Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Blindfolding the Populace

Posted by hyperpat on July 10, 2007

Closely related to my prior post about busy-bodies sticking their noses into what is clearly other people’s business are the long running attempts to ban certain books, as can be seen from this list, which includes some of the greatest literature written, such as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These attempts have ranged from trying to have it removed from every possible shelf and library, to burning, to issuing death threats (and sometimes more than just threats but actual acts) not only to author, but to those who were involved in publishing and distributing the book (see the writeup of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses).

Most commonly, though, these attempts have occurred at the school level. It is understandable that some parents may find objectionable things in some books, such as discussions of certain subjects, offensive language, or depictions of certain actions that they don’t feel that their little Johnny is ready for. Schools need to be sensitive to parent’s perceptions; most are, and have procedures in place to handle such problems, such as the ability to have the child in question read something else when requested. But instead of requesting that their child not read a particular work for whatever reason that the parent’s find it objectionable, they place a demand to the school board that the work be expunged from all classes and removed from all library shelves. All too often, the school board caves in to these demands, until some other parent requests the book be re-instated, at which point the frequent result is that the work is placed in advancement placement only classes and shelved in the restricted area of the library. This is not an optimum solution. Schools exist in order to educate the child in all the things he will need to know about as an adult. Making access to literary works difficult or impossible is like putting blinders on the child, and then wondering why he’s not ready to function as an adult when that time comes.

But perhaps worse than this form of censorship, which at least has an understandable motive behind it, are those attempts to ban a book from everywhere. There is only one valid reason, at least in my opinion, why something should be suppressed, and its author’s right of free speech abrogated (along with the reader’s right to read what he wishes) and that is if it would cause physical harm to someone (the famous ‘you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater’). The current Supreme Court definition of obscenity, is, in my mind, incorrect and against what is stated in the First Amendment:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Even if 99 out of 100 people in a community think something is obscene trash (thus creating a ‘community standard’) and this same group believes the work in question has no discernible literary or artistic merit, banning this work still deprives the one person in that community who doesn’t think so of his right of free speech in the form of being able to read what he wants. The problem here is that pornographic or obscene works do not physically harm anyone. Absent an overriding reason such as this, I can find no justification for this ‘abridgement of freedom of speech’.

And there is another aspect to this. An author, knowing his work may to subject to such censorship, may decide to alter or leave out certain things in his writings. This effectively constitutes ‘prior restraint’, and down this road lies “Ignorance is Strength” – from another of those books that people have tried to ban.


Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics | 4 Comments »


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 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 »

Private Memories?

Posted by hyperpat on May 22, 2007

Charles Stross, author of Acclerando and Glasshouse, has posted an interesting article on what he sees as the direction of the future. He notes the continuing acceleration of developments in memory storage and bandwidth, and takes a flyer from this to the idea of completely recording every single moment of your life. Now while such a thing may be technically achievable (and he presents a good case that it not only could be done, but done quite cheaply for every single human on the planet), the question I have is would people really want to do this?

Now everyone has some memorable moment(s) in their lives that they’d like to preserve – usually what are considered ‘life markers’, the weddings, graduations, births, etc. And there is some usage for this concept as a memory aid, especially for those suffering from (or who might be prone to) Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems. But record everything? Other than a few extreme exhibitionists, I don’t think so. Because once recorded, it’s subject to being viewed by others, and some of those others probably don’t have your best interests at heart: the police looking for whatever crimes you may have committed (and everyone has committed some crime in their lives, even if it’s as pedestrian as jay-walking), crooks looking for ways to relieve you of your wealth, or your spouse looking for lapses in your fidelity. As Stross notes, having this capability would mean the effective end to any privacy, given that to make it happen, recording devices would need to be everywhere.

What’s frightening about this is that the beginnings of this can be seen right here and now. Almost every store you enter has surveillance cameras, more and more stop lights are being equipped with picture-taking cameras, RFID tags are being embedding in more and more products, the mobile phone cameras that everyone seems to possess nowadays, GPS trackers in cars, every key stroke and mouse click you perform on the web can already be recorded (along with complete monitoring of your PC actions at your workplace), and it’s been possible to marry up medical, financial, purchase history, web browsing, and school records to get a pretty complete profile of someone for some time. As one of the commenters to Stross’ article indicated, the US Constitution is silent on the right to privacy – the Supreme Court has often held in its rulings that there is an implied right, but such is not spelled out in the master document. With the future barreling down upon us, and what privacy we have being nibbled away by more and more gadgets, perhaps we need to start lobbying for a constitutional amendment to make this right explicit. Unless you really want everything you do visible to the whole wide world.


Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | 2 Comments »

The Elusive Allusion

Posted by hyperpat on May 18, 2007

I’ve been reading Samuel Delany’s About Writing for the last couple of days. In terms of sound and solid advice about how to write, it is (as is almost constant in his work), excellent. Seeing how this man can take a mundane paragraph or two and with some seemingly minor changes turn it into something that sings and grabs is both incredible and daunting, as he makes it look easy, even though he’s the first to say that doing this is difficult and a lot of hard work.

But he also makes mention of the large amount of allusions he buried in his story Atlantis: 1924. Now I’ve read and appreciated this work, even though I typically do not like works that use ‘experimental’ techniques. But from seeing his words about this work, its genesis, background, and what he was trying to do with it, I realize that when I read it, I missed a very large amount of what was going on, and in fact placed an interpretation on a certain character within it that Delany did not intend. Which brings to the fore the question of how to use allusion, when it’s appropriate, and the even larger question of what happens to a story when the reader doesn’t so happen to catch whatever allusions are being used.

Now for this particular story, Delany structured it in such a manner that the interpretation I came up with not only made sense, it made its climax fully as satisfying as the one he intended. Few writers can do this, and even Delany sometimes falls well short of this mark (there are large chunks of his Dhalgren that fall very flat for me). More common is, when the allusion is missed, the story loses its brilliance, its frission, sometimes it totally fails as a story. Allusion can add depth, color, veracity, and evoke a whole complex of emotions and thoughts that otherwise might take many pages to achieve, if it’s achievable at all, but it is a dangerous tool. If it’s used, then the story really needs to be structured such that it still holds together even if a discriminating and widely-read reader so happens to not notice the allusion.

There’s also a certain amount of gamesmanship in the usage of this tool. Too much of it, and especially if the allusions are to obscure works that no one but literary scholars are likely to be aware of , and it comes across as a form of name-dropping. Some of the works I’ve read by Rushdie seem to fall into this category, and I, as a reader, find it very off-putting.

So: use sparingly, and be prepared to have it missed.

Now, if I can just get my prose to sing half as well as Delany’s, I’ll consider myself blessed.


Posted in Books, Writing | Leave a Comment »

The IQ Bar

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2007

There is a certain amount of respect that we give self-aware intelligence. People are presumed to belong to this category, and as such they are normally supposed to have certain rights: freedom, the right to choose their own course of action, the right to own property, etc, both in the courts and in daily business. This is in opposition to those considered to not meet the intelligence bar, the various animals that populate this planet, both domesticated and wild. Baboons and cows are normally not allowed, on their own initiative, to frequent the local restaurant or china shop; they have no say so in how they are quartered, nor even who their sexual partners will be (at least not for those specimens in captivity).  Then there are those humans, who for one reason or another, don’t have the normal cognitive abilities, and are saddled with caretakers, trustees, or institutions, and have their freedom to do as they please severely restricted. The question is, just where do we draw the line between those who have enough computation power and those who don’t?

Intelligence tests are something of a joke in this context. For one thing, just about all of them are highly anthropomorphic, and trying to apply them to animals is probably doing the animals a great disservice. Note that the whole concept of ‘intelligence’ is slippery: ability to learn, ability to react to changes in the environment, ability to bind time, ability to predict the consequences of actions, ability to communicate seem to be just some of its components, but as the various attempts to devise tests such as the Turing model for determining if computers are ‘intelligent’ have shown, very complex rote actions can mimic what we think of as intelligence so well that we may not be able to tell the difference. For that matter, perhaps the normal human ‘intelligence’ really is no more than this – some very complex rules that a human follows when dealing with the outside world, and nothing more.

But the few tests that have been devised specifically for animals, such as those to determine the ability of some primates to learn and use language and tools, are limited, and still subject to a certain amount of human-oriented perspective on what is important. Dolphins in their normal environment have no need of tools, so why should we expect that all intelligent beings must be tool-users? But even with these test limitations, it’s clear that some of this world’s animals do have a fairly high intelligence level, and, as many animal-rights activists keep striving for, are deserving of some rights and privileges even if they are not given full status.

So just how can we decide who or what should have what level of privileges and rights? This is not an idle question, as somewhere in the future is the prospect of computer artificial intelligences, genetically modified animals, and possible alien intelligences. How will we treat such beings? Science fiction abounds with stories where we tragically get it wrong, and relegate a life form to the category of ‘beast’, sometimes with very bad consequences (for a good example, try Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast, and the whole concept of intelligence and the value of self awareness is questioned in Peter Watts Blindsight). Before such a scenario really comes to pass, I think we need to get cracking on when, how, and why we draw such lines. A formal document that spells out in detail what constitutes a being deserving of respect and what privileges it is endowed with within our society needs to be hammered out. It’s probable that whatever we can come up with today will have errors, omissions, and oversights, and may be laughably too human or legally-centered (at least when looked at from some far future time), but anything would be an improvement on what we have now, a mish-mash of court precedents, a few test results, and various advocacy groups crying for this or that privilege.


Posted in Books, Philosophy, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

This Year’s Hugo Nominees

Posted by hyperpat on April 30, 2007

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been assiduously reading all the current crop of Best Novel nominees. Eventually I’ll probably get around to writing individual reviews of all of them, but for now my overall take:

‘Hard’ SF dominates. Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Stross’s Glasshouse, Watt’s Blindsight aren’t just hard SF, they do fair to being a crash course in modern day physics. Now each of these books have their own pluses and minuses, but none of these are something you can hand to someone who isn’t already steeped in SF and science and expect to get anything other than a very confused “Huh?” This may not be good for the general health of SF. Somewhere along the line there needs to be new, good books written that are accessible by the average man in the street, books that neither insult his intelligence with obvious nonsense nor require Ph.D. to decode what’s happening. If at some point the SF community doesn’t reach out to people who aren’t already members of this tiny cult, it will eventually dry up and die away. This is not to say these books aren’t good. Blindsight especially is very intriguing, with a very insightful look at whether self-awareness is really useful or desirable in a living entity – but it does take quite a bit to get into this book, as the concepts and characters are very different from the norm, and at least early in this book there is little explanation.

So how about the other two nominees?

Novik’s Her Majesty’s Dragon is fantasy combined with an old-time sailing story; Horatio Hornblower with dragons. It’s a unique (I think) idea, and her execution is good. And it doesn’t require a science degree to understand it – in fact having such a degree will probably spoil this one a bit, as the basic concept of flying dragons of the size she posits violates several basic scientific tenants, from the square-cube rule to the energy requirements needed to produce the appropriate amount of aerodynamic lift. This one is just a fun read.

Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim is not hard SF, even though 12 dimensional manifolds and light-speed variations figure prominently. It is rather an alien contact story, aliens who bear a strong resemblance to giant grasshoppers, as seen mainly through the eyes of a 14th century priest. Neither the theological nor emotional sides of such a contact are slighted here, and this one will probably end up making you cry and think at the same time. The science here is also somewhat unique, deep mathematics right alongside of historical research. This was expanded from a novella published way back in 1986 (which was nominated in that category for the 1987 Hugo) – and as an indication of how strong the story arc is, I still remembered that original story. For my money, this is clearly the best of this year’s crop, understandable, engaging, with real people and a lot of important things to say.  This is the type of book you can give to that average man in the street.


Posted in Book Reviews, Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 4 Comments »

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day

Posted by hyperpat on April 23, 2007

For those of you wondering, this day got its name from a post by Howard V. Hendrix, current VP of the SFWA. Basically he complained that authors posting free stuff on the web were scabs, undercutting the market for authors actually trying to sell their work. John Scalzi, Jo Walton, and several other authors have not only derided this view of things, they declared today as the day for posting even more free things to read. Mr. Scalzi has posted the first half of a novel he wrote way back when (and never finished) – you can read his post about this and find the link to the novel here.

In the spirit of the day, I’ll direct you to some of my poetry, which is available here.

In today’s publishing world, getting the word out to the reading public is critical to the success of a work. There are an incredible number of new works being published every year, both online and the more traditional route. Most of these will sink without a trace without some form of publicity, and posting things on the web is at least one way to generate interest. In the future, everything might be published electronically, and the dead-tree format will be no more. If that happens, I’ll cry a bit, as I really like being able to curl up with a good book and see them ranked in my bookshelves, but I think such a change will also open up the publishing world to where more writers can get people to read their musings, even more so than has already happened with the advent of the web, and that’s not a bad thing.


Posted in Books, poetry, Politics, Writing | 2 Comments »

Mobile Phone-Phobic Bees

Posted by hyperpat on April 16, 2007

A new theory has surfaced to explain the bee die-off I wrote about earlier. It would seem there is at least some evidence that bees do not like mobile phones, and won’t return to a hive that has one near it. So far, though, I would class this as a hypothesis that needs a lot more direct research before indicting this modern ‘necessity’. But it is very worrying that this problem has spread to Europe.

I’m reminded of one of the better sf disaster novels, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, where a bio-weapon got out of hand and ended up destroying most of the world’s grain crops. While the current bee crisis has certainly not reached the level of disaster of that book, it is certainly pointing out that we simply do not know enough about all the interactions of the world ecology, and the fragility of the world food supply to the effects of unforeseen consequences of technology, mutations, chemicals, or habitat and/or climate modification.

If this problem continues to spread, it would appear that it would be something that needs attention now, although so far it has not grabbed very much press coverage, as opposed to the constant shrieking about global warming, which, while also needing attention, is a much longer-term problem.


Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | Leave a Comment »

World Building

Posted by hyperpat on April 12, 2007

My last post on the ‘wizard effect’ was written with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, but it was meant to illustrate something that I see happening all the time in poor and even average level fantasy books: a failure to consider all the ramifications of whatever magical thing is present in the story. And fantasy novels are notoriously weak in the area of economics. It is not enough to draw up a pretty map, select your wayfarers for your quest, and define your battles. There needs to also be some serious world-building done, and at least part of that world-building should be figuring out how the average yeoman manages to make a living, just what industries and trades exist and how they all interact. Now many writers may figure that all this effort is not really required, that the traditional middle-ages economic scenario can be pretty much assumed, and to some extent this is correct, as long as whatever story is being written really does fit into this kind of background and there are no plot actions that will disturb the status quo. Sometimes determining just what will disturb that status is not all that obvious, as my little fable illustrates.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea set is one of the better fantasies out there, and one of the reasons for it is that she did consider some of the ‘unintended consequence’ effects that can ensue from use of magical powers. One of her prime themes within this work was the need for balance, which she often illustrated with a look at what the average person was doing. The background of her world was obviously detailed, though she rarely did any direct exposition of that background.

This same rule applies to science fiction. Often it is the little things in some imagined future or deep-space world that will give the whole that ‘real world’ feel that is so necessary to the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that works in these genres require. Heinlein was a master at this. In his Space Cadet (1948), wading through the waters of Venus (hot and wet was the common scientific opinion of this planet at that time) was not a very nice swim, as Heinlein recognized that with no moon, there would be no significant tides to churn upper and lower water layers, allowing them to become very stagnant. A tiny point, but it adds significantly to the ‘feel’ of this world as a real place. Although the three days he and his wife spent manually calculating (no computers back then!) a Hohmann transfer orbit to verify the veracity of a single sentence in that book is probably carrying this a little too far.

Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the true classics of the field, also benefited mightily from having taken the time and effort to create a complete background. Many readers have remarked on the incredible interplay between so many different elements present in this book: government and politics, both the underpinnings of religion and its effect on different types of cultures, ecology, genetic manipulation, ancient ‘history’ with its effects on attitudes about things like computers and robots, military strategy, and most significantly how vital commerce is held in thrall to the mental-enhancing effects of ‘spice’, as without it transportation of goods, services, and personnel would take much longer and be more expensive.

Thinking globally about every aspect of an envisioned imaginary world is not easy or trivial and it is very time consuming. Since it does take so much effort, once a writer has created his world, there is a very strong temptation to set the next story in the same world, which leads to the multiple book ‘series’ phenomenon so common today. There’s nothing wrong with this per se; readers, having grown used to a particular world/universe, feel more comfortable revisiting it – its now familiar, a worn and comfy couch. But it can lead to a stultifying round of re-treads, effectively telling the same story over and over, with nothing new and exciting. There’s also a temptation to directly delineate all those nifty details about your world that you’ve thought up, which is a bad idea, as then all this ‘background’ material will tend to drown out the story that you’re trying to tell.

The more I think about these aspects of these genres, the more it becomes obvious just how difficult it can be to write really good stories within their confines. Perhaps that’s why there is so much of this material that is not very good and is eminently forgettable. But when it is done right, the end result justifies all the effort, as these fields can tell stories that illuminate aspects of the human condition that either can’t be shown in ‘normal’ literature or at least are very difficult to portray. Those critics that look down their noses at these fields as ‘entertainment only’, insignificant literature, are not only missing the boat, they are depriving themselves of what can be a mind altering experience.


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

The Future of Futuristic SF

Posted by hyperpat on April 9, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of blather lately about the general health of the fantasy/science fiction market, which by just about everyone’s account is not doing all that well, and sf worse off than fantasy. Publishers are deliberately trying to present such books as something other than sf, or at least are doing covers for them that don’t scream SF! Don’t Touch! to the prospective buyer. Circulation figures for Asimov’s and Analog are down, as are overall sales of sf books. Why?

At least part of the reason can be traced to my last post on the SF info dump. New ‘hard’ sf is tackling concepts, gadgets, and environments that are well beyond the average reader’s comprehension and comfort space, and these concepts are complex enough that short, simple explanations just won’t do. The writers are left with a choice of trying to educate the reader, normally to the detriment of the story, or self-limiting their audience to those who already have some idea about these things, which is a very small (and probably shrinking) set of people. I certainly would not hand anyone not already steeped in sf some of this year’s Hugo nominees: Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Stross’s Glasshouse, or Watt’s Blindsight, regardless of how well they are written, or what neat ideas they contain, as they would be nearly incomprehensible to the average man in the street.

Beyond the ‘hard’ sf realm, there is also a paucity of books for younger readers. While David Gerrold and John Varley have added a few works to this area, the days of the Heinlein and Asimov juveniles are long gone, and it is difficult to find books that are captivating to young minds that are not outdated.

Which leaves us with only a very few modern entries that still have that ‘gee-whiz’ factor without blowing the reader’s mind. John Scalzi’s efforts of the last few years certainly qualify in this regard, with his Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Androids Dream, but he seems to be something of an exception, as he deliberately is trying for something that is accessible, part of what he calls the ‘New Comprehensible’. Fantasy is another part of this group, not surprisingly,  as in general fantasy doesn’t have the same problem, and can present settings and story arcs that have large elements of familiarity (or at least don’t require a Ph.D. to figure out).  And then there are the series related works, the Star Trek/Star Wars/Game-Inspired stuff, which are ok are far as they go, but leave little room for true innovation or possible great literature.

Perhaps science has reached the point where Mr. Average Joe simply can’t assimilate not only its current state but projections of what it will mean and the effects it will have in the future, though at least some of the blame for this state of affairs can be laid (at least in the US) to an education system that is doing a poor job of getting kids excited about the possibilities inherent in current scientific and technological research. Clearly, if sf is to survive as a viable genre of literature, there needs to work done by the authors to make it more interesting without being too complex, the marketing of this stuff needs to try and grab readers who would never normally touch the stuff (and it looks like they are making at least some attempts in this area), and our schools could do a better job of introducing young people to the wonders of the field. But most importantly, we, the science fiction fans, need to spread the word to our non-sf fellows, finding works that will interest and captivate them, while not being beyond their capabilities to understand or believe in, till they can graduate to the cutting edge of today.


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The SF Info-Dump

Posted by hyperpat on April 6, 2007

SF writers have had a problem since about day one of the genre. As the story must, in some way, involve science for the story to actually qualify as science fiction, and the average reader’s knowledge of said science cannot be assumed to be anything more than minimal, somewhere along the line the writer must explain whatever scientific theory, gadget, or fact that the story uses. This requirement is unique to the genre, and can make it far more difficult to write than conventional stories, as somehow interest in the story must be maintained while all this information is imparted.

Over the years, several methods have been used to accomplish this task, some of which are clearly better than others, and some of which are suited only for certain types of situations, stories, and scientific levels.

1. The ‘classic’ info-dump. In this method the story gets interrupted by a mini-lesson in whatever science is relevant. Whether this is handled in third-person omniscient mode, where the info might just have well have come straight out of a science textbook, or delivered via ‘dialogue’ between the story’s characters, this method has the severe disadvantage of being essentially a lecture to the reader. As the reader is looking for entertainment rather than a science lesson, most readers encountering this will be disappointed and unhappy with the story. Many stories from the twenties to the forties used this method, and reading them today is a sometimes painful experience, as in general this is just bad writing. Especially if these info-dumps start off with something like: “Hey, Jack, I know that you’re already aware of most of this, but just to make sure you understand how this little gizmo works…” followed by three pages of semi-scientific gobbledy-gook. Unfortunately, this method still gets used today, sometimes by writers who should know better. It does have the advantage of allowing a very direct explanation for whatever piece of science you are using, and if it is limited to very short expositions it can work. However, much of today’s ‘hard’ SF is dealing with very esoteric theories, environments, concepts, and hardware; being able to explain these items in very short info-lets is probably impossible.

2. Drive the exposition from a direct need-to-know by the point-of-view character. This is the method that Heinlein practically pioneered and perfected, as shown in his Have Space-Suit, Will Travel – when his main character has just gotten a space-suit and needed to repair it, it was fairly easy to insert engineering details about how such suits are constructed and why they are built that way, without losing connection with either the story flow or reader interaction. This method is excellent for those items that have concrete relevance to the story’s action. It does not work so well if what is being described is more theory than practical application of that theory.

3. Create futuristic ‘Headlines’ that describe the theory, invention, or relevant history. These must be brief, and preferably part of other ‘headlines’ that have relevance to the story. This has the advantage of being part of a story ‘interruption’ that nevertheless moves the story forward by providing proper background and that is more acceptable to the reader than pure exposition. Some of John Brunner’s novels used this method to very good effect.

4. Don’t explain it at all. This has the obvious disadvantage that it may leave the reader totally at sea, but if the function of whatever gizmo is being used is derivable from context, it may be all that’s needed. Imagine a cave-man reading the following:

“He rolled out of bed and propped open his eyes. Shuffling into the kitchen, he turned on the coffee pot and went to grab the newspaper. Returning, the fresh coffee aroma started to clear his head, and his first sip went a long way towards making the day look bearable.”

The cave-man would know nothing about electricity, coffee pots, or even what coffee was – but he could tell from this that the pot was a device for making a drinkable item that had invigorating effects, and that the coffee pot works pretty quickly. And this may be all the information the reader needs to know about this device.

A sub-class of this method is to present the futuristic item as a commonplace of the day, not worthy of comment. Obsessing over the ‘gee-whizness’ of some gadget will, in general, take away from the focus on your story and characters. Once again, this is something Heinlein did well, such as his one-liner in Space Cadet about using a microwave oven (written in 1948 before such items became a reality).

Context can be much wider than just the direct sentence(s) describing the item of interest. Especially for setting up a social environment, it’s frequently better if how the world got to its current condition is not explained directly (at least not immediately), but the reader can see how this society operates from what is happening now. Things like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984, Heinlein’s Friday all benefit from having the story delineate the current society, rather than have some long treatise on the ‘history’ of how the world got this way. Sometimes this involves just what effect a gadget has on society’s customs and mores – just think what today’s society would be like if the automobile had never been invented, for instance.

There is another sub-class of this, that of those items that have a long history of being used within the field, things like FTL drives, telepathy, time machines, etc. Unless your story really depends on the details of these things, they can often be taken as ‘givens’, mere background for your story setting. Of course, once again, a reader with little exposure to these customary artifacts may not be able to take all of this in stride, so using these devices this way may limit your audience – but then again, explaining all of these when they are not the prime movers of your story will definitely bore a veteran reader of the field.

5. Provide partial and/or very abbreviated explanations. This method frequently assumes that the reader knows a fair amount of conventional science, and that he can pick up on things like references to the Lorentz contraction effect, Bose-Einstein condensates, quantum ‘entanglement’, or other such items which are pretty well known to science students and rocket scientists, but frequently are little known outside those circles (and yes, there are some rocket scientists who read this stuff – which just means that what science you do put in had better be accurate). This seems to be the method of choice for several recent ‘hard’ SF novels I’ve read., and while this is generally OK for the veteran reader of SF, it probably precludes these types of books from gaining a wide audience. But when you’re trying to present a whole host of scientific data points (say, your story line depends on the gravitational and magnetic properties of super-Jupiter sub-dwarfs, nano-tech, computer uploads of the human conciousness, genetic and mental engineering far beyond today’s capabilities, and super-cold organic chemistry, to name just a few items in one recent book I’ve read, it may be the only viable choice).

Right now there seems to be a pretty sharp divide between what are typically known as ‘hard’ SF works and those that deal more with the softer, social aspects. Far too much of the ‘hard’ variety is either inaccessible to the average non-sf, non-science trained reader, or becomes mind-bogglingly difficult to understand, even with extended explanations that make the reader stop cold while he tries to assimilate the information. While the ‘softer’ stuff is just that, and sometimes it doesn’t satisfy that yearning for the ‘sense of wonder’ that marvelous ideas and gadgets can engender. But if SF doesn’t wish to go the way of the dodo bird, it needs to get far more proficient in presenting its ideas such that Mr. Average Joe can still comprehend and enjoy the story.


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Little Guys Make a Difference

Posted by hyperpat on April 3, 2007

People like to think that they represent the apex of living things on this planet. But in some ways we’re totally outclassed by some pretty tiny life forms, namely insects. In terms of sheer numbers, we don’t even come close. And insects have been around a lot longer than people; many species are basically unchanged from what they were like sixty million years ago – a pretty good marker for just how successful they have been and how well integrated into their ecological niche they are. Clifford Simak, way back in the forties in the novel City, asked what would happen if you could jump start one variety of insect, the ant, out of its evolutionary fixed point – with the result that our Earth was eventually taken over by an ant civilization, a somewhat frightening example of just how much potential insects have. But as annoying and pestiferous as some insects are, they are also very essential to us, as without them large portions of the ecology would collapse. And some of them are very important to us economically, most especially bees.

Now while your first thought about bees might be honey or sting, bees are the workhorses of flowering plant pollination. While some pollination occurs via wind, ants, arachnids, and larger animal transport, the great majority of this function is accomplished by bees. And without this pollination, most of our fresh fruit and many other staple crops would cease to exist.  And lately, it seems that bees are in trouble.  A mysterious disease has apparently started attacking the colonies throughout much of the United States, in some areas causing the die off of 90% of the local colonies. The cause, so far, is unknown, with suggestions ranging from an imported disease from Australia to the dreaded ‘global warming’ (though so far there hasn’t been much credence given to the latter possibility). As of yet, the ‘killer’ Africanized hybrid bee doesn’t seem to be affected, but without knowing the cause for the current die off, there’s no guarantee that they won’t succumb also.

At least part of the current problem is too great a reliance on a single species of bee by many farmers. Knowledge of other ecological disasters would indicate that, like most things, we should not be placing all our eggs in one basket.  And once again, a strong look should be made at just what chemicals, pesticides, and imported foreign species we’re adding to the environment, as clearly we don’t know enough yet to manually manage an ecology (and can’t even properly computer simulate it); we simply don’t know what unintended effects a single change to an environment will have. Obviously more research (and dollars to fund said research) is needed. But regardless of how quickly we can come up with an answer to the current problem, it’s already so far advanced that you can expect higher fruit prices this summer.
So be nice to our little invertebrate friends, or you just might find your dinner table awfully bare.


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Scalzi and the Nebulas

Posted by hyperpat on March 19, 2007

John Scalzi announced his candidacy for the post of president of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) last Thursday. While most of the commentary over on his Whatever site has been very positive, there has also been a strong thread indicating that he must be out of his mind to willingly take on a job like this. But his stated platform clearly lays out things that need to be addressed by that organization, things that have relevance beyond the internal workings of it, that might affect every sf fan.

Most prominent of these is his stated goal of bringing the Nebula awards back to the prominence that they used to have, when they rivaled the Hugo Awards in terms of importance and in recognizing the best in the field. As it sits now, the Nebulas trail the Hugos in terms of timeliness, often being awarded for books up to a full year later than the Hugos. Especially for paperback issues, when a book does receive a Hugo, it will immediately get notice of that award splashed on the cover, and it definitely helps drive sales and notice. Due to the time lag, though, a similar notice about a Nebula award frequently doesn’t make it, as the edition is already printed. For those books that don’t receive the Hugo but did manage to get the Nebula, by the time the award is made, often the book is no longer ‘fresh’, and publishers may not be willing to bring out a new edition of such material that would highlight its award status. And this is a shame.

Science fiction is still looked upon in too many circles as ‘entertainment only’ fiction, not worthy of serious consideration. As the Nebulas are awarded by vote of other sf writers, frequently the books that get the award are the more literate variety of offerings in the field, and often showcase just exactly how good works in the field can be. It would seem as if, under current policies, sf is voluntarily given up a great opportunity to promote itself as far more than ‘genre’ fiction.

Whether Scalzi is successful in his bid for the presidency or not, I hope that his airing of this issue will cause a true rejuvenation of the Nebula status, and perhaps a little better reputation for the field can be had in circles that currently unjustly denigrate it.


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Don’t You Wish Everyone Was a Genius?

Posted by hyperpat on March 13, 2007

Our solar system orbits around the Milky Way once every 250 million years or so. It also has some proper motion versus the local star systems and dust clouds. Which means that over very long time scales, the Earth may experience some very different interstellar environments, from being inside/outside of a dust cloud to moving near a gamma ray burster (which is one of the listed possible causes for one of the great extinction events).

Poul Anderson, way back when (1954), capitalized on this set of facts to dream up something he called the Brain Wave. He hypothesized that humanity had evolved during a period when the Earth was in an area that slowed down electromagnetic waves. As human mental activity is mediated by such, it’s a short leap to dream of a time when the Earth would exit this area and return to where these waves would move at normal speed, with a concomitant increase in human mental activity, i.e, suddenly everyone would get very smart. And not just people, but animals also. While being smart might seem like a good thing to be, Anderson showed that this could produce some very deep problems.

When animals get smart enough to know what a slaughterhouse is, there would be an immediate crisis in keeping in the world fed. When those people who held menial jobs due to lack of good thinking abilities can suddenly see just what a waste of time their jobs are, and there is no one else who is willing to do those jobs, however necessary, what happens to civilization’s infrastructure? Intelligence alone does no good without information to process; education is necessary, and who will provide it? A brilliant idea does no good if there is no way to implement it – think about the problem a cave-man would have had if he figured out what lightning was and wanted to build an electric light bulb. Nor does it prevent continuing to come up with the wrong answers, because the basic assumptions the person is working from are false: belief in religions, UFO’s , conspiracy theories, and ‘I’m better than anyone else, I should be treated accordingly’ would continue to thrive. The whole scenario is a recipe for disaster.

Anderson had a pretty optimistic ending to his book, believing that people would manage to find solutions to the problem of too much brain power. I’m not so sure. There are just too many examples of very intelligent people doing very dumb things; people ‘think’ as much with their emotions as they do with their brains; and to date no one has come up with an ethos for living in harmony with everyone else that everyone buys into.

Sometimes being ‘smart’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


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What a Piece of Work is Man

Posted by hyperpat on March 7, 2007

Quick, now, when was the last time you thought about establishing ethical standards for the treatment of robots? Uh, never, right? But there is a group in South Korea (!) doing just this. Now perhaps the document they are attempting to create is a little ahead of its time – after all, so far there are no robots that would meet the normal definition of either intelligence or possessive of free will, at the moment they are still nothing more than machines. And it could be quite awhile before electronics and software advance to the point where something like Asimov’s Three Laws could even attempt to be implemented. So is what this group is doing a waste of time?

Not really. Somewhere along the line, humanity will be faced with other intelligences that are not ‘human’ – whether it be AI robots, aliens, genetically enhanced versions of other terrestrial  species, or even enhanced ‘super humans’. At what point do we decide to treat these types of beings of being worthy of having the same rights, privileges, and obligations of everyday people? If you have a household robot, can you order it to do whatever you want, or must you consider whether such an action would be demeaning to the robot? Would you trust it to baby-sit your child? Would you need to give it the occasional day off? Does it require a salary? When should (must) you do what the robot asks you to do?

Some of these questions have been explored in various SF stories: Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man” and “Gulf“, Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, Simak’s City,  Connie Willis’ “Samaritan“,  and Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, amongst many others. The general points presented in just about all of these stories are:

‘Free Will’ – if an entity has the ability to take actions on its own, free of outside direction, a certain level of respect and dignity should entail to that entity (this includes things like cats and dogs).

“Intelligence Level” – when the intelligence level reaches the point of a) self-awareness b) ability to understand both rights and obligations, then that entity should be treated as ‘human’.

But even within these generally agreed upon points, there are graduations of treatment and privileges, and there is not a general consensus on precisely at what point on the intelligence continuum scale full ‘human’ status should be given.  Trying to work out what standards should be applied sounds like something that needs doing now, before we are faced with real beings whose status is a gray question mark – and who could end being treated just as unfairly as the ‘African Black Man’, thought to be treatable as a slave as they were ‘sub-human’.


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A Negative Aspect

Posted by hyperpat on February 14, 2007

Woe betide the husband/wife who forgets that today is Valentine’s day. Such a transgression is probably good for at least a week in the doghouse. But consider what it would be like if the poor person had an alternative form of marriage instead of the traditional monogamous one, such as that depicted in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a ‘line’ marriage, where there may be both several husbands and several wives, whose age range may be 16 to 90. Now of course in such a group hopefully at least one of the involved parties will remember what day it is, and ensure that all the rest of his/her cohorts of the same gender are reminded, but just think what it would be like to be the only one who forgot out of a group of ten individuals. ‘Doghouse’ wouldn’t quite be adequate – perhaps ‘Coventry’, that area set aside in the south forty for those who can’t abide by the customs of their society, would be more appropriate. A small downside to such living arrangements.


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The Heinlein Voice

Posted by hyperpat on January 29, 2007

I re-read Heinlein’s Friday last week, and then started reading Melanie Rawn’s The Ruins of Ambrai, and was struck by the difference in the reading experience between the two works. With the Heinlein, I found myself reading at something like 700 wpm, whereas Rawn’s work slowed me down to somewhere around 400. Both works are good. Why is there such a difference?

An analysis shows the following points:

1. Heinlein’s choice of character names makes for easy reading. He consistently picked names that are both easy to pronounce and assimilate, and he was very careful about it, as in many of his works, the names he chose have meanings relevant to the story, or are allusions to either literary or historical characters. Now when trying to portray an alien, a far future or fantasy culture, it certainly provides a distinct ambiance if your character is named “Gnzdhnt” or some other combination remarkably lacking in vowels, but it also means that every time you eyes run into the name, your brain does a mental hiccup as it tries to process this strange thing. Even Heinlein’s aliens had easy names, such as The Mother Thing (PeeWee’s name for her, as her real name was effectively unpronounceable by mere humans). But Heinlein very rarely named individual aliens; most of the time he merely had names for the species, which were just as simple (the ‘Bugs’ of Starship Troopers or the ‘stobor’ of Tunnel in the Sky). Along these same lines, Heinlein would normally call a rabbit a rabbit, not a ‘mammalian grass nibbler’ or worse, a ‘gazellion’ to try and give an other-worldly feel to things. Made-up words do a lot to slow the reader down.

2. Heinlein’s works are very heavily dialog oriented. Reading conversations between characters usually goes faster than other kinds of discourse, partially because there is usually some amount “Hey, how’re you doing?” and other such trivial lines present in conversation, but also because heavy philosophical musings must be presented in such a manner that the ‘audience’ (i.e., the other person(s) who make up the conversation) can follow the logical thought process. This means that when Heinlein got on his soapbox (frequent), he almost invariably sprinkled these types of ramblings with concrete examples, analogies, mini-stories, and parables. Which makes following all this as a reader much easier.

3. Limited description of the surroundings. Some authors can carry on for twenty pages describing the interior of one room, a sunset, or what he had for lunch. Heinlein does not do this, except in the case of the lunch – it’s quite noticeable, especially in later books, how many times he does go into detail about what was on the menu. But as far as describing other things, he is almost invariably brief and to the point, describing just enough of the surrounding that you know where you are, but without making you wallow in endless trivia about it. Which means that the plot gets to move forward that much more rapidly. As his characters get about the same level of physical description as the surroundings, this also has a side-effect of allowing the reader to imagine themselves as the narrator, or to put their own fanciful ‘dressings’ on the character, which certainly helps with reader involvement. It can also lead to a little bit of a shock, when you find out that Juan Rico of Starship Troopers is from the Philippines, or that Rod Walker of Tunnel in the Sky is black.

4. Along the same lines as his approach to description was his general use of the English language. Some have described his prose as ‘folksy’ or American Colloquial, but I don’t really think this is true. He uses almost no slang terms, and neither does he often use a polysyllabic word when a simpler one is available, but his overall vocabulary level is fairly high. However, his use of rare words is just that – rare, and only used when they served a point. What his prose most often strikes me as is a written example of a Mid-Western radio announcer, almost accent-less, treading that middle ground where most people can easily understand what is said, without feeling that they are the object of condescension. The one great exception to this was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, done in his own made up future Lunar dialect, but even here the ‘flavor’ is more a case of left-out prepositions and definite articles plus a few well-known foreign language words.

5. Technical info-dumps is one area where a great many sf writers fail, often presenting such information in large expository blocks that interrupt the story flow, and just as frequently fly over the reader’s head. Heinlein tried very hard to integrate such information directly into the story line and make it comprehensible to people who do not have a technical background. The long chapter on the care and maintenance of space suits in Have Space Suit, Will Travel is a prime example – all the information given about these things is relevant to later plot developments, and this chapter is structured so that each piece of information develops naturally from the problems the narrator runs into. Heinlein was not always so good at doing this; his first novel, For Us the Living, is actually a pretty good example of how not to do it. But he got much better with practice.

6. Heinlein’s plots, characters, and settings are done very straightforwardly. No fancy stylistic gimmicks, his use of symbol and metaphor was very limited, most of his stories are told in a quite linear fashion, and his characters, while almost always very intelligent and resourceful, feel like your neighbor across the street, or that voice just inside your skull. This does not mean that his stories had no deeper meaning, merely that, while reading it, only the immediate story need concern you. It’s when you close the book that you find yourself thinking (a lot) about what he was driving at.

7. The situations and societies that Heinlein portrayed were almost always simple extrapolations of trends obvious to even casual observers of our current world. They are worlds that it is very easy to imagine existing, and yourself living in them. That last impression was mightily aided by Heinlein’s trick of presenting the future gee-whiz gadget as merely an item of commonplace everyday living.

Heinlein has, at times, been ignored or excoriated by various critics for some of the above writing traits. To some critics (not all, by any means, but too many of them to ignore), if a work does not advertise its ‘high art’ status via vocabulary, style, or lots of buried meaning, it is not worthy of consideration. To my mind, at least, story must come first, and all these other traits must remain subsidiary to that story. Heinlein, I think, never forgot that.


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A Plausible Nightmare

Posted by hyperpat on January 18, 2007

Put Jurassic Park and The Stand together and what you would have bears some frightening resemblance to a current research project that has recreated a version of the 1918 Spanish flu, which kill some 20 million people. The virus was recreated via genetic analysis , of a man who died of the flu in 1918 and was frozen in an Alaskan burial ground, similar to what was done in Jurassic Park to recreate the dinosaurs. Current tests have been conducted in a maximum bio-hazard facility, and the results indicate that this virus’s virulence is exactly as advertised, killing mice and monkeys in remarkably short periods. Part of its potency seems to derive from a property that makes the immune system go into overdrive, when the defense the body puts up gets carried away and kills other cells than just those infected with virus.

Now just imagine what would happen, as in The Stand, if this virus would somehow escape the facility. Back in 1918, human mobility was comparatively limited to today’s, when people can hop on a plane and be half-way around the world in hours. The virus would spread to almost everywhere in a remarkably short period, in spite of every effort to contain it. While our understanding of how these things work is much greater than then, effective treatments are still limited after infection occurs, and dealing with a true pandemic that might infect as much as half the world population is not something we have good preparation for.

This might not be a civilization killer, but it would certainly rock the boat pretty heavily.

Worse, having this virus around means there’s one more item on the terrorist’s shopping list. Now the research needs to be done if we want any hope of someday being able to eliminate or at least mitigate the effects of viruses like this. And even if this particular virus never gets out of the research lab, others out in the wild have the potential to mutate into something similar. So we do need to be prepared. But I do hope that when we’ve learned all we can from this particular strain, we have enough sense to completely destroy it.


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