Monday, 24 August 2015

Sorry, Blogger

I'm leaving you for Wordpress. It's not me, it's you. Wordpress is just easier for me to use and gives me more freedom in designing my blog.

So if anyone out there is actually reading this, for the love of God why? please redirect your browser to I'm migrating my existing content there, and will put all new posts there from now on.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

One of my coworkers is a fairly young kid. This is his first real job and he absolutely loves it. He has assigned all his coworkers different roles in his work family. He’s the little brother, our boss is the cool aunt, another is the weird aunt, there’s the smart older brother, and then there’s me, the work-dad because I guess it make sense to him somehow?
Anyway long story short the boss tells me that I am no longer allowed to ground my coworker because the kid has to go home sometime.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

I Live

My cat is very enthusiastic about burying his waste, so there’s always a blast zone of scattered kitty litter when he uses his litter box. Sometimes I get a little grumpy when I have to sweep up the clay grit, but when I do I just remind myself that he’s cleaner than 80% of the dudes who use public washrooms because at least he manages to hit the fucking toilet when he goes.

Seriously guys, aim for the centre of the toilet. If my cat can figure it out, so can you.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: The Witches Of Karres

The Book

(From the publisher's description)
Captain Pausert thought his luck had finally turned - but he did not yet realise it was a turn for the worse. On second thought, make that a turn for the disastrous! 
Unlucky in love, unsuccessful in business, he thought he had finally made good with his battered starship Venture, cruising around the fringes of the Empire and successfully selling off odd-ball cargoes which no one else had been able to sell.
But then he made the fatal mistake of freeing three slave children from their masters (who were suspiciously eager to part with them). Those adorable little girls quickly made Pausert the mortal enemy of his fiancee, his home planet, the Empire, warlike Sirians, psychopathic Uldanians, a dread space pirate - and even the Worm World, the darkest threat to mankind in all of space. And all because those harmless-looking little girls were in fact three of the notorious and universally feared Witches of Karres.
This is from the Baen Books edition, edited by Eric Flint. The Witches of Karres started life in 1949 as a short story, and then in 1965-1966 Schmitz expanded it into a full novel by adding a couple of short novellas. In 2005 Eric Flint did a bit of editing work (Mainly removing a lot of references to smoking and some other points that badly dated the story) and it was released as part of Baen's reissue of Schmitz's most popular works.

Witches of Karres is classified as a space opera, but really it's more like a space operetta - Light, fun, and fast-paced, with lots of humour and adventure. There's no real plot here, since the first fifth of the story started life as a separate short story and has little relationship to the plots of the next two sections. But sometimes plot is over-rated, and in this case it serves as nothing more than a bare bones structure to hang a series of adventure on.

As a note about the plot - Witches of Karres starts with the captain of an aging but fast tramp freighter rescuing three children with psychic powers from the clutches of an Empire hunting for their homeworld, then escalates rapidly to a space battle against Worm World, a world-sized battleship commanded by a robotic being in black armour. Replace the three little kids with a single princess, drop the Worm Worlders and place the worldship under the command of the Empire, and you have exactly the plot of an early draft of Star Wars. Eventually George Lucas discovered Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell and realised that if he ripped them off instead he'd be a lot less likely to be sued, but elements of Schmitz (and classic space opera in general) are all over early Star Wars.

The Good

James H. Schmitz was a master of transparent prose, the craft of writing sentences and paragraphs that don't draw attention to themselves and let you enjoy the story. He was also an expert at minimalistic character-building, letting characters define themselves through action and dialogue rather than internal monologues or description. Both of these skills were vital for someone who worked as a writer of short stories and novellas.

Captain Pausert comes across as a basically decent and highly pragmatic individual without the narrative ever really calling attention to these traits. Pausert simply takes the actions appropriate to a decent and pragmatic young man, and the narrative lets you draw your own conclusions about his character. The same can be said of everyone in this story. We don't need to be told that dread pirate-lord the Agandar is a bad man: We see him doing bad things all while explaining why taking children hostage, drugging and kidnapping people, leading a band of murderous thugs, etc, is all highly rational and the only clever thing for a man to do.

More complex narratives can draw more complex characters, but for a compact tale like Witches a narrative style that sticks closely to 'show don't tell' and simply gets on with the story is exactly the right style.

The Bad

There's nothing at all wrong with this book, but it definitely a piece of fluff. If you're looking for a complex plot, deep themes, well-developed worldbuilding, or subtle characters, this is not the book for you. Schmitz intended Witches as a light-hearted adventure story and that's exactly what ended up on the pages. If you like fast-paced adventures and basic space opera, you'll like Witches of Karres. If those sort of stories aren't to your taste, then you'll want to give Witches a pass.

The Problematic

So, Goth. The three witches of Karres are Maleen, Goth, and the Leewit (the the being a vital part of her name, and don't you forget it) are fourteen, nine or ten, and six years old respectively. And they've decided that Goth is going to marry Captain Pausert, aged twenty-eight. Not yet, mind you, but still...

As pointed out above, Witches of Karres started life as a short story. Specifically, it started out as a humorous adventure story for ages ten to thirteen. A short story with the premise that these three kids have completely screwed over Captain Pausert is right up the alley for that age group, as is ending on the idea that they will continue to screw over Captain Pausert for the rest of his life.

(He's actually a lot happier in his new life as an interplanetary rogue then he ever was as a law-abiding citizen of Nikkeldepain, but that's besides the point.)

As a premise for a kids-oriented short story, this is fine. Don't think too hard about it, enjoy the story, and move on. As part of a longer novel it becomes a bit... Problematic.

Schmitz deals with the problematic aspects in a way that feels appropriate for the light-hearted tone of the story. Captain Pausert is an instinctively decent person. As such he is clearly uncomfortable with the idea and deflects Goth and changes the subject every time it comes up, and his interactions with Goth are all age-appropriate. Goth's behaviour towards Pausert is likewise age-appropriate, and her attitude towards him is not at all 'potential mate material'. In fact, between the three witches it seems to be more a matter of finders keepers. You can imaging the witches saying to their parents "He followed us home We dragged him home, kicking and screaming. Can we keep him?" The narrative of the story gives the idea of marriage a very light treatment, very much a child's eye view of just spending a lot of time with one particular person. It's completely non-sexual.

Within the story, the witch-people of Karres organize much of their life around the work of probability calculators, psychic oracles who scan possible futures and provide guidance towards best outcomes. These probability calculators (including Maleen, Goth's older sister) calculate that continued association with Pausert will be good for Goth. They also say that it's not necessarily good for Pausert, but oh well... And thanks to their psychic powers, despite being away from home Goth and her sisters are in reasonably close contact with their parents.

Schmitz deals with the problematic material by keeping the treatment of it light and age-appropriate, and providing in-story justifications for why Goth is safe hanging around this older man she's decided to marry in a few years. Whether or not that's enough for the reader is a matter of individual judgement. I will say that I find age-difference fanfics to be highly squicky, and some of Lois McMaster Bujold's May-December pairings border on squick as well for me, but I had no problems with Goth and Captain Pausert.

The Verdict

Highly recommended. Witches of Karres is both a lot of fun and an opportunity to watch a master of old-school pulp science fiction at work. Witches of Karres is available in epub format through Kobo or other online retailers, and in dead tree format through your local bookstore.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Internet restored, expect reviews soon

I have regular internet access again! First I shall gorge on unforgiveable pornography the cumulative wisdom of the ages as shared on the world wide web, then I shall return to post the promised reviews!

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 clichés. 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 Kurosawa

* 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.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

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.

Monday, 6 April 2015

This looks interesting

"Singularity&Co. saves vintage books from the paper on which they're printed by making sure they're preserved digitally for future generations."

I haven't bought anything from them yet, but all the editions in their store look professionally done. I'm extremely happy to see people working to preserve the history of science fiction and make it available to new audiences.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

More on this year's Hugo awards

Over at File 770, Mike Glyer breaks down the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates and compares which one was more effective at forcing names onto the awards list.

On a related note, Abigail Nussbaum of Asking the Wrong Questions has this to say about the Hugo nominees:

To begin with, I'd like to discourage people from referring to the bloc-voting campaign with the moniker Sad Puppies.  Larry Correia chose that name when he started encouraging his fans to "take back" the Hugos three years ago, and Brad Torgesen adopted it for his suggested slate of nominees when he took over the project this year.  In the latter case, there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to distance the Sad Puppies from the toxicity of bigots like Vox Day (who was not on Torgesen's ballot) and to present a kinder, gentler face of right-wing bloc-voting.  Day's response to this was to post his own suggested slate, the Rabid Puppies ballot, including himself in several categories.  As this analysis by Mike Glyer shows, it was Day's choices that prevailed, with almost all Puppy nominees appearing on both ballots or on Day's alone.  Our current slate of Hugo nominees are not a Sad Puppy ballot; they're a Vox Day ballot.  They represent the views of a racist, misogynistic, homophobic troll, whose supporters solicited the help of GamerGate to achieve their goals.  Using Sad Puppies as a blanket term allows the people who helped make this happen pretend that it comes down to nothing more than a political disagreement between equally valid stances (as Torgesen has been doing in the Making Light thread) instead of what it actually is, a hate campaign.

io9 has a good collection of links explaining this year's Hugo awards mess

Last August, the Hugo Awards were swept by a younger group of women and people of color. At the time, we said "This was really a year that underscored that a younger generation of diverse writers are becoming central to the genre." So maybe it's not surprising that there was an organized backlash.

Any slate that includes Th*odor* B*al* as best editor is not acting in good faith.

(Replace the * with 'e' if you really want to. He ego-searches his own name and starts arguments with people he feels aren't nice enough to him, so I'm taking precautions.)

Friday, 3 April 2015

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

‘‘The Cold Equations’’ is moral hazard in action. It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.

‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines. It never asks what failure of health-protocol led to the spread of the disease on the distant, unexplored world.

‘‘The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl. It barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.

But if a crisis of your own making isn’t the time to lay blame, then the optimal strategy is to ensure that the crisis never ends.
Cory Doctorow: Cold Equations and Moral Hazard

We Didn't Get Here By Accident (Part the Second)

So what's the point to these posts about the history of science fiction? Why bring up the crankery, anger, and general bigotry of John Campbell? The man has been dead for decades, so surely it can't do any good to talk about his very public failings as a decent human being?

Well, right now the SF community is going through a bit of an explosion. Google "Sad Puppies" and the Hugo awards if you really want the details, but what it boils down to is that the field is changing, and some people aren't comfortable with that change. They say the science fiction field has become politicized, and that the Hugo Awards are dominated by secret groups that only allow politically correct work to win. The problem with their claims is that they assume a past that was apolitical, where science fiction was purely about merit without regard for politics or social issues. And this view of the past is utter bullshit.

The editor of what was for decades the largest market for SF had a strict Non-Whites Need Not Apply policy for his magazine. He promoted pseudoscientific racial theories, publicized anti-scientific medical theories, and espoused political opinions that could politely be called Fascist. And many of his readers ate that material up. Some because they were young an impressionable and didn't know better, and some because they agreed with what he was saying and were happy to see it in print. And many of those readers went on to become writers, who continued to write stories that would fit quite nicely under Campbell's editorial policies.

The so-called apolitical stories of the past had a very specific political viewpoint baked into them. Claiming that the field has been recently overrun by people with a political agenda is dishonest. Science fiction was always deeply political. Pretending otherwise is either just ignorance, or malice.

So sometimes I'll write posts about the history of this genre, and how we got to where we are today. This needs to be looked at. Other days I'll post music videos, or reviews of books I love, because everyone needs to have fun sometimes. And other days I'll post pictures of cats, because internet.

But for now, it's meanderings on the history of the genre.

My God, It's Full Of Vile

I've recently found a link to a collection of incoherent hate-filled spewings editorials by John W. Campbell, the bigoted grandfather of modern science fiction (Here if you want it ) and I have just finished the first ignorant frothing rant essay and oh my God it is awful. No matter how bad you think you remember that horrific old man as being, he was worse. The first piece in that collection was an angry rant about thalidomide - Specifically that a few thousand disfigured babies were a small price to pay for Progress, and how dare some mere woman have blocked that miraculous wonder-drug from distribution in the US just because it hadn’t been proven safe.

No, really.

Next up is an essay on the glories of segregation. I’m taking a break before I go anywhere near that one.

Just as a reminder, John W.Campbell was one of the founders of modern science fiction. He controlled access to the largest short-story market of his day - And he ruthlessly inforced a No Blacks, No Asians, No Non-Whites vision of the future. His bluntly misogynistic and white nationalist attitudes are still found in much of mainstream science fiction, and are still accepted by a lot of people as ‘just the way the genre is’. So if you’re wondering why anyone should care about the vicious spewings of a man long dead, just remember that he helped build the genre you see today - The genre where far too many people are happy to accept a Straight White Males Only vision of the future as The Future. Campbell was a bigot even by the standards of his era, and yet over a century after his birth we still have people happy to accept his ideas as the status quo. Campbell matters today because he went out his way to teach bigotry to his readers, and far too many modern science fiction fans are happy to absorb his lessons.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Gernsback Genre

In 1981the Burning Chrome anthology published a short story by William Gibson called The Gernsback Continuum. In this story a photographer, overwhelmed by images of a future that never came to pass, slowly begins to slip into an alternate continuum (Or madness) - A history based on all those alternate tomorrows of the past, the Popluxe atomic future of the 1940s and 1950s, all torpedo-rocketships and mile-high Art Nouveau towers. Overcoming his fears he begins to embrace this reality, until he encounters the natives of this Gernsbackian alternate future, a pair of whiter than white Aryan Americans. The sterile mindset of these Gernsback Continuum inhabitants sends the protagonist racing back to the safety of his continuum of origin, embracing pornography and news of crime to drag himself back to reality. He feels himself lucky to have escaped this pseudofascist white Gernsback-reality, with its implied holocaust carefully hidden beneath a veneer of giant airships and utopian idealism.
Which is all a bit odd, given that Hugo Gernsback was a Jewish immigrant who didn’t become a naturalized US citizen until he was in his twenties and who worked in publishing, one of the most notoriously vice-fueled industries the US had to offer at the time. He worked in electronics importing for a while, got into publishing magazines and catalogues for that industry, and discovered that he would rather print stories about scientific adventures than publish wiring diagrams. Hugo gets blamed for a lot in science fiction, even or especially the things he had nothing to do with. But Hugo Gernsback did create science fiction, so some of the blame of the genre must fall on him.
Mary Shelley didn’t write science fiction. She wrote an allegory about the responsibilities and failures of parenthood, disguised as a tale of horror and drawing influence from the medical science of his time.
Jules Verne didn’t write science fiction. He wrote adventure stories that focused on extreme engineering projects.
Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t write science fiction. He wrote action stories set in exotic locations filled with beautiful princesses and ancient ruins.
Science fiction is a genre, and genres are marketing categories. Hugo Gernsback created the genre of science fiction. He worked in publishing, liked stories with lots of engineering detail and interesting gadgets, and liked to play with extrapolating current technical developments into the future. He invented the marketing term ‘science fiction’, along with his preferred clunkier term ‘scientifiction’, to describe the works he enjoyed and wanted to publish. Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction, specifically to publish the sort of stories he enjoyed. He also encouraged his readers to get in touch with one another to discuss stories and share ideas, and the first SF fandom came out of those contacts. That fandom grandparented Shelley and Wells and Burroughs into the genre after the fact. Hugo Gernsback promoted a specific form of scientific storytelling, invented a literary genre to sell those stories under, and pushed the creation of a community to read and create those stories.
Naval adventure stories set in outer space are science fiction because Hugo Gernsback said so. Medical thrillers based on cutting-edge biosciences research are science fiction because Hugo Gernsback said so. The consensus-future of science fiction looks like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis because Hugo Gernsback said so. Advanced societies are full of bureaucrat-ordained names like Ralph 124c 41+ and Jor-L and 0B1-KN0B because Hugo Gernsback, born Hugo Gernsbacher, said so.
He also ripped a lot of people off. Pretty much everyone he worked with, really. This is hardly surprising, given the state of pulp publishing in his era, but that did make it easy for John W. Campbell to dominate the new SF publishing field just by being somewhat less awful than the blatantly crooked Gernsback.
Hugo Gernsback published the first stories of a Russian Jewish immigrant, an anarchist feminist woman, and a formerly-suicidal gay teen on the verge of dropping out of college, all of whom became major figures in science fiction. In the 1970s Brian Aldiss accused him of lowering the literary standards of the genre. In the 1980s one of the new luminaries of the deliberately reactionary sub-genre of cyberpunk blamed him for the all-white authoritarian future of John W. Campbell. Today he’s mainly dismissed as a crook who mis-ran a lot of magazines.

We Didn't Get Here By Accident

Three months after the awards banquet, in June, when it was done, with that first Nebula under my belt, I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being black, you understand. (There reputedly exists a letter from him to horror writer Dean Koontz, from only a year or two later, in which Campbell argues in all seriousness that a technologically advanced black civilization is a social and a biological impossibility… .). No, perish the thought! Surely there was not a prejudiced bone in his body! It’s just that I had, by pure happenstance, chosen to write about someone whose mother was from Senegal (and whose father was from Norway), and it was the poor benighted readers, out there in America’s heartland, who, in 1967, would be too upset… .It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket. (In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it… .) Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry….

It’s not me, of course, it’s the audience. Those poor dears just aren’t ready (In 1967, in 2015, in 2062…) for anything other than a straight white male protagonist. That’s just how the world is, and I, the person responsible for selecting the stories the world sees, am powerless against it.
The arguments for exclusion haven’t changed a bit in fifty years.

Sheer Bombastic Fun!

Yes it's cheese, but it's damn good cheese.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Phrase "Never Read The Comments" Has Never Been So True

So Jeremy Clarkson got himself fired by physically attacking a coworker. Going by the comments on BBC News and other sites, his firing is a prime example of political correctness run amok, a witch hunt by leftists who have it in for white men, and a general affront to all that is good and decent in the world.

I wonder how many of these people would actually be willing to work with a man who starts swinging when his free food doesn't show up on time.