Tag Archives: sf/f

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.

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.

A little more nuance with that, please

The January, 2008, issue of Locus celebrates the 90th birthday of Arthur C. Clarke with a number of special features, including a December interview borrowed from BBC’s Focus magazine. The interviewer asks, “What is the greatest threat that we, as a race, are facing?” and Sir Arthur replies:

Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation. It’s spreading the most malevolent mind virus of all. I hope our race can one day outgrow this primitive notion, as I envisaged in 3001: The Final Odyssey.

I think Clarke underestimates the threat of global climate change, nuclear weapons, and continuing population growth, but as he admits elsewhere in the interview, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophesy.” There are a few other threats I’d throw in there before I got to religion — global poverty and associated malnutrition, the growing crisis around clean water supplies, violence against women, etc., etc. — threats that can physically kill you long before religion’s “mind virus” infects you.

Having said that, organized religion that “pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation” is indeed a dangerous thing; George W. Bush’s religion, which appears to have driven him to an ill-considered war in Iraq, is a case in point. Like Clarke, I am wary of religion that claims to deliver morality;– although I’m quite comfortable with a religion that allows consideration of moral issues in a skeptical but supportive community because it seems to me that moral issues are impossible to resolve on one’s own, and today’s market-driven society here in the United States allows precious few places where groups of people can talk through moral issues openly. Like Clarke, I am also wary of any religion that pretends to deliver spiritual salvation;– although I’m comfortable with a religion that simply states that all persons are automatically saved as a way of making the point that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect; but aside from that, I have no interest in a religion that claims to provide salvation only to a chosen few. (And yeah, I admit my bias, I like to think that my religion is one with which I can be comfortable.)

So I think Clarke makes one or both of the usual two errors that people make damning judgement of religion. The first error lies in damning all religion based on a small set of direct experiences with organized religion; and the second error lies in damning all religion based on portrayals of religion in the media. The first error uses too small a sample for adequate statistical analysis, and ignores exceptions that really must be considered before making such broad pronouncements. The second error is the classic error of relying on second-hand sources of questionable accuracy; if adequate first-hand observation isn’t possible, it’s always better to rely on serious peer-reviewed scholarly works, to get better data and a more nuanced analysis of that data.

The marriage of Hilpa

Isaac Bickerstaff, astrologer, writes:

I came across the following in a curious old volume of astrological lore, bound in leather, and (according to the title page) “printed privately in Tremont Street in Boston” — the date unfortunately is obscured, but it appears to be an old book; what is printed here comes from the last chapter of the book:

Hilpa, fairer and wiser than any other woman on the Isle of Z—-, was the ruler of the Valleys, which lay in the center of the island, and ruler of all the groves therein. On one side of Hilpa’s realm stood Mount Tizrah, greatest of the mountains towering over the middle of the island, splitting it north to south from shore to the other; Mount Tizrah was ruled by Shalum. On the other side of Hilpa’s realm, just beyond a low range of hills, was a vast plain bisected by a river, and on that river stood a great City, at the farthest reaches of the tidewater inland. This City was ruled by Mishpach, who was a mighty man known throughout the surrounding countryside.

Now one day Hilpa took it into her head to marry, which was unheard of for the ruler of the Valleys; for Hilpa determined that she would like to have children of her own, rather than choose a child from among those who were brought to the sacred grove. For generation upon generation, into the distant and hazy past, rulers of the Valleys had always been women, women who lay, not with men, but with other women; thus the rulers of the Valleys chose their heirs from among the common people. Hilpa wanted offspring of her own flesh and blood, but she felt the old tradition strongly enough that she recoiled at the thought of lying with a man from her own realm. Continue reading

’87 Worldcon GoH wins Nobel

The five novels in the Canopus in Argos: Archives series, by Doris Lessing, are among my favorite science fiction books. Their stories and images continue to haunt my imagination. The fourth book in the series, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, tells the story of how to face the collapse of a planet’s entire ecosystem. The first book in the series, Shikasta, contains one of the more interesting sustained meditations on racism that I have ever read, and as I thread my way through anti-racist theology, I find Lessing’s words coming up through memory. And the second book in the series, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five has no real relevance to current events (not that I can remember, at least), but the image of contact between the three different, and increasingly transcendent, zones of existence still fuels my imagination.

Two bits of trivia about Lessing: The Associated Press reported that Doris Lessing was less than enthusiastic about winning the prize at first, which makes me like her better….

Doris Lessing pulled up in a black cab where a media horde was waiting Thursday in front of her leafy north London home. Reporters opened the door and told her she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, to which she responded: “Oh Christ … I couldn’t care less.”

And the last bit of trivia: Lessing was the Guest of Honor (GoH) at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). (Via.) Whaddya bet she wins an honorary Hugo award for lifetime achievement at the 2008 Worldcon….

30th anniversary

Thirty years ago today, the Science Fiction Club of Concord Carlisle Regional High School went on an afternoon field trip. Actually, it was just me and Mike Saler who went on the field trip, because the other two members of the club couldn’t make it that afternoon. Mike and I stood at the entrance to the high school grounds waiting for our ride to pick us up (but I can’t remember if our faculty advisor, Mr. Williams, gave us a ride, or if Mike’s mom did). We engaged in typical science-fiction-fan behavior — Mike found a basketball-sized rock, captured it, and tied a scrap of clothesline around it as a leash.

“His name is Spot,” said Mike, “and he’s coming with us.” Mike dragged Spot by his leash, until the clothesline broke. “He’s escaping!” cried Mike, and we both started laughing.

We got to the movie theatre in Boston and bought our tickets to the new science fiction movie, “Star Wars” by a young director named George Lucas. “His first film, THX-1138, was really good,” said Mike, who was already a member of NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association), and a contributor to at least one science fiction fanzine. “They showed THX-1138 at the last Boskone.”

“This film is better,” said a guy standing near us. He said he had already seen “Star Wars” twice that day, and he was going back in to see it a third time. He was a little strange.

We got into the theatre just after the film had started. The scrolling text that told the background story had just about finished scrolling its way up the screen. We made our way into the dark and crowded theater. “Half these people are NESFA members,” Mike whispered.

We loved the movie. It was a real science fiction fan’s movie. At the beginning, as the characters make their way across the desert planet of Tatooine, they pass what looks like a huge dead worm. “Sandworm!” Mike and I whispered to each other, and we could hear other science fiction fans in the audience whispering the same thing. Lucas had obviously included it as an homage to the novel Dune. We loved the bar scene — “Better than Spider Robinson!” whispered Mike to me, and that was saying a lot, since Mike was a big fan of Spider Robinson’s bar stories.

But then the character Han Solo said, “Fast?! The Millennium Falcon can do three parsecs!” You could almost hear all the science fiction fans thinking for just an instant — “‘Three parsecs’… waitaminute, a parsec is a unit of distance, not velocity” — and then everyone hissed.

That was really the only sour note. Aside from that, it was the perfect movie for us science fiction fans, obviously made by a fellow science fiction fan. Even the ending, where you find out that the evil bad guy, Darth Vader, wasn’t really dead, was perfect. It harked back to the old Flash Gordon movie serials — they still showed old, scratched copies of the Flash Gordon serials at science fiction conventions — where there’s one last scene showing that the evil bad guy actually survived, so you know there will be another episode.

We made our way out of the movie theatre. Thinking of Flash Gordon, I asked Mike, “Do you think they’ll make another movie?”

“Nah, it’s too much of an insider film,” Mike said. “No one except science fiction fans will get all the jokes.”

I had to agree. This just wasn’t going to be a successful movie. As we were going out the door, they offered us buttons that said “May The Force Be With You!” Neither Mike nor I bothered to take one. After all, the movie was just going to disappear, only to reappear year after year at science fiction conventions, with more and more scratches appearing every year.

How very wrong we were. Within two years, I noticed that at the summer camp where I was a counselor, all the little kids were playing with Star Wars action figures. “Stah Wahs! Stah Wahs!” they’d say, in their diminutive Boston accents. I couldn’t figure out why little kids liked a movie that made so many references to science fiction books that they had never read.

I still don’t get it. “Star Wars” is not a particularly good movie, it’s just a fan-boy movie, and it should have faded into obscurity. Unfortunately it became wildly successful, which completely derailed George Lucas from what could have been a wonderfully creative career as a film writer and director.

In some alternate universe, “Star Wars” didn’t achieve undeserved success. It made enough money so that the movie studios were willing to give Lucas another shot, as long as he stayed away from science fiction in his next films. Instead, he goes back to his 1966 short film “Freheit” and picks up on the idea of freedom, goes back to his big hit “American Grafitti” and the characters of middle America, and makes a powerful film about a young white man in a midwestern town who finds his way to intellectual freedom through his friendship with a young black man. In that alternate universe, Lucas builds on that success to make an updated versions of “Hamlet,” and spends the rest of his career making a wide variety of films that continue his exploration of freedom and individuality and response to authoritarian power.

In that alternate universe, George Lucas is compared to Stanley Kubrick instead of to the anonymous makers of the Flash Gordon serials. I would prefer the George Lucas of that alternate universe to the the sterile and unintelligent George Lucas that has evolved in this universe.

No wonder Mike repudiated science fiction, and now leads a mundane life as a history professor who is occasionally interviewed on NPR and writes popular articles about John Le Carre’s spy thrillers. As for me, I have remained a science fiction fan, somewhat to my regret, and thus toil in obscurity as the 21st C. American version of a provincial English curate. And George Lucas is laughing all the way to the bank. Tanj.

The Telling

I didn’t post anything to this blog yesterday because I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Telling (New York: Harcourt, 2000). It was so compelling that I stayed up late reading, and that left me no time to write….

The Telling begins with a vision of a future when a theocracy controls all of Earth. It’s a fundamentalist theocracy of a kind that sounds all too possible:

In late March, a squadron of planes from the Host of God [the theocratic political party] flew from Colorado to the District of Washington and bombed the Library there, plane after plane, four hours of bombing that turned centuries of history and millions of books into dirt. …The beautiful old building had never been attacked [before]; it had endured through all the times of trouble and war, breakdown and revolution, until this one. The Time of Cleansing. The Commander-General of the Hosts of the Lord announced the bombing while it was in progress, as an educational action. Only one Word, only one Book. All other words, all other books were darkness, error. They were dirt. Let the Lord shine out! cried the pilots in their white uniforms and mirror-masks, back the the church at Colorado Base, facelessly facing the cameras and the singing, swaying crowds in ecstasy. Wipe away the filth and let the Lord shine out! [p. 5]

Earth under the Host of God is a horrendous place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the theocratic mold — including the heroine of the story, one Sutty. But Sutty manages to get a job away from Earth, serving as a representative for the Ekumen, a kind of interstellar government. She thinks she has escaped the kind of authoritarianism represented by the Host of God, only to find herself as an emissary to a planet with an equally authoritarian government, the Corporation. Ironically, while reminiscent of the Host of God, the Corporation has outlawed all religion as a part of their policy.

Sutty winds up traveling to a remote province of this planet where she encounters the religion that flourished before the Corporation took power. It is not a religion like the Host of God, and Sutty spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what kind of religion it is:

It did not deal in belief. All its books were sacred. It could not be defined by symbols and ideas, now matter how beautiful, rich, and interesting it symbols and ideas. And [this religion] was not called the Forest, though sometimes it was, or the Mountain, though sometimes it was, but was mostly, as far as she could see, called the Telling.[pp. 111-112]

They [the religious leaders] performed, enacted, or did, the Telling. They told.

The religious leaders of this religion know books, and commentary on books, and stories that come out of books. Before the Corporation government took over, the religious centers were much like libraries — places filled with books, and religious leaders, resident experts, who Told what was in the books. (Need I add that the Corporation destroyed the libraries in just the same spirit that the Host of God bombed libraries on Earth?) But while religious, the Telling is not a dogmatic telling; “all its books were sacred”:

The incoherence of it all was staggering. During the weeks that Sutty has laboriously learned about the Two and the One, the Tree and the Foliage, she had gone every week to hear… a long mythico-historical saga about the explorations of Rumay among the Eastern Isles six or seven thousand years ago, and also gone several mornings a week to hear… the origins and history of the cosmos [and] the stars and constellations… from beautiful, accurate, ancient charts of the sky. How did it all hang together? Was there any relation at all among these disparate things?

Of course, you’ve already figured out by now that The Telling is partly a parable about the excesses of our own world — the excesses of creedal belief-based religion on the one hand, and of the free-market mythos that glorifies corporate dominance on the other hand. But in the midst of the parable are tantalizing visions of what religion could be, if we could only steer clear of absolutism — even though even this tantalizing religion winds up having its own blind spots and rigidities.

I like Le Guin’s vision of a religion that emphasizes books, not the Book; a religion that is willing to encompass all aspects of human knowing including bodily wellness and meditation and practical knowledge. I even like the vision of an incoherent religion, that gains its coherence from the simple act of telling, of speaking aloud.

Heck, I’d join a religion like that.

Stanislaw Lem is dead

BBC News has a short notice that Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem has died. Link

If you don’t know his work, Lem is probably best known for his novel Solaris, a story of a planet-wide intelligence trying to communicate with human beings by dredging up painful memories from their individual subconscious minds, a book which became well-known after it was made into an English-language movie. But I remember Lem best for three other books: The Star Diaries, the adventures of eccentric genius Ijon Tichy; The Cyberiad, tales of two robots who are inventors; and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, a dystopian novel of a society living in an underground complex after a nuclear holocaust. It would be too easy for American intellectuals to dismiss him as some half-famous Polish science fiction writer. But he was much more than that. Lem combined sly humor with mythic story lines and an unblinking appraisal of humankind; and he managed to slip in some barbed critiques of 20th C. life and politics; and his writing was informed by his deep humanity. I will miss him.

Update: Good balanced obituary at the (London) Times online: Link