Monthly Archives: October 2008

Science fiction versus sports? Strange comparison.

I just came across a bizarre article at TechRepublic.com that claims “sports is a better form of entertainment than science fiction.” Now if that’s not one of the strangest cases of comparing apple to oranges I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is. So you’re a sports fan, and you want to demonstrate the good things about sports, as you see it, so you want to make comparisons with some other sort of interest, so you pick…… science fiction? If you’re talking about sports in general (rather than a particular sport like hockey or basketball), then wouldn’t it make more sense to contrast it with other general categories of entertainment, such as reading or music listening? Why the genre of science fiction specifically? Does someone have an axe to grind, perhaps? Well, actually, the poster does say right up front that he doesn’t like sf, but he respects the opinions of those who do. I’ll take that at face value, but I’m still curious as to where the idea for this odd comparison came from.

Anyway, the poster says dissenting viewpoints are welcome, and hey, I’m never one to turn down an invitation to dissent. The article lists nine points detailing the alleged superiority of sports over sci-fi, so I’m going to quickly reply to those points with my own opinion which — I know this will shock and surprise you! — is completely the opposite.

1. Sports is real time, no waiting…..

Aren’t there days or weeks between games involving your favorite team(s)? I can pick up a book any time I wish and start reading. And guess what? It doesn’t have to be the latest book from one of my favorite authors. There are always new authors to discover; there is always something great waiting to be found, whether from the past or present, that I haven’t read yet.

2. Sports has a larger fan base, more fan interaction….

Believe it or not, some people don’t consider sharing the tastes of the masses to be a virtue. Some of us actually like our fan base to be a bit smaller and more… what’s a good word…. selective. Besides, I get all the fan interaction I want or need; ever heard of the internet? (It’s been pretty big the last decade or so.) There are also these things called conventions, for those interested.

3. Better rivalries in sports…..

Hardly surprising, since sports is about rivalry and competition. Literature is not, at least on the level of author-vs-author. Of course, there is plenty of rivalry within almost any work of science fiction you’d care to name. Hey, Terminators vs. humans, pretty good rivalry there. Federation vs. Klingons. Rag-tag fleet vs. Cylons. Humans vs. aliens. Humans vs. AI’s. Humans vs. humans. Get this one — it’s pretty mind-blowing — a single human against his inner self, struggling to fight or understand his own human nature! All kinds of rivalry there.

4. Sports has more constancy, sf series die with their authors….

I think this is a poor comparison. Sports figures also die, or retire, and then their fans find new figures to idolize. Yeah, a sports team always goes on, but so does sf, with new writers appearing on the scene as older ones pass away. And I’d say an sf fan gets more out of their favorite authors than a sports fan gets from his favorite athlete; an author’s career isn’t limited to the short period of life when they’re at their physical peak.

5. Sports is more entertainment-oriented, sci-fi often inspires real-world change…..

Well, I guess you’ve got a point, if you think people’s hobbies and interests should be solely about entertainment. I agree that sports is pure entertainment, and purely pointless.

6. Sports promotes mental exercise via use of statistics…..

That sounds pretty weak to me. That minor benefit can’t possibly compare to the benefits gained from involvement with literature, especially a genre everyone recognizes as a “literature of ideas,” a literature that is so good at getting its readers to think about different scenarios and possibilities. And I doubt there are many sports fans whose mathematical abilities have been seriously enhanced by watching sports.

7. Stand-alone quality…..

The poster must be under the impression that ALL science fiction exists only as part of a series. What, never heard of stand-alone books, or movies?

8. Easier for sports fans to connect with other fans they meet…..

This seems to be the same point as #2 above.

9. Sports has better spin-off entertainment….

It’s hard for me to see that as a virtue. No, we don’t hear about science fiction authors trying to maim each other, or getting arrested, or engaging in various public antics. If sports fans see that kind of behavior as a good thing, let them keep it, they’re more than welcome to it!

;)

Around the sf blogosphere 10/29/08

Let’s see what’s going on at other sf sites and blogs.

SFSignal’s latest Mind Meld asks, “Is science fiction responsible for the lack of public interest in space exploration?” The question comes up, of course, because of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s cranky assertion of just such a relationship between the two. By far the best answer comes from J. Michael Straczynski:

The only thing wrong with Buzz Aldrin’s statement is that it’s not true.

Larry Niven also weighs in with a sensible opinion:

I do not agree. Without the dream, most people would never look up. Most city dwellers would see nothing even if they did. We need the science fiction shows and movies to keep the goal before our eyes–and not just for young people, but for us all.

Crotchety Old Fan takes up the question and comments about how it’s not sf’s fault at all; sf never lost the faith, people did. In his defense of science fiction, he makes the following observation that I’m rather fond of:

I can’t think of a single SF story that advocates for abandoning the future. Certainly there are stories that point out the dangers of venturing into the unknown; more stories that illustrate how the unknown can be perverted and turned to evil ends, even cautionary tales about exploring particular pathways – but every single one of them opens the door and steps through. None of them halt on the doorstep out of fear and trepidation.

Well said! It occurs to me that such a sentiment would have fit in nicely in the context of my recent posts (here, here, and here) about those naysayers who have been criticizing the darkness of science fiction. From the above comment, I get the idea COF might agree with me that those cautionary tales, dystopias, and the like are not something to hold against the genre, but rather are an asset, all part of the business of exploring the future.

__________

Meanwhile, Bill Ward has been showing a lot of appreciation for Ray Bradbury lately, calling him “a living treasure,” which he certainly is, no doubt about it. First, Bill shared this video of a long Bradbury lecture and interview that I mentioned a few months back. Then he took a look at Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. After that, just in time for Halloween, came Bill’s review of Something Wicked This Way Comes. And the most recent entry in this Bradbury-fest is a review of From the Dust Returned. That’s a lot of good posting about a great author, so if you’re a Bradbury fan, go check it out.

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The “All About Books” meme I posted recently was passed to me by Shannon at Books Worth Reading, and now I have done my part to spread it by infecting a couple of others. Both Bill Ward and Omphalos have taken this opportunity to tell us all about their thoughts and preferences about books.

Zeroing in on Vulcan

Over at Discover magazine’s Science Not Fiction blog, there’s an article about the discovery by astronomers that one of our closest stellar neighbors, Epsilon Eridani (10.5 light years away) has a solar system somewhat like our own, with rocky inner planets, outer gas giants, and two asteroid belts.

This is good news, insofar as numerous science fiction stories have used the Epsilon Eridani system as a home for alien civilizations, or future human colonies. So it would seem sf can take some small amount of pride in getting this location right.

But….. just who in science fiction was right? This solar system has been used in several books and tv series. Most famously, it was the location of Vulcan in Star Trek. It was also the location of the planet the Babylon 5 station orbited. Epsion Eridani also has made appearances in the fiction of Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear, C.J. Cheryh, Gordon Dickson, Alastair Reynolds, David Weber, and others.

They can’t ALL be right, can they?

I know who I’m rooting for. When we finally zoom in with more powerful telescopes, or actually travel there, I’m really really hoping we find Vulcan. And I’m hoping some of their logic rubs off on my species. ;)

Vinge offers a vivid look at the near future

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (2006) is subtitled “a novel with one foot in the future,” but that seems a little too modest; to me it feels like the novel takes a daring leap into our near future and lands solidly with both feet. This is a story brimming with technological concepts, all combining to create a revealing and plausible vision of what the world could look like in another twenty years. And what does that world look like? In some ways it’s hopeful and inviting; in other ways it’s dangerous and downright scary. It’s a very different world that you or I might have trouble adapting to, just as the main character does.

Robert Gu, formerly a famous poet, finds himself re-awakening in 2025, having been cured of the Alzheimer’s he suffered from for the past decade and a half. Suddenly he must try to reconnect not only with his family, but also with a world that has transformed into something uncomfortable and alienating to him. It’s a world of vastly increased connectivity, a world that makes the internet and cellphones and PDA’s of today seem like something cavemen used. It’s a world in which reality and virtual reality have nearly merged, where everything is networked, where everyone wears computers woven into their clothing and can instantly chat with anyone anywhere in the world (via a virtual face-to-face meeting, or through silent messaging — “sming”). As Robert learns to adapt to his new environment, he and the other characters become embroiled in events that demonstrate the complexities such a future might entail.

There are quite a few different technological facets that the book is built from. One of the biggest is what has been called “digital Gaia.” Everything in this future world has embedded processors — buildings, roadways, anything you can name, every manufactured item there is — and these processors are networked so the location and status of every object is instantly available. In these notes for one of his talks, Vinge said:

In this situation, physical reality becomes its own database and cyberspace leaks out into the real world.

Another major element is computer-mediated reality, a kind of virtual reality everyone creates for themselves using their own wearable computer and special contact lenses which provide various overlays on top of the real view. These can be used simply to view information, rather in the style of a head-up display, or to alter the visual appearance of your surroundings to any extent you desire. And these overlays can be shared with anyone else who is “wearing” and wants to tune in.

One of the big themes of the book is the increased problem of security in such a world. Vinge puts it like this:

The Red Queen’s Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.

One of the solutions presented is the Secure Hardware Environment, meaning every computer chip is designed so that it can be monitored by government, and thus impossible to subvert by criminals or terrorists. Vinge doesn’t delve into the inherent question of government abuse and privacy issues. Apparently the people of 2025 are all too willing to accept the SHE, especially since five years earlier Chicago was the victim of a nuclear attack by terrorists.

There is also YGBM (You-Gotta-Believe-Me) research, the effort to create mind-control technology. In fact, as the novel opens it seems someone has made a breakthrough in this area, and this is what drives the central action of the plot.. Then there’s JITT — “Just In Tme Training.” The basic idea is familiar in sf: the downloading of information into the human brain so that something can be almost instantly learned. JITT, for all its promise, has a serious downside — people often get “stuck” on the downloaded content and suffer a kind of mental breakdown. Also prominent in the book is the advancement of medical science in the future, with its cures for many serious diseases. It’s even possible for those rich enough to commission cures for their own particular conditions. This is partly due to the intensely networked society which allows, as never before, the easy sharing and cross-referencing of information and the ability to collaborate with any number of people all around the world.

Another technological aspect is the digitization of physical books, portrayed in the subplot about the Librareome Project, which destroys whole libraries of books in the process of converting them to digital form. On one level, this didn’t seem realistic at all, since such digitization could be accomplished without destroying the books. On the other hand, the explanation was that the powerfully-connected company in charge wanted the books gone, so they would have a limited-time monopoly on licensing rights to the digital database of all human literature. The corporate greed and corruption certainly did seem realistic.

Finally, there is also the possibility that a certain mysterious character is in fact an artificial intelligence. At the end, it is still unclear whether or not this was the case, but the possibility is there.

So you can see, there’s a lot going on in this novel from a technological standpoint. But it’s not just an attempt to “wow” the reader; Vinge presents a sober look at both the technology and how it might affect society. And it’s a story told through the eyes of people with real human concerns, portrayed with a strong sense of characterization. This novel deals not only with hard scientific topics, but with softer issues as well, such as generation gaps and how different age groups see each other, and family estrangement and making up for past mistakes. Whatever angle you want to take — the intriguing technology, the high-action thriller-espionage plot, or the human aspect — this is a book you can’t go wrong with.

Butler’s Ark of doom

I’m a little bit frustrated right now, because I just read Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler, and only after finishing it did I realize it was part of a series (the Patternmaster series), with several other books preceding it. And I hate reading books out of sequence, even when it doesn’t really matter to the series’ overall plot — it offends my sense of order. The edition I have (1985 Ace paperback) does not identify itself as part of a series, so….. thanks a lot, Ace. But as far as I can tell, the books are only loosely connected, so I suppose there’s no real harm done.

All that aside, this was a decent novel. It’s about an astronaut who, as part of Earth’s first voyage to another planet, brings a terrifying plague back home. But rather than taking the typical approach you might expect — a story about the scientific and political response to such a problem — the novel focuses on a small group of infected people and their struggles and agonies.

The plague is an alien microorganism that invades and transforms the body at the cellular level, turning it into an efficient vehicle for aiding in the microorganism’s reproduction. It alters a person’s DNA and bestows superhuman abilities: enhanced strength, senses, and healing ability. But it also comes with a much less desirable effect: an overwhelming compulsion to spread the microorganism, both by having offspring which will be born infected, and by infecting others through physical contact. Those who are infected are consciously aware that they are carrying a disease that could easily spread and engulf all of humanity, but at the same time the alien compulsions are so strong they’re almost impossible to fight.

The lone surviving astronaut who brought the infection to Earth is a strong-willed individual who is barely able to (partially) keep control of himself. After his ship crash-lands, he hides out in a small mountain valley surrounded by California desert, creating a small community of the infected who wage a constant battle to keep the plague isolated, and to retain whatever they can of their humanity. They gradually take in more members, as a minimum concession to their enforced compulsion to spread the infection. These additions to the community are kidnapped from nearby highways out in the desert wasteland, which in this chaotic near-future world have devolved into something right out of The Road Warrior.

This novel strikes me as being very similar to the other Butler novel I’ve read, Fledgling, in that they both deal with some of the same issues, and there are lots of places where the one evokes a strong memory of the other. The infected in Clay’s Ark remind me a lot of the vampire symbionts from Fledgling. Both are transformed into something not-quite-human; both are granted special abilities but pay a steep price for them; both struggle against overwhelming compulsions or addictions, and hate themselves for not being able to overcome them. Both novels also deal with uncomfortable areas of sexuality, with young people who appear frail but who possess unknown strengths, and with the loss of family and loved ones.

The novel switches between alternating “past” and “present” chapters. The past plotline is about the astronaut and how he initially starts his mountain colony, while the present is concerned with the latest additions to the community, a doctor and his two teenage daughters, and their attempts to escape. The strongest part of the book is the characterization. You can really feel the horrible stress these people are under because of the changes they’ve undergone, and the choices they have to make.

I feel the plotting could have been stronger — it was perhaps a bit predictable in places — but it’s worth reading nevertheless. And the rest of the books in the series sound at least as interesting as this one.

All About Books — one of those meme thingies

OK, I’ve never done one of these things before, but what the hell…… I don’t have anything else in the posting pipeline right now, so let’s do it.

This one’s called “All About Books” and I picked it up from Shannon at Books Worth Reading; she, in turn, got it from another site, and that person got it from yet another site, and, well, you know how these things get passed around. Anyway, here it is.

Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback?

I prefer hardbacks. The biggest reason is the strength of the spines. Whenever I’m reading a paperback, I’m always afraid I’ll bend it too much and put a crease in the spine, and that annoys me like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know why it bothers me so much, but it does. I like to look at my bookshelf and see flat, tight spines all the way across. I’m a bit of a neat freak with certain things like that. Other than that, paperbacks don’t bother me, and I own plenty of them — but I only buy them if they’re in good condition. Trade paperbacks are nice, but I don’t have very many. My copy of The Martian Chronicles is a trade pb, and it’s a beautiful volume.

Bookmark or dog-ear?

I always use a bookmark to mark where I left off reading. I’m not opposed to dog-ears if the need arises, but I try to avoid it. If I’m reading in bed, I have a notebook nearby for taking notes for my reviews. However, if I’m reading elsewhere and don’t have my notebook or some scrap of paper to write on, I’ll dog-ear a page that I want to remember.

Alphabetize by author or alphabetize by title or random?

Since the last time I moved, a little over a year ago, I haven’t really organized my books completely (I’m a really bad procrastinator). The only organization I have right now is by size: hardcovers together, the smaller book club hardcovers together, paperbacks together, etc. I don’t like different sizes all mixed together. Sometime, when I get around to it, I’ll do a little more organizing along alphabetical lines, within the size blocks.

Keep, throw away or sell?

I’ve had several “sell” phases in earlier parts of my life — sometimes things are tough and you just need all the money you can get, know what I mean? I deeply regret it, I wish I still had all those books. These days I keep everything I read, and plan to keep on doing so.

Keep dust jacket or toss it?

Keep, definitely. Why would anyone throw them away? I won’t buy hardcovers without their jackets, it’s like they’ve been defaced. I only own a single hardcover lacking a dust jacket, and I didn’t buy it, and I’ve always kept it because it’s one of my favorite books — that would be A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg.

Last book you bought?

I think the last one I bought was actually the last one I reviewed, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge.

Last book someone bought for you?

Oh wow, I really can’t remember. It may have been when I was a teenager, matter of fact. There’s no one in my life who is really a “book person” like me, and I’m rather picky, so I wouldn’t want other people picking out books for me anyway.

What are some of the books on your to-buy list?

There are way too many, but since the question asks for “some,” here are some: The Shockwave Rider, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner; The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester; The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin; Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison; Spin by Robert Charles Wilson; The Genocides by Thomas Disch; the Xenogenesis series by Octavia Butler……… etc. etc. etc

Collection (short stories, same author) or anthology (short stories, different author)?

I’m really of the opinion that the novel is the optimum form of literature; short stories don’t often impress me. But when I do pick up short stories, it doesn’t matter too much if it’s a single-author collection or an anthology. I’ve tried both, and the quality is always inconsistent no matter which type it is. I tend to like maybe only one out of ten short stories I read, perhaps even less. If I do get an anthology, though, I prefer it to be focused on some particular theme, and not just a generic “best of the year” or some such.

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket?

Is this one of those “lesser of two evils” questions? Whatever…. I’ll pass on both.

Morning reading, afternoon reading, or nighttime reading?

Mostly nighttime, some afternoon. Never in the morning. Mornings are for other things…. like sleeping.

The books you need to go with other books on your shelves?

Nothing in particular right now. Lately I’ve been going “wide” rather than “deep” — reading lots of different authors, expanding my horizons. There are some authors I like enough that I will eventually own all or most of their books. But it’ll take some time, it’s not an immediate goal.

Do you read anywhere and anytime you can or do you have a set reading time and/or place?

95% of my reading at home is in bed. For some reason, that’s the only place that feels “right.” I have a hard time reading while I’m sitting in a chair, I don’t know why, and yes, I know I’m weird. Sometimes I read in the early evening hours after I get home from work. More often I read in the hour or two before I go to sleep. I also read at work during lunch.

Do you have seasonal reading habits?

None that I’m aware of.

Do you read one book at a time or do you have two or more books going at once?

Usually two, sometimes three, and on very rare occasions four.

What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?

I wouldn’t say I have any strong peeves about the way others treat their own books. Of course, I have a general distaste for the mistreatment of books, but unless it’s MY book, or one that may potentially become mine, I can’t get too worked up about it.

Name one book you surprised yourself by liking

The Martian Chronicles. I avoided it for many years, thinking I wouldn’t like Bradbury’s style, having heard about its dreamy, fantasy-like approach to Mars. But I was surprised by liking it quite a bit.

How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?

I review every sf book I read, since starting this blog.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge — a novel about politics, archaeology, the future, and the past

I’ve been wanting to read something by Kim Stanley Robinson for a while now; but rather than delving into one of his several trilogies, I decided I’d try one of his standalone novels, just to get a feel for his writing, to see if he’s my kind of writer. I’m happy to say that he is, and I look forward to reading more. Icehenge, from 1984, is not easy to characterize, as there are several different strands that intertwine to create a complex whole. It’s about politics. It’s about archaeology. It’s about how politics and archaeology can influence each other. It’s about conspiracy theories, and about different interpretations of historical events that may never be known with certainty. It’s about the psychological issues associated with an extremely long life span. That’s a lot of angles, but it’s a very tight novel, and all those elements are bound together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one takes place in 2248 and centers around the crews of several Martian mining ships. These miners decide to defy their repressive, authoritarian government (known as the Committee) by converting the ships into an interstellar vessel, and risking their lives to see if they can reach another star. This occurs against the backdrop of an imminent revolution on Mars, which takes place shortly after the starship departs. Several miners who were unwilling to take part in the risky voyage go back to Mars and join the uprising, which ultimately fails.

Part two begins in 2547 and is the tale of a Martian archaeologist named Hjalmer Nederland, who manages to get government permission for a dig at one of the many restricted sites related to that old revolution attempt. He’s looking to find the truth and poke some holes in the “official” history, which says the revolution was strictly a small-scale disturbance by a few violent thugs. When Nederland uncovers evidence of a large, well-organized rebellion that was slaughtered by government forces, he is deeply embittered to learn this knowledge won’t shake things up as he had hoped, as the Committee puts its own spin on things:

So they would explain it all away.
I left the room feeling sick. They would admit what they had to, and twist everything else to fit their new story, which would constantly change, constantly protect them. I tasted defeat like copper coating my tongue. Everything I stabbed them with they would accommodate with elastic facts, until the thing was absorbed and dissolved.

Rings very true, doesn’t it? While all this is going on, a new discovery is made: a Stonehenge-like structure is found on Pluto, made of giant ice slabs and containing an ambiguous inscription in Sanskrit. Nederland is extremely interested in this, and has a theory that it may have been built by those rebels who left the system on their starship centuries ago. Once again he goes in search of evidence for his theory, in the hope of giving the Committee (who denied the existence of the starship) a black eye. And once again, he is disappointed. His theory becomes widely accepted, but the Committee goes on, undamaged by news of its past sins.

Part three takes place in 2610, and the central character is an amateur historian named Edmond Doya, who thinks Nederland’s theory is wrong, and makes proving it his goal in life. Doya’s alternative explanation is a wild conspiracy theory, but one with a lot of circumstantial evidence in its favor. That may be a short description, but this was actually the most exciting part of the book, and Doya the most interesting of the book’s three main characters.

In the end, Robinson doesn’t tell us which theory about Icehenge is the correct explanation. Instead, we are left to ponder the successive layers of historical interpretation and make up our own minds. And this was exactly the right way to go, since this is the way it usually is in understanding history — we can never be 100% certain we truly understand past events or have all the relevant details. We do the best we can with the information we have.

One of the other major threads of the novel was the fact that humanity has achieved long lifespans (500-1000 years), but unfortunately memory can’t keep up with the body. A major problem faced by those who are several centuries old is that they can’t hold on to many of their memories from earlier ages of their lives. Such people face a subtle psychological stress, and an ever-present crisis of identity. Furthermore, these longer-living people of the future seem somehow less alive, less focused, more apathetic, just drifting through life. Robinson sums it up beautifully here:

Once we were taut bowstrings, vibrant on the bow of mortality — now the bow has been unstrung, and we lie limp, and the arrow has clattered to the ground.

I think there’s an obvious parallel in the novel between this personal loss of memory, and the loss of historical memory by society as a whole.

This novel is full of sharp observations on politics, the workings of science, and human psychology. I don’t think I’ve really done it justice in this review, so let me just say that I highly recommend it if you want a complex and thoughtful read. I’ll leave you with one last quote as an example of Robinson’s incisive insight on the human condition:

Perhaps we undertake the solution of mysteries as a sort of training, so that we can attempt with some hope of success the deciphering of ourselves.