Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books.

Here’s how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

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Review of “The Colonel” by Peter Watts

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This novelette was released by Tor.com in July of 2014. It’s hard SF, serves as a bridge between Watts’ novels Blindsight and Echopraxia and features some of the same characters as Echopraxia. This review may contain spoilers.

Colonel Jim Moore has lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition and his wife Helen has retreated to existence in Heaven, a repository that links human minds for computing, while allowing residents their own virtual landscape. Moore is in charge of monitoring private hived human intelligences, and is awakened to a threat when one of these attacks a commercial compound in Ecuador. He approaches Dr. Liana Lutterodt, a representative of the Bicameral hive he suspects is behind the attack, and she gives him a copy of a faint transmission that may have come from Theseus. Should he conduct a military op against the Bicamerals? Or should he hold off and try to get more info from them about his son?

As usual with Watts’ work, the projection and world building are way out there, and his vision is of humanity post-singularity. He’s definitely a 5 on the Ideation Scale with the question of whether we might actually link consciousnesses to produce a human super brain. There’s a bit of furry interest here to humanize the story. Moore has taken in an abused and mutilated feline named Zephyr that lives mostly alone in their apartment with an automated kibble dispenser. When the Colonel comes home, he works on cutting down the distance he can approach before Zephyr runs to hide. Talk about loneliness and estrangement…

This story moves along fairly smartly. Because of its length, Watts is unable to make the lengthy digressions that slow down Blindsight and Echopraxia, so the readability score goes way up. There’s not much plot here, either, but it does seem to be enough for a story of this length. There’s no real ending because it leads directly into the events of Echopraxia, but it’s satisfying enough, and I’m sure it served well as promotion for the novel’s release. The prose and the science are still a little dense—I had to check a couple of definitions to find out the Ecuadorian compound is likely a pharmaceutical plant.

Four and a half stars.

More on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140

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Looking back at Kim Stanley Robinson’s body of work, I get the idea that he’s sort of interested in the idea of engineering both social and environmental problems, and that he thinks these two areas are heavily intertwined in producing threats to the future of humanity. Most people won’t want to commit to the intellectual exercise of slogging through all 600 pages of the teensy font and slow-moving plot in New York 2140 to unpack his ideas, so I’m going to summarize some of it here and ask for discussion. This summary includes major spoilers, of course.

Robinson’s first economics lesson is on the tyranny of sunk costs. This means the money already invested in putting New York City where it is and adding utilities, infrastructure and population. Because of this, nobody wants to move it somewhere else when the tide starts rolling up Wall Street and into the Theatre District. Instead, everybody copes.

Change is definitely coming in the next century, regardless of your political persuasion. Robinson has suggested methods for dealing with the need for different housing and transportation methods as sea levels rise and fossil fuels near exhaustion. This includes a return to airships and clippers ships, plus solar power and villages floating both in the air and on the water. Building methods make a difference. Because many of the NYC buildings are anchored into bedrock, they will continue to stand and be usable, like a new Venice, but buildings built on a slab won’t do this. (That’s just for informational purposes. See also Miami Beach, which continues to stand through major hurricanes while cheap development housing washes away.)

It’s clear Robinson thinks the recent US propensity for uncontrolled capitalism is the cause of a number of social ill, and a couple of his schemes relate to bringing this under control. First, he mentions in passing that people should be housed vertically, rather than in the spread out single-family developments currently popular in the US. This is already implemented in Europe, which has high population density. I was there in the 1990s and saw it then. A recent trip confirmed the continued policy. In Germany, for example, it’s really hard to get a permit to build a single family home outside of a city–though it is fairly easy to get a permit to renovate old buildings. Plus, home mortgages are really expensive and hard to get. Therefore, most of the population stays in vertical housing, allowing for extensive farms, parks and woodlands. Amsterdam has about 800K people and about 900K bicycles. The main streets consist of a bicycle lane, a car lane, and a tram lane. The cars will stop for you to cross but the bikes won’t. In contrast to this, many towns and cities in the US encourage extensive development of farm and woodlands to increase revenue from real estate taxes, while having no public transportation at all. As buildings age, they are abandoned for new development, leaving urban blight in the central cities. This system of constant new development generates wealth, but is really bad for local ecologies, and also the people trapped in the blight, who have little access to jobs and services and are therefore unproductive and need lots of police and social services.

Robinson’s next question is, whose fault is this? He thinks it’s government policy, of course, because government is owned by capitalists. It looks like he’s still steaming about the Bush recession of 2008. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention, this was brought on by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and because of automation, bank controls and globalization trends, it resulted in a “jobless recovery.” This is what current President Trump is trying to change with his negotiations in trade policy. However, Robinson thinks the people, a.k.a. the democracy, should have demanded a different response in 2008. The financial crisis caused major failures in large corporations in the US, especially financial firms on Wall Street, similar to the Great Depression. The Obama administration took over trying to fix things, as Bush’s term was up. The government tried to just let the market handle things, which is what capitalists always say should be done, but it quickly became clear this would destroy both the US and the world economies. In other words, some of these firms are just “too big to let fail.” The government bailed out banks and Wall Street firms with taxpayer money, which Robinson thinks was never fully paid back. In other words, this was a huge transfer of wealth from the US middle and working class to the wealthy. Robinson thinks the government should have bought the companies instead and nationalized the financial firms, which would have generated a considerable profit for the taxpayers. He’s suggesting the voters insist on this the next time around.

Besides that, I get the impression Robinson has no patience with amateurs who mess with animal migrations and habitats. His air-headed Cloud star is a real eye-roller.

Recommended.

Review of “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published in Clarkesworld and probably rates on the hard SF scale. It’s also finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards.

Helena Li Yuanhui of Splendid Beef Enterprises makes beef forgeries for local restaurants. She had to leave the Hong Kong Scientific University Bioprinting Lab in a hurry after being blamed for an organ design that went wrong, and took the lab’s Sculpere 9410S printer with her so she could establish a livelihood when she got to Nanjing. An anonymous caller seems to have discovered this, and demands that she make 200 T-bone steaks for him gratis. Because she’s scared and the deadline is short, Helena hires Lily Yonezawa to assist, who says she has a background in baking. They hurry through designing the steaks, while Mr. Anonymous sends creepy threats, and eventually a hired thug to apply pressure. Helena has to admit to Lily what’s been going on. Can the two of them get the steaks done on time? Can they find out who Mr. Anonymous is? Sabotage his operation? Escape with their lives?

The plotting and world building here is excellent, as the author projects medical science, three-D printing and criminal possibilities into a smooth whole. The story also has a lot of humor and a distinctly Asian flair. Helena is struggling as an entry level criminal, but Lily is obviously well into it, complete with bunny-design accessories and ornate bracelets that double as brass knuckles.

On the negative side, all these people are somewhat over-the-top, which makes them caricatures. That feeds the humor and entertainment quality, of course, but it reduces the depth of characterization and keeps us from really getting into the characters’ heads.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of Gravity of the Game by Jon Del Arroz

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This review is part of my campaign to include more diverse authors. The book is a novella, apparently self-published, and runs 60 pages.

World Baseball Commissioner Hideki Ichiro is facing increasing pressures and declining viewership in the World Baseball League, and he’s hoping to jump-start new interest in the sport with a league on the moon. This plan is not going well, as the players seem totally unable to compensate for the low gravity. Ichiro finds a scientist offering new technology that could make it work, but then he’s challenged by a faction in the World League. Can he salvage his career and move baseball into a new beginning?

Good points: This has a very traditional SF feel. Del Arroz has included diversity here, as his protagonist is of Japanese descent, and other characters are white or Hispanic. This is also a fairly original idea that sets you thinking about how major sports leagues might adapt to space or whether completely new sports would evolve. Despite the risks Ichiro encounters, there’s plenty of human interest, providing a positive story with a satisfying ending. Plus, the politics are strongly plotted. We all know that goes on in sports, right? All the competition isn’t just on the field.

Not so good points: Despite the strong plotting, the threats are fairly straight-forward, and the characters fulfill their roles without much depth. There’s not a lot of imagery or description of the moon culture, and there’s also a bit of a plot flaw here, I think. If there’s no gravity adjustment in the moon habitations, why don’t we see more issues with low gravity when Ichiro visits?

This is competently written and should appeal most to baseball fans.

Three stars.

Are Conservatism and Progressivism inborn?

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Following up on my comments about Jon Del Arroz being discriminated against for his conservative politics (regardless that he’s a marginalized minority), here’s some interesting research about political views. Wait for it—these may be inborn. That means discrimination on the basis of political views may eventually be classified the same way as discriminating against individuals for other inborn traits like sexual orientation or skin color.

In recent years, researchers have started looking at what personality and emotional responses have to do with politics. In one study Kevin Smith et al. looked for emotional responses that they could use to identify conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, on the one hand, turned out to be more easily grossed out by pictures and tended to get emotional over people they disliked. Liberals, on the other hand, were less grossed out and tended to get more emotional over people they liked. Next, James Fowler et al. identified DRD4-7R, a variant of the gene that linked to novelty-seeking behavior as being linked to liberal views when combined with early socialization. Fowler made the point that political views can’t be tied to just one gene, but it does suggest how inborn personality can affect political viewpoints. Michele Vecchione et al. conducted a study in Italy that looked at people who voted conservative or liberal and classified them according to the “big five” personality traits. The results showed that people who rated high in the “openness” trait tended to vote liberal, while those so rated high in the “conscientiousness” trait tended to vote conservative. Another study of twins by John Alford et al. found that genetics clearly had a more significant influence on politics than socialization. Because people tend to marry spouses with similar political views, the researchers surmised, these traits tend to run very strongly in families.

Another interesting support for this viewpoint is the interpretation of personality tests. The DISC system, for example, breaks personalities down into four types: dominant, inspiring, supportive and cautious. People who lean to dominant and inspiring personality traits tend to be movers and shapers of change, while the supportive and cautious people, on the other hand, tend to be conservative, valuing security and stability. Besides this, the Myers Briggs test identifies 16 personality types, some of which actually include the descriptors “conservative” and “novelty seeking.” These personality types tend to be remarkably stable over time. They’re identifiable as early as kindergarten, and don’t change much after young-adulthood.

Enjoy classifying yourself through these links. As I recall, I tested out as a dominant and an INTJ.

Thanks for your support!

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Orion,_battle_spaceshipWhile I was out on hiatus, my short story “Only a Signal Shown” (9/16 Perihelion SF) has appeared on the Nebula Reading List. It now has four recommendations. I need to thank everyone for reading, for publishing great reviews and for supporting the story on the list. I also need to thank the editors at PerihelionSF for their initial confidence in the story. An author is only a voice in the wilderness without his or her readers. Thank you for putting the story up there.

I’m especially proud of this one because it’s hard SF and idea-driven. It’s my take on what hard SF should be like, and I have gotten comments that it reads like a classic hard SF story, even though the ideas are current and original. I’ve also gotten requests for a sequel, which is likely to be a tall order. If you’ve missed the story, you can still read it at Perihelion SF. If you’re a SFWA member, you can also add to the recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. Thanks again!

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