Science fiction from within

There are so many interesting points being elicited in the responses to my previous post on why the deep norms of the SF genre matter that I think I may have passed a threshold. I think the material I have written on critical theory of science fiction is now substantial enough that I could actually expand it into a book. I am now contemplating whether this is a good idea – whether there’s a market in either the strict monetary or other senses.

I haven’t read a great deal of the critical literature on science fiction. Most of what I have seen I’m not very impressed with. Too much of it is dismissive and reductive. Even analyses that intend to take SF seriously often seem to want to talk about everything except what I think is important. Here, for example, is part of a synopsis I found when I googled for “anatomy of science fiction”:

This wide-ranging collection of essays re-opens the connection between science fiction and the increasingly science-fictional world. Kevin Alexander Boon reminds us of the degree to which the epistemology of science fiction infects modern political discourse. Károly Pintér explores the narrative structures of utopian estrangement, and Tamás Bényei and Brian Attebery take us deeper into the cultural exchanges between science fiction and the literary and political worlds. In the second half, Donald Morse, Nicholas Ruddick and Éva Federmayer look at the way in which science fiction has tackled major ethical issues, while Amy Novak and Kálmán Matolcsy consider memory and evolution as cultural batteries. The book ends with important discussions of East German and Hungarian science fiction by Usch Kiausch and Donald Morse respectively.

My response to this is best expressed by the words of the immortal P.J. O’Rourke: “What the fuck? I mean, what the fucking fuck?” I think you have to be carefully trained into a kind of elaborated insensibility to the actual subject before most of a book so described could possibly be interesting. I see nothing there about what I think are the really interesting questions. Like:

  • What are the defining constraints or generative rules of the SF form?
  • What are the canonical works that exemplify these rules?
  • What goes on the minds of readers of SF that is different from what goes on in the readers of other genres?
  • How do the answers to that question believed by SF writers affect their artistic choices?
  • The genre conversation in SF exhibits features not paralleled in other genres. Are these historically accidental or essential given the genre’s defining constraints?
  • Can we identify stages and transition points in the evolution of the rules?
  • What does the past of SF predict about its future?

This is a program for an inside-to-out analysis of the genre, rather than an outside-to-in one. Really informed readers will recognize the influence of Northrop Frye here; it is similar to what Frye called “rhetorical analysis” of literature. Also, as I’ve previously noted, I owe a huge debt to Samuel Delany for teaching me that the rules of the SF genre are discoverable through its reading protocols.

I’ve been chipping away at this program since the early 1990s, both directly in several essays and indirectly through my reviews. Maybe it’s time to pull that together into a book.

I have, therefore, two requests for my commenters.

First: what previous works about SF criticism can you suggest that would either assist or challenge this program, and why?

Second: Discuss the objectives. In particular, what other questions about the field are interesting from within the field? Stuff like “epistemology of science fiction infecting modern political discourse” is not very interesting to me even though the epistemology of SF itself is.

156 thoughts on “Science fiction from within

  1. “The Martian Named Smith, Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land” by William H Patterson and Andrew Thornton, Nitrosyncretic Press..
    Mostly because it’s an excellent example of literary criticism, particularly of so polarizing a work. Also because a reasonable part it’scritical analysis is finding the correct framework in which to analyse it.

  2. Previous works: “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy” by Orson Scott Card covers a lot of this territory. He’s got some fascinating stuff about how SF and non-SF readers interpret the same texts; someone’s quoted one example here (both groups are sure they know what a “reptile bus” is…)

  3. The only meta-SF book I think of as being use much is “The World Beyond the Hill – Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence” by Alexei and Cory Panshin. One could make a case that they address your questions 1 and 2.

  4. I dont’ know who’d buy such a book, myself. With that said, don’t you have contacts in the publishing industry who can weigh in on that?

    As for a “reptile bus”, I find myself wondering what kind of physical layer you’d use to connect reptiles with and how you’d handle protocol translations.

  5. As a complete newbie in SF reading, especially American SF, I hesitate to throw in my 2 cents but …. here it is.

    I suggest discussing as part of the definitional core of SF the relationship with actual science, the extent to which the “science” in SF is real science comparable to that carried out in labs, peer-reviewed journals etc, and how the science in SF manages not to turn into pseudo-science.

    The points I would like to see addressed are:

    – how does the SF reader/writer get so much detailed knowledge about science? Did the same magazine publish both SF and science articles? Are all SF writers scientists or related to science in some practical way?

    – how can “magazine science” stand up to actual science? don’t you need to be a cognitive psychologist (for instance) to really understand all the implications of any _ scientific_ discussion of, say, consciousness, language, memory? If not, why not?

    – granting that both readers and writers have exhaustive and detailed scientific knowledge , how do writers go about turning it into a speculative, futuristic scenario? is the “change just one thing rule” the only way? more importantly, does the change-just-one-thing always work in being both speculative and scientific? how can the physics of a universe with FTL travel be considered scientific? another example: many linguists, for instance, find the idea of a human language without syntax absurd

    – are there, perhaps, specific fields of scientific research that lend themselves more easily to the kind of futuristic, speculative interpretation provided by SF? Are some sciences more SFal than others? (AI versus chemistry, for instance) If so, why?

    – How has the relationship between actual science and SF evolved? Were some periods in SF more “hard SF” than others? Were there periods in which readers thought they were reading very hard SF but, in retrospect, were reading bad pseudo-science?

    I understand these questions may all be relevant to an outsider only, but maybe an in-depth discussion is useful even for an insider – and then – if these questions are worth asking – it would take someone with Eric’s background to answer them meaningfully, someone with with an in-depth understanding of what scientific thinking is, and not just literary criticism.

    In any case, count me as one of the buyers of any book of yours about SF!

  6. >The only meta-SF book I think of as being use much is “The World Beyond the Hill – Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence”

    I read that one many years ago. Insightful in part, but I thought it suffered from an attempt to stuff SF into too narrow a box. Not all SF is about transcendence! In retrospect I think their analysis was a sideways and somewhat failed attempt to map the same territory Benford was interested in when he spoke of conceptual breakthrough. I should reread my copy.

  7. >With that said, don’t you have contacts in the publishing industry who can weigh in on that?

    Maybe. But I’d probably self-publish on this one.

  8. Self-publication and hitting up publisher friends for advice are not mutually exclusive.

    IMO, a couple topics worthy of discussion are:
    1) why SF and fantasy are so closely linked in practice, despite being so totally different in underpinnings. In particular, discuss the cases where a work is really one genre wearing the clothes of the other(e.g., Star Wars that’s really fantasy, or Mistborn that’s really sci-fi)
    2) the linkages between SF and actual science. You may wish to note the real-world inventions made in fictional stories(geosynchronous satellites and waterbeds being the classic examples).

    IMO, the biggest source of both is that a SF/fantasy reader is someone who enjoys looking at a world, figuring out how it operates, and then discovering the rules underpinning it all. That’s exactly the scientific mindset. You often talk about how the idea is the hero, but the world itself is a passable imitation of the main character.

  9. How do each of the questions listed vary among SF in different languages: Polish, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese? What themes appear in all languages, and what themes appear only literature of certain languages?

    As for reference material on this point…

  10. @esr: “First: what previous works about SF criticism can you suggest that would either assist or challenge this program, and why?”

    SF criticism is an interest, and I’ve read a fair bit of it. The basics I recommend are:

    “New Maps of Hell” – Kingsley Amis
    A book length study of SF from 1960 by a popular mainstream novelist. Amis is sympathetic within his limits, which are largely bounded by SF as satire and social criticism.
    http://www.amazon.com/New-Maps-Hell-Penguin-classics/dp/0141198621/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=0DW2VE0C3SBGE348R8CC

    “The Issue at Hand” and “More Issues at Hand” by James Blish
    Two collections of reviews written under the pseudonym William Atheling for Red Boggs’ fanzine Skyhook and other places. Blish was trying to apply true technical criticism to the SF short story.
    http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Advent/Blish-1.htm
    http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Advent/Blish-2.htm

    “In Search of Wonder” by Damon Knight Advent:Publishers
    Long time writer and editor Damon Knight turned his critical insight on novels, with long pieces on particular works, and collections of shorter commentary on lesser works and overall trends. Like the Blish works, it’s a collection of pieces that originally appeared elsewhere.
    http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Advent/Knight-1.htm

    “The World Beyond the Hill” by Alexie and Cory Panshin
    A librarian by trade, Panshin was responsible for for a small batch of quality SF in the late 60’s and early 70’s, notably the Anthony Villiers adventures, which are one of two sets of comedies of manners in SF I can think of offhand. (The others are Walter Jon Williams’ “Drake Majistral” books.) His first venture into criticism was a book length study of Heinlein called “Heinlein in Dimension”, and a later longer wofrk on SF in general called SF In Dimension. TWBtH has a much broader vision, and attempts to chart the development of the field as a whole.
    SF In Dimension: http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Advent/Panshin-1.htm
    TWBtH: http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/9781597290234/9781597290234.htm?blurb

    “The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction” by Samuel R. Delany
    A collection of pieces originally published as a trade paperback by Berkley Windhover editions in the 70’s, and reissues in 2009 by Wesleyan University Press.
    I’m re-reading this at the moment. Chip is brilliant throughout.
    https://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780819572462
    http://www.upne.com/0819568830.html

    Advent Publishers specialized in books about SF. NESFA Press has their catalog available at http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Advent/
    (The Blish, Knight, and a couple of the Panshins are Advent editions.)

    “The Trillion Year Spree” by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
    A 1986 update of their earlier “The Billion Year Spree”, which attempts to be a history of the SF field. There have been an assortment. Aldiss’ is the best of the lot.
    http://www.amazon.com/Trillion-Year-Spree-History-Science/dp/0755100689

    “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” by John Clute and Peter Nicholls
    What the name says, and attempting to be as complete and accurate as possible. I own the second edition.
    http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Science-Fiction-John-Clute/dp/031213486X/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_2?ie=UTF8&refRID=03Z6J44TRV0DHVATMPRV
    The third edition has gone on line, through British SF publisher Gollancz:
    http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/

    On literary criticism not related to SF:
    “The Anatomy of Criticism” by Northrop Frye
    Frye was Professor of English at Toronto University. The book attempts to define a framework for literary criticism in general. (Frye was irritated by the fact that there was no general term for a work of prose fiction in English, so while his study uses the word “poetry”, and starts from Aristotle’s Poetics in defining its scope, his concerns are much broader.) His essay on the theory of fictional modes is applicable to some of what you discuss.
    There’s a decent online copy at http://northropfrye-theanatomyofcriticism.blogspot.com/

    There’s more, like Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Languages of the Night” and Barry Malzberg’s “The Engines of the Night”, but the above are places to start.

  11. The New Wave, as a “heresy” of SF, tried to be explicit about what they aimed for and what they were rebelling against. You’ll have to discuss what they misunderstood about the core of the genre—and of course, what they got right.

    Mostly orthogonal to your discussion of SF vs. defective SF vs. anti-SF, but still relevant, is Sarah Hoyt’s discussion of “Human Wave” SF:

    Your writing shouldn’t leave anyone feeling like they should scrub with pumice or commit suicide by swallowing stoats for the crime of being human, or like humans are a blight upon the Earth, or that the future is dark, dreary, evil and fraught with nastiness, because that’s all humans can do, and woe is us.

    Your discussion is of the value of rational knowability of the universe as a particular signifier of SF; hers is about the value of humanity and applies to other genres as well, though SF seems particularly prone to anti-human sentiment.

    But while these discussions are orthogonal, I mention it because I see high correlation between them: your “anti-SF” is almost always Sarah’s “grey goo” as well, and vice versa, while “core SF” tends to be pro-humanity. (Though there’s plenty of “human wave” which is “defective SF”, or outside the genre entirely.) And if you’re writing a book, you can go a bit further into other responses to the New Wave than is possible in an essay.

  12. I approach the SF I like best from an engineering point of view: what is this structure (world, technology, etc.) and how does it work. But that’s just the world — without decent characters and plausible plot, I no longer have the patience to wade through deficient story just to see how the toy works (I’m looking at you, David Drake, etc.).

    I approach the Fantasy I like best from the perspective of Adventure story: how does this hero face and solve moral problems that have an impact beyond his own life. But that’s just the story — without a wondrous world with consistent rules, I no longer have the patience to watch hand-wavium magic and world-building drag down interesting characters.

    These things don’t strike me as opposite points of view. In both cases, I want consistency of world-building at the level of a working engineering model (regardless of its foundation in science or magic) combined with competent plotting and interesting characters.

    For me, the reason SFF combined can define itself in juxtaposition to other genres is its ability to project a non-real world and explore an absorbing story in that location, without losing the sense of glee about the creation of that world, reveling in the invention of it. Historical fiction, or contempory exotic location fiction, rarely captures the latter sense for me; it seems to be more interested in the accuracy of the world it portray than in its inventiveness (being constrained by reality). The author cries “look at how accurate I can be” (even when wrong) instead of “look what an interesting world I’ve made”.

    Without the “interesting world I’ve made”, SFF loses its savor for me. Without competent rules, plotting, and characters, all fiction is defective.

  13. Check out Ursula LeGuin’s essays “On Fantasy and Science Fiction” and “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction” and others (I like them better than her fiction). She has interesting things to say about genre.

    A general favorite is “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”.

  14. John M. Ford’s essay “Rules of Engagement,” obviously. Farah Mendelsohn’s “Rhetorics of Fantasy” (I think you’ll find a lot to argue with in that). Have you read any of James Blish’s criticism from the 1950s, under the pen name “William Atheling”? They’re collected as _The Issue at Hand_ and _More Issues at Hand_. I believe NESFA Press published reprints of them, and those guys never throw anything out so you could probably order a copy.

  15. @James Cambias: “Have you read any of James Blish’s criticism from the 1950s, under the pen name “William Atheling”? I believe NESFA Press published reprints of them, and those guys never throw anything out so you could probably order a copy.”

    I mentioned the Blish works above. They were actually issued by Advent Publishers, but NESFA Press stocks and sells them, and they do appear to be currently available. I bought mine years ago.

    I just saw a note elsewhere that someone had acquired Advent, but I don’t believe the relationship with NESFA Press will be affected.

    One peeve with NESFA Press is that while I’ll happily buy just about anything they produce, they are determinedly in the dark ages about electronic publishing and are hardcopy only. I think this stems from wrong-headed piracy concerns, and I’ll probably raise the issue with them at the next convenient opportunity, since I know most of the folks involved.

  16. I have seen detectives seen characterized as “ordinary people in exceptional circumstances”. This holds for many genres.
    (The quip says that high litetature is exceptional people in ordinary circumstances, hence the impossibility of finding literature in SF :-) )

    SF and Fantasy would then be “ordinary people in a different universe”. With SF, this universe is always a plausible version of our past, current, or future universe. In Fantasy this universe is implausable.

    Eric, you know that you only really understand something when you can build it. This holds too for a genre. Eric Segal (Love story) and Umberto Eco (The name of the rose) proved their points on literatory criticism by writing bestsellers in the genres they studied. If you understand SF, you might prove it by writing a (short) story with only the recipe of your theory. It would be cool, if you could write it as an automatic text generator. (bonus points if it is an emacs mode)

  17. >“The Anatomy of Criticism” by Northrop Frye

    I’ve read this. It’s been a significant influence on me.

  18. I second the Amis and the Aldiss as mentioned above.
    The Amis book is a development of a series of lectures he gave at Princeton in the early 1960s.
    Later in life he viewed the ‘New Wave’ as a betrayal of the genre.

  19. Are some sciences more SFal than others? (AI versus chemistry, for instance) If so, why?

    I am very picky about the kind of SF, or any writing, that I like, so my experience is limited, but…

    Chemistry is rarely important in science fiction storys. You do get “The plasteel was so strong that…” but that isn’t the science of chemistry. However, The Good Doctor – Issac Asimov – wrote some. (I loved Asimov when I was a young teen, but no longer have any of his books. This is partly from memory and partly from Wikipedia…) Actually, I can only remember two. One was more of a detective story in which a chemist claimed that any chemist could tell by the texture that what was in the jar was not what the label said.

    But there is the wonderful classic chemistry SF story – written as a spoof scientific paper: “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”. The idea was that there was so much strain in the molecule that two bonds of a carbon were twisted into the dimension of time, causing a crystal to dissolve shortly before it hit the water. A device to take advantage of this effect was constructed, which led to various applications.

    John Campbell published the story shortly before Asimov got his PhD in chemistry, but, contrary to Asimov’s instructions, it appeared under his own name rather than a pseudonym (he was concerned about how this fake paper would viewed by the university). The last question in his PhD oral examination was something like “Mr. Asimov, what can you tell us about the properties of resublimated thiotimoline?”. Asimov was startled, but all went well – they were just kidding.

  20. $DEITY knows why, but my previous comment was “awaiting moderation”. It is about chemistry in SF, but, you know, <sarcasm>chemistry is really only of interest to people making b o m b s or d r u g s </sarcasm>.

  21. There was “The Road to Science Fiction” by James Gunn, a series of science fiction anthologies, with most influential works of the genre selected.

    It would be nice to have something like J. R. R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”, but about science-fiction, not fantasy.

    I’d like to see you come with definitions of SF subgenres, like space opera, or first contact, or alternate history, or cyberpunk, or military science fiction, and literary genres that border with science fiction, like fantasy, techno thriller, paranormal romance (well, it borders with urban fantasy not SF), young adult, horror, superhero,… what makes work one or another, what are defining examples, what are best in the genre,…

  22. Son of a bitch – I screwed up the angle brackets again – I tested it with Firefox and it worked fine… looking it up, I gather I should have used lower case… let’s try this here:

    <stuff> a b c d </stuff>

  23. Sorry… I should have tried…
    <sarcasm>chemistry is really only of interest to people making b o m b s     or     d r u g s </sarcasm>.

  24. Would some of Hal Clement’s stories count as being about chemistry? And iirc, there’s some chemistry in Robinson’s 2312 (lots about terraforming).

  25. Don’t know Hal Clement, but, yeah… terraforming is all about chemistry; also hydroponics and recycling in closed systems in space ships and colonies in space or hostile-environments.

  26. If you haven’t read Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity” you’ve missed one of the great SF classics. Clement never managed to write anything else as good.

  27. Don’t know if this helps, but I read SF because of the genre, the journey, and (hopefully) the unique type of enlightenment it brings. It just fits my personality and mindset. Conversely, I don’t much care for literary analysis (no matter how well intentioned). It’s a bit like studying sex techniques, I’d rather do the discovery on my own (mistakes and all) and allow my life experience to be first-person. I guess I just don’t want to be told how to appreciate a book, or a painting, or a song, or anything that is substantially subjective. Good art is a mind-meld with the receiver.

  28. @TRX
    “If you haven’t read Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity” you’ve missed one of the great SF classics. Clement never managed to write anything else as good.”

    I endorse this. If you write such a story, you do not need to write anything else anymore.

  29. @ESR about this “anatomy” you found, I recognized none of the five Hungarian authors, while they failed to mention http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9ter_Zsoldos who was arguably both the best and the closest to what you would consider traditional sci-fi (his major point of interest was the interaction between human and various kinds of non-human intelligences: primitive humanoids, AI, human brain software downloaded into various other kinds of bodies or the other way around etc. etc.)

    This is fishy at best. Although it is possible that the people mentioned are the lit-crit anatomists, not the authors – which would look like the textbook example of putting the cart before the horse…

  30. >Conversely, I don’t much care for literary analysis (no matter how well intentioned)

    Even if you don’t care for it as a guide to your reading, I think you would benefit from the rest of my agenda in writing this book.

    One of the goals of writing down my analysis is an attempt to cure SF fans, writers, and readers susceptible to it of their status envy with respect to literary fiction (you are probably not among the susceptible).

    This status envy has many corrosive effects. The most important is that misguided improvers continually try to warp SF into becoming imitation literary fiction. I’d like to give people who want to oppose this a terminological and theoretical place to stand.

  31. > I dont’ know who’d buy such a book, myself.

    I certainly would. ESR’s writing on SF has always been something I come back to because it is so unlike what you see elsewhere. I’m going through the Hugo fan writers, zines, etc… at the moment, and it seems like their definition of fandom is mostly to complain about stuff. Few seem to be able (or willing) to contextualize a work beyond its immediate politics…

    As for topics, you’ve certainly got a good start, but some other thoughts:

    * Your normative definition of SF is primarily focused on Hard SF. Are there other forms of SF that should be considered?

    * What are the sub-genres of SF, and how are they differentiated from the whole?

    * Why SF and F are linked together, despite being quite different (I believe someone else mentioned this).

    * Curious about the connections between SF and historical fiction (and how SF authors seem to often try their hand at historical fiction…)

    And, of course, I’m always down for the exploration of canonical works (beginner, intermediate, advanced), especially from your perspective (which again, seems rather rare these days). Will you be posting the list from the crowd-sourcing from a few weeks ago soon?

  32. >Will you be posting the list from the crowd-sourcing from a few weeks ago soon?

    It’s my intention to do so, but it has been delayed vecause it turns out writing good synopses for the whole list is a lot of work.

  33. I’d suggest poking Howard Tayler for extended-network contacts; he’s one of the regulars on Writing Excuses, a “light hard SF” writer, and a former systems analyst. He’s got plenty of informed informative opinions about various aspects of the topic.

  34. >Few seem to be able (or willing) to contextualize a work beyond its immediate politics…

    If I bring nothing else to the table, I at least have enough sense of the history of the genre to do better than that

  35. >[Howard Tayler has] got plenty of informed informative opinions about various aspects of the topic.

    That’s a better suggestion than you know. Howard and I are personally friendly; some of his art hangs in my house because he gifted to me. He’d be an excellent beta reader for the book.

  36. Re: interesting questions: As you state, the epistemology of SF itself is interesting, but also interesting (to me, at least) is the change of that epistemology over time… from the Golden Age through the formation/splintering off of various subgenres (military-SF, cyperpunk, etc).

  37. @ ESR – “I think you would benefit from the rest of my agenda in writing this book.”

    Agreed. I also admire your courage in directly taking on the wave of stupidity that is currently washing over our species. Perversion of SF is one of the more insidious off-shoots of political correctness, and it’s hitting upon one of the few remaining pillars of individualism. I wish you success.

  38. If you owe a debt to Delany, you should be able to get something out of Norman Spinrad in both agreement and disagreement. As an example, there’s “Retro vs. Visionary”.

    I’ve only read a bit of it but Algis Budrys’ book review columns are usually mentioned in the same breath as the Knight and Blish (except that I didn’t see anyone here mention him when they mentioned Knight and Blish).

    TRX said “If you haven’t read Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity” you’ve missed one of the great SF classics. Clement never managed to write anything else as good.”

    This is true enough, but might give the impression that it’s the only Clement to read. Almost all Clement is good to great – just not *as* great as MoG. Don’t forget the short fiction collected in _The Best of Hal Clement_ and _Space Lash_ as well.

  39. Things worth thinking about:

    * As others have said, the connection between science fiction and fantasy. IIRC, Ursula Le Guin claimed they were the same genre.

    * The connection between science fiction and politics. Once you start talking about other ways society coud run, it’s natural to ask if they’d be better or worse than what we have now, and then to use that question to advocate. Political sf has gotten a bad rep lately for clumsy heavy-handedness, but heavy-handed political sf goes back to Heinlein if not Plato. An intereting question is how to put politics into sf without ruining the story. Another is whether this sort of advocacy is effective. Just make sure to run your analysis past someone who disagrees with you about politics.

    * The use of anti-sf *in* sf. Consider the idea of the knowable universe. The opposite of that is Lovecraft. Or consider “the idea as hero” vs the “it takes a parent” conclusion in Diamond Age. In some ways these works are embraced in order to be properly rejected (many authors have nuked Cthulhu and several fans have tried to create the Illustrated Primer), but the works themselves are too popular in sf circles to be just that.

  40. Most of my initial questions I’ve seen. Would add “How does SF interact with, and how are SF stories shape by, their media {i.e., written short story, written novella, written novel, movie, TV series, video game, filk song, …}?”

  41. Howard would also be a good guy to ask because he’s actually sat down and studied humor, as well as being able to produce it; I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t given SF the same kind of study.

  42. > * The connection between science fiction and politics. Once you start talking about other ways society coud run, it’s natural to ask if they’d be better or worse than what we have now, and then to use that question to advocate. Political sf has gotten a bad rep lately for clumsy heavy-handedness, but heavy-handed political sf goes back to Heinlein if not Plato. An intereting question is how to put politics into sf without ruining the story. Another is whether this sort of advocacy is effective. Just make sure to run your analysis past someone who disagrees with you about politics.

    There is quite a body of SF coming from then socialists and communist countries using SF to avoid censorship (well, one of motivations), for example works of Polish author Janusz Zajdel writing about totalitarian states and collapsed societies… though I don’t know if his works were translated into English.

  43. I believe that if it is something almost as interesting as James Blish/William Atheling Jr. critical appraisal, you should go ahead without listening to anybody before finishing…

  44. A lot of “SF” is just a contemporary concern, arbitrarily set in space. To me this isn’t SF at all. Science should be central, and it should be hard science, not hand-waving mumbo-jumbo. The absolute minimum standard should be the level of Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction anthologies in which he explains scientific facts and principles (e.g. entropy) for an intelligent lay audience.

    In addition, the writing must be non-juvenile. Even Asimov’s fiction offends here: phrases such as “nearly infinite” (i.e. finite) and “minimise” (which should mean “reduce to a minimum” at all, but instead is used as a synonym for “seek to reduce the importance of”) should be ruthlessly expunged.

  45. Nuking Cthulhu? Would explosions have any effect on an entity that occupies a very-many-dimensional space in which the energy would dissipate very rapidly over distance?

  46. Geoffrey Tobin, you’re reminding me of people from rec.arts.sf.written who gave me the impression that the strongest preference boundary isn’t between science fiction and fantasy, it’s between hard science fiction and the whole rest of the fantasy-to-science-fiction spectrum.

  47. Captain Picard echoing my sentiments wrt sci fi in one of the older TNG movies: “Doesn’t anyone remember when we used to be explorers?

    This may be a subcategory thing, but I’ve always been slightly frustrated with closed, finite, (and usually one implies the other) decaying and hopeless worlds. If either everything about how the world works or can work is known at the beginning of the story, or it’s implied that nothing about the world will become known at this point (mankind is circling the drain and will not be going to space today, the universe is ruled by an evil God/s and nothing makes sense beyond their will anyway) then I rapidly lose interest.

  48. I almost discarded Hugh Howey’s excellent Wool trilogy in the first chapter for these reasons. (Don’t do that!) “Blast, another one of those books.”, I was thinking. Then he managed to hook my interest with some mysteries to solve, then it got good from a character perspective. About my limit as far as dark goes, but not in the end bleak, hopeless, pointless, etc.

  49. Random conversation to subscribe.

    @Geoffrey Tobin

    A lot of “SF” is just a contemporary concern, arbitrarily set in space.

    I completely agree.

    Science should be central, and it should be hard science, not hand-waving mumbo-jumbo.

    I don’t know about science being necessarily central, because a book should be reasonably accessible for its time by leveraging fairly common knowledge. I’d be ok with hard SF wiggling out of its niche restrictions to get a broader audience.

    What I’d really love are books which are dedicated to bringing old common knowledge up to speed. Stuff like common genetics knowledge (from the 1970s), or the “Big Crunch theory”. Leveraging the storytelling in SF is a good way to educate.

  50. As someone who’s just getting into SF (and who’s patiently awaiting your beginner’s list*), I’d be interested in what you have to say about the various subgenres of SF (cyberpunk, space opera, “Neo-Africa”; VERY interested in what you have to say about “Neo-African” SF). Are some subgenres inherently more beginner-friendly than others? What nuances does each subgenre bring to the general rules and expectations of SF? Are there traditionally recognized subgenres that, according to your definition SF, are actually defective (or non-, or anti-) SF? And so on.

    *I’ve glanced your beta list, and have already started with The Stars My Destination. Were you going to recommend an order in which to read them? Or does it not matter?

  51. >VERY interested in what you have to say about “Neo-African” SF

    Um…this is a thing? Examples, please.

    >Are some subgenres inherently more beginner-friendly than others?

    Hmmm. I’d say the kind of light SF adventure I reviewed in World of Fire is probably the most beginner-friendly. And space opera. And military SF, if you have a background to appreciate the military parts.

    >Are there traditionally recognized subgenres that, according to your definition SF, are actually defective (or non-, or anti-) SF? And so on.

    Can’t think of any examples. In princiiple that would be highly unlikely; if I had to exile an entire subgenre – as opposed to individual works – it would almost certainly mean my intensional definition was wrong.

    There is a sort of flip side of this. Many attempts to define the SF genre have foundered on the technology of magic story. Based on reader response, it belongs in SF despite the absence of SF stage furniture. Crafting an intensional definition of SF that explains this is not easy. Benford did it, but it required 50 years of false starts before that.

    >Were you going to recommend an order in which to read them? Or does it not matter?

    Doesn’t matter. Or, rather, different orders will be appropriate for different readers and “which title strikes my fancy next” is as good as any.

  52. Norman Spinrad’s 1974 anthology – Modern Science Fiction – has quite a bit of insight and discussion on the genre, particularly new wave influences &c.

  53. A possible counterexample to your definition: Childhood’s End. Empirically it’s SF – a major work of the genre, in fact. But the book’s subject is a catastrophic miracle: humanity as we know it is doomed to extinction as all its children vanish into the inscrutable Overmind, and the causes of this apocalypse aren’t rationally knowable. Remove the miracle, and the story vanishes.

    Do we count Childhood’s End as anti-SF, on the grounds that all the characters who live by the norm of rational knowability see their plans and hopes collapse in the face of a force that can’t be understood?

  54. >and the causes of this apocalypse aren’t rationally knowable

    See, this is where I disagree. What’s your evidence for that proposition?

  55. I don’t know about “anti-sci-fi”, but there might be something to your point. Childhood’s end never sat well with me for a reason that I think you’ve put your finger on.

    I never really understood why mankind, when faced with basically being erased from existence – it’s children appropriated to feed this “Overmind” thing, that they went quietly, that the implied attitude we were supposed to have was that the alien purposes of this Overmind were “something greater”, an improvement. Maybe resistance would have been futile in the setting, but on the one hand you have humanity with it’s works and technology and deliberate purpose – the lives they’ve built and the means they’ve developed to sustain themselves by choice. On the other hand, you have this outside force wiping all of that out by coopting the next generation, and leaving the rest of mankind to fail and die. Why wouldn’t humanity resist, however futilely?

    Ants get understandably pissed when we go at their mounds with a backhoe. Perhaps the most terrible thing was (my memory of Childhood’s End is a bit dim at this point) the race of alien invader lackeys.that the Overmind used as it’s pawn to prepare the way, regarding their own grand civilization and it’s achievements and understanding as something categorically “inferior” (inferior to whom?) to the Overmind and the things that it does.

    There was something spiritually broken, for lack of a better term, about the lackey-aliens, and about mankind when the lackeys were done with them, that was very much the antithesis of the typical sci-fi optimism about a rationally knowable world.

  56. Sorry, I just figured out how to post under the new layout– it’s the unlabeled black square to the right of the preview, in case anyone else is wondering.

    “Rationally knowable” leaves an important question open– rationally knowable to whom? Is it at least one of the characters? The reader? The author?

    In Childhood’s End, it’s clear than none of the characters (including, explicitly, the Overlords) can really understand what’s happening, even though it’s presumably a secular universe. More exactly, the Overlords don’t have the psychic (?) abilities needed, and humanity (who is probably squelched as a potential competitor) doesn’t have enough time.

  57. >In Childhood’s End, it’s clear than none of the characters (including, explicitly, the Overlords) can really understand what’s happening, even though it’s presumably a secular universe.

    To analyze the rational knowability of this universe, consider this scenario, which I will label Singularity-Overmind to distinguish it from the Clarke-Overmind scenario in the book:

    Aliens come to Earth and announce that they are here to help us join the Overmind. They tell us that it is a gigantic superluminal packet-switched network of planetary subnets, each composed of communicating individuals, and that the genes for its circuitry can be edited into human germ-line DNA by nanites of their devising. The thought processes of the Overmind cannot be comprehended by humans because its knowledge and computational capacity is so much vaster than a human brain’s. And the enhancement genes are dominent; eventually (the Overlords expect) humans will all be networked and will conclude that the best use for the Earth’s mass is to be engineered into a vast nanocomputer.

    Not much doubt that this is a rationally-knowable universe, is there? Yet this differs from the Childhood’s End Clarke-Overmind scenario mainly in emotive details and in the kind of (or lack of) explanation humans get before they transcend.

    My real point is that rational knowability need not equate to rational knowability by un-transcended humans. In the Singularity-Overmind scenario it is pretty clear that the Overmind understands its own protocols and low-level functioning; is there any reason in principle that the Clarke-Overmind would not?

  58. I’m not sure whether you elided the consent issue in your variant on Childhood’s End.

    I’m wondering whether science fiction (of the kind you respect) requires not just knowledge be possible, but that it’s knowledge which can lead to action. That’s action, not necessarily a happy ending– “The Long Watch” is about knowing enough to prevent disaster, but having no tools to survive the solution.

    On the other hand, The Genocides by Disch (the human race is dying because the earth has been taken over by alien monoculture) is overtly anti-science fiction– it’s a knowable universe in principle, but the human race is simply out-strengthed.

    A TED talk about the human compulsion to solve– I’d say the first half is a good bit more interesting than the magic trick, though I’m wondering whether the explanation of how the trick works is true.

  59. >I’m not sure whether you elided the consent issue in your variant on Childhood’s End.

    Deliberately. I think it’s orthogonal to the knowability issue.

    >I’m wondering whether science fiction (of the kind you respect) requires not just knowledge be possible, but that it’s knowledge which can lead to action.

    I’d be inclined to say this is not required, but it’s an issue on which reasonable people may duffer.

    >On the other hand, The Genocides by Disch (the human race is dying because the earth has been taken over by alien monoculture) is overtly anti-science fiction– it’s a knowable universe in principle, but the human race is simply out-strengthed.

    I resist classing this as anti-SF, even though I’m certain I would dislike it strongly. I’m not clear why you put it in that category.

  60. I may be using a different, more connotative definition than you’ve got in mind– there was science fiction written during the New Wave which was explicitly in opposition to previous science fiction– especially the human triumphalism.

    Minor point about the new format– my icon in the preview blinks every time I add or subtract a character– this can be dealt with by putting the preview below where I can see it, but it’s a bit of a pain. I’m using Chrome.

  61. Aliens come to Earth and announce that they are here to help us join the Overmind. [...] The thought processes of the Overmind cannot be comprehended by humans because its knowledge and computational capacity is so much vaster than a human brain’s.

    Sounds just like a lot of political rhetoric with elite currency.

  62. The differences between the “Singularity-Overmind” and Clarke’s Overmind are more than emotional – the Overlords’ function is significantly altered. In Clarke’s version, you will recall, the Overlords have no direct role in the Overmind’s appearance; they come to Earth solely to ensure that the unassimilated humans don’t destroy their children before the Overmind has grown up. In your scenario the Overlords are responsible for introducing the physical basis of the Overmind to humanity.

    Also, in your scenario there are possible outcomes other than human extinction. As only those who receive the treatment, and any children they have, become part of the Overmind, humans who refuse the treatment can in principle keep on as they did before, and have descendants. Not in Clarke’s book – everyone born after date X joins the Overmind. The utopian community dedicated to scientific research, in your scenario, would not succumb to despair and wipe themselves out; they would still have things to hope for.

    More generally – you might, I suppose, invent an explanation for the plot of Childhood’s End that could, in principle, be understood by someone in the book’s world. (Something like a spaceborne plague of nanotech that seeds psychic powers, if it’s caught in infancy … or Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, if the beam in that suppressed psychic powers instead of raw intellect.) But you would be doing the inventing. Clarke didn’t put any explanations of that kind in the book, and I doubt that he had any in mind when he wrote it. If there were such explanations, Childhood’s End would be a different book.

  63. I think Childhood’s End is amazing because it’s a popular novel in which nothing that anyone does makes any difference. It could have an “how people treat each other matters, even in the face of extinction” message, but it doesn’t. Gone is gone.

  64. >In your scenario the Overlords are responsible for introducing the physical basis of the Overmind to humanity.

    OK, so go ahead and change that. Maybe life on Earth is derived from panspermia and the genes for the transcendance machinery have been in us all along, waiting to be triggered.

    >Clarke didn’t put any explanations of that kind in the book, and I doubt that he had any in mind when he wrote it. If there were such explanations, Childhood’s End would be a different book.

    Are you really claiming that Clarke was intentionally not writing about a rationally knowable universe? That would be seriously inconsistent with the rest of his fiction. Very seriously.

  65. >I may be using a different, more connotative definition than you’ve got in mind

    I think you are.

    >there was science fiction written during the New Wave which was explicitly in opposition to previous science fiction– especially the human triumphalism.

    There certainly was. But the New Wavers’ assumption that the rules of SF included human triumphalism was wrong. As early as Twilight, written in 1934 by John Campbell himself(!), the genre included narratives of inexorable human failure, senescence, defeat, and extinction. Not often, and the genre was generally optimistic, but the minor-key counterpoint was always present.

  66. “Are you really claiming that Clarke was intentionally not writing about a rationally knowable universe? That would be seriously inconsistent with the rest of his fiction.”

    Would it, really?

    Look at Rendevous with Rama – the humans spend the whole book coming up with theories about the aliens who built the giant spaceship … and then, right at the end, the ship casually breaks Newton’s laws of motion. Or 2001 – the monoliths are utterly inscrutable, and the moment Dave Bowman enters one he also becomes incomprehensible.

    Sure, Clarke wrote other works set in rationally knowable universes. But when his three best-known works all include transcendent aliens as central plot elements, and strongly suggest the inadequacy of human reason to understand them … we can’t exactly assume that rational knowability was one of Clarke’s axioms.

  67. Pardon my lateness to the party, but I’ve been out of town…

    While not quite what you asked for, some semi-oblique suggestions for works which have helped to inform my own understanding of Science Fiction:

    Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder is a nice anthology in itself, but following each story is an essay by Silverberg offering a critique and/or analysis of each story. It’s been quite a while since I read this, but I recall being quite intrigued by the insights in these essays.

    It’s recently been re-published under the title Science Fiction 101.

    The other one I was thinking of I can’t find on my shelf at the moment, though I’m sure it’s in the house someplace…so I’ve had to look on Wikipedia to recall the name.

    It’s called Borderlands of Science: How to Think like a Scientist and Write Science Fiction, which is a non-fiction piece by Charles Sheffield. It’s main aim is to cover enough basic science in common SF “areas” to help aspiring SF writers to avoid the most glaring mistakes when writing SF. Reading between the lines there’s a fair bit if now NOT to do things in SF, though perhaps it’s more of the how to avoid being bad SF than not SF at all.

    Still, those are the only things that come to mind that no one has mentioned yet.

    As for the proposed book, I’d buy it. Please write it.

    (As an aside, if anyone here likes “hard” SF and haven’t read Sheffield…well, you probably should.)

  68. >and then, right at the end, the ship casually breaks Newton’s laws of motion

    Again, the right question to ask is whether the Rama and 2001 universes are rationally knowable from the point of view of the aliens. The evidence that they are is that the aliens do engineering. They don’t just make stuff happen by chanting a big Om, they build devices to proxy for them. And if we don’t understand how the devices work, that just means we have a lot of catching up to do.

  69. >“Nine Billion Names of God”– rationally knowable universe or not?

    Not. Much better example of an anti-SF edge case in Clarke’s fiction than Childhood’s End, the Rama sequence, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  70. Hm. On reflection, I think the point of The Nine Billion Names of God – to the extent it has one, rather than being a finger exercise constructed around that unforgettable final line – is a subtly rationalist one.

    That is: if any religion of faith were true, the truth would have such large implications that they would be unvoidable, and here’s what that looks like: “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” Clarke pulls a subtle bit of judo here: he denies rational knowability in his fiction in order to affirm it in fact. I think this is why the story is such a classic.

    Thanks! I think this just became a major case study for my book!

  71. There’s no clue in the story about how the monks concluded correctly that they had a method of destroying the universe, but I’m thinking that they made something that was on the edge of being a falsifiable claim. It’s falsifiable, but for practical purposes, a claim which would take 15 thousand years to falsify (as the claim would have been without computers) isn’t *very* falsifiable.

    Real world religions don’t generally make falsifiable claims (with a few exceptions about the end of the world and messiahs– anything comparable from non-Abrahamic religions?), and as far as I know, well-established religions find ways around failed predictions.

    It’s an interesting story because it lacks the usual sfnal balance of power. In Villains by Necessity and Good Omens, various sentient creatures have a chance to fight the end of the world, and win.

  72. >…the genes for the transcendance machinery have been in us all along, waiting to be triggered.

    That sounds a lot like Leary’s and Wilson’s eight circuits of consciousness, doesn’t it? ;-)

  73. If transcendent beings who understand the real workings of the universe, but cannot themselves be understood by humans, are enough to make a story SF … then a story in which a miracle occurs in response to Christian prayer would count as SF, because God is an active character in such a story, and certainly God would qualify as such a being. Which is obviously wrong. “Rationally knowable” must mean knowable by humans, or it means nothing at all.

    I think a better characterization of science fiction is: a story is science fiction when it’s meant to induce a process of rational enquiry in the mind of the reader.

    By that definition Clarke’s works become uniformly SF. Even those set in unintelligible worlds have as their protagonists people who are trying to understand them, and employ scientific methods when doing so; the reader is meant to follow their process of thought. That said process ends in failure is less significant than its existence and importance in the plot – the journey is more important than the destination.

  74. >I think a better characterization of science fiction is: a story is science fiction when it’s meant to induce a process of rational enquiry in the mind of the reader.

    This is essentially identical to the “bottom up” definition I am using, which is that SF is anything to which SF reading protocols – that is, rational inquiry about counterfactuals – can be applied. I argue that this is coextensive with and implied by the “top-down” Benford definition (affirmation of rational knowability).

    >Rationally knowable” must mean knowable by humans, or it means nothing at all.

    I think this is clearly wrong. What about rational knowability requiring, say, a minimum equivalent IQ of 300 – or any other figure above the human top-out at about 250? Does this not count? If it doesn’t, what about knowability that requires an IQ of 150, so some humans can achieve it but most cannot? Given that we have intelligence-enhancing nootropics now and future humans will almost certainly find better ones, I see no difference in principle between an IQ150 and an IQ300 cutoff.

    Your Christian-God case gets us nowhere because the Christian God is as essentially impossible in the same sense as a square circle. Trying to use Ol’ Nobodaddy in a thought experiment about rational knowability is as doomed as pursuing logical deduction from a self-contradicting premise; all you can get from the exercise is nonsense.

  75. @esr:
    >Your Christian-God case gets us nowhere because the Christian God is as essentially impossible in the same sense as a square circle. Trying to use Ol’ Nobodaddy in a thought experiment about rational knowability is as doomed as pursuing logical deduction from a self-contradicting premise; all you can get from the exercise is nonsense.

    You can get more than nonsense from the exercise. And in fact, you can make an argument against Michael’s point. Take his statement,

    “If transcendent beings who understand the real workings of the universe, but cannot themselves be understood by humans, are enough to make a story SF … then a story in which a miracle occurs in response to Christian prayer would count as SF, because God is an active character in such a story, and certainly God would qualify as such a being.”.

    The problem is that there’s a difference between Clarke’s Overmind and the Christian God, which is that the Overmind has large but finite computational capacity, while that of the Christian God is infinite. Even a rationally knowable concept that requires an IQ of 1000 to understand can still be rationally knowable for humans, because we can ask a question about the concept, put together a group of IQ 150 specialists that each focus on one facet of the concept, and get an answer.

    Specifying that the universe of a story must be rationally knowable with a finite IQ cutoff for the story to be Sci-Fi doesn’t make sense, but having a cutoff at infinity, specifying that the universe must be rationally knowable given arbitrarily large but finite computational capacity does.

  76. I’d count the monks in “Nine Billion Names of God” as more clearly using rational methods than the Overmind does. Their general style is very reasonable, while we have no idea what the Overmind is doing.

  77. Brian Marshall:
    “One [Asimov story] was more of a detective story in which a chemist claimed that any chemist could tell by the texture that what was in the jar was not what the label said.”

    Sounds like _A Whiff of Death_, one of his first mysteries. Definitely not science fiction, and not a very good mystery either. He wrote much better ones later in his career; some were SF, some not.

  78. “Why does it seem that most of the video SF works are all on the soft/putty side of SF and the hard stuff is mostly in books?”

    Because of economics. Hard stuff has a smaller audience, and the economics of books allows a writer to make a decent return on his efforts at writing and publishing a book. Video SF — movies and TV, not fan-produced stuff — requires a major investment and must appeal to a large audience in order to return that investment.

  79. “I never really understood why mankind, when faced with basically being erased from existence – it’s children appropriated to feed this “Overmind” thing, that they went quietly, that the implied attitude we were supposed to have was that the alien purposes of this Overmind were “something greater”, an improvement. Maybe resistance would have been futile in the setting, but on the one hand you have humanity with it’s works and technology and deliberate purpose – the lives they’ve built and the means they’ve developed to sustain themselves by choice. On the other hand, you have this outside force wiping all of that out by coopting the next generation, and leaving the rest of mankind to fail and die. Why wouldn’t humanity resist, however futilely?”

    I agree, and this is the main reason I didn’t like this story. Further, Clarke explicitly implies (but doesn’t state outright) that if the humans had had more children after the Overmind absorbed the first wave of kids, the second wave would not necessarily have been absorbed and humans could have continued.

    Except for the minor fact that the Overmind Humans destroy the Earth at the very end of the book, of course…

    Another flawed work of SF is Heinlein’s “Year of the Jackpot”. The idea behind this story is excellent. Many of the influences around us are cycle, so what would happen if all the cycles just happened to hit their worst points at the same time? This would lead and all kinds of mischief, and in the story it actually does so.

    Excellent stuff…except that on the very last page, the Sun goes nova and the human race is wiped out. Which makes everything that has gone on before it irrelevant. None of those cycles mattered, and the ending would be the same if only the last page had been written. Pointless! Yet there’s a very strong story here that should have ended with the marriage of Potiphar to Meade.

    This may be another case worthy of discussion in your book, Eric.

  80. >Because of economics.

    I think there’s something else going on: relative information density. The kind of exposition SF trades in requires the high bandwidth of print, not usually being the kind of thing effectively conveyed by visuals.

    Tellingly, the one non-print medium that classic SF does translate to well is games and sims, which can use interaction, multiple-path narratives, and documentation sidebars to achieve higher information density than a linear sequence of visuals.

  81. Cathy wrote: “on the very last page, the Sun goes nova and the human race is wiped out. Which makes everything that has gone on before it irrelevant.”

    Was Heinlein being humorous? It minds me of that segment from Allegro Non Troppo in which a very small domestic accident cascades into a nuclear holocaust.

  82. In answer to Nancy’s comment that I remind her of people from rec.arts.sf.written who gave her
    the impression that the strongest preference boundary isn’t between science fiction and fantasy, it’s between hard science fiction and the whole rest of the fantasy-to-science-fiction spectrum”, that is indeed my view.

    For example, I agree wholheartedly with Federico’s view that FTL is not science but fantasy. It’s intrinsically contradictory to pay lip service to Albert Einstein while ignoring the temporal implications of special relativity. No matter how you get from Earth to Andromeda galaxy, say, it will take over 2 million years earth-time to reach there, even if in the traveller’s proper time the journey may be over in a nanosecond; the return journey would bring the traveller back to Earth some 5 million years in the future.

    It would be far better to acknowledge the serious implications (including economic cost) of interstellar travel, and to base the story on those, than to blithely sweep these issues under the carpet of wishful thinking. Why even have FTL if the author couldn’t care less about the significance of it to the story?

    Wormholes, stargates, hyperspace, whatever, still have to respect physics and Minkowskian space-time – otherwise the author is throwing out Einstein and reinstating Galileo. Some have suggested that space might be made to fold over, but the energy and time this requires render this idea useless even for a trans-galactic overmind.

    The best one can say for a well-crafted story with FTL is that it’s SF with a fantasy element.

    A disrespect for scale is a clear indication that a work is fantasy, not SF. King-Kong keeps changing size? Fantasy. Superman’s strength is not consistently quantifiable? Fantasy. Planets are so close that their globes fill the sky? Fantasy.

    Star Trek and Doctor Who are fantasy more than they are SF. “Particle of the week” as many an episode’s deus ex machina? Get serious! How does the Tardis work? Who knows! These story elements are magic. It’s not even blackbox magic, because there is no behaviourist description of its interactions with itself or the real world.

    The fact is, we know more about the technology behind Harry Potter’s wand(s) than we do about how dilithium crystals power warp drive. (Crystals: whoo-whoo, they must have mystic, I mean “high-tech”, powers.)

    Harry Potter, for all it’s faults, is far from being pure fantasy. Rather, it is essentially an allegory for school; in some respects, it resembles Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with Harry as Tom Brown, and Tom Riddle (alias Voldemort) as Flashman.

    Is Tolkien’s world SF or Fantasy? The elves describe their “magic” as technology: the only differences between their abilities and those of “unmagical” human beings is that the elves have finer senses, clearer minds, steadier hands, and more time in which to practise their skills. Tolkien strove to make his world internally consistent, subject to predictable cause-and-effect, and it is indeed rationally knowable by both the readers and the characters, though Gandalf sometimes needed to go to a library or consult another person to acquire new knowledge. What’s more, this knowledge is itself easily comprehensible to a child reader, as much of hard SF is.

    Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is another world that’s built from fantastic axioms, but by using rational principles. The wizards are clearly academics, and their technology parallels earth tech. It’s quite steam-punk in spirit.

    Time-travel into the past so clearly violates conservation of energy-momentum. Moreover, how does the time machine occupy the same space-time location twice (or more times) as it travels back and forth in time? SF authors typically ignore this, which automatically makes their work fantasy.

  83. The Hacker Emblem, the Glider from the Game of Life, is a good illustration of a theory of knowledge that I support. Simply put, all that we imagine is drawn from experience: e.g. monsters are combinations of creatures or things that we’ve seen. What we can imagine does expand, but incrementally with our experience.

    What then of leaps of insight, such as sudden paradigm shifts? This is an orthogonal issue, because the new paradigm is also a construct from prior experience. The evolving patterns of the Game of Life illustrate how incrementalism leads to unexpected changes.

    Incidentally, the word “evolve” does not imply random change, but rather the outworking of internal logic. Genetics is, on many levels, a very mathematical science.

  84. “Clarke’s works become uniformly SF.”

    Clarke is actually a great example of how wide a range of genres can be fit under the SF uber-genre.

    The ultimate world-is-rationally-knowlable story: “Second Dawn”
    Mystery: “Trouble With Time”
    Prose poetry: “The Songs of Distant Earth” (short story)
    Puzzles: “Into The Comet”
    Horror: “A Walk In The Dark”
    Philosophy & Religion: “Nine Billion Names Of God”, “The Star”
    Psychological tension: “Breaking Strain”

    Still, I would argue that not all of his works are truly SF.

    “Let There Be Light” (or any of the other Harry Purvis stories)

    Cathy

  85. And this brings us back to free will. Sexual selection is one of the major drivers of evolution of a species, and this is of course a matter of choice. So, in this sense, species evolve of their own free will.

    As to the source of free will, I don’t have a complete answer, and I do respect Eric’s attempt to find it in knowledge relative to the observer, but this needs to be taken further.

    Special relativity implies that with knowledge of everything that is happening now, all future events can be predicted. However, that knowledge is physically impossible, because all events occurring “now” in any frame of reference necessarily have “spacelike” interrelation and are thus mutually inaccessible. Not to worry, because it’s enough to know everything that’s happened in the past light cone, i.e. all events prior to the one we’re predicting.

    Ah, but the past light cone includes the predicted event. Indeed, all the influences that could shape the event only come together in the instant that the event occurs. Consequently, all events can be known only in retrospect.

    What are the implications of this for free will? It implies that the strongest, indeed the defining, influence on any event occurs in the event itself. In particular, we are indeed the captains of our own will.

    SR taken seriously has clear implications for the nature of reality. Reality is local.

    Einstein was very uneasy about the dice-rolling aspect of quantum theory but he strangely failed to recognise that SR also creates a nondeterministic universe, a universe that is constructed locally and assembled into a more coherent system over time. In other words, in the basic kinematics of the cosmos there is both a primacy of the “individual” and the growth of a “community”.

    In quantum theory, there is contention between locality, reality and other so-called commonsense notions about physics. Relativistic quantum physics, a very strongly tested theory, perhaps raises the stakes further, but the relativity portion of it does clarify that our idea of reality would have to be reimagined even in a classical universe.

  86. The speed of light is clearly a vital component in our reality. It doesn’t matter what speed it has, only that it be nonzero and finite.

    A universe in which the speed of light were infinite would have instant knowledge of all events everwhere, right now. This would be Newton’s clockwork universe. The Greek philosopher Parmenides hypothesised such a world, a world that is “solid” and unchangeable throughout.

    If the speed of light were zero, there would be no communication. This would be a chaotic and unknowable universe of particles that never interacted. Heraclitus imagined such a world, made of the “element” of fire.

    Thales (flourished circa 600 BC) thought that “water” was the world’s primary element. Water, being a fluid, is changeable but interacts with itself and forms recognisable shapes, and is manifestly subject to organising principles such as chemistry and gravity.

  87. Geoffrey, I’ve just about finished reading _Time Reborn_ by Lee Smolin, which covers the issues below very well.

    Geoffrey Tobin:
    “Special relativity implies that with knowledge of everything that is happening now, all future events can be predicted.”

    Only in a classical world, not a quantum one.

    “SR taken seriously has clear implications for the nature of reality. Reality is local.”

    It has been argued at some length that a hidden variable theory could be created as a superset of quantum theory, making the same prediction locally while being more comprehensive at cosmological scales. Such a hidden variable theory requires nonlocal links for quantum entanglement to operate. But the nonlocal links don’t necessarily violate special relativity, depending on their details.

    Again, see _Time Reborn_. This book is by the author of the earlier _The Trouble With Physics_, which explained at length why string theories are fundamentally limited.

  88. Thanks, Cathy. In my youth I used to read Smolin, among others. Evidently I need to renew my acquaintance.

    As to string theory, it misses the mark in a number of ways. The idea of rolled-up dimensions is a good one, but the string enthusiasts seem to have missed the fact that we already know what several of these are! Both the strong and electroweak nuclear forces operate on them! What’s neat about these dimensions is that they interact nonlinearly, which solves a lot of problems, including, potentially, the origin of mass.

    The Higgs particle is the flavour of the season, but I’m sceptical of Peter Higgs’s claims for it, because anyone who’s tried to construct a kinematics for any spin-zero fundamental particle will have found it anomalously quadratic: all other particles follow the the linear Lorentz law.

    The nonlinearities in modern interacting field theories come about in two ways: (1) the self-interacting nature of the strong and electroweak forces, based as they are, respectively, on the SU(3) group and an SU(2)xU(1) subgroup; (2) the self-consistent application of both the Yang-Mills field equations and the Lorentz law of motion. Historically, most physicists shied away from a treatment of point (2), even though the highly relativistic motion and strong-coupling of the strong force require it.

    It turns out that a spherically symmetric solution (think: present universe) is most easily obtained by “entangling” an SU(2) subgroup of the SU(3) underlying the electroweak force with the SU(2) group of angular momentum. The original symmetry is thus “spontaneously” broken down to SU(2)xU(1); in other words, the electromagnetic and weak forces separate. This entangling of the hidden and visible compact dimensions (those of the weak force and with the literal angles of the visible macrocosm) also goes some way to explain the role of chirality (handedness) in the action of the weak force. In other words, an expanding universe plausibly gives rise to the emergence of electromagnetism and the weak force that we witness today.

    The above solution doesn’t require powerful or particularly lengthy mathematics to reach it, just a little care. I say that, because I made a stupid mistake when I checked my first (correct) attempt way back in 1979, and spent a wasted year trying to find an alternative solution, only eventually to discover that the error was in the check.

  89. Cathy, the quantum wave function of the universe can be predicted for all time if we know its state now. But special relativity makes that impossible. So quantum predictions fail (aren’t possible), even in principle, on large scales, e.g. for planetary or galactic motion. It’s just as well that we have other ways of estimating planetary and stellar orbits!

  90. “This is essentially identical to the “bottom up” definition I am using, which is that SF is anything to which SF reading protocols – that is, rational inquiry about counterfactuals – can be applied. I argue that this is coextensive with and implied by the “top-down” Benford definition (affirmation of rational knowability).”

    I follow the argument perfectly, thank you; but I still say that Childhood’s End is a counterexample. Unquestionably that story is one to which the SF reading protocols can be profitably applied. But it is not one that affirms the rational knowability of the world it depicts, unless being knowable to the Overmind counts – and it should not, for the same reason being knowable to God should not. Claiming that a being who is far superior to you understands the world far better than you can or ever will, and your best hope is to submit your judgement to its and follow its dictates, is about as far from the scientific mindset as you can get. (Note that this is exactly the attitude the Overlords take to the Overmind that sent them to Earth.)

    The only way I can see to save your theory is the one you’ve used for “The Nine Billion Names of God”, that the story depicts an unintelligible universe in order to affirm the intelligibility of the real world. That would, at least, not require denying the plain meaning of the story as it stands.

    “Your Christian-God case gets us nowhere because the Christian God is as essentially impossible in the same sense as a square circle.”

    Don’t let your anti-religious prejudice get in the way of the argument. The point is that the use of God as a narrative device is prima facie evidence against the narrative’s being SF, because “the Lord works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.” Any other being depicted in a story as mysterious, unintelligible, or incomprehensible to creatures like ourselves is at least as great a challenge to the principle of rational knowability as an explicit miracle.

    (By the way – rational knowability isn’t a principle confined to natural science. Under the name of the principle of sufficient reason it has been endorsed by philosophers and theologians for thousands of years … and the only man I ever heard of who denied it is David Hume, who was very much not a theist. But exploring the implications of the PSR would take us far away from the literary discussion.)

  91. @Geoffrey Tobin

    “For example, I agree wholheartedly with Federico’s view that FTL is not science but fantasy. It’s intrinsically contradictory to pay lip service to Albert Einstein while ignoring the temporal implications of special relativity.”

    People are waaaay too hard on FTL in science fiction. It’s not fantasy to postulate being able to travel faster than light – you can come up with perfectly plausible rationally knowable worlds where you can. In the 1800s we had no reason to believe we didn’t live in such a world. If any of the ether theories turned out to be correct, (and there are several that are pretty subtle and not so easy to dismiss – keep in mind that every interaction of our instruments are mediated by electromagnetic fields which would distort as we approached the speed of light even with some sort of Galilean relativity operating out there in the world!)

    Furthermore, making FTL consistent with special relativity isn’t impossible either. Not many bother to do it, but it can be done. (If you end up outside the light cone, you inevitably end up with the possibility of traveling backwards in time relative to some subset of inertial reference frames. So you end up getting time travel for free/as an unavoidable consequence.

    (Consider: you end up doing something similar to transitioning to spacelike travel when you cross the event horizon of a blackhole, and not many people ask hard questions about that!)

  92. Yes, FTL in a Minkowskian space implies the occurrence of time travel into the past, which, given my many objections to such time travel, is another reason I regard FTL as fantasy.

    As for black hole event horizons, that’s true (in the model). What this means for the tragic traveller is that the singularity becomes a point not in space but in the future: the traveller observes that space around him/her/it is collapsing; the singularity is the moment of collapse to a point, a finite time ahead: a big crunch.

    Can such a traveller on this spacelike path get out of the black hole to achieve time travel in the external universe? Not likely.

  93. @Geoffrey:
    >Yes, FTL in a Minkowskian space implies the occurrence of time travel into the past, which, given my many objections to such time travel, is another reason I regard FTL as fantasy.

    Only in the absence of privileged reference frames. Most Sci-Fi that doesn’t go for the time-travel angle implicitly assumes a privileged frame more or less at the same velocity as the rest frame of the local galactic environment in the setting. But your privileged frame need not be comoving, or even nearly so, with the bulk of local matter, nor, if it satisfies certain constraints, does it need to be constant in space or time. A Sci-Fi story that made use of this could be quite interesting indeed.

  94. @Jon Brase ao
    FTL travel.

    An interesting proposition would be that you can travel back in time, but only if you travel in space by the equivalent distance in light years (hours, minutes). That way you would not be able to change the history of the place/time you left. You also should not be able to touch any point between where you left and where you end up (hyperspace travel?).

    That runs into logical problems when you travel back to where you started. When would you arrive there? The only solution I can see would be to install a privileged reference frame which would define the same time point at every position.

  95. > It has been argued at some length that a hidden variable theory could be created as a superset of quantum theory, making the same prediction locally while being more comprehensive at cosmological scales.

    Actually [local] hidden variable theory was thorougly debunked by Bell inequalities experiments on entangled states.

  96. @Jakub Narebski
    “> It has been argued at some length that a hidden variable theory could be created as a superset of quantum theory, making the same prediction locally while being more comprehensive at cosmological scales.

    Actually [local] hidden variable theory was thorougly debunked by Bell inequalities experiments on entangled states.”

    Moreover, quantum physics has no problems with FTL traveling. That is a purely relativistic limit.

  97. In those SF stories where there is FTL travel (which doesn’t count as MacGuffin), it is treated in different ways.

    For example in Hain cycle by Ursula LeGuin we have FTL communication (ansible) and FTL bombs, but people doing interstar travel must account length of flight and relativistic effects. In “The Lost Fleet” series by John G. Hemry under the pen name Jack Campbell we have inter-stellar FTL flight, but in-system flight is non-FTL and must take into account finite speed of light and relativistic effects (and IMHO it is done well).

    IIRC in “Old Man’s War” series by John Scalzi FTL travel is made consistent with relativity of simultaneity from special relativity (i.e. that FTL is time-travel) by stating that each FTL travel is to alternate universe (the “trunk” theory of time-travel).

    @Winter
    > Moreover, quantum physics has no problems with FTL traveling. That is a purely relativistic limit.

    Without exotic matter states it is quantum fluctuations (IIRC from quantum field theory) that prevent closed time-like spacetime loops i.e. time travel ;-P

  98. @Jacob Narebski
    “Without exotic matter states it is quantum fluctuations (IIRC from quantum field theory) that prevent closed time-like spacetime loops i.e. time travel ;-P”

    Not something I would like to argue about ;-)

  99. > Tellingly, the one non-print medium that classic SF does translate to well is games and sims, which can use interaction, multiple-path narratives, and documentation sidebars to achieve higher information density than a linear sequence of visuals.

    I think you may have left out something important there: exposure time. Someone enjoying a novel or game tends to experience that piece of media for a much longer time than someone watching a film, and do so over multiple intervals. This means more time to digest the presented facts and reason forward from them. I’d actually suspect that this effect dominates the others, in fact.

    If this is true, then the appropriate way to adapt hard SF to a visual medium wouldn’t usually be an episodic TV series or a movie, but a TV series or miniseries with heavy continuity where a single story is presented over an entire season.

  100. >If this is true, then the appropriate way to adapt hard SF to a visual medium wouldn’t usually be an episodic TV series or a movie, but a TV series or miniseries with heavy continuity where a single story is presented over an entire season.

    Ah. You may just have explained why Babylon 5 didn’t suck.

  101. Once you start talking about other ways society coud run, it’s natural to ask if they’d be better or worse than what we have now

    If you are going to write a rattling good yarn about exciting people doing exciting things, it is going to be set in a society that has a place for heroes, hence somewhat anarchic or feudal, as justice and order is dispensed by heroes, a society modeled after thirteenth century Europe, heroic age Greece, saga period Iceland, wild west California. If there is government, it needs to be rather like the restoration period East India Company.

    East India Company environment is often made possible by having the fastest means of communication be an ftl ship, so that people on the edge of empire get away with stuff and present their theoretical masters with accomplished fact, that neither the capital nor headquarters can do much about. And then you are going to be favorably representing colonialism – which these days requires compensating progressive piety. For example John Scalzi favorably represented colonialism and military dictatorship, not necessarily because he liked them but for the sake of world where heroes could act heroically, and had to compensate with such extraordinary progressive piety as to make “scalzied” a word meaning castrated by political correctness.

    For example thirteenth century Europe with magic is most of the fantasy genre, and the wild west in the asteroid belt is a substantial party of the asteroid belt genre. Since you are writing from the point of view of your heroes, and your heroes are good people, it is almost impossible to do thirteenth century Europe without being pro feudalism, yet these days, if a writer takes a pro feudalism point of view, he is likely to get the Donald Sterling treatment, and anyone who protests the Donald Sterling treatment also gets the Donald Sterling treatment.

    This fate is avoided by smothering your world with progressive tropes. For example wild west in the asteroid belt is usually a sickeningly pro feminist, anti slavery, anti capitalist, wild west. Even when the wild west in the asteroid belt is written by anarcho capitalists to illustrate that anarcho capitalism is a good thing, their bad guys tend to be the evil giant corporation practicing slavery and male supremacy.

    In reality, you cannot really have Wild West in the asteroid belt, or a magical thirteenth century Europe, without patriarchy. If most law is private law, people are not going to be equal. In any environment favorable for heroes and heroism there is going to be a lot of inequality, and the heroes are going to be just fine with that. Criminals, including vagrants, will be tossed out the airlock or enslaved. Women will be dependent on their protectors.

  102. @Geoffrey:
    >The Higgs particle is the flavour of the season, but I’m sceptical of Peter Higgs’s claims for it, because anyone who’s tried to construct a kinematics for any spin-zero fundamental particle will have found it anomalously quadratic: all other particles follow the the linear Lorentz law.

    This relates tangentially to something I’ve been wondering: What macroscopic significance does the spin of a force-carrying boson have? I know that spin in general is supposed to relate to angular momentum, and I know that the observed force carriers have spin one, while the graviton is supposed to have spin 2 if it exists because of certain properties of general relativity. I know that the Higgs isn’t a force carrier, but there are toy models that use spin-zero force carriers for demonstrative purposes. But what difference does spin actually make here?

  103. James, there’s a lot more to medieval Europe than the modern tropes. Did the women need men to protect them? Not as a rule. You’d think that the 15th century Joan of Arc was the only significant female knight, but in the 12th century, Empress Maud was a courageous knight (she was shot in the chest by an arrow during battle against King Stephen but was undaunted), and in the 11th century so were Countess Matilda of Canossa (she who fought many battles to beat the Holy Roman Emperor out of Italy) and the cheerfully plucky fighter Isabel of Montfort whom the historian Orderic Vitalis fairly swooned over as a veritable Amazon. When Ralph de Gael’s 1075 rebellion against William the Conqueror failed, he fled to Denmark, leaving his wife in charge of Norwich Castle. “Black Agnes” was a renowned Scottish commander. Anne de Beaujeu was the supreme commander of the French army during the Mad War of the late 1400s.

    What about property laws? In 9th century Brittany, charters cited the law that aristocrats, male or female, could give what they liked to whomever they liked, male or female, and could make whomever they liked their heir. In the 12th century, King Henry I chose his daughter, the aforesaid Empress Maud, as his heir, and Duke Conan III disinherited his son Hoel in favour of his daughter Bertha.

    What of the condition of the common folk? Records show that 9th century peasants owned land and fenced it off (for example with banks and hedges), and exercised their right to sue the lords of the manor in court.

    Scenarios in feudal times needn’t be pro-slavery. William the Conqueror abolished slavery in England.

    The author’s heroic protagonists needn’t be pro-feudal stereotypes. King William’s most powerful military commander, the very heroic Alan Rufus, was a jurist and mercantilist: he built a market, trade fair and port at the tiny hamlet of Boston in Lincolnshire, so turning it into one of Europe’s leading ports; he also regularised taxes (abolishing the onerous and unpredictable danegeld and replacing it with a uniform levy to pay for the law courts), supplemented his income with tolls and by being a trader himself, and minimised the disruptive conscription of farmers by maintaining a professional standing army at his own expense. In accord with Breton custom, the King, other commanders and the royal sheriffs were firmly kept out of Alan’s domain. In a crisis, his was the “calm, clear voice”. Moreover, Alan was frank but courteous with high and low alike; in memoirs written by feudal inferiors he was described as “our friend”.

    I realise that Norman-era magnates are not your typical frontier hero, but this was an age when even the high and mighty went on adventures of derring-do. After allying with the English to defeat most of the Norman barons of England, Alan died mysteriously on an “impenetrably obscure” mission, so there’s great material for a complex story of politics, diplomacy, military conflict, espionage and private investigation.

    Space opera writers could easily draw inspirations from the larger-than-life characters of this tumultuously interesting era.

  104. SF buffs may be interested to read that Alan Rufus was lord of Cambridge where he founded an institute of learning (the University coat-of-arms bears an ermine cross in memory of his homeland), his family consistently promoted learning (and later the printing press), and the Smithsonian Institution was founded by a male-line descendant (James Smithson) of one of his men (Hardwin de Scales). Recall also that Harvard was founded by Cambridge academics, so Alan’s indirectly responsible for American Football!

  105. James, there’s a lot more to medieval Europe than the modern tropes. Did the women need men to protect them? Not as a rule.

    The events leading up to the marriage of William the Marshal would suggest otherwise.

    Heiresses without protectors were prey.

    William the Marshal wooed and won his young, wealthy, and beautiful bride with his terrible swift sword.

  106. @Geoffery Taubin

    *The Higgs particle is the flavour of the season, but I’m sceptical of Peter Higgs’s claims for it, because anyone who’s tried to construct a kinematics for any spin-zero fundamental particle will have found it anomalously quadratic: all other particles follow the the linear Lorentz law.*

    When Dirac went fishing for admissible forms of a Lorenz invariant wave equation in his QP book, the first one he came up with was in terms of second-order derivatives. He ended up rejecting it as “unsatisfactory”, and then came up with his first order equation that necessarily required the vector-or-higher nature for the field.

    But why did he reject the second-order (or higher) equation? He referred to a previous chapter that turned out to be about something else entirely.

    (Personally, seeing as how spin in any higher-level construct (orbital angular momenta) has to do with how the wavefunction is actually spinning around in some potential well, and how intrinsic particle spin exchanges with these states and is tied to magnetic moments and mass moments *exactly how you would expect it to be* if there were some internal motion going on, I’m baffled why quantum physicists deflect any attempts to try to come up with any sort of internal model for particles in terms of some sort of orbiting scalar wave (yes I know there are topological difficulties with spin-1/2). Instead, it seems they are content to leave it as a property of “intrinsic vectorness” of the particle and not model it any more directly or explain why it is interconverts with these other properties (moments of the motion of wave-packets) of (if you leave things at that) quite different origins and natures.)

    (Yes, I’m still trying to learn this stuff. Yes, I’m frustrated that when I ask these questions, I get a bunch of Lie algebra barf and nothing to tie it to a physical model.)

  107. James: “Heiresses without protectors were prey”. In the proverbial lion’s den? So were most peasants. The point is that there are heroines.

    Sometimes the defender of a woman was another woman, such as the aforementioned Matilda of Canossa, Countess of Tuscany. She well deserves the great credit she has received for freeing the Italian city states from German domination, thus paving the way for the Renaissance.

    When Empress Maud’s first husband the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V died, she married Count Geoffrey V of Anjou. Geoffrey’s family were famous for their prowess in battle, but he stayed home for the duration of Maud’s war in England from 1139 to 1153 (he died in 1151).

    Duchess Constance of Brittany heartily disliked her second husband, Earl Ranulf of Chester, so, despite support from Henry II and then King John, he wasn’t allowed any authority in Brittany. After 10 years of a childless marriage Constance had her marriage with Ranulf annulled and she married Viscount Guy of Thouars instead.

    Queen Elizabeth I made great play of her weakness as a woman, but who dared defy her?

    Incidentally, WIlliam Marshal was trained and knighted by William de Tancarville, whose mother Tiphanie was Alan Rufus’s fraternal niece.

  108. To ams: Yes, spin angular momentum is intriguing. Maybe Roger Penrose’s twistor theory has some insights on the topological question of spin-half?

    Entwining of properties arises in interesting ways, e.g. isospin with intrinsic spin in the electroweak force. No-one has suggested that isospin is therefore a kind of angular momentum. So perhaps the entwining of orbital AM and spin AM doesn’t imply that they are the same kind of thing?

  109. James: even the “weaker” (Orderic thought “sneakier”) medieval women often pushed their men around. Matilda of Flanders told her husband William the Conqueror to whom to give land. Imogen of Dol urged her brother Riwallon to invite William to defend them against Duke Conan of Brittany (a war depicted in three panels of the Bayeux tapestry).

    After Isabel de Montfort spoke slightingly of Helvise de Nevers, Helvise, being no warrior, demanded that her husband Guillaume d’Evreux defend her honour by attacking the castle at Conches-en-Ouche, held by Isabel and her husband Raoul II de Tosny. (Raoul, by the way, was one of William the Conqueror’s proven companions.)

  110. @JAD
    “Heiresses without protectors were prey.”

    You must supply time and place.

    “Medieval times” are just a big container to throw in everything that happened on the European continent between the fall of Rome and the fall of Byzantium. On this scale, for every example there is a counter example.

    The times before ~1000 AD are utterly different from those after ~1000 AD. Charlemagne was medieval, as were the Vikings, emperor Otto I, Cosimo de Medici, and Henry VI of England.

  111. @JAD

    “Heiresses without protectors were prey.”

    Winter:

    You must supply time and place.

    I did “the marriage of William the Marshal”. If you don’t recognize the reference, you don’t know enough about the topic to hold a discussion

    The times before ~1000 AD are utterly different from those after ~1000 AD.

    From the Charles the Hammer to William the Marshal, there was the kind of aristocratic anarchy that makes for interesting tales. Nobles got away with doing exciting stuff. Justice was privately owned and privately dispensed. Bishops wore armor and carried big hammers. The adventurers licensed by Charles the great to prey upon the Muslims were as much heroes and bandits as William the Marshal was. In this disorder, Kings were merely first among equals, and the bonds of family were a major organizing principle. Families were linked through patriarchal marriage.

  112. Geoffrey Tobin on 2014-07-15 at 09:51:47 said:

    James: even the “weaker” (Orderic thought “sneakier”) medieval women often pushed their men around.

    In patriarchy, the wife is required to submit and obey, the husband to cherish and protect. These are not examples of women pushing their husbands around.

  113. James:

    “Heiresses without protectors were prey”.

    Geoffrey Tobin

    In the proverbial lion’s den? So were most peasants. The point is that there are heroines.

    Successful heroines, such as Queen Elizabeth, conformed to the proper and appropriate female role within a patriarchal society. The famously large and strong wife of Robert Guisdcard the Weasel, Sichelgaita, fought in armor beside her husband and her husband’s many sons. But she fought in battle beside her husband – under his authority and in submission to him.

  114. We could be at this all year, but my position would remain that in patriarchal societies, occasionally there are women whose force of character is so great that it overrides the usual strictures. I speak here of their political roles, which are significant even for those who played the feminine social roles to a tee. In several of the examples below, one might argue that the woman had become the patriarch, because their men were rightly afraid of them. In the other instances, even the husbands were very much in the lady’s shadow, at most in a supportive role, and in some cases completely out of the picture (or else!).

    Ancient Egypt: Hatshepsut and Cleopatra.
    Ancient Britain: Boudicca.
    Medieval England: Empress Maud. (As mentioned, Maud led her own armies to England, while her husband, although a strong warrior, was left behind to mind Anjou’s home front.)
    Spain: Catherine of Aragon.
    Tudor England: Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.
    Modern England’s Conservative Party: Margaret Thatcher.
    Tsarist Russia: Catherine the Great.
    Modern India: Indira Gandhi. (“I am not a feminist.” No, because she was an Indira-ist.)
    Modern Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto.
    Modern Sri Lanka: Sorry, I’ve forgot her name.
    Modern Bangla Desh: Two powerful women, leading their respective parties, who both became Prime Minister, and whose strongest enemies were each other.
    Modern Myanmar (Burma): Aung San Suu Kyi.

  115. On a personal note, in my family the women, while appropriately feminine, definitely dominate the decision-making; this has been true for at least four generations (since the Victorian mid-1800s at the latest). No-one in the family disputes this.

  116. @Geoffrey Tobin
    “We could be at this all year, but my position would remain that in patriarchal societies, occasionally there are women whose force of character is so great that it overrides the usual strictures.”

    People have a tendency to follow those that lead them to success. Simple selection will help those who follow a successful woman more than those who follow an unsuccessful man. See Indira Ghandi and Benazir Butto. The name you were looking for was Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Add to these Golda Meir and Angela Merkel for more civilized countries.

    Remember the story of Steve Jobs? When he re-entered Apple as a consultant, people simply ignored the existing hierarchy and followed him. That happens always, whether it is men or women. Prejudice is simply a very bad adviser. Catherin the Great was great, as was Elizabeth I. And both did everything forbidden to a woman.

    @JAD
    “Successful heroines, such as Queen Elizabeth, conformed to the proper and appropriate female role within a patriarchal society.”

    That is a disconnect worthy of a Blackadder episode.

  117. “Again, the right question to ask is whether the Rama and 2001 universes are rationally knowable from the point of view of the aliens.”

    You might as well ask if the Bible is rationally knowable from the point of view of God. I don’t think there’s much difference in practice between introducing a notion of a “higher tier” of thought which biological humans (or AIs or uploads running on turing machines, etc) are incapable of reaching unmodified, and being a universe which is not rationally knowable.

  118. >You might as well ask if the Bible is rationally knowable from the point of view of God.

    Only if your God has finite computational capacity. Otherwise there is a major difference in principle.

    To see this, consider the problem from the other end. SF premise: superintelligent aliens land tomorrow and inform us that there’s a Theory of Everything, but you need an IQ just slightly above the top end of the human range to understand it.

    If you consider this not a rationally knowable universe, how does your evaluation change when, later in the novel, humans discover a nootropic that can boost the IQ of someone already in the genius range to the required level?

  119. “superintelligent aliens land tomorrow and inform us that there’s a Theory of Everything, but you need an IQ just slightly above the top end of the human range to understand it.”

    Thinking of intelligence as merely computational capacity is a badly misleading simplification, and scenarios like this one show why. Humans aren’t “more intelligent” than other species on Earth because we can do the same types of reasoning that other species do but better and faster; we are more intelligent because we do types of reasoning that no other species can manage at all. What IQ measures is how well one does the types of reasoning that only humans characteristically do. So if a scientific theory can be understood by a being with sufficiently high IQ, that means it can be understood by reasoning within the human capacities.

    In Childhood’s End: the Overmind is not superior to the human and Overlord characters because it has more reasoning power than they do. It’s superior because it has psychic powers – and psychic powers cannot be understood by anyone who lacks them. (If they could be, the Overlords would understand how they work.) Therefore Childhood’s End describes a universe that cannot be understood by reasoning within the (real) human capacities. The difference is one of quality.

  120. If God exists, then it might be possible for humans to achieve His omniscience, though presumably not all of His powers at the same time.

  121. >It’s superior because it has psychic powers – and psychic powers cannot be understood by anyone who lacks them.

    OK, now suppose the aliens have a drug that temporarily gives human beings those powers. Is this a rationally knowable universe?

    My point is that the inaccessibility of any finite being’s mentation is of a very different kind than the inaccessibility of the thought processes of a (hypothetical, and actually impossible) theistic God.

  122. Winter on 2014-07-16 at 02:45:59 said:

    Catherin the Great was great, as was Elizabeth I. And both did everything forbidden to a woman.

    Catherine the great was a villain and a disaster for Russia, not a heroine. Queen Elizabeth always conducted herself as was proper for a woman in a patriarchal society.

  123. Queen Elizabeth always conducted herself as was proper for a woman in a patriarchal society.

    I’m in the middle of Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t, and the last section mentioned how Elizabeth made a point of using as objectionable language as she could come up with specifically to distance herself from the feminine stereotypes.

  124. >Catherine the great was a villain and a disaster for Russia, not a heroine.

    Russian historians consider her reign the golden age of the Russian Empire. On the evidence (economic growth, successful territorial expansion, continued introduction of Western technology, rise in living standards) I can hardly fault them.

  125. “OK, now suppose the aliens have a drug that temporarily gives human beings those powers. Is this a rationally knowable universe?”

    That’s not the situation in Childhood’s End, so what’s the point of the question?

    For what it’s worth, there are SF books in which psychic powers are rationally knowable phenomena – for instance, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, or Julian May’s books. Telepathy as such isn’t the issue.

  126. On the matter of female rulers, the English “kingdom” of Mercia was matrilineal from at least the early 800s. Here is a list of known hereditary Queens of Mercia:

    Ælfflæd (flourished 840) = Wigmund of Mercia
    Eadburh = Æthelred Mucil (Eadburh is a known descendant of an earlier queen, possibly Ælfthryth)
    Ealhswith = Alfred the Great (she died 902 December 5; he died in 911)
    Æthelflæd = Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (he died 911; she ruled Mercia from 901×911; she died 918 June 12)
    Ælfwynn (deposed by her uncle Edward the Elder by 918 December)

    Æthelflæd was a formidable military tactician and builder of fortresses: Bridgnorth (912); Tamworth (913); Stafford (913); Eddisbury (914); Warwick (914); Chirbury (915); Runcorn (915), Bremesburh, Scergeat and Weardbyrig. In 916 she led an expedition into Wales to avenge the murder of a Mercian abbot, and captured the wife of the king of Brycheiniog. The Welsh kingdoms of Dyfed, Powys and Gwynedd acknowledged her overlordship. Sir Frank Stenton stated that reliance on Æthelflæd enabled her brother Edward the Elder to defeat the Danes who were occupying south-east England.

  127. I’m in the middle of Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t, and the last section mentioned how Elizabeth made a point of using as objectionable language as she could come up with specifically to distance herself from the feminine stereotypes.

    That she cursed is true. That she did so to distance herself from feminine stereotypes is unlikely considering her dress (always as a virgin) and her speeches, which explicitly emphasized that she ruled in conformity with feminine stereotypes.

    For example, Elizabeth never commanded in war – though, of course, she chose who did command.

  128. @JAD
    “That she did so to distance herself from feminine stereotypes is unlikely considering her dress (always as a virgin) and her speeches, which explicitly emphasized that she ruled in conformity with feminine stereotypes.”

    You should not stop at cloths and speeches. She was a single, working woman.

    Role of Women in Elizabethan Times
    https://sites.google.com/site/nothingbutshakespeare/role-of-women-in-elizabethan-times

    Marriage

    Elizabethan women were expected to marry
    People were suspicious with single women
    Single women were often associated with witches
    Elizabethan women are suppose to be dependant of their male relative throughout their entire life
    Marriage was desirable for lower class women
    With parental permission, it is legal for girls at 12 years of age to marry

  129. @JAD
    “and was generally believed to be a virgin.”

    And anyone who said differently was a traitor. And we know what was done with traitors.

  130. @JAD

    was generally believed to be virgin.

    Winter:

    And anyone who said differently was a traitor. And we know what was done with traitors.

    If to doubt her virginity was treason, then Elizabethan England was patriarchal, and Elizabeth was conforming, or appearing to conform, to gender roles.

    If it became known that she had sex with someone, she would then be required to submit to that man, obey him, and honor him. (Sex with a woman, of course, would not count)

    Which makes it unlikely she did have sex with a man.

  131. Then how, James, do you explain that Empress Maud and Queen Victoria did not submit to their husbands?

    Empress Maude, the sole legitimate heir to the throne, was a shrew. For her failure to conform to patriarchal roles, and the inability of her husbands to properly discipline her, she and her family lost the throne. Had she shown proper respect, she would have remained a married woman, remained queen, and been the mother of Kings.

    Queen Victoria did submit in the domestic sphere. As for the public sphere, Parliament issued different rules. Parliament also legally ended patriarchy with the Matrimonial causes act of 1857, wherein if a wife walked out on her husband, she suffered no disability, it was as if her vows had never been made, but if a husband walked out on his wife, he was toast.

    Before 1820 or so, the general view was that women were the uncontrollably lustful sex, and that if they were not kept under firm control, the family would collapse, and soon thereafter society would collapse.

    The left, on the other hand pushed the theory that women were naturally chaste, except that brutal men forced themselves upon them, and that to prove a woman was unchaste was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence, and no evidence could ever be sufficiently extraordinary. Thus, it was completely wrong to penalize women who broke their marital vows, because no woman ever broke her marital vows, except perhaps cruel men forced her to do so, which view was given practical effect around 1820 or so, and legal effect in the matrimonial causes act 1859.

    Around 1940 or so, this theory of the natural chastity of women somehow evaporated, and with it first wave feminism. Feminism retreated, and fertility recovered.

    Then, starting in the late sixties, we had second wave feminism: That sexual autonomy of women, and the natural environment, is sacred, and being sacred, women have to have total sexual autonomy, no matter what the cost to others and themselves, and no matter what promises they have given.

    (The left thinks itself utilitarian, but that is just a rationale for hating and harming those near them. In actual practice they are far more motivated by sacredness than the right is, in part because everything the right used to hold sacred as been systematically and spitefully desecrated.)

    One big problem with female sexual autonomy being sacred is that once the natural father has been ripped away from his children, you get a big conflict between mum’s sexual autonomy and the daughters sexual autonomy, because mum is apt to loan her daughter to visiting boyfriends.

    So now the family is collapsing, and society is starting to go the same way.

  132. James, now I see where you are coming from. I don’t propose to tackle the complex issues of modern society here and now. Instead, I confine myself to pointing out that while Empress Maud’s acerbity certainly was a big factor in her failure to hold the throne of England, she nonetheless succeeded by treaty in obtaining the throne for her son Henry II and his descendants.

  133. @JAD
    “One big problem with female sexual autonomy being sacred is that once the natural father has been ripped away from his children, you get a big conflict between mum’s sexual autonomy and the daughters sexual autonomy, because mum is apt to loan her daughter to visiting boyfriends.”

    Eh?

    What kind of people do you associate with? Do you get out at all?

  134. @JAD
    “One big problem with female sexual autonomy being sacred is that once the natural father has been ripped away from his children, you get a big conflict between mum’s sexual autonomy and the daughters sexual autonomy, because mum is apt to loan her daughter to visiting boyfriends.”

    Eh? Where do you live? I would move if I were you.

  135. @JAD

    “One big problem with female sexual autonomy being sacred is that once the natural father has been ripped away from his children, you get a big conflict between mum’s sexual autonomy and the daughters sexual autonomy, because mum is apt to loan her daughter to visiting boyfriends.”

    Winter on 2014-07-24 at 04:22:14 said:

    Eh? Where do you live? I would move if I were you.

    Even though the left gave up on the theory that women were naturally pure and chaste in the late 1930s or during World War II, it lives on.

    Obviously no woman ever says “Hey, you can have two for the price of one”, but somehow they don’t exactly quite say you cannot have two for the price of one.

    Are you going to tell me that this is an extraordinary claim, which requires extraordinary evidence?

  136. @JAD
    “Obviously no woman ever says “Hey, you can have two for the price of one”, but somehow they don’t exactly quite say you cannot have two for the price of one.

    Are you going to tell me that this is an extraordinary claim, which requires extraordinary evidence?”

    Yes. As I know women who would murder anyone who touches their children, but no women who would rent out their daughters, I do require extraordinary evidence.

    It happens, but when it does, it is a case for law enforcement.

  137. >What kind of people do you associate with? Do you get out at all?

    I regret to inform you that that JAD is right about at least part of this. I’ve heard multiple reports from the U.S.’s profoundly dysfunctional ghetto culture of women sexually loaning out their daughters. Enough to suggest there’s a pattern of it.

    I believe this partly because it makes sense in evolutionary terms. If you are female and think a man’s genetic material is good enough for your offspring, why not increase the expected fitness of your daughters’ offspring in the same way?

  138. I would take the milder point of view that JAD is not entirely wrong. I’ve read a fair number of accounts of sexual abuse by the people who suffered it, and one’s mother’s boyfriend/one’s stepfather is a significant risk.

    However, the accounts seem to be of negligent mothers rather than mothers who offer their daughters as part of the deal.

  139. @esr
    “I believe this partly because it makes sense in evolutionary terms. If you are female and think a man’s genetic material is good enough for your offspring, why not increase the expected fitness of your daughters’ offspring in the same way?”

    I think this is more like lionesses who do not stop a new male from killing her offspring after its biological father has been defeated.

    It is well known that desperate single young mothers are in danger of sacrificing their current offspring of previous companions for the chance of a new partner that “might” take care of his own new offspring. The daughters (and sons) are sacrificed in such cases. There is little prospects of these daughters successfully raising any resulting children.

  140. >However, the accounts seem to be of negligent mothers rather than mothers who offer their daughters as part of the deal.

    From a germ-line point of view there’s that much difference between these cases. Failure to guard their daughters executes the same strategy as actively loaning them out.

  141. However, the accounts seem to be of negligent mothers rather than mothers who offer their daughters as part of the deal.

    I don’t think any woman consciously, explicitly, and overtly offers her daughters as part of the deal. Like sex “It just happens” and, like sex, the mother somehow fails to stop it from happening.

    And, although you would all like to believe it only “Just happens” among ghetto chicks with sixteen welfare children banging ghetto thugs, my (statistically insignificant) observations of this phenomena are primarily of high IQ high socioeconomic status divorced white women.

  142. > Yes. As I know women who would murder anyone who touches their children,
    > but no women who would rent out their daughters, I do require
    > extraordinary evidence.

    Well, I cannot convince you then. All I can say is that my experience of women has been different. Women are a lot more selective than men, but when they select, they have less self control, not more. All women are Medea.

    > It happens, but when it does, it is a case for law enforcement.

    Is it? Who is going to contact law enforcement.

  143. @JAD
    “Is it? Who is going to contact law enforcement.”

    The children. Rape is still illegal in most countries.

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