Spot Check IV

Random thoughts/reality check. Almost more like "random reality checks".
  • A comment on a blog I was reading recently (I won't link it because I'm about to be quite harsh to the viewpoint expressed, and I'm talking about it here precisely because I don't want to be personally harsh to the person who made the comment), reminded me of something. Something I and many others have mentioned before and which please God we shall mention again, until people wise up and we stop having this subject to talk about.

    Namely, Trans-humanism is a form of Premillennial Dispensationalism. I say this because its proponents respond to future-speculation scenarios, fictional or non-fictional, with "Oh, but the Singularity will make all those projections moot." I'm trying real hard to figure out a way that that's different from "Oh, but the Rapture will happen first." And I'm coming up blank. Oh, except that the Rapture is an avowedly mystical belief in a miraculous occurrence, while the Singularity just involves ignoring everything we know about machine-logic, the mind, and even the brain.
  • Apparently Orson Scott Card has a book where, if the Spanish never show up to topple the "Aztecs" (i.e. the Tenochca Triple Alliance), the Tlaxcalteca eventually do it instead. Then they, get this, sail to Europe and conquer it, because, according to Card, Tlaxcala was even worse than Tenochtitlan.

    Only...snerk. No, not even a little bit. Point one, Tlaxcala was nowhere near as bad as Tenochtitlan; they had much less human sacrifice and still maintained the taboo on cannibalism. They also weren't crazy imperialists. Point two, exactly how many thousands of years later would this conquest of Europe take place? I ask because the Tlaxcalteca, like the Tenochca, had very limited, mostly decorative, usage of copper—most of their weapons and tools were still flint and obsidian, their armor quilted fabric—and they not only had essentially no large-scale ocean travel (so no way to transport an invasion-force), they also had no horses. How is a Neolithic infantry force with no gunpowder supposed to pose a threat to the powers of continental Europe, when the second-stringers of Europe marched roughshod over that civilization like a Martian invasion? (Spain and England went and kicked non-Europeans around because France and Germany wouldn't let them play with Europe's big kids; they were not "great powers" until the profits from their colonial enterprises gave them a leg up.) None of which even addresses the little matter of disease, of course.

    That's roughly as stupid as writing an alternate history where, because Stalin didn't use Nazism as an excuse to enslave half of Europe, France eventually topples the Reich. And then it sends teleporting death-squads all around the world to murder all of the Jews, because French nationalists are blithely stated to be more anti-Semitic than Nazis. Also France has teleportation technology in this alt-hist, without a lick of explanation.
  • I find it interesting that people bitch at the mere presence of elves or dwarves in a work of fantasy, but not at all the telepathic dragons bonded for life to particular riders. Elves and dwarves in legends are at least a little like how Tolkien portrayed them, even if his interpretations color everyone else's treatment of them. But those telepathic dragons bonded to their riders? Those are purely McCaffrey—it's like if, rather than just having dwarves and elves, your dwarves were all made by a craftsman angel who was impatient for the awakening of The One's Firstborn and your elves divide based on whether they followed a hunting angel to a Country of the Blessed or not.

    It's gotten to the point where if your work contains a dragon-rider, I regard it as a very big mark against you automatically. Even freaking Dragonlance is more original than that, since it's at least a tie-in and Gygax didn't rip off McCaffrey for the D&D dragons. (Come to think of it, why are all dragons, even McCaffrey's, color-coded? I get that her different colors are castes in the dragons' hives—which is its own kind of stupid—but why are different castes different colors? Reproductive alate termites are brown, and all the others are white with brown faces. The castes of termite are differentiated by their anatomy; give some of your dragon-castes specialized horns or jaw-shapes to reflect a different role. Of course, the browns, greens, and blues don't actually have differentiated roles.)

    Then again, I'm probably asking too much. Even making allowances for "it was hard to do research before the Internet", McCaffrey flunks biology so many times in the course of the Pern books that it's less "flunking" and more "escorted off-campus by the police while your academic transcripts are ceremonially burned".
  • It's always fascinating to me how many people who write bad fantasy have no idea how the world in prior eras worked. In Goodkind, houses in Richard's town (remember, there's no magic where he lives) have lawns. Eragon's family can't afford meat but he and his cousin each have their own room, and they get an allowance. The whole society is always just like ours, except when it being different is a plot-point.

    Or there's the "everything prior to the 19th century was the late-18th century Ancien Regime, back into antiquity" thing. Like Ken Follett—admittedly bad historical fiction rather than bad fantasy—with his serfs who pay their rents individually, which is the post-Reformation landlord system, not manorialism (which is called that because the whole manor was one economic unit). Or really anyone who thinks their illiterate caricature of absolute monarchy is remotely compatible with their illiterate caricature of feudalism.
  • I have a self-correction to make. Having only read Sherlock Holmes in childhood, and not all of them even then, I assumed that the pop-cultural "genius psychopath" thing was accurate. My younger sister has, in the last few years, become an obsessive fan of the books, and she informs me that Holmes is actually very kind and sympathetic, and mostly just has ADHD; his social impairments aren't even Autism Spectrum let alone psychopathy (and you "Sherlock" fans can shove your "high-functioning sociopath" meme...which isn't even accurate to your watered-down source).

    It's just that modern audiences are not equipped to understand the 19th-century English middle-class gentleman, so they take his oddness and denials of various social niceties at face-value. Holmes is really about as much a psychopath as Hilaire Belloc, who had much the same formal prose style (though he didn't talk that way in person), and who was similarly slovenly when he didn't have reason not to be. All the things Holmes says about not understanding women, and all the things Watson says about Holmes never expressing his feelings, are actually their precious "unreliable narrators"—also a stereotypical 19th-century English middle-class thing, not knowing one's own virtues. You did realize it's a meta-narrative joke, right?
  • I can't be alone in finding things like Scrapped Princess somewhat ironic, not to say an example of chutzpah. I mean, that series is about a religion like medieval Catholicism being used to retard technological development—and it was made in a country that found out the Earth is round when a Jesuit told them. I realize that it's not their fault, it's because they listened to English speakers about history (never a good idea—might as well trust Soviet history), but it's still pretty damned stupid.
  • I probably won't see Interstellar; the premise is stupid (we do actually know what nitrogen-metabolizing organisms are like, and they ultimately mean both more plant-life and more oxygen—which any elementary-school kid who did a report on George Washington Carver for Black History Month could tell you). It also involves woo-woo mystagoguery about space-travel leading to some kind of "cosmic truth", which is frankly like trying to find out how your parents met by asking Maasai tribesmen (if your parents met over here, I mean; substitute somewhere else—Berwyn, Illinois?—if they actually did meet in northern Tanzania).

    Someone should probably explain to all these halfwitted Tsiolkovsky-plagiarizers that space...is just a distant, weird part of "the world". It's not a place to find any spiritual realities you can't find at home. Just the opposite. You're too busy not dying in space, for being there to reveal any "ultimate truths"; there may be no atheists in foxholes but Pascal's Wager isn't terribly insightful theology. I delight in turning Yuri Gagarin's agitprop line against people who think they can find some form of transcendence in space: there is no God out there. Not one you can't find much more conveniently at home, anyway.

    Anyone who thinks we're going to find out some fundamental truth about ourselves by looking in space is going to be disappointed, and cripple the actually legitimate, not-insane purposes which space-exploration can serve. (They're also a weird throwback to Peripatetic cosmology, with its changeless perfect celestial bodies and whatnot.)
  • I think I might have mentioned it, but certainly not enough: I'd been laboring under a misapprehension, one that actually led to me getting the correct results. Namely, I had been thinking I was fudging by having my spaceships accelerate at the same rate no matter what the mass in their propellant tanks was. But no, it just means I was going with constant acceleration trajectories, which do, in fact, decrease the thrust the engine outputs as the total mass of the ship decreases.

    It's a strategy that tends to go with big honkin' "like you mean it" engines; our current piddly little chemical rockets, for instance, go with "constant thrust trajectories", instead. A constant acceleration trajectory has other advantages for the science-fiction writer, aside from being associated with the kinds of rockets that move things along at a plot-friendly clip. One of them is that, as the Wikipedia article on constant acceleration puts it, "where the vehicle acceleration is high compared to the local gravitational acceleration, the orbit approaches a straight line". Straight lines are convenient to write around.