Theft and the 1%

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I’m always inspired by the comments people leave at the blogs. A couple back, I got into a short discussion with poster Hoocott on colonial attitudes about theft in the first couple of Tarzan novels. This might sound like neo-left carping, but actually these attitudes are still around is some quarters, so I think it’s appropriate to have a deeper look.Thanks also for Jeffro Johnson for bringing up the subject.

Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan were published just after the turn of the 20th century, so they’re pretty dated by now—like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. However, they’re also a sort of charming look at life and attitudes in the late 19th early 20th centuries when people still traveled on steamships and Africa was The Dark Continent. For anyone who hasn’t read them, these first couple of novels were Romantic adventure (with a capital R). Romanticism was a trend during the Industrial Revolution when everyone yearned for simpler times. This led to the myth that we could somehow “return to nature” and glorified the “noble savage” who still lived life in the wild. I might come back to this sometime later, but right now I want to look at some of the attitudes, especially about theft.

In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan is lost off a ship and ends up back in Africa where he takes up with an African tribe called the Waziri. He is captured by the degenerate beast men of the lost city of Opar, and during his escape, finds their lost treasury filled with gold ingots. Tarzan has been out into the world, so he recognizes this for what it is. He goes back with some of the Waziri warriors and steals about 20 ingots @40 pounds each=$15,155,200 (at today’s prices). Contrary to what Hoocott said in the comments, I can’t see anywhere that he meant to share this with the Waziri. He didn’t take it to the village, but instead hid it in the jungle.

Keep in mind that modern interpretations will often try to fix this—it’s clearly theft and he uses it to set himself and Jane up with an estate in London. I didn’t blink at this as a kid, and I think a lot of readers still won’t. However, if you consider, it’s right out of Cortez and Pizzaro’s colonial playbook—find naïve native tribe, steal gold, retire to a nice villa in Spain. So why do people still accept this? Why not ban the book because it glorifies theft?

Answer: Because it’s how the 1% still does business. You know who they are, the ultra-rich 1% that owns 99% of the wealth in the world? Since we’ve just elected one of them as President of the US, it’s nice to have a look at this attitude. The 1% doesn’t believe in working for wealth; instead, they believe that it should be “captured” through actions like business deals, tax loopholes and influencing government policy. If you’d like to follow up with further reading, look for The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) by Thorstein Veblen.

The big way to for the 1% to capture wealth during the Bush administration looked to be through war profiteering. We’ll have to see how it develops during the next four years.

What Is Erasure?

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In a recent blog, I mentioned the “erasure” of certain writers. I think this topic deserves further discussion. Tying this to my recent comments about the award, self-published authors are now falling into this category. So what is erasure?

It’s fairly clear from the definition of the word. Erasure, when applied to people, means ignoring, removing references to, falsifying, or re-explain evidence about some individual or group in history, in books, academia, the news media or other similar sources. In some cases, this is just a matter of ignorance about history or laziness about doing research, but in extreme cases it can be an example of denialism, or a choice to deny reality because it’s an uncomfortable truth.

There are a number of groups that typically suffer from erasure about contributions in our culture. Examples include people of color (POC), older women, women in general, LGBTQ persons and other minorities. Talent, accomplishments and contributions from these groups are typically ignored, under-rated, or somehow lost from cultural memory.

In history, erasure means that only African Americans were involved in the US Civil Rights movement, and feminists and gays have nothing to do with it. It means that Native Americans almost totally disappeared from recorded history in the 19th century. It means LGBTQ troops didn’t serve in the armed forces during WWI and WWII. It means that bisexuality doesn’t really exist; there’s no such thing as non-binary gender, and women beyond child-bearing age have no value.

In the writing and publishing world, erasure means certain individuals will be promoted as “stars” and others who don’t fit the popular mold will be “erased,” even if they do fairly brilliant work. This has effects in the amount and type of work that’s published, but also in what’s remembered. For example, Wells, Verne, Asimov and Heinlein have a secure place in the history of science fiction, but where are Charles W. Chesnutt and Jane Louden?

What does this have to do with the Hugo Awards?

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One of the complaints the Sad/Rabid Puppies have advanced is that the Hugo Awards have been serving only high-profile, progressive or literary authors and leaving out others, including the writers of old fashioned romantic spec fiction. Examples of pioneer writers in this romantic sub-genre include Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard. You know what I mean—the story generally involves heroic deeds and often has fantasy elements. These days the tradition includes mil-fic and space opera. With the advance of women into spec fiction, romance (the amorous kind) has become a strong contender, too. Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs both fall into this romantic tradition.

Because the Hugo is a highly promotional award and produces stars, competition has gotten fiercer for placement on the ballot. In looking at the system for getting there, the Locus list, for example, will not review self-published works. Because it is highly predictive of the Hugo nominees, this can be a big disservice to self-published authors and pretty much ensures none of them will end up on the ballot, regardless of the quality of their work. That means that not only have they been forced out of traditional publishing, but they lose that possibility of promotion. Natalie Luhrs, in a recent analysis of the Locus list, also noted concerns about the diversity of the results and the nature of repeat appearances. The Puppies, if you recall, have charged that the publishing houses have undue influence on the awards process, and went on to demonstrate how easy it was to game the awards.

It remains to be seen if the advent of a new “fan” award will make any difference in this arena. The Dragon Awards is off and running, and the approach looks like it might reduce some of the drawbacks of the Hugo system. They’re soliciting a broad base of fan nominations, and they’re open to all comers. They’re bound to run into trouble of some kind, but the effort looks pretty interesting regardless.

Does the “hardness” of SF change over time?

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The TVTropes article also points out that “hardness” in science fiction is always subject to change. Science continues to advance, and often stories that are written on the best science available at the time turn out to be only fantasy. On the other hand, news headlines today could make something written as fantastical, futuristic SF suddenly reality. This was also pointed out by Vivienne Raper in her article. The rate of change in science and technology is one of the things that discourages SF writers from attempting to grapple with even the near future. You could be in the midst of writing a hard SF novel when your science suddenly becomes obsolete. On the other hand, you could be in the midst when suddenly you find you’re writing non-fiction. Cyborg roaches? No problem.

TVTropes points out that, because of these changes, the hardness rating of SF can easily change over time. However, they suggest that the rating should be based on science during the time period in which the work was written. In other words, Jules Verne wrote hard SF, even though we know he was off a little bit in what he predicted.

The Mohs hardness scale for SF

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The Website TVTropes has published an article here that recommends a hardness scale for science fiction. For some reason, a particular author isn’t credited, so I guess “staff” is responsible for this wonderful suggestion. For anyone not up on their geology, Mohs Scale of Mineral Hardness ranks the scratch resistance of different minerals by using harder minerals to scratch softer ones. This scale was developed in 1812 by German geologist Friedrich Mohs. Regardless of lack of precision, the test is simple and very effective for geologists with only a field kit who are trying to identify piles of dirty rocks.

So, on to the Mohs scale for SF: Because there is often some contention about whether SF is really hard or not, the staff at TVTropes proposes to scratch SF stories with something like a piece of quartz to see what rubs off. Here’s the scale they’ve come up with:

1.0 Science in Genre Only: The work is unambiguously set in the literary genre of Science Fiction, but is not scientific. Examples: DC and Marvel universes, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

2.0 World of Phlebotinum: The universe is full of Applied Phlebotinum, but it’s dealt with in a fairly consistent manner. Examples: E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, Star Trek: The Original Series.

2.5 Subclass of WOP: Stories are generally sound, but the physics aren’t our own. Often a philosophical exploration of a concept no longer considered true, or never true in the first place. Tricky to classify. Examples: Aristotelian physics, two spatial dimensions.

3.0 Physics Plus: Multiple forms of Applied Phlebotinum, but the author tries to justify these with real and invented natural laws. Examples: David Brin’s Uplift series, Battlestar Galactica (2003).

4.0 One Big Lie: Provides counterfactual physical laws and then explores the implications of these principles. Examples: Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth, Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold.

4.5 One Small Fib: Stories have a single counterfactual device (e.g. FTL travel), but the device is not a major plot element. Examples: Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Close to Critical.

5.0 Speculative Science: Science is genuine speculative science or engineering, and the author’s goal is to make as few errors with respect to known fact as possible. Examples: Robert L. Forward’s Rocheworld, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

5.5 Futurology: Stories that try to predict the future, extrapolating from current technology. Examples E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

6.0 Real Life (aka Fiction in Genre Only): Also known as non-fiction. Examples: The Apollo Program, World War II, Woodstock.

The problem of vision

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From the days of Jules Verne, science fiction has always been an inspiration for people looking for a direction in science and technology. In order for advances to happen, someone, somewhere, has to imagine it. In this way, the Hugo Awards could turn out to be an important method of rating popular ideas and directions in science imagination.

I’ve just listed the background of some important writers that have set us on the current path. Checking in Wikipedia, here’s a rundown of educational background for recent Hugo winners.

2015
• Cixin Liu – Computer Science?
• Thomas Olde Heuvelt – English Language and American Literature
2014
• Ann Leckie – BA Music
• Charles Stross – BS Pharmacy/Computer Science
• Mary Robinette Kowal – BA Art Education/Theater
• John Chu – Microelectronics?
2013
• John Scalzi – BA Philosophy
• Brandon Sanderson – MFA Creative Writing
• Pat Cadigan – BA Theater
• Ken Liu – AB English, JD Law
2012
• Jo Walton – BA Classics/Ancient History
• Kij Johnson – MFA Creative Writing
• Charlie Jane Anders – ?

Who would have thought Ken Liu was a tax lawyer?

Clearly the field has broadened. The really hard, theoretical sciences like physics and math have given way to more practical applications like computer science. Now men are also using the arts degree as an avenue into SF writing the same way women did in the early years. The humanities dominate in the background of these authors, not the sciences. The literary quality of SF has improved, as pointed out by the recent squabble over the Hugo Awards, but is the science still there?

Although these new, more literary entrants into the field are great writers, they just don’t have the theoretical science background that gave the Golden Age writers a vision of the future that’s still playing out in space exploration and colonization today. The loss of theoretical imagination in hard SF has implications for how our future might go. Without vision, how can we agree on a direction?

Apologizing for Heinlein

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FeatherPenClipArtLast year I went to Atlanta for Dragon Con. This is not normally my thing, as I’m mostly an introverted recluse. However, I had a good time. There were–I dunno–maybe 50,000 – 60,000 SF&F fans there, all dressed up in fun costumes. As THE big fan-run conference of the year, I figure this has to be a cross section of current SF&F fandom.

It looked like a lot of cons these days. There was about equal representation of genders. I wasn’t really counting heads, but there seemed to be a fair representation from racial minorities and people with disabilities. There was a lot of nudity, and a certain amount of cross-dressing, which may or may not have been significant.

I poked around in the art exhibit and some other offerings, but mostly I stuck with the writer’s track. I attended several interesting panels, which included publishers, authors and critics. There were a few minorities represented, and some featured mostly men or mostly women, depending on the subject. I have to say that there was some clear discrimination against LGBTQ topics. These panels were rescheduled to increasingly later times, eventually ending up about midnight. Hm.

So, on to the topic. One of the papers actually sounded like an apology for Robert Heinlein. It was presented by Jennifer Hudgens, currently a philosophy academic who teaches courses on science fiction at the University of Kentucky. Ms. Hudgens appears to be about thirtyish, which makes her a Millennial. The subject of her paper was misogyny and racism in Heinlein’s work, and why he’s an important writer anyway. This is an interesting take on science fiction that won several Hugo Awards in the 1950s.

I have to admit I’ve not read anything by Robert Heinlein in a long time. I consider it period science fiction, something to be read with the period in mind, like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. Because of the attitudes identified by Ms. Hudgens, I suspect it would most likely be un-publishable by a new writer submitting it today.

Ms. Hudgens’ opinion is a bad sign for writers or publishers of traditional, right leaning science fiction like Sad or Rabid Puppies Vox Day, Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen. The Census Bureau predicts that in 2015 Millennials will surpass the Baby Boom generation in size, making them the largest available fan group for SF&F. These kids have grown up in a time when they expect to be respected for who they are, regardless of gender, race, disability, LGBTQ status, religion or national origin. Unless you’re writing period SF&F, then you need to be aware of that.

Shaping the Future

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redshifted_250_finalVisionaries are important in shaping the future. This is because any change in society, or any invention, has to be imagined before it can become reality. Once some concept has been described in any way—say through an oral tradition, a book or a film–then it has achieved a certain reality, and people can set out to build it.

This kind of visionary literature has been named “science fiction” within the last century or so. It has a bad reputation, maybe, based on poor production techniques and an unfortunate association with geeky engineers in coke-bottle glasses and ill-fitting white shirts with ink stains on the pockets. Other associations include green aliens landing in crude-looking flying saucers and stealing away swooning pin-up girls. However, regardless of this pulp reputation, a number of impressive visions came out of the “golden age” of science fiction. These include Jules Verne’s vision of submarines in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870), his vision of space flight in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and his vision of a helicopter in Robur the Conqueror (1886). Although it took a few years for these visions to become commercially viable, their reality was assured as soon as Verne published his books.

One important recurring vision in science fiction is travel to other worlds. Endless generations of humans have looked at the stars and wondered what it would be like to fly there. These visions were realized in 1969 with the first flight to the moon, and now Elon Musk of Space-X, reportedly inspired by Isaac Asimov, means to make travel to Mars a reality. This romantic notion has inspired a whole new crop of science fiction related to the planet Mars. For example, Redshifted from Third Flatiron Anthologies is available (either in e-book or print format) from your favorite bookstore. Indulge the vision.

Full disclosure: The author of this article has a short story appearing in the anthology entitled “The Journal of Miss Emily Carlton.”

Third Flatiron website: http://www.thirdflatiron.com/liveSite/pages/current-issue
Juliana Rew on Twitter: @julirew

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