Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In which I fall to the Dark Side

Tamara Brooks lists the the ways she'd would would misuse the Force.  She's a fan of the Jedi mind trick, but leaves out the best power of all: Using the Force to choke people!

Someone cut in front of you in a line? Force choke. A fellow passenger on the bus won’t stop blathering into a cell phone? Force choke. An intoxicated would-be pick-up artist at your favorite bar won’t take the hint? Force choke. Next-door neighbor keeps having noisy parties at 3 in the morning? You guessed it.  Most of life’s daily annoyances would vanish like Yoda's corpse.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, September 15, 2008

A geek by any other name

Alastair Reynolds has an interesting post on some science fiction fans’ aversion to the term “sci-fi.” I myself do not use the term much, but I’ve never shared the intense dislike of the term some people have. It’s in the URL of my blog, after all.

I do find the aversion understandable, however. “Sci-fi” is often used in a derogatory, belittling, or patronizing context- those “check out these weirdos” articles that pop up in newspapers when there’s a sci-fi convention in town, for instance. Thus, I don’t think the analogy Reynolds draws to audiophiles who get upset when people say “hi-fi” instead of “high-fidelity” really works- no one uses the term “hi-fi” while laughing or sneering at high-fidelity stereos or their owners.

There may be a regional difference shaping our differing perceptions. Reynolds is from the United Kingdom, while I’m from the Midwestern United States, and I don’t know how “sci-fi” is used in the British media.

All in all, I think it’s a useful term- catchier-sounding and more concise than “science fiction,” more readily understandable and identifiable to the uninitiated than “SF,” less likely to set my teeth on edge than “speculative fiction.” I’d hate to abandon a good word just because some people use it in an obnoxious way.

I wonder if part of the hostility to the term comes from the desire of many fans for greater mainstream respectability and recognition of science fiction as “real literature.” It’s a desire I sympathize with, but not one I consider attainable. There seems to be a common belief that written science fiction (and fantasy) could triumphantly burst out of its “ghetto” if only it were presented better- book covers that don’t look so embarrassingly science fictiony, fewer aesthetically displeasing male nerds at cons, whatever. Thus, the word “sci-fi,” with its popular connotation of schlocky movies about bug-eyed men, may strike some people as the source (or part of the source) of science fiction’s image problem, which suggests that the problem could be solved or ameliorated if we got people to say “science fiction” or “speculative fiction” instead.

This is futile, even if it were somehow possible to get everyone to use some other word or words. Even if people stopped saying "sci-fi,” the euphemism treadmill is relentless.  Whatever term replaced ‘sci-fi” in the public mind would quickly gain all the negative connotations of its predecessor- and those negative connotations are not going to go away.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Book Review: Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco

I've got a review of Dan Ronco's novel Unholy Domain over at Crucial Taunt.  Have a look.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Badly belated book meme

Back in the late Jurassic era, I was tagged with a book meme by John at Grasping for the Wind, and I figure better late than never.

Nightstand/Table: Nothing. I don’t like to read in bed.

Reading at the Moment: I like to read a lot of books concurrently, usually a few fiction and a few nonfiction. That way I can jump around according to my mood. Currently reading:

Saturn Returns, Sean Williams

Soldier, Ask Not, Gordon R. Dickson (Nostalgic for me- read a bunch of Dorsai books from the library when I was a kid and just starting out with science fiction.)

Bone Song, John Meaney

The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek (Last read this one in high school. Quite the chick magnet, I was.)

Unholy Domain, Dan Ronco

Annals, Tacitus (Which now has a largish Guinness stain on it, due to my fondness for reading at the bar and my poor hand-eye coordination.)

Political Writings, Benjamin Constant (Compilation of several works, including The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments)

Can’t Put Down:

Gathering Dust: I have two used bookstores within a relatively short distance of my house. When I take an interest in an author, I head to the used bookstore, find their supply of that author, and just clean them out. I then stockpile these books in my home, like a survivalist accumulating ammunition and canned food to sustain him in case a Russian first strike wipes out civilization. Thus, I have a truly colossal backlog of books I have yet to read.  I'm trying to pick up my reading pace, because I don't want to accidentally knock over one of my stacked cheap plastic storage boxes and meet my doom buried alive beneath an avalanche of Jack Vance paperbacks.

Secret Indulgence: Faeries' Landing, an appallingly cute manga series.  It looks a bit odd on the shelf next to my Hammer's Slammers books, but it's funny, and I like cute, damn it.

Looking Forward To: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn, The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt, The Gods Return by David Drake

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Please to explain...

Could someone tell me why the Saturday Chicago Tribune had a front-page story- the top of the front page, no less- on the phenomenon of the "neckbeard?"  I've written on some fairly ridiculous topics in my time, but I know better than to put them on the front of the eighth-largest newspaper in the United States.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ideology and science fiction

Lou Anders has an interesting post (found via SF Signal) on people's enjoyment of books being affected by the religious or political views expressed in the book.  I can't think of a book that I otherwise would have liked that I disliked because of its political, ideological, or religious content, though maybe that has more to do with my reading choices than any innate tolerance; I really couldn't say.

There are two ways I can think of for a book or author's ideological stance to diminish a reader's enjoyment, and I think people almost always talk about only the first, which is when a person finds the author's viewpoint morally or intellectually objectionable in itself.  This is the kind Anders is talking about, I think, and is the kind usually discussed when the issue comes up.  Orson Scott Card is probably the most prominent example of an author some people won't read for this reason.

There is another way in which I can see a book's stance or viewpoint marring someone's enjoyment of the book, however, particularly in regards to politics.  Every adult who is not oblivious to the society around him has an ideology, consciously embraced and held or otherwise.  Political ideologies do, of course, have a purely moral component, beliefs about how things should be.  However, in large part, an ideology is a set of beliefs about how the world works, a sort of physics of society. Can government central planners do a better job of creating prosperity than the market economy?  Can despotic foreign countries be turned into successful democracies through invasion?  Will increased welfare spending have undesirable cultural effects on the recipients?  Is human nature as we know it fixed, or would it change significantly under different socioeconomic conditions?  These are questions full of moral significance, but they are not themselves moral questions.

If a character in a story is forced to watch as his beloved family is slaughtered and never feels any distress about it, most readers would think, "Hold on, people don't work that way."  If you're reading a science fiction story where normal people routinely survive 500-foot drops in Earth's gravity without being harmed, the implausibility of it will make it harder to believe in the world of the story, and thus harder to enjoy it.  My father, an attorney, can't watch TV legal dramas for more than five minutes without yelling at the television.

Politics can be similar.  When someone's ideology clashes with yours, he doesn't just disagree about moral values, he disagrees about how the world works, and how people work.  Thus, when reading a work of fiction, a violation of one's ideological expectations can be jarring in the same way that poorly done characterization, bad science, or technical mistakes can be.  If you believe that unregulated markets inevitably result in monopolies and plutocracy, a story with a world based on libertarian assumptions about society and economics will be that much harder to buy into.  If you think that the state is by nature an exploitative institution, a setting where the government works the way good-government liberals say it does (or can) is not going to be believable.  You won't believe in a setting based on a free-love paradise if you believe promiscuity causes unhappiness and social breakdown.  And so on.

There are ways around this.  (Perhaps everyone in the free-love paradise has been genetically engineered so that they don't feel jealousy or form strong pair-bond ties.)  And you can still enjoy a story even if you think it's based on bad assumptions about society and human nature, if it's other virtues are enough to compensate.  Nevertheless, I don't think it's at all unreasonable for enjoyment of a story to be affected by these factors, any more than it's unreasonable for it to be affected by the realism of characterization or science.

This goes deeper than bad physics, for me and I think for most people.  It's relatively easy for me to imagine that the laws of physics are other than what they really are, so that FTL travel or whatever is possible.  But ideology is in large part about the causal laws of human beings, and it's much harder to bracket what I know about human beings than it is to temporarily put aside what I know about physical science.  I can read about and contemplate special relativity, or not, as I choose; I can't stop living in a human society and thinking and feeling with a human mind.  Almost everyone has strongly held beliefs about how people work that are fundamental to their worldview; most people don't have such beliefs about science, even if they like the subject and are knowledgeable about it.

Of course, people who care about the subject mostly agree about the laws of physics, except on the cutting edges, and there's fairly broad agreement about at least the basics of how most people behave, at least on the individual level.  Ideology is far more contentious.  Most people would be intolerant of a story, if allegedly set in the real universe we know, where people enjoy being tortured or rivers flow uphill, but such intolerance never shows itself because everyone agrees on those points, and so there are no stories like that to be intolerant of.  There's plenty of opportunity to be intolerant where ideology is concerned, on the other hand, because no comparable consensus exists.  Whatever you believe about politics and society, the world has plenty of people who believe things that will strike you as the equivalent of "rivers flow uphill," and who would say the same thing about your beliefs.

So, yes, my enjoyment of stories can be, and has been, affected by the ideological stance or assumptions in a book, and I don't think there's anything unreasonable about that.  (Though I do my best to bracket that aspect when writing a review, since "Are the book's setting and events in accord with John Markley's social and political views?" is probably not a question SF fans are dying to know the answer to.)  Now, I don't give this consideration a huge amount of weight.  There are far too many different authors with different views for me to limit myself to people who agree with me, and my reading would be greatly diminished if I decided that, say, Iain M. Banks was too doctrinally impure to read.

What about you?  Has this issue affected the way you read or experience fiction?  If so, how?

Stumble Upon Toolbar