Can versus Should

The topic of directed panspermia found its way into a recent issue of The Economist:  Colonizing the Galaxy is Hard. Why Not Send Bacteria Instead?

The concept, apparently being discussed by “a number of scientists”, involves jump starting evolution on exoplanets by seeding them with terrestrial bacteria.  With human interstellar travel likely centuries away, the proposal is to send tiny probes–containing microscopic passengers–in the near term.  These could be propelled using solar sails and Earth based lasers, along the lines of what is proposed for use in NASA’s Starlight (also known as “DEEP-IN”) program.

The article presents valid objections to this idea, including the worry of contaminating worlds were life might have arisen independently.

However I see a more practical reason for opposing such efforts.    Directed panspermia of this nature is being discussed because it is all we have the potential to do near term.  But technological advances over the next two centuries are likely to expand our capabilities greatly, including the ability to send larger, more capable exploratory craft and perhaps even human crews.  Sending smaller craft now, at best, provides a head start of a couple of centuries on an evolutionary process that is likely to take hundreds of millions or even billions of years to produce anything significant, assuming conditions are ideal.  That hardly seems worth the effort or risk.

When it comes to seeding life in distant solar systems, the sensible thing to do is to wait until we can do it responsibly.  Just because we can do it in the next few years, doesn’t mean we should.

“Look How Smart I Am!”

Thinking back on what I read in Analog over a twenty year span (as I’ve done a few times here recently), another all-too-common tropes that comes to mind is the use of some obscure scientific idea in a manner contrived to show off just how smart the author thinks he is.

There’s obviously going to be some element of science in science fiction (otherwise it’s space romance or space opera or fantasy or some other “soft” genre). It may be pseudoscientific, it may be totally fabricated but handled consistently as established knowledge for purposes of the plot, but central to the plot will be some element of systematic inquiry into natural phenomena or speculative technology or the like. The problem is not science in science fiction, it’s what science is used and how it’s handled.

What differentiates this kind of science fiction from others is the author’s selection of an obscure concept or theory which they then elaborate on to excess. The tell is that the story is more about this concept than its effects on the characters involved, more a demonstration of the author’s brilliance or cleverness in finding and relating the concept than an exploration of its consequences or potential.

I don’t have the time to delve into the 50-year collection and pick out specific illustrative examples, but in general any story involving obscure concepts from cosmology or quantum mechanics will fall into this category. The more jargon-laden and compulsively detailed the presentation of the concept, and the more tortured or cringe-inducing the effort to make it relevant to the plot, the more certain the reader can be that this is what is going on.

Like so many bad aspects of modern science fiction, this quirk seems driven by the need to demonstrate a superior intellect to others rather than the desire to explore ideas. It’s the class nerd shouting: Look at me! Look how smart I am! My brains make me special and superior! In short, it’s both a product of and a product aimed at the brand of socially-inept but delusionally self-important outcasts observed in the recent Hugo Award controversies and “pink SF” generally.

It’s also, I suspect, what turns a lot of mainstream readers off with regards to science fiction. They might like a popular science fiction movie and decide to give written science fiction a try. But when they encounter one of these stories, they are reminded of the gamma losers they knew in school, and it sours them on the genre as a whole. Whether that association is made consciously or not, I think plays a large role (along with the creepy sexual perversions and taint of pedophilia that stained the genre in the 1960s and 1970s) in why despite the success of science fiction in film and television, reading and writing science fiction are still looked down on.

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

Luxurious Optimism

Houston-based startup Orion Span is taking reservations for 12-day on orbit stays at their planned “luxury” hotel, Aurora Station.  The $9.5 million cost includes astronaut training and launch, with the station scheduled for launch in 2021 and the first guests hosted in 2022.

2022 seems more than a bit optimistic to me given that neither Space X or Boeing expect to launch crewed missions until late 2018 at the earliest.

Still, I’d love to be proven wrong.  And for those of us that don’t have $9.5 million or even $80k lying around, it seems to me that a good way to stoke up interest and funding would be to raffle off a trip for two.

Underlying Structure of Stories

I’m a sucker for good “recipe” books on writing technique. and this looks like a particularly good one. Instead of the crit-lit hobby-horse riding or cultural marxturbation one risks with this genre, it breaks down children’s literature into a dozen or so storytelling/mythic categories. And while it focuses on children’s stories, from what I could see browsing through it the analyses are wholly relevant to young-adult and mainstream adult fiction.

I.e.: it’s more in the Farnsworth vein than the Krentz coven as far as writing-technique books go.

Shaver Mysteries – Fin

I read about as much as I could tolerate, which was not quite to the end of Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalities. I may tough it out through the last few pages, but that’s enough.

I still think there’s a lot of interesting potential in the Shaver Mythos, some interesting ideas, situations, and settings. Unfortunately, that potential is wasted with writing so bad as to be unreadable: long narrative dumps, stilted dialogue, corny and inconsistent descriptions of the imagined technology, goofy recycling of elements from other mythologies, poor story mechanics, etc.

Then there are simple writing mechanics and stylistic errors that any minimally-competent editor would have caught. For example: multiple instances of the same significant word in the same sentence or paragraph. It was a little thing to notice, something that happened that I might not have noticed had it happened only once or twice, but in one 5-6 page stretch I noticed that it happened so many times that, as it happens, I couldn’t not notice when it happened. Just as awful is Shaver’s frequent description of events or places as in some way “beyond mere words to portray” or “exceeding human ability to understand”, a cheap gimmick whose overuse fills me with a weary loathing I struggle to adequately convey.

I’ve read a lot of mediocre SF (I subscribed to Analog for 25 years), but I didn’t fully appreciate the term “hack writer” until I experienced Richard Shaver. I think if I taught English or creative writing classes at the high-school level or above, I would be tempted to teach my students editing by assigning small groups one story apiece. Go, and make this readable. Even government-school students couldn’t make it any worse.

Shaver Mysteries, cont’d.

I’m a few pages into the wonderfully-titled “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia”, the second of the stories in the collection, and can already see why Shaver is compared to Ed Wood. The writing is schlocky, the names are cheesy, the dialogue is campy, and the overall quality is at the level of a high-school creative writing assignment.

But…

There’s something endearingly strange about it all, and something compelling about the storytelling. For all its faults, there’s something that holds my interest enough to keep going with it.

I suspect that someone could make a project out of rewriting Shaver’s stories in a more competent form (assuming they’re out of copyright) and organizing and clarifying his mythos along the way. Behind the ineptitude there are some interesting ideas a good writer could explore further in new Shaver Mythos stories as well.

They Make It Sound So Appealing

Resuming my personal project of reading classic SF from the 1930s – 1950s, I decided to give the oft-discussed Shaver Mysteries a try. I figured that if I’m going to make arch jokes about hell-creatures from the hollow Earth and Nazi flying saucers, I should probably know the source material. This wasn’t what I expected to find:

Armchair fiction presents extra large paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels. “The Shaver Mystery,” by Richard S. Shaver, is perhaps the most controversial piece of science fiction ever written. Supposedly a true story, it is widely considered to be the nadir of science fiction literature, the “Plan 9 From Outer Space” of the whole genre. Some people considered Richard Shaver to be a genius, but most others considered him and his editor, Ray Palmer, to be two of the biggest blights to have ever entered the field of professional science fiction writing. Shaver’s wild ramblings are a thing to behold. We have never encountered an author who could write such consistently overlong sentences that appeared to make no sense whatsoever. Genius or nut-case? You decide. Here in Book One, are the first three parts, just as they appeared in the June, 1947 issue of Amazing Stories: “Formula from the Underworld,” “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia,” and “Witch’s Daughter.” Also included in Book One is the mind-boggling, yet essential “How to Read the Shaver Alphabet,” which pertains to Book Two as well. “The Shaver Mystery” is presented in paperback for the first time. Heaven help us.

In other words, Shaver’s writing skill is on the same level as today’s Hugo Award winners. On the plus side, at least he (probably) didn’t write his stories as clumsy vehicles for cockamamie cultural Marxism and cringeworthily intimate unwanted explorations of his personal dysfunctions.

We shall see.

Review: Analog January/February 2018 Issue

Several hours over the holidays spent putting my and my cousin’s old Analog issues into archival bags made me curious about what I might have been missing over the ten years since I cancelled my subscription.

Little, it turned out.

I picked up a copy of the January/February 2018 issue a couple of weeks ago. Reading it reminded me why I ended my subscription back in 2008: the magazine had turned to crap. This issue was largely unreadable crap, which in what little I did manage to read showed  many of the Analog themes I mentioned in my previous post.

Here are my immediate reactions. This is a little rough, as I have time at the moment to type up my notes but not to write up more detailed analyses of each story – not that it would matter:

  • Artwork: the cover is a mess of lurid colors, cartoonish, amateurish, no depth, does not compare well with the average cover of the early 1960s. As I observed to Carl, the background looks like a bunch of livid green poops swirling around a mushroom. The central figure looks oddly misshapen, and not in the kind of exaggerated pose feminists love to mock in SF and fantasy art – he’s just ineptly drawn; the interior illustrations were lousy, too, being too “busy”, poorly composed, crudely sketched, or clumsy 1995-vintage Photoshop pasteups.
  • Editorial: I knew it was going to be about Trump before reading it, or even looking at the title; Schmidt does manage to get to the second paragraph before making it obviously about Trump, but the first paragraph is an emotionally overwrought and sensationalistic lead-in to it; the language throughout has a similar childishly ominous tone: “frightening”, “disturbing”, “darkest chapters in human history”, “feared”, etc.; wrings hands over Trump’s “election is over”, apparently not recognizing the similarity to Obama’s comments in 2008 that ‘I won’ and ‘elections have consequences’; offers new explanation of “consensus” which confuses is and ought with regards to scientific process, and ignores the politicization that corrupts this process (alternative opinions and dissent are met with angry screeching and denunciations and bad-faith dismissal, not a collegial review of the evidence and logic behind them); usual criticisms of people who disagree with his stance on global warming, etc., as being ignorant and anti-science; actually makes the assertion that scientists tend “to try to avoid getting involved in politics”, which he immediately follows up with a rent-seeking appeal for more public science funding; overall, the editorial is saturated with science fetishism and the science cargo-cult mentality; Schmidt is utterly clueless when it comes to persuasion – ‘If we just harangue these morons enough, they might see a glimmer of truth despite themselves, and come around to our enlightened way of thinking’; he concludes by name-dropping Carl Sagan because of course [makes wanking gesture] – but with a hilarious lack of self-awareness, the quote he uses is a condemnation of the public education industry…of which Schmidt earlier reminded us he was/is a part; there’s really nothing new or interesting here, it’s just a stew of the same threadbare talking points blabbered by every fucking-loves-science leftist on these subjects for the past thirty years.
  • “The Quantum Magician” by Derek Kunsken – wastes no time involving the wave-particle duality metaphor cliche; utterly boring first page; “puppet theocracies”? actual puppets? really?; made it through two pages before giving up, nothing caught my interest, no hooks to draw me in.
  • “The Journeyman” by Michael F. Flynn – swords, feudalism, pretentiously unpronounceable names, kilts, probably other cliches if I’d manage to read the whole thing; larded with goofy “exotic” words serving no purpose but exoticism; not only unpronounceable names, but also weird names and kennings; really disappointing as his “Eifelheim” (published in Analog) is one of my favorite short stories;I’m out.
  • “Hobson’s Choices” by Mary A. Turzillo – starts off with “hip” tea namecheck (character doesn’t just drink tea, of course not, but some exotic type with an erotic name); weird art references; overly-technical dinosaur references; one page in, no idea what the story is or where she’s going with all these calculated-to-impress references; Volvo namecheck; does not read as SF at all; I give up.
  • “Ten and Ten” by Alan Dean Foster – scientist cultism, but otherwise not a bad story.
  • “Margin of Error” by Paul Carlson – not bad, but does slip in a gratuitous political reference to “national popular vote”.
  • “One to Watch” by Andrew Barton – overwrought sentimentality; another gratuitous mention of an ‘exotic’ tea (“Pu-erh”); gratuitous use of non-western name (Anh) with no further gender or ethnic information to give it any signficance; human apocalypticism theme (we’ve had the bomb for 70+ years now, get over it); tone is moody, negative, despairing; finished it (it’s only two pages) but remained unclear what the point of the story was.
  • “Air Gap” by Eric Cline – pretty clever; felt like it was going to be yet another typical pink-SF humanity-sucks story, so I didn’t see the twist coming at all.
  • “Home on the Free Range” by Holly Schofield – a meandering exploration of a bunch of idiots trying to set up a farm on another world they know nothing about; unrealistic characterizations and scenario; skimmed, nothing made me care, so I gave up.
  • “When the Aliens Stop to Bottle” by Ian Watson – gratuitous mention of the ‘wage gap’, incoherent plot, nonsensical aliens and situation, unrealistic character (in)actions.
  • “Two Point Three Children” by Marissa Lingen – potentially interesting premise, but she goes nowhere with it after introducing it; felt promising but incomplete.
  • “The Dissonant Note” by Jeremiah Tolbert – to say I hated this story is an understatement, I hated it almost as much as the story I mentioned in the previous post about the weepy mother shaming alien killbots with her emotional incontinence; if “The Journeyman” had goofy gratuitously weird names, this one had names that, while they fit the context of the story, were so annoying that I could not get past them to comprehend the story; they were annoying precisely because of that context, which involved yet another threadbare SF trope: the noxiously twee use of musical terminology and musical thematic elements; I tried, but it was unreadable – I can’t even remember what it was about beyond a power struggle between two women who may have been dolphin consciousnesses hosted in robot bodies living in a stereotyped matriarchy where everyone communicated by singing and had musical notes for names and used robotic lobsters as IEDs.
  • “Endless City” by David Gerrold – confusingly, this one was actually the best story in terms of the skilled use of language (Gerrold’s been writing for fifty-odd years, so you’d expect that much at least), yet it too was a meandering mess in terms of plot; it’s a murder mystery whose first few pages serve as a vehicle for gratuitous insertions of, shall we say, the author’s personal interests and preoccupations; the perspective shifts between the real and virtual worlds are poorly executed, leaving one confused as to whether the protagonist we don’t like or care about is in meatspace, the Matrix, or both at the same time; the intuitive leaps are an (I assume unintentional) parody of Holmes and Poirot stories, and the resolution of the mystery is disappointingly trite; reading it left me feeling both shortchanged and strangely dirty. (It will surprise absolutely no one that in his bio at the end, Gerrold dines out yet again on “The Trouble with Tribbles”.)
  • “Blurred Lives” by Adam-Troy Castro – gets off to a bad start right at the beginning with characters named “Draiken” and “Thorne” [cramp-inducing eyeroll]; I tried to read this one fairly, but ended up skimming it, then giving up; what I did read appeared to be an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing, or some other “experimental” structure, I don’t know – it was a sketchy, present-tense narration of the actions of two characters that seemed to have no point.

Didn’t bother with the science fact articles, because they were rarely ever interesting or useful back when I read Analog regularly. And do I even need to say that I avoided the “poetry” entirely?

I’ll admit that I went into this exercise with a negative attitude, and that that definitely influenced my perceptions of the writing. But even with that confessed bias, I was still appalled at just how bad it actually ended up being. As much as the writing quality declined through the 1990s and early 2000s, I would judge that it has continued on the same trajectory in the decade since I last tried to read an Analog. It was so bad that I simply couldn’t make myself read most of the stories all the way through, and a couple I couldn’t even force myself to skim. The issue currently sits on the bookshelf next to a stack of issues from 1969 – the older ones look intriguing, but this one I am tempted to burn rather than archive with the others.

Honestly, how does this garbage get published by a major science fiction magazine? And how does that magazine stay in business when it publishes such low-quality writing and artwork for twenty-plus years and counting?