A Simple Thought on “Hunger Games”

The problem with writing a novel from first-person perspective is that it’s safe to guess that the point-of-view character is not going to die. And when it’s written in present tense, you can be certain of it — there’s no plausible literary device by which they can recount events after the fact, and it’s stretching belief to have them leave behind a journal which abruptly terminates in an agonized “AAARRGGGGHHH!”

This undercuts suspense by lowering the stakes in any trouble they happen to get into. The challenge then becomes, like a Bond movie, to provide enough action to be entertaining despite the knowledge that the character can never truly be in mortal danger. Which, of course, Hunger Games does.

 

Human Wave Science Fiction

I think Sarah Hoyt is on to something:

For too long writing what we do has been considered verboten or at best “stupid.”  By revealing the philosophical underpinnings of our way of writing, we will hopefully convince some reviewers and critics to consider that our way is as valid as what has been accepted as expression in Science Fiction and Fantasy (and other genres as well, because at least some of these apply there too.)  More importantly, by codifying and giving our principles a name, we will free other people to try it out.  And by linking our blogs and cross publicizing, we will perhaps confer upon our congeners a little advantage that, in these transformational times, might be enough to – if not surpass – at least stand up well next to the establishment mode of writing.

The part about “linking and cross-publicizing” is akin to something Carl and I have discussed off and on over the past few years, based on my experience with People’s Press Collective (which does exactly what I think she’s referring to here).

The bigger part, though, is the set of (draft) guidelines she lays out for participation in this literary movement — in a nutshell:

  1. The story is conclusive – “someone wins”;
  2. Villains are crafted, not cast by type (racial, ethnic, gender, species);
  3. Ditto for heroes – “identity group” no more makes the hero than the villain;
  4. Story first, “message” after;
  5. Stories can touch on timeless human themes without serving quotidian present-day politics;
  6. A story concerns events – something happens, or has happened, or will happen;
  7. A writer’s job is to entertain, first – other motivations are secondary;
  8. A writer respects the buyer (i.e.: reader) of his stories by giving him quality and entertainment value that make him want to keep reading;
  9. Science, technology, commerce, and guns are not inherently evil;
  10. Envy is ugly – witnessing another author’s success, respect it as success, respect his readers for buying what they like, and don’t snipe about what they should like.

A few of our readers might quibble (have quibbled) about #4, but I think In the Shadow of Ares and its in-work sequels fit.

This is a good exercise, and I’m glad someone with some clout is pulling it together. A literary stream with an optimistic, human-positive, technology-positive thrust is needed. Indeed, the need for it was apparent back in August 2001 when Carl and I got the idea to write books in that vein, and when I started getting turned off by the negativity, misanthropy, and nihilism I was seeing in Analog and elsewhere.

UPDATE: a valid suggestion here, which might be phrased as: Don’t spread a single story into two or more books. Make each book in a series a worthwhile story in its own right, and stop serializing if you’re just milking the characters/setting.

Good advice, and something we’re trying to do with the Ares sequels.

Denver Area Science Fiction Association February Meeting

Now that I have a little more free time on my hands, I’ve been looking for ways to get more plugged in to the local science fiction fan and author communities. To that end I attended DASFA’s February meeting this evening.

This month’s meeting featured a panel of three local authors, discussing the topic “Salty Language is In Effect: The Outré in Genre Fiction.”  The panel consisted of Jesse Bullington (The Enterprise of Death), Jason Heller (Taft 2012) and Stephen Graham Jones (Zombie Bake-Off  and It Came From Del Rio). The three were not strictly science fiction authors (second-world and various shades of fantasy), and the primary subject material is not something I’ll recount here on a blog with young-adult readers, but there were a few interesting takeaways applicable to science fiction:

  • If you’re waiting for a completely original story that nobody’s ever done before, you’re not going to find it — originality lies more in the presentation, the setting, the characters, etc.;
  • One doesn’t have to include gore, violence, sex, or other “outré” material to tell a good story, and conversely, it’s tricky to include such things in a way that doesn’t seem gratuitous, offensive, or (worse) creepy or sleazy;
  • Having something to say, in the sense of something political, moral, or  philosophical, isn’t a bad thing and perhaps even unavoidable in all but the most anodyne writing. A writer should however be sensitive to the audience and present both sides of such matters in a fair manner (yes, yes, stop giggling — I freely admit we are a little blunt in places in In the Shadow of Ares, but there are stylistic and trilogy-arc reasons for this, as you’ll see in the second book);
  • There are more genre authors and genre events in the Denver area than I had suspected, and this may be true of a lot of small cities.

The last point is perhaps the most valuable – aspiring writers can benefit from involving themselves with these events and the organizations behind them, through the opportunities the latter provide for peer review, mutual feedback, motivation, and marketing. Networking is essential when you’re e-publishing — sitting at home behind your keyboard watching your Kindle sales reports and hoping for the best isn’t going to improve your writing or your royalties.

The Disappointment of “Star Wars”

Over at PJM Kathy Shaidle lays out Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks. Having seen large portions of several of the old and new movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, I can add one more to the list: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a despicable “hero”.  Prior to the release of the prequels, I always had this impression […]

Over at PJM Kathy Shaidle lays out Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks.

Having seen large portions of several of the old and new movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, I can add one more to the list: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a despicable “hero”. 

Prior to the release of the prequels, I always had this impression of the character as being a wise and noble mentor to the young Luke Skywalker, a father figure whose efforts to help the latter learn his true nature and value are cut tragically short. In November I watched Episode 3 and most of Episode 4 back-to-back, and found Kenobi now comes across as dishonest and incompetent hack (or worse):

  • His incompetence and inattentiveness regarding the young Anakin’s training and his failure to recognize the blatant, flashing-neon warning signs of the latter’s willfulness and disobedience led to Anakin’s temptation to disallowed romance and his corruption to the Dark Side. He was too young, inexperienced, and headstrong himself to take on such an important and demanding task, but he did it anyway, even begged for it.
  • He walked away and left the maimed and burned Anakin to die, without properly finishing the job of killing him – finishing Anakin off was his responsibility, since his failures had led to Anakin becoming what he had become and because he was the one who had cut him to pieces. It was his duty to make sure the threat was eliminated, and having gotten to the point he did, and being a supposedly noble Jedi, it was his duty to exercise the virtue of mercy by finishing Anakin off instead of leaving him to suffer in agony for minutes or hours longer. This is where the “or worse” comes in – his incompetence let Anakin survive long enough to be rescued, but his leaving Anakin in agony revealed a cruel indifference to the latter’s suffering if not a vindictive satisfaction with it.
  • When he first meets Luke in Episode 4, he lies to him regarding the fate of Luke’s father. In hindsight, this is as much a self-serving lie to cover up his own involvement in Anakin’s fate as it is the white lie for the not-quite-ready-to-know-the-truth Luke that it always used to seem.
  • If we accept that his duty while in exile (as established at the end of Episode 3) was to conceal and protect Luke, how do we reconcile that task with the fact that Kenobi lived in a remote dwelling far away from the Lars farmstead, too far to keep watch on Luke, and that he had apparently never had contact with Luke for the first eighteen years of his life? Why was the Jedi master not training the boy from childhood to use the Force to protect and conceal himself incase he himself were to be discovered or to die? Again, incompetence…had Luke been better prepared, he would have been more effective in confronting the challenges that faced him.
  • When entering the cantina, Kenobi would have been smarter to have used his “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade Luke’s two harassers to leave him alone rather than to lop off one of their arms and thereby draw unwanted attention to himself and his companions. Incompetence, and another instance of indifference to the suffering of others (specifically, others he has maimed with a light saber).
  • Finally (though there are no doubt more instances to be found), Kenobi lies to Vader when he boasts that he will “become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. It was all braggadocio – he never followed through on that threat.

It was all very disappointing to notice these elements in a character I used to like. But, it just goes with the territory when you’re talking about the Star Wars franchise.

UPDATE: Brian Preston responds, on behalf of science fiction fans. I should add for my part that I don’t agree with Shaidle’s attacks on science fiction as a genre, just with some of her criticism of the Star Wars movies. Some were good, and fun, but not great, and when you look at them with a critical eye towards character development and such, they really suffer.

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Indian Migrations and Space Settlement

I’m doing some reading in Indian history as part of my research for the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares. In John Keay’s India: A History, I came across this interesting passage in his discussion of the ‘epic age’ of the Mahabharata and Ramayana: As for the retreat into exile, the other central theme […]

I’m doing some reading in Indian history as part of my research for the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares. In John Keay’s India: A History, I came across this interesting passage in his discussion of the ‘epic age’ of the Mahabharata and Ramayana:

As for the retreat into exile, the other central theme in both epics, this is taken to indicate the process by which clan society resolved its conflicts and at the same time encroached ever deeper into the subcontinent. Eventually population pressures on land and other resources would encourage greater social specialisation and he assertion of a central authority, two of the prerequisites of a state. But during the first centuries of the first millennium BC, these same pressures seem merely to have encouraged a traditional solution whereby clans segmented and split away to explore new territories. [emphasis added]

In the context of the chapter, he is taking a common thread of the two epics (the exile in the wilderness of their respective protagonists) as a hint as to how the ?r?an colonists gradually spread to the east and south from the Indus Valley.

What struck me as interesting is that much the same thing could happen with space settlement, especially given some TBD mode of practical interstellar travel.

In the near term (say, the next 100 years), if efforts to commercialize space access pan out and we begin building colonies in space, on the Moon, and on Mars, we will have established a new “wilderness” in the sense Keay describes elsewhere in the chapter: an untamed space where danger may lurk away from the safety of established civilization, but where the freedom exists to build afresh. The process of settlement and ongoing development will due to resource and labor shortages limit the degree to which a central authority can be asserted, providing a breathing space for innovation between the continuously expanding frontier and the expanding boundary of civilization trailing behind it. Political or social conflicts unresolvable in the civilized regions can be defused through one or another party choosing to escape to the freedom of this breathing space or the wilderness beyond, thereby pushing the frontier further outward — versus being kept bottled up in a finite arena where the intractability of the disagreements and the inescapable proximity of the conflicting parties can foster discontent, unrest, and violence lasting generations.

In practice, this might mean expanding to lunar colonies as near-Earth orbital habitats become too regulated or restricted by Earth governments or international treaties. On the Moon, disaffected individuals or groups frustrated with their circumstances in an existing settlement might decide to start their own settlements on or beyond the fringes of areas already settled or explored. As the lunar frontier ‘closes’ due to Keay’s “social specialization and assertion of central authority”, similarly frustrated settlers might decide to try their fortunes on the martian frontier, then among the asteroids, and so on through increasingly less-desirable properties.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened already, in our own history. The story of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims, the Mormon migrations to Utah, and the “Go west, young man” ethos of the Old West were clearly manifestations of this same concept.

In the longer term, given some means of practical interstellar travel, this process of expansion-by-exile into the wilderness could happen on a vastly larger scale. If this turns out to be true, the ‘wilderness’ becomes effectively infinite.

Of course, this depends on a conservative view that we will continue to be recognizably human over such long time scales, as the development of new frontiers will likely result in an acceleration of technological innovation – including ‘transhuman’ technology like cognitive enhancements, targeted genetic improvements, or even ‘uploading’ into non-biological (or who knows, even non-physical) forms. What makes the expansion-by-exile concept useful for science fiction is that it can avoid the trap of having to tell a story from the difficult-to-conceive perspective of these transhumans by giving an author the choice among worlds on a spectrum of development — after all, given the Amish as a present-day example, it’s not difficult to imagine that some of those irreconcilable differences that might drive settlers into exile in the wilderness would concern the adoption of certain transhuman technologies, resulting in worlds (whether at the center or the periphery of civilization) whose inhabitants are still relatably human.

 

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Paypal’s Peter Thiel on the Collapse of Science Fiction

I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.

One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Ares was the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:

  • By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
  • By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own.  “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
  • By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.

This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.

I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?

This Year, Give Them Mars for Christmas

Know someone who owns (or will be getting) an e-reader? Send them a copy of In the Shadow of Ares as a gift! Over at AresProject.com, I explain how to do it via both Amazon and Barnes & Noble — it’s as easy as can be.

Know someone who owns (or will be getting) an e-reader? Send them a copy of In the Shadow of Ares as a gift!

Over at AresProject.com, I explain how to do it via both Amazon and Barnes & Noble — it’s as easy as can be.

Mars for Christmas

Over the regolith and through the catenas to Grandmother's house we go…

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Feeding Martians

An interesting project at the South Pole, involving agriculture in a controlled (and in this case, sunless and soil-less) environment: To the moon…South Pole greenhouse model for growing freshies on other worlds Crops of lettuce, kale, cucumber, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, cantaloupes and edible flowers comprise many of the plants grown in the climate-controlled chamber. Because […]

An interesting project at the South Pole, involving agriculture in a controlled (and in this case, sunless and soil-less) environment: To the moon…South Pole greenhouse model for growing freshies on other worlds

Crops of lettuce, kale, cucumber, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, cantaloupes and edible flowers comprise many of the plants grown in the climate-controlled chamber. Because the importation of soil is restricted by the Antarctic Treaty External U.S. government site, dirt is not used to grow the plants. In fact, the closest local dirt is nearly two miles beneath the ice on which the station sits. The plants are grown in a hydroponic nutrient solution instead — no dirt needed.

For that matter, no sunlight is needed either. The growth chamber, which was built in the winter of 2004, makes its own light via 13 water-cooled, high-pressure sodium lamps. In this bright environment, it is not uncommon to find people, like the plants, dwelling happily under the intense light produced in the chamber during the dark polar winter.

Carl and I put a lot of thought into extraterrestrial agriculture while writing In the Shadow of Ares, not least because the primary setting for the book is a very large agricultural settlement. Interestingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), we came to some of the same conclusions as these researchers. Of particular note, the morale benefit to settlers in an inescapably indoor environment of having an open green space (or Greenspace, if you’ve read the book).

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On the Radio

I’ll be on 850KNUS here in Denver on Sunday, talking about In the Shadow of Ares with my PPC co-blogger Ross “Rossputin” Kaminsky. The show is on from 5 PM to 8 PM on 710 AM KNUS in Denver and 1460 AM KZNT in Colorado Springs. I will be on between 7:00 and 7:30PM. For […]

I’ll be on 850KNUS here in Denver on Sunday, talking about In the Shadow of Ares with my PPC co-blogger Ross “Rossputin” Kaminsky.

The show is on from 5 PM to 8 PM on 710 AM KNUS in Denver and 1460 AM KZNT in Colorado Springs. I will be on between 7:00 and 7:30PM. For those outside the Denver area, you can listen to the show online by clicking HERE.

Science fiction fans might want to tune in a little earlier, as one of Ross’ other guests this weekend is SF author and Tea Party figure Andrew Ian Dodge.

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“In the Shadow of Ares” – Now Available!

“In the Shadow of Ares” (formerly known around here as “Labyrinth of Night”) is now available for download at Amazon.com: In 2029, the third exploration mission to Mars vanishes without a trace. Two decades later, the success of human settlement of Mars and the life of a young girl hinge on the secret of what […]

“In the Shadow of Ares” (formerly known around here as “Labyrinth of Night”) is now available for download at Amazon.com:

In 2029, the third exploration mission to Mars vanishes without a trace. Two decades later, the success of human settlement of Mars and the life of a young girl hinge on the secret of what happened to the Ares III mission.


Twenty years later, Mars is a growing outpost of humanity, and 14-year-old settler Amber Jacobsen is a minor interplanetary celebrity – ‘the First Kid on Mars’.  Pioneering Mars is hard, unglamorous work, though, and Amber secretly wishes she were just an ordinary girl living on Earth.

When her family’s homestead is destroyed in an apparent accident, the Jacobsens relocate to an independent settlement located on the northern fringes of Noctis Labyrinthus, a vast and largely unexplored canyonland.  Their new home promises new opportunities, and Amber looks forward to being just another member of the community. Instead, the other settlers dismiss her as a burdensome child and refuse to accept her as the responsible young adult she has become.

In order to prove the value of her unique knowledge and perspective, Amber vows to uncover the fate of the Ares III mission, whose loss had largely been forgotten in the rush of the Martian settlement boom.  But this seemingly harmless challenge thrusts her into a deadly conflict: those who know the truth will kill to keep it hidden, while those who destroyed her family’s homestead would use the secret to secure their dominance over all of Mars.

In solving the mystery, Amber could destroy everything the Martian settlers have worked to create.

It’s priced at an affordable $6.99, and would make a wonderful Christmas present for the science fiction reader or young adult on your shopping list. Especially if you’re buying them a Kindle or they already own one (remember, you can also download the free Kindle app for various electronic platforms if you/they don’t have a Kindle reader).

While I’m going to be occupied for much of the weekend with writing a business plan and attending Christmas parties, I do expect to get the blog at AresProject.com up and running again in the next few days. We will use that forum to discuss the book, the backstory, etc.

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