Every Single One Of My Titles

Sneaking Politics Into Your Science Fiction, Hugo Gernsback Edition

Hugo Ralph

Blah, blah, puppies and science fiction and Hugos and sociopolitical commentary in stories and gee whiz science fiction was ‘pure’ in the olden days and…

Ugh.

If you follow the genre and/or some of the popular artists of the science fiction field, you’ve seen a bellyfull of blog posts and tweets and Facebooking and so forth on the current Sad and/or Rabid Puppies bloc-voting thing in the recent Hugo nominations. A fair bit of the commentary from the Puppy side of things revolves around the idea that political comments on society, specifically those seen as coming from the political left, are being sneakily injected into your good ol’ science fiction and making it not science fictiony—a brand new phenomenon, unique to the modern day, they say. (You might observe at this point that someone is always complaining about how bad ‘the modern day’ is and how much better the ‘good old days’ were—you can find plenty of examples no matter what century’s literature you care to examine.)

A variety of authors have weighed in on the matter, making their cases for whether or not ‘the good ol’ days’ were all about ‘pure’ science fiction without that darn political and social commentary.

Since they’re all talking about the Hugos, I thought I’d check out the fiction from the horse’s mouth—Hugo Gernsback, for whom the award is named. His Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the earliest examples of the American-written science fiction novel, if a clunky one by modern standards. It’s definitely focused on the science speculation, with plot and characters being mainly a diaphanous vehicle serving to move the reader from one technological speculation to the next.

So, is it good ol’ pure science fiction without any of that darn social and political ‘corruption’ that so worries the Puppies?

Here’s a nice representative passage from Ralph, Gernsback himself writing:

Ralph, sitting on the roof of his tower, was oblivious to all about him. He was unable to dismiss from his mind the lovely face of the girl whose life he had just been the means of saving. The soft tones of her voice were in his ears. Heretofore engrossed in his work, his scientific mind had been oblivious to women. They had played no part in his life. Science had been his mistress, and a laboratory his home. And now, in one short half hour, for him the whole world had become a new place. Two dark eyes, a bewitching pair of lips, a voice that had stirred the very core of his being— Ralph shook himself. It was not for him to think of these things, he told himself. He was but a tool, a tool to advance science, to benefit humanity. He belonged, not to himself, but to the Government—the Government, who fed and clothed him, and whose doctors guarded his health with every precaution. He had to pay the penalty of his +. To be sure, he had everything. He had but to ask and his wish was law—if it did not interfere with his work. There were times he grew restive under the restraint, he longed to smoke the tobacco forbidden him by watchful doctors, and to indulge in those little vices which vary the monotony of existence for the ordinary individual. There were times when he most ardently wished that he were an ordinary individual. He was not allowed to make dangerous tests person-ally, thereby endangering a life invaluable to the Government. That institution would supply him with some criminal under sentence of death who would be compelled to undergo the test for him. If the criminal were killed during the experiment, nothing was lost; if he did not perish, he would be imprisoned for life. Being a true scientist, Ralph wanted to make his own dangerous experiments. Not to do this took away the very spice of life for him, and on occasion he rebelled. He would call up the Planet Governor, the ruler of 15 billion human beings, and demand that he be relieved of his work. “I can’t stand it,” he would protest. “This constraint which I am forced to endure maddens me, I feel that I am being hampered.” The Governor, a wise man, and a kindly one, would often call upon him in person, and for a long time they would discuss the question, Ralph protesting, the Governor reasoning with him. “I am nothing but a prisoner,” Ralph stormed once. “You are a great inventor,” smiled the Governor, “and a tremendous factor in the world’s advancement. You are invaluable to humanity, and—you are irreplaceable. You belong to the world—not to yourself.” Many times in the past few years he recalled, had the two been over the same ground, and many times had the diplomatic Governor convinced the scientist that in sacrifice of self and devotion to the world’s future lay his great reward.

Let’s check out what the namesake of the award is saying here. Surely there are no sneaky, dirty political statements in it.

Wait… Ralph is a “tool to advance science, to benefit humanity”? He belongs to the government? That sounds a bit political! But I’m sure it’s an illusion.

Tobacco is forbidden to Ralph because it’s… a threat to his health? This was published in 1925… lawyers and doctors representing the tobacco industry would still be arguing the harmlessness of smoking tobacco 40 years later. Sounds like a controversial anti-business pronouncement to me. Something a dirty social justice warrior might sneak into the pure science fiction.

The government gives Ralph death row inmates to perform dangerous experiments on!? Could this be a socially and politically charged comment on the nature of the duty of a criminal to repay society for wrongs committed? It’s certainly not a comment from the political left, but it is even more certainly a political and social statement.

Wait again, “Planet Governor”? As in, a monolithic planetary government over all the people on Earth? No more nations in Hugo’s future?

It doesn’t get more political than that. Looks like the guy the Hugo Awards are named for was one of those sneaks all the Puppies are so worried about. He was sneaking politics into US science fiction right from the start of this country’s wing of the genre.

If you can’t get it from Hugo Freakin’ Gernsback himself, where is this non-political, non-social-commentary science fiction the Puppies keep remembering?

The answer is simple: it does not exist, and it never has existed. The very notion of it is no more than a piece of socially and politically charged fiction.

Exoskeletons And Cyborging vs. Wheelchair Access: No Arguing Necessary

Exoskeletons v wheelchairs  Disability advocates clash with futurists over  offensive  solution

Apparently, there’s a bit of a tiff going on between at least one advocate for expanding and maintaining access in public spaces for those who use wheelchairs, and at least one advocate for not maintaining that accessibility, and instead spending funds for accessibility on developing exoskeletons and implants to make wheelchair ramps and the like obsolete.

There’s no need for argument. The ‘tiff’ seems to come from the futurist saying that societies shouldn’t be investing in accessibility and the disability advocate seeing a different solution than the present one as implying that the disabled are ‘broken’.

Again, there’s no need for it to come to an argument. They’re both trying to make their cases in strong terms, because these are visceral issues to them. And as so often happens — we’re on the internet, folks, you know what I mean — people get all hyperbolic and troll-y in those circumstances.

But let’s be real.

Ending spending on accessibility for the disabled abruptly because tomorrow we might have improved means of mobility for those who need it, is ridiculous. We need to provide for today’s needs today, even as we progress toward different future needs. Because when you need to go to the supermarket or a government building or… you know, anywhere people go, you need to go today. And if you need to go today, and you need a wheelchair ramp to be there to accomplish that, you need a wheelchair ramp today, not an exoskeleton ten years from now. You should have to wait? No, you should not.

Nor should talking about walking exoskeletons or cybernetic versions of same be taken to imply that a person who needs a wheelchair for mobility today is ‘broken’ and needs to be ‘fixed’. A wheelchair, or leg braces, or crutches, and so forth, simply represent the technological capabilities of the era they were invented in. They’ve been improved: lighter materials, stronger materials, better bearings for wheels, clever construction for foldability to enhance portability, and so forth. Improving that technology wasn’t a commentary on the user, it was a commentary on the technology. We’re humans — we like to tinker and find improved ways to do things. An exoskeleton that allows a person who uses a wheelchair today to walk tomorrow is a technological advancement, just like a lighter and stronger wheelchair. And like a lighter and stronger wheelchair, it is not a means to insult the user — unless, of course, someone wants to be enough of an ass to make it an insult. And while humans are nearly infinitely clever in making devices to do just about anything, we are equally clever in making anything into an insult. You know this. If you’re highly intelligent, someone has insulted you for it. If you’re not highly intelligent, you’ve been insulted for it. Tall, short: someone has insulted you with that fact. Same for pretty much any trait you care to name.

Improving mobility for those who need those improvements is not innately an insult — though some asshole might make it into one. All we can do about the assholes is attempt to either educate or ignore them. But a wheelchair ramp is no more, in and of itself, of a slur against a person who needs to use one to enter a building than is an exoskeleton that allows one to walk up that ramp or up stairs, or a walker, or a cane, or a hypothetical nano-procedure that reconstructs or constructs nerves, bones, and muscles to allow one to walk into that building, or a frickin’ jetpack.

I suspect the wheelchair and its ramp will coexist with the exoskeleton and the nano-procedure for quite some time; the enthusiastic futurist’s 25 year horizon for technology making the ramp obsolete is probably a product of enthusiasm. The wheelchair will remain less expensive to build and maintain than exoskeletons and exotic procedures, and so we’ll need those ramps for years to come. Maybe we’ll still need them 100 years from now, for when someone’s exoskeleton breaks down.

Or maybe we’ll invent a wheelchair that’s way better for the needs of a person who can’t walk than the exoskeletons are, for reasons we don’t know yet, because those wheelchairs haven’t been invented.

All we can do is move forward as best we can, and try to be as good to each other as possible, and try our best to forgive the trolls who make the non-insulting things into insults.

Make The Right (Word) Choice: Younglings Edition

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“Younglings” as a crappy word choice comes to you from the Star Wars prequels, specifically when everyone is horrified that Anakin killed “younglings.”

But, you say, look at that Star Wars Wikia pic you just posted. It’s meant to be used to refer to juveniles in a species-neutral way. It’s a piece of worldbuilding!

Maybe so. But, for one, you don’t need a different term for that. “Child” will work fine for the juveniles of sentients in general. Establish it by having characters refer to nonhuman children as children. Nobody will misunderstand.

Second, “he killed the younglings” sucks the emotional juice out of the scene, which is much more important than a small bit of superfluous linguistic worldbuilding. It comes across as a euphemism. Euphemisms exist to soften harsher words. And so “younglings” softens the impact of the idea that Anakin just slaughtered a classroom full of kids and reduces it to the impact of a nasty bit of vandalism. Oh, damn, we’ll have to repaint the whole nursery. What a shame.

And that IS a shame. If any scene should have high impact, it’s the scene that establishes that Anakin has gone full-on evil bastard. But letting a worldbuilding detail take precedence over the emotional impact of the story took the wind out of its sails.

Writers need to look to the integrity and purpose of their scenes and stories first. And that means killing children, not euphemistic “younglings.” When picking words, make the right choices. Your stories and your readers (watchers, for screenplays and their dialogue) will thank you.

Dear Humans — You’re Really Slacking Off On This Getting Out Of The Nest Thing

1969LastTimeWeWalkedOnTheMoon

Seriously, people. It’s bad enough it took 50,000 years — maybe 100,000, depending on which theorist you think is most credible — to go from self-aware sentience and serious tool-using to getting off this planet and walking on the moon.

It was really a remarkable milestone. Getting there stretched the technology of the day to its limits.

But what it didn’t do was stretch human capabilities. At the height of the US-USSR space race, NASA funding peaked at a smidge under 4.5% of the federal budget. Now, it idles about at under 1%. Because we constantly find bigger fish to fry. We’re busy doing important stuff like slashing funding for higher education, keeping up with what celebrities are up to, maintaining our supplies of five dollar Starbucks dessert coffees, and complaining because putting up more solar panels and wind farms might just take the wind out of the highly lucrative fracking business.

Much like a spoiled, entitled teen, we’re endlessly finding reasons that we don’t need to get out of the house.

But sooner or later, we’ll need to.

Are we really going to sit around until we’re forced? Or until one wild-eyed dreamer, somehow, against all odds, does it despite the disinterest and disdain of the majority of humankind? Seems a ridiculous way to run things, if you ask me.

Eat MORE Science Fiction — Any Fiction At All, Really

Agodashi_Ramen_Ikitsuki_Nagasaki_2008_PublicDomainWikiCommons

     In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.

     There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.

     Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.

     Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.

I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.

EAT SCIENCE FICTION

Gerber_Picante_Sauce

Could the future be so cruel?

     I love food, and it shows in my fiction. There aren’t many stories I write that go by without the characters having a meal. I’m working on a story now, and my characters just finished a Kazakh-inspired meal of mutton and rice with dried fruit and garlic. In Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, mother and son enjoy a lunch of bread with ham-seasoned foraged beans on a North Carolina coast impovershed by the effects of sea level rise. Sudden homelessness does not deter the hero of Isolation from munching down on some hot crispy cuy in an underground kitchen. Even in super-short Labor Of Love, the alcohol-addicted protagonist takes time out from his quest for drink to scarf down a couple of “Kraut and Cheezies” from a fast-food joint.

     It’s not that I always write when I’m hungry — though I can just about always find room for a snack.  It’s that food is often forgotten in fiction.  Food, after all, is not the main part of the story. It’s not the point. It shouldn’t be center stage, except in the rarest of circumstances, as in Pig where the central situation is that the main character’s food begins talking to her, begging her piteously not to consume it — much to her dismay.

     But most of the time, the food is an aside, and it’s a challenge to integrate it into a story and not have it stick out like it doesn’t belong. But, for me, writing is about life, just as eating is about life. In the real world, people socialize around food. They think about food. They worry about whether they have enough money to buy groceries that will last until next paycheck, they worry if the meat department will have the right sized rib roast for Easter dinner, they’re afraid they’ve burnt the toast, they invite colleagues to talk business over tapas, they stop for food on the way to the hospital to visit a sick relative, they ask the kids how the school week went over Saturday morning eggs and bacon.

     They’ll do all of these things in the future, too. Oh, some details may change. Maybe the kids will go to school via internet instead of taking the bus. Maybe the meat will be grown in a nutrient solution rather than on the hoof. Maybe the pasta will be made in a printer instead of rolled out in a factory. Interstellar colonists may eat alien fruit, or aliens might come to nosh on us, as so many stories have suggested.

     But unless something very radical indeed happens, like the whole world up and loading itself into a virtual reality, we’ll always have the social nexus and sensory joy of eating food. And maybe, if we’re all virtual beings, we’ll still choose to do it anyway, even if it’s unnecessary.

     Because food is comforting. Eating is primal and elemental to us. Mealtimes, for time immemorial, have cemented families and friendships. So given how vital it has been and is to human society, I like to carry that vitality into the future as I imagine it.

Six Word Story: The Future Arrives

50sTelevisionShopping

The future arrives; as usual, unexpectedly.

Self-Driving Cars And The Century Of Death @ OMNI Reboot

OMNI Reboot   Self Driving Cars

Yesterday, OMNI Reboot published a short speculative nonfiction piece I wrote entitled… well, look up; the title I used here is the title I used there. You can read it in its entirety with them — they were kind enough not to ask for exclusivity, but given that they’ve gone to the trouble to publish it and find some killer art to go with it, I’d like to give them the click, which will open in a new window so you can finish reading what I’ve written here as well. You know, if you’d like to.

In it, I assume that the self-driving automobile will dominate the roads of the not-so-far future, because I think that’s exactly what will happen. The future will look back and blink in stunned amazement that we put up with the enormous death toll of manual driving — over a MILLION yearly worldwide — and wonder what the hell was wrong with us.

But that’s not all. The self-driving car is part of the roboticization of the manual workforce. As computers have become less costly (remember, too, to adjust for inflation)…

1980computer10MBadvert

64K of RAM standard? Who will ever need such power!

…they have become ubiquitous. So, too, with the robotic laborer. The bot will flip your McBurger, replace your bank teller, paint your house, repair the roads, build your house, fix your plumbing, and not only drive your car, but more vitally to the economy, will drive all of the countless trains and trucks full of groceries and furniture and knicknacks and office supplies from one end of the country to another. And not only will self-driving delivery vehicles bring those things and more to the stores, but they will load and unload the trucks, stock the shelves, ring them up at the register, charge your card, bag them, and take them out to the car for you.

Because, unless there’s some sort of mass disruption in the progress of this technology, the systems that guide self-driving cars and work-doing bots are getting better and cheaper constantly and quickly, and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. The ‘bodies’ they will inhabit to do so are little more than a detail of engineering. And there’s every chance, with the advance of design software, that a computer will design the bots that serve you as well, rather than humans doing it.

Six Word Story: Poverty In 3D

CakeLittleChoc

Poverty In 3D

The poor?

Let them print cake!

Thirteen Word Story: Change The Past

KeyboardCloseEdge

Change The Past

I wish great-great-great-grandfather were less racist.

I’ll sneak in, edit his source code.

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