Thursday, 14 May 2015

Background for an upcoming review series

From Wikipedia:

Schmitz wrote mostly short stories, which sold chiefly to Astounding Science-Fiction, which later became Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and to Galaxy Science FictionGale Biography in Context called him "a craftsmanlike writer who was a steady contributor to science fiction magazines for over 20 years."[2]

Schmitz is best known as a writer of "space opera", and for strong female characters (such as Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee) who didn't conform to the damsel in distress stereotype typical of science fiction during the time he was writing.[6]

His first published story was "Greenface", published in August 1943 in Unknown.[7]Most of his works are part of the "Hub" series, though his best known novel (Gardner Dozois, long-time editor of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, said it "is usually thought of as Schmitz's best work"[6]) is The Witches of Karres, concerning juvenile "witches" with genuine psi-powers and their escape from slaveryKarres was nominated for a Hugo Award. During recent years, his novels and short stories have been republished by Baen Books, edited and with notes by Eric Flint.

In an introductory essay comparing Schmitz with contemporary author A. E. van Vogt, Dozois wrote, "Although he lacked van Vogt's paranoid tension and ornately Byzantine plots, the late James H. Schmitz was considerably better at people than van Vogt was, crafting even his villains as complicated, psychologically complex, and non-stereotypical characters, full of surprising quirks and behaviors that you didn't see in a lot of other Space Adventure stuff."[6]

Dozois added,
And his universes, although they come with their own share of monsters and sinister menaces, seem as if they would be more pleasant places to live than most Space Opera universes, places where you could have a viable, ordinary, and decent life once the plot was through requiring you to battle for existence against some Dread Implacable Monster; Schmitz even has sympathy for the monsters, who are often seen in the end not to be monsters at all, but rather creatures with agendas and priorities and points-of-view of their own, from which perspectives their actions are justified and sometimes admirable—a tolerant attitude almost unique amidst the Space Adventure tales of the day, most of which were frothingly xenophobic.[6]

John Clute writes in the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,
From 1949, when "Agent of Vega" appeared in ASF as the first of 4 stories later assembled as Agent of Vega (coll[ection] of linked stories 1960), he regularly produced the kind of tale for which he remains most warmly remembered: Space Opera adventures, several featuring female Heroes depicted with minimum recourse to their "femininity" – they perform their active tasks, and save the Universe when necessary, in a manner almost completely free of sexual role-playing clich├ęs. Most of his best work shares a roughly characterized common background, a Galaxy inhabited by humans and aliens with room for all and numerous opportunities for discoveries and reversals that carefully fall short of threatening the stability of that background. Many of his stories, as a result, focus less on moments of Conceptual Breakthrough than on the pragmatic operations of teams and bureaux involved in maintaining the state of things against criminals, monsters and unfriendly species; in this they rather resemble the tales of Murray Leinster, though they are more vigorous and less inclined to punish adventurousness.[7]

Greg Fowlkes, Editor-In-Chief of Resurrected Press, adds, "During the 50's and 60's "Space Opera" and James H. Schmitz were almost synonymous. He was famous for his tales of interstellar secret agents and galactic criminals, and particularly for heroines such as Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee. Many of these characters had enhanced "psionic" powers that let them use their minds as well as their weapons to foil their enemies. All of them were resourceful in the best heroic tradition."

This is a reasonably good synopsis. One thing I find worth noting is that many men who write "strong female characters" write competent adventerous women who none the less want nothing more out of life than to settle down and have babies (Robert A Heinlein I'm looking at you right now), present these women as special cases who stand out from ordinary women by right of being almost but not quite as competent as the men (Robert Heinlein I'm looking at you), and loudly proclaim to the world how very special they are for writing these strong female characters (Bob Heinlein, looking at). Schmitz did none of that. Trigger Argee had an one-again off-again relationship with her fiance/husband/boyfriend, Telzey Amberdon was only aware of men, women, or people in general to the degree that they gave her any trouble in life, and Grandma Wannattel was too involved in her business to worry about relationships. They rarely needed rescuing, and when they did it was from problems of a scale that Schmitz's men needed rescuing from as well. And Schmitz never presented the women he wrote as oddities, and didn't demand rewards for writing these characters.

There is some baked in sexism in the stories but it's clear that Schmitz regarded women as fully human, a feat that eludes many speculative fiction writers today. His stories and attitudes are in many ways less dated than the reactionary cyberpunk genre of the '80s and '90s, and the deliberately sexy Trigger Argee is a far more rounded character than the fighting fuck toys* of today.

I'll review the Baen editions of his stories, since they're the easiest to find these days. But James H. Schmitz's stories were heavily reprinted in anthologies through the '70s and '80s and can be found in used book stores or online. Some of his stories are also available for free online, since they've fallen out of copyright. First up, The Witches of Karres, the book that George Lucas ripped off for Star Wars before he started ripping off Akira Kuro.sawa

* YouTube link. The video is horrible quality, but it's the only clip I could find of that part of the interview.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Think you can't afford a home in Vancouver?

Think again! This beautiful single-family home is available for far less than $1 000 000!

A great opportunity to invest in the Commercial Drive Area! Just off of "The Drive", this original home is a builders/investors delight. Bring your ideas and skills and make this a beautiful family home in an extremely desirable neighbourhood. This 3 level house is on a gorgeous street with many newer homes. Take the kids and dog for a short walk to McSpadden Park at the end of the street. Here is your opportunity to invest, customize, or build new and live in one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in the city!

A steal at a mere $899 900!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Still Not Dead, Just Resting

The Horrible, Awful SJWs and their Affirmative Action vs. Sad Puppies and their Implicit Belief in their Supremacy: One key piece to the psychology of their movement is their use of the term SJW as a pejorative. From the Sad Puppy point of view, people who see diversity and inclusion as a positive good are a threat to them, in part because they simply don’t believe that diversity includes diversities among political lines and religious lines, and in part because they hold several implicit and subconscious beliefs about the nature of social dominance. This despite the fact that if asked directly, Sad Puppies (but not Rabid Puppies, who are openly homophobic, racist and misogynist) will deny any biases – and more importantly, will believe themselves to be free from bias. Brad Torgersen brings up his African American wife, and Larry Correia brings up his Hispanic heritage frequently to use as defenses against accusations of racism, with no awareness of how false that rings in the minority and ally communities.One key piece of the distrust of diversity is the belief that if a work by a woman or a person of color or a person with a non-straight sexual orientation appears on an award ballot, it is most likely that the work is on the ballot because of either formal or informal affirmative action, and not due to its merits. Interestingly, when people who hold this belief are questioned about specific works, they usually concede that the work was, indeed, very good, and deserved to be on the ballot. It’s an interesting psychological carve out, equivalent to the idea that “my black friend” is a good person, but “all those other black people” are lazy, criminal, etc.Admitting that one work of a person who is not (straight) (white) (male) is good does not open up a Sad Puppy into believing that the work of others in that category could be equally as good.Samuel (Chip) Delany, the first black man to win a Nebula Award, had this to say about the phenomenon years after his win. Since I began to publish in 1962, I have often been asked, by people of all colors, what my experience of racial prejudice in the science fiction field has been. Has it been nonexistent? By no means: It was definitely there. A child of the political protests of the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve frequently said to people who asked that question: As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.That is what is happening now. Octavia Butler is gone but not forgotten. Chip is still a major voice in the field. Now we have Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemison and Steven Barnes and Nnedi Okoraforand Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie and Ted Chiang and Ken Liu and Mary Anne Mohanraj and the list goes on and on…Every one of those writers blows me away. They are all so incredibly talented, and so obviously good at what they do, that I have to pull my therapist hat on tightly against the headwind in order to understand where the Sad Puppies are coming from. Those awesome writers of color intimidate me, and I’m both an ally and a fan of many of them, and acquaintances and even friends with a few.They are a threat to the established order. We have reached that point Chip predicted where there are enough writers of color winning awards, and doing so regularly, that they are a threat to the perceived superiority and economic security of (white) (male) (straight) writers. You can look at any given group of nominees, even the Sad Puppy slate, and find among them writers of color. However, the difference between the POC on the Sad Puppy slate and other POC who have been nominated is that the others know that they got their nominations on merit. The Sad Puppy slate members, specifically chosen to fill a political agenda, have no such knowledge.The Sad Puppies are probably going to object to my characterization at this point. First, how do I know that nominations of NK Jemison and Ken Liu and Ted Chiang weren’t “affirmative action?”. Because the writing was damned good, that’s why. Second, (they object) how does it “taint” this year’s nominees to be on the Sad Puppy slate? Because the slate was specifically created to make a political point, not a point about the quality of literature. You don’t have to take my word for it. Many of the folks nominated on the slate chose not to accept, some when the slate was first announced, and some after the nominees were announced and it was clear that the Sad/Rabid Puppy slate had prevailed. Even pointing this out as a problematic perception does absolutely no good to those who need most to understand it. In fact, being made aware of the psychology of things like this has been shown over and over again to harden resistance to change.The Sad Puppies and their veiled supremacist views were utterly and completely predictable. So were the Rabid Puppies and their open and contemptuous supremacist views. More important, the collusionbetween the two was predictable. Hugo Sad Puppies exports bad behavior and open hostility to Rabid Puppies, which allows Sad Puppies to claim to have relatively clean hands while clearly benefiting from the bad actions of the Rabid Puppy crowd. The psychological benefit of this for Brad and Larry is clear: they can believe that they did not discriminate, and that they did not have even a hint of racial or gender or gender expression or sexual orientation based motive, while openly playing up their political motives. After all, they’re just putting things (people) back the way they belong.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Vampiric Musings

Here, Charlie Stross wonders how vampires became sexy. Vampires are generally portrayed as parasites - non-fatal repeat predators who often prey on the same host over and over again - and parasites as a group are probably the least-sexy animals imaginable.

Charlie and a lot of his commenters make the obvious points about parasitic aristocrats, but aristocrats were on their way out when the original sexy vampires started to appear. And on closer examination, the idea that sexy vampires were a metaphor for aristocrats doesn't really hold up due to one simple fact: When people who lived in aristocratic societies wanted to complain about the aristocrats, they told stories about monster-aristocrats. Cruel nobles who live in castles filled with riches, butcher-knights who come home from the Crusades twisted and vicious, malignant bishops misusing their status to prey on beautiful youth...

Sexy vampires aren't aristocrats, they're disease-vectors. And they started showing up in stories when syphilis had mutated, taming itself, going from a disease that ate bone to a slow insidious killer that took years to do its work. The idea of sex and seduction as a pathway for a slow killer is fairly obvious.

Sexy vampires aren't aristocrats, they're well-preserved corpses. And they started showing up in stories after embalming became a major part of the funeral process. Between the vast size of the British Empire and the long distances between home and battlefield in the US Civil War, there was a huge demand for bringing the dead home in some sort of recognisable condition. He looks so lifelike...

Sexy vampires aren't aristocrats, except in the sense that sex and seduction are supposed to be glamorous and the fallen dead when viewed from a safe distance carry a sort of glamour as well. The easiest way to bring those glamours into one package and make it beautiful is to wrap it in wealth and tie it with the bow of a highborn name.

Sexy vampires aren't aristocrats, they're lazy writing.

Signal Boost: An Analysis of Theodore Beale and his Supporters

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.  
These days, you can’t be sure.  
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings? 
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land? 
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women. 
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues. 
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy. 
Do you see what I am trying to say here?
There are several things worth noting here. First and most obvious is the spectacle of a grown man complaining about how he just can’t judge a book by its cover anymore. Second, and hardly something that Torgersen has tried to hide, is the basic political aspect to this complaint. Observe the list of things that Torgersen does not want in his science fiction: racial prejudice and exploitation, sexism and the oppression of women, gay and transgender issues, the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy. 

Obviously, as histories of science fiction literature go, this is not exactly the most accurate; it is hardly as though science fiction of the 1960s-80s (the period Torgersen highlights as the sort of authentic science fiction that doesn’t get Hugo nominations anymore) was not largely about these exact issues. A perusal of the Hugo winners over those decades will reveal wins for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land , a book about sexual freedom and prejudice; for Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness , an early and major work of feminist science fiction; Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves , which features an alien race with three genders, all of which must participate in sexual reproduction; two wins for Octavia Butler, whose work is massively focused on race and gender issues… we could continue like this for a long time. The idea that science fiction, in the sense that the Hugo Awards have ever cared about it, is an apolitical genre of thrilling adventure fiction is simply not supported by any sort of historical reality. 

And, of course, there’s the second obvious point to make, which is that it’s not the 1980s, and hasn’t been for more than a quarter-century now. The suggestion that any genre ought resist evolution and development over the course of twenty-five years is a strange one; to make the claim about a genre ostensibly about the future is even stranger. Simply put, ideas get old and played out, and art requires people to come up with new ones to maintain a sense of freshness. This, in particular is a point we will return to later. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Not Dead, Just Resting

Training for my new job is burning up a ridiculous amount of my time. Here's something to keep you all entertained until my next round of incoherent mutterings essay about the history of science fiction.