Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for June, 2007


Posted by hyperpat on June 27, 2007

Just what is marriage? The ‘traditional’ definition is: the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family (Merriam Webster). Many people have taken this to mean one man and one woman. But it doesn’t have to be. Polygamy and polyandry have both been practiced by various groups even within American society, and the current move towards recognizing same-sex marriage shows that people are not monolithic in their choice of relationships.

In practical terms, a marriage really needs to perform two functions: provide a stable environment within which intimacy and caring for another can flourish, and provide enough emotional and economic stability that children can be safely raised. Any method that satisfies these can work.  The current legal and social insistence that only the union of one man and one woman constitutes a marriage has some very negative consequences, not the least of which is the phenomenon of serial polygamy/polyandry (marriage, divorce, marriage, divorce, rinse and repeat) which has a very profound effect on any children caught in middle of this.

People are naturally attracted to others, it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Monogamy is not.  But children need stability and security, an environment where they know what to expect come tomorrow and the next day. With the current setup, if mommy or daddy suddenly gets a yen for someone else, there is no legal or socially recognized alternative to the divorce and re-marriage route.  Regardless of how well this is handled, the children are net losers in this equation, as what they saw as eternally stable is turned upside down.

Instead, why not have the new person become part of the existing family? While obviously not all people have the emotional makeup to handle multiple partners in a marriage, for those that do, it would at least minimize the traumatic effect on the children as they wouldn’t ‘lose’ either parent, while at the same time probably provide a more secure economic basis for the family, with three (or more) breadwinners.  And if this scenario is extended in time a little bit, where current members can bring in new partners to the marriage, you just might end up with an immortal family. This was the kind of scenario that Heinlein envisaged in his line marriages of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or a little more formally, with written contracts, as his S-Groups of Friday.

I think our current laws need to be modified to allow the marriage of two or more people (gender irrelevant). While it’s most likely that only a small percentage of the population would take advantage of this, it would at least provide an alternative to the current mess, where some cannot be legally married, though they wish to be, and other marriages are split up unnecessarily.

Posted in Books, Politics, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 2 Comments »

Space, The Final Frontier

Posted by hyperpat on June 26, 2007

Recently Charles Stross posted an article about how we’ll never get around to colonizing the other planets in the solar system, let alone interstellar colonization, citing the extraordinary cost, technological difficulty, and very poor return on investment as reasons. He also pooh-poohs the idea that we’ll do it anyway just because it’s there. Now while his numbers are very probably correct given today’s level of technology, I think he is seriously underestimating the drive towards going where we’ve never been before, to make a new home far away from the old homestead.

Mars is the obvious logical choice out of all the sundry rocks in the solar system, as it is close enough to a human friendly environment that is fairly easy to see what steps would be necessary to make it into something where we can actually live. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red, Blue, & Green Mars set lays out these steps in admirable fashion, although it’s quite probable that the time frame he envisions is way too short to actually achieve that goal (although at least one scientist thinks we could be well down that path by the end of this century). Could we do it with today’s technology? Probably not. But the pace of progress shows no signs of slowing down, and if we can get to the point where a space elevator is a real possibility, it will remove one of the greatest impediments to this task, that of having to lift large quantities of various necessary tools and biomasses out of Earth’s deep gravity well with something as inefficient and dangerous as rocket power. Lacking such an item right now, exploration by both robot probe and manned missions is not only doable, but necessary, and we can leave the colonization for a little later.

Of course, the limiting factor here is not really technology, but money (of course, the better the technology, the less it will cost). Who is going to fund all of this? NASA’s mandate and budget will only stretch so far. And while there are always a few with visionary dreams, the average taxpayer doesn’t see much point to spending all this money to investigate a world that seems to be populated with nothing but some very uninteresting rocks. But it is precisely those who have that visionary dream, coupled with a few individuals who have some really deep money pockets who either share that dream or can be convinced of its value, that will really drive this. This is happening now, as private ventures towards developing an economical space plane have already shown.

There has always been a small segment of the human population that is just not satisfied with the status quo, who want to see what’s over that next hill, who will endure great deprivation in search of such dreams. Without such people, humanity would become stagnant and ingrown, always worrying about the local problem of the day, and missing one of the grander aspects of what it is to be human. Stross is wrong. We will colonize our solar system, as there will always be a few of us who don’t count the cost.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 4 Comments »

The Pitfalls of Self-Publishing

Posted by hyperpat on June 25, 2007

The latest book I read reminded me very forcefully why self-publishing is frequently not a good idea. This particular book violated just about every rule there is for good writing:

1. Grammar: run-on and incomplete sentences, inappropriately placed commas, semi-colons, quotation marks, near-random improper capitalization, disagreement between subject and verb, use of the wrong homonym (‘there’ for ‘their’), spelling, verb tense-the list continues on and on. A lot of this would have been caught by any standard word processor, which obviously wasn’t used, and this really can’t be blamed on the typesetter, as there were just too many of the things (and even if it was, even a cursory proof-read should have caught and fixed most of this).

2. Lack of definition of precisely where in time a scene was. Apparently this author did not know how to indicate a break in the action or a shift in time, leading to many cases of reading two or three paragraphs before realizing that the focus had shifted to a time point several days after the preceding scene.

3. Chapter breaks not related to an actual conclusion of a particular scene. This sometimes led to ‘chapters’ as short as a half-page, and the succeeding chapter directly continuing the preceding artificially short chapter’s action. This also indicated a larger point: much of the work was not constructed in normal setup- conflict-resolution fashion, indicating the author did not have a good handle on where he wanted his story to go from one page to the next.

4. Introducing and then dropping large numbers of characters (sometimes by killing them off, sometimes merely by forgetting to ever mention them again). Now this isn’t much of problem for minor spear-carrying characters, but when this is done to major players, it becomes very hard to maintain any involvement or interest in the story.

5. Related to (4) is the introduction of entirely new major players late in the story, separated from the original cast by hundreds of years, without any handles given to the reader for how these new people relate to the earlier portion of the story.

6. Basic errors of fact, such as referring to the constant pi (spelled ‘pie’!) as a recurring decimal, something it decidedly is not, and this is by a character who is supposedly a mathematical prodigy.

7. Large info-dumps that interrupt the story flow (what there is of it).

Now why should I go into such detail about a bad book? Because, underneath all the problems,  I could see the elements of a good story, with a fairly well worked out future ‘history’, some interesting speculations about where science and technology may be heading, and a thematic message of current relevance. The self-publishing service that this author used has services that would have corrected most of the grammatical and formatting problems, and could probably have given the author some good advice about the other problems. Of course, these services cost a bit more than their basic no-frills package, which is pretty obviously all this author paid for.

Now self-publishing can work, but it requires that the author do a lot of due diligence on his story, not the least of which is having someone else read the thing before pushing it out into the wild world, if nothing else to catch simple mistakes that the author just can’t see because he’s too close to it.  But it should also be a very large red flag if the story has been submitted to and rejected by multiple traditional publishers that there just might be something seriously wrong with the manuscript. The author should think very long and very hard before deciding to go the self-publish route (at the very least, this is a big economic decision, where you have to pay out instead of getting money coming to you).  Said author should have some very big overriding factor to go this way (such as, say, the work is so cutting edge or controversial that no traditional publisher will touch it).  And he’d better be pretty sure that it is just some such factor that caused all the rejections, not that the book is poorly written. Because no amount of advertising or promotion will help a bad book, and once something bad is out there for all to see, it will leave an indelible impression, telling any prospective buyer of future works “Avoid! Avoid!”

If you decide you must go the self-publish route, at the very least work with a firm that has good editorial services. Use them. Long-established authors pay attention to what their editor tells them. You should too. The end result will be a better book, and the extra cost of those editorial services will eventually seem like a bargain.

Posted in Writing | 3 Comments »

Watching the Best

Posted by hyperpat on June 22, 2007

I watched the AFI’s presentation of the 100 all-time best films the other night. This was the latest update to their list (for the complete list, see here), chosen from 400 nominated films, and specifically done to update the list to include those films that had been made since the last time they did this ten years ago. Probably to no one’s surprise, Citizen Kane held on to the top spot. This film has been recognized again and again as perhaps the premier embodiment of what film-making is all about – but for me, anyway, I really don’t think it’s all that great. There are other films I think are better, that have more to say to today’s audiences than a film that’s a not-so-subtle portrayal of William Randolf Hearst, who after all made his mark almost a century ago.

Overall, however, the list does recognize most of what I consider the best of Hollywood. Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind, City Lights, Casablanca, The Grapes of Wrath (a rare case of translating a great book into a great movie), and this time around even Lord of the Rings, almost certainly the best fantasy movie ever made, managed to make the list. There are others I think are rated too highly, most notably The Godfather (it’s good, but #2?). And there are some that didn’t make the list that I think should have: Cool Hand Luke, Fiddler on the Roof, Becket, The Ten Commandments, and The Hustler. But what is there is a pretty good selection.

But beyond just what movies made the list, the presentation the other night was excellent, with Morgan Freeman doing the narration, clips from all 100 movies, and almost always with some commentary by at least one of the actors/directors of said movie that helped define just what it was about that particular movie that was deserving of such recognition. The opening montage, consisting of very short clips from a large number of these movies, showed me just how great an impression these movies had made on me, as I could identify almost all of them from those brief 3-4 second excerpts.

Hollywood produces a tremendous amount of dreck, year in and year out. But every once in a while, there is something produced that deserves the label art, something that becomes part of our cultural heritage, and leaves an indelible mark on its audience.

Posted in Movies | Leave a Comment »

The Place of Women in SF

Posted by hyperpat on June 18, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of flap over the scarcity of women authors on the current Hugo nominee list. I think this needs to be looked at with a larger perspective than just the presence or absence of women on such a list, as there has been a long history of reported ‘discrimination’ against women in this field. Such a perspective is offered by Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, which I just finished reading. Within this book, she traces the impact and portrayal of women from the earliest days of sf as a separate genre (basically from 1926 onward).

Now clearly, looking at the sf produced in those early days, and continuing up to somewhere around the fifties, there was often (not always, but the exceptions were rare) both an implied and an explicit ‘niche’ that women were supposed to occupy: that of homemaker, baby factory, damsel in distress, love interest, a person that was clueless about science, and definitely not ‘hero’ (or heroine) material. As such, they were not supposed to even be interested in sf, let alone be fans or writers of a field that many rather prominent fans felt was a ‘male only’ area. But regardless of the protestations by some of these folk, in letter columns or some rather snide editorializing, clearly there were female fans, even in the early days. But portrayal of women within the actual stories almost invariably fell into the niche described (or they were left out entirely as not being germane to the story). Stories that actually developed a true romance between the characters were often panned, and female protagonists were almost unheard of (except for a few works that explicitly tried to explore gender boundaries and roles, such as those that posited an all-female world). Some editors also had a definite bias against stories that had such a ‘love interest’, or worse, actively discriminated against women writers. This is not to say that women didn’t write sf in that period. The names of Leigh Brackett, Katherine Maclean, Carol Emshmiller, C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, Zenna Henderson, along with quite a few more, are still known (and respected) today.

But it wasn’t till the late sixties that women authors and more realistic portrayals of women within the stories became a driving force within the field, a period often referred to as the ‘feminist revolution’. Joanna Russ, Ursala K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre and of course James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon, along with many others, propelled women to prominence, both as recognized authors of great skill and for their portrayal of women within their stories that were not tied down by the patriarchal attitude that had been so prevalent. As evidence of the their new prominence, the Hugo nomination lists for the period of  1968-1980 shows 41 nominations for women out of a total of 245, vs 6 out of 118 for the period of 1959-1967. Since this initial explosion of nominations, the ratio has held fairly steady at about 1/5 of all nominations, though there does seem to be a little fall off recently to about 1/6. Whether this ratio is appropriate obviously depends on just how many women authors there are versus men, a number nobody seems to have a good handle on. But perhaps the greatest marker of this change was an item that Dr. Larbalestier didn’t mention – Andre Norton, who had been writing sf since the mid-thirties (though most of it came after 1948), had almost invariably used male protagonists for her works, but in mid-sixties she switched to using female ones. The very name she wrote under (along with her other names of Andrew North and Allen Weston) is an indication of the prevailing attitude in early sf, choosing a ‘male’ name rather than her given one.

But it should also be noted that sf does not live in a vacuum, but is strongly influenced by the general cultural attitudes in which its authors and fans live. A large amount of all sf has been written by American and British authors, and at least for the period of, say, 1900 to 1960, the American/British culture was strongly patriarchal. This general attitude of considering women to be at best second-class citizens actually has a history stretching back far earlier than this (just note that America’s founding fathers didn’t think women deserved to vote). Women have been discriminated against within the ‘mainstream’ publishing area – I even hear stories today that there are some editors who tell prospective women authors to stick to ‘romance’ stories, that they’re not good enough to write ‘literary’ fiction (regardless of how many examples there are to the contrary).

SF has, for most of its history, been considered by many to be a mainly a ‘guy’ oriented type of literature. Clearly, this is not totally true. SF, as a literature of ideas, often has focused on gadgets, gee-whiz technology, and has sometimes forgotten about the social impact of those gadgets. But the best writers have always considered not just the gadgetry, but what people do and act like in whatever scenario has been envisioned, and this most definitely includes women as active parts of that society. Our society today still doesn’t quite treat women as the equal of men (note the difference in salaries and entrance rates to the corporate boardroom), but neither is it the same society of eighty years ago, where the only proper place for women was as a homemaker. SF stories have, to some degree, recognized that change. Much of the time such stories are written by women, but there are more and more stories that treat women as equal partners in life’s game where you really can’t tell if the author was male or female, and that’s as it should be.

Women authors are getting recognition for their work, though perhaps not quite in the numbers that are totally appropriate. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a SF fan today that would say women don’t belong in the field.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 3 Comments »

Creationism and the Scalzi Challenge

Posted by hyperpat on June 11, 2007

Haven’t posted for a while due to another bout of 12 hour/7days a week workitus. I’m getting too old for this kind of schedule…

But reading over on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, I discover that the Creation Museum has just opened. John, in his typical Scalzi snarky way, has managed to stir up his readership to get him to go visit said museum, if they will just contribute enough to make it worth his while (see here). Contributions towards this educational trip will go to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State organization. For another look at what this museum offers, the folks at Ars Technica have this.

Now, if those who believe in Creationism wish to educate their children in the privacy of their homes in the tenets of this ideology, that’s their business. If they wish to advertise it via this museum, which people can go and visit based strictly on their own personal wishes to do so, that’s their business. If they wish to get this stuff put into science textbooks that will be used at public schools, that’ s not their business, it’s yours and mine. Americans already have a tough time keeping up with the rest of world in terms of scientific knowledge and investigation, and confusing students with faith-based material certainly will not help in this regard. Separation of church and state (and in this case, ‘state’ very definitely includes public schools) is a very good idea, not the least of which is that when ‘faith’ takes control of a government, there can be no opposition, as obviously those of the faith will reject (in sometimes very bloody ways) any dissension as not coming from their deity, and they have the absolutely correct answers.

How science works is not perfect. It doesn’t always look objectively at new data and theories, and sometimes advocates of new ideas are ignored or pilloried. But it does eventually get around to looking at that new data, and old ideas will get tossed out to be replaced by better ideas that fit all the known facts a bit more closely. The closer the theories match how the world really works, the better for all of us, as these theories form the basis for all the fancy technological goodies that make our lives richer and more rewarding, with less of our time spent on the mundane problems of surviving. Science is basically about asking questions, and the mindset that asks and allows for questions helps to not only keep our government healthy, but allows all of us to live our lives in the way we wish.

So go visit Scalzi’s site, and contribute to his trip if you feel so inspired. If nothing else, the end result should be some entertaining reading.

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