How to learn from the authors you admire, without cloning their work.
... in an article in Science Fiction Studies, [Lem] explains his issues with genre fiction as a whole: "If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought." This makes sense, given that the rise of Lem's fiction didn't arise through the shared influences of the American genre, or even the underpinning cultural influences that informed it. In many ways, Lem was an alien in and of himself to the regular language of science fiction, and his viewpoint is a good way to recognize the limitations of the fiction emerging from the United States at this point in time. It’s also a good reminder that science fiction existed outside of North America and the United Kingdom.
I neglected to mention Lem before in my discussion of how SF&F is enriched by bringing in outsiders, when now that I think about it his name should have been one of the first on that list. His was among the first SF I ever read, and I kept waiting for the other stuff I came across in the field to live up to or surpass his example. Rarely did it ever do so, and soon I realized I'd started with the exception, not the rule.
Let's gaze into something other than the abyss - but not our navels either.
I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it's fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you've got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that's your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn't lie.
This echoes back to my previous post -- that baggy pair of trousers that Spike Lee and Snowpiercer each shared a leg of. I read Gardner's book in which he espoused this and other ideas (incidentally, it contains a great argument for E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is not a good piece of work), and while at times I worried he was sliding over into finger-waggling moralism, I see his point.
How gaming and SF share an inclusivity problem.
Matt Lees has a fine little video in which he talks about (among other things) the way the gaming industry has become cyclically insular. Teenage boys who play games aimed mainly at them grow up and become part of an industry where they create video games aimed at ... teenage boys.
Sound like another cultural sphere we talk about here a lot? It sure did to me.
On a lot of things: Spike Lee, SF, hard-to-swallow endings, and stacking the deck.
In the comments section of a really good essay on Spike Lee's best and most widely debated movie is this gem. I have excerpted it here in full, because it deserves it, and because I'm about to go off on some major tangents with it.
I think the point on why audiences expect films to moralize is kind of simple: we use film, in America at least, to live vicariously through others so we don't have to engage in the actions ourselves. Most films acknowledge this, as there's a distinct narrative difference between false actualization and legitimate call-to-action. Most American cinema falls into the former, while something like DO THE RIGHT THING pursues the latter, which is also why that film troubled many American cultural critics (and audiences) in the time of its release.
As an example, America doesn't want revolution; it just wants the explicit promise of it, and often a constant stream of entertainment that feeds into that narrative. It's why THE HUNGER GAMES is so popular. We're pissed about what our country has become, but we're too lazy to do anything about it; so Americans can live through Katniss as she does the things most of us only fantasize about. This is why most post-apocalyptic fiction and revolution-leaning cinema are infantile in the way they handle the scenarios they propose, at least when compared to much of what Lee has done as a director. Lee's films often end in frustrating ways, such as with SCHOOL DAZE, where the central problem isn't resolved, and, in fact, transfers its righteous anger from its characters onto the audience and expects them to follow up on what the film was attempting to accomplish. You aren't allowed to feel like anything was finished or made better, because, realistically, nothing in life ever is -- we spin in endless cycles of mindless violence, racial inequality and nationalistic soul-searching.
Coming soon: a real-life version of a fictional technology I dreamed up for a book.
OK, I can't help myself here.
For those who just walked in, protomics was the name of the fictional in-universe technology I created for Flight of the Vajra, where various forms of matter have been created that are programmable and malleable. (I started writing that story over three years ago.)
The researchers call the building blocks "catoms" (or "claytronic atoms"), but even the concept as they describe it is fundamentally the same as what I had in mind:
... the researchers hope to use a set of local rules, whereby each catom needs to know only the positions of its immediate neighbors. Properly programmed, the ensemble will then find the right configuration through an emergent process.
... The researchers’ ultimate aim is to create a system of modules the size of sand grains that can form arbitrary structures with a variety of material properties, all on demand.
And at the bottom is this cute scare headline: "Help, My Chair Has a Virus! / Hackers could turn your programmable matter against you." (Yep, that's in the book too.)
I kick myself now for not putting in that patent application ahead of time.
Well, I had a feeling something like this would come along in some form; it didn't have to be as I predicted it, or on anything like the same time scale. I gave it a century or so from "now" before it really took off; I still give it a good long time before it's on the scale I had in mind.
But I have to reiterate that the point of the book wasn't to predict any specific thing or even enumerate how workable a given concept would be. Protomics, the "entanglement drive", the whole far-future¹ setting I devised was just a backdrop for a story about some people who are faced with some very tough choices, whose lives (and the lives of innumerable others) are altered because of that, and who can only see it all through by turning to each other. In the end, the human side of the story had to win, and I hope it did.
Addendum: DARPA has something tangentially related: "Atoms to Product: Aiming to Make Nanoscale Benefits Life-Sized".
¹ I almost typed "fart-future". I almost kept it.
Does success make it impossible to speak truth to power?
Yesterday's post brought some more thought to mind: Does becoming a "success" -- however you might define that -- make it all the more difficult, if not outright impossible, to speak truth to power? Or, for that matter, speak the truth at all?
On writing for a living vs. living for writing.
Some great notes about writing for a living vs. living for writing:
For me personally, I would rather extricate my personal need for income (and by proxy shelter, food, clothing, etc.) from my writing. Being able to do nothing but write doesn’t mean a damn thing if I don’t wholly believe in what it is I’m producing.
I've felt the same way for some time myself, and here's why.
Why we accept the existence of crass psychological manipulation as part of the unspoken cost of modern living.
One of the key tricks of propaganda -- PR, advertising, or whatever -- is to make the audience think whatever it is you're pushing was their idea all along. Don't just give the people what they want; give them what they think they want. The less they notice they are being manipulated, the better. And if they do notice it, just convince them you didn't so much give them any thoughts as you did awaken them.
A little love letter to my readers.
And now, a shout-out. A bunch of them, actually.
If you were one of the folks who stopped by my table at AnimeFest and bought a book: thank you.
If you were one of the folks who stopped by my table at AnimeFest, took a flyer, and bought one of my books online afterwards: thank you.
I received my Amazon Kindle royalty statement this week. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a sign that a few people are interested and curious. I hope they -- you -- stick around and check out what else I have to offer.
Sometimes the best argument is the one you walk away from.
Someone in my feed managed to post the single most offensive thing I've seen said about Ferguson et al. since the whole mess started. No, I won't repeat it. ("Whitesplaining" is the best term I can come up with to describe it.) My response to this has been to leave them the heck alone. Forever.
No, I'm not inclined to confront the person in question about this, in big part because I have never been very good at, nor particularly inclined to be good at, rubbing people's noses in their politics. I don't think it changes anyone's mind, for one, and two, it only makes me all the more despondent of the already crummy human condition. Wastes time, annoys the pig.
Breeding monsters, and all that.
It is not only the sleep of reason that can engender monsters, as Goya wrote in one of his etchings. Lucid, vigilant reason, when it flows freely, is just as capable of formulating impeccable theories on the inequality of human races; justifying slavery; proving the inferiority of women, the black, or the yellow, the innate evil of the Jew; legitimizing the extermination of the heretic; and supporting conquest, colonialism, and war between nations or classes.
I went back to the previously linked essay and encountered this very good graf in it as well, although I see it now more in the light of the essay's questionable conclusions -- it's part of a general build-up towards saying "Aw, reason 'n science, they ain't all that and a bag of chips, are they?" or something analogous to it.
What's alarming about statements like this is how they sit cheek-by-jowl with other statements about how an illiterate populace is all the easier to oppress. Yes, and I would argue that so is a populace that is generally ignorant of critical thinking and science as a discipline (as opposed to just a pile of facts, a slew of discoveries, or a bunch of technical innovations that resulted from the above). Doesn't matter if it's a government or a corporation that's holding the leashes; you're still clamped into one of 'em.
I know full well by now how reason alone isn't a defense against tyranny or oppression. The Jews of Łódź did not need to mount a counter-argument against the Nazis to justify resistance to them. If anything, reason works as a way to lay out an argument for those who are on the fence, rather than to change the minds of those who already have one made up.
But none of this makes reasoning a worthless or ineffectual pursuit. You might as well complain a mountain bike is not a very good rowboat.
Why does it always come down to having to choose between science and art, between Shakespeare or the bomb?
... since there is no way of eradicating man’s destructive drive—which is the price he pays for the faculty of invention—we should try to direct it toward books instead of gadgets. Literature can mitigate this drive without much risk. ... Unlike the scientific civilization that has made us more fragile than our ancestors were before they learned to fight the tiger, under a literary civilization more impractical, passive, and dreamy men would be born. But at least these men would be less dangerous to their fellows than we have grown to be since we voted for the gadgets and against the book.
A good essay, but with some dunderheaded conclusions.
To understand doesn't mean we have to forgive. See: comic book movies, et al.
I don’t [get defensive when reviewing comic book movies] because I’m afraid of getting death threats from easily irritated comic book fans (which hasn’t happened to me, and thanks). I do it because as someone who got a lot out of comics growing up, and still has a healthy respect for the graphic form, I find comic book movies kind of frustrating, and am bent out of shape by having my frustration chalked up to a lack of understanding of the form.
That last bit is something I run into a great deal with fans. Many of them assume that knowing about something intimately and thoroughly will automatically equate to excusing or justifying its weaknesses, shortcomings, excesses, and indulgences.
"As long as people are reading something..."
Been traveling, and will be hitting the road again soon. But first, a meditation on the idea that it doesn't matter what people read, as long as they read something:
... much supposedly literary fiction also repeats weary formulas, while some novels marketed as genre fiction move toward the exploratory by denying readers the sameness the format led them to expect. And of course many literary writers have made hay “subverting” genre forms. However, if the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.
I'd argue that we have trouble recognizing it when the two cross over or learn from each others' best attributes, but that this happens rarely enough it's no surprise it's missed. An author like Georges Simenon was excellent at providing what seemed like mere entertainment, while at the same time delving into things typically left to "serious" fiction; authors of his caliber don't come around much anymore, if at all.
I could use a little help from my fans.
Remember that great interview I gave at the Two Geeks Talking podcast for Flight of the Vajra?
... Go stand in the hall and hold these pails of water.
In all seriousness, I did a podcast interview with the TGT folks and it was great. Now I'm in a fight to come out on top in an Author Vs. Author battle, where all the folks who were interviewed on the show have their fans vote them to the top.
Go here and search on "Flight of the Vajra" to vote. The winner will get, uh, bragging rights and a bunch of good karma*. Those who support me will get even better karma*!
* yes, I know this is a flagrant abuse of the term.
For sale. Best offer!
Flight of the Vajra is $1.99 on Kindle through next week.
And the entire first part of the book is available as a Kindle sample freebie.
If you've been on the fence about whether or not to grab it, this is just your excuse.
And if you're still wondering what the book is about, take it from my good friend Steven: "A more responsible version of Tony Stark finds he's got to save the galaxy - and his team consists of a circus acrobat, a futuristic Dali Lama, Jim Gordon, Seven of Nine, and David Bowie."
If that doesn't sell people on it, I have no idea what would.
Hollywood's mania for sequels makes sense in light of how forgettable the films are. With no follow-up, who would remember they even exist?
A comment I made on Twitter earlier (yeah, I do that from time to time) deserves revisiting here in depth.
Hollywood's mania for sequels makes sense in light of how forgettable the films are. With no follow-up, who would remember they even exist? The inherently disposable nature of the films is a design feature, not a flaw. That's how they get you to buy next year's model.
On the self that plays tricks on the self by being the self, or something.
It's been an unproductive day on multiple fronts, which ended with me shelving my current work and writing a few notes to people for the sake of further research on stuff I couldn't see from 30,000 feet up. In the long run it'll get worked out, but the short-term frustration that comes from hitting such a wall is always a bummer. When in such a state, I get philosophical.
Brad Warner has a nice post up about the way our happiness-seeking activities constitute a trick played on us by our brains. Many of the things we think will make us happy, don't. Or they only make us happy in a qualified sense: they only work because they're encouraged by a set of social circumstances, which is why bragging about your new car is generally wasted breath amongst people who can't drive. The point he makes is that we shouldn't give up on happiness, but that we should seek it differently -- by looking at our desires as scrutinously as we can and understanding where they really come from and why.
The last and simplest -- you'll see soon how the pun is intended -- of Krugman's rules of research is "Simplify, simplify".
... always try to express your ideas in the simplest possible model. The act of stripping down to this minimalist model will force you to get to the essence of what you are trying to say (and will also make obvious to you those situations in which you actually have nothing to say). And this minimalist model will then be easy to explain to other economists as well.
In the same way, it helps to think about what you're trying to do in the simplest possible way, both as an explanatory device and as a disciplinary one. Explanatory first.
On why taboos aren't just prejudices.
Some notes on Richard Dawkins and his turning his nose up at the idea of taboos as being antiquarian concepts:
... taboos exist because humans are emotional creatures. We feel upset and disgust, and taboos exist to protect us from such feelings. Introducing rape gratuitously into a public discussion upsets some people unnecessarily. Etiquette dictates that we don't do this ... And disgust, like it or not, is the basis for some moral judgments - such as the belief that some things such as human organs or sex be not traded in markets.
Demanding that there be no taboo zones and that reason and logic go everywhere is, in this sense, a demand that people be dessicated calculating machines devoid of emotion. Even if this were desirable - which is very dubious - it is a futile call.
... Dawkins is being inconsistent. What he's demanding is not so much that everyone be dispassionate but that they share his disgust at some things and his lack of disgust at others. He's complaining: "Why can't everyone be like me?" ... In this sense, rationalism is close to narcissism.
People, especially intellectuals, tend to forget how important a role the emotions play in assessing ideas. Almost no one takes an idea on face value as if they were a computer processing a program; emotions and our sense of self are inextricably bound up with the way we process even the most neutral of things.
I suspect a lot of the arguments against taboos come down to an objection against repressive behavior. Don't tell us what to do; people need to have free minds and free lives; etc. What's missing here is any sense of what happens when you break a taboo: you create an emotional reaction, often one of disgust and animosity, and often in the very people you're trying to convince of the unworthiness of a taboo. In short, you're shooting yourself in the foot. (One of the tricks Dale Carnegie taught his followers was that if you want to get somebody to do something, you let them think it was their idea all along, not an idea you're pushing on them.)
I don't think any of this constitutes an argument against rationalism, though. I think it does constitute an argument against the idea that rationalism is always pure. It also continues to convince me that Richard Dawkins, for all of his smarts, is a heartless toad.
On daring to be silly.
"Dare to be silly" -- that's a rule, courtesy of Paul Krugman, that I should barely have to elaborate on. The evocation of it alone should be enough, whether or not you're a Krugman fan (or a Weird Al fan, for that matter), but the context for the word "silly" is worth detailing. Krugman found that the really valuable work to be done was not in making safe but unadventurous extensions to existing theories, but rather to take bold, potentially foolish-seeming steps -- what he deemed the use of silly assumptions:
What seems terribly hard for many economists to accept is that all our models involve silly assumptions. Given what we know about cognitive psychology, utility maximization is a ludicrous concept; equilibrium pretty foolish outside of financial markets; perfect competition a howler for most industries. The reason for making these assumptions is not that they are reasonable but that they seem to help us produce models that are helpful metaphors for things that we think happen in the real world.
In other words, the silliness is a function of the fact that such work is often open to ridicule for trying to look at things differently, and derive a useful model from that perspective.
It's the end of the world as we know it, yet again.
The more I think about end-of-the-world fiction, the more I'm seeing it as a red herring. Not just because we're surrounded by so damn much of it lately (it started most recently with, I think, The Walking Dead and it's just gone on unabated from there), but because it's predicated on a few assumptions that I'm finding harder to swallow as I go along.
First, the core premise: things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc. It's hard for me to look at such things and not see them as a gross underestimation of the resilience of human ingenuity. If we're good enough to stick it out that fiercely after things collapse, doesn't that imply we'd be good enough to keep it together from collapsing to begin with?
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of August 2014.
Other Lives Of The Mind