Category Archives: Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Star Trek in beautiful widescreen

I  love these widescreen images from the original Star Trek by Nick Acosta. Much of what made the show work was it’s excellent set design and lighting, shown here to superb effect.

Star Trek in Cinerama – Nick Acosta.

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RE: Worldbuilding – can sci-fi help build a better world?

Science shows us how the world is built. Can science fiction help us build a better world?

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The Blue Marble

Astronaut Jack Schmitt released the shutter on the 70 millimeter Hasselblad camera at 5:39 AM on 7th December 1972. The Apollo 17 mission to the moon was 45,000 kilometers from Earth. The image that it captured was not the first of its kind. Other photos of Earth had been recorded by previous space missions, but none so clear and potent as this one.

“The Blue Marble”, as it would later be nicknamed, shows a fully illuminated Earth of white clouds, blue oceans and the continental landmasses of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the south polar ice cap. For hundreds of thousands of years, humankind lived on Earth’s surface. Now we could look back and see Earth as a whole, like a child’s marble, shining against the darkness of the cosmos.

The "Blue Marble" through the generations from left (1972, 2000, and 2012). (Images: NASA)
The “Blue Marble” through the generations from left (1972, 2000, and 2012). (Images: NASA)

In the same decade the Apollo missions were taking a handful of men into space, the rest of humankind were boldly going where no man had gone before. Not on rockets, but in stories. Star Trek was just one in a wave of television shows, movies, comics and books that took readers on journeys of imagination into the unknown reaches of space. Science fiction stories had been around for decades, but the space race between America and the Soviet Union gave them a new energy and importance. When Jules Verne penned From The Earth to the Moon in 1865, its description of a manned mission to an Earth satellite seemed like a flight of fantasy. As the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface just over a century later, Verne’s words read like a startlingly accurate vision of the future unfolding before us.

It’s not outrageous to think that science fiction inspires science. Captain James T Kirk’s five year journey on the starship Enterprise inspired both the name of the first space shuttle, and some of the mobile phones we carry today were modeled on Star Trek communicators. In the 1980’s the “cyberpunk” stories of William Gibson were an intrinsic part of the emergence of “cyberspace” and virtual worlds. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge is limited to what we know, while imagination reaches into the unknown. As science radically expanded what was known through the 20th century, we needed ever more powerful feats of imagination to guide its development and shape its outcomes. And among the most important products of the 20th century imagination was science fiction.

The scientific revolution that allowed us to send rockets into space was also transforming our understanding of the world we were leaving behind. Centuries of cartographic surveying had outlined and detailed the world’s continents. A revolution in transport meant that the journey around the planet described in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days could be completed in eighty hours or less. Just one year before the “Blue Marble” photo was taken, the Intel Corporation produced the first commercial microprocessor chip. The information technology this new computing power allowed would, by the early 1990s, see the advent of the Internet. “The Global Village” – a counter culture concept coined by media theorist Marshall McLuhan – was becoming a reality. Millions of humans flocked to join the emergent Internet, through which they could communicate as easily with peers on the other side of the world as with strangers who lived next door.

A rocket to the moon in an illustration from the 1874 edition of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon turned out to be prophetic. (Image: Henri de Montaut/Public domain)
A rocket to the moon in an illustration from the 1874 edition of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon turned out to be prophetic. (Image: Henri de Montaut/Public domain)

The 7.12 billion people living on Earth today are arguably the first cohort of humankind to understand our world from a truly planetary perspective. On the physical plane we have mapped every square meter of the planet’s surface, modelled the tectonic movements of its core and can predict the atmospheric patterns that shape its weather. In the social sphere, we are ever more adept at understanding the tremendously complex, interrelated behaviours of the seven billion people who populate the globe. From economic forecasting to the immense power of “big data”, used to exploit the hidden patterns in human behaviour, we have unprecedented insight into the operations of our society. Cognitively, we can look in to the grey matter of the brain to understand its functions, and employ a century or more of psychological learning to understand our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. And on the grandest scale of the cosmos itself, we can place the blue marble of our world in a dynamic galaxy, itself a mere speck in a universe that grows ever more infinite as we probe its depths.

The “Blue Marble” showed us an Earth both more beautiful and more fragile than we had imagined. The image became symbolic of a burgeoning environmental consciousness. Our planet was no longer a boundless wilderness to be conquered, but a finite resource to be conserved. And science was showing us the many systems that made up the planet and governed life upon it; systems that, once thrown out of balance, might never be brought back under control.

As we look ever deeper int the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of our world, we are lead to ask a simple but profoundly important question: Can we build a better word? Can we apply the systematic understanding of the world science has given us to improve these systems? And like the most complex of mathematical problems, can we find a solution that will bring balance to the world.

In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy. Science has given us such a detailed insight into the systems of our world that not one of us can hope to hold more than an infinitesimal fragment of it in our heads at any one time. Isaac Newton, the natural philosopher who contributed much to the emergence of modern science, was still able to range widely across the emerging fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Today, to understand just a single specialization in the vast sea of human knowledge seems the task of a lifetime.

In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy.

Equally problematic is the conflict between science, religion and the arts. In defining its pre-eminence in the world, science rejected many of the ways of seeing that preceded it. Today any attempt to bring religious or spiritual teachings into the public debate becomes immediately divisive. And science also suffers from its own fundamentalism; a materialist philosophy that rejects all internal experience as invalid, meaning that art of all kinds is also devalued and pushed aside.

Solving a problem as complex as building a better world is going to need unusual tools. We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us. And because at the heart of our problem are seven billion emotional, erratic and unreasonable human beings, we’re to need tools that look deep inside the human experience. Tools that are every bit as much art as science, and as open to the products of imagination as of reason.

We’re going to need the tools of science fiction.

 

World Building

Science fiction was shaped in the pages of pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s, when stories of alien life, machine intelligence and galactic civilizations became mass entertainment. Critics have dated the emergence of science fiction to the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the late 19th century, or the publication of Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818. As a form of modern mythology, science fiction continues in the tradition of fantastic story-telling reaching back to the roots of human civilisation.

Pulps from the 1920's and 30's like Amazing Stories and Astounding set the foundational ideas for science fiction that would strongly influence later works in the genre. (Images: Public Domain)
Pulps from the 1920’s and 30’s like Amazing Stories and Astounding set the foundational ideas for science fiction that would strongly influence later works in the genre. (Images: Public Domain)

In his essay “Fantastika and the World Storm”, author and critic John Clute outlines a history of science fiction that begins in 1750, at the dawn of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that would shape the modern era. Science fiction, in Clute’s schema, emerged as a “planetary literature”, one which could consider the ideas emerging from science and envision the vast changes, both good and bad, they would unleash upon the world.

Science fiction is defined by the storyteller’s craft of world building. The world at the heart of a work of science fiction might be our own planet Earth, in some near future or alternative history. Or an alien planet in orbit of a distant star. But the worlds of science fiction aren’t limited to rocky spheres floating in space. The world of a science fiction novel can be a galactic empire, an alternative dimension, an imaginary kingdom, a political state or any of thousands of distinct worlds. Every element of the story – its characters, setting, plot lines and events – are integral to that world and its future. The hero is not just the center of the story. They are the center of the world.

We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us.

Issac Asimov’s Foundation series charts the fall, and eventual rise, of the Galactic Empire, a human civilisation spanning the Milky Way galaxy – the world the story encompasses. Hari Seldon, the story’s hero, is a mathematician who specializes in “psychohistory”, a scientific discipline that allows him to predict two possible futures: one where a thirty-thousand year dark age overcomes the Galactic Empire, and another where after only one thousand years a new, utopian society arises. By establishing two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy, Hari Seldon attempts to ensure the second of these futures.

Frank Herbet’s Dune centers on the young Paul Atreides, heir to the doomed House Atreides, who will become the Emperor of the Known Universe. The desert world of Arrakis is the centre of that universe and the source of the spice Melange, the only substance that allows galactic travel. He who controls the spice, controls the universe, and through a process of mystical enlightenment and open warfare, Paul Atreides learns the secret of the spice.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven depicts a near future Earth, a global society ravaged by poverty and resource wars. At the center of this world is George Orr, a man whose dreams can change the nature of reality, and William Haber, the psychiatrist who tries to shape Orr’s dreams to make a better world. Together they seek to solve racism and overpopulation to bring about world peace, all with unfortunate and counter-productive effects.

A vast array of concepts collide in the stories of Asimov, Hebert and Le Guin. The ability of economics to both predict and shape social change. The politics of empire, colonialism and the long span of history. The emerging ecological awareness and new age spirituality of the counter culture. Resource scarcity, and the fates of worlds in conflict for finite sources of energy. Post-modern philosophy and the conflict between objective reality and subjective experience. It is this melding of disparate ideas into coherent narratives has become the hallmark of science fiction.

"World building" is represented in some of the most highly regarded works of science fiction (clockwise from top left: Herbert's Dune, Asimov's Foundation series, Orwell's 1984, and LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven.
“World building” is represented in some of the most highly regarded works of science fiction (clockwise from top left: Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation series, Orwell’s 1984, and LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

These imagined stories – like thousands of other science fiction tales told in the 20th century – were presented to audiences as popular entertainment and escapism. But there was a greater purpose implicit in the emerging literature of science fiction. For most of human history stories had embraced both reason and the imagination. From the earliest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Biblical stories recorded in Genesis and other religious texts. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome, the fairy and folk tales of Medieval Europe and the courtly masques of Shakespearean theatre, for most of human history stories were shaped from both the real and the imagined.

But as we embraced the age of science and reason ushered in by the Enlightenment, a tradition of purely realistic storytelling emerged that set aside the products of imagination. The modern novel, shaped by generations of writers – Honore de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, George Elliot, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Virgina Woolf, Jack Kerouac and thousands upon thousands more, became the natural home of realism. By the late 19th and early 20th century the realist tradition dominated contemporary culture. Stories that grew from the imagination of the writer, and those resembling the older stories of myth and legend, were thought fit only for children. The imagination was sidelined as a source of mere escapist entertainment and the stories that came from it were seen as pure fantasy.

The Inklings were a group of writers who – between the two world wars in the university town of Oxford, England – were drawn together by the idea of creating stories which recaptured the imagination. Among them were C. S. Lewis, whose “Narnia” novels would enchant a generation of children, and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Middle Earth would become arguably the most famous story of the 20th century. As a child, Tolkien had seen the world transformed by the Industrial Revolution. As a young man he had survived the brutalities of the Great War, the first conflict to engulf the whole world. And from these twin experiences, Tolkien would create what he considered to be a new mythology for the modern world.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings chronicles the twilight of the Third Age of Middle Earth, and the battle to defeat the dark lord Sauron by destroying the One Ring, a quest which can only be fulfilled by the hobbit Frodo Baggins, a hero defined by the purity of his spirit rather than his physical strength. Should he fail, the pastoral world of Middle Earth would be overrun by evil, and turned from green fields in to smoke belching factories.

George Orwell was only a decade younger than Tolkien, a product of the same culture and upbringing. Nineteen-Eighty Four- Orwell’s masterpiece of totalitarian horror – is at least cosmetically a very different book to Lord of the Rings. It encompasses the world of Oceania, an all-powerful, totalitarian state. The story follows Winston Smith, a low ranking bureaucrat attempting to find personal liberation and space to love Julia, a young woman also trapped within the state. But unlike the heroes of myth, Winston Smith’s attempt to overcome the oppressive regime of Big Brother ends is absolute failure. He is tortured in room 101, forced to betray his lover, and left a broken man. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows us a world utterly crushed beneath the jackboot of totalitarianism, with no hope for redemption.

As different as they may appear, the stories of Orwell and Tolkien are both products of imaginations trained by similar cultural experiences. They both encompass worlds, and the fates of those worlds and in doing so, they reveal aspects of our own world. The oppressive power of Big Brother in Nineteen-Eighty Four and of the dark lord Sauron in Lord of the Rings are both reflections of the very real oppressive powers that challenge the wholeness of our world in reality. And like thousands of great science fiction stories, from those of Asimov and Le Guin to the masters of the form today, they use the imagination to show us our world as we could never otherwise see it.

Science fiction storytellers use ideas like time travel to provide insight into how we might create new and better futures. (Image: David Revoy/Blender Foundation - CC BY 3.0)
Science fiction storytellers use ideas like time travel to provide insight into how we might create new and better futures. (Image: David Revoy/Blender Foundation – CC BY 3.0)

 

The Re-emergence of Imagination

Science fiction has grown from its origins on the printed page. In films, television, comics and other narrative media, science fiction stories are a cornerstone of popular entertainment. Star Wars. The Terminator. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Matrix, too, is often dismissed as simple escapist entertainment, but the success of science fiction and fantasy stories represents the re-emergence of the imagination in our world of reason. Through the mass media science fiction is now reaching global audiences, and helping us to understand our world from the planetary perspective.

Contemporary science fiction weaves ever more sophisticated visions of our planetary future. Charles Stross’ Accelerando follows three generations of one family into the future as Earth is transformed by the “technological singularity”, the point at which change driven by technology outstrips the human ability to comprehend it. A point, some might argue, we have already reached. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes explores an alternative future Johannesberg where an underclass of criminals are stigmatized by being “animaled”, magically bonded to an animal familiar. Beuke’s planetary vision is distinctive for escaping the assumptions of the technologically developed first world, and extrapolating instead a future through the lens of the world’s emerging economies. The baroque fantastical visions of China Mieville in books such as Perdido Street Station, The City and The City and Embassytown reform many of science fiction’s earlier visions, from the fantasy world building of J.R.R. Tolkien to the space opera stories of Issac Asimov. Mieville’s planetary visions undermine those which have come before, challenging us to ask if we can ever understand the reality in which we find ourselves.

The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention. Today our relationship with imagination is increasingly complex. We value the products and innovations that drive every aspect of modern society, even while we continue to underestimate the imagination as the source of those things. We remain in the Enlightenment paradigm, alienated from our imagination, treating it as little more than an avenue for idle entertainment and desperate escapism.

But for generations our stories have called us back to the imagination as a source of insight and understanding. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Issac Asimov, George Orwell, Lauren Beukes, China Mieville and thousands of other creators of science fiction offer us powerful and potent visions drawn from the imagination. If there is one single message we should take from science fiction, it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world. We can analyze the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of the world in the finest detail. But it is only through the imagination that we can begin to synthesize that knowledge back into a whole. And from that informed imagination comes the planetary visions of science fiction. If we wish to solve shape our “Blue Marble” planet in to a better world, we may do well to pay attention to them.

78a8ju6xSwy96y1y6sZy_RTW-Illustration
Story Cover: Mind of the Future by Brent Drake. Brent Drake is an illustrator and entrepreneur residing in Austin, TX. He likes the St. Louis Cardinals. A lot. Twitter: @brent_drake

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

Lauren Beukes – Zoo City

John Clute – “Fantastika and the World Storm”

Frank Herbert – Dune

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Lathe of Heaven

China Mieville – Embassytown, Perdido Street Station, The City and The City

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus

Charles Stross – Accelerando

J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings

Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon

Women Are Destroying Science Fiction! (That’s OK; They Created It)

What what makes, one may also destroy. Women writers, having created science fiction in works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, are now destroying it. NPR books picks up this idea today. Of course, science fiction isn’t being destroyed. It’s changing, and the new space being claimed by diverse voices in the genre is the energy changing it.

Warning: you don’t want to read the comments!

*

If your notion of SF is confined to the vision brought forth by the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Sturgeon and Clarke all fine writers, mind, then the stories within these pages may well seem like destruction. As will such alarming developments as women sweeping the fiction categories of the Nebula Awards. And the way that speakers at feminist SF conventions characterize science fiction as an “exploration of the future and myth and history” and call for more stories that include “the voices, experiences, subjectivities and realities of many.”

So are women destroying science fiction? Yes. Women created it, so its only fair. Most would cite Frankenstein author Mary Shelley here, but others point out that Margaret Cavendish preceded her. In destroying it, women are creating a larger space for themselves within science fiction; one filled with their voices, dreams, experiences and realities.

via Review: Women Destroy Science Fiction! : NPR.

My nominations for Speculative Fiction 2014

Criticism and non-fiction writing seem to play an ever bigger part in science fiction and fantasy. Consider the issue of diversity in these genres, which has reached some kind of apogee in 2014. And a great deal of the energy driving that change has been generated online by non-fiction writing. Most of this writing is made by fans (those fans may also be pro authors, editors and agents, but writing first and foremost as fans) and it’s in online non-fiction writing like reviews, essays, blog posts and forum debates that the fans shape the genre. I honestly can’t think of a healthier and more open democratic way to shape our culture.

Following on from the success of Speculative Fiction 2013 it’s organisers have now made an open call for submissions to the 2014 volume of the anthology. Speculative Fiction 2014 will bring together some of the best online non-fiction writing on SF/F in to a handy, highly readable format. I highly recommend you nominate those pieces which stand out for you this year. I have just done so, and thought I would share my nominations to encourage more people to participate. Please chip in and tell me your favourite non-fiction of the year in the comments. I’m sure there are many I’ve missed.

Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe by Paul Weimer – Silk Road fantasy is such an evocative term for non-western oriented fantasy. Weimer may not quite have coined it but I think in this well researched post he brings it to new popularity. As the comments explore it doesn’t fit all non-western fantasy, but for the parts of the world the Silk Roads ran too, I think it’s rather lovely. I also have a feeling we’re going to see some great Silk Road fantasies in the next few years.

A Great Castle Made of Sea: Why Hasn’t Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Been More Influential? by Jo Walton – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a major bestseller, but the fantasy genre has largely ignored it in favour of the grimdark vision. Walton explores the many reasons for this, in her usual subtle and amusing manner.

12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And the Self) by Daniel Jose Older – “The baseline is you suck”, strongly worded and supremely insightful, this post cracked open one of the toughest issues in fiction writing. How do we write characters who have been cast as The Other by our culture? There are no easy answers, but Older makes some strong suggestions.

How Censors Killed The Weird, Experimental, Progressive Golden Age Of Comics by Saladin Ahmed – I had no concept of how many diverse superheroes there were until I read Ahmed’s superbly researched insight in to early 20th century comics. And the shock of course is how these characters were eliminated by top down censorship. A must read.

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction by Alex Dally Macfarlane – this essay set off one of the most valuable debates in the genre this year. SF/F should be the natural home of characters who do not conform to enforced gender norms. So why isn’t it? The answer to this question is still being argued, and likely will be for some time.

Now, go an make your own nominations for Speculative Fiction 2014 here.

Genre needs a lot more cruel and nasty reviews

I’ve reviewed my fair share of sci-fi genre novels. I started right here on this blog…eek!..about 8 years ago. Not long after that I began doing reviews for The Fix. I began blogging and reviewing for The Guardian waaaaay back in the historic mists of 2008. And I’ve contributed book reviews here and there to a lot of other venues, including SFX magazine.

So I read Christopher Priest’s review of Barricade by Jon Wallace with frequent nods of recognition. To be clear I have not read Barricade. Even if it is a much better book than Priest’s review suggests, it’s not a book that grasps my interest. But Priest’s expertly expressed criticisms of Barricade – that it is thoughtlessly violent, inexpertly written and displays worrying attitudes towards its female characters – are equally true of hundreds of genre novels published every year. It’s because of these problems that, despite a lifelong love of genre, I now read less science fiction and fantasy than I ever have.

I will never blame a publisher for hyping a book. As a fan and reviewer I see dozens of new books published every week, all of them in one form or another declared to be the best thing since Romulan ale. That most of them disappear with barely a ripple doesn’t mean the publishers weren’t doing their job by hyping the hell out of every single book they take on. That’s what publishers do. All the more important then that we can find honest book reviews that help us find the few true gems published each year.

Which is why I find it somewhat sad that Christopher Priest’s honest and insightful review has received some rather under the belt responses. Den Patrick, another of this years crop of debut authors, accused Priest of being the school bully and said he expected more from an “elder statesman of genre”. What more exactly? Sadly there isn’t any nice way to tell someone their book is awful. Should reviewers just say every novel they are sent is lovely so no ones feelings get hurt?

We need writers and reviewers like Priest who have the expertise and willingness to reflect back the problems in modern genre fiction. Because the problems are very real. Violence of the flattened, meaningless kind Priest pinpoints in Barricade is endemic in the genre. Too many books are trying to be action thrillers or First Person Shooters when neither of these are what books are good at doing. The standard of writing is so poor in many of the books coming out from publishers that I hesitate to even call their authors hacks. It seems more like they are people who have read far fewer books than they have played video games, and are only writing books as an outlet for their frustrated desire to be a game designer. And given video gaming’s endemic problems with misogyny, thoughtless attitudes when presenting female characters become more understandable, although no more forgivable.

Priest’s review has been called both nasty and cruel. It is neither. But if that is how honest insightful reviews are perceived by some fans, then we need a lot more reviews brave enough to be considered both nasty and cruel.

Can sci-fi ever not be political?

When is a giant lizard not a giant lizard? When it’s a metaphor for the might of the military-industrial complex. Audiences turning up for the latest cinematic incarnation of Godzilla have expressed some disappointment that much of the battling kaiju action was kept off screen. In its place director Gareth Edwards makes the smart decision to tinker with the kaleidoscopic political meanings that surround the giant lizard.

What Edwards chooses to place front and centre are the twin legacies the second world war foisted on modern society – nuclear weapons and the United States military in all its glory. By the end of the movie we’re left in no doubt that, whatever risks they pose, we need the monstrous forces mankind can control to defend us from the monstrous forces – be they real or imagined – we cannot. Audiences want sci-fi to entertain us, but even blockbuster movies come loaded with political messages.

In recent months the community of science fiction readers and writers has been embroiled in an escalating war of words over the genre’s political soul, catalysed by the nominations for this year’s Hugo awards. Allegations of bloc-voting arose as a slate of little-known writers appeared among the nominees, after a concerted campaign by a small group of writers to get the books on the ballot.

Read more @ Guardian books.

The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction –  on Elon Musk and geek culture, the  NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science  – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is.

“I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird.”

~ Neal Stephenson.

IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks, Stephenson’s collected non-fiction writing, was due for release in the UK and I was fascinated to talk to the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon about his wider views of science, technology and contemporary culture. It happened that the interview came just at the time that CLANG, the innovative sword fighting game that Neal had championed to successful Kickstarter funding, hit a few kinks in its development.  Our interview took a few twists and turns, but came out full of interesting insights in to the author’s thoughts and creative development. But, as sometimes happens with interviews, our discussion didn’t quite match the focus the commissioning technology publication had been looking for.  And so, after some consideration, I’ve rescued the interview from editorial limbo to publish here in full.  I hope you enjoy reading it.

Damien Walter, 2014

DW – Your non-fiction writing collected in Some Remarks displays the same fascination with technology and social change as your novels, I think that’s fair to say? Where did this fascination begin?

seveneves NS – One of the items in Some Remarks is a foreword to the posthumous re-issue of David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More, in which I try to make the case that DFW’s work is informed by a particular sensibility peculiar to what I call the Midwestern American College Town,  or MACT. I won’t try to recapitulate that argument here, but the gist of it is that I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird. I suppose we all have such insights when we move away from the place of our upbringing. My ancestors had been ministers, professors – or ministers and professors – for several generations back. That’s in the paternal line. On the maternal side, they were reasonably well-to-do farmers with a direct and recent connection to Geraldine Jewsbury, a very complicated Victorian author. By the way, I didn’t know about any of that when I was young, I only became aware of it in my twenties and thirties. But one assumes it has an effect.

Anyway, during the 20th century they all made a turn toward science and technology and so I ended up with a lot of academic scientists and engineers in my family. I grew up in a MACT, dominated by a university of science and technology, wherein our neighbors, the people we saw at church, the parents of my friends, etc. all tended to have (or to be studying for) Ph.Ds. Some of my friends’ fathers had worked on the Manhattan Project, and as a teenager I worked summers as a research assistant in an old Manhattan Project lab. I developed a fairly typical nerdy fascination with computers and programming, which showed up in my fiction, particularly Snow Crash; and when that book became popular among high tech people, I ended up knowing many such.

DW – How did this upbringing contribute to your talent for seeing the “big picture” of technology?

NS – To the extent that I have any talent for it, it presumably arises from the fact that I never recognized any meaningful division or conflict between science and technology on the one hand, and any other aspect of culture (literature, religion) on the other. The typical MACT is too small to allow for specialization, and so if the professors are going to have cultural events they must organize them themselves, rather than delegating the work to a separate cultural elite. Again, all of this was simply the air I breathed, and I didn’t become conscious of it until later in life.

DW – The MACT sounds like much the kind of place where many young science fiction fans came of age. Today scifi and “geek culture” are arguably the new mainstream culture of the internet connected generation. How do you rate its influence on your work?

NS – Re scifi/geek culture, this is something that I grew up with, just as a historical accident. I can still remember seeing The Hobbit for the first time, in the hands of an older boy at my school when I was in the sixth grade. This was at about the same time that I was obsessing over the original Star Trek series and watching Astro Boy cartoons. Today, of course, we would identify all of these as being touchstones of geek culture, but at the time, nothing of the sort had even been imagined. So I was left with a fascination for these strange found objects on the periphery of our culture. I could say similar things about D & D and even Star Wars. People who were fans of one of these things tended to be fans of the others, and so geek culture evolved, I think, out of a lot of random encounters in dorm rooms and subway cars, and began to snowball as the geeks got better at networking.

“when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise”

When the Internet came along and made networking easy, the whole phenomenon just exploded and has now become a dominant force in our culture. I never partook of it as heavily as some others, in the sense that I didn’t go to SF cons, have never visited Comicon, and haven’t really been involved in the relevant Internet discussion groups. Consequently, when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise, and in fact I wasn’t really aware that anything had happened until people began to reach me via the then-new medium of email and to address me as if I were some kind of significant person.

Its main influence on my work has been that I have felt confident that I need not keep writing the same book over and over again. I have tried to make each book different from the last. I’ve always felt confident that this would work, which is to say, that the community of readers would accept this sort of random-walk approach, and so far I have never been disappointed. From time to time I will hear from a reader who is startled by the fact that my latest book isn’t very much like the one previous, but those people seem to be outnumbered by the ones who don’t care at all, supposing they even notice.

Superhero teams. Proof positive that women are at most 25% of the human population

For most of my life I’ve been led to believe by statistics that women represented some 50% of the human population. Scientific people have suggested that the ratio of male to female births is around 106 boys to 100 girls, but scientific people also argue about this ratio. External factors like gender-control and gendercide further tip the balance against women, but then warfare and pervasive cultural violence more tip it back against men, leaving it at roughly 50/50. But all of this is mere scientific speculation. For real insight in to the state of the world today we need to turn to Hollywood.

I love a good superhero movie. It’s just a shame I’ve never seen one. We’re all holding out hope for Guardians of the Galaxy. It seems no matter how often Hollywood suckers us with a compelling trailer that capitalises on the emotional clout of a catchy pop song, we’re always ready to fall for that old trick again. Every new superhero movie is the one we’ve been waiting for, right up until the disappoint of actually watching the full 120 odd minutes of cliches, in-jokes and geekwank fantasy.

But the thing we can rely on every superhero movie for is a balanced and accurate portrayal of gender. Here, have some Avengers.

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There 6 Avengers and, look!, only 1 of them is a woman. That’s…er…damn fractions…uhm…about 17%, being generous.

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And here’s the Fantastic Four. Looking kind of like dicks. But 1 of the 4 is a woman. That’s 25%!

Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy…

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…1,2,3,4,5 Guardians but only 1 is a woman. I’ve checked and even the rocket racoon ripoff is male! 20%.

Also worth noting that a variety of male body types are represented – from the endomorphic muscly guy at the front to the ectomorphic tree being at the back – and of course we can assume the diminutive racoon is the clever one. But in all our superhero teams so far the women have essentially identical bodies, trapped in early to mid adolescence, a biological impossibility without severe ongoing dietary restriction. Doubly odd, as none of the male characters appear to be skinny fifteen year olds.

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Here’s the Justice League, which despite representing a variety of non-terran powers and wielding the power galactic, are, I am told, of America. And yes, 1 woman vs 5 men makes 17% again.

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I have no idea if this is a representative X-Men line-up. But there do seem to about 2 women in an X-Men team. Mostly so one of them can die and provide Wolverine with some much needed character motivation. 33.3% recurring, I do believe!

Also I like that picture because of how shifty they all look. Whatever the goal of this mission is , they find it shameful.

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Great Lakes Avengers…ASSEMBLE! It took quite some convincing by @PrinceJvstin to persuade me he hadn’t made these guys up. But…do my eyes deceive me…is there a non-anorexic female body type there? Well, yes, although we’ve swung to the far end of the body dysmorphia scale. And for the second time a 33% female line-up!

So. What have we learnt here. Well, as I personally can’t think of any reason why a profit driven entertainment industry would misrepresent the gender balance of the human race, we can only conclude that actually, despite the opinions of scientific people, women make up at most 25% of the population

Here, have a school teacher being torn apart by her zombie students.

 

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A Nebula award shortlist that makes me feel good about SF

The Nebula award shortlists have just been announced by the Science Fiction Writers of America. And they are excellent. Focusing on Best Novel…

  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
  • Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
  • Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

This contains three of my favourite books of the year by authors Neil Gaiman, Nicola Griffith and Helene Wecker.  The Golem and The Jinni in particular is a wonderful, wonderful novel that I cannot recommend highly enough. Go and read it!

Quick thought experiment. Apply the common (and deeply flawed) definition of “Hard SF” that many of the field’s awards have fallen in to the trap of applying.  It’s likely that Wecker, Samatar, Griffith and Gaiman would be excluded, and the award would be far less rich and less representative of the best the SF field has to offer.

The SFWA has been at the centre of numerous difficult stories this year. But it’s worth noting that the organisation taken as a whole is standing right at the forefront of diversity of all kinds in science fiction and deserves wide recognition and applause for that.

See the full Nebula award nominees here.