What I have learned from science fiction

I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.

Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.

Here are some of them…

SF taught me to seek adaptationist and functionalist accounts of behavior – to see individual action as coping patterns for environmental pressures, to see societies as adaptive machines, to see species as situated within entire ecologies and causally linked to the entire ecosphere.

By speculating on alien nature, SF taught me that there is such thing as human nature, that it is biologically grounded and rooted in the evolutionary history of our species. When sociobiology and evolutionary psychology began to emerge from the scientific study of human and animal behavior, only a few details surprised me; SF had already trained me to think in that direction years before.

SF taught me that the universe has neither malice nor pity. It is what it is. Its laws are inexorable; but clever sophonts can learn to use them rather than be used by them.

SF taught me a particular kind of duty to ourselves, to our neighbors, to all intelligent life: to be rational. To seek truth and face it squarely, because clear understanding of how things actually work is the most powerful tool and the sharpest weapon and the greatest wealth.

Philosophy taught my forebrain that I should never stop questioning my premises – that rigidified belief systems are more dangerous and limiting that mere ignorance, and that evidence always wins over theory. SF taught me to live that kind of rational skepticism with my whole self, not just my forebrain; it taught my gut and my reflexes, too.

Science taught me to know intellectually the immense scale of space and time, the myriad levels of complexity between subatomic particle and universe. SF taught me to feel these things.

SF taught me to value intelligence and competence and honest dealing wherever I might find it. SF taught me not to care even about the number of limbs on a sophont, or whether it breathes oxygen or fluorine, or whether it runs on a carbon or silicon substrate. After that, how could I hold any prejudices based on silly trivia like skin color or the shape of genitals?

I didn’t need SF to teach me to love and value freedom, but it reinforced that value by showing me that political power is the natural enemy of the future.

In his poem Little Gidding T. S. Eliot famously wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” SF taught me what Eliot meant by that, long before I actually read it.

SF taught me to collect skills and competence rather than possessions. SF taught me to want to be a polymath, showed me significant parts of how to achieve that goal, and helped me decide that the only interesting game for polymaths to play is “change the world”.

Most importantly, SF taught me what is variously called “systems thinking” or “holistic perspective” – to be suspicious of neat monocausal models, to always be looking for the next and more inclusive level of explanation, to be unsurprised by emergent behaviors, to favor cross-disciplinary approaches and unusual perspectives.

Most of what is good in my life has proceeded from these habits of thought.

96 thoughts on “What I have learned from science fiction

  1. >In his poem Little Gidding T. S. Eliot famously wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” SF taught me what Eliot meant by that, long before I actually read it.

    I guess I understand you and T.S Elliot by having read this Zen koan:

    When I first started the path towards enlightenment, I saw sees as sees and mountains as mountains. But when I proceeded further and opened my eyes to truth and understanding, I no longer saw sees as sees and mountains as mountains. Finally, I was enlightened and became a master. I now see sees as sees and mountains as mountains.

    About the entire post:

    Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of science fiction. As a child I enjoyed reading Jules Verne’s books like “Around the World in Eighty Days”, “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” with great pleasure but I lost my appetite to this literary genre at some point in my teenage years (I’m 22 now). I still read Kurt Vonnegut (e.g. Slaughterhouse-Five which I read recently), if it can be regarded as SF-type.

    In the world of cinema though, I admire Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Matrix I (and not it’s sequels). These are mind-blowing films which I really like but the problem is finding a good film among the myriad of new ones produced each year. There are lots of poorly-made B-grade (so-called) movies out there and I sometimes become puzzled which one to choose. I think you can do me (and probably your other inexperienced regulars) a good favor by letting me know your list of favorite FS stuff (books, films, etc). O.K,…I know it will be too long a list. Even just a couple must-reads/must-sees will suffice.

  2. In my days of junior high school (as a fat, pasty kid who corrected his teachers at any opportunity), SF taught me that smart people tend to find their way in the world, eventually.

    SF taught me to pay attention in physics class, tolerate general science classes and the value of spending at least a few hours alone, every day.

    SF reiterated that school should never interfere with my education, an idea I picked up from one of my favorite authors.

    SF taught me not to point out the obvious in others. After all, Klingons do tend to stink, they can’t help it. I think Schultz made a stab at that with pig pen. Now, here I am, the father of a child who was born with Microtia. I’m thankful for SF, or that would have been a lesson in life that really hurt. How would I feel when she comes home crying that someone teased her about her ear, when I did the same as a boy? Thankfully, I didn’t.

    Finally, SF lets me go to bed at night, feeling like the next day may yield some positive direction in this world. I always think “Sure, its fiction .. for now.”

    Good post Eric :)

  3. This is a plain rant. A series of simple-minded shallow slogans, rants and horseshits. If one wants to better feels the world, level up his understanding of the universe, my suggestion is theoretical physics. Hawking’s books are so amusing. Much better than sf.

  4. >Please, Eric, can we get some pruning here, please? I don’t need or want to read trolls here.

    You’re right. I’ve been disturbed at some of the contentless crap being uttered here lately. I’ll do some deleting.

  5. The question, as always with science fiction, is, what is science fiction, and what is not. The interesting, good science fiction stories are not the ones with lasers and heroes, but the short thought experiments.

    I just have a little collection of short stories by William Tenn here on my desk (“The Wooden Star”, 1968). Each of these is not science fiction on the grounds of playing _in_the_future_. Instead, they explore thoughts about human nature, mostly just a single motif. After reading one, you don’t just put it aside, you think about it in your free time.

    This is the difference between Science Fiction and Space Opera&Fantasy.

  6. I didn’t need SF to teach me to love and value freedom, but it reinforced that value by showing me that political power is the natural enemy of the future.

    Define freedom. I am not so sure if I agree that politics is the sole enemy of freedom or that technological progress will lead to greater freedom. I have been reading Industrial Society and Its Future, and Kaczynski does make some insightful points. The march of science and technology has led to an increased ability to monitor and control people, and societal restraints can easily be overcome.

  7. >The interesting, good science fiction stories are not the ones with lasers and heroes, but the short thought experiments.

    Or the very long thought experiments. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem stands out as a recent example.

  8. >I am not so sure if I agree politics is the sole enemy of freedom

    Of course it’s not the sole enemy of freedom, but it is probably the most important one.

    The reasoning is very simple: political power elites always want to freeze existing power relationships in place with themselves remaining at the top. That is why they are the natural enemies of the future.
    .

  9. I second Anathem. It really should get more recognition as the modern day classic that it is.

  10. >I second Anathem. It really should get more recognition as the modern day classic that it is.

    It has been my considered opinion since 1997 that Greg Egan’s Diaspora is the best hard-SF novel in the history of the genre. Anathem is the first serious challenger for that title since.

  11. ESR, I am not exactly sure how hard Anathem is considering the time-space travel.

  12. @Svante:
    Terry Pratchett said (and I tend to agree) that ‘The Evolution Man‘ by Roy Lewis (the book has changed titles a couple of times) was one of the best SF novels, and it had no rockets, no space travel, just hominids in the Pleistocene.

    I highly recommend it.

  13. awesome timing!! just about a month ago, I had a similar conversation with a professor at my school on how my complex systems understanding is rooted in my understanding of asimovs foundation series.. I have read very little science fiction(only popular ones like all of asimovs, rama series & dune series which is probably just a very small subset of the huge category of science fiction) but I can relate to a lot of current world things through science fiction.

    I am based out of India.. Asimovs books has borrowed lots of ideas from imperialism era.. he has borrowed heavily from british east india company & british history etc… & more awesome stuff when you relate to it.. even, most of my economics(trading, technology etc…) understanding was through asimov’s foundation series even before I took courses in economics.. (more from a austrian perspective tho.. which is what is showcased in most science fiction anyways..) Asimov had a very unique systems thinking perspective wherein he would also incorporate a lot of psychology, literature, philosophy in very subtle ways.. people who are sensitive to these things will find it awesome..

    In someways, I owe a lot to science fiction, especially asimov for helping me understand life from all perspective..

    great post!

  14. Yes. That last sentence did remind me of Spiral Dynamics, which, while interesting, is decidedly not SF (or maybe it is if you’re not the type that buys into that sort of thing ;) Anyway, one can hardly doubt that good SF does open the mind to more possibilities and definitely makes one think. To the last poster, I find Neal Stephenson immensely more interesting than old school stuff like Asimov. Not that Foundation series isn’t cool in its own way.

  15. >Most importantly, SF taught me what is variously called “systems thinking” or “holistic perspective” – to be suspicious of neat monocausal models

    But you consistently lay the blame for any economic problem directly at the feet of “government.”

    I’m a fan of science fiction as well, but I enjoy it for the speculation on technology and its effect on people. Political speculation can be interesting, but too many libertarians seem to forget that science fiction is *fiction*.

  16. >I find Neal Stephenson immensely more interesting than old school stuff like Asimov.

    This is reasonable. The question is, if you could somehow have only the knowledge base of an educated person in the 1940s, would Asimov be just as interesting as Stephenson is now? I’m inclined to think the answer is “yes”, that Asimov seems like old hat because you live in a conceptual world he helped create.

    It’s amazing how fast this can happen. There are already people to whom my foundational work on the praxeology of open source seems like old hat, just ten years from zero. I don’t mind; I take it as a sign of victory.

  17. >But you consistently lay the blame for any economic problem directly at the feet of “government.”

    It only seems that way because the kinds of arguments and challenges I get on this blog are non-randomly distributed in way which elicit blaming government from me. In reality, I cheerfully recognize that there are lots and lots of economic problems not rooted in political policy failure, they just seldom come up on Armed and Dangerous.

    Or you may be being confused by a different kind of consistency. Raymond’s First Law of Political Economics: “There is no form of market failure, however egregious, that is not reliably made worse by the unintended consequences of political intervention.” That’s not a monocausal explanation, it’s more along the lines of noticing that trying to swat mosquitoes with an axe is seldom good for the part of you they landed on.

    Yes, I hold both of the above beliefs simultaneously. You might want to think about that for a while.

  18. >Raymond’s First Law of Political Economics: “There is no form of market failure, however egregious, that is not reliably made worse by the unintended consequences of political intervention.”

    Can you think of a situation that would falsify your law?

  19. >Can you think of a situation that would falsify your law?

    Yes, with sufficient effort I’m sure I could. I’ve never encountered such a situation in reality, however, and there are ample theoretical reasons to believe counterexamples are at best vanishingly rare.

  20. >This one?

    Ayup, that’s the very one. Image-linked here for the lazy:

    The date – August 1969 – makes me think I may have that incident wrongly associated with our move to Rome, which I believe was in 1968. I’m sure about it being Orly airport, though, which I passed through quite a number of times as a child. Hm. Maybe that was the trip to summer holiday in Wales. I have fond memories of that one; I saw Carnaevon castle and learned how to work a day-sailer.

    Come to think of it, I have one SF work that’s probably been in my hands longer – the Groff Conklin anthology 17 x Infinity from 1963. Gift from a perceptive family friend., almost ceertainly in 1968. But the Analog is special because that’s the first time I actively chose SF over competing alternatives.

  21. >I’ve never encountered such a situation in reality, however, and there are ample theoretical reasons to believe counterexamples are at best vanishingly rare.

    Since you claim that market failures are exacerbated by government intervention, counterexamples would be either market failures that got progressively worse without government intervention or that were mitigated or eliminated by government intervention.

  22. I was surpassingly lucky nearly twenty years ago, in late 1989: my local second-hand bookshop (one of my favourite haunts) got pretty much a complete run of Astounding/Analog from 1953 to 1983 in. HOLY CRAP. I bought them all, of course. I spent the next four months literally doing nothing but reading through them all.

  23. >counterexamples would be either market failures that got progressively worse without government intervention or that were mitigated or eliminated by government intervention

    No, only the second kind would count. Think about it – I’ve never claimed, nor do I have any need to believe, that markets can’t fail horribly in ways that lead to an autocatalyzing chain of larger failures. Merely that the expected consequences of political intervention are even worse.

    I think, like many people, you assume that libertarians are cockeyed optimists pinning their hopes on the perfectibility of the market. Au contraire – I’m a market anarchist because I’m a pessimist. More pessimistic than you know, and possibly more pessimistic than you can imagine.

  24. >No, only the second kind would count.

    What about CFCs? There was ample scientific evidence that they were causing ozone depletion. Most governments banned them, and ozone levels are increasing, we’re in less danger of getting skin cancer, and aerosols are still on store shelves.

  25. >What about CFCs?

    You missed recent discussion on another comment thread. Turns out that scare was bogus, though I didn’t know it until just a couple of weeks ago. Please don’t continue this discussion here’ if you can’t find the thread, email me for details.

  26. I don’t read much science fiction (or any fiction) these days, but I have very fond memories of “Tale Of The Troika” by the Strugatsky brothers. I guess the most crucial lesson I’ve learned from science fiction is to always be suspicious towards authority and any entrenched order or structure that expects me to accept it without questioning it.
    The Soviet unioun produced quite a bit of decent SF btw, presumably because the Party had a fairly… hands on approach to literary criticism if they felt an author was overly explicit in his or her views on the communist system.

    >That’s not a monocausal explanation, it’s more along the lines of noticing that trying to swat mosquitoes with an axe is seldom good for the part of you they landed on.

    Depends on what the mosquito is infected with, I guess…

  27. Eric, could you post a short “required reading for next annual renewal of geek credentials” list of scifi? I always feel lost in these discussions because I’ve read relatively little. I’ve read Asimov’s complete Robot and Foundation series, some Verne, and of course everything by Douglas Adams, but not much else.

  28. > Eric, could you post a short “required reading for next annual renewal of geek credentials” list of scifi?

    I second that request.

  29. Actually, esr, in regards to pessimism: I actually do believe that, in my own case, sf has made me more optimistic. However, it hasn’t given me the “sunny optimism” that says that living standards will always, or usually, keep improving. It’s actually a “dark optimism” that basically says, “There is no way in fucking hell that I’ll let the bad guys win.”

    If the classic case of “sunny optimism” was the pre-WWI liberalism, then the classic case of “dark optimism” was Churchill’s “never surrender” speech. Using contemporary examples, Newt Gingrich’s neverending monologue about the Great Future is S.O., whereas the NRA’s attitude of “from my cold dead hands” is D.O. Note that Gingrich flamed out, while the NRA is still with us and making gains.

    I suppose the reason that sf fuels my D.O. is that it reminds me that no matter how hard things get here on Earth, there is a whole universe out there–and that it’s still more likely than not that we will make it there (to stay).

    An example of this, from classic sf: Poul Anderson’s THE LONG WAY HOME. The hero comes home to a far-future Earth, to find that it’s ruled by a computer in a system ruled by a computer, roughly analogous to socialism. War is brewing between Earth and the human colonists of Alpha Centauri, in a system roughly analogous to fascism. However, the hero also becomes aware of a third group: a society of intersteller traders, roughly analogous to libertarianism. The hero has the means to turn the tide in favor of one of these three groups (I won’t go into detail about the means).

    SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

    One might expect that the hero would pick the classic S.O. solution and produce a Perfect Future by picking the intersteller traders. However, near the end of the book, Anderson throws the reader for a loop and reveals that the traders are actually dupes for both sides in the Earth/Centauri conflict, and cannot be relied upon. So the hero picks a different, and more drastic, form of freedom: he takes back his spaceship and leaves for other stars, a D.O. solution.

  30. re: Raymond’s First Law of Political Economics:

    reminds me of your quote of the other day:

    Here’s a safe rule: whenever you hear a politician huffing and puffing about market failure, make the largest bet you can that he is covering for a regulatory or political intervention that actually created the problem, usually one he was personally involved in perpetrating. You are extremely unlikely to lose.

    Found at this link: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=941#more-941

  31. >It has been my considered opinion since 1997 that Greg Egan’s Diaspora is the best hard-SF novel in the history of the genre.

    I’d definitely agree with this. Unfortunately the critical consensus has not been as good. There was a particularly great quote by him in a rant about one of the reviews of his latest book:

    >A few reviewers complained that they had trouble keeping straight the physical meanings of the Splinterites’ directions. This leaves me wondering if they’ve really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they’re just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this.

  32. Paul Krugman has consistently pointed to Asimov’s Foundation books as being one of his career inspirations. He aspired to be a Seldon-like psychohistorian, and economics was the best approximation to that in the real world. I’d say that’s an example of not always learning the right things from science fiction.

  33. All right, Mr. Trufan, here’s what I want to know:

    Did you catch Trek last night? :)

  34. >I asked you something in there. Please, would ya? The request has been repeated by others, it turns out.

    It’s on my list of things to write about.

  35. that 1969 mag cover is outstanding
    god i miss the sf&f mags

    >Greg Egan’s Diaspora is the best hard-SF novel in the history of the genre. Anathem is the first serious challenger for that title since.

    don’t know either of them. on my list. ta.
    for my money, so far, the best hard sf i’ve read is Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Red Mars-Blue Mars-Green Mars. stand-out better than any other i’ve read, as he’s also an outstanding writer-writer: after 100pages you know immediately which first-person he’s switched to, just by their worldview. the minor background note of the human consequences of terrorism/war vs a space elevator, and the cable wrapping a couple of times round mars, and the way you sit back and think Hum! and look askance at the whole realworld/humanworld safety of the idea, is just one minor example.

  36. >>Can you think of a situation that would falsify your law?
    >Yes, with sufficient effort I’m sure I could. I’ve never encountered such a situation in reality, however

    i can offer some. they are truly exceptional though. the old (and recently destroyed in the name of PC) australian institutions protecting the little guy from perpetually-concentrating market oligopolies by creating state-mandated concentrations for their output, which then negotiated vs the oligopolies on an equal basis. the sheep and wheat boards, for example, which compulsorily bought all sheep & wheat, and from whom all sheep & wheat had to be bought. they were required to be profit-free. the net outcome was a smoothly functioning vertical market which allowed all parties to make a fair economic rent, regardless of how small and individualistic any one party was.

    but the aussie examples created by the staggeringly farsighted chaps in the very early 20thC who created most of the staggeringly farsighted fundamental social/political institutions that aussies today take so much for granted, are utterly alien from the interventions that eric’s thinking of: the kneejerk top-down micromanagement by short-sighted egotists. they were explicitly bottom-up, explicitly factoring in social behaviours. social hacking at its finest.

  37. >I was surpassingly lucky nearly twenty years ago

    i was surpassingly lucky over thirty years ago: my father had collected a wide variety of sf&f mags thru the 50s and 60s and those he’d kept stretched along our bookshelf. when i was old enough to read them safely (they were old and fragile), i pored fascinatedly thru them.
    then again 10 years later, my uni’s Central Library had a genius purchaser for 20-30 years who had laid up shelves of startlingly mind-stretching works by people now never heard of. i would love to meet that man/men/women/entity and shake their hand till it falls off. a LOT of that stuff remains out of print and lost even today in the world of amazon.

    >Eric, could you post a short “required reading for next annual renewal of geek credentials” list of scifi? I always feel lost in these discussions because I’ve read relatively little. I’ve read Asimov’s complete Robot and Foundation series, some Verne, and of course everything by Douglas Adams, but not much else.

    Daniel Franke: get thee unto Kornbluth, Sladek, Zelazny, Alfred Bester (in approximate order of genius). these are wizards dealing lightning with both hands. gods. gods. kornbluth and sladek in particular were frighteningly accurate prophets when they chose. for lighthearted hilarity, go EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series or anything by Heinlein or Harry Harrison. get Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and i’ll guarantee you you’ll buy the next 2 in the trilogy. others: Cordwainer Smith (pseudonym: under his real name his Psychological Warfare remains the primary textbook for the american military 50 years later and he singlehandedly shortened the korean war by an estimated 2years), Jack Vance (eg, Dying Earth series — Cugel’s Saga or Rialto the Marvellous)

    particular tips:
    EVERYTHING BY KORNBLUTH
    Tik Tok // The Complete Roderick// the utterly awesome Keep The Giraffe Burning.
    Lord of Light // Eye of Cat
    The Demolished Man // The Stars My Destination // Golem 100
    Norstrilia
    Rialto the Marvellous

    and:
    Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
    Haldeman’s The Forever War
    Philip K Dick — an acquired taste for some, but for all: once acquired: an addiction.
    A E van Vogt’s Weapon Shops of Isher

    A A Attanasio’s Radix was a surprise. as was another i hit recently that i can’t remember. grrr.
    also: Fritz Leiber’s fafhrd & grey mouser stories are great fun despite the latter fanboyism. and the original Conan books are a revelation. you finally understand WHY the meme exists.

    and you MUST read this particular shortstory, which reverberates with each reader for decades afterwards (not sure how well it’ll read on web tho)
    Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

  38. (hmm. on now reading thru all the comments, it could appear like i am trying to rain on eric’s parade. oops. not intended.
    but… in for a penny, in for a pound:)

    tik tok has the singular acolade of having one vitriolically savage cynical extrapolation, which nearly got it banned, being blandly reported as horrifying fact of now-standard-practice in america last year or the year before, almost point-for-point identical to tik tok. a hair-sweat moment. sladek and especially kornbluth were menschenkenners extraordinaire.

    re menschenkenners, i strongly recommend Terry Pratchett’s Color of Magic and the reams of followups. starts as satire of Fantasy, has 1 autobiographical book, then turns into scintillatingly scathing sociocultural satire. Small Gods, in particular, is savage. and you’ll laugh like a drain throughout.
    definitely best to read them in order. start with Colour of Magic (“if you MUST know, i suffer from tides”) then The Light Fantastic, then proceed. and you WILL.

  39. >the sheep and wheat boards, for example, which compulsorily bought all sheep & wheat, and from whom all sheep & wheat had to be bought.

    Of course, the normal fate of marketing boards like these is to be captured by a producer coalition, at which point they become devices for monopoly rent-seeking that gouge the consumer and impose large deadweight losses on the economy. Are you sure that isn’t what actually happened in Australia?

    The other possible fate is for them to be captured by a consumer coalition and used as an instrument of monopsony to hold food prices artificially low, screwing farmers and stockbreeders. This has happened a couple of time in post-WWII Africa (I think some of the more notorious cases were in the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea). The result has been to destroy local agriculture and make the country dependent on food imports.

  40. >Of course, the normal fate of marketing boards like these is to be captured by a producer coalition… [or] consumer coalition

    see, that’s the thing. these were strictly govt and strictly rule-bound. immune to being captured. and the rules were strictly producer-focussed — any profits had to be distributed back to the producers pro-rata. they were strictly agents of the producers, and had NO discretion outside this.

    like i said: truly exceptional and not really relevant to your “law”.

    so, yeah, they survived until quite recently un-economicallycoöpted.

    they WERE infested by parasites, in the usual way of things, just as companies and trade unions and govermnents (and ANY static human socio-structure) eventually become predominantly parasitic gameplayers/rule-gamers in their admin upper echelons. but regardless, the legal&economic structure was rigid, and their own nest-feathering was only minor in context.

    there was some hiccup in the market recently that was simply the market but in the human way of things needed to be BLAMED on SOMEONE, and the wheat board was nominated and eliminated recently. the process has now started: in 20 years time, our farmers will arrive in the same screwed position as uk & us farmers.

  41. > the sheep and wheat boards, for example, which compulsorily bought all sheep & wheat, and from whom all sheep & wheat had to be bought. they were required to be profit-free.

    “required to be profit-free” doesn’t mean that someone isn’t making a huge profit.

    > these were strictly govt and strictly rule-bound. immune to being captured. The mafia is “strictly rule-bound”.

    “immune to being captured”? Pull my other leg.

    > and the rules were strictly producer-focussed

    And this is good why? (Consumers are interesting too.)

    I’ll bet that some producers were favored, not overtly, but favored none the less.

  42. Interesting post. When I was a child I’ve read some Isaac Asimov and from that I “concluded” SF sucks – that SF is all about sterile worlds where people wear uniforms and think in patterns of very bleached, mechanical, lifeless kinds of rationality. So I didn’t read SF, turned to fantasy instead, like, Dragonlance Chronicles.

    It was a mistake – I didn’t now back then to never judge anything from it’s most popular version, because the most popular version of almost everything sucks hard.

    Often do I wonder – how many interestings things might I have missed in my life just because I’ve only seen the most popular version of it, and that sucked, as most popular versions almost always do? And I should have dug a bit deeper? Such as, find better punk music than Ramones, find better drum ‘n’ bass than Ed Rush & Optical, better tabletop games than Risk etc. ?

    Anyway, reading a lot of fantasy led me into an entirely different direction of thinking – I rarely think about human behaviour in the materialistic terms of environmental pressures and stuff like that, instead, I developed an almost Platonic view – I tend to think only ideas matter, only culture matters in human behaviour, the only thing that really matters is what we think and believe of things…

  43. Shenpen, it has to be said: the Ramones was a pretty good Punk band. Risk is a pretty good tabletop game. Of course, one is free to sneer at them from the heights of (say) CCA or whatever, but still. That they’re popular doesn’t imply that they suck.

    What seems to me is that you look for something more complex than them, and -almost by definition- your preferred games or music will be more complex than the popular choices, because those are popular in part because of simplicity. At least, the simplicity of ‘pick-up-and-play’, which does allow for complexity along the way.

    There’s also the nerd habit of dismissing something _because_ it is popular, even if one liked it before it was popular. ‘They sold out’, ‘it’s not the same as it used to be’. Happened to Linux too: there were and are many nerds that think it’s bad that Linux has become so popular. Even if they were the very same organizing Linux meetings and evangelizing.

    To each his own, I suppose.

  44. I’m only going to say this… a few million more times.

    Free market principles do not guarantee a good outcome; free market principles guarantee the best possible outcome; usually that best possible outcome is a good outcome, but not always. If five billion self-centered, short-sighted, small-minded humans want to buy products that destroy the Earth’s ozone layer, resulting in the ultraviolet-curing of their own blackened, smoking hides, then the free market will oblige. That’s what markets do, is give people whatever they want, however stupid it may be.

    Yes, a government can sometimes prevent idiots from hurting themselves by decreeing “thou shalt not hurt thyself” and backing up the decree with some kind of force. The problem is, unlike a free market which by nature tends to give as many people as possible exactly what they want, a government by nature will only tend to give politicians what they want. Raise your hand if you trust the average politician’s goals to be compatible with your own goals even half of the time!

    Remember…

    Thou shalt not hurt thyself.
    Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor.
    Thou shalt not hurt thy ozone layer.
    Thou shalt not buy into absurd housing bubbles.

    Those above sentences contain worthy principles, but people miss the point of government decrees. It’s not the goals at the ends of the decrees that are bad, it’s the thou shalts at the beginnings that eventually come back to bite the average citizen on the tailbone. Wherever political power is concentrated, that’s where the most evil of the evil people will always try to take control. And those evil people are more highly motivated to seek power than you are, so they will succeed. The ends of the decrees will tend to become more ominous over time…

    Thou shalt give thy tax dollars to bail out the megabanks.
    Thou shalt not expect a right to privacy.
    Thou shalt not question authority.
    Thou shalt not own weapons of self-defense.

    Thou shalt not wonder why your neighbors were taken away in trucks in the middle of the night.

    Government is ultimately a bigger problem than any of the problems government is supposedly intended to solve. Government is people giving up their right to solve their own problems. Free markets and a culture of learning are the most efficient solution to the problem of bringing the human race together to reach common goals.

  45. Adriano: right. But. Does or doesn’t Asimov suck, compared to “real” (hard) SF? Was it or wasn’t it a good idea to judge SF as a genre from Asimov? I recently picked up Banks ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excession ) and I find him so boring I can hardly get myself to finish the book.

    However, I’ve only recently picked up some books from Heinlein (influenced by ESR’s article about political SF) and generally liked it, because it didn’t look like SF to me at all, in the Asimovian sense: it’s not at all about people running around in uniforms in sterile worlds and thinking in terms of a lifeless, emotionless pseudo-rationality.

    How can one genre be so diverse? Shouldn’t there be some clearly defined sub-genres? (Such as: high, low, hard, and dark fantasy. Generally I read high fantasy.)

  46. Shenpen:
    “Does or doesn’t Asimov suck, compared to “real” (hard) SF?”
    Whether Asimov sucks compared to hard SF is completely subjective. We might as well ask if the Ramones sucked compared to ‘real’ (rock) music. His stories don’t suck to me, but I don’t want hard SF from them. And I don’t find his stories to be about “uniforms in sterile worlds, thinking in terms of a lifeless, emotionless pseudo-rationality” except for the robot series, which are arguably a lot of his production. However, which terms should stories about the robot’s POV have? His dry style might have something to do with it too.
    OTOH, I don’t like his more recent works, where he tried to bring his different universes to a single thread.

    A more human treatment of problems and situations, as you might know, might be found in Bradbury, Le Guin, or others. What novels I’ve read of Heinlein (stranger in a strange land, double star), I didn’t like much, but I did enjoy some short stories, which I couldn’t name right now. He does present important ideas, I just don’t enjoy his prose.

    Ask yourself ‘How can rock music be so diverse? Shouldn’t there be some clearly defined sub-genres?’ Well, it is, and there are. Same for SF: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction_genre

  47. Shawn,

    I figure the problem is not the existence of government as such, but rather a particular problem associated with the _popular_ forms of government (democracy and dictatureship/tyranny) : the separation between society and government is lost. The people are convinced, and thus they believe that the government is _them_. That there are nor rulers and ruled anymore, but the people rule themselves, in self-rule. This is of course not true – but this is a very plausible fraud. Thus, people don’t feel there is a need to keep the size of government in check, because they believe they themselves are the governemnt. Thus, popular governments (democracy and dictatureship) tend to grow and grow.

    Not so with other forms of government, such as aristocracy and monarchy. There the people clearly “grok” the government is NOT them, but another entity, thus, it has to be kept in check and limited. Thus, aristocracies and monarchies tend to be smaller. MUCH smaller.

    If we are talking SF here, and excellent SF series about a small-gov’t monarchy is the Honorverse. You can download the whole stuff here: http://baen.ghostwheel.com/Honorverse/index.htm

  48. >The term for this sub-genre is space opera.

    Nah. Space opera tends to be high on thalamic activation and muscular heroism; lifeless and emotionless it is not. What Shenpen is clearly reacting against is the history of SF as rationalist and utopian thought experiments, which is a different strain in the tradition.

  49. Oh BTW influenced by your article about political SF I did read up a bit on Pournelle’s Falkenberg series, but it was a bit of let-down. Good novels, but I wouldn’t call them Conservative, only in a very minor, limited way – they are indeed based on a kind of virtue ethics, and that fits the label, but it’s exploration of virtue ethics is limited to four virtues, intellect, chivalry, honour, and politeness, and generally I read them as thought experiments about how these virtues can be applied to very difficult and controversial future situations. (I’m not talking about the infamous massacre in Falkenberg’s Legion. That’s totally out of character and Jerry must have been drunk when he wrote it or something. It’s like Mr. Spock falling in love or something, totally out of character. I’m rather thinking about the stuff in The Prince of Mercenaries etc.) So that’s fine but very, very limited – he writes almost nothing about how can a civilian politician use the virtue of common sense, etc. etc.

  50. (yup)

    >>> people running around in uniforms in sterile worlds and thinking in terms of a lifeless, emotionless pseudo-rationality.
    >But. Does or doesn’t Asimov suck, compared to “real” (hard) SF? Was it or wasn’t it a good idea to judge SF as a genre from Asimov?

    asimov… is special. i find him mostly very tedious to read. but he did contribute importantly more widely in the sense of coming up with some important ideas and thought experiments. he’s important for cultural/wider reasons, but as an author per se and in isolation not so hot. IMHO ;)
    his short stories (eg I Robot) are vastly more readable than his fiction. recommend you get i robot and the sequel, particularly if you like (and i know you do) theoretical extrapolations of hard rules.

    you may also like to ponder subsequently something i posted re the movie thereof about 5 years ago:
    But I’m sure that in the eponymous story, the accused robot was called Nestor. As in the old minority Christian sect, since exterminated.

            This, incidentally, after consulting the Encyclopaedia Britannica to discover a world of ambiguity and depth and growth invisible in the day-to-day, was a landmark for me: realising for the first time that so many of the social institutions and daily experiences people take for granted are no more than merely the winners of history, either through accident or superior viciousness.

    But the robot in the ad wasn’t called Nestor. As in the Christian sect. He was called Sonny. Or as I heard it: Sunni. As in the Islamic sect.

    but yeah: it’s a BAD idea to judge SF as a genre from Asimov.

    (i’m with you on Banks, btw. yawn.)

  51. >Also, extrapolating ‘Sunni’ from ‘Sonny’ seems to me a bit too much of a stretch.

    it just struck me as surreal at the time, given the complete absence of reason i could see for changing the name. scratching for reasons, the then-extant common iraq-related references to sunni vs shiite kinda stuck out as odd.

  52. Nestorianism is basically about somebody having dual personalities – one human, and one divine or in this case, robot, that’s how I read the reference.

    “realising for the first time that so many of the social institutions and daily experiences people take for granted are no more than merely the winners of history, either through accident or superior viciousness. ”

    History is definitely the history of winners, but I think those who won in the really long run – centuries – almost always done so because they were actually better, more ethical, more moral, than their competitors. This was discussed in length in Plato’s The Republic, I won’t repeat the arguments. To put it simply, a group of people who are 100% unjust cannot achieve anything, they will always fight within the group. It takes some amount of justice and empathy to recognize common interests, to be able to cooperate for them. The more of it does a group have, the more cohesion they have and more allies can they find in the world outside the group, thus the more efficient they are in the longer run. Justice, empathy, morality, ethics is a disadvantage only in the short run, never in the long. Some people are lucky enough to avoid the repercussions of their actions during their lives, but any movement that spans centuries just cannot, everything they do goes back to them. It’s really simple. Why is the Red Cross more successful than the KKK? Well, because the former can attract donations from millions of people, because millions of people like what they do.

  53. Things I’ve learned from science fiction, though a lot of it seems to be from thinking about science fiction:

    The military is worth some attention. It’s a very alien thing for me, and the first n times I read Starship Troopers, I filed the order of the ranks under “boring military stuff” and missed the point of the end of the book.

    People know less than they think they do. After looking at how stupid people who don’t read sf are about it, I’m forced to the conclusion that if I don’t like romances and have read very few of them, I’m not qualified to have an opinion about the genre or what people who like it get out of it.

    The world is weirder than it looks. Science fiction isn’t as strange as history or science. That’s why it’s restful.

    It looks like a system works in a story, but that’s the author saying so. How sure are you that it’s plausible? (This is might count as a thing I learned from discussions of science fiction.)

    Being surprised by something clever is fun. (It’s possible that I believed that before I got into sf.)

    Science fiction is a handy way of keeping track of how I’ve changed. Rocket Ship Galileo isn’t the same book I read when I was a kid.

    The world works from both large scale forces and chaotic tipping points.

    Here’s what might count as an example of successful government intervention: Louis IV jumpstarted a lot of the French luxury industries. I don’t know if it counts as a response to perceived market failure.

    Here’s one that’s less surprising: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St) .

    Shenpen, there are a lot of sub-genres, but they won’t necessarily sort out what you want to read. Anyone want to help out with a “better world-building/atmosphere than Asimov” list? LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a good start. Alan Dean Foster’s Mid-World and Mid-Flinx (note the difference that actually visiting a rain forest makes).

  54. If you think Asimov is sterile, read Nightfall.

    Like esr, I’ve been reading SciFi since about the late 60s. Voraciously. For classic writers, I’m still a Poul Anderson, Asimov, Robert Silverburg and Arthur C Clark fan. For more modern guys, I like Pournelle (if you can call him modern), Ringo and Weber (for the space opera). But most of all, I like these guys because they make you think. Good SciFi places people in situations that are extrodinary and sits back to watch what they do, what decisions they make, how it effects others and their world. It can often deal with topics that just can’t be dealt with in the “real” world. Like clashes of culture or social issues that for political reasons or similar, just can’t be brought up. What would you do if you were fighting in a war where the consequences of losing are to be eaten? (Sorry, I’ve been reading too much Ringo and Weber lately)

    I admit that I occasionally fall victim to fantasy or other sub-genres (OK, OK, I like Raymond Feist. I admit it), but generally, I want to read stuff that makes you think, consider your outlook or world view. SciFi can do that and do it well.

  55. Nancy Lebovitz: did you realise “Starship Troopers” is actually a musing on the consequences of an explicit introduction into american political structures of the requirement of a demonstrated commitment to the wider goals and understanding-of-consequences of/for society as a whole, before you can have ANY participation in the control of society?

    Shenpen: while i think of it, re your note re “is Asimov a good starting point re SF”– have a look at the authors/works i recommended above. think you’ll enjoy them.

  56. Well, of course, lots of genres can make you think. The speciality of SF is just that it places the whole stuff into an imaginary future extrapolated from the pre-1970 or so “techno-optimistic” present. But other genres can make you think too. I was used to simple stories about Good vs. Evil and then I’ve read the high fantasy trilogy Dragonlance Chronicles. Whose conclusion is largely that if Good wins too much, it can become extremely dangerous, and thus best is to balance Good vs. Evil. This had shaken up my adolescent views pretty well. Later on I realized it’s bullshit, but on a higher level – Good can and should win but the _definition_ of Good itself must be totally different from it’s definition in popular fiction.

  57. >The speciality of SF is just that it places the whole stuff into an imaginary future extrapolated from the pre-1970 or so “techno-optimistic” present

    That’s truly profound ignorance speaking there, Shenpen. You surprise me.

  58. re this (and perhaps a more Rationalist perspective on “Good”), look at Heinlein’s shortstories within his Future History context, specifically those dealing with the “Angels”. you may be a little startled by how little they vary from today’s behaviour of the US Marines, or from the Taliban.

  59. “That’s truly profound ignorance speaking there, Shenpen. You surprise me.”

    Could be – as I said above I know little about SF but such classification just seems to make sense: if it’s clearly not this world, but an imaginary one, then it’s either SF or fantasy. If said imaginary world is technologically less advanced than ours, swords and suchlike, it’s fantasy, if it’s more advanced than ours, lasers and suchlike it’s SF. Up to this point we agree?

    Well, then that stuff about techno-optimism, which I should have called “techno-dramatism” instead, is that pre-1970 or so technological progress was often imagined as something very spectacular, building huge, dramatic, generally totally awesome-looking stuff, because up to that point, well, it was. Yesterday the Moon, tomorrow the Mars, then the stars.

    So I guess they’d be a bit disappointed to see us being enthusiastic about stuff like the Moogly and iPhone which from 2-3 yards of distance doesn’t look more spectacular than a pack of cigarettes – we’ve got nothing even close as dramatic as flying cars, laser pistols, anthropomorphic robot waiters in restaurants and commuter spaceships.

    From 2009 the technological future rather looks very useful and very comfy but totally un-spectacular and undramatic – much of that old enthusasism had evaporated in realizing the best cost/benefit ratios are usually provided by technologies that doen’t look very spectacular at all.

  60. >If said imaginary world is technologically less advanced than ours, swords and suchlike, it’s fantasy, if it’s more advanced than ours, lasers and suchlike it’s SF. Up to this point we agree?

    No, you actually don’t have even that much right. It’s quite possible to write quality SF set in the pre-industrial past and has been done any number of times, and regrettably possible to write trash fantasy set in the future and featuring spaceships and aliens.

    What makes SF SF isn’t the stage furniture but the epistemology. It’s SF if it affirms that we live in a rationally knowable universe; the characteristic emotional experience of the genre is the “sense of wonder”, the feeling of suddenly understanding the universe in a new way (importantly, the insight must be rational rather than emotive or mystical).

    Thus, for example, Robert Heinlein’s “Magic, Inc.” is SF despite being ostensibly about spells and demons, while the Star Wars oeuvre is space fantasy. (Star Trek, by contrast, really is SF, though often badly bungled SF.)

  61. after a long long pensive pensive time of trying to resolve the apparent contradictions between the same people sneering at “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” who then lauded Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and Roth’s “Their Dark Materials” and everything by Roald Dahl as “Literature”, i finally had a stroke of inspiration as to what critically(…) defined “SciFi” and “Fantasy”

    the categorical definition of any non-strictly-realistic work as “SciFi” or “Fantasy” := the categorisation of the publisher which publishes the work.

    low status = sf&f. high status = literature.

  62. (I’m not talking about the infamous massacre in Falkenberg’s Legion. That’s totally out of character and Jerry must have been drunk when he wrote it or something. It’s like Mr. Spock falling in love or something, totally out of character. I’m rather thinking about the stuff in The Prince of Mercenaries etc.)

    That was Pournelle’s fictionalization of the Nika Riots. David Drake did the same thing in Counting The Cost exactly ten years later…

  63. Otherwise – why did you call in that old article of yours (about political SF) f.e. the Falkenberg-series SF, when it’s rather military literature that’s merely set on a futuristic stage?

    Just like people often mistakenly say something about “science” as such, when what they actually mean “hard sciences” which is a subcategory of science, similarly, I think your definition only fits “hard SF” and not SF in general. I.e. fits only a subgenre.

    I think might a common – well, either abbreviation or mistake – among hackers to omit the “hard” adjective when talking about science or SF because – I suppose- in hacker circles it’s more or less assumed that everybody is interested only in the “hard” version :-)

  64. Oh BTW what is your definition of the word “rational”? Beware – it’s a VERY hard philosophical question.

    Mine is what I picked up from Michael Oakeshott – the illusion of the empty mind. I.e. the illusion that it’s possible to empty our minds pretty much _at will_, easily, routinely, and thus make it neutral, unprejudiced and unbiased, and then put back in only that information that’s relevant to the task at hand or is otherwise considered correct. Rationality means such emptying of the mind before learning, or before reasoning, or before conducting some activity.

    Such emptying of the mind can happen, but only in special cases – such as during the free-fall during parachute jumps or bungee jumps, during meditation with a lot of practice or stuff like that – but does not happen in “normal” situations.

    Needless to say, such definition makes me quite a bit sceptical about the whole thing – but of course, that’s not the only possible definition.

  65. >Hmmm…

    Yes, really. The way you can tell is that in Star Wars, the insight experience at the center of most of the plots – oneness with the Force – is a mystical/emotive insight, not a rational one. By contrast, the Trek universe at least pretends that its characters solve problems by rational means.

    >I think your definition only fits “hard SF” and not SF in general. I.e. fits only a subgenre.

    Yes, there’s a sensible case for that position. I have previously written that SF may be considered a Lakoffian radial category with hard SF at the center and various other derivative subgenres coupled to it. The thing is, all those other subgenres are essentially derivative of literary techniques and ideas radiating from hard SF – or to put it a different way, they’re muddled approximations of the real thing. (This observation is not original with me; see the critical analysis in the Hartwell/Cramer anthology The Ascent of Wonder from 1994 for development.)

    >BTW what is your definition of the word “rational”? eware – it’s a VERY hard philosophical question.

    Nah. People who think it’s hard are suffering from unnecessary confusion brought on by studying too much history of philosophy (this group of afflicted used to include me). Once you understand the fallibilist definition of hypothesis truth as predictive value, “rationality” is dead easy to define; you just follow through the consequences consistently. There are some technical issues about “truth” in zero-content formal systems, but only metamathematicians (such as myself in a former life) actually need to care.

    Here are the rules:

    1. The truth of a theory is its effectiveness at predicting future observations.

    2. Given N different theories, the “rational” choice is the most predictive.

    3. Break ties by choosing the theory with minimum Kolmgorov complexity (e.g. Occam’s Razor).

    You are “rational” to the extent you follow these rules. The hard part is that social construction, instincts, and some neurally hardwired cognitive biases will keep trying to pull you into using truth criteria other than rule 2. Well, don’t. That’s all there is to it :-).

  66. Saltation, I don’t think Starship Troopers is a musing on having a citizenship requirement. I think Heinlein wanted to write a story about an aimless young man acquiring a purpose in life by way of the military, and set up a society where that was all benefit and no cost for him. From another angle, it’s emphatic propaganda for the idea that people should put a lot back into their societies. The one thing it is *not* is “musing”.

    There’s actually a rather subtle handling of what I’d consider the biggest downside of the service requirement for voting– in a bigoted society, the risk requirement would be manipulated so that the death rate was much higher for low-status groups. Heinlein sidesteps this by having a society with no ethnic/racial prejudice.

    A bit of a sidetrack, but I’m more interested in the fact that MI can refuse to take missions, with the only cost being that they leave the service and can’t get to vote. These aren’t trivial costs, but it’s still more freedom than I think any real-world military gives its soldiers. Any opinions about how this would work out in practice?

  67. >Heinlein sidesteps this by having a society with no ethnic/racial prejudice.

    Heinlein underlines this by planting clues that his protagonist is a Filipino (Rico is a Hispanic last name, and Johnny Rico describes Ramon Magsagay in adulatory terms near the end of the book). This was a rather stronger gesture in 1961 than it would be today; prejudice against Filipinos in particular and ethnic minorities in general was much more widespread then.

    Starship Troopers is dated in one other way I find entertaining. There’s a early scene in the boot-camp sequence in which Johnny Rico watches his drill sergeant fight hand-to-hand with a recruit. Heinlein was a martial artist himself and described the action clearly enough that some form of tournament jujutsu was clearly involved – but Johnny Rico is depicted as so ignorant of martial arts that even the combatants bowing to each other before engage struck him as surprising.

    The reason this is funny is because the post-1961 mainstreaming of Asian martial arts in U.S. pop culture has made Rico’s reaction impossible. Today, even a small child wouldn’t be that ignorant. Er, and more to the point, it is now hardly possible to imagine a future in which the culture resembles today’s as much as that of the novel does but martial-arts training is not widely understood as a normal possibility.

  68. I may have been the person who pointed out the exoticism of the Asian martial art in ST to you– I know I noticed the lack of martial art training in LOTR on my own.

    In any case, I’m pretty sure that martial arts really started to show up in sf much later than 1961, but I can’t think of earliest examples. Any ideas?

    I don’t think “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” counts.

  69. >In any case, I’m pretty sure that martial arts really started to show up in sf much later than 1961, but I can’t think of earliest examples. Any ideas?

    Martial arts weren’t thematically important in anything I read before about 1984 – Steve Perry’s The Man who Never Missed and Bruce Holmes’s Anvil of the Heart stand out as early examples.

  70. >Paul Sand: Krugman as psychohistorian?? Lawds that explains WAY too much.

    I think I recall seeing a thesis paper Krugman wrote on the economics of interstellar trade. The guy is evidently a serious fan…it’s a shame about the wacky collectivist politics.

    Ah, yes. Here it is.

  71. ““rationality” is dead easy to define”

    But this approach is very limited in its applicability. The first problem is that it’s a way to form descriptive theories and not a way to prescribe courses of action. Whenever a descriptive theory is turned into a prescriptive recipe, there are serious problems, such as 1) usually a general agreement in value judgements is assumed, when it’s actually not always the case. For example, calling smoking irrational assumes that everybody must agree that the costs outweigh the benefits, in reality, it’s not so. 2) what if there are some factors none of the competing theories took into account, and therefore, we get some huge-ass unintended consequences? This later is alone a good reason why NOT to act rationally in most choices of everyday life: often, popular superstitions, traditions etc. are useful, if vague and distorted, collections of the experiential, rule-of-thumb recognition of some factors that our theories have not yet properly accounted for.

    Even in descriptive theoretization, this method requires some conditions to be met:

    1) experiments must be repeatable
    2) experiments must be able to isolate the effects of only those factors that the theory in question describes

    This basically means it’s a useful method in natural sciences, in engineering and technological problems – and pretty much nowhere else.

    To be honest, when this method is imitated in other areas of life, it’s often utter bullshit and borders on fraud, so I’d suggest to be beware of “rationalism” outside the field of natural scienes and technology.

    For example, there is an article making rounds on the Internet that, based on some experiments, it seems doing interesting stuff makes people happier than owning expensive stuff. This experiment was conducted with university students – thus, it does not fulfill 2) – there is no reason to believe that f.e. old and well-off people value things similarly as students who are often penniless, but are usually young, vigorous and full of energy. This is so obvious that this is why I say this cannot just be a mistake, but really borders on fraud or at least conscious bullshit-production.

    For SF it’s OK – it basically means SF is the genre when the author places his heroes into situations where the problem at hand has scientific or technoligical character, in order to be able to use this method. Perhaps I don’t err much if I say it’s basically projecting detective fiction onto a cosmic stage.

  72. “the biggest downside of the service requirement for voting”

    I think the biggest downside is that people change. People can be unselfish and willing to make sacrifices when young, and nevertheless they can later on grow into totally selfish old people who see nothing wrong with use their vote to rob “those damn civvies” blind. Especially when the discipline of the service is over, and unchecked power in the hands of a fairly small group has a tendency to corrupt…

  73. >The first problem is that it’s a way to form descriptive theories and not a way to prescribe courses of action.

    Well, of course. To prescribe courses of action, rational analysis is not sufficient; you also need to make or assume value choices. These are, irreducibly, not rational; at bottom they’re a product of instinct or desire. Rationality cannot give you goals, only means to them.

    Your other objection is essentially that one can’t be rational when one has incomplete data or repeatability is poor. Nonsense! All this means is that you’re now required to do probabilistic rather than two-valued inference. Sometimes you have to suspend judgment or flip a coin. In context, these are both rational responses. There is even such a thing as rational ignorance, when decision costs exceed benefits.

    Defining rationality is easy. All you’re pointing out is that implementing it is often tricky.

  74. “Defining rationality is easy. All you’re pointing out is that implementing it is often tricky.”

    Yes – but something more too. This something more I can illustrate with an example. With an SF micro-novel ;)

    Let’s say a doctor – a good one – visits a stone age native tribe somewhere – around the Amazon, or another planet, whatever. To his surprise, he finds that one certain and very widespread kind of disease or medicial condition is almost nonexisting there. He asks the people about it, and they explain it cheerfully, that this condition is caused by little blue demons. However, there is this plant, whose smell the little blue demons just can’t stand, and thus, they feed this plant to the patient, the little blue demons flee, and the patient is well. Now, how can the doctor react to this story?

    One option is to borrow some of this plant and examine it in lab – maybe it contains some effective curative compounds. Even the chemical analysis shows no known curative, he does not necessarily need to chalk it up as mere superstition, it may well be that some completely unknown kind of chemical compound, so the second step is to test it on patients – or go back to the tribe and watch them applying it as they always did and see what happens.

    Another option is to laugh and then patiently explain that little blue demonds just cannot exists and _therefore_ their “cure” is superstitious bullshit, and they should use some real medicines instead. Needless to say, I agree with the first approach. The point is – what are the best names, the best terms describing these two attitudes?

    The first I would call “sensible”, but according to your definition, it can also be called “rational”.

    The problem is that the second one is all too often called rational too. This is the reason I tend to argue against “too much rationalism”. This second can be described as “rationalist” instead of “rational” (same difference as “social” and “socialist”, or “feminine” and “feminist”), or it can be called just plain simple “conceit”.

    Anyway, my generally worry about rationality is 1) are not these two approach often confused and doesn’t it often happen that the second approach gets called “rational” too, 2) (the bigger worry) – can too much emphasis on the rationality embodied in the first attitude lead to, during the usual processes of the corruption of ideas (ideas always get corrupted, that’s how they become popular) directly lead to the second (wrong) approach? 3) from 2) – perhaps mixing our understandable and good desire to use the first method as often as possible with a strong respect for traditions, common senses, folk knowledge is a good way to be protected from sliding into the mistake that’s embodied in the second attitude?

  75. Nancy Leibowitz: >Saltation, I don’t think Starship Troopers is a musing on having a citizenship requirement. I think Heinlein wanted to write a story about an aimless young man acquiring a purpose in life by way of the military, and set up a society where that was all benefit and no cost for him. From another angle, it’s emphatic propaganda for the idea that people should put a lot back into their societies. The one thing it is *not* is “musing”.

    then i think you need to read it again. you might also want to bear in mind that within the story’s own precepts, rico’s choice was regarded as pointlessly costly with near-zero benefit by the overwhelming majority of his family and friends, and their points were well-argued. that you so fully bought into his final position (even though you rejected it) underscores that heinlein was more subtle than people give him credit for.

    Eric: >The reason this is funny is because the post-1961 mainstreaming of Asian martial arts in U.S. pop culture has made Rico’s reaction impossible.

    yeah, i found this amusing too.

  76. “Defining rationality is easy. All you’re pointing out is that implementing it is often tricky.”

    Yes – but something more too. This something more I can illustrate with an example. With an SF micro-novel ;)

    Let’s say a doctor – a good one – visits a stone age native tribe somewhere – around the Amazon, or another planet, whatever. To his surprise, he finds that one certain and very widespread kind of disease or medicial condition is almost nonexisting there. He asks the people about it, and they explain it cheerfully, that this condition is caused by little blue demons. However, there is this plant, whose smell the little blue demons just can’t stand, and thus, they feed this plant to the patient, the little blue demons flee, and the patient is well. Now, how can the doctor react to this story?

    One option is to borrow some of this plant and examine it in lab – maybe it contains some effective curative compounds. Even the chemical analysis shows no known curative, he does not necessarily need to chalk it up as mere superstition, it may well be that some completely unknown kind of chemical compound, so the second step is to test it on patients – or go back to the tribe and watch them applying it as they always did and see what happens.

    Another option is to laugh and then patiently explain that little blue demonds just cannot exists and _therefore_ their “cure” is superstitious bullshit, and they should use some real medicines instead. Needless to say, I agree with the first approach. The point is – what are the best names, the best terms describing these two attitudes?

    The first I would call “sensible”, but according to your definition, it can also be called “rational”.

    The problem is that the second one is all too often called rational too. This is the reason I tend to argue against “too much rationalism”. This second can be described as “rationalist” instead of “rational” (same difference as “social” and “socialist”, or “feminine” and “feminist”), or it can be called just plain simple “conceit”.

    Anyway, my generally worry about rationality is 1) are not these two approach often confused and doesn’t it often happen that the second approach gets called “rational” too, 2) (the bigger worry) – can too much emphasis on the rationality embodied in the first attitude lead to, during the usual processes of the corruption of ideas (ideas always get corrupted, that’s how they become popular) directly lead to the second (wrong) approach? 3) from 2) – perhaps mixing our understandable and good desire to use the first method as often as possible, mixing that with a strong respect for traditions, common senses, folk knowledge is a good way to be protected from sliding into the mistake that’s embodied in the second approach?

  77. >The problem is that the second one is all too often called rational too. This is the reason I tend to argue against “too much rationalism”. This second can be described as “rationalist” instead of “rational” (same difference as “social” and “socialist”, or “feminine” and “feminist”), or it can be called just plain simple “conceit”.

    Right. You’re talking about a-prioristic anti-empirical thinking, which has sometimes been called “rationalism” in opposition to “empiricism”. I agree that this is a problem with the word “rationalism”. But, in fact, the folk understanding of “rationalism” (as opposed to the technical philosophical usage) is closer to what philosophers call empiricism. And not just folk understanding; even many philosophers use it that way!

    All we can do about this is recognize the problem, swallow hard, and disambiguate when necessary.

  78. OK. I thought about it for a while and found some problems. Basically, this “predictive power” approach is fine for testing and judging ideas after they were stated, but says nothing about how ideas should be generated. Within this framework, a randomly generated formula would have to be called rational if it happens to predict future data, and thus the random generation of it would have to be called rational thinking.

    But in reality there is much more to cognition, and to intelligence, and to wisdom, than just randomly generating lots of ideas and testing them all.

  79. >Within this framework, a randomly generated formula would have to be called rational if it happens to predict future data, and thus the random generation of it would have to be called rational thinking.

    Insights are not rationally generated, so this is consistent.

    Beware of trying to make the term “rational” carry too much weight. Your entire decision procedure can be properly called “rational” even if includes elements of randomness and deliberate ignorance because the search costs of knowledge exceed the benefits. Getting over-attached to whether individual elements of the toolkit should be called “rational” is just a way to confuse yourself and get mired in pointless definitional quibbles.

  80. “Insights are not rationally generated, so this is consistent.”

    Yes, but there supposed to be lots of stuff between (randomly?) generating insights and testing their predictive power. How about, for example, understanding and modeling the causality in a situation? How about, for example, pattern recognition?

    “Beware of trying to make the term “rational” carry too much weight. ”

    I have to, because the popular usage of this term stretches very wide – it’s used as the opposite of stupid, the opposite of beliefs, the opposite of emotion, in extreme cases, even the opposite of art…

    And let’s not forget that stuff I wrote about the assumption of the empty mind. When you want to do X and someone says “but that’s an irrational thing to do, really you should do Y”, that’s a request to empty your mind of all previous contents and upload the new information without having any distortions from previously existing information. Setting meditation masters and other such uncommonly conscious people aside, this just doesn’t happen, all new information we upload gets coloured and framed by the already existing information in there…

  81. >Yes, but there supposed to be lots of stuff between (randomly?) generating insights and testing their predictive power. How about, for example, understanding and modeling the causality in a situation? How about, for example, pattern recognition?

    How about them? I don’t see the conceptual problem here; they’re all tools we use for forming predictive hypotheses, they’re all parts of the toolkit for rationality.

    >I have to, because the popular usage of this term stretches very wide – it’s used as the opposite of stupid, the opposite of beliefs, the opposite of emotion, in extreme cases, even the opposite of art…

    You shouldn’t feel obligated to replicate other peoples’ errors.

  82. Eric, I recently subscribed to your blog and I’ve enjoyed reading it quite a bit—even the stuff I disagree with—because you make compelling and BS-free arguments. I just wanted to thank you for articulating on this post many things that I’ve been thinking about as a result of reading SF (and fiction in general) in recent years.

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