Verifying the Dream: The Reader as Scientist in “Soft” SF

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 11, 2011 by theclockworm

The argument against “soft” or social (or personal) SF tends to involve the seeming subjectivity of the social sciences. If it can’t be measured quantitatively, it can’t be approached with anything called science. Leave out the importance of context – that numerical data is not so much impossible as it is inapplicable when it comes to understanding the human mind or human culture. Leave out verifiability in the cognitive sciences. We are faced with, as is mentioned before in this forum, an understanding of science limited to engineering, and which respects or acknowledges only data, not knowledge. To the hard SF fan, he must be able to get inside the engine of the ship and make sure it holds up to the forces of the universe. If he cannot be similarly sure that a character or society is of a certain integrity, he calls the whole thing fantasy.

The one criteria that never seems to be involved in the appraisal of the “scientific-ness” of a tale is the ability for peer review through replication – something no “real” science would be complete without. So you’re satisfied – the author has built a spaceship, and it checks out. But really, the author has painted a very loose image of a world in which someone has built a spaceship, and what he tells you is not impossible according to your own knowledge. How remote the craft is to you! How unscientific your appraisal of its capacity!

Dare I suggest that “social” SF – that which pries into the minds, let alone the brains, of its citizenry, practicing a form of participant observation in an imagined world – is more scientific than that distant craft? The reader is the scientist then – applying what she knows about culture and self and society – to her assessment of the record. In hard SF, the scientist is no one at all – he is nowhere has never existed. He is a ghost. The reader is less the scientist even than the author. Even if you can tinker inside the engines, so what? You haven’t been allowed into the control room.

Of course, in both situations, the only record available is the one the author has furnished. But what can be replicated is the assessment, the extraction of meaningful information, from that record. If the engine works, what of the story? If not, does the whole work go in the trash? When I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I know that I am the anthropologist. I see connections in the ways of Winter than Mr. Ai misses – not that Ms. Le Guin has missed them, for no author is her characters (except maybe Heinlein). I could write my own account, and it might reveal something meaningful in relation to the world in question. If I disagree with Mr. Ai, it changes nothing about the world he has recently visited; in addition, I may have a better idea, something to offer in his stead. The work is alive through readership.

But again, one must consider science a way of understanding more than a way of doing. The kind of critical, informed reading I’m talking about is not simply intuitive – knowing about psychology and anthropology and sociology and gender studies and religion, in formal ways, enrich and enliven the reading experience. Hard SF fans will be happy to know it’s still somewhat elitist – still restricted, at least at some level, by special knowledge. But let us remember that knowledge is not necessarily the thing that happens at the ass-end of an equation. It can happen on the last day of an immersive experience, through trauma or revelation. It’s not just bullet-counting and the summoning of conflicting theories in quantum mechanics (which is also fun, of course). It’s the ability to discern how IT works – whether that it be an engine or a village or a human mind.


Excerpt: Keep the Books

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 8, 2011 by theclockworm

It was hours later when she noticed that his clothes had changed. On his right side, the side he had slept on, a new outfit was growing. It did not merely cover his old one, it replaced it. It seemed to be eating it. The process was slow, but it crept along his trunk, moved around his knee, and in time covered his entire body, hands and head excluded. It was a fashionable men’s suit, a classic design. But it had gone off-course. On his right side, it was thick and well-woven, the hems sewn straight and tight, but by the time it reached his lapels, it had lost much of its vigor. The general impression was of a melted wedding-cake topper.

Ward dreamed of burning books, of the look of disgust – or was it shame? – on his mother’s face as he wolfed down a cat-burger, his own tiny face all smiles and sauce.

Sophia dreamed of Ward, eyeless and melted and dragged into the earth by the floorboards.

“What the hell is a nano-bot?” Sophia was scared now, imagining a ghostly presence, sewn into the walls and floors. Was her food made of these nano-bots? Was her chicken really ghost meat?

“I guess it was new,” Ward said, trying to piece it all together. “Must have just come out when It Happened. I guess the people who lived here were Beta.”

“Which makes us Beta now,” she said


Excerpt: All Our Promises Kept

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

This excerpt is from one of my two current “big” stories – long on words, effort, and hopefully promise. I leave you with only inferences. I’ll gladly take suggestions on the title as well.


The weight of their bodies made the mattress creak. All those young limbs, draped carelessly around. All the lovers he’d had before her, all in one place. Beside her, the Ian she knew, phantom though he was, made a small, desperate sound. She reached out her hand, gripping his. “I know. It’s weird for me too.” She felt him tremble. “It’s not your fault,” she said. And she meant it, though feeling it was another matter.


Lydia often wondered about the outside world. It was an inevitable part of being a Tat – you were cut off from the life of your Real, left to wander the halls of memory and wonder at the state of things. Inside his head, they’d stayed together, and been fairly happy. But this was a world of limits as well as wonder. They could never be tempted by others, not really. Sure, either of them could enter a memory and inhabit it for a while, but they could not continue onward from there, could not force the past into a new path toward the future. At worst, it was pornography, unreal because it did not involve or require intent – because it did not involve or require another human being.

She wondered if they could have children, but was scared to bring it up. And anyway, she didn’t know if that would be fair. If their child was True, had a soul or whatever, it would be stuck here, in someone else’s head, in someone else’s life. It seemed more than a little unethical. But it would be nice.

She also wondered how things were going for their twins in Lydia’s head. Would her history be more or less habitable than his?

“Ian, there’s the potential and there’s the inevitable. This world you live in is free from so many things – work, stress, reality, other people. That’s simply served to defer the only end that can come of this. One day, she will become who she has always been; she will reveal herself to you, and you’ll have no recourse, no way to escape. I’m saving you from an eternity of her, Ian.”

“Not with corpses you’re not.” He fell back, like last time, through the humming meat of his mind. Like last time, he threw the totem into the darkness.

Excerpt: St. William at the Pearly Gates

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

I started this story a few years ago, and it’s still hovering around the top quarter of stuff I need to finish soon. It’s set in a future where a centralized system, Systema, is home to a large number of human consciousnesses, including that of Bill Gates. The story is largely about what is different, developmentally, when immortality or extreme long-life are possible. In the world of the story, a form of suicide is common; it is not the wholly negative thing it is in our mortal world, though not everyone, even in that world, understands it. The tale begins with a letter from Microsoft informing stock-holders of Gates’ decision to “retire.”

It’s strange to read over this material this week, with all the conversation about the death of Steve Jobs. There’s actually a part in the story where Jobs is asked by a newspaper what he thinks of Gates’ decision (“It’s about fucking time.”). I’ll have to edit that now – or maybe not. In any event, there’s been a bit of speculation as to what will happen when Gates dies. I cover that, though I suspect it won’t go quite the way I’ve plotted it.

It’s an epistolary story, a format I really enjoy and hope to utilize more in the future. This segment is from a long “exit interview” of Gates, conducted by an AI approximation of Carl Jung.



J: Is it possible, perhaps, that the existence of this door, and your knowledge of it, could be more important that it’s actual presence?

G: They could be to someone. To me they’re not. They were for a long time. But I’m tired.

J: Death is not an appropriate response to weariness. That’s what sleep is for.

G: I’m not weary, Mister Jung. I’m Tired.

J: Are you tired of life, or are you tired of your life?

G: I’m not sure I’d know the difference.

J: Do you think maybe you’ve climbed too high? That you now are above everything, with no heroes, no idols, no stories left to tell or to call upon for guidance?

G: That’s probably part of it.

J: I think, Mr. Gates, that you have become an archetype. You, yourself. I think you may be outside of human psychology by any standards. I think you are a man who has reluctantly become a totemic entity. You are no longer Bill Gates. You are the sign that points to Bill Gates.

G: Flattery will get you everywhere.

Excerpt: The Clockworm

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

Just so you know I’m not bluffing, I’ll be posting excerpts from various works-in-progress in the next few days. Feel free to comment, but remember, these are unfinished and out of context.

Some segments from The Clockworm


“Are you really a machine?”

“Of course,” said the Regnim. “I operate.”

“But that doesn’t make you a machine. I operate too.”

The Regnim was silent.

“Were you built?”

“I was made.”

“Riddles. Evidence of simplicity in your programming. Inability to answer difficult questions.”

“You admit they are difficult questions, but refuse to accept difficult answers. Evidence of simplicity in your programming.”

Alex knew the Regnim was right.

“So you’re not just a machine.”

“What living notions inhabit the phrase “just a machine?” Implications by the handful! Let’s look at them in detail, shall we? Just: only, merely, simply. Simplicity, limitedness, inability. Parameters of potential, range of impact – negligible. Machine: less than human, less than entity. Object, not subject. More false, less alive. Consuming, not producing. Being directed, not intending. State of doing, not of being. Action without introspection. Deserving of less ethical responsibility. Other.


That night, he dreamed of the Regnim. It stretched off in all directions, and when he tried to move forward, it blocked his way. It laughed, and the sound echoed through his bones, vibrated him into dust, shrieked with overtones through the endlessness of time. It screamed need, and lust, and hunger. It screamed until nothing could be heard, until only the great worm remained.


“So there’s no structure, no leadership?”

“There’s no group, so to speak, just a central thrust composed of isolated, individual actions. Ramjack is that which its members accomplish, but it is not a whole. It is a way of drilling through the walls of this world. Like the hammer, it is only a tool once it is picked up. Until then, it is nothing, an inert and functionless artifact.”

“But where does the thrust come from? How does it find us?”

“It slips into your mind, whole, a perfect truth. This has always been the manner of transmission.”

“Where does it come from?”

“Does it matter? Some call it god; some simply outline it by noting what it is not. To me, it is not divine; to me, it is more than that. I choose to call it truth. Truth needs no regalia.”

Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part Two

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

I know this may not be the most popular opinion, but I don’t really see the necessity of the term “speculative fiction,” at least not as an alternative to science fiction. When I type “SF,” I mean science fiction. It’s not that the speculative fiction moniker is offensive, but it seems to arise from the sort of skeevishness about a term that has negative or limiting connotations that drives Atwood’s quackery. Science, in Atwood’s view, is about “impossible” aliens (I’m not sure where she got the idea that scientific consensus finds alien life impossible or even improbable), while speculation is about feats of practical engineering. This strikes me as totally backwards.

Atwood says that “…”what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”” I wonder if Atwood knows that Le Guin shares her definition with others – lots of others. Her definition is the one that’s based in something reasonable. At best, Atwood’s differentiation is arbitrary. At worst, it’s downright scientifically ignorant. To her credit, Atwood does acknowledge that War of the Worlds might have been considered plausible in its day. But that doesn’t seem to cause her to reevaluate her position; instead, she launches into a summary of “slipstream,” an even more pointless non-classification.

The building of an air-balloon or submarine involves real, applicable science – that’s how those things were eventually made real. But Verne was still speculating at the time, just as Wells was. SETI was a scientific venture; does the fact that we haven’t found aliens yet make them silly and fantastical? Does silliness somehow connote science? Might not Wells’ time machine be, like the submarine was when it was conceived by Verne, something which will one day exist through the practical application of science?

Look, it’s not that hard. If a story features, as a significant aspect of its basis, a plausible situation that is based on or best understood through scientific thought of one kind or another, it’s SF.*If a story has a basis in things which were written without the intent of plausibility, featuring things known, more or less, to be impossible, it’s fantasy. Got it? If the author wants to quibble, she is certainly free to, but she’s wasting her time. Old writers may spend a lot of time talking about how meaningless genre terms are, but that neglects a sociological and anthropological truth- that art and its identity is a cultural process, and an important one. And neglecting sociological and anthropological truths is irresponsibly unscientific.

Science isn’t “truth,” or “being right.” It’s not what is, it’s our process of trying to understand what is, and what could be, using the most objective criteria available to us. Dividing out speculation about alien life, reducing science to engineering alone, quibbling about the involvement of the social sciences simply because they are less often able to utilize the mathematically quantitative (and less often benefit from it), is simple-minded. Science is not math, or engineering, or proven facts alone. Science is the pursuit of truth and understanding in all literal things, a process that involves a good deal of informed speculation and which is never complete. There’s room for aliens, anthropologists, and hot air balloons alike.


* This is a whole other thing, but the only grey area here is “psychology.” In some sense, all fiction involves the understanding of a character with respect to their psychology. That’s not necessarily scientific, though; we’re all sort of folk psychologists simply by virtue of our membership in a social species. Use of actual, technical psychology in writing or understanding a character or culture, however, crosses the line into SF.

Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part One

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

There’s an essay by Margaret Atwood over at io9 right now. It’s from her new collection of essays about SF which, judging from this grump-fest, promises to be a real hoot. Atwood, who is shaping up to be the sort of anti-LeGuin, tries to take not-anti Le Guin to task for, well, taking her to task for running from the warm hug of SF like it has cooties. She fails. Atwood goes on to argue defensively and unconvincingly her own private definitions of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. It boils down to this: science fiction comes from Wells, and involves ray-guns and aliens (because that’s science, I guess), and speculative fiction from Verne, which is characterized by realistic things that simply haven’t happened yet, like submarines.

It’s actually a fairly interesting idea, and I’m sure there’s a great essay in it: SF as the parallel but overlapping threads originating with Verne and Wells. The problem is that Atwood, with an eye-roll-inducing air of presumption, talks as if this is the criterion for genre distinction by anyone else in the world. She also lumps Star Trek in with Star Wars under “fantasy.” For all her literary pretense, I think perhaps her true bifurcation is aesthetic. Sure, various technologies in Star Trek may seem unlikely. But that doesn’t make it fantasy. SF doesn’t have to be provably possible. It just can’t be demonstrably based on known “impossibilities,” a word I use with some reservation. The federation may be lightly utopian, but it’s a relatively rational extrapolation. There are aliens, but there’s no magic. The force is magic. Magic is fantasy. Ethics-and-exploration-based multi-planetary unions facing the unknown is not magic.

The fact is, we don’t know much about this thing called “possibility.” We don’t even know if it exists in the physical universe. Scientifically, we can’t – we haven’t seen even a shred of evidence than anything exists other than, well, what exists. So until we stumble into an alternate timeline or some such oddity, all fiction remains speculative. We can quibble about what’s more likely, what’s more realistic, but that works on a spectrum like most things. Is alien life “possible?” Certainly, as far as we know. It falls into the realm of accepted scientific possibility, whatever that means. Would they likely resemble Wells’ invaders? I don’t know. Probably not. But what are the odds of Atwood’s dystopias coming to pass? Limited extrapolation is far less likely than a singularity like an alien invasion for which we are wholly unprepared. Not that the world isn’t going straight to hell, but that’s not the question. The question, for Atwood, is “will it look like this when it happens?” And with most settings offered by SF, the answer is “who the fuck knows?”

Another important thing to remember is that it’s about intent. A responsible SF author, on the whole, should try to work within the framework of the possible. But that is a negative pool, a field that is narrowed down gradually from a starting point, at one time in human understanding, of nearly everything, to a slightly more restricted field. As scientific innovation and discovery continue, that field becomes even more narrow (and sometimes, as a nice surprise, a little less) all the time. If science proves the basis of my central conceit very unlikely tomorrow, that doesn’t suddenly render the work fantasy. Writers of fantasy know they’re writing fantasy, They intend to. That’s the point. And they have it easy – fantasy is the inverse of plausibility, and so it grows larger all the time. There is never a time when a work penned as fantasy could become confused for SF. Again, to make the point: Star Trek may not be the most rigorous application of plausibility at every point, but it never deals with what is accepted as impossible.

Whether the first word is “science” or “speculative,” let us not forget that the second word is always “fiction.” The conversation about genre delineations has gotten so bull-headed and grandfatherly! SF needs a core of believability, but that doesn’t mean its readers should be freed from the burden that all readers of fiction are faced with – the suspension of disbelief. The point of SF is not that it is possible; that’s simply the undercarriage. SF has as much right to be narrowly-focused on a particular issue as any other work of fiction. SF is allowed to be pastiche, allegory, caricature, remix; it is uniquely able to function as meta-literature, as the entire field is a sort of open-source dialogue. The obsession with a kind of imaginary and impossible rigor with respect to the “scientific” has simply gone too far.

EDIT: Someone on that io9 thread posted this, which is less wordy and emotionally-driven than my tome of a rant, and also uses the word cooties in the exact same context. Really weird, but I guess the image is just that clear.