Genre Essentialism

Post on genre, where I once again get far too much fun out of the word's common etymology with "gender".
  • It is bizarre, the number of people who claim the drift from the Sci Fi Channel to SyFy started, not when the network began showing wrestling and reality TV, but when it started showing fantasy, horror, and superhero shows. That's stupid. I watched that channel pretty much from the beginning—it was 22 on my cable in the 90s, 122 on my first satellite dish when I was in middle and high school, and it's 244 on the DirecTV dish I use now—and it always showed fantasy and horror, and the few superhero movies that had been made before Spider-Man. Sure, Superman is an alien, but I dare you to find a superhero, even Dr. Fate or Zatanna, that's not up to his neck in scifi gewgaws. As for fantasy, it's sold in the same aisle at the bookstore. Always has been. Because the same people write and read both. Tolkien is the only fantasy writer I can think of who did not, at some point, also write science fiction, and if philology is a science then Middle Earth had its genesis as science fiction, with the magic added later.

    No, the decay of the Sci Fi Channel begins later, I'd say around 2003, when they started showing Scare Tactics, which, as many have said, is just Candid Camera with a thin nerd veneer. From there, it is a quick jump to "anything that appeals to that young male demo", including wrestling, and then another quick jump to letting Ron Moore make a "science fiction" show where the fact they're in space is 100% irrelevant.
  • It is interesting, I think, that 1984 isn't, really, science fiction, not even soft science fiction—with perhaps the one exception of Orwell's simplistic linguistic theories. On the other hand, Brave New World is science fiction. It is about in-vitro fertilization and artificial wombs, recreational drug use, and elaborate, expensive spectator sports—and the use a totalitarian state could make of these things, in keeping its population in line.

    Of course, Brave New World was by someone who actually knew something about the world—though, to be fair, Aldous might've just been writing about his brother. 1984, on the other hand, is by a bigoted little syphilitic provincial (or was he a provincial little syphilitic bigot?).
  • I was thinking, Journey to the West is, in many ways, China's version of King Arthur—the Heart Sutra is their Holy Grail. I think Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then, would be their Matter of Rome (dealing with ancient times as it does).

    The fit between the Water Margin and the Matter of France is less exact, though both have heroes whose virtues are of a somewhat restricted scope. Also the adage "don't let your son read Water Margin, don't let your father read Romance of the Three Kingdoms" doesn't really carry over; old men can read of Great Rome and youths of Roncesvalles without being tempted to intrigues or delinquency, respectively.
  • It is perhaps confusing that romance, as a genre, is actually (usually) novels, as a medium; while SF, fantasy, western, thriller, and mystery are (usually) romance, as a medium. I suppose most speakers of languages other than English are just annoyed that we think novel and romance are two different things (that they don't have a way to distinguish them is probably why most Continental science fiction has always been more "novelistic", since long before the New Wave).

    While I dislike novels both as a matter of taste and as a matter of objective quality—as Lewis says somewhere, any moderately educated person can churn out a novel without a thought, you actually have to work to write science fiction and fantasy—I dislike New Wave for two deeper reasons. The first is less important: they were trying to have their cake and eat it too, churning out mindless lit-fic while still keeping their speculative-fiction cred. New Wave is to science fiction as magic realism is to fantasy, the deracinated form of the genre, with all the heavy lifting removed, both for authors who no longer have to learn science (or make sure their magic makes sense and has believable effects on society)—or have interesting things happen—and for readers who no longer have to think outside their "bourgeoisie left" comfort-zones.

    And that's the second, more important objection to New Wave. It's no accident it was the brain-child of a bunch of British leftists. Fundamentally, the only thing it bothers about is "realism", not in the sense of scientific realism but in the sense of social realism. Or in other words, it is Socialist Realism. New Wave is the roping and branding of science fiction, breaking it in to be a fit steed for Marxist ideology. The same is true of magic realism, born of a bunch of Sandinista sympathizers in Latin America—you can have all the magic you want, so long as the drama is relevant to the class-struggle (hadn't you ever wondered why so much magic realism is about the petty hypocrisies of the upper middle class?).
  • Which is not to say that there isn't political asininity in real science fiction and fantasy; the names "John Ringo, David Brin, Stephen Goodkind, China Mieville" are sufficient refutation of that assertion. But there at least the ideologue rantings are incidental; in New Wave and Magic Realism they are the genre. Nobody not convinced "social realism" was a high ideal to aspire to would write them in the first place.
  • You would think that it'd be impossible for right-wingers to write Transhumanism or left-wingers to do military SF, but John Wright and John Scalzi, respectively, do it. Admittedly that's because they're Lectroids from the Eighth Dimension. Besides, Scalzi's military SF has laughably stupid worldbuilding, because of his ideology, and Wright, for all his Cargo Cult rationalist posturing—Vulcans and Houyhnhms are both emotionalist/fideist caricatures of rationalism—thinks it might be possible to evolve a "strong" AI (which, given Gödel Incompleteness, is roughly as likely as simply accelerating a spaceship to tachyonic velocity).


The Very Worm that Gnaws

Remember how I said the space-folds in my books are something like a cross between Alcubierre warp and a traversable wormhole? It was driving me nuts, because I'd seen an article about a guy who had a very similar idea, and I couldn't remember where. But now I found the reference again, and that led me to the paper.

Incidentally, speaking of traversable wormholes, have you seen this picture?
Yeah, that's not actually just CGI. It's a graph. The photos are a building at the University of Tübingen and Boulogne sur Mer, but the distortion that links them is the ray-trace of a Morris Thorne wormhole metric (specifically, ds2=-dt2+dl2+(b02+l2)(dθ2+sin2θdφ2), where b0 is the throat radius). Isn't that awesome?

If you want to impress your friends, you could rattle off the names "David Waite, Miguel Alcubierre, Mohammed Mansouryar"—three people who've published research concerning FTL travel.


Commentary 8

  • The old "freedom of religion"="freedom of worship", thing, so popular among the Soviets and other Communist regimes, and occasionally pressed into service by pretty much all leftists everywhere ever since, is fascinatingly ill-suited to the religions of the peoples it was first tried on. Telling a Russian Orthodox or a Polish Catholic he's free to worship as he wants on Sunday is to completely miss the point; do you know how much of those people's lives was determined by their religion? The same goes for the Buddhism the Chinese tried it on, which does not actually, per se, "worship" anyone or anything, but has a whole hell of a lot of religious requirements all the same.

    Amusingly, the only people "freedom of worship" has any meaning for, would be Protestants, and to a somewhat lesser extent Muslims. It's also amusing to note how we're always being told that, e.g., Native American religions govern the whole of their adherents' lives (it's true—tell a Navajo he's got "freedom of worship" and he'll point out his "worship" consists entirely of keeping his ancestral law, his invocation of the gods being restricted to emergencies), rather than just one day a week? The same is true of Catholics and the Orthodox; but in our case, it's generally portrayed as a bad thing.
  • Why do people think that scientists would be the best people to have deal with aliens, at first contact? Maybe anthropologists, but really, there's very few scientists of any discipline I'd let witness my will, let alone represent me before aliens.

    Unfortunately, if there were to be first contact negotiations here, rather than out in space somewhere, the only people who could do it are, well, politicians. I know, horrible thought, but representing their people before potentially hostile aliens is actually their job—whether the alien is another tribe or another species is essentially immaterial. They'd also be the only people with the authority to negotiate in our behalf—scientists do not have that right.

    Of course, my mama didn't raise no fools; you would have scientists advising the politicians who represent us. Let's just hope they do a better job than most scientists who advise politicians.
  • If I needed another reason to self-publish, there's the fact my first SF book is 213,775 words long. Or in other words, 2,184 words longer than Crime and Punishment (depending on translation). Generally speaking, when you get into Dostoevsky country, no mainstream publisher will give you the time of day. (Also, Moby Dick is 206,052 words, but while I've got some info-dumps—I dislike SF that doesn't—they're not in the same league, hell, they ain't playing the same sport, as Melville's.)

    Then again, I'm downright terse compared to Ayn Rand—Atlas Shrugged is 561,996 words, while the Fountainhead is 311,596. Steinbeck's East of Eden is 225,395 words, and I guarantee you more things happen in mine (does a baby die and a woman breastfeed a grown man—Steinbeck motifs—in that one?).
  • Know what's fascinating? People apparently really do think Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship. Silly creatures. The books is a rant against television, and mass culture in general—the firemen burn books not for the sake of some political censorship, but to make sure nobody deviates from the same spoonfed pop culture as their neighbors.

    Understand, your precious internet, with its brainless memes and its enshrinement of mindless celebrities, is far closer to what that book was an attack on than the specter of "censorship" you try to use it against.
  • I must change something in my third SF book: before, I'd had the gal who grew up on Chinese stations refer to a ship as a yíngke, "firefly"—24th-century Chinese stationer slang for "crappy ship with an incompetent crew". It ought to to have been yìhngfóchùhng—"firefly" again, but this time in Cantonese, not Mandarin. All the other Chinese I have her speak is Cantonese, though most of the martial-arts and philosophical terms, and Chinese star names, are in Mandarin.

    However, I'm taking that out, however much fun it may be to have Take Thats to Firefly—the context is people being arrested for having a ship without a trained engineer, because in the real world Mal would be charged with the first ever OSHA crime against humanity, for hiring Kaylee. But I realized, nobody in my setting could do something that stupid, because my setting is realistic, and nobody not a government or rich enough to constitute a one-man sovereign state has their own ships. And none of those people would hire Kaylee, having, as they do, a rudimentary understanding of the differences between a fusion rocket and a '68 Chevy.
  • Do you know the answer to the question "Did the American revolutionaries have British accents?" I do. Namely, "No, but the Redcoats had American ones." That's oversimplifying a bit, but what we think of as a "British" accent pretty much came into being starting a generation or two after the Americans seceded. In the 18th century, most Englishmen had what would sound to us like an American (or perhaps Canadian) accent—which is also why Canadian English sounds more like American than it does like "British".

    In the early 19th century, certain dialects of Southern English began to be considered "proper" by the ruling class; this prestige dialect is the ancestor of modern Received Pronunciation (which shades through Estuary into Cockney). The mid-19th century form of Cockney, on the other hand, is the ancestor of Australian and South African English. You can observe several trends in how, e.g., New Englanders and Canadians, on the one hand, and Australians and South Africans, on the other, pronounce certain words—because of when they were colonized.
  • One often hears actors or other people involved in drama saying that some character is basically their dad. Hugh Laurie, for instance, has said that it's kinda weird how much money he makes basically pretending to be a jerk version of his father.

    But know who's got the weirdest story like that? Dan Aykroyd. Know what movie he plays his dad in? Ghostbusters.

    His family have been big in ghost-related affairs since the days of the Cottingley fairies. If you noticed that the parapsychology-technobabble in those movies sounded remarkably good (I know I did), that would be why.


De Romanicorum Theoriarum III

Speculative fiction thoughts.
  • My brother and I are following, with great interest, the "Forward Unto Dawn" miniseries that was made to advertise Halo 4. Interestingly, it's filmed in Battlestar Galactica vision (drab colors and shaky cams), but you don't actually mind, because the story in question is not crap. (Though, I'm sorry, they only have one antifreeze they can inject you with for cryosleep? I'd come up with more than one, if the first was an allergen.)

    The third episode rocked. Out. Loud. Amusingly, my brother, who saw it before I did, said "They finally see a Spartan." What he forgot to mention was they also finally see, and hear, an Elite.
  • It had occurred to me that any statement contrasting dark fantasy with Tolkien to Tolkien's disadvantage can be adequately shown in its true nature by a simple process. Namely, converting it from a statement about fantasy to one about comic books.

    The way it works is, you replace the name of George Martin, or whoever, with that of...Mark Millar. Then you replace "Tolkien" with "Jack Kirby". I trust we all know how to treat someone who would prefer Millar to Kirby? (It will be objected Millar is a writer and Kirby an artist. But creating the New Gods took writing, and that was all Kirby.)

    The analogy is perfect—any time Millar does anything with superhero comics, he basically tries to write the most unpleasant thing he can, either to punish people for reading a superhero comic, or else to pretend he's better than superhero comics. Maybe both. That is pretty much what "dark fantasy" is, in a nutshell, just read "fantasy" for "superhero comics".
  • So here's this quote from Lovecraft:
    To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the real essence of externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good or evil, love and hate, and all such attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. ... the exact degree of alienage depending, of course, on the scene of the tale; whether laid in the solar system, or in the utterly unplumbed gulfs still further out—the nameless vortices of never-dreamed-of strangeness, where form and symmetry, light and heat, even matter and energy themselves may be unthinkably metamorphosized or totally wanting.
    And then these two, from the first Father Brown story:
    "Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don't they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don't fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, 'Thou shalt not steal.'"
    The denouement of that story is as follows:
    "But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."

    "What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.

    "You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."
    Lovecraft, amusingly, for all his pretensions, is the one contradicting science here. We now know quite well—they weren't actually sure there were any other galaxies when Lovecraft was writing—that "form and symmetry, light and heat, even matter and energy themselves" are no different no matter how far out you go. He's basically paraphrasing problem-play hack-writer noted physicist Henrik Ibsen, "Maybe two plus two equals five in the fixed stars." As in so many things, Chesterton anticipated things we would discover long after him, that his contemporaries were claiming were in doubt.
  • In my SF books, colonials use the radio names of the letters, mainly because of the need to be clear over radio. I have mentioned that they call, e.g., ξ Boötis B (which the main planet in the first book orbits) "Xerxes Boötis Bravo". There is, of course, a Greek radio alphabet.

    I had despaired of finding the Russian one, but lo! Wikipedia's "wiki magic" has saved me yet again. The one issue is, in the 24th century, the unofficial variant for Э, Emma, has become the official one—because the current official one is Ekho, the NATO name for E.
  • I think the puerile intellectual vacuity involved in Libertarianism is perfectly illustrated by a line in Serenity, during the flashbacks to the Orwellian schooling (which is either River's memory or her hallucination). Specifically, "We don't teach people what to think, only how to think." This line—the quintessence of the "intellectual freedom" to which all academics pay lip-service, however hypocritically—is presented not as hypocritical, but as totalitarian in itself. How dare you teach people how to think! The original operation of the unspoiled Noble Savage mind is sufficient!

    Ironically, Tim Minear, the other Firefly head writer who supplies the halfwit Libertarian sermons (Whedon supplies the halfwit Women's Studies ones), would probably claim that his problem with statism is that it would only work "if people were basically good". Only, "we teach people how to think" is only bad if people are, intellectually at least, already "basically good". Or, as I have sometimes put it, Libertarianism not only assumes almost as much basic goodness on the part of people as such as Socialism does (e.g., they seem to think legalizing drugs won't mean a spike in crimes by addicts), it also assumes far more intelligence than Socialism. People may or may not be basically good: YouTube and Facebook exist, if you still labor under the illusion that they're basically smart.

    Personally, while acknowledging (as all philosophers who do not believe in a priori ideas must acknowledge) that people do, in fact, need to be taught how to think, I also think something more basic must be taught, first. Namely, they must be taught to think, period. How to do it well comes after that; you have to get in the water before you can do the Australian crawl.
  • I was just reading a thing by some guy, whining about fantasy books at the library being labeled with a unicorn. Admittedly a dragon would be just as good, but the point of symbols is that they are obvious. They can't be too subtle, especially not in a place like a book-spine, and especially not a library book, that's going to see more handling, much of it less than gentle, than pretty much any book in private hands.

    Also, unicorns are badass. Have you read the actual legends? Being subdued by virgins is not just an incidental thing about the critters, it's the only way they can be subdued. Hell, the original Greek version of the critter, the monoceros, gives its name to the Indian rhino, for a very good reason—namely, it's a version of the Indo-Aryan legendary rhinoceros, the karkadann. Hell, the thing might be an oral-tradition memory of the giant wooly rhino Elasmotherium. Many giant legendary monsters are explained as garbled versions of extinct megafauna—given the extant megafauna are pretty much monsters without any garbling. E.g., elephants: an animal as smart as a chimpanzee whose males have "homicidal mania" as a standard stage of their life-cycle.
  • In one of Michael McCollum's articles on SF writing, he says something about keeping the precise meaning of interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic clear in your head. No argument here, but then he went on to say that the line in the Christopher Reeves "Superman" movie about "the seven known galaxies" must've meant "solar systems".

    Only, no, Jor-El does in fact mean "galaxies". The Kryptonians may have practiced Asian-style isolationism (at the time of their downfall they only had two colonies, one of which, Daxam, is still crazy isolationist), but they were, in fact, entirely capable of having a galaxy-spanning civilization, if they had wanted one. And by DC Comics standards they were pikers; "seven known galaxies" is quite quaint, compared to the 3600 sectors of the Green Lantern Corps (they form a sphere around Oa, and each contains multiple galaxies). The Guardians (or for that matter the New Gods), in turn, are nothing on the Monitors, each of whom oversees one whole universe of the multiverse.

    Comic book space opera is not hard science fiction, and one of the differences is the scale of the thing.


Omnis Creatura Ingemescit

"All creation is groaning." This is going to involve a discussion of the intersection of Christian theology, anthropology, and soteriology, as they relate to science fiction; if that ain't your cup of tea I advise you not to stick around.

I'm re-reading Lewis's space-trilogy; I got a lot more out of it this time. It's very good—the part of the first one that's actually on Mars is some of the coolest worldbuilding ever—but I have some complaints. Minor one, first—one wonders why he insisted on the silly Aristotelian conflation of Heaven "divine abode" with Heaven "physical upper regions". I've also gone into how a little thing called "the Church" is totally absent.

Second, Perelandra: Oh, Lewis, you silly, silly Protestant. Adam and Eve were already replaced; Tor and Tinidril (I see you had Tolkien do your conlangs for you) are a needless redundancy. And given the New Eve has, among her titles, "Lady Who Crushes the Snake's Head" (Cihuapiltzin Coatlaxopeuh), I doubt very much she'd need some British philologist to protect her from the Un-man. Let us ask the Turks at Lepanto how much fun it is to fight her—and they had cannons and muskets, not just sharpened fingernails. (Also, Lewis, seriously, Ransom doesn't even try exorcising Weston?)

Third and most important, what is the deal with the whole "due to the Incarnation, all intelligent beings will look like Homo sapiens" nonsense? Hrossa and Sorns and Pfiffltriggi are men, Lewis, how come you copy Aristotle's lamebrained cosmology but not his thoroughly penetrating anthropology? "Genus, animal; difference, rational" is the definition of man, remember?

Personally, in regard to the whole question of aliens and salvation, I consider it highly doubtful that Earth is the only fallen world. Mostly because I doubt that the First Man who fell was from Earth, if Earth is not the only inhabited world. While there is a definite backward limit to how early animal life could arise, it happens to be "10 billion years" (going by the age of the oldest heavy-element rich stars), or (assuming Earth is normal in only having multicellular life show up after 2.5-3.8 billion years), 7.5-6.2 billion.

The Fall of the First Man is not passed on in the blood; it is not genetic, except in the sense that "being a person" is genetic (that is, genes do determine what species one is born into, and some species are made up of people). Original Sin is inherited not like a genetic disorder, but like a title—it is a part of the title "sapient animal", and taken on by any animal that succeeds to that title. (This, by the bye, is also why even an omnipotent God had to be incarnated to save men; omnipotence is only capable of actualizing latent potentials—which is why God can't make a square circle—and potentials are determined by natures. Until God was incarnated, took on our marred nature and then fixed it by his death and Resurrection, human potential was marred and flawed, and all omnipotence could do would be make them perfectly flawed.)

That the first possessor of the nature "Sapient Animal" (=man) fell and marred that nature for any who would take it on, also answers the question of whether Christ would have to be incarnated multiple times for multiple species. See, reincarnation follows from a species of Presocratic atomism; it's bad metaphysics. And to posit that it would only happen for Christ is, similarly, inelegant. But to posit that all men fell by the first of their kind, and were saved by God becoming one of them—being born as one, since conception and birth are the method by which one gets the nature of man—is far more elegant.

PS. It is fascinating, to me, to see people make the anti-Christian charge that "the Church" teaches that Eve seduced Adam into sin. Sure, if by "the Church" you mean "John Milton". Chesterton notes his disgust at Milton's portrayal of Adam (Milton has him basically join Eve out of compassion, rather than from the exact same sinful motives as her), and points out that if you actually read Genesis the second Adam gets caught with the fruit, he immediately tries to pass the buck—he's just as guilty as Eve, the question of which one did it first being about as relevant as in a fight between children. Milton, not really following the "plain sense of Scripture", are we, boy? (Also, the typical description of Original Sin among civilized Christians is, as Lewis himself calls it in Pilgrim's Regress, "Adam's Sin", "pecca Adae".)


De fantasiae

Latin, "On fantasy"—post is thoughts on same. Incidentally, "fantasia" with an F is a different thing from "phantasia"; I think the former is later, and, while I'm pretty sure both were used almost identically, one might make the distinction most modern languages make between fantasy and phantasy. That is, between "speculative fiction informed by the wonders of folklore" (science fiction being "speculative fiction informed by the wonders of science") and "illusions, dreams".
  • Think I'm gonna have to check out RuneQuest (the fantasy RPG that provides the underlying mechanic for Call of Cthulhu). I like that mechanic, and the idea of doing without character levels; I also like much of what I see about their setting (the bastards have very plantlike elves, just like my D&D setting). I don't care for their dwarves (suddenly the dwemer look a lot less original), but then again I wasn't planning to use their core setting anyway. A lot of their "Cults" idea is similar to my idea of humans getting their training from totem-societies.

    Some of the setting's conception of magic seems, to me, to be New Age/neo-pagan BS, but then again the core setting was apparently created by a gent who calls himself a shaman. No word on if he dresses in drag (most Eurasian shamans—which are the only kind—are female, and the male ones frequently dress as women while "on duty"). And seriously, you don't decide to become a shaman, you become a shaman so you don't go insane from spirit-sickness.
  • And seriously, Eurasian shamans are the only kind. Native Americans have "medicine men", which work very differently—they don't channel gods, for one thing, except in certain very specific rituals. African "witch doctors" are pretty much medicine men (remember, nobody whose spiritual powers are lawful is a witch)—or even the equivalent of East Asian diviner-"exorcists", like onmyôji.

    I have said it before and I'll say it again, study real traditions, when you create a magic system. And if you think the quasi-Hermeticism of D&D is boring (and who doesn't?), sorry, but you're gonna have to crack some big-people books.
  • I think it's funny how many criticisms of Tolkien involve criticisms of his style—generally reducible to, "Tolkien is bad because I'm too stupid to understand him." Less funny is when they accuse him of being a reactionary—again, a Tory Radical is the opposite of a reactionary, they were generally far too revolutionary for most socialists.

    There actually isn't much white-washing or optimistic sentimentalism in Tolkien; actually if anything his setting is too pessimistic (due to his being in the tradition of Romanticism). But even if he were waxing sentimental about the Good Old Days and whitewashing a defeated system, much better that than what Martin, Mieville, and Moorcock do, which is waxing hysterical against the Bad Old Days and vilifying a defeated system, to flatter the one currently in power. There is a mad dignity in being the court-poet of a powerless system; there is nothing but prostitution in being the ever-so-politically-correct poet laureate of a currently dominant one.
  • An element I think people should include in fantasy is the idea of charms. Most Native Americans carried (or, if they're still their traditional religions, carry) "medicine pouches", with, e.g., images of totem animals, and usually something like salt or corn pollen, that they use for blessings. Why don't people in fantasy settings carry such things? Especially people from "barbarian" societies.

    In my RPG-setting fantasy, soldiers consider their dice to be among their charms—the reason being that bored soldiers begin to wish for something to happen, which ruins their unit's luck (this is a real thing in Shinto, it's usually translated "subconscious malice", and the Ouija-board chapter of xxxHolic hinges on it). "Gambling=magic" is a real thing in a lot of cultures (though not generally because bored soldiers are a jinx). Apache women, for example, aren't allowed to gamble—since they and the Navajo have most of the same rules, I question how the Navajo can have casinos—because there's so much "medicine" involved in it.
  • It amuses me no end how the barbarians in fantasy are generally less cultic than the civilized, when in actual fact they tended to be vastly more. Conan's Krom might do as the tutelary of some quasi-Confucian skeptical civilization; a tribe of raiders would find him uselessly standoffish. Navajo and Apache women were forbidden from handling weapons and armor, because those societies put so many divine invocations on everything they fought with (and, again, "medicine" is dangerous).

    Barbarians are more cultic/religious than the civilized—because "civilization" means fewer things are "in God's (or the gods') hands"—but it is true that the civilized are the ones who go in for diabolism (and trafficking with darksome otherworldlies is a staple of fantasy). The Hopi and the ancient Israelites were backward little mountain villagers; the Aztecs and Carthaginians were the greatest civilizations in their regions. But of course, diabolism ("witchcraft" in the anthropological sense) is not really an alternative religion; it consists of subverting a more "conventional" religion.
  • I've just been reading fantasy reviews, and I'm curious to know if these people understand that criticism is more than just "The unbeliever has not kept the taboos of our law! Unclean, unclean!" Seriously, do they harp on Lord of the Flies not being about female protagonists? Or Brave New World? (Oh, yes, I've heard of the Bechdel Test; I regard it as somewhat less valid or relevant than The Knee Test.)

    Do forgive me, comrades, if I quote a man your spiritual forebears sent to the Gulag (specifically, from "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"): "A genius doesn't adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant's taste."
  • Interestingly, I've found that I do actually like "dark" fantasy...provided it's in a manga. Mostly because manga is written by people who are old hands at sympathetic treatments of seriously hardass feudal warlords—e.g. Oda "If the cuckoo won't sing, kill it" Nobunaga, the Devil King. Thus they feel no need to portray feudal societies as worse than totalitarian ones, the way the Socialist Realist school of fantasy does (again, Mieville, Moorcock, Martin, you are Anglo leftists, that makes you worse people than the worst warlord that ever lived—especially since the worst warlord in Western Europe was the ancestor of the kings who gave birth to English nationalism).

    Seriously, when Übel Blatt has a more balanced, sympathetic treatment of its society than you do, you are officially in Birth of a Nation territory. Übel Blatt is about a human-elf hybrid (not accomplished by cross-breeding) who's trying to murder the Seven Heroes of his civilization. Why? Well, because the Seven Heroes were originally Fourteen; three died along the way, and only four completed the quest they'd been given. Then the seven, who'd stayed behind, murdered those four and claimed they'd completed the quest. One of those four survived by being hybridized with a fairy (either it ate him or he ate it, he's no longer sure—nor, indeed, if he's himself with a part-fairy body or a fairy with his memories and a part-human body), and now he wants revenge. He journeys around righting all kinds of wrongs in the domains of the false heroes, until he can get close enough to each to murder him.

    It's pretty damn dark. But at no time is it pretended that that society as a whole is unlivable; the abuses are, as feudal abuses were, individual and particular rather than systemic. And the bad lords have to cover up what they do, lest the Emperor or their neighbors turn on them. Whereas Martin, Moorcock, and Mieville have entire civilizations where the lords openly do things that are worse than Stalin's Russia or Mao's China.

    Personally I think they're just ideologues, who fear that writing fantasy will have them be suspected of disloyalty to liberalism (and no, I don't just mean left-liberalism). So they create these ugly caricatures of non-liberal systems, as a form of "fumi-e", to absolve themselves of suspicion.


Some Other Stuff

More thoughts.
  • Though his motives for saying so are suspect, Stanley Fish was absolutely correct when he said Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" was the most overrated work in the nonfiction canon. Not only does Orwell demonstrate his Dr. Strangelove anti-Catholicism tic, he also espouses the same "adverbs bad!", "passive voice—unclean, unclean!" taboo-mongering that has crippled late-modern prose. And then he espouses etymology—namely, whether a word is "Anglo-Saxon" or not—as a principle in diction.

    Now, while one ought never to pointlessly use a big ol' Greco-Roman word where a little stubby English (or, up yours Orwell, French) one will do, I know of only two places that taboo words of foreign provenance in that manner. Namely, Nazi Germany and North Korea. Then again, who's surprised? All the murderous ideologies of the last two centuries are based on the lies of the English nationalists, and no Englishman is so rabidly a nationalist as the socialist. See also H. G. "shoving the Boers into concentration-camps is the best thing ever" Wells.
  • In a comment on my post where I mentioned electric-car enthusiasts being like muscle-car enthusiasts, my sister pointed out that the Leaf gets 70 miles on a single battery. But the 1968 Charger gets about 90 miles on a tank of gas, which leaves you precisely as boned, where we come from.

    I'm not sure if I can endorse her (and the UNSC's) advocacy of fuel cells. Apparently there are all kinds of issues with hydrogen cells in terms of the energy costs to get the stuff, containing it in vehicles, and how much energy you can realistically extract (one figure I saw says that hydrogen fuel's effective energy density is only 150 watt-hours per liter, which is pretty much what we get from batteries).

    Of course, all this is basically "neither one is quite there yet", and the question is actually "which is more likely to become a viable energy-source for cars in the future?", which is quite different. There, many people do seem to think hydrogen cells are the horse to back—though one of them is Steven Chu, so...
  • How in the how-the-hell does Haji(mete no)Aku not have an anime yet? It's been out for over 150 chapters, so I'm guessing the manga's pretty popular. Its combination of quasi-harem antics and tokusatsu combat is practically made for anime.

    But, no. Busou Shinki has an anime, and it's a figurine line. Gokicha! Cockroach Girl has an anime (oh yes, it was a manga first, I've read it), and it's exactly what it sounds like. Chitose Get You (about a mid-20s civil servant being stalked by an 11-year-old girl) has one. Girls und Panzer (yes, that title does mean "Softenni but with tank-combat-as-a-sport instead of tennis") has one. Upotte's had more than one. But HajiAku? Nope.

    Japan, you really have to admit we've put up with some weird behavior out of you. But this? This is just bizarre.
  • I was showing my brother the opening (and only good part) of Gosick, after I happened to notice on his Facebook that our sister had said "Art Nouveau makes anything awesome". Which, I mean, ordinarily yes, but not even an animated Art Nouveau opening made Gosick not suck.

    And explaining the show to him, I realized, too damn many light novels (and therefore other media) use this "dude and eccentric girl with some odd school-life solve crimes" nonsense. Actually the only light novels I can think of that don't involve the odd school-life part are the Slayers ones—and the first few of those were magazine serials (those exist in Japan still).

    Then again, Japan is in many ways a very 1980s place (that is largely a good thing), and one of the ways this is true is that "they fight crime" is something of a fallback for their media. Actually give me the "they fight crime" without the odd school-life and we'll talk; you have an uphill battle getting me to care about a work that's artificially centered on school, the way too many light-novels (which I mainly encounter in anime or manga form) are. (In Baka Test, one of the few I've read some of the novels of, the school setting makes the whole thing work, and Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakamatachi was just that good.)
  • John C. Wright joins the ranks of those Christians who say—ut scandalum gentiles—that Buddhism lacks the concept of charity. It is particularly glaring because he specifically claims Buddhism lacks charity because it lacks the concept of creation in the Image of God. He says, plainly impressed with himself, that Buddha didn't create people in his own image.

    The reason this is really, shamefully, embarrassingly stupid is, Buddhism has a concept, called karuna (usually translated compassion), that not only precisely mirrors Christian charity in all its particulars, its Sanskrit name probably shares an etymology with "caritas". And the duties to fellow man that it imposes? They follow from the theological concept that all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature, which not only means they, well, image the Buddha (though the Shakyamuni was not the creator-god), but ultimately means they're capable of achieving unification with the Supreme Being that, in Buddhism, is the only real thing.

    It is true that most Buddhist societies have social conditions more typical of paganism than of Christendom. But that's because Buddhism is an overly monkish religion; most Buddhists would consider it excessively worldly to try to transform the world the way Christendom did. Of course, when they didn't—e.g., in the Goryeo Kingdom that Korea is named after—Buddhism caused the precise same social changes as Christianity, like abolishing slavery and giving women civil rights. Besides which, conditions in most Buddhist countries have, for most of history, precisely mirrored those of the Byzantine half of Christendom (whose church has been similarly monkish and unworldly)—would Wright care to maintain the Greeks do not believe in Christian charity?


Commentary 7

Random thoughts.
  • There was a stupid thing about witches on DeviantArt, where a person was repeating "Witch Cult of Europe" canards that are as dead as luminiferous aether. I pointed out that A) witch-hunting had nothing to do with persecuting pagans, although banning witch-hunting did, and B) a witch is not intrinsically female. In many cultures—most Native American ones for instance—witches are male, all spiritual power being male-dominated (generally because the gods are too dangerous for women to approach).

    I also mentioned in passing that "witch" doesn't simply mean a person with spiritual powers, but solely and exclusively one whose spiritual powers are not only used unlawfully, but originate in unlawfulness. The English equivalent to the words in various languages that are generally translated "witch" is "diabolist", just FYI.

    I decided not to stick around (silly people were responding to my comment completely without reading it, which I consider a deal-breaker). The very next day, though, I found out how you say "witch" (in the real sense) in Japanese (and no, not "majou"). Namely, shujusshi (呪術師), "curse-art practitioners". Google Translate thinks the word means "shamans", which, I'm sorry, is just offensive.
  • So I thought I'd give Alternity another look-see, now that I have a better handle on the particulars of my SF setting. I realized, the one big flaw is, the rules for spaceships, even in the Warships book, are not set up for realistic ships—realistic ships have a hydrogen-to-everything-else ratio reminiscent of the Hindenberg, while the Warships rules describe fuel/propellant tanks in terms you'd associate with a long-haul truck.

    But I realized, if you just take the mass of everything that isn't fuel or tank, and treat that as the ship size, you can pretty much get away with it. Basically you track your ships' fuel in terms of mass ratio, and, for the sake of brevity, just ignore that the acceleration increases as fuel gets used up (I suppose you could re-compute your delta-V round by round, but I don't know of any space-tactics game that does that).

    I also realized I had to make up a bunch of new ship-parts, to make the game stats approximate the setting I had in mind. Then again, I realized, Alternity's nonsensoleum "dark matter" tech resembles my idea of the dilaton alternator, if one just realizes that most dark "matter" is actually dark energy. (My sister—not this one, the other one—and I had a devil of a time trying to explain dark energy to our mother. I guess the fact that 73% of the universe's mass isn't actually matter, but rather is the structure of space itself, is counter-intuitive, for some reason.)
  • I think I've mentioned—what is the universal consensus—that much of Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" is knocked off from the Wheel of Time, but have I ever really mentioned the implications?

    Dude. You are knocking off Robert Jordan. Only you're mixing in Ayn Rand sermons. That is the Reese's Freaking Peanut-Butter Cup of shitty literary influences. The outlook is doubtful whether even harakiri can erase your shame.

    Also, this is the Wizard's First Rule, Goodkind:
    In shadow, we find the light
    Safely sealed in darkest night.
    So make sure y’all keep it tight.
    Wizards only, fools.
    And then probably something about kidnapping princesses, or managing penguin minions.
  • How about when people talk about "the futility of war"? One always wants to ask, "futile how?" Many if not most wars actually did accomplish their stated aim. If you thought there could actually be a War to End Wars, well, your beef is with H. G. Wells, or yourself for listening to him; nobody with a brain in their head thought the Great War had a chance in hell of accomplishing that.

    And while we're at it, what about the futility of medicine, agriculture, industry, hygiene, and pretty much every other field of human endeavor? I can't think of a standard that makes wars futile that doesn't also make everything else futile.
  • Further news in the "John Scalzi is a provincial little Jingo who thinks he isn't" department, is his "Being a straight white male is the real world's Easy mode" thing. Why? Because it reveals that, to Scalzi, "the real world" means America.

    In every part of the real world that isn't the US or Western Europe, Scalzi, being straight, white, or male has little to no effect on your chances of being abused, cheated, oppressed, or even murdered. In some places it significantly increases them. Plus, our identity politics working like Pokemon, as they do, even in places where straight white males are allegedly at an advantage it tends to work out more that they're Normal type—not strong against anything. I don't know, Scalzi, does having Rattata as your starter sound like "Easy Mode" to you?
  • I realized just a little while ago what's wrong with journalists. They're a part of Hollywood. They view the world through the precise lens that gives you movies and TV. Sure, "liberals", but there's specific elements to it that, I think, are less "politics" and more "shallow superficial asses". John Stossel is not a liberal, but he's just as shallow and superficial. (Also he plainly does not know Asia exists, or he'd know most of his pet theories have had millennia of test-run, and been found sub-optimal.)

    Take, for example, the Duke lacrosse case. The journalists did not go in asking "what are the facts" or "what does the prosecutor say, and what is the suspects' response". They pretty obviously (read any of the coverage at the time) went in asking, in essence, "What would have happened here, if this were an episode of Law & Order?" Or see religion coverage: does any reporter actually seem to understand that religion is not primarily about feelings? Nope. Why? Think of even the positive portrayals of religion in movies or TV. It's all sentiment. Salvation, law, ritual purity—none of those is what religion is for, to Hollywood, they're just metaphors for "making you feel good about yourself".
  • NCIS probably jumped the shark a few seasons back, but the seeds of their downfall were pretty much sown the second they introduced Ziva. She's an obnoxious Mary Sue. And as with Firefly, it's because they tried to both possess and consume their birthday confections.

    See, Ziva is, by turns, practically an assassin android, and an über-hip self-assured quasi-Eurotrash swingin' broad. Only...how? There's only so many hours in the day, and generally speaking being raised as a professional murderer leaves one ill-suited to social butterfly-ness. Personally I dislike the emotionless assassin trope but it is at least more believable than the assassin with better social skills than all the normal people—at least if that assassin is not a psychopath, which Ziva ain't. If you want to know how Ziva should act in social situations I can tell you—two words, "Sagara Sôsuke".
  • Something David Brin said about being "a true child of the Englightenment, humanity's one chance to break out of the age-old feudal trap" struck me as funny. Because—apparently astrophysicists don't have to take history?—Enlightenment politics was characterized by absolutism, either of the state or of some individual who was held (in an Iron Age Roman formulation) to embody it. In the context of the nation-state, the most quintessential Enlightenment concepts are most familiar to us from those Indian boarding schools where they'd whip you for speaking Navajo.

    Now, no feudal leader was an absolutist. Nope. Feudalism is a system fundamentally characterized—those monsters!—by mutual obligation. Fail to protect your vassals, and they are released from their obligations. Fail to back your liege, and you lose what he gave you. There is not a single thing in, e.g., the US Constitution, that is not at least as feudal an idea as it is an Enlightenment one, and most of them are vastly more feudal than Enlightenment. Admittedly genociding the Indians is a quintessentially Enlightenment idea—ask the Basques about the French Republic or the Poles about Hohenzollern Prussia—but it's not actually in the Constitution.

    Brin is, here, revealing himself to be about as much a historian as Ayn Rand—or in other words, the equivalent of Velikovsky on astrophysics. I'm sorry, Captain Reading Comprehension, but you aren't allowed to characterize things you like as all being "enlightenment", and things you don't as all being "feudal", any more than Rand can describe everything she likes (including individualism—the closest Ancient Greek word to which is probably the etymology of "idiot") as "classical". Those words actually refer to time-periods, and like all time-periods things happened in those times that weren't all good or bad—and actually those things most essential and unique to those periods are those which modern ethics has most specifically repudiated, generally in favor of ideas far more typical of feudalism.


Hey Mr. Geiger Counter, Tally Me Banana

Incidentally this is post 425, 52×17. The last one was 424, 23×53.

Anyway I discovered something awesome. Namely, the thing called "Banana Equivalent Dose". See, bananas are mildly radioactive, due to a small amount of potassium-40 isotope incorporated in their structure (tissues tend to incorporate radioactive isotopes as easily as nonradioactive ones, that's why carbon-14 dating works on any organic material).

Specifically, eating one banana exposes you to roughly 0.1 μSv (a tenth of a microsievert) of radiation. This fact leads to the banana-based method of expressing radiation exposures. E.g., living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant exposes you to half a banana per year of radiation. Living that close to a coal power plant exposes you to three bananas. Yep, coal power plants expose you to six times as much radiation as nuclear ones—nuclear plants are set up to keep radiation from getting out, while coal plants are just fires (coal contains a minuscule quantity of radioactive material, mainly uranium, barium, thorium and the same potassium isotope as in bananas).

It seems a Brazil nut (which also contains—holy Marie Curie, Batman!—radium) is four bananas worth of radioactivity. Living on the Colorado plateau, I get about 12 bananas of radiation a day just from the elevated background radiation, over and above the 100 bananas one absorbs from normal background radiation. You get 400 bananas from an airline flight (the higher you go, the more radiation there is).

A chest x-ray is only 200 bananas, while a chest CT scan is a whopping 58,000 bananas—and incidentally, spending an hour at Chernobyl in 2010 is 60,000 bananas, so go easy on the CT scans. Interestingly, living in a building mainly made of minerals (brick, stone, concrete, etc.) will give you 700 bananas a year; living ten miles from Three Mile Island at the time of the accident gave you 800 bananas, or the equivalent of 4 chest x-rays.

The maximum yearly dose permitted to US radiation workers, by law, is half a million bananas. A full million bananas is the smallest radiation dose clearly linked to increased cancer rate; 4 million bananas' exposure in a short time will cause symptoms of radiation poisoning. 20 million bananas is severe radiation poisoning, the sometimes-fatal kind; 40 million is usually fatal but is survivable with prompt treatment. The fatal dose even with treatment is 80 million bananas.

I really shouldn't be having as much fun with this as I am.

Sierra Foxtrot

Thoughts upon SF. Oddly, I've called posts "Sierra Foxtrot, Again" and "Once More, Sierra Foxtrot", but never just "Sierra Foxtrot". Now I have rectified the oversight.

Also, this is post 425. Which is 52×17.
  • I'm wondering if I should have a character mention that the space-fold drive used in my books is basically a cross between a modified Alcubierre warp and a traversable wormhole. Because it does have many traits in common with the latter, and it's not like "wormholes" are actually holes anymore than there's actually elasticity involved in a "gravity slingshot" (I don't think I've mentioned that the "gravity slingshot" ought to be called an "orbital halfpipe").

    Hey speaking of things being given odd names, while "beanstalk" is an OK name for an orbit elevator, what about "Indian rope trick"? Because, I mean, we've got a thing where you climb into the sky on a rope hung on nothing, and it isn't a beanstalk (the beanstalk was presumably just held up by hydrostatic pressure).
  • I realized, thinking about the whole concept that "science fiction is about the big questions", that, well, in a sense of course it is, all literature is, but actually SF is often unusually hampered in answering them, by insisting on trying to use science to do it.

    See, in order to do science, you actually first have to either answer several of the big questions, or treat them as answered for you. I.e., "does matter exist?", "is external reality consistent and knowable?", and "is there any point to knowing anything about external physical reality?". Those are big questions, and you have to answer all of them "yes" before you can do science. There are other questions equally large, like "ought one to use science to improve human life?", that must be answered before you can know what position to take on issues like technological civilization.

    The "big questions", I'm afraid, are a matter for philosophy, not science; all science can do is accumulate more facts for us to philosophize about. The risible howlers in so many sci-fi answers to the "big questions" generally come from attempting, thanks to a reductive empiricist worldview, to drive in the screws of philosophy with the hammer of science, having rashly jettisoned the rest of the toolbox.
  • I was reading a car magazine in a waiting room, and a writer had an interesting point about electric cars. He'd gone to an electric car convention, and, he said, they reminded him, mutatis mutandem, of muscle car enthusiasts. Specifically that they were into their car not for purely practical considerations (an electric car's range is significantly better than the average muscle car's), but because they liked the thing the car represented.

    Put aside the derpy decisions governments make RE: electric cars, and let's all acknowledge that this is, to use RTS terms, a tech-tree we need to invest in. Don't be like hippies with nuclear power, a tech-tree that they mindlessly tabooed for ideological reasons (and that was far more "nuclear means bombs, unclean, unclean!" even than it was halfwitted ecologism).
  • Speaking of power, so the typical solar panel is about 8-9% efficient. The ones on the International Space Station are 14.5% efficient; gallium arsenide panels are 19% efficient. And the currently demonstrated laboratory conditions maximum? 30% efficiency.

    Meanwhile the current off-the-shelf (so to speak) light-water nuclear reactor is 35% efficient. That is, 7/6 the current maximum of solar—and our current light-water plants are ludicrously inefficient as nuclear power goes. So no, man, we should totally be investing in solar, and not nuclear. Is not our current prosperity due to us dodging that dead-end "horseless carriage" technology and breeding ever better horses to draw the hansom cabs of our great metropolises?!
  • If you needed another reason to grumble like a small dog whenever people talk about Star Trek being science fiction, how about that the replicators and transporters should kill them all? Why? Conservation of baryon number (yep, another conservation law those things break).

    Conservation of Baryon Number states that when you turn energy into matter, equal quantities of particles and antiparticles are created. So for every 180 cc cup of "tea, Earl Grey, hot"...you get 180 g of antimatter (plus the mass of the cup, c. 370 g on average). 550 g of antimatter (which will annihilate with the air the second it comes into being) is the equivalent of 23.66 MT of TNT...or just over 1000 times the energy of the Fat Man.

    Just imagine what beaming Worf or Data aboard does.
  • A thing I think more conlangs could stand to have is different registers depending on the sex of the speaker. In Japanese, for instance, while the copula can be omitted (you can express "A is B" by "A B (declarative particle)"), omitting it is effeminate if a man does it. See, in Japanese, the copula has an implication of a type of formality that is seen as masculine. Similarly in Korean, if you're not in Seoul, you damn well better learn to use the "-mnida" form instead of the "-yo" form (polite formal rather than polite informal), if you're a dude, or you'll sound like a sissy.

    There are constructions in the Sioux languages that are considered "rhetorical", and, therefore, masculine—Sioux machismo has an element of bombast to it, reflected in, e.g., Crazy Horse's famous line "Let's roll, today is a good day to die." Apparently asking a female speaker how she'd say things (rather than how the characters would say things) is why Dances with Wolves has all the Sioux warriors talking like girls—imagine if the Vikings in 13th Warrior all talked like Monty Python housewives, for the effect the movie's Sioux dialogue apparently has on the language's speakers.
  • A perpetual dance with death is coming up with youth fashions of the future. I can play things safe in mine; my first two books take place not too long after the war, so military-surplus clothes or stuff that resemble them are popular. In the third one(s), though, the fashion has changed—spacers' clothes are in.

    'Course, not all those fashions go for everyone; the revived samurai and hwarang incorporate elements (sometimes modified) of their traditional dress, and the Peacekeeper uniforms have Mandarin collars (real ones, not the weird thing on many modern uniforms that's called that).

    Did I mention how the clothes inside-out in Back to the Future 2 reminds me of the late medieval trend of putting your face through the neckhole of your hood? Because it's totally similar (they were probably going by analogy with backward hats).
  • I'd wanted to have a Take That to the Culture books by Iain M. Banks in my SF books, but now I think I'm taking it out. I was going to have that the thoikh—the all-telepath evangelical Heideggerians—began their ritual of testing other species' worthiness of life (by forcing them to face, in angst and trembling, the truth of their own existence) when they encountered cultural-imperialist Transhumans like the Culture.

    Only, see, the thoikh are a race of psychometers as well as telepaths (also telekinetics), ruled by the priests of their ancestors and their environment. And the lifestyle of people like the Culture "offended the household and the city, the Divine Ancestors and the Swamp Mother". So the thoikh tried to telepathically explain what they saw as the problem, thinking the Transhumans would leave them alone if they once saw life as the thoikh did.

    Except, of course, that for a bunch of Transhuman anarcho-socialist omnisexuals to suddenly be forced to examine the truth of their own existence...is pretty much guaranteed to make them kill themselves. And the thoikh decided to test all other species they met, to ensure no other race would have to take on such blood-guilt—by taking it on themselves, making any species that, like the Culture-analog, have existences too undignified to be borne, into sacrifices to their ancestors.

    Now, though, I think they'll just be highly inscrutable as to their motives. In part because—my setting not being laughable nonsense—nothing like the Culture could exist in it. Post-scarcity, one, and ever-rutting left-lib utopias that can actually get to space, two, are well below FTL or AI on the possibilit-o-meter.


There Is No Rest Through the Gate

That, of course, is the attempt by Chaosium to come up with an Ancient Egyptian meaning for Nyarlathotep, "ny har rut hotep". The post is about Ender's Game, if you've read it you know why.

I borrowed Ender's Game from a friend of my mother's. I'm not crazy about it, it has its flaws—not least of which is that it ends with the founding of a religion that entails baptism for the dead. Understand, I have no problem with religious content in science fiction, mine is full of the stuff, but I do not insult the reader's intelligence by giving obvious Catholicism a silly name (I do have alien religions that parallel it, but not only do they have one major, key difference, their presence is entirely justified by the necessities of the plot, see here for why).

But online, looking for critiques of Ender's Game, I noticed that most people did not, in fact, make criticisms of Ender's Game. Nope. Instead they merely made personal attacks on Card, chiefly on his view of gay marriage, which is the view you would expect him to hold, as a Mormon who does not treat his faith as an à la carte proposition. Either a majority or a substantial minority of the reviews generalized from Card and Mormonism to attacks on Christianity, despite the fact that not a single Christian body worthy of the name considers Mormons to be Christians. Might as well generalize from your opinion on Baha'ism to an attack on Islam, you intellectual titans.

Now, while it's entirely appropriate to bring in, e.g., Joss Whedon's Man!Feminism or Tim Minear's DaleGribble!Libertarianism in a criticism of Firefly, that's because those things actually show up in the show. Other than the aforementioned dead-people-baptizing, Card's Mormonism does not show up in Ender's Game (nope, not even Ender's mother having been raised Mormon—his father was raised Catholic, and that gets precisely as much treatment in the plot).

What was really irksome was, several of the criticisms were otherwise largely correct. I'm reminded of something Tycho said once, about how he really hates to see a good argument, well constructed, delivered in a manner that makes it impossible to take seriously. E.g., when you make some incisive criticisms of the book's plot, and then sidetrack for a Two Minutes' Hate to accuse Card of Unthink (my God I wish Orwell, verminous little puke that he was, hadn't invented such a useful vocabulary for those concepts—but that's another post).

I say largely correct because, of the two correct criticisms, only one was entirely correct. That being that Card really does present Ender, Graff, the people we're supposed to sympathize with, as being good a priori, and their questionable actions being excused very largely in light of this, rather than in light of their human failings. Even that criticism tended to go too far, though, as for instance in claiming that the thing Ender did in ignorance is not excused by that ignorance when, in fact, yes it is—knowledge is, in fact, a major determining factor in whether one is accountable for their actions or not.

The other criticism is even more close-but-no-stuffed-panda. Namely, the argument that Ender's Game is a geek revenge fantasy. Again, close, but no. It is a geek vindication fantasy, and despite the Latin root that's something else. Ender's revenge on the bullies is portrayed purely (too purely, if anything) as tragedy; it is Ender's ultra-specialness as the perfect kid who saves everything, understands everyone, and feels bad about things that aren't his fault that is the fantasy. It is, of course, the fantasy of every kid who got picked on in school; it also has a Gnostic element to it, of course, but Mormonism is a species of Hermeticism, so of course it does (the difference between Hermetic and Manichean Gnosticism is the Manichean dismisses those who lack gnosis, while the Hermeticist attempts to bring them to it—Mormon missionaries may be annoying but their hearts are in the right place).

All told, not a great book. Possibly not even a good book—I also had issues with the buggers' biochemistry being identical with terrestrial life, and some of the style (e.g., genius children, and I come from an extended family full of them, don't talk like adults). But most of the critics were miles wide of the mark, and that born of ideologically-motivated delusion, rather than mere failure of perception.


Inside the Lines

Was trying to find out how to outline a story, because I kept getting sidetracked in writing my fantasy thing—all my coolest stuff did nothing for the plot, or even took it in bizarre and useless directions.

Found out why I've never really outlined: the whole process is geared to a kind of plot I am constitutionally incapable of doing. Namely, they seem to think you should have one protagonist and one main goal.

To which the only reply is, "Nani!?" It's in Japanese because, like many anime, I have whole bunches of characters with various intermeshing or conflicting goals—a common piece of liner-swag in anime DVDs is charts of the various relationships among the characters.

Admittedly, it's easy to take that too far (e.g., Bleach), and if too many characters are given protagonist- or near-protagonist-level weight, it requires very deft handling not to screw up (again, compare Bleach to Naruto, which probably only manages to avoid Bleach's problem by everyone's goals-plot being related to their ninja villages).

In my SF book, I have a total of ten viewpoint characters (actually eleven, but two of them never appear together and have the same role). In my werewolf book I have nine. In my not-RPG fantasy book I have five. And in my RPG stories? Still three.

See, all my plots revolve around, well, plots. Schemes. Machinations. You need multiple viewpoint characters to show events that your primary protagonist isn't present for. I don't know about you but the Harry Potter device of having Harry, our sole POV character apart from in the prologues, coincidentally blunder into exposition time and time again while coincidentally wearing an invisibility cloak is just plain inelegant.

I guess my 'outline' is going to have to look like the map of my town's bus routes. I have characters whose plotlines coincide for a while before diverging, then reunite, then diverge again; other characters meanwhile have the inverse plotline as they try to achieve the opposite goals. Each for reasons of their own.

And hey, you know how the thing's deliberately set in my D&D setting? You should've seen my campaign. I barely used any notes, just the Monstrous Manual (2nd Edition back then) and other rulebooks, some sourcebooks, and a map. Sometimes not even the map.


De Romanicorum Physicalium 5

Started this not 24 hours after the last one. Had some thoughts on SF.
  • Not directly SF related, but I was looking for criticisms of John Scalzi, to see if Old Man's War was worth looking into (I eventually found John C. Wright mentioning something that shows it isn't—ideologically-motivated bad cultural setting, which for me vitiates you not only as a writer but as a human being).

    But I came across his essay, I think for CNN.com, about "what it's like to be poor". I specifically found it mentioned in a forum, and what I thought was funny was that pretty much every single comment was, basically, "Dude, your mom had a car and your school fed you lunch, and you're bitching about being poor? Some of us have been to Africa, India, and South America."

    (The other thing I thought was funny is that it sorta sounded like his family was just barely worse off than mine was when I was a kid, and I don't posture like some damn Dickens character. Admittedly it did help that my dad has a superpower for saving money—when store cashiers tell him, as they do, "You saved x percent shopping with us", the number is often over sixty, thanks to his shrewd usage of sales and coupons. He's actually had cashiers do double-takes when they look at his receipt.)
  • So an example of how crazy I am is, I'm working on some short stories set during the Zled-UN War. The first one is about a woman in a powered-armor unit, named Léih Sèuhndíng (the woman is named that, not the unit—it's Cantonese). But I had someone mention her ID number. So I had to come up with a format for such ID numbers. So I based it on the Chinese system, with a modification.

    Her number is 156-91-2314-08-18-320-B. 156 is the ISO 3166-1 numeric country code for China. 91 is the ISO 3166-2 numeric national-subdivision code for Hong Kong. 2314-08-18 is her birthday—2314/7/7 on the Chinese lunar calendar, a holiday throughout East Asia associated with both the Big Dipper and the legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl. 320-B is like the "order code" in the Chinese ID number, except with a letter so you can have 26,000 people per rather than only 1000. It doesn't have a checksum, because calculating what it ought to be was annoying.

    Also (and this too is typical of my writing—namely, references to things I like that nobody else will recognize), 320-B is a reference to Halo; Kat is Spartan B320. Sèuhndíng also means "pure peak", "pure" and "peak" being the two things "Catherine" is theorized to mean.
  • The unit is named Hammershield, because, well, what do you think the UN would name an elite unit of Peacekeepers? It's the surname of the second Secretary-General—but more to the point it sounds badass.

    Speaking of the UN and Peacekeepers, I have to refer to the Security Council by its full name, rather than by an acronym. Why? Well, because someone else already has a space-military run by the UNSC, you know? Maybe I'll call it SecCo, that has a nice Soviet ring to it.
  • As for whose auspices they go to space under ("under whose auspices they go to space"?), I have a policy of never making something up if there's already a real thing for it. And the UN has a space-agency, little as has yet come of it; it's called UNOOSA (United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs). Its HQ is in the UN's Vienna offices. The thing has a subdivision (which is actually just slightly older than it is) called COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Its main job in the 24th century is colonization and things like asteroid-mining; I wouldn't be surprised if it started being heavily involved in that latter one, in real life, before too long.

    I'm still wondering which the aliens consider the UN capital, New York or Vienna—the former is the UN building proper, while the latter is where everything dealing with them comes from. Maybe they think there's something like the Edo period going on, where the capital was nominally at Kyoto but all the actual government was handled from Edo (modern Tokyo).
  • It behooves an SF author to read the space-treaties that actually exist (mainly, the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Space Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention). First rule of science fiction is, even if you decide to ignore something, know that you're ignoring it.

    And, really, you are gonna have to ignore some of 'em—we're gonna have to ignore some of them, if we ever want to do space-travel for realsies. I mean, the Partial Test Ban Treaty? I'm sorry, but working on big-people rockets intrinsically involves the testing of nuclear devices, and if the death-by-the-wayside of Orion is any indication, the fact they're a propulsion device rather than a weapon doesn't appear to make a difference. Or how about that part of the Outer Space Treaty that says you can't claim resources in situ, only once they're extracted? "Claim jumping", greenhorn, look it up.

    Seriously, we should revise the treaty so that, while bodies as a whole aren't subject to claim, deposits of ore or other resources are, according to the same principle as govern mining claims on earth. We've been mining for a long time—43,000 years, if you were wondering (and if you weren't, why not?). Why pretend doing it on some other lump of rock suddenly changes the rules?
  • I have elsewhere said Niven writes better space-stuff than Cherryh, but actually some of the most memorable space-scenes I've ever read were in Cherryh. For instance, in the first Chanur book, how they're sitting in the outer part of a system, with their engine cold, getting hit by the various communications wave-fronts as they hit, to see who's there and if it's safe. That scene quite fires the youthful imagination, let me tell you.

    Or the stuff about how you have to secure things on the ships, because accelerations make things fly around? Now, I seem to recall a related passage about how the corridors of the ships would become chasms during a rocket-burn, which raises the important question "why would you build them that way?", but still.

    Also, if you'd like to know how to write alien psychology and linguistics without getting into Sapir-Whorf silliness, I cordially recommend the first book of her Foreigner series.
  • So here's a question: can you name a science fiction writer who has a grownup's understanding of history or politics? They're all raving psycho leftists or libertarians (or left-libertarians), and they take a provincially Hegelian view of history that makes Nazi Germany look cosmopolitan.

    Well, except Cherryh, I suppose—certainly compared to Iain Banks, John C. Wright, John Scalzi, John Ringo (what are they, Red Lectroids?), Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Charles Stross, or Cory Doctorow (who, yes, writes science fiction). Or look at the "Golden Age"—did Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, between them, ever write 300 true words concerning human society or human nature?

    I suppose it's not all bad. My stuff oughtta have a built-in market, namely "people who don't make their politics into an unusually hidebound religion". Oh, and also "people who do not hold as an article of faith that, by a bizarre coincidence, all the decent and intelligent people are alive right now".
  • I'm curious to know how so many people can continue to get away with Orientalism in the matter of alien cultures. I mean, quite seriously, how many aliens who are really the Japanese does one civilization need to create? And not even good versions of the Japanese, the kind of portrayal you'd expect from someone whose exposure is a few magazine articles and the movie Gung Ho.

    Ditto, I suppose, Plains Indians and Vikings. There are other cultures you could take inspiration from, you know, and if you are going to keep using those ones you might take the trouble to get them right for a change. I mean, what if one of those alien races based on the tea-ceremony/flower-arranging aspect of Japan (which come to think of it probably includes Cherryh's stsho), also had people who were very finicky about the proper method of doing straight-man/funny-man comedy duos? Because the Japanese are connoisseurs of the form, they've been doing it for about 400 years.