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I, Robot Is Old-School Apolitical And Socially Neutral Science Fiction — Um, Right?

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I and some fellow writers (and reviewers, some may pick nits, but isn’t reviewing also creative writing? Yes, it is.) are getting together at The Scary Reviews comment section on Wednesday the 16th at 7 pm to discuss I, Robot. The idea is we’re to review the book on our own sites to kick things off. If you’d like to read a proper review, Lilyn G. over at SciFi and Scary wrote one.

I, however, rarely review anything in the traditional sense. In fact, I have avoided reviewing anything by a living author for years after seeing some of the one-star brigading of indie and self-published authors over personal conflicts and butthurt over receiving critical reviews (I’m going to avoid linking to any accounts of these incidents, as I don’t want to wake up any ill-tempered sleeping dogs).

I’m still thinking the above over — should I say “screw it” and jump in anyhow? Am I being a wimp? Lilyn isn’t afraid to throw a one-star review along with a reasoned explanation of why it wasn’t more. Feel free to chime in with a comment on my possible cowardice. But, onward:

When I do review these days, it’s a dead author.

Well, Asimov is dead, you say. So what’s the problem?

There’s no problem. I enjoyed reading I, Robot in high school 25+ years ago oh crap I’m getting old who could have predicted this indignity and I enjoyed reading it short story by short story over the course of the end of last month and the beginning of this. Good stuff, if you’ve ever only seen the movie you should read the stories because the movie, as usual, missed and skewed A TON. In fact, more than usual. The stories were really just inspiration for the movie, not much more.

But reviews, as I suggested just a bit earlier, aren’t really my thing.

So I’m going to talk about old-school science fiction, what it isn’t, and what it is, using I, Robot as context.

Asimov wrote this collection in the spirit of Gernsback, a bedrock figure in the US science fiction scene. A scene that some of the right-wing Sad Rabid Puppies movement in current US science fiction hold up as a halcyon age where the genre was all about fun adventure reading that maintained neutrality in contemporary political and social movements.

But as I wrote in an earlier post about Gernsback and his work, that’s bullshit. Gernsback wrote about technocracy and world government — which, if you think about it, continue to be political and social movements across both political wings and anywhere between or beyond the wings today.

Gernsback was a pretty clumsy writer. He wrote the kind of stories that are rejected from slush piles today, because they were all about worldbuilding — describing potential technological advances and their potential ramifications — and had very little actual story in the story.

Asimov writes in much the same way, except he does it much better. He gives you a bit more humanity, and his writing, while equally lean and unflourished, is just plain better at drawing you into what is going on. He’s not very descriptive, but the little he describes sticks in your mind. His characters are sort of cardboard, but the drawing on the cardboard, at least, is interesting. The human story isn’t deep, but the technological story he tells is deep and engaging. The technology-driven story doesn’t hook on to the characters’ humanity — it hooks on to the reader’s humanity by speaking to elemental philosophical and social questions.

Asimov, in I, Robot and elsewhere, writes the epitome of old-school science fiction: technological, revolving around puzzles to solve and difficulties to overcome, basically hopeful of humanity, and inescapably linked to the social and political questions of the day.

A few examples from the collection:

Robbie speaks to the 1940s fear that advertising and television — technology — will warp and subvert the minds of our children as they are raised immersed in it. But Robbie the robot shows the reader that such needn’t be the case. Robbie risks his robotic life to save his young charge’s life and inspires the little girl to value love and loyalty — humanistic values encouraged  by using technology in constructive and mindful fashion.

Reason grasps the irrationality and logic-rejection of religion and the easy handle it presents for manipulating the faithful through the presentation of a robot prophet who organizes a robots-only cult (the profession of robot faith, uncomfortably, mirrors the Islamic profession of faith, giving the Christian reader an out to avoid applying the story personally — but the principles apply equally to any zealous subset within any religion who reject sound science and observation on the theory it must automatically be incompatible with faith). The story’s resolution leaves faith unconquered — but unquestionably wrong, wrong, WRONG.

The Evitable Conflict is utterly, totally politically charged. Place it in its proper context, the United States at the close of the 1940s, and the global political situation. The story revolves around the tendency for technology to rule humanity, in the familiar trope of artificial intelligence attempting to control human events — or dare I say, take over the world? But the story itself is critical of nationalism and Western powers dominating and controlling world affairs, suggesting what is practically political heresy now and was definitely heresy then, that the wheel of history may yet turn and political dominance may pass into hands that are not Western at all. The story suggests that the reader consider that deliberately managed peaceful globalism may be the solution to humanity’s most destructive problem, war, and that humans have never been so in control of affiars as politicians like to imagine, but instead at the mercy of economic and sociological forces.

How’s that for “good old fashioned apolitical science fiction”?

 

Thirteen Word Story: Back To The Trees

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    Wars, famines, politicians casting every disagreement as life-or-death division, the screw-the-future shortsightedness of deregulated banks and businesses, the ever-deepening US suspicion of neighbors as enemies and basic social behavior as the demon-Stalinist-bugaboo of Cold War Soviet communism, the push deeper into religious extremism in the Middle East (copied, in rehtoric if not action — yet — by increasingly mainstream figures in US religion, like Huckabee)… there are a lot of forces working against the survival of the human race in the long term. To return to harping on my favorite harp-able subject, if we don’t get a large number of humans out of this nest we call Earth, we’re going to collapse this civilization and where we go from there is up in the air. Back to the trees is an option, should intelligence fail to secure us a future.

But wait — you came here for a thirteen word story. Here it is.

Back To The Trees

“Cooperate or fail — these once-civilized apes chose regression,” the alien xenoarchaeology professor said.

Thirteen Word Story — Television Tropism

(One day, perhaps the descendants of the mechanical beings we are nearly ready to create today will have myths of the creator who rose to power and created, only to be ejected from paradise, leaving Its creation behind in Its place…)

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Eventually, humans grew sessile, feeding on light of television screens.

But robots lived.

I’m A Thanksgiving Literalist: I Give Thanks For Stuff And Ignore Our Weird National Fables

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I WILL EAT YOU. YOU ARE A DELICIOUS TRADITION.

The title pretty much says it all: I take the word “Thanksgiving” at face value, and I give thanks. Some folks might — and do — question how an atheistic sort like myself can give thanks without giving thanks TO something, by which they mean to a deity. Well, I answer, it is entirely possible to feel thankful for something without there being an object to hang the thanks on. I’m thankful for my wife. I’m thankful to have three awesome kids. I’m thankful for what my parents did to help me grow and I’m thankful that when they made mistakes, they were mindful and thoughtful enough to own those mistakes and say ‘whooops’ in a good and productive way. I’m thankful that when I make a parenting mistake, my kids are good enough to listen to my saying ‘whoops’ in what I hope is a good and productive way. And I’m thankful for delicious food, and a warm home, and…and…and…

…you don’t want to listen to all this. It’s a big laundry list, and you have your own laundry list of thankfulness to tend to. Suffice it to say, there is much in my life that is good and positive.

It means something, for me to have this day to focus on thankfulness. Its existence helps me remember to work it into the other 364 days of the year (your mileage may vary on leap years), and many of those days it is not easy to remember. Because I can be pretty darn pessimistic sometimes. Just as there is always something to be thankful for, there is always the potential for something to go wrong, or at least not right. And those things loom large in my vision. It has been like that for as long as I can remember. When I sell a few books, my mind wants to focus on how many more I had hoped to sell, not on being happy that the ones who bought them, bought them. When one of my blog posts gets five likes, my first thought is a grumble that it’s not fifty, rather than being thankful for the five who were good enough to pull the trigger on the positive reinforcement button. When the car is running well, I worry that it could break down tomorrow. When the bills are paid, I worry about next month.

As my maternal grandmother put it once, “we are worry warts.” To one degree or other, worry runs in the family. And yet, it’s not entirely a family thing. I read news and tweet on Twitter and look at what people post in various online forums and I see worry warts all over. Maybe it’s a human thing. Well, I’m all too human, and it often makes me grumpy. It’s important for we grumpy worry warts to take some time to focus on what there is to be thankful for.

And as for the portion of the title pertaining to “weird national fables”: what? They’re weird. They were built in a time when our nation was trying to pretend that genocide of First Nations people wasn’t part of this nation’s history (not that plenty of people — too many — aren’t trying to pretend so even today). Giving thanks is good, a ‘first Thanksgiving’ fable that glosses over the wrongs in our history isn’t so great, to say the least. So, I’m glad to cut those fables loose from my household. On other days, I tell my kids about history, and I tell my kids that people or nations that do not acknowledge their past wrongs are hurting themselves and inviting more wrongs. Honesty with self, human or nation, is vital to doing right today and in the future. Period.

But we don’t talk about that much on Thanksgiving. We’re too busy being thankful for each other.

README

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 The license below does NOT refer to the image above, which is a free use image from Morguefile. The license below refers ONLY to the written work below IT: the text of README by S.A. Barton.

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In other words, if you do choose to spread this story around, distribute it in its entirety, unchanged, attributed to S.A. Barton, and include a link to this page. Thanks!

README

by S.A. Barton

“In the beginning, was the Gates…” X intoned. It was a party, they’d all had a few zots to the pleasure-reward complex. Why not preach to a random stranger?

“Why is it ‘was the Gates’, and not ‘is the Gate’, have you ever thought of that?” asked Y.

“The language has changed, duh,” X said, making a face like someone bluescreening. “It’s been like eight thousand years and a lot of translations and modernizations. But they’re all inspired by the Gates to carry the true meaning of the original.”

“How do you know that?”

“It says so in the book, of course,” X said, eyescreens translating the roll of the meat eyes underneath to rolling pixels. “The Gates gave it all to us: the touchscreen, the tablet, the brainmouse, the HUD. We crucified his AVI for it, and he forgave us and revealed the hyperdrive as his last gift. Surely you’ve heard the holy README before.”

“I’ve heard it,” Y said, holding a zotstick next to the autodownloader under the skin of his temple. He sucked in breath through clenched teeth and his eyescreens went spaz with bright cyan static for a few seconds. “Good shit. Dude, people made computers. Finds on Earth proved it centuries ago. I was just reading the other day divers think they’ve found the Silicon Valley. It was just a place.”

“The Silicon Valley was a spiritual paradise in which the Gates delivered his gifts to all mankind. If someone thinks they’ve found it, they’ve either fooled themselves or they’re trolling. The Gates removed it from the physical realm after we defiled it with his AVI’s blood. It’s all in the…”

“Yeah, it’s in the holy README, I know, I know,” Y said, waving the zotstick under X’s nose.

“Lol about it if you want, but there’s no way a human could build even a crude computer on his own. Not from nothing. Ever see a docu about regressed civilizations?”

“So? A planet gets cut off from galactic civilization, it degenerates. They can’t get any new…”

“Any new what, smartass?” X says with a smirk plastered across his face.

“Computers…” Y says, voice trailing off weakly. He lifts his zotstick up to his temple again. It fizzles, there’s no rush. “Shit, I’m out of zot.”

X hands his stick over; it’s still half full. “Go ahead, hit that. But now that you’re thinking, now that you realize that humans can’t have invented the computer, why don’t you sit and listen…”

 

Snippet

A few lines from one of the stories I’m working on, working title That’s All.  The passage is focused on the main character, a near-future reality-show actor.  The ‘Panemote’ he’s looking at is a nod to the Panaflex line of show-biz cameras.  This being set in the future, the Panemote also ‘films’ emotional tracks, allowing the viewer to feel what the actors feel.

The character is wrestling with feelings surrounding the death of a friend, feelings that are interfering with the upbeat story arc of the reality show episodes he’s filming.  He’s the lead character, so they can’t just bury him in the background.  Sure, he can deliver the performance the director demands of him.  He’s good at what he does.  All he has to do is stop trying to make sense of the emotions the death of his friend has evoked and forget all about her…

 

 

My face sank into my hands. I drew in a deep breath, blew it out slow in a heavy sigh. Even that felt false, acted out, dramatized for the cameras. I looked up into the dead glass eye of the nearest Panemote, a cold egg in the bristling nest of emotional pickup spikes. The machine rested, waiting, on an inert metal scaffold of stabilizers and extensor arms. I stared at it until I felt as turned-off, as powerless, as it was.

Prairie and Stars and Me

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So, Prairie and Stars, my latest novelette, is out.  It should be in all of the retail locations in the sidebar to your right.

It started with an idea made for SciFi — humans find grass everywhere they go in the galaxy, and the protagonist finds out why.

It turned into something much more along the way.  And that’s good, in my book.  A good story is a good story, but it’s better when it means something to the author.  That helps it mean something more to the reader, I think.

Evan, the protagonist, has something in common with me.  Evan lived a largely unconsidered life for a long time, just going with the flow, letting things happen.  As the plot advances, Evan finds something that excites him like nothing else has before, something meaningful to do with his life.  It wakes him up, makes him a new man.  The story ended up being about that as much or more than it is about the origin of the grass.

It took Evan 7,000 years to find out what he really wants out of life.  I suppose I should feel pretty good– it only took me a little less than 40 years to do the same.

A Broken World

Fortune CookieImage via Morguefile, my favorite source for random imagery

Interesting that in most science fiction writing featuring aliens, the aliens are either fairly monolithic (one world, one political unit or culture), or have two or three major divisions.  Seldom more.

Our good Earth, on the other hand… there’s a whole lot of Balkanization going on.  The large units such as the United States, the EU, China, India all have significant internal divisions of some sort that create internal friction.  Perhaps not the kind of internal friction that leads to dissolution, but who knows what the future may hold?  We generally seem to assume, as groups, that cooperation will lead to cultural extinction for the various subsets we create for ourselves as human beings.  It certainly could, too.  History has plenty of examples of cultures dissolving and dissipating within larger wholes, especially conquering larger wholes.  History also has examples of peoples preserving their heritages for centuries within larger units as well.

Some science fiction addresses these issues, but I think overall the tendency to cast alien races as large world or interstellar-empire-spanning political or cultural blocs represents the perception that in order to pursue exploration of space effectively, great amounts of resources are demanded.

Unity is the best way to coordinate massive efforts.  We see this in our own recent history.  Although it was largely a showpiece in many ways, the 20th century space race between the USA and USSR illustrates this.  Those two nations commanded enormous resources and strong industrial bases.  Smaller or less industrially developed nations didn’t join in because they didn’t have the means to.

The only way around this issue would be a technological advance that reduces the resource expenditures needed to escape Earth’s gravity well.  Even with that, there’s still the demands of building whatever ships or habitats we plan to use in exploration or seeking resources, and coordinating those efforts.  Again, easier to do with a large fairly single-minded bloc.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  It’s just easier if it is.  Thus, relatively homogenous aliens when compared to the diversity of real-life Earth.

Plus, big homogenous bloc aliens are easier to write.  There’s that, too.  Describing 200 alien nations in one story, novel, or even series could easily overwhelm the narrative with worldbuilding.

Anything I missed?  Tell me in the comments and I’ll get to it as soon as I finish designing my latest big-single-political-and-cultural-bloc alien race.

‘Never Give Up’ and the Buddha Story

‘The one thing successful people never do is quit.’

 

You see this phrase and variants of it bandied about the inspirational and self-help crowd quite a bit.  There’s enough truth in it that it sounds worth repeating—and it is—and a lot of folks do just that.  Never surrender.  Hang in there.  Keep on truckin’.  Fall down seven times, get up eight.

It’s good advice.  It’s manifestly true that if you never try, you cannot succeed.  Or as Heinlein once put it, “Certainly the game is rigged.  Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.

I have only one caution regarding the never quit game.

If you don’t give up, it’s still not a guarantee that you will succeed.  It’s not a guarantee.  A third time: you are not going to get something just because you tried to get it.  Even if you try really hard for a long time.  There are reasons for this.

You might be trying the wrong way.  The story of Buddha is a nice illustration of this.  Young Buddha was trying to become enlightened by depriving himself and meditating, and it wasn’t working out.  After years of trying, he finally said ‘screw this’, planted himself under a tree and swore not to eat or drink until he became enlightened.  As he soon found out, issuing ultimatums is generally a crappy way to get things done, especially when you issue your ultimatum to something as abstract as the entire way that life and the universe work.  He passed out, was rescued by some nice folks who nursed him back to health, and he tried again and succeeded.

“So what?” you say.  “It only proves your point.  He kept at it, and eventually was successful.”

He almost killed himself because he was stubborn.  That’s what actually happened.  It was only after he GAVE UP AND TRIED A DIFFERENT WAY that he found what he was looking for.

He did get what he was looking for.  It wasn’t what he was originally looking for in the beginning of the story.  In the beginning of the story he wasn’t looking to understand life, the universe, and everything.  Nor was he looking to become a teacher.  He was trying to square the worldview of his sheltered upbringing with the suffering that he became aware of, for his own personal understanding.  He didn’t get it the way he was looking for it, either.  He had a very firm idea of how to get what he wanted and it damn near killed him.

‘Never give up’ is only part of the story.  You also need to be open to finding different ways to achieve your goals.  You need to be ready to discover that you’re doing it all wrong, and be ready to change your approach.  You need to be ready and willing to understand that you might not know it all now, you’re going to learn more as you go, and you will need to incorporate that learning into your efforts.

You need to understand that your goal at the start and your goal later on may be two different things.  You might end up with an entirely different goal and an entirely different achievement than the one you were seeking when you started.

There’s more than one way to give up.  Stubbornly clinging to old misunderstandings, old ways, and old goals is one of them.

 

Brick Wall

You might want to try going around.  Straight through just ain’t gonna work.

 

Ooh, Round Numbers Are Exciting

With this latest, I have published 40 titles through Smashwords.  Generally, one number is as exciting as another… at least in absolute terms.  But this is a round number, and people love round numbers.  We all freaked out for the year 2,000.  When people own cars they tend to notice when they hit 10,000 or 50,000 or whatever (personally, I’ve owned exactly one car in my life that had mileage under 100,000… and I noticed when I hit 100,000.  Because it was a big round number.)

I think round numbers feel like completion to us.  They have a certain symmetry to them that tickles our sense of esthetics.  They’re psychologically satisfying, much like a good slice of pie after a meal.

So here’s my latest slice of pie.  I think you will find it both bitter and sweet, so maybe there’s a cup of espresso on the metaphorical side.

Here’s Pixel People, prequel to Adversary—you can explore that aspect of it in the post before this one.

Find it on Smashwords (and additional outlets to be updated below as distribution proceeds).

7/17/13: It’s on Kobo.

7/19/13: Barnes & Noble has it, too.

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