Archive for ursula k. leguin

Prophet Margins: Predictions 2025

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 19, 2011 by theclockworm

As we all know, becoming a SF writer means predicting the future. Now, don’t get me wrong; I know that’s not what we actually do. But there are always going to be folks who think otherwise, and they’ll always be there to demand prophecies of us. We’ll bicker and defend and elude, but in the end, we’ll give them a list and hope the universe does something both self-serving and ironic with the information.

I’ve decided to jump the gun. Why wait until I’m published? Here, with tongue planted more or less firmly in cheek, are my predictions for the year…TWO THOUSAND TWENTY-FIVE.

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1. In the wake of the fallout from the First Mormon-Scientologist War, a new religious sect will emerge. Following the teachings of Robert Heinlein, they will practice a rugged brand of survivalism, solving social conflict through handgun-brandishing. Though they will preserve the institution of marriage, they will permit polygamy in all forms, as well as conducting themselves in a generally permissive manner sexually. They will practice a form of eugenics based on the society in Heinlein’s books; the long-term results will never be known, as a tragic explosion on their hand-built spacecraft will kill them all.

2. The Occupy movement of the 2010s eventually becomes totally ubiquitous. Out of public spaces in which to make a stand, people begin to occupy their own houses, making it very difficult for authorities to determine who is involved. Presidential candidate Bristol Palin concludes that Anonymous must be growing, perhaps bolstered by their victory in the war. However, she is unable to continue her campaign when she is reminded that the office of the president no longer exists.

3. As genetic re-programming becomes affordable and safe, a whole new lifestyle/art movement will arise. Combining performance art, cosplay, and socio-political activism, genomorphic groups will recreate various fictional worlds and stories, with varying degrees of success and commitment. Of special interest will be the Gethenians, a group of people who choose to adopt the un-gendered state described in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. They will buy up land in Alaska, utilize the systems of time and culture described in the book, and attempt to eradicate non-Gethenian ideals. Ignored initially, they will be the focus of much media attention when a break-off sect of evangelicals, the Neuter the Earth movement, begin re-infiltrating the mainland.

4. The most popular of the genomorphic groups will be the Vulcans. Recognizing that Vulcanism is a practicable, attainable state, this group will spread over much of the globe, extending far beyond Star Trek fans. By suppressing certain mental functions, Vulcans will be able to control their emotions to a degree unavailable to un-morphed humans. The cosmetic differences will be considered comparatively minor, and will be shunned altogether by some. Many non-religious Jews will join the movement, as it offers a focus on tradition, contemplation, and ritual without religiousness.

5. The majority of divorce papers filed will cite Dream Linking as a major factor. The practice, which will allow two or more people to “meet” in a non-corporeal world, will allow for an explosion in infidelity. The state will involve full nervous system arousal, making it experientially equivalent to sex, but it will be difficult to trace, often anonymous, and will not carry the risk of disease or pregnancy. The birth-rate will drop for the first time in years after the service hits the market.

6. While searching for survivors from the war, workers will discover the secret underground lair of what will become known as the Cabal of Child Actors. A secret society of supposedly inactive, drug-addled, or dead child stars, the CCA will be suspected of controlling everything from the banking system to the military. Haley Joel Osment, having ousted the ruling duo of Coreys Haim and Feldman, will warn officials “We are your Dennis the Menaces. We are your Kevin Arnolds. We bring your rom-com leads together, and turn Hugh Grant into a nice guy. We see dead people – ALL THE TIME. We are your Malcolms, in the middle and otherwise. Do not fuck with us.”

7. In a coup unrecognized until much later, a heavily-bearded Wil Wheaton will single-handedly dismantle the CCA, saving the entire ship. I mean world.

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Thanks to io9 for the idea about Vulcanism. Thanks to Wil Wheaton for saving the entire ship. I mean world.

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.

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.

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* 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.

The Golden Age of SF is However Old You Are When You Die In An Alien Invasion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2011 by theclockworm

The columns of light striking the soil informed him of his condition. He was inside a SF story. Obviously.

His room appeared no different than it had before; the bed he woke up in, from which vantage point he witnessed this impossibility of aggression, was comfortable and worn and sagged near the center where he tended to resolve in his nightly rotations. But however familiar the setting seemed, he knew it could not be real, that this was no longer his real life – if indeed he had ever had one. In real life, green shafts of unknown energy did not smash into fields and streams, sending floods of muddy frog-water and whole stalks of corn careening through the morning sky. In the real world, one could not sense the fissuring of the crust below through the foundations of a house, the disconnection of plate from plate as the earth itself buckled. Since these things did not happen in the real world, this must not be the real world.

Assuming he had entered a fictional universe, some very basic questions begged an answer. First, what sort of story was it? SF isn’t without its own inner lines of demarcation, after all. Looking around, he set about trying to determine the parameters of his condition. Maybe if he could guess whose story he was in, he could figure out his role, a way to survive.

He narrowed his view, tried to look beyond the obvious. After all, perhaps this was a pastiche inside a dream or on a television show, itself occupying a less Golden Age-type tale. Maybe he should start small, think creatively. What criteria could he use? He looked away from the window, from the glaring blaze of heat-death; from the walls, blank and simple, devoid of clue or genre marker; past the empty nightstand, the mundane closet, the boring things strewn and hung here and there. Looking down, he saw the bed. Ah ha.

A writer would start here, and so he, being written, started here. Whose bed could this be?

He recalled the massive, luxurious beds featured so prominently in the works of Robert Heinlein. These beds were central to the galaxy-wide Red-Headed League that Lazarus Long had spawned. More action took place between sheets in the typical Heinlein book than ever happened between enemies, who usually dropped after a single shot. Looking left and right, he noticed the absence of even one, let alone two, people there with him. This was not Heinlein’s bed.

Could this be Le Guin’s bed? Was this the place where brilliant scientists crashed with manic irregularity, to dream up a fiery addition to some foreign physics? Was it a strange bed on a frozen world, a friendly posh bed or a simple warm bed in the territory of doubtful allies? He checked beneath the sheets, found the familiar things; the beam hadn’t left him genderless. Looking at his arms, he found that they too retained their usual hue. The beam had not rendered him colorless and gray. Alas, this was not Ursula’s bed.

Was it William Gibson’s bed? Was it a lonely rack in a shoddy motel, where a broken and lost relic of the filthy future might be consumed by a figment of someone else’s imagination? Was it a mere cubby hole, the ultimate symbol of minimalism and badass-ness, a claustrophobic cubicle where one might be ridden by a girl with sharp claws? Well, it was a bed; that alone seemed to disqualify it. He checked about for ratty plastic interfaces, or “decks;” none were apparent. Inside the bedside table, a lack of stimulants, weapons, or eyewear of any sort. No go for Gibson.

He tried to remember a bed in the works of Philip K. Dick, but came up empty. Maybe this was reflective of the man’s life. Other than one terrifying scene of domestic paranoia involving a teenage narc, he could remember not one example. Dick seemed to steer as clear of rest in his writing as he did while writing. If this was Dick’s bed, surely it was a mere pretext, a trap-door he would soon fall through into a hell of perceptual doubt or esoteric cosmology. More likely than not, in Phil’s universe, there were no beds at all.

He scrolled through the traitorous royal chambers of Herbert, the Freud-laden psychopathic millionaire mattresses of Bester, the horribly heavy beds of Lem, newly populated by the very old. He considered the lonely corporate-funded suites of Tiptree. He came up blank.

Outside, the beams moved steadily closer to the house, sending ancient trees up into wisps of smoke and ash. Time was running out, and so were ideas. A strange thought struck him from the corner of his mind. There was a new writer, he thought, whose stories had been showing up over the past few months. He liked to play with tropes, to layer allegories, to explore transcendence and iterative identity. He was also quite fond of literalizing, and considered SF to be a dialogue, carried on by SF writers in a constant interpretive cycle. He didn’t mind sacrificing a nameless, faceless character to make a point, either. There was a bed in one of his stories, and it was filled with the copied forms of a whole history of lovers. Maybe this is his bed, he thought, the heat now palpable as the beams moved across the lawn. He couldn’t recall his name.

The Word for Write is Open

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by theclockworm

Ursula Le Guin’s anthropological SF has been a big inspiration for me. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness is basically a fictional ethnography; without it, the world of Ari Ascher in my as-yet unpublished story would not exist. As I progress through various avenues of approach in writing SF, I find myself knocking often at the door of anthropology. The other doors I have moved through thus far are: the door of cognitive plasticity, the door of psychological manifestation, the door of literalization, the door of strange gifts, and the door of doctors of artifacts not limited to the human.

Here are some things Le Guin has said that I like quite a bit. Her introduction to LHoD, in the paperback edition, should be on everyone’s list of essential essays about SF.

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“I am struck by how much we talk about rebirthing but never about rebearing. The word itself is unfamiliar to most people. Yet both women and men are capable of rebearing, women literally and men metaphorically. A door opens just by changing the name. We don’t have to be reborn; we can rebear. This is part of the writer’s job, either to rebear the metaphors or refuse to use them.”

“What I was doing there is playing with the idea of our present growth technology from the Industrial Revolution on through the present the last 200 years. We don’t know when this period will end, but it
will. We tend to think of our present historic era as representing the highest evolution of human society. We’re convinced that our exploitive, fast-growing technology is the only possible reality. In Always Coming Home, I put people who believe this into one little capsule where the Kesh could look at them as weird aberrations. It was the most disrespectful thing I could do, like wrapping a turd in cellophane.”

(Above quotes are from this interview.)

“As for the charge of escapism, what does “escape” mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of?”

(from her blog, speaking of fantasy)

To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.