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.