Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction

Glenn Reynolds’ article from Popular Mechanics is now available online. He opens:

The future isn’t what it used to be.And neither is science fiction. While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias. That could be contributing to something that I see as a problem. It seems that too many technically savvy people, engineers in particular, are going to work for Web startups or investment firms. There’s nothing wrong with such companies, but we also need engineers to design bold new things for use in the physical world: space colonies instead of social media.

Which is an excellent summary of why we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, and to write it in the style that we did. I’m not persuaded that a proliferation of optimistic, “Human Wave” science fiction is enough to get us back on the right track as a civilization, but it’s certainly helpful to that end – one piece of the puzzle.

We know from past (and personal) experience that science fiction can embolden people (particularly young people) to seek out big challenges, and it can do so again in the future if the right kinds of science fiction are generated, read, and rewarded. But work is also needed on the assorted factors which needlessly prevent those big challenges from becoming big achievements: paralytic risk aversion, unproductive over-regulation, comfortable complacency, and open Luddism, among others. All of which, I hope and believe, will soon be facing their long-overdue reevaluation due to economic necessity.

As for Glenn’s suggested reading list — I’m embarrassed to say that I have only read one of the books he selected: John Steakley’s Armor. But oh, what a book it is. It’s one of my all-time favorite SF novels, and made a huge impression on me when I first read it at sixteen. It’s a very dark novel, so I’m exceedingly surprised to see it on a list of “optimistic science fiction books”. However, the tagline he quotes is indeed the moral thread of the story, and the redemption of several of the main characters at the end by living up to that quote does make it end on a positive note.

In the Shadow of Ares Recognized as a Prometheus Finalist

Prometheus
The Libertarian Futurist Society has announced six semi-finalists for the 2012 Prometheus Award for Best Novel, and the list includes In the Shadow of Ares.

The Prometheus Award has been presented since 1979, making it one of the most enduring awards after the Nebula and Hugo awards, and one of the oldest fan-based awards currently in sf and fantasy.  The Prometheus Award for Best Novel focuses on novels whose plot, themes, characters and/or specific issues reflect the value of personal freedom and human rights, or which seriously or satirically critique abuses of power–especially unchecked government power.

The winner will be announced at an awards center at the WorldCon in Chicago August 30-September 3.

Congratulations to the other nominees and runners-up. It may be cliche, but it really is an honor to be nominated, especially among established authors such as Vernor Vinge and Terry Pratchett.

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.

Design Fiction

Over at Slate, author Bruce Sterling shares some thoughts on “design fiction“, the use of (science) fiction to imagine and explore new technology:

Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with?
Sterling: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”

Yes, yes, it’s all very interesting, but this sort of thing has been one of the roles of science fiction at least since Heinlein’s first story, Lifeline. What’s really interesting here is this video…note the cameo appearance of MAs, scroll screens, and wall screens, almost exactly as we envisioned them in In the Shadow of Ares.

Now that’s impressive.

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.

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?

Still a Jerk

Over the last couple of weeks a video of a marriage proposal at the Chicago Comic Con got a lot of hits.  That’s because the couple was blessed by none other than Patrick Stewart, the actor who made quite a career out of playing USS Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  A cute (if nerdy) moment, and good for them:

However, for me the video brought to mind something less pleasant.  Back in 2004 the same actor took the time to poo-poo human space exploration in a BBC Interview:

I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilisations out on to other planets.

Stewart repeats one of the oldest and most flawed arguments against human spaceflight.  Exploration, and especially exploration that challenges us as a trip to the Moon did (or as a trip to Mars would), provides tremendous benefits here at home.  At the same time, it is ridiculous to expect a time when there won’t be problems on Earth.  Who will be the judge as to when we are good enough that we can go out and play?

Seven years later I’m still irritated when I see him.  Maybe I need to get over it, but in this case it’s not just what was said, but who said it.

Traveling Light

3-D printing may be more advanced than I had thought:

I am a little bit skeptical.  For example, how does the optical scanner determine the dimensions and configuration of individual internal parts, for which there is no line of sight?  That is not explained in the video, though perhaps it’s a simplification for the casual viewer.

Nonetheless, what a great technology for off-world travel. No need for spare parts.  Of course, you need a feed stock for the process that will meet the specifications for the end product, and it helps if that feedstock can be manufactured at your destination.  We already know that we can make breathing air and rocket propellant from elements readily available on Mars, so why not other compounds?

A Look Back at Themes

I was dusting off some files from the early development of In the Shadow of Ares, and in a way it was like flipping through baby pictures.  Included was a summary of themes we were aiming to include in the book, classified as “General” and “Exploration”, and I think we achieved our goals:

General:

  • Positive future
  • Technology is good
  • Capitalism is good
  • Realism
  • Reason wins
  • We need a frontier

Exploration:

  • Exploration is not without risk
  • Simpler is better
  • Live off the land
  • Exploration and settlement go together
  • Settlement and the role of property rights

We’ve been asked if the sequels will share the “pioneer” theme of the first book, which I suppose is included in the above.  The sequel picks up two years later, and will include more cosmopolitan settings than the first book, but it’ll still be a new, untamed world.  Several of the other familiar themes will be present (though perhaps de-emphasized because they are less critical to the story), plus a few yet-to-be-revealed.

Mars Needs…More Movies

I took the family to see Mars Needs Moms Friday, and for the most part the trepidation I expressed in an earlier post was unwarranted.

Despite some flat/cheesy dialogue I felt the screenplay did a nice job of extending a 700-word book to feature film length.  The movie was reasonably consistent with the book, while the new characters and subplots added depth to the original narrative.  Even the obligatory kid elements (gadgets, colors, slides, etc.) were generally plot-relevant and less annoying than other adaptations I have had to sit through.

Visually, Mars Needs Moms was impressive, though the human characters still suffer from the “dead-eye” that afflicts so much computer animation.  Among the humans, the character Gribble was well animated, but Milo and his Mom left something to be desired.  The Martians were interesting enough, though I have to say I found their lower bodies a bit disturbing to look at.

As for technical accuracy, the movie fared quite well.  Keeping in mind that it was based on a short, illustrated story, I was OK with the filmmakers keeping the imagery in the climactic scene where the characters are wearing helmets and ordinary clothing on the Martian surface.  I felt there was an effort to compensate for that by making the rest of the film more scientifically accurate, including using a wormhole to shorten the months-long Earth-Mars transit, and showing the lower Martian gravity (though as portrayed it looked closer to lunar gravity to me).

The most important critics, my 5, 8 and 10-year-old daughters, loved Mars Needs Moms, as did my wife.  I’d recommend it to anyone with children.  As for me, I enjoyed it though I’m still looking forward to a Mars movie that is simultaneously entertaining and realistic.