass the current publishing establishment entirely and go on to fame and fortune with a six to eight figure movie deal. The SFWA recently broadened their membership requirements, taking note of this change.

Most people won’t generate this kind of income, of course, but still the opportunities are there.

Scientific revolution

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A while back I wrote a couple of blogs on the new paradigm in publishing. Now I need to spend a few lines of text on where these ideas come from. Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) was an American physicist, historian and science philosopher who wrote a book in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This was not well received in scientific circles, but the business community picked it up, making Kuhn a successful, but controversial figure. The book introduced the term “paradigm shift,” which means everything you ever thought about something could now be wrong.

Kuhn outlined a number of characteristics of scientific progress. First, he noted that science actually progresses through “paradigm shifts” instead of through research in a smooth, continuous line. Next, these paradigm shifts often invalidate things that were thought to be true and produce new theories. This means that scientific truth isn’t something that’s objective, but instead it’s subjective and defined by consensus in the scientific community.

You can see why these weren’t popular observations. Kuhn went on to say that these paradigm shifts were never sparked by anyone who was deeply invested in a particular theory. Instead, it takes someone from outside, someone on the fringes who can look at something with fresh eyes, to point out what’s wrong with it.

Commitment to the paradigm allows the mass of average scientists to make great strides within the boundaries of current thought, but according to Kuhn, they will never be the geniuses who make the jump to the next great theory. For example, it takes Albert Einstein, a patent clerk with a teaching degree, to point out what’s wrong with Newtonian physics, or for another example, the lawyer Antoine Lavoisier who identified oxygen’s role in combustion and thus destroyed the Phlogiston Theory.

The classic example of a paradigm shift in business is the move to digital watches. From about 1900 to 1970, the watch industry was dominated by Swiss watchmakers. They produced fine quality mechanical watches powered by a spring that were highly regarded by the market. In the 1960s three groups of engineers in the US, Japan and Switzerland all independently came up with a design for an electronic watch. Swiss watchmakers refused to believe anything could topple the Behemoth of the Swiss watch industry. They rejected the idea, but within ten years the fine Swiss watch was totally obsolete. The paradigm had shifted.

Go figure.

McCalmont’s idea of diversity

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Once he was on a roll, McCalmont deconstructed diversity as it currently plays out in science fiction, or in general speculative fiction, to look at the broader field. I already mentioned that he thinks diverse writers are not really permitted to write from their own worldview, but are instead channeled into the popular format for speculative fiction. They’re allowed to write about their own culture, but only within strictly defined parameters.

Presumably this is because publishers don’t want to rock the status quo boat. It’s one of those things that might invite controversy, for one thing, which might end up hurting their bottom line. Another reason is that some of these ideas might come across as subversive.

If you’ve never read Thomas Kuhn’s brilliant book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), then you should pick up a copy. This deserves its own blog, but a quick summary of what he says is that changes never come from within the prevailing paradigm. Because the people who are successful there have too much invested in the old ways of doing things, they’ll always attempt to stamp out new ideas. This means genius lies on the fringes—while the center is rife with mediocrity.

This isn’t to say that all current speculative fiction is rife with mediocrity. However, it’s definitely infected hard SF.

Speaking of zombies

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Edward Lear
This is not my worldview, but I’m getting the impression that zombieism is the prevailing zeitgeist. For anyone who’s not familiar with the term, it’s German and translates roughly as “spirit of the age,” meaning it describes the ideology or dominant mode of thought in a particular era. So, what are the characteristics of zombies? They’re rotting, for one thing. They’re reanimated corpses without any real life. They have no real thoughts. Instead they have an overpowering urge to destroy and devour. Also, the condition is contagious—if you’re bitten and manage to survive, then you become a zombie yourself.

The important point here is that zombies have no real will or thoughts of their own. They consume what social media pumps into their heads and tend to react reflexively, dealing with the crises of life without ever extending beyond into the ramification of zombieism, for one thing, and what else they could or should be doing, for another.

McCalmont calls this worldview “ironic detachment,” a way to hide your real reaction to what you’re seeing or doing behind a pretense of disinterest. It’s a pretense strongly identified with hipsters, to name the current wearers-of-the-mantle, but it also extends to other, less out there individuals and social groupings. According to McCalmont, this is about cowardice, a refusal to really look at social, economic and scientific trends and to follow them out to conclusions—a failure to grapple with the implications and to think of something better.

Failing to engage with the future

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The clear trend in the awards nominations over the last few years it to more sentimental stories. This means that hard SF, the kind that actually deals with current science and with possible futures, tends to get marginalized. This is because the editors are sifting the slush pile for award-winning stories, and the present and future just aren’t popular topics.

I want to take another look at what Stanley Schmidt said about hard SF, as McCalmont suggests something similar. In pointing out “Flowers for Algernon” as an example of “hard SF,” Schmidt broadens the field considerably. This is a story that’s not much concerned at all with the scientific details of an experimental procedure, but instead concentrates on the effect this has on the subject’s life. It investigates scientific policy, in other words, and the ethical and moral implications of medical procedures that are meant to improve life but really may not. In this day and age, the story would likely be about financial issues instead.

This is what McCalmont points out. He notes that there seems no current alternative to the neoliberal vision of capitalism, and points this out as fertile ground for science fictional investigation. This would be a matter of social and political science, rather than hard science like physics or chemistry. But, would anyone actually consider this kind of story science? Because it’s against the prevailing ideology, would anyone consider it worthy of note? Or should we go with the next zombie best seller instead?

This is nothing against zombies. It’s just that they’re not generally focused on scientific, social or political ideas.

What’s gone wrong with hard SF?

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Edward Lear
Continuing with the discussion, McCalmont lists a couple or three things he thinks have gone wrong with science fiction as a field. First, a conceptual blockage. This is the problem that technological changes are moving so fast that no one can really keep up with what’s going on. Much of what you can imagine is already in development somewhere, and you’d better check before you put it out there as science fiction.

Next, McCalmont blames the “New Weird,” a recent trend to blur the boundaries of speculative fiction subgenres like science fiction, fantasy and horror. I think this is fun myself, but I have to admit he’s right about the effects. Blurring the boundaries removes the requirement to actually research the science behind what’s happening. For example, John C. Wright did this in “The Plural of Helen of Troy” from this year’s Hugo packet. He used a science fictional framework and then introduced fantasy memes to carry the story. This is laziness, according to McCalmont. It may produce a creative, interesting story, but it does nothing to help us grapple with the future.

McCalmont’s third point is about nostalgia, the trend to steampunk and alternate histories, for example, where the writer avoids dealing with the complexity of present and future by going back to the past. Again, I think these are fun stories myself, but McCalmont is right this takes up energy that might otherwise go to thinking about the future.

His fourth complaint is about a “humanistic” approach in current practice that subverts the differences of race, culture, gender and sexual orientation, channeling everyone into the same acceptable framework of ideas, style and subject matter. I can see this is something the awards criteria might do. If the public, meaning those individuals nominating for awards, prefer a particular type of story, then this tends to become dominant. Editors buy that kind of story in order to maximize their chances of getting awards, and writers write it because they want to get published. This means anyone writing anything different gets completely marginalized.

Review of The Martian (film)

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FeatherPenClipArtHave been out to the movies. The Martian is a film adapted from Andy Weir’s 2011 book of the same title. The book was originally self-published but then picked up by Crown Publishing when it did really well on Amazon. The film stars Matt Damon and is directed by Ridley Scott.

Most people will know the plot by now. The crew of Aries 3 is working on the surface of Mars. When a dangerous storm strikes, crewman Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. The crew takes off for home, leaving him behind. Watney has to find a way to survive alone in the unforgiving environment of Mars. Using a lot if ingenuity, he manages to contact NASA, hoping they will attempt a rescue.

I won’t give away any more than this. Suffice to say, this plays like MacGyver in space. Watney, armed with duct tape, sheet plastic and a pair of pliers, accomplishes great things. The nicest thing about this is that it’s definitely hard SF, space based, and entertaining. Four stars.

No debate about SF?

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I’ve been discussing Jonathan McCalmont cynical piece here on the decline of science fiction. Interestingly, he almost predicts the flame war about this year’s Hugos, noting that any attempt to debate the quality of published science fiction results in action by the field’s “gatekeepers” to “shut things down.” Unlike the Sad/Rabid Puppies, McCalmont doesn’t call any names, but leaves it up to each faction to make up its own list of who these gatekeepers might be. In the case of the 2015 Hugos, this might well be the fans who voted No Award in several categories. Whatever, he’s right there’s been no real debate over the Puppies’ complaints.

I’ve already discussed how their particular complaints don’t hold water, but still, when you look at their nominating committee’s efforts to find high quality, “traditional” (presumably hard) science fiction to put up for awards, they didn’t really find any—at least according to my reviews. Most of what I read in the package this year was just okay work, not the kind of brilliant stories you’d want to win the award. Plus, the science content was thin, missing or, in some cases, even erroneous. Nobody really tried to grapple with scientific advance or how this might affect the human condition.

McCalmont blames this on complacency, a focus on awards and getting the next “Best of” anthology out there. It’s more likely about marketing, of course, and making money. However, the lack of hard science fiction out there means the intellectual heart of the field is missing.

Should we retire the term “hard SF”?

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Is the problem with SF short stories something to do with the definition of hard SF? Stanley Schmidt, in his parting interview with Locus Magazine, seemed to suggest the term should be retired. He said, ‘‘While, in one sense, I’m proud to keep Analog as hard science fiction, I also sometimes wish that term would go away. So many people use it in a way that they think is what I mean by it, and it’s completely different from what I really mean.”

He went on to say that most people seem to think hard SF is about “clanking hardware,” which is not what he considers hard SF. Instead, he sets two requirements:

1) Science or technology so integral to the story that the plot would fail without it.
2) Some attempt to make the science or technology speculation plausible.

This is pretty much still the definition of what Analog wants as stated in their submission guidelines here. They also note that the science could be soft science like psychology or sociology, or hard science like physics or math. Schmidt mentions “ Flowers for Algernon” as a prime example of his definition of hard SF. For anyone who hasn’t read it, the story by Daniel Keyes is heavily character driven and focuses on ethical and moral themes related to the mentally disabled. According to Schmidt, many people don’t even consider it science fiction, much less hard SF.

So, would abolishing the term “hard SF” actually simplify things? We expect that science fiction, by definition, should have a scientific base. This is what separates it from fantasy or magical realism. Using this strict definition, a lot of what’s out there now as science fiction wouldn’t qualify. Space opera wouldn’t, for example, regardless that it uses spaceships and exotic, futuristic weapons. That falls more into a space adventure category. Stories that use a SF setting to investigate social, political or moral ideas might be better called speculative fiction.

Can we agree that all science fiction needs a science base? Or, do we still need that adjective “hard” to indicate where there’s clanking hardware?

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