heron61: (Default)
While robots (and more commonly sentient AI's and near sentient AIs )are common features of much modern SF, they are rarely foregrounded. There were AIs in Alastair Reynolds' excellent recent novel House of Suns, but they were largely treated as a separate species that controlled its own areas of space. Books dealing with the social implications or robots or sentient AIs have been fairly rare of late. Until very recently, for the last 20 years, the only two books I remember reading were Melissa Scott's brilliant pair of novels Dreamships & Dreaming Metal, which dealt with a society on the verge of creating AI and are among the finest SF novels I've read and dealt with a variety of social tensions wonderfully well. However, that's been it, until recently. Also, like many other similar books, they just dealt with the emergence of sentient AIs, not what happened after they appeared. Within the past couple of months, I've read Saturn's Children by Charles Stross & Evolution's Darling by Scott Westerfeld.

Stross recent work is well known, but everyone talks about how it's a Heinlein pastiche with much in common with Friday (with a major difference being that Saturn's Children is not a piece of frighteningly misogynistic trash). However, when I read Saturn's Children, the Heinlein elements seemed less obvious than the fact that it's a (rather harsh) look as Asimov's ideas of robots. Both Saturn's Children & Evolution's Darling are about robots and have robots as protagonists (of course, with humans extinct, all of the characters in Saturn's Children are robots). Both books are also about power & slavery, and they both contain a fairly impressive amount of robot sex (or in the case of Evolution's Darling, a goodly amount of surprisingly hot robot-human sex).

Reading these two novels got me thinking about my own experiences with robots in fiction. I still remember the first novel I read which had a robot protagonist – I don't remember the title, but it was a kids SF novel from the 1960s with robot that had become fully sentient. It was on the run to avoid being memory wiped or something and ended up in the company of a pre-teen boy who helped the robot. In short, it was a story about an escaped slave being aided by a free boy. Of course, the robot was also very helpful to the boy, given that its nature was to be helpful and protective. A bit later, as a young teen, I read a whole bunch of Asimov's robot stories – stories of humanity's happy servants, along with a (very) few hints of complexities in this situation.

Stories of robots are stories about power and freedom. A robot can be everything from a slave wanting freedom to the perfect servant who is always happy to serve, to something in between. Of course, in more recent SF, this serving can include sex, with the robot as the always-willing sexual partner who is quite literally incapable of saying no. Power, and in many cases sex, are an unavoidable part of any story about robots. Both Stross and Westerfeld deal with these issues head on. I saw Saturn's Children as simultaneously a wonderfully fun romp and an examination of the serious moral problems with the idea of Asimov-style robots that are also fully intelligent beings. Intelligent robots who exist to serve humanity and who cannot do otherwise are nothing more or less than mind-controlled slaves. Once the humans die off, the situation is no better – it's far easier for robots to be slaves than masters, so you've got a few (often fairly screwed up and horrid) masters and a whole lot of slaves.

Evolution's Darling is a significantly different book, in that the AIs (most of whom are in robot bodies) are far more able to exceed their programming and so they aren't anything like the same sort of willing slaves. Also, in this novel, robots that become fully sentient become free individuals and over time robots go from being servants who are freed if they become sentient to beings that are treated much like children – they work, but they are also helped to become sentient and are freed when they succeed. However, even here questions of power remain. Humans are mortal, but robots aren't, and the oldest robots seem to have the potential to become ever more intelligent. As a result, you have what looks like a fairly equitable world, but which is actually ruled by a secret cabal of ancient and brilliant AIs. I'm somewhat reminded of the emergent planetary intelligences in Westerfeld's later (and utterly brilliant) pair of novels, The Risen Empire & The Killing of Worlds - gods that humanity has created, except that the secret robot masters in Evolution's Darling are remarkably ruthless and brutal beings who are determined to maintain their freedom and supremacy at any cost, which is not an unreasonable goal for ex-slaves. Stories of robots are at their heart stories about power & freedom, and these to novels about robots are also stories about sex and they are both well worth reading.
heron61: (Gryphon - emphasis and strong feelings)
Yesterday, [livejournal.com profile] teaotter and I watched the original series Star Trek episode Court Martial. In many ways, it's a silly episode. Not only does Starfleet obviously not have anything resembling conflict of interest regulations (thus allowing Kirk's former lover to be his prosecuting attorney), but the lawyer Cogley's rant against computers in the late 23rd century is somewhat similar to someone now ranting against movable type – it's also fascinatingly anachronistic. In 1967, computers were huge and arcane devices used by governments, large corporations, and the technical elite. Today, they are things all of us use to talk to one another and to find porn and videos of singing cats – not so dehumanizing anymore.

However, it wasn't badly done, it was fun, and more than any of that, both Becca and I were struck by how revolutionary it was. This episode first aired in February of 1967, more than 41 years ago, during the height of the civil rights battle, and at the very first beginnings of popular feminism in the US.

Not only do we have Nichelle Nichols, one of the first black women on TV who wasn't playing a servant, playing Lt. Uhura, who in this episode briefly piloted the ship, we have a black man playing a Star Fleet Commodore and the head of a Star Base. Yes, he's a strict, by the book desk-jockey, but that's a role that white actors had been paying for decades. In one scene, we have less than 10 people on the bridge of the Enterprise, in the midst of a trial. Everyone present is an officer, and we not only do we have two black characters in important roles, we also have another woman as the prosecuting attorney. In early 1967. It's easy to see why Dr. King convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay on Star Trek – she was helping to make history and change opinions.

Watching this caused me to wonder what more recent impressive progressive moments have been on TV. Things have been pretty sparse for the last 10-15 years. Women and black people in important roles are no longer remotely revolutionary, and that's its own absolutely magnificent victory. However, media needs to move beyond this. In the late 90s, we had Willow and Tara in an enduring romance on Buffy. Also, on the show Las Vegas, we have Mitch, a long term minor character in a wheelchair, who wasn't used as a gimmick, the character was simply disabled (as was the actor) and no big deal was made of this. Also, in one episode there was a drugged female character effectively fighting off a guy attempting to rape her, and a minor a MtF transsexual character. Both handled remarkably well. However, all in all, in the past 10-15 years there have been very few impressive moments on TV along the lines of Court Martial, and that makes me sad. We should be doing far better. I'd especially like to see an ongoing gay male romance &/or a continuing transsexual or transgendered character on a show.
heron61: (Gryphon - emphasis and strong feelings)
Until a couple of months ago that that I knew about Stephenie Meyer's vampire novels was that they were trashy paranormal romance. However, after seeing a trailer for the recently released Twilight film, I grew curious and read about these books on-line and even read a few excerpts on Amazon. Obviously, these books are ill-written trash, I didn't expect anything else. I was mildly surprised at how poorly written they were (or at least the first one, since, that's all I read excerpts from). However, what greatly surprised me was how deeply regressive they are. These are books with deeply offensive and scary gender roles, where the protagonist is largely a passive object who only exists to be saved by her true love. As various reviews have mentioned (including one in a publication as mainstream as Time Magazine), these books are essentially follow regressive and deeply sexist Mormon ideas about romance and sexuality.

I've read a fair amount of young adult fiction, including no shortage of fairly trashy young adult fiction. Back in the early 1990s, Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar novels were exceptionally popular among what looks to me like much the same demographic (primarily teenage girls, although Lackey work was also popular with many GLBT people who liked fluffy & romantic fiction (myself most definitely included). While Lackey's work was considerably less popular than Meyer's series, it was also far more popular than most books and series that I've read.

However, there is one crucial difference between Lackey's work and Meyer's. Lackey's work is also total fluff, but it's relatively non-offensive and fluff, not only are there a number of positive queer characters, both the female and the male characters are portrayed as strong and active (in what is albeit a seriously fluffy fashion) and they aren't sexist or regressive. Meyer's work is anything but that.

I'm wondering about the rather vast differences between these two series and what this means about their respective audiences. I also wonder why fiction that is exceptionally regressive seems to so often be more popular than fiction that isn't.
heron61: (Default)
Last night, I stayed up far too late rereading (for the first time in 30 years or so) Fritz Leiber's gonzo novel The Green Millennium, which he wrote in 1953. It was set in the future, 50 years in the future, in a somewhat more gonzo version of the imagined near future US imagined in the 1950s & 60s – oppressive advertising, impressively high crime rates, especially violent crime, overcrowded, general decay, fairly epic levels of decadence and (of course) lots of robots. It was light & fluffy fun, with a Walter Mitty-like downtrodden everyman protagonist who gains confidence and happiness when he finds an green alien cat that secretes special pheromones that induce happiness and confidence and which makes people considerably far violent. In the novel, the world was saved by a substance (from the green cats) that produced peace and cooperation – what I'm calling a "magic peace drug".

As soon as I finished this novel (far too early in the morning), I realized that in many ways it was quite similar to John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. The future portrayed in this (far better and less gonzo novel) was quite similar, albeit with fewer robots. More surprisingly, the solution to the world's problems was another magic peace drug. In this case, some natural drug from Africa that made people considerably more peaceful and cooperative.

I had previously assumed that this particular trope appeared in the mid 1960s, with the rise in popularity of psychedelic drugs and faded in the late 1970s, with the resurgence of anti-drug puritanism. However, given that The Green Millennium was written well before that, I'm now wondering about the origins of this trope. While I don't remember the titles, I've seen it in a few other novels of this era, as well as in a slightly different form, where the magic drug is one that permanently turns ordinary people into wiser and more humane super-geniuses, Two examples of books using this version of the magic peace drug were both written in 1973, Gordon Dickson's The R Master, and John Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down. In both works, the world is saved when world leaders are secretly given this drug. These drugs seem to be at least partly an analog to/metaphor for LSD and other popular psychedelics of the late 60s and early 70s. However, that's only one version of the magic peace drug, the more general category clearly dates to at least 1953.

In any case, I'm curious to know of other examples, I remember encountering this idea in other novels, but don't remember them offhand. I'm also intrigued to find another SF trope that has utterly vanished. I strongly suspect the War on Drugs nonsense helped kill it off. However, I haven't seen a replacement cast as genetic engineering or anything else. In addition to the idea of a drug making humanity more cooperative and peaceful, the idea of anything doing this has vanished. Similarly, while intelligence enhancement is common in modern SF, it's not to my knowledge depicted as something that is connected with making people more humane and compassionate in any recent novel. Instead, the result is either that the intelligence-enhanced person either becomes somewhat inhuman or the same, except smarter. I suspect that the demise of this trope has as much to do with increasing cynicism & pessimism as they do with the War on Drugs.
heron61: (Default)
Before the Tolkien revival of the late 1960s, fantasy as a separate genre did not exist in the US. Prior to WWII, there had been an abundance of speculative fiction published in the US, which included fantasy, SF, horror, lost world explorers tales, and blendings of all of these. These genres were not particularly separate. However, after WWII, SF became increasingly popular, while anything that could be described as fantasy largely vanished. One of the primary outlets for non-SF speculative fiction, Weird Tales, began publishing an increasing number of SF stories after WWII and ceased publication in 1954. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, a few SF authors occasionally wrote fantasy novels and short stories (Poul Anderson being the most obvious). Novels like Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions or his stories in Operation Chaos, were very much written from a SF sensibility and similar works were also quite rare. Click here to read more )
heron61: (Default)
When I was a child and teen (way back in the 1970s), I read truly vast amounts of SF. Most of these novels were around 150-250 pages long, and I could easily read them in a few hours. Regardless of whether they were by John Brunner, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, or Andre Norton, I read then exceptionally swiftly, easily reading a book an evening. For the past 15-20 years or so, I haven't been able to read books nearly that fast. For a while I simply thought I read books more slowly, but in the past few years I've been reading more older SF again, including books that I haven't previously read, and I find that I can read books from this era as rapidly now as I could 30 years ago.

Part of the reason is obviously that (in part due to the availability of word processing technology) novels are now significantly longer, with a typical SF novel being more like 300-350 pages now, and some weighty tomes being considerably longer. However, I've also noticed that it often takes me twice as long to read a 300 page modern novel than 250 page novel written in 1970, so length is clearly only part of the issue. Is standard SF writing that much more complex now, are the common fonts or font sizes slightly different now, so that there are more words per page (which doesn't seem at all true from a brief scan of half a dozen novels I have lying around from the 1960s & 70s and a similar number of novels from the late 90s to 00s), or is it simply that I read books of the style and type that I grew up with faster than more recent works?

Has anyone else experienced this difference in reading speed? Does anyone have an explanation for it?

On a vaguely related note, I am once again struck by the fact that up until the early 1980s, it was possible to be a general SF fan, in the sense that you could easily keep up with all major novels being published while also reading enough short stories in the magazines to know who the upcoming new authors were. For at least the past 25 years, SF publishing has grown at a tremendous rate, and has also become separate from fantasy publishing so that now there is no possible way that anyone who did not spend almost all of their time reading could keep up with SF in the same way that a serious but not monomaniacal fan could 35 years ago. The genre has splintered, sub-divided, and separated and so my internal assumptions about SF as a whole have been rendered nothing more than historical curiosities. This is made even more true in my own case, because I have always been interested in speculative fiction from the 1920s & 30s. It was relatively easy for me to read a significant percentage of the non-horrible works written back then and thus gain a very firm grounding in what 1930s SF was like. It's far more difficult to describe what 2000s or 1990s SF is like, since (in comparison) the field is so broad and so large.
heron61: (Default)
Finding out about Clarke's death yesterday made me very sad and also caused me to think about the impact he had on my life. Way back when I grew up, there was a lot less SF, and so I read a large amount of what was then considered the SF canon – Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, John Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Andre Norton, Alan Nourse, Frederick Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Smith (both E.E & Cordwainer), Roger Zelazny, and of course Arthur C. Clarke.

Of all of these authors that I started reading when I was 6 or 7 and, some of whom I continue to read today (for the last 25+ years I'd have needed a significant sum of money to persuade me to read anything by Heinlein, and an even larger sum to consider reading anything by Frank Herbert), two had the most affect on me – Andre Norton and Arthur C. Clarke. Norton helped me appreciate both people and animals, she introduced me to ideas about magic, ancient wonders, friendship, and romance, and how they aren't all that different from one another, and she also helped foster my sense of wonder.

Arthur C. Clarke had simpler characters in his novels and short stories, but his ideas were glorious and he did even more for my sense of wonder. More than anyone on the above list, he offered alien vistas that were both alien and glorious. I still remember the brief images in Childhood's End (both in the psychic vision and in the Overlord museum) of life on other worlds, just as I remember the wonders of Diaspar and the rest of the universe in The City and the Stars, and of course all of the brief vistas seen in his many short stories. Unlike the pair of choices so common in that era of SF, of either having no aliens at all or the only aliens being silly-looking animal people, Clarke offered images of aliens that were often truly and deeply alien, like the colonial intelligence the protagonist briefly met in The City and the Stars.

However, there was more than that. While I enjoyed Asimov's nonfiction when I was young, I absolutely devoured Clarke's non-fiction. I read the essays in Report on Planet Three, until the book literally fell apart and I had to purchase another (which I still possess). I just looked at his essay "Technology and the Future" (written in 1967) in that book
"I hope to see the automatic car before I die. Personally, I refuse to drive a car – I won't have anything to do with any kind of transportation in which I can't read. I can see the time when it's illegal for a human being to drive a car on a main highway"
I still wait for that day, but it looks like it will be here sooner rather than later, and I fully agree with his statement. In fact, I just reread that essay, and found two interesting things. First, he had a fascinating mixture of precise accuracy (especially about many things involving electronics – including how email and mobile phones would change the world, and how electronic communications would kill off print newspapers), to equally glaring mistakes, such as the lack of hovercraft as a major form of cargo transportation, and the fact that increased technology has made cities grow and not shrink and vanish into endless exurbs and telecommuting. I'm especially glad the last has not come to pass, I held the opposite view when I was young, but learned how many impressive advantages cities offer.

In any case, there is also a distinct lack of orbital hotels, but I'm guessing that will also change in a decade or two, but only for the exceptionally wealthy. From the same essay:
"How I look forward to the day when I can press a button and get any type of news, editorials, book and theater reviews, etc., merely by dialing the right channel"
I've been reading the New York Times on-line for the past 6 years, and don't remember the last time I purchased a print newspaper or even read one. I reread this essay and also realized that Clarke's fundamental belief in technology, his internationalism and distrust of national borders, his dismissal of and distrust of organized religion, and his general sense of hope about the world and the future are in large part where I got all of these same ideas. I also vividly remember my youthful wonder reading his essays (in the same book) "More Than Five Senses" & "The World We Cannot See", about all of the many senses we do not possess that animals, possible aliens, and technological instruments do. More than that, reading novels like The City and the Stars and various others helped form the basis for my own transhumanism.

When I write for SF RPGs, I try for the same sense of wonder and often unconsciously look to Clarke for inspiration. More than anyone (including in many ways my parents), he and Andre Norton made me who I am today.
heron61: (Default)
I've read a great deal of SF from the 1920s- 1960s, and a number of generalizations are possible. Novels and short stories from the 1920s to the 1940s are typically exceptionally racist and sexist. OTOH, there are a number of excellent novels and short stories from the 1950s and 1960s that are doing quite well racially (as well as a nearly equal number that are somewhat regressive, but rarely shockingly racist). However, gender issues are if anything typically worse in 1950s SF, and only a little better in 1960s SF. This is generally as true with female SF authors as with male ones (Andre Norton, being one of the few notable exceptions, since until the mid 1960s, she large avoided having important female characters in her novels, especially female protagonists. OTOH, the situation improved on both counts in the 1970s, and included 1973, the year that several prominent female SF authors (including Marion Zimmer Bradley) "had their consciousness raised" and suddenly started writing fiction with active female protagonists.

However, for any generalizations, there are exceptions. I read a little H. Beam Piper growing up, I remember reading his novel Four Day Planet, as well as his Paratime stories, and the related Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. I enjoyed all of them and noticed that Piper had more and more active female characters than I normally found in novels from the 1950s and early 1960s (tragically, he committed suicide in 1964).

In preparation for visiting my parents, I loaded up some new project Gutenburg ebooks into my Sony Clie PDA and included a fair amount of H. Beam Piper, since his work is now largely out of copyright. In this list, I included a story with the intriguing title of Omnilingual, which was published in 1957. It's a fairly typical SF short story of the era – humans from the shockingly advanced year of 1996 visit a Mars where sentient (and impressively human-looking) life and civilization died out 40,000 years ago. In it a brilliant and free-thinking archaeologist is convinced of a bold theory of how to translate the Martian language and maintains this belief in the face of opposition by both old and stodgy and popular and fame-grubbing opposition, to eventually triumph through brilliance, dedication, and science. Standard themes and ideas, except that the heroic archaeologist who is the protagonist of the story is a woman, the person who takes care of setting the charges to break into the sealed Martian buildings is a Japanese woman, the old and stodgy archaeologist is a Turkish man, and the entire crew of the ship that went to Mars consists of a mixture of military personnel and scientists, at least 1/3 of whom who are named are female, and a fair number of whom come from Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Racism and sexism is largely not present in the stories, not just because they are not mentioned, but because the author included very little unconscious racism of sexism. The only lack I see is none of the characters mentioned are black, but that's about it.

This story was written almost exactly 50 years ago and is more progressive in characters and attitudes than at least 75% of US TV and Hollywood movies. I was impressed, amazed, and very pleased. I salute H. Beam Piper and urge all of you to read his work.
heron61: (Dragons & Magic)
I've been reading a great deal of Caitlin Kiernan's fiction lately, mostly everything associated with the Threshold, Low Red Moon, Daughter of Hounds series, including a fair number of her short stories. While Threshold is a very good book, I'm impressed at how much Kiernan has improved as a writer since 2001. I'm also learning more about her writing and why it speaks to me so deeply. One of the first points I noticed is that a fair amount of it is more what I would consider dark fantasy than horror, and much of this has to do with the nature of the protagonists.

Especially in Daughter of Hounds and the stories in the same setting, characters are either insiders or outsiders regarding the supernatural. Her insiders are characters who did not just learn about the supernatural, they also have either through experience, accident, or birth a close connection to it that is effectively inescapable. These characters can be monsters or heroes, but they are very rarely victims (Dancy Flammarion being an odd exception, because she is simultaneously a hero, a victim, and a monster). However, in Kiernan's work, characters who are outsiders in the supernatural, even including ones with some talent for it like Chance Matthews or Deacon Silvey, can be quite heroic at times, but they are ultimately victims of the supernatural. Unsurprisingly, I greatly prefer stories focusing on supernatural insiders, both because of my natural inclinations in this direction, and (more importantly), because I am not as fond of reading stories where the protagonists are victims.

The primary reason I like Kiernan's writing is that the worldview so closely parallels my own, vaguely lovecraftian worldview. For me, the world is not only vastly complex, it is far more complex than our limited minds and brains can possibly understand, resulting in all manner of seeming contradictions that actually make sense when viewed from a larger perspective. I believe the world is full of all manner of wonders, terrors, and strangeness and all manner of unexpected surprises of all sorts. Not unsurprisingly, this worldview is one of the reasons I'm a transhumanist, since I believe that only by drasticaly expanding both our brains and our lifespans can we understand far more of both the spiritual and the physical world. Kiernan's writing gives me a vision of a world of near infinite complexity and wonder, where answers are not simple and often involve layers of history stretching back into deep time, and I love reading about such settings.
heron61: (Default)
I posted this on RPG.net, but am into the idea sufficiently that I thought it might make interesting discussion here.

In both most SF RPGs and films, and in many SF novels, planting a colony on the planet of a distant sun is often likened to settling the American frontier or various other forms of pre-modern colonization, with people building houses out of local materials and facing a world they know very little about. That can make for interesting role-playing or fun (if fluffy) novels, but is ludicrous from the perspective of hard SF. Also, I wonder what adventure opportunities might be missed by going in this direction. What if it was a far more high tech process. In thinking about this, it also occurred to me that the following ideas would be especially interesting in a setting where interstellar travel is either a setting w/o FTL travel, where relativistic starships take months of subjective time and decades of external time to travel between stars or (at fastest) relatively slow FTL travel, taking months to go from one star system to another – the best example of this in popular knowledge is warp drive in TOS Star Trek – even at ordinary cruising speed, the Enterprise (cruising at warp 6) took a month to travel to another Sector (80 light years), while most civilian ships take 4 months to travel this far, and a month to travel to a nearby star.

Consider interstellar colonies planets using something like the moderately advanced nanotechnology from GURPS: Transhuman Space or Centauri Knights.The most obvious first step when the ship arrives at the planet is to throw a huge bunch of satellites into orbit - you already have your starship there, so that's exceptionally easy. In a few days, the planet has a new crop of GPS sats, comm sats, and satellites for observing the weather, geology, and natural features. You have accurate maps and anyone landing on the planet will have GPS, relatively accurate weather prediction, and instant communication anywhere on the planet to go along with that.

Then, you land and start the colony. Even if the ship was traveling at relativistic speeds or going through a wormhole, a good policy for a colony of maybe 5-10,000 is to have them travel in some form of suspended animation – it's far cheaper and the colonists take up far less space. So, while the colonists remain in suspended animation, robots (possibly with the assistance of a few colony leaders who have been awakened) go about the task of selecting the site for the colony. Then, using a simpler variant of the living city from Luna City (my own creation), in the GURPS: Transhuman Space book High Frontier. This is essentially, a huge living organism that provides its inhabitants with climate controlled shelter, light, water (and a variety of other beverages), and various sorts of fruit useful for snacks or as food in difficult times, all for free. The interior can be shaped with easily-made hormone sprays. A version designed to live on a habitable planet would require even less tending and care than one designed to live on the Moon. Combine this with some nanotechnological factories (the fully automated descendants of this nascent technology to automatically produce all manner of durable goods, and it's time to wake up the colonists to a world where they can live in high tech comfort.

So, you've eliminated the hardscrabble farming and similar ruralisms of many tales of new colonies and replaced them with urban stories that can be told anywhere in the setting. Also, the colonists will have a good general knowledge of the surface of their planet. One point that interests me is what won't they know about their world? What sorts of adventures can be run beyond the boundaries of their small city? Naturally, colonists will venture into these regions – they have a whole world to explore and anyone signing on to interstellar colonization is bound to be interested in this.

My thoughts are:

  • Strange and dangerous animals waiting in caves, underground tunnels (like giant ant-lions or trap-door spiders), or underwater - all places orbital sensors will have a hard time reaching.
  • Crime or the rise of extremist political religious movements among some of the members of what (despite all the comforts and advanced technology) remains a small and very isolated group of a few thousand people.
  • Sentient or near-sentient inhabitants that lack anything more than stone-age technology, but are clearly intelligent (or nearly so).
  • Alien ruins – perhaps the ancient ruins of an entire civilization, perhaps the somewhat more recent ruins of a small colony. Time and weather could have hidden most of them, especially if the aliens lived underwater or in underground tunnel complexes, or deliberately hid their cities for some reason.
  • The colony is a research station to study alien ruins, low-tech (or perhaps totally non-technological sentient beings) or something similarly interesting). However, because interstellar travel takes months (if you have slow FTL travel) or decades (if you have relativistic travel) any research station you build is effectively a long-term colony. Issues surrounding this become increasingly complex if the colonist-researchers start having to balance their own needs vs. the needs of the beings they are studying. Alastair Reynolds' excellent novel Revelation Space, dealt with these very issues on the planet Resurgam.
  • If FTL travel exists, then the planet may also be a base for smugglers, raiders, or other criminals who use various stealth technologies to hide and are either interested in hiding from the colonists, or finding some way to take their stuff and perhaps even enslave them.

My basic take would be to have a pocket of advanced technological civilization in the midst of an (at best) partially known world where even the best orbital surveys will not reveal the details of on-site exploration. Moreover, here you have a few thousand colonists who have many resources, but who are also cut off from the rest of humanity and cannot expect any help from the outside for at least either a month or two (in an FTL setting) or several decades (in an STL setting), so they must rely upon themselves to solve their problems. This also introduces the possibility of internal conflicts in the colony, including the rise of dangerous cults or similar forms of extreme and potentially very dangerous behavior.

Combine that with the various mysteries any new planet could reveal and it sounds like a very nifty adventure, especially if you make the planet truly alien, like Wayne Barlowe's Darwin IV.

So, what other possibilities for adventure can you think of? I'm not particularly interested in massive technological breakdowns that transform the high tech settlement into hard-scrabble farming – I'm interested in what fun and nifty things can be done with the setting largely as it stands. What sorts of scenarios would you run? How would you make the world exciting?
heron61: (Look to the future)
Here's a very interesting article about popular and literary fiction, by Elizabeth Lowell, aka Ann Maxwell . I've read and loved all of her SF novels, which range from enjoyable and interesting SF romances like Fire Dancer and Timeshadow Rider to thought provoking novels of mystery and mysticism like The Jaws Of Menx or A Dead God Dancing. So, naturally I was interested in what she had to say. I do not completely agree with her idea that the central difference between fiction that is acclaimed at literary and popular fiction is that the world in literary novels is bleak and hopeless (or at minimum utterly pointless), while those in popular fiction are mostly optimistic and/or transcendent. It is clearly true that this is not a bad generalization, I think more than that is going on here, especially since there is not shortage of bleak and hopeless popular fiction, especially in horror and SF.

Where I do agree with her is that fiction that depicts the world as a bleak, pointless, and hopeless place is typically regarded as deeper, more "realistic" and ultimately more serious than fiction that does not, and that this has become increasingly true in the past 40 years. I see that particular distinction as a far more general problem than simply one having to do with the opinions of well-respected critics. A surfeit of irony, nihilism, violence, and despair has effectively become essential elements of any world-view that is widely regarded as "honest" or "realistic", while optimism and a belief in progress are in some way inherently suspect, naïve, or outdated. As a result, we have on the more literary side, and abundance of stories of pointless, hopeless lives and passive protagonists, and in the realms of adventure fictions of various sorts, far too many stories where either the alleged heroes are little or no better than the dire evils they are attempting to prevent or where the villains are grotesquely and outrageously vile in an attempt to show them to be truly bad people and more importantly to distinguish their actions from what is widely regarded as the limits of normal behavior, that anyone would engage in if given the chance.

As someone who greatly prefers stories that are optimistic, transcendent, and hopeful, I see this as being a problem that is exceedingly widespread, and I do very much agree with some of Lowell's points about the importance of optimistic fictions. We live in a world of obvious horrors and equally obvious wonders, and I often think that if the Marquis de Condorcet could write essays about the inevitability of progress and the wonders of the future, while hiding from the horrors of the French Terror, why so many people (including far too many members of the first world middle and upper classes) today find it so difficult to see the world as a hopeful place filled with possibilities rather than a dangerous place filled with a nearly endless number of things to fear.
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"The Triumph of the Romance Novel" This is how my good friend Daire describes trends in modern storytelling (in both novels, movies, and TV). Daire insists that plot has largely been subordinated to relationships as the focus of attention, and uses examples ranging from modern SF&F novels to shows like CSI and Battlestar Galactica, and claims that much of these changes are due to the influence of romance novels.

I don't think that the changes are quite as profound as Daire does, but something very significant is going on. Leaving TV and movies aside, I'll concentrate on something I know exceedingly well – SF&F novels, particular SF novels from 1960 to the present. The most obvious change is length, a typical novel of the 60s & 70s was perhaps 150-200 pages. The spread of the word processor changed all that and novels are now rarely less than 300 pages long.

The question that then arises is what do writers do with all those additional words, and I would have to agree that the answer has largely been to focus far more extensively on interpersonal interactions. Consider three prominent novels of the late 60s and early to mid 70s – Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg (1969), Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970), and The Exile Waiting by Vonda N. McIntyre (1976). In these three, we have a novel about the postcolonial world and drugs, a (somewhat) hard SF novel of exploration, and a novel about growing up in a strange and constrained world, in other words, a good cross section of well-written SF. Interpersonal relationships play a minimal part in the first two – Niven's novel is about other things, and Silverberg's is largely one man's confrontation with his past and himself, and so is exceedingly internal. Like most of McIntyre's work, The Exile Waiting has a fair amount of interpersonal interaction, but most of the events of the plot are driven by externals and it is still essentially a highly plot-driven novel. All three of these novels were popular books written by wildly popular authors. One was nominated for a Nebula award and another won both awards, so these three examples are good examples of the best SF of the era.

In vivid contrast, consider some recent novels that seem like they would be much the same. The most vivid example is Alastair Reynold's 2006 novel Pushing Ice, it is a truly excellent hard SF novel written by an author who is skilled at writing both ideas and characters. In this novel filled with all manner of extraordinary external events, the plot is largely driven by a rivalry between two characters. Similarly, in Kage Baker's excellent Company series, the plot is driven almost exclusively by the hatreds and loves of the immortal cyborgs, and the focus on interpersonal relationships is exceedingly tight. Other recent and excellent novels like Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow and Accelerando by Charles Stross are similar – interpersonal relationships either overshadow plot, or in the better novels, they either drive the plot or in some cases are the plot. I'm not objecting to this, and find the almost total lack of focus on interpersonal relationships in 1960s and 1970s SF to be somewhat problematic, but I would enjoy having novels that contain more of a balance between externally driven plots and interpersonal relationships, because externally driven plots seen very much in eclipse and they can certain be very well done. Also, I am curious as to the reasons for this shift. Clearly, the greater length of novels allow it to happen, but I remain uncertain why it happened.

Way Station

Sep. 2nd, 2006 12:32 am
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I've heard arguments (IIRC by the likes of Cory Doctorow) that Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light is the finest SF novel of the 1960s and 70s. While good, I can think of better, and in my own estimation, the finest is perhaps Clifford Simak's wondrous classic Way Station. I just finished rereading it for the first time in a decade or so, and for perhaps the third or fourth time total. The ending has a bit of a deus ex machina, and the ending I misremembered (that the Talisman was in the Old One's trunk) would have perhaps been a bit better, but that is a very minor point indeed. It very much deserved the Hugo and Nebula that it won, and that is so rarely true. I think the only real competitor for best SF novel of the 60s and 70s is perhaps Vonda N. MacIntyre's excellent Dreamsnake, which was published in 1978, almost as these two decades were ending.

In addition to Simak's simple but exceptionally enjoyable prose, the novel has something that is exceptionally rare now – in it you get a sense that while there are obvious exceptions, humanity as a whole, and sentient beings as a whole, are good, decent, and ultimately humane, which is also a characteristic it shares with Dreamsnake. This is something exceptionally difficult to believe in these dark days, but given that Way Station was written around the time of both the Cuban Missile Crisis and yearly race riots in the US, and less than a decade after the end of Joseph McCarthy's red scare and blacklists, Way Station was written in an era arguably no better than our own. However, it is a book that can make people believe in humanity, in the future, and in hope in a way that is very rare these days. It's difficult to ask more of a novel. With luck, much effort, and right technologies (both metaphysical and biological) perhaps we can make ourselves sufficiently smarter and wiser that books like this will seem less surprising.
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Someone in an RPG.net thread linked to this rather well-known essay by M. John Harrison. Then, [livejournal.com profile] artbroken wrote a brief post about this essay, so I have decided to do the same. While both this essay and his fiction are exceedingly well written, his fiction is not to my taste and I vehemently disagree with the essay. In an ideal world, I would also have a link to a wonderful NYT article I read several years ago where the author actually got that part of the point of The Matrix trilogy + the Animatrix was to create a vividly real world, as well as to tell a good story.

These two visions of speculative fiction are largely in direct opposition to one another – on the one hand, you have Harrison's vision of fantasy as "philosophical and psychological landscapes", on the other, the idea of a fantasy or SF world being a vividly real and carefully described place. Obviously, since characters in RPGs do not always (and in a good game, generally should not) follow the strictures of the plot, the second sort of setting is vastly more appropriate for an RPG, and if someone is attempting to transform a world like Fritz Leiber's Swords & Sorcery world Newhon or Tolkien's Middle Earth into an RPG setting, it is necessarily to add careful description and generally to "nail down the details" of the setting.

Naturally, I prefer the more naturalistic approach to RPG settings, but I also very much prefer this approach in fiction and film. I completely agree with Harrison's comment about sequels providing more "colonization" of the "inscape", which is in many ways why I tend to like well-done sequels as much or more than the original, because I love the added depth. For example, The Matrix was a wonderful story and a fascinating vision of a world, but The Matrix Reloaded is my favorite of the three films, precisely because it added in a level of rich detail completely absent from the first film, with a vision of the niches and hidden spaces in the Matrix, where rogue AIs like the Merovingian existed. Similarly, while I enjoy Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, I vastly prefer more carefully worked detailed worlds like P.C. Hodgell's Rathilien, Andre Norton's Witchworld (as depicted in the first 7 or 8 novels, all of the ones after the mid 1970s are fairly bad), which is by no means saying that a series is superior to a single novel or film. A single well-written novel can create a well-described world – one need look no further than Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed (which can be read equally well with or without its sequel Ancient Light) or Robin McKinley's Sunshine for portraits of a world that are complete in and of themselves. Another excellent example is Linda Nagata' recent novel Memory, which I talk about in this post about the types of settings I prefer.

If a setting is described in strokes that are too broad I am left feeling rather unsatisfied and even the best stories are, for me at least, greatly improved if they have a world that is carefully detailed and that is ultimately comprehensible, describable, and provides me with a sense of actually being there, rather than simply of drifting through a dream-like story about it.

Harrison talks about the differences between these two visions of speculative worlds as the differences artistic and blandly "commercial" settings and clearly has nothing but contempt for the second sorts of settings. I don't see the difference between these two sorts of settings as being about "artistic" vs. "commercial" settings at all. Instead, I see two factors at work, the first is Harrison's essay struck me very much as something written by a genre-fiction author who is embarrassed to be writing genre fiction and is so attempting to say that he writes "Literary Fiction", there's nothing intrinsically wrong with literary fiction (beyond the fact that I dislike most of it), but SF or fantasy authors who are ashamed to writing SF&F annoy me. I was unimpressed with Ursula LeGuin's decade+ long retreat from genre fiction and I'm not impressed by Harrison's dismissal of modern fantasy because it strikes me as nothing more than being ashamed that his allegedly glorious prose (I've read Viriconium Nights, and from my PoV, it's well written, but dull, far to stylized, and very much overly British) are shelved next to books with pictures of large-eyed horses or scantily clad barbarians on their covers.

All snarking aside, I also find that the difference he is talking about is a difference of focus for both author and reader. If the focus of the novel is the plot, then a dream-like and somewhat sketchy setting is perfectly acceptable. However, if the focus of the story is more upon the characters or the setting itself, then a higher degree of verisimilitude is necessary. One characteristic of much classic fantasy, from Tolkien (with his vast and sweeping epic) to Howard's Conan books or Leiber's Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories (with their series of clever and occasionally intricate plots) is that the focus in all cases is firmly on the plot. This is very much not true in much well-done modern fantasy (especially romantic fantasy), where the focus is firmly on the characters or the setting and not the plots (which are often fairly unimaginative). Harrison is saying that in a good fantasy novel, setting both is and needs to be secondary, and I very much do not agree. I see this as very much a question of focus, and in more recent novels, the focus has been far more on detailed worlds. I think part of the reason is the influence of RPGs, which require more detailed worlds, and I think much of the rest of the influence comes from Science Fiction, which has far more of a tendency to use detailed worlds than fantasy, which naturally is one of the reasons I generally prefer SF to fantasy (everything else being equal).
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Here's a wonderful interview where Sam Delany talks about sex and alternative sexuality in SF. He's very wonderful and so is the interview. One snippet that I particularly liked.

SD: When I went to my very first sf convention, which was Worldcon in 1966, I'd already published six or seven novels. A very young man came up to me and said, "You wrote a book called Babel-17?" I said "Yes, indeed I did." He said, "That stuff, where three people get together and they all do it at once . . . is that possible?" I said, "Yes." And he gave an immense sigh of relief and turned around and walked away.

At which point I thought, "I am doing something right."

If I ever have that effect on someone about magick or alternative gender then I'll also know that I'm doing something right as an (RPG) author.
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