Friday, May 30, 2008

New articles: John C. Wright and Jack McDevitt

Over at, I have a review of Jack McDevitt's Deepsix. Meanwhile, at Crucial Taunt, you can see my my review of John C. Wright's "War of the Dreaming" duology. My first two Crucial Taunt columns, a review of Michael Flynn's The Wreck of the River of Stars and a look at the "Revelation Space" universe of Alastair Reynolds, are now archived there as well if you want to see them. Let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Science and fantasy

There’s a good post by Mike Brotherton at Science Fiction and Fantasy Novelists arguing against the idea of a dichotomy between fantasy and science fiction, in which fantasy supposedly is (or should) be about things that are not amenable to rational analysis. I’ve never agreed with the idea, which I hear from time to time, that fantasy and magic become less fantastical or magical if they follow rationally explicable rules. Aside from the fact that a truly unscientific world would probably be incomprehensible to minds built for a causal, rule-governed universe, it’s bad for the narrative- you can’t have drama without constraints on what the characters can do, and the characters can’t have constraints if just anything can happen. (This is known in literary theory as the “Superman Just Invents New Powers Out of Nowhere Every Five Minutes” problem.)

A rather large caveat: just because phenomena follow rules doesn’t mean they need to be explained, necessarily. H.P. Lovecraft was a materialist who expressed that worldview in his fiction- his monsters and “gods” were generally beings with unimaginable technology or subject to alternate physical laws, but not “supernatural” in the sense of being apart from the material universe. Nevertheless, Lovecraft did not go into much detail- we don’t learn just what the Colour Out of Space was, or how Cthulu’s biology allowed him to survive being rammed by a boat, or why the Great Old Ones can only awake when the stars are right, and we’d probably sink into gibbering lunacy if we tried to fit that knowledge into our brains. There’s nothing wrong with leaving things unexplained, or even saying that some things in the story are beyond the capability of humans to ever understand. But they should be in principle understandable, even if not from a human perspective. This approach also calls for some caution, since “this fictional world is a place where some things are beyond our comprehension” can degenerate into “stuff happens for no reason aside form the author writing himself into a corner” if care is not taken.

Even a supernatural, animistic universe is potentially amenable to scientific analysis, though perhaps without the rigor of physics. If earthquakes are what happens when the land spirits quarrel with each other, a knowledge of plate tectonics won’t help you predict earthquakes- but studying how the land spirits think and interact might. That would quite an interesting setting, actually- a world where humans understand and control nature not through the hard physical sciences, but through psychology and sociology. If someone wants to go to the trouble of writing an entire book about it and then give me half the money for the thirty seconds of work I contributed, knock yourself out. And, more conventionally, fantasy magic is rule-based- say certain words or perform a certain ritual or whatever and get a certain effect, even if the actual mechanism is not understood.

More subjectively and personally, with a very few exceptions (such as some horror stories, where the unknown nature of the horror makes it scarier) I’ve never understood the idea that explaining something makes it less interesting or less impressive. The little glowy thingamabobs in the night sky are pretty, but knowing that they’re colossal nuclear reactors putting out enough energy to be seen trillions of miles away makes them much cooler, and in general the night sky is more sublime when you have a sense of the true scale of it. I’ve spent over a year childishly infatuated with a woman working at my neighborhood bar, which is pretty damn stupid, but my excitement when she stops to talk with me and my inane attempts to amuse her with my horrible jokes and patented Guinness Mustache embarrass me slightly less when I think of how the flood of phenylethylamine in my brain that turns me into a mumbling idiot around her is an adaptation forged over millennia of evolution that promotes the survival of the human species. (I acknowledge that this is not a terribly romantic sentiment.)

Brotherton also hits one of my pet peeves- stories where the skeptical “scientist” character keeps insisting that blatantly supernatural events must have a mundane explanation, no matter how untenable the notion becomes in the face of mounting evidence. To be fair, a certain amount of this is probably realistic- people don’t give up a strongly held view of the world easily. It often gets taken to ridiculous lengths, though.

It’s especially annoying if the character lives in a fantastical world and has been frequently exposed to supernatural events in the past, yet once again becomes a dogmatic materialist every time another clearly supernatural phenomenon comes along. “Look, I know we’ve previously encountered vampires, werewolves, nymphs, Goetic demons, leprechauns, the Wandering Jew, valkyries, the prophet Elijah, tengu, nephilim, the Spear of Longinus, Satan, our own time-traveling past life incarnations, and the entire Aztec pantheon. But the idea that ghosts might be real is just absurd!"

Update: Edited to fix a typo.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

New Crucial Taunt column- Michael Flynn

My second column at Crucial Taunt is now up. I review one of my favorite books, Michael Flynn's The Wreck of the River of Stars. Have a look.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Markley media juggernaut rolls on

I've been busy elsewhere this week. I am now a weekly columnist on science fiction and fantasy for the entertainment website You can see my first column for them here. It's got an introduction to Alistair Reynolds and my thoughts on his work. If you've got comments on it, please let me know.

SF Signal, I had the opportunity to participate in their most recent Mind Meld feature on Young Adult fiction. Which brings to the mind the following bizarre and embarrassing anecdote:

As I said in my Mind Meld contribution, I didn't read much Young Adult literature when I was a kid. I might have read more back when I was the target audience, if only the genre was named more precisely. Growing up, my mind was what you might call “lopsided”- I could read at a college level in elementary school, and yet made extremely silly and bizarre mistakes in daily life that would have embarrassed someone half my age. Case in point: As a child, the meaning of "Young Adult" as a book category had never been explained to me, and so I assumed the Young Adult section at the local library meant literal young adults- that is, people in their early twenties. This frustrated me, because that section had some stuff that seemed interesting to me, but I thought I wasn’t allowed to check any off it out from the library! I think I somehow thought I would get in trouble. Ironically, this left me with no choice but to borrow adult books from the regular science fiction area instead, since there was no specified age for them.

I also had the books my dad would pick up for me on his frequent business trips, which helped fuel my interest in science fiction. Many were quite good- that’s how I discovered Frederik Pohl, for instance- but he selected books more or less at random, which resulted in me reading some hilariously age-inappropriate technothrillers as a child. Reading the one (I’ve long forgotten the name) with the subplot about the female Russian spy having graphic sex with everyone under the sun to get American military secrets was quite a revelation for a 4th grader. At least I was careful to avoid the corrupting influence of the Young Adult section- who knows what filth might have been in there?

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Asimov, State, and Utopia

I’d like to start by apologizing for the title of this post. I just had to somehow cram the Nozick reference in, no matter the cost.

A while back, Alex Zalben, writing at SciFi Scanner, posted the following:

Find me a sci-fi movie where there is a Utopia, and I will point out the worm in the apple. Every single time we are presented with a Utopian society on film, there is also a corrupt diplomat that's running the show, or it's a dream world, or it's built on a city of good-hearted underground dwellers... You know what I'm saying because you've all seen such movies before.

So I'm going to make a broad statement and say: There is no such thing as Utopia in science fiction.

Zalben goes on to cite some examples from both film and books. He suggests that the lack of conflict inherent to a utopia makes drama effectively impossible.

You can include an actual utopia and still have conflict, either by having it threatened by outside forces, or by having characters from the utopian society venturing outside of it for some reason. In television, Star Trek: The Next Generation would be an example of both approaches, for instance. The portrayal of the Federation got “dirtied up” a bit by Deep Space Nine, and perhaps even a few of the later Next Generation episodes, but it was pretty explicitly utopian early on- all the talk about how humanity has evolved beyond this or that. Venturing into written science fiction, John C. Wright’s “Golden Age” trilogy is an example of the “outside threat” method, while several of Iain M. Banks’ Culture books use the latter method.

Zalben started out by talking about movies, though, and it’s possible that this method is poorly suited to feature films. It requires a lot of world-building, and that takes time: you need time to establish the utopia, and you need time to set up the non-utopian outside, and then you need time for the actual conflict, and if you want to actually explore the idea of the utopia in detail and still have a good conflict you end up with a movie that’s six hours long. The lack of actual utopias in cinema may be more a limitation of the medium than anything else.

It also depends on how strict your definition of “Utopia” is. If it requires absolute perfection and goodness, than conflict within the utopia is impossible. If it merely means a society that is vastly better than ours, you can still have internal conflict. There can still be bad people with bad intentions, they’re just not the ones running the show.

You can also have a utopian society where the conflict is not in the form of some sinister evil, but between good guys. For instance, much of the conflict in John C. Wright’s “Golden Age” Trilogy is not between heroes and villains, but between humane and well-intentioned people who disagree about cultural values and the future direction of their social evolution. An interesting wrinkle is that Wright’s utopia is libertarian, and both the protagonist and most of the antagonists firmly accept libertarian principles of justice, resulting in a conflict for the fate of their society where most of the combatants would never dream of using force, violence, or state coercion against each other. (Though some of the players don’t play quite so nicely…)

One problem is that if you actually portray the utopia in any detail, axe-grinding is all but impossible to avoid, which risks alienating potential readers. This can be overcome- I love Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, even though the Culture itself has a great deal of leftist wish fulfillment built into it- but it does have risks. If a society is portrayed as ideal or nearly so, everything makes a potential statement. Does religion still exist? What kind of government do they have, if any? How do they deal with criminals? (If they don’t have any, that too betrays certain assumptions.) What things are illegal, taboo, or disapproved of? How does the utopia remain in existence? Do they have a market economy and private ownership? What are their attitudes and practices regarding sex? Do they have marriage?

People differ on both what kind of society is desirable in theory (Most of the societies conceived by 19th century utopians would be horrifying to me even if they worked as advertised) and on how societies work, and which ones are possible, in practice. Most portrayals of the future express ideological assumptions, whether or not they are explicit or even intentional, but utopia pushes the issue front and center by proclaiming what it portrays to be ideal. If you don’t think it’s ideal, or think it’s outright bad, than 1. you may enjoy the story less, and 2. you may like the author less, as a person. Different people have different limits in this regard. If John C. Wright had a radical political change of heart and decided to write about noble Communists colonizing the moon, building a perfect society there through the power of scientific socialism and mass terror, and then going to war against the plutocrats of Earth and heroically killing the entire reactionary population through man-made famine, my love of Wright’s previous work probably wouldn’t be enough to make me buy it.

One possible final problem is that so much science fiction is about change. Often the fictional changes took place between now and whenever the story happens, but quite often science fiction portrays societies in flux and transition. Most visions of utopia, on the other hand, are static- if you’ve attained the best possible society, change is degeneration. That can work fine for a story- a tale of a collapsing utopia could be very interesting- but that’s not really utopian fiction in the usual sense of the term. It’s ironic- science fiction is in one sense the only form of fiction that works for portraying a utopia, since no perfect societies exist circa 2008, and yet the idea of utopia clashes with one of science fiction’s principal themes and strong points.

I’d be curious to hear about you thoughts, or your favorite and least favorite utopian stories.

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Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?

I was at a nearby Barnes and Noble a few days ago, and I noticed that they didn’t appear to be running the sort of extensive Mother’s Day promotions they had last year. Last year, to take advantage of fast-approaching Mother's Day they had a large display of books prominently labeled "Books for Mom." Not surprising.

What was surprising was that, prominently displayed under the softly colored flower-decorated "Books for Mom" sign was David Drake's The Way to Glory. Yes, that David Drake, he of Hammer's Slammers and the Reaches trilogy and the Lacey stories. Now, I love David Drake; he's a strong candidate for my favorite living author. And I would be thrilled to see science fiction gain popularity among new groups of fans. All that said, it’s difficult to conceive of a more bizarre choice. Yes, generalizations are seldom 100% accurate, and I’m sure there are mothers out there who would love to celebrate Mother’s Day with a dark, brutal military science fiction story about people crushed by the nightmarish horror of war and the burden of things they’ll never be able to forgive themselves for, but I suspect they comprise a somewhat slender share of the market.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Great endings

Warning: this post has what you might call a thematic spoiler for Jack Vance’s The Book of Dreams, though nothing that would be likely to diminish your enjoyment of that book.

A few days ago, SF Signal had a discussion on the best and worst endings of books. This got me thinking about the subject, because endings are often the aspect of fiction that I find the most interesting. They’re the biggest determinant of a story’s “aftertaste,” for lack of a better term. My own preferences are towards the grim or melancholy side of things, though not exclusively. Some of my own personal favorites:

Poul Anderson, The Night Face- Great buildup, and at the end… Anderson rips your heart out with a single sentence.

Glen Cook, Soldiers Live- Very poignant for me after spending so much time with the Black Company. Like Croaker, I’ll always have the memories.

David Drake, Rolling Hot- The first Drake novel I read, and the one that made me a devoted fan. I can’t recommend this one enough. (It’s included in the Drake collection The Tank Lords.) It was especially effective for me because, atypically for one of Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers stories, one of the principal viewpoint characters isn’t a soldier, but a civilian who gets dragooned into joining the conflict. The whole book is a series of savage muay thai kicks to the emotional groin, and the very end is just devastating.

Jack Vance, The Book of Dreams- The culmination of the five-novel Demon Princes series. Anticlimactic, but that’s the point, and it works wonderfully. You’ve won what you’ve dedicated your life to- leaving you with nothing.

Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man- The climax of the story sort of comes out of nowhere, but the very end manages to be blackly humorous and straightforwardly horrifying and disturbing at the same time.

John C. Wright, The Golden Transcendence- I’m not all death and gloom. This is the last book of the Golden Age trilogy, one of my favorite science fiction series ever. Like The Night Face, but with a very different set of emotions at the end, it has a truly perfect final sentence. With the conclusion of his trilogy, Wright leaves the reader feeling- as he should- exultant.

If novellas count, Neal Asher, The Engineer- Creepy. As. Hell.

While I’m at it, I’ll throw in a movie:

Colossus: The Forbin Project- Great science fiction movie that sees its own grim logic through to the bitter end. (It’s also quite fun, the second time you watch it, to imagine that the movie chronicles the birth of Neal Asher’s Human Polity.)

Those are the ones that first come to mind and have really stuck with me. Anyone else have a list of favorites?

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Thoughts on Poul Anderson

Baen Books has done some fine work bringing older science fiction back into print, often for the first time in decades. This, however, is by the far coolest thing they’ve done- no, the coolest thing any human being who isn’t Poul Anderson has ever done. Baen Books will be releasing a collection of Poul Anderson’s Technic History stories this September. It’s apparently called The Van Rijn Method: The Technic Civilization Saga #1. also has a listing for David Falkayn: Star Trader: The Technic Civilization Saga #2, slated for release in January 2009. Both books are listed as around 600 pages, which is nice. Hopefully we’ll eventually get the complete Technic History stories.

Note that this post has some spoilers, if the widely known general themes of stories written decades ago count.

The dearth of Poul Anderson books in stores, and his relative obscurity compared to many other writers, is one of the greatest injustices of the science fiction genre. I was thrilled when Baen released their previous Anderson collections, Time Patrol and To Outlive Eternity, and I’m even more thrilled to see that they apparently sold well enough to bring this about. I compiled my collection of his books from my local used bookstores and various online sellers, but most people aren’t blessed with my obsessive nature and abundant spare time, and a young kid who’s curious about science fiction isn’t going to stumble on an old copy of Agent of the Terran Empire at the local Barnes and Noble. If there’s a young science fiction fan or potential science fiction fan in your life, you could do a lot worse than getting him this.

Anderson is an interesting choice for Baen, whose editors have explicitly said they want to bring adventurous, upbeat stories to the forefront of science fiction. Anderson’s Technic History stories certainly have plenty of adventure and excitement; no can say they’re boring. On the other hand, while Anderson doesn’t wallow in despair or nihilism, there’s a deep sense of melancholy that pervades much of his work, and the Technic History is a prime example of that- most obviously in the Dominic Flandry and Long Night-era stories, but in some of the van Rijn-era stories too, though the latter are usually cheerier since most of them take place in Technic Civilization’s vigorous youth, before the rot takes hold. There’s action and adventure and excitement, but there’s also the deep sorrow of a universe where human civilizations rise, fall, and shatter to pieces in a cruel cycle that Anderson’s heroes, for all their courage and ingenuity, cannot stop. You can fight as hard as you can- indeed, you should fight as hard as you can- but human civilization will continue to fall towards Ragnarok, and whatever hope you can have is not for yourself but for whatever manages to grow from the ashes.

Now, this is one of the many things I like about Anderson. If you had to describe my personality, “gloomy Germanic fatalism” is a pretty good start. It is by no means necessary to have that sort of temperament to enjoy Poul Anderson, but it doesn’t hurt. However, I am a bit surprised by Baen’s choice of material here, in light of Baen’s stated goal of bringing more optimism back to science fiction. Then again, they publish David Drake, not the jolliest of authors, so perhaps it’s not so odd. It should be said that while life in Anderson’s universe is often sad and tragic, it is not pointless.

I should stress that if I’ve made Anderson sound relentlessly dreary, that wasn’t my intent. He’s not- he’ a huge amount of fun as well. If you like science fiction and you haven’t read Anderson, do yourself a favor and check him out. You’ll probably want to use or the like, because he’s terribly underrepresented in stores. And if there’s a budding young geek you know who would benefit from exposure to the classics, get him one of the collections when it comes out. He’ll thank you for it. Or possibly just laugh at you behind your back for being an out-of-it old weirdo. Either way, the kid will be entertained.

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