Category Archives: Culture: sf & pulp lit

Dis-invitations and the lively exchange of ideas

One of the other subcultures I belong to, science fiction fandom, is currently being racked by a major controversy: prominent author Elizabeth Moon has just been dis-invited as the guest of honor at Wiscon, the preeminent feminist science fiction convention, because of this post she made on her blog. Many people within the science fiction community, mostly political leftists, decided on the basis of one post that Moon is anti-Islamic. So, to make a long story short, she is no longer the guest of honor at the preeminent feminist science fiction convention.

I remember talking to my friend Joan some years ago. Like me, Joan is a science fiction fan, a Unitarian Universalist, and a leftist. Joan and I were talking about our early science fiction reading. She said that she discovered one of Robert Heinlein’s novels during her adolescence, and after reading that one, she went on and read all the others she could find in the library. She completely disagreed with most of Heinlein’s political and moral philosophy, but she read his novels anyway. Why? Because he took ideas seriously, and because she enjoyed arguing with him while she read his books, and perhaps because almost no one else in her life wanted to discuss such topics.

This is precisely why I am a science fiction fan. This is why I have lunch every couple of months with Mike, my science fiction buddy since high school: we get together to talk about the books we have read, and the ideas in them. This is why I go to the occasional science fiction convention even though I dislike crowds and dislike being indoors for entire days: science fiction conventions are full of people who are very smart, and who affirm widely varying political and moral philosophies, and who love to talk about books and ideas. I love talking with smart articulate people who hold very different opinions and ideas than I do. (This, of course, is also why I am a Unitarian Universalist: although we are too homogeneous politically, I do love being able to argue with smart articulate people who are Deists, atheists, humanists, liberal Christians, Neopagans, mystics, etc., etc.) Wiscon was wrong to dis-invite Elizabeth Moon. Their action violates what to me is a basic precept of science fiction fandom, the lively exchange of ideas and arguments with people who hold very different ideas from oneself. It makes me sad.

It’s as if some Unitarian Universalist humanists didn’t allow people to say “God” in a worship service because that word bothered them; or as if some liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist refused to become part of a congregation that was “too humanist.” Oh wait, that does happen within Unitarian Universalism. Which also makes me very sad.

Thanks to Will, who posted about this same topic earlier today.

Summer reading: Escape from Hell

Back in 1976, I read Inferno, a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which tells the story of an atheistic science fiction author named Allen Carpenter who, much to his surprise, finds himself in a place that very much resembles Dante’s vision of hell in the first book of The Divine Comedy. Carpentier tries to find a rational explanation for what he experiences in his tour through hell, and spends much of the book convinced that he’s in a sort of bizarre amusement park (call it “Infernoland”) created by sadistic aliens with a very high technology. But by the end of the book, Carpenter is finally convinced that he is indeed in hell.

I read Inferno when I was a senior in high school, and I loved the book; I didn’t pay any attention to the theology, I was captured by thinking about what a twentieth century person would do upon finding himself in Dante’s version of hell. Allen Carpenter builds a glider to try to fly over some of the circles of hell, and this is not unlike the heroes of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island using their nineteenth century technology to address the problem of being stranded on a desert island. In my freshman year of college, I went out and bought a bilingual edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (trans. by John D. Sinclair), and started to read the Inferno; I got about three quarters of the way through, but got tired of Dante getting revenge on people he didn’t like by placing them into his vision of hell.

Last year, Niven and Pournelle came out with a sequel to their Inferno, another science fiction novel titled Escape from Hell. At the end of the earlier book, Allen Carpenter learned that you can get out of hell, so he goes back to try to help lots more people escape from eternal damnation. Niven and Pournelle come up with enough new ideas to make this second book worth reading — their depiction of Hell’s bureaucracy is funny and entertaining — but there are major problems with the book. One big problem is that Sylvia Plath is a major character in this book, but Niven and Pournelle’s characterization doesn’t convince me: their character named Sylvia Plath is just another interchangeable female character, and you simply don’t believe that character is capable of writing great poetry. A second big problem is that rather than actually resolving their plot, they end the book with the ridiculous plot device of having a hydrogen bomb explode in hell.

But the biggest problem I had with Escape from Hell is the theology behind the book. Allen Carpenter discovers that anyone can escape from hell, as long as they’re willing to go through a process of confronting the bad things they did in life — there’s a sort of pseudo-psychotherapeutic element in this process. Even though Niven and Pournelle don’t use the psychobabble jargon of “denial” and “acceptance” and so on, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect from mediocre self-help books.

Niven and Pournelle’s understanding of God is about as interesting as their theological psychology. Their God is probably pleasant rather than definitely good, distant and unimaginable rather than immanent and present, and vague rather than awe-inspiring. Their God-concept feels like it’s straight out of the mid-twentieth century when people presented God as either nice or dead, but when God was rarely presented as something compelling enough to believe in. From a literary point of view, if a writer is going to talk about hell as a reality, I’d take the stern yet interesting God of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — or, for that matter, the God of Dante who invents such creative tortures for damned souls — over the the namby-pamby, wishy-washy, exceedingly boring God imagined by Niven and Pournelle. They make hell seem much more interesting and even attractive than God.

Then there’s the purpose of hell, as the authors understand it. When I think of Dante’s conception of hell, I think of a place of eternal torment; if you’re talking about punishment for sins over a limited time, then you’re talking about the subject of Dante’s second book, Purgatorio, purgatory. Niven and Pournelle borrow Dante’s hell, and turn it into purgatory. So then what’s the purpose of purgatory? I admit my bias: I’m a Universalist, and I know hell is a mistaken concept to begin with; nevertheless, within the limits of their theological logic, their conception of hell simply doesn’t make sense.

So I find Niven and Pournelle’s theology problematic. But that was actually part of the fun of the book: I not only enjoyed the adventure, I argued with their problematic theology the whole way through, and enjoyed every minute of the argument. Unlike the liberal Christian apologists who dodge the whole issue, Niven and Pournelle confront hell head on. In the end Allen Carpenter admits that he can’t really make complete sense out of hell; it’s beyond human understanding; but this didn’t feel like a cop-out to me so much as a literary excuse for a pretty good adventure story.

Saturn: sense of wonder

This evening, Carol and I attended a Baycon presentation on the Cassini mission to Saturn given by Bridget Landry, deputy systems uplink engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Not only was Landry an excellent presenter, she also gave away Saturn moon trading cards and Saturn stickers (I took the cards, Carol took the stickers). Landry recommended the Cassini Equinox Mission Web site — as she said, your tax dollars paid for these fabulous photographs, you might as well use them in your Christmas cards next year.


The young adult group here at our church happened to be meeting next door to my office this evening. I stopped in to say hi. They were playing the game Monsters Menace America. I was so fascinated watching them play that I stayed for nearly an hour.

Watching a monster war game for an hour. Yeesh. I am such a geek. I glory in my geekness.

At Arisia: whither short fiction and magazines?

I had to leave Arisia around three this afternoon, because tomorrow is a work day. I attended one particularly thought-provoking panel discussion, “the Changing Face of SF/F Magazines,” on the future of future of paper-based magazines. The panelists included two publishers, one of whom publishes online and the other of whom publishes on paper, and two authors. All the panelists agreed that it’s becoming more difficult, financially speaking, to publish a magazine devoted to short fiction — costs of paper, printing, and distribution keep going up. The consensus among the panelists was that eventually we’re going to see paper-based magazines die out in favor of some sort of Internet-based printing and distribution system.

But the panelists reached no consensus as to what is going to replace paper-based magazines. You can find Web-based science fiction magazines, but they typically don’t have enough money to pay authors well (or at all). There are authors, like the writers’ cabal behind Shadow Unit, who self-publish some of their work online and solicit donations. The panelists agreed that authors now have to worry about “branding” themselves; readers don’t just buy a work of fiction, they tend to buy an author’s “brand.” But no one was willing to predict the future of fiction periodicals; and all the panelists agreed that it was going to become harder to earn a living by writing short fiction.

The discussion broadened beyond paper-based magazines, and turned to books:– paper-based books are facing the same economic realities as paper-based magazines. There was more consensus about the direction books are going in:– books are now being published in multiple formats (e-books, other downloadable files, print-on-demand, and traditional books), and that trend will continue. But the situation is still very much in flux, and no one knows quite how it’s going to turn out.

I wonder if the monks who were scribes had these kinds of conversations among themselves when Gutenberg started printing books on his printing press.

At Arisia

Liveblogging from a science fiction convention

Richard Stallman was a member of a panel discussion called “Copyright: Theory and Practice Today and Tomorrow.” I have never seen him in person before. He is extremely articulate and plays with his long hair when he is not speaking. He said: “Never use a product with DRM [Digital Rights Management] unlessyou know how to break the DRM.”

At the same panel discussion, a librarian stood up to speak about orphaned works, that is, works which are covered under copyright law but where the copyright owner can no longer be found. “Librarians want to make orphaned works available,” she said. Librarians, she claimed, want to reach as wide an audience as possible, but under current copyright law it is illegal for them to digitize orphaned works; this limits how libraries can make information available to the people they are trying to serve. She wore a costume that you might see in an 18th C. historical re-enactment: white blouse, bodice, full skirt.

This is one of those conventions where people wear costumes. Earlier, I saw a woman wearing leopard-skin-pattern cloth over most of her body, a wide black belt, and an orange cape passing by a man in black leather pants and a black leather coat and a fuzzy red lobster hat. Just now, a woman walked by wearing a very short latex miniskirt. Now a man just walked by wearing a large grey tri-cornered hat, and a colorful quilt as a cape.

The film series here at Arisia has been excellent so far. Highlights this evening: Our Man Flint, a 1966 parody of the old James Bond films, which is subtler and much funnier than the Austin Powers franchise. We saw it in a 35 mm print that was in poor condition; but even in poor condition, I still prefer film to digital video. Also fascinating was a six-minute film in 16 mm called “Heave Away.” It looked like an amateur film, with bizarre footage of the decommissioning of a NASA spacecraft; the soundtrack was a recording of a sea shanty performed by obscure folk singer Helva Peters. This film represents what people did before YouTube videos. And later this evening, they’ll be showing a new print of Metropolis, with live organ music.

Carol just arrived. “This is fantastic,” she said. This means: Boy, there is unbelievably good people-watching here.

The ineffectiveness of racism as a political strategy

So at Folk Choir rehearsal tonight, I heard about an incident that happened here in southeastern Massachusetts, which happened roughly like this:– white woman with two black children in tow walks into a store, a couple of young white men ask her if she’s going to vote for Obama, she says yes, they say they hope Obama doesn’t get into the White House because then it would be the “black house,” the N-word was thrown around, and that was the end of that. Well, that was the end of that except for going home and taking a long hot shower to wash the slime off, and then calling some friends to tell them about it, one of whom was a member of our choir.

Oh yes indeedy, there are people like that here in liberal, blue-state Massachusetts. But you know what? The effectiveness of racism as a political strategy is finally waning. Obama is going to win this state and all twelve of its electoral college votes no matter what those two young white men said. And I think most of us would agree that throwing the N-word at a couple of little kids in order to support your own political candidate is only going to make your candidate look bad. So we have made progress, since back when I was a kid, thirty or forty years ago (all right, forty years ago), veiled racial slurs were still an effective political weapon. No matter who wins tomorrow (and at the moment the polls are leaning towards giving Obama the electoral college vote), this is the year we discovered that racism, no matter how veiled, just doesn’t work very well as a political strategy any more.

On the other hand, it looks like calling someone a Muslim has become a pretty effective political weapon. No wonder I hate politics.