Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

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Archive for August, 2009

A Warmer World

Posted by hyperpat on August 31, 2009

The UN is holding another conference this week about strategies to ameliorate the possible consequences of global warming, from floods and droughts to more severe tropical storms. Pointedly, they are not addressing anything having to do with CO2 emission caps or reductions in fossil fuel consumptions. And for a very good reason: agreements about such matters are almost assuredly not going to happen in the near future, or perhaps ever. What’s not being discussed is just how difficult such caps will be to implement, or what their true economic cost would be.

A quick look at the current state of energy production in the world would show that the overwhelming percentage of such production is fueled by fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. Water, wind, and solar represent only a tiny fraction of the total. Nuclear has a fair percentage, but it faces a very large uphill battle against greatly expanding its use.

A fair question is, can the so-called ‘green’ methods of water, wind, and solar actually be expanded to sizes great enough to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels in a reasonable time frame and with a reasonable economic cost? And even if they can be, what effect(s) will they have in their own right on the world’s ecology?

Let’s look at wind power, to start. The UK actually has a plan to deploy about 3000 wind turbines in the ocean over the next ten years (I picked on this set as they do have a fairly comprehensive plan, unlike many other developed countries). But the numbers are daunting: to achieve their stated goal would require the erection of a turbine almost every single day in that next ten years. The result of actually doing this would increase their total wind power generation from less than 1% of the total electricity generation to about 5%. Not a bad start, you might say, but look at the cost: about $1M per turbine, or a total of $3B for just the UK effort. And this does not count the equipment needed for distribution and load balancing. But you argue that surely wind power is the most ecologically friendly way to produce power? Perhaps, but it does have at least four impacts: large wind turbines are not the most sightly things to have cluttering up the horizon, they do produce a fair amount of noise, there are impacts on bird populations, and a final impact that I don’t think anyone has modeled, that of ‘stealing’ energy from the world total of wind production. What effect that might have, if these turbines were installed in significant numbers around the world, on things like cloud formation, storm generation, or rainfall patterns is a complete unknown.

Dramatic increases in solar and water power have similar costs and problems associated with them. Nuclear can be increased from its current level, and can make a significant dent in the need for fossil fuel generation, but it is also a very high cost solution, with its own ecological problems of waste generation and possibilities of both significant accidents and of being terrorist targets.

Now, just for argument’s sake, let’s assume that the current targets that have been agreed to by most countries actually happens. What’s the end result? Do we suddenly have a world where the total CO2 level is stable or even declining? Not by a long shot. Even with the 20% reductions being aimed for, this only gets us back to about 1988 levels of CO2 production. Which means that while the rate of increase of this stuff in the atmosphere might decline, the absolute level will continue to climb. To actually stabilize this level calls for far more draconian measures of 50% reductions along with strategies to increase sequestration of CO2. And the only foreseeable way to achieve anything close to this is for the developed world to drastically reduce their total energy consumption, while at the same time forcing the undeveloped world to stay where they are (the quickest route to developing is to employ the cheapest method of increased energy production, and that implies the dirtiest method, burning coal). How would we go about reducing our energy consumption, especially considering that any reasonable projection shows we will continue to increase that consumption? Conservation only goes so far, there is only so much that is wasted, and is a self-limiting strategy. We could go back to horse and buggy days, if we were willing to somehow get rid of 4/5 of our population – people forget that the current world population is only made possible at all by high-tech and energy-intensive farming methods. I don’t think this is a solution that many will sign up for. The basic answer is that it’s not going to happen.

So what do we do? We learn to live with a world that is going to get a little warmer. Whether CO2 is actually the driver for the observed increase in temperatures since about 1850 is still highly debatable. Another theory states that almost all of the observed increase is due to variations in the sun’s output, and such variations happen over a 1500 year cycle. In support of this theory are the known historical data of the Dark Ages warm period of about 900-1300AD (which, by the way, was apparently about 2 degrees warmer than today’s world, and saw the Viking colonization of Greenland, which really was green, then), the ‘Little Ice Age’ from 1300-1800, and our current warming trend; much longer data points obtained from ice cores, sedimentation data, tree ring growth; astronomical and satellite observations, and a host of other points. But regardless of which theory you subscribe to, both point to this world heating up about another 2 degrees C in next century. Given that it doesn’t look at all feasible to make significant changes to the CO2 generation or overall level, and we obviously can’t do anything about the sun’s output level, it looks to me, at least, that much more effort should be going into developing methods to live in a warmer world. And this probably means more energy generation will be needed, not less.

Generating more power via alternative sources from fossil fuels does make sense, but not because of all the scare tactics that are being tossed around by the advocates of the CO2 warming theory. It makes sense for the simple reason that those fossil fuels are a very finite resource. When they’re gone, and if we don’t have good alternatives in place, then we really will be up the creek minus paddles. But crash programs to switch over, even if you could get everyone to agree to them, driven by unrealistic fears, will do nothing but at the least cause a global depression that will make the current economic crisis look trifling, or cause resource wars that make the current set of brush conflicts seem puny.

Posted in Economics, Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Science Fiction, The Undead Genre

Posted by hyperpat on August 26, 2009

Probably somewhere around 1930, someone was stating that science fiction was dying, that all the story lines had already been mined for whatever treasure they might contain, and science was overtaking all the good ideas. They’re still saying exactly the same things today. Is there any more cause to believe these doomsayers now than way back when? Let’s examine the issues:

1. Print magazine sales numbers are down. And not just down, but way down. And the number of magazines devoted to SF has tailed downward since the mid-fifties. Surely this is an indication of a moribund and comatose field? I would argue, however, that to some degree this decline is a product of SF being too successful (see also my prior post on the death of the sf short story). Back in the fifties SF was almost totally a ghetto, written and consumed by a very insular group that had almost no contact with the larger literary world. Then came the New Wave, a few SF authors hitting the best-seller lists, a smattering of critical analysis of the field that didn’t totally dismiss it as fantasy for little boys, a few mainstream authors who gingerly put their toes into speculative waters, and the ghetto walls started to crumble. At the same time, real, visible scientific and technological advances and a couple of spectacular movies were making the general public aware that that crazy Buck Rogers stuff wasn’t totally crazy. From the sixties through the late eighties, this broadening trend continued. A few colleges started to offer SF as a course in literature. Science fiction has become at least somewhat ‘respectable’, or at the very least not easily dismissed as just ‘adolescent male fantasy’ . Nowadays a writer has far more potential markets for his science fiction writing than just those magazines that specialize in the form.

2. Science marches on, and stories that dealt with simple rockets to the moon have obviously been overtaken by such advances. This is a congenital hazard to writing stories in this field – regardless of what scientific concept is the driving force for a story, at some point in the future it’s entirely possible that new scientific theories and actual technological gadgets based on those theories may make the story obsolete, old hat, or worse, shown to be impossible. But people forget (especially those who claim that SF is running out of ideas) that SF is not just about possible new nifty gadgets, but rather about how humans live and react and form societies based on such gadgets (or the gadgets’ long term effects, such as all the A-bombs in the world being set off), and that viewpoint, which is outside of what can be achieved via mundane fiction, will never lose its impact or relevance. Which is why it’s still possible to read and enjoy something like Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A corollary to the continuing advancement of science is that new concepts and theories appear, such as string theory or quantum entanglement, which can become fodder for new SF stories based on same. As long as science doesn’t run out of new things to discover, or the engineers can no longer design new gadgets that impact how people live, science fiction writers will have new things to incorporate into their stories.

3. There are only a limited number of human-centric plots (I think it was Heinlein who boiled it down to just three actually different plots), regardless of what genre it is being written in. SF, however, has a greater range than common mundane fiction, allowing for plots that deal with man (or alien) vs universe as their conflict point, rather than just man-vs-man. But within that limited number, there is room for an infinite amount of shading and subtlety. This applies just as much to sf as to mundane fiction; clearly, there will always be room for a ‘new’ story.

4. Some writers and publishers are scrupulously trying to avoid the label ‘science fiction’. Partially this is due to the still not-totally-respectable odor associated with that label in literary circles, and partially due to the general reading public’s impression (still, even after thirty years of acknowledgment that there is some mature value to things written within the genre) that it’s ‘kids stuff’. There’s also a fear by many potential readers of just not being able to understand the concepts and science in today’s works, a fear which is at least partially justifiable, as there are certainly some (but also certainly not all) sf works today that call for far more understanding and knowledge of modern science than the average man in the street has. However, whether works by such writers are labeled sf or not by either themselves or their publishers, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t actually sf. Cormac Macarthy’s The Road is definitely sf, regardless of how academics or the general public view it. Perhaps, however, it does mean that sf, as a distinct, easily separable and identifiable genre of writing, is disappearing, becoming more and more incorporated into the general field of just ‘fiction’, another tool for certain types of story ideas to be used whenever appropriate.

Science fiction is not dying. It has matured some; it has become more ‘literary’, its minimum standards have improved drastically, its markets have broadened and become less easily identifiable. None of these are bad things.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 5 Comments »

The Demise of the SF Short Story?

Posted by hyperpat on August 13, 2009

There’s been quite a bit of moaning and groaning in the SF world that the SF short story is dead, supported by the fact that SF magazine subscription and newsstand sales have been falling, falling, falling… While the decline in sales figures are very real (as an example, Analog had sales over 100,000 copies in 1984, it now sports just about 30,000 in sales), does it really indicate a decline in readership for short SF, or is it merely an indicator of something else?

Once upon a time, I used to subscribe to all the SF mags: Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Analog, F&SF, Amazing, Fantastic, etc. When these issues arrived, they got devoured in short order. How did I get started on these things? By seeing them on the magazine racks and checkout counters at just about every grocery and convenience store, where their often garish (and often much maligned) covers really stood out from the rest of the material on those same racks. Which indicates the first point: people won’t get involved with these mags unless they know they are there, that they are positioned and designed to attract the casual browser. How long has it been since I’ve seen one of these mags at such places? Years. Distribution and display space is certainly one item that is causing the decline in their readership. What would it take to attract the casual reader today? In lieu of suddenly being able to place the magazines everywhere due to some miracle change in distribution methods, perhaps something like a YouTube presence or ads placed on Amazon or some of the most popular blogs – not cheap, but somehow these mags have to make their presence known.

How many SF mags do I subscribe to today? Zero. Why? Almost all my current SF reading today is novels, with only a rare (and usually single-author) anthology in the mix. The reason for this is something that Analog’s AnLab highlighted a long time ago, namely that longer pieces are typically more popular due to the fact that there is room to fully develop characters and environments. The SF short story is an extremely difficult form to do well, due to the inherent needs of SF to build entire worlds that the mainstream story can just take as background givens. In testament to this, I can rattle off literally a hundred excellent and highly memorable SF novels, stories that I can remember quite clearly even though I read them forty years ago, but I would be hard pressed to name more than 10 short stories that have had a similar impact. The difficulty in writing a great sf short story also leads to one of the complaints I hear today, that these stories keep treading the same old ground and the only people reading them are a graying and declining in numbers group of people. I don’t really agree with this; a look at the Hugo nominees in short fiction categories shows there’s still vitality here, but as has always been true, memorable short stories are a rarer beast than memorable novel-length ones.

Although having the SF mags run serials was always controversial with some segments of their readership, they were often a great draw to go get the next issue, and at one time the best novels were being initially published this way (Herbert’s Dune, for example). My impression is that there have been fewer serials receiving a Hugo nod in the last ten years or so, which may be due to several factors: limited space in only a few mags, more available ways for authors to market/publish the books from self-publishing to online distribution, more traditional publishers accepting first-novel works without prior magazine exposure, etc. Here is one area where online publication can help, as there aren’t any space/page limitations to be worked around to fit a novel into the magazine, which was (is) one of the constant objections the print magazines see from readers to serials, as they just take up too much space and crowd out a larger number of shorter works.

Which brings up the cost issue. The mag’s prices today are nearly equal to what you pay for a full paperback book. And the price needs to be that high to pay the authors, editors, illustrators, and printing costs. Online publication, instead of the dead-tree format, at least eliminates the printing costs, and allows for more flexible pricing/bundling – the online music model of price per song/story or price per album/entire magazine might make sense here. To make this work, though, would require probably several years of investment to grow the online version and get current readers of the hardcopy format to switch over.

There are new models appearing. Tor.com is one such, kind of a cross between a blog and an online magazine type format, with lots of comments, articles, and even artwork, with the occasional short story, and just recently, a serial novel. Quite noticeable is that its scope is much broader than traditional SF mags, including things like comics, anime, SF convention news, and links to other sites and happenings in the SF world, along with its own sales cart for books and such that are offered by Tor and related companies. Also noticeable is that the site has something new every day, something the print mags simply can’t do, and this may be key in keeping readership in the wide world of the internet – day old news is just so not there. I haven’t seen any readership or page hit counts for this site, but just from the sheer number of comments it gets on a daily basis indicates it has a fair following. So far, I haven’t seen any advertising from anyone outside of Tor itself, nor do they charge anything for access to the site. Which brings to fore the question of how financially viable this model is for anyone else that doesn’t have the deep pockets of a major book publisher to sustain them. Still, it, along with several other online SF magazines, shows that the market for short SF fiction still exists, there are still readers of this type of material. The fact that there are quite a few of these online mags, many started within the last few years, may in fact be a contributing factor in the decline of the print magazine, as more and more people get their SF fix from their computer, not the newsstand rack.

I’m afraid that the SF print-format magazine really is a dying animal, with almost no hope of saving it in that format. If these publications wish to survive at all, they really must embrace the web, and not in just a trivial manner. But the SF short story is not. Actually, there may be more short pieces appearing today that anytime earlier, but the market is far more fragmented. It used to be that probably 90% of all short SF was published initially in the print mags. I doubt if that figure today is more than 30%.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

People Do Judge a Book by its Cover

Posted by hyperpat on August 12, 2009

There’s been quite a dust-up over the cover art originally chosen for the American ARC edition of Justine Larbaliester’s new book Liar, which portrayed a white girl with long hair, when the actual person inside the book is bi-racial with nappy hair. So much of one that Bloomsbury, the publisher, has now made the decision to change the cover for the hardback release, scheduled for late September. I’m happy to say that the new cover is both appropriate and quite stylish. The cover, along with Justine’s comments about it, can be viewed here.

The reason for the original cover? Unfortunately, it was apparently a marketing decision that felt that a cover with a black person on it just would not sell as well. Now marketing folks should be focused on the color green (as in money), but, as Justine herself says here, this is neolithic besides being racist thinking, fed by bookseller’s impressions with little hard apples-to-apples comparison data to back it up. Plus it showed just how little power an author really has in terms of how their work will be promoted.

The cover art for this book is important. I think the book itself is pretty damned good (see my review), and if it doesn’t get the promotion it deserves, it will be a shame. Because there aren’t many speculative fiction works that have protagonists that are people of color, and covers with white faces will probably not attract (and may actively discourage) young people of color from picking up this book, and discovering a marvelous person who has severe problems with who and what she is and how she eventually comes to grips with those problems. Not bad lessons for any young person of any color, nor for that matter any adult reading this (and they should!).

While I applaud Bloomsbury’s decision to change the cover, it makes me sad to think that this whole fiasco ever had to happen in the first place.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

The 2009 Hugo Awards

Posted by hyperpat on August 10, 2009

The final list:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)

Best Novella
‘‘The Erdmann Nexus’’ by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Novelette
‘‘Shoggoths in Bloom’’ by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)

Best Short Story
‘‘Exhalation’’ by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)

Best Related Book
Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John
Scalzi (Subterranean Press)

Best Graphic Story
Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones
Written by Kaja & Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, colors by Cheyenne
Wright (Airship Entertainment)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
WALL-E Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter, story; Andrew Stanton & Jim
Reardon, screenplay; Andrew Stanton, director (Pixar/Walt Disney)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Joss Whedon, & Zack Whedon, & Jed
Whedon, & Maurissa Tancharoen, writers; Joss Whedon, director (Mutant
Enemy)

Best Editor, Short Form
Ellen Datlow

Best Editor, Long Form
David G. Hartwell

Best Professional Artist
Donato Giancola

Best Semiprozine
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal

Best Fan Writer
Cheryl Morgan

Best Fanzine
Electric Velocipede edited by John Klima

Best Fan Artist
Frank Wu

I was somewhat disappointed that Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother did not win in the Novel category, as to my way of thinking it was clearly better than Gaiman’s effort – but Gaiman has that aura of win to him every time he’s on the ballot. Little Brother did manage to come in second, overtaking Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in the second round of vote counting. (Full voting results are available here).

Wall-E taking the Dramatic Presentation was almost a given; it’s only serious competition was The Dark Knight, and the voting reflected that. Why the Academy Awards couldn’t recognize this movie as the best of the year, well, I’ve expounded on that earlier.

And unlike last year, where almost all my picks ended up winning, the only ones that made it this year were Scalzi’s Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, Cheryl Morgan as best fan writer (long overdue) and Wall-E. Most of my picks ended up at the very bottom of the voting lists.

There has been a fair amount of yack-yack out in the blogosphere that this year’s list of nominee’s, especially in the Novel category, were all a bunch of mediocre, standard fare, popular but not significant, or that somehow the Hugos are all a conspiracy by the SMOF’s to keep the best (read: their choice) works off the nominee list. With this I must violently disagree. First as to the quality of those that did get on the list: Little Brother is possibly the best YA novel to appear in the field in the last 20 years, and touches on social and political themes that are both important and highly relevant to today’s world. Anathem is cutting edge experimental, and a difficult, mind-bending read, which should put paid to the concept that such books are not recognized as significant by the average SF fan. Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale shows just what clear, unadulterated space opera can be, with great characterization and not cluttered up with a hundred pages of esoteric scientific theory.

Yes, I would have liked to see Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World or Le Guin’s Levinia make the short list, but the ones that did make it are certainly reasonable. People need to remember that the best literature must be readable and entertaining; those that have these qualities will normally rise to the top of any popularly voted award (as opposed to those awards given out by jury selection). And for those that didn’t like how this year’s nominee’s and winners worked out, I highly suggest they quit whining and become members of next year’s World SF Con, and send in their own nominations and votes. I note that there were 1074 voting ballots sent in this year, more than in past years, but still not anywhere like the number it could be if those who care about these awards would get off their duffs and vote.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Hugo Awards, Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | Leave a Comment »

 
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