Category Archives: Science Fiction

Humanitarians with Guillotines

An interesting overview of the growing threats to free speech from SJWs.

I, too, am convinced that these activists, with their MO of hysterical crusades, are one of today’s biggest threats to free speech, open inquiry, and genuine tolerance, at least on college campuses. The illiberal climate fostered by these ideologues seems to be spreading throughout academia and is continuing to dominate the headlines…

These groups and their tactics represent what Jonathan Rauch would describe as the “humanitarian” challenge to free speech. In his must-read book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Rauch identified how these “humanitarians” sought to prevent “offense” to “oppressed and historically marginalized” peoples. In the name of “compassion,” words became conflated with physical action.

As speech codes spread and the definition of “harassment” (reading a book in public, for instance) became broader within the bureaucracy of academia, an “offendedness sweepstakes” was cultivated and turned into the norm.

Sound familiar?

Movie Science: Does it Matter if It’s Wrong?

Thursday I attended my second presentation in as many months at the Lunar and Planetary Institute near the Johnson Space Center south of Houston.  It was part of their Cosmic Explorations lecture series, titled “Movie Science:  Who Cares if It’s Wrong?”, and consisted of a talk by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director at the SETI Institute.  He is also host of the Big Picture Science radio show and podcast.

Dr. Shostak gave an entertaining presentation on scientific accuracy in film, from the perspective of a scientist asked to provide guidance on Sci-Fi scripts.  Provided and often ignored.  We were given humorous insight on the creative process, where Hollywood gets it right sometimes but often not.  It was ultimately left up to the audience to decide if it ultimately matters.  Of course with In the Shadow of Ares, and the sequel, we’ve taken the position that it does.

It is anticipated that the series will pick up again starting in the fall.  Those living in the Greater Houston area and interested in attending should check the LPI website in August/September.

Through the Looking Glass

The comments here (and on the preceding two threads on the subject) make for some interesting reading: Making Light: The 2015 Hugo finalists. It’s like peering into a madhouse where self-reflection and self-awareness don’t exist. I wonder if these folks recognize that they are using the same arguments to defend their own positions that their ideological opposites use to explain and defend theirs (look for the comment recycling the conservative/libertarian critique of affirmative action, for one obvious example). It could be parody. I don’t think it is.

My take on the matter is increasingly that the Sad Puppies campaign is the wrong approach to the perceived problem – having made a point with the first Sad Puppies effort, the right approach would have been (and still is, now) to establish a new award and let the market sort out over time which one better reflects quality. If leftists have indeed corrupted the Hugos to the point that an award or a nomination informs potential readers that the work is preachy crap selected for political conformity rather than its value as SF/F, better to start fresh and build up a new alternative with no such baggage than to battle said leftists to salvage it.

You can’t un-rot a spoiled apple. Sometimes things that once had value no longer do, however much we sentimentally wish otherwise.

ETA: Larry Correia, alleged to have launched the whole thing in order to win a Hugo for himself…um…declined his nomination.

Breitbart London has a backgrounder on the Hugo Awards foofooraw.

ETA2: I should have included a listing of the awards at the beginning: 2014 Hugo Nominations. Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees. I look forward to reading what I’ve missed this past year in the review packets.

ETA3: Sarah Hoyt discusses the Hugos and touches on the brouhaha: An Update

Commenter Francis W. Porretto makes a similar point to what I wrote above (more succinctly than I did):

This is the most important line in the piece. No award can have stature in and of itself. It borrows stature from those to whom it’s awarded — and if their merit is little, so will be that of the award. All else is self-deception.

I read “those to whom it’s awarded” as the works rather than the authors in the case of Hugo Awards. It can apply to both, but I don’t see the stature of the authors themselves as being a specific issue in the Sad Puppies campaign – it’s that award-winning material has been of declining quality for two decades or longer, the prestige of the award declining along with the merit of that to which it has been given.

I say two decades, but I suspect in my case it’s been longer than that. I don’t even remember when I started regarding any award mentions on book covers as warning signs rather than badges of quality, but I’d guess as early as the late 1980s. If a book has received one or more big-name awards or nominations for same, I regard it with the same suspicion with which I learned (the hard way) to regard books recommended by Oprah, and for much the same reasons.

Contrast this with the Prometheus Awards, which are up-front about their philosophical bent and so offer a more reliable, honest indicator of the content’s quality with regard to that bent.

How the Hugo Awards Became a Battleground

Milo Yiannopoulos offers an interesting if brief sampler of the SFWA conflicts over the past few years along with background on the “Sad Puppies” Hugo slate: How the Hugo Awards Became a Battleground.

But while the examples of manufactured grievance may be absurd, few members of the SFF community are laughing. New York Times bestselling author Larry Correia told us that SFF is currently in the grip of a “systematic campaign to slander anybody who doesn’t toe their line,” which is breeding a culture of fear and self-censorship. “Most authors aren’t making that much money, so they are terrified of being slandered and losing business,” he says. The only exceptions are a “handful of people like me who are either big enough not to give a crap, or too obstinate to shut up.”

Considering Yiannopoulous’ recent coverage of #gamergate controversies and personalities, I wonder if he plans to turn this topic into a similar series of articles covering the various incidents and people involved with the SJWification of SFF. I suspect so, seeing as how Larry Correia was soliciting reader help Wednesday in collecting ugly comments made by the SJWs of SFF, apparently on Yiannopoulous’ behalf (the responses to this solicitation make for some eye-opening reading).

Everything Old is Even Older Again

Contra Naomi Klein… dystopian fiction was popular in the 1970s, too:

…Naomi Klein apparently has no idea whatsoever that the 1970s was probably the Golden Age of Dystopian fiction, Eco-collapse edition.  Including, I might add, a lot of overconfident predictions about global warming that never actually happened.  In fact, pretty much none of the things that were worried about then – overpopulation, choking pollution, the loss of every species less hardy than the cockroach, nuclear war, mass famine, running out of oil, running out of water, running out of air, and of course the obligatory dictatorships made up of the authors’ least favorite American social groups – didn’t actually happen, either.

Funny, I noticed this zeitgeist while re-reading some 1970s Larry Niven recently. Overpopulation in particular seems to have been a major theme of 1970s science fiction, much as mainstream SF today obsesses over “global warming”. The only thing new in what Klein notes as a new thing is that the popular dystopias of today involve young adults.

I disagree with Lane, though, in his assessment of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not that Atwood’s predictions were spectacularly wrong, it’s that she cast as the implementers of her dystopian future the religion she personally dislikes rather than the religion which actually implements the horrors she predicts in contemporary reality.

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar - GargantuaI’m posting this review of Interstellar, belatedly, because I felt I had to see it again before commenting on its greatness as well as its few shortcomings. There was just too much to absorb and appreciate in one viewing. I’ll be careful with my wording to avoid spoilers.

Knowing the basic premise— explorers are searching for a habitable home for humanity to save them from a dying Earth, helped by unknown, advanced “bulk beings” who have opened a wormhole near Saturn for our use—I had initial trepidation that I was in for a Climate Change lecture. That notion was dispelled on the first viewing. Sure there’s a dust-bowl type blight that is wiping out crops and threatening what’s left of mankind; but this is just the impetus—the McGuffin if you will—to provide the urgency that drives the action. Some elements leading up to the climax were a bit too contrived for my taste, but overall it’s a great story with a strong cast, tension, and visuals that won’t let anyone down.  The script is excellent, with the exception of one criticism I’ll go into below.

Unlike so many recent Sci-Fi films, this one consistently makes a case for space exploration and advancement. A particularly powerful and effective scene involves a parent-teacher conference where Cooper has to process the absurdity his daughter’s suspension. Murphy’s transgression? She got into a fight after bringing a non-sanitized textbook to school; one that hadn’t been “corrected” to show that the Apollo landings were an elaborate hoax.

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?

Teacher: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…

Cooper: Useless machines?

Teacher: And if we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.

Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would’ve been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me, which would’ve been a good thing because she was always the…calmer one.

Wow, not the kind of thoughtful dialog you expect in a film like this, but most welcome and expertly delivered.  It’s something we were keen to include in In The Shadow of Ares, and what is so often missing from the anti-human, Luddite drivel we’ve come to expect.  The humor is also excellent, particularly the interaction between the humans and robotic character TARS.

Where I was a little let down by the dialog was during the climax where Cooper solves the mystery of the bulk beings.  Cooper works out the details in a conversation TARS that is perfectly set up to avoid exposition, yet ends up feeling like just that.  Complicated conclusions end up being stated more than worked out. This important scene, and the accompanying dialog, could have been extended slightly and improved greatly.  I have my fingers crossed that this is addressed in the Director’s Cut.

While Interstellar is brilliant on so many levels, it’s the human element that really surprised me.  Ultimately it’s a story about our relationships and obligations to those we love, particularly our children.  Two scenes in particular, between Cooper and Murphy, are perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen.

“Destiny’s Road”

So much potential, and it’s actually pretty decent, but having done some writing of my own since I last read it (July 1997), it suffers in the re-reading.

Don’t get me wrong, the prose is nice, the worldbuilding is interesting (there’s less of the everywhere-is-California feel to this than many of Niven’s other books…I suspect parts of it are even based on Icelandic terrain), and in bits and pieces and then a big data-dump, he gives a bunch of tantalizing detail linking together and fleshing out the Rammer/Heorot/Smoke Ring universe.

It’s just that it had no soul.

I don’t know how else to put it. Jemmy the protagonist goes from place to place, gets up to crazy adventures, but nothing seems to affect him very deeply. For example (spoiler): his wife of twenty seven years dies as a result of a freak accident, and he just shrugs and moves on…as he has with everything else in his life. The character comes across at times as emotionally shallow verging on sociopathic, which is kinda hard to relate to in a protagonist.

And beyond that, from the moment Jemmy makes his escape from the caravan about 40% of the way into the book, the plot goes off the rails. The entire sequence in the Windfarm is baffling, and all through it I was asking myself What is this? Where did this come from? Who gives a crap about this stuff and these people? Am I still reading the same novel? Then they all escape, and Jemmy escapes from the escapees, and then…it’s twenty-seven years later. What? What was the point of that baffling and Brian-in-the-alien-spaceship-like digression? It suffered from the same problem as Prometheus: there was good material, but it seemed like portions of the story necessary for it to make sense had been cut out. Editing may be to blame here – there were a number of glaring editing mistakes (e.g.: stating that Destiny has no polar caps, then a page and a half later referring to Destiny’s polar caps), so perhaps something essential actually did get cut out.

Not Niven’s best work, unfortunately. But I would happily read more stories set in this universe – we’ve already had two novels and a short story concerning the Avalon colony, and the third colony whose information Jemmy is unable to access presumably becomes the Smoke Ring colony, which has figured in two novels. The “hydraulic empire” that has emerged in Earth’s system by the time of Destiny’s Road is seen in “Rammer” (the short story that became A World Out of Time), but is not a positive future. It seems to me that a second Destiny novel would be in order, perhaps one explaining what happened to the Argo and what becomes of the settlements on the Crab after Jemmy does what he does at the end of the first novel. Or possibly a prequel, covering the events of the arrival of the original settlers, the mutiny, the collapse of Base One, etc. Or maybe something far into the future, when Destiny has fully matured, Earth technology has been fully recovered, the Otterfolk are somehow made ‘portable’…or another ship from Earth arrives, bearing a detachment of Checkers…

Stuck On Mars With Nothing But Disco

A good column on Andy Weir and The MartianStuck on Mars with nothing but disco: Ars talks with The Martian’s Andy Weir.

What I found surprising was that he actually never worked for NASA – I apparently misread other accounts of his background. I was also astonished by just how much detailed work he put in to calculating orbits and ECLSS functions and such. Sure, it’s clear in the writing that he worked out the math, but when he explains just what went into it behind the scenes his efforts sound like a real design project, the nature of work we did during the proposal phase(s) and initial post-ATP period on Orion.

Reading this reminded me that I need to re-read the book and write up the amusing coincidental points of similarity with In the Shadow of Ares. The most obvious one: disaster striking the third mission of the Ares Project. I’m guessing Weir also concluded that the “first landing” sub-genre is a bit overdone and decided like we did to join the fictional program in medias res.

Exploding the Myths of Explosive Decompression

Contrary to science fiction tropes, it takes more than a drop from one atmosphere to vacuum to do it. But it’s happened: Byford Dolphin Diving Bell Accident

Came across this while looking for information on the effects of the more likely 1-to-0 atmospheres depressurization for a scene in Ghosts of Tharsis. (Not really a spoiler, since you won’t see it coming.) It’s both horrifying and fascinating at the same time, and coincidentally led me to an account of the Piper Alpha disaster, which also has some bearing on events in the book.