Aug 02

Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building

Before you read the rest of this post, go look at these pictures of a Hobbit Pub and a Hobbit House. And recall the lovely Bag End sets from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies.

I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.

To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.

Continue reading

Jul 30

SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy

I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.

Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.

Continue reading

Jul 23

Review: 2040

2040 (Graham Tottle; Cameron Publicity & Marketing Ltd) is a very odd book. Ostensibly an SF novel about skulduggery on two timelines, it is a actually a ramble through a huge gallimaufry of topics including most prominently the vagaries of yachting in the Irish Sea, an apologia for British colonial administration in 19th-century Africa, and the minutiae of instruction sets of archaic mainframe computers.

Continue reading

Jul 11

Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014

The introduction to The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 (Rich Horton, ed.; Prime Books) gave me a terrible sinking feeling. It was the anthologist’s self-congratulatory talk about “diversity” that did it.

In the real world, when an employer trumpets its “diversity” you are usually being told that hiring on the basis of actual qualifications has been subordinated to good PR about the organization’s tenderness towards whatever designated-victim groups are in fashion this week, and can safely predict that you’ll be able to spot the diversity hires by their incompetence. Real fairness doesn’t preen itself; real fairness considers discrimination for as odious as discrimination against; real fairness is a high-minded indifference to anything except actual merit.

I read the anthologist’s happy-talk about the diversity of his authors as a floodlit warning that they had often been selected for reasons other than actual merit. Then, too, this appears to be the same Rich Horton who did such a poor job of selection in the Space Opera anthology. Accordingly, I resigned myself to having to read through a lot of fashionable crap.

In fact, there are a few pretty good stories in this anthology. But the quality is extremely uneven, the bad ones are pretty awful, and the middling ones are shot through with odd flaws.

Continue reading

Jul 08

Review: World of Fire

World of Fire (James Lovegrove; Solaris) is a a promising start to a new SF adventure series, in which a roving troubleshooter tackles problems on the frontier planets of an interstellar civilization.

Dev Harmer’s original body died in the Frontier War against the artificial intelligences of Polis+. Interstellar Security Solutions saved his mind and memories; now they download him into host bodies to run missions anywhere there are problems that have local law enforcement stumped. He dreams of the day the costs of his resurrection are paid off and he can retire into a reconstructed copy of his real body; until then, he’s here to take names and kick ass.

Continue reading

Jul 07

Review: The Chaplain’s War

As I write, the author of The Chaplain’s War (Brad Torgerson; Baen) has recently been one of the subjects of a three-minute hate by left-wingers in the SF community, following Larry Correia’s organization of a drive to get Torgerson and other politically incorrect writers on the Hugo ballot. This rather predisposed me to like his work sight unseen; I’m not a conservative myself, but I dislike the PC brigade enough to be kindly disposed to anyone who gives them apoplectic fits.

Alas, there’s not much value here. Much of it reads like a second-rate imitation of Starship Troopers, complete with lovingly detailed military-training scenes and hostile bugs as opponents. And the ersatz Heinlein is the good parts – the rest is poor worldbuilding, even when it’s not infected by religious sentiments I consider outright toxic.

Continue reading

Jul 06

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.

Continue reading

Jul 03

UPS I did it again

I had to buy a new UPS for my desktop machine yesterday after the old one succumbed to battery death, so Cathy and I made a run to the local MicroCenter.

UPS designers have been pissing me off since forever with designs that require you to throw away the entire device when the battery craps out, unless you’re willing to go to great length to avoid this – finding the exact right replacement battery from a specialty supplier, then taking the unit apart and reassembling it yourself.

This is never practical under time pressure, and I’ve never had the luxury of no time pressure when trying to cope with a dead UPS. Sure didn’t this time; my area was under a severe-thunderstorm watch.

Imagine my pleased surprise when I found a big stack of varied models branded APC that are not just significantly less expensive and with longer dwell times than when I was last UPS-shopping, but designed with removeable and replaceable batteries, too.

Progress does get made. Dunno whether this is a standard feature on all UPS brands yet, but doubtless it will be within a few years.

Some of you may find my UPS HOWTO of interest. I’ve shipped a 3.0 update with the glad news of replaceable batteries and a few other minor updates; it may be up by the time you read this.

Jul 02

Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter

In the book reviews I’ve been writing recently I have been applying some very specific ideas about the nature and scope of science fiction, particularly in contrast to other genres such as fantasy, mystery, and horror. I have not hesitated to describe some works found in SF anthologies as defective SF, as non-SF, or even as anti-SF.

It is not fashionable these days to be so normative about any kind of artistic form, let alone SF. The insistence that we should embrace diversity is constant, even if it means giving up having any standards at all. In a genre like SF where the core traditions include neophilia and openness to possibility, the argument for exclusive definitions and hard boundaries seems especially problematic.

I think it is an argument very much worth making nevertheless. This essay is my stake in the ground, one I intend to refer readers back to when (as sometimes happens) I’m accused of being stuck on an outmoded and narrow conception of the genre. I will argue three propositions: that artistic genres are functionally important, that genre constraints are an aid to creativity and communication rather than a hindrance, and that science fiction has a particular mission which both justifies and requires its genre constraints.

(Some parts of this essay are excerpts from earlier related writing.)

Continue reading

Jul 01

Feline behavioral convergence

The new cat, Zola has been with us for about a month now. My wife and I observe an interesting convergence; as he feels increasingly secure around us, his behavior is coming to resemble Sugar’s more and more, to the point that it sometimes feels like having her back with us.

What makes this a surprising observation is that Sugar was not your behaviorally average cat. She was up against the right-hand end of the feline bell curve for sociability, gentleness, and good manners. Having Zola match that so exactly is a little startling even if we did improve our odds by keeping an eye out for a Maine Coon that liked us on sight. It still feels rather like having 00 come up twice in succession on a roulette wheel.

This is ethologically interesting; it suggests some things about how the personalities of cats – and even specific behavioral propensities – are generated. In the remainder of this post I will use detailed observations to explore this point.

Continue reading

Jun 30

Review: Solaris Rising 3

Solaris Rising 3 (Ian Whates; Rebellion) is billed as an anthology showcasing the breadth of modern SF. It is that; unfortunately, it is also a demonstration that the editor and some of his authors have partly lost touch with what makes science fiction interesting and valuable.

As I’ve observed before, SF is not an anything-goes genre. You do not achieve SF merely by deploying SF furniture like space travel, nonhuman sophonts, or the Singularity. SF makes demands on both reader and writer that go beyond lazy fabulism; there’s an implied contract. The writer’s job is to present possibility in a sufficiently consistent and justified way that the reader might be able to reason out the story’s big reveal(s) before the author gets there; the reader’s job is to back-read the clues in the story intelligently and try to get ahead of the author, or catch mistakes in the extrapolation. As in murder mysteries, there can be much else going on besides this challenge and response, but if the challenge and the possibility of such a response is not there, you do not have SF.

Continue reading

Jun 29

Review: Ark Royal

In Ark Royal (Christopher Nuttall; self-published) the ship of the same name is an obsolete heavy-armored fleet carrier in a future British space navy. The old girl and her alcoholic captain have been parked in a forgotten orbit for decades, a dumping ground for screwups who are not quite irredeemable enough to be cashiered out. Then, hostile aliens invade human space – and promptly trash the modern unarmored carriers set against them. It seems the Ark Royal’s designers wrought better than they knew. Earth’s best hope is to re-fit and re-staff her in a tearing hurry, then send her against the invasion to buy time while sister ships can be built. Adventure ensues.

Continue reading

Jun 25

Review: Patton’s Spaceship

Patton’s Spaceship (John Barnes; Open Road Integrated Media) is a new e-book release of an effort from 1996.

Parts of the early action, in which the protagonist loses his family to a vicious terrorist group of unknown (and very exotic) origins, seem sadly dated in light of the even greater viciousness that terrorist groups of thoroughly well-known origins have since exhibited.

Nevertheless, much of this novel is an entertaining alternate-history adventure, presenting (among other things) the most grubby and creepily plausible portrait of a U.S. under Nazi domination I have seen.

Alas, I must report that Barnes tends to get a bit too cute in name-checking historical figures. In the most extreme instance of this he makes the poet Allen Ginsburg into an action hero. That move is perhaps best read as unintentional comedy; for some intentional comedy, see if you can spot Robert Heinlein’s cameo appearance.

Barnes has written better, before and since. But this isn’t bad.

Jun 25

Review: The Steampunk Trilogy

The Steampunk Trilogy (Paul diFilippo; Open Road Integrated Media) is three short novels set in a now-familiar sort of alternate-Victorian timeline replete with weird science, Lovecraftian monsters, and baroquely ornamented technology described in baroquely ornamental prose.

What distinguishes this particular outing is that it’s hilarious. In the first chapter of the first book, a runaway young Queen Victoria is replaced by a newt. In the second chapter (a flashback) an experiment in powering a steam locomotive from the waste heat of masses of uranium comes to a tragic, mushroom-clouded end when an accident slams them together just a bit too hard.

The books proceed in a tumbling cascade of ribaldry, parody, slapstick, and sly historical references that sends up every target in sight. And just when you think it’s all farce…Walt Whitman delivers a compassionate and psychologically astute critique of her poetry to Emily Dickinson, it isn’t comedy at all, and it’s even plot-relevant! Along the way, Herman Melville tangles with the Deep Ones and the naturalist Henry Agassiz recognizes Dagon as an ichthyosaurus…

Even if you’re not equipped to parse all the historical and literary in-jokes, this is fun stuff. If you are…I enjoyed the hell out of it. You probably will too.

Jun 23

How to train a cat for companionship

Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.

My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.

Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.

A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.

Continue reading

Jun 23

Review: Unexpected Alliances

Unexpected Alliances (M.R. LaScola; Two Harbors Press) is, alas, a horrible example of why the absence of editorial gatekeepers in indie publishing can be a bad thing.

Here’s a clue: if you see nothing wrong with a near-future first-contact scene in which the commander of an armada of 30,000 starships many light years from Earth introduces herself as Nancy Hartley from the planet Ultron, you shouldn’t be writing SF.

The relatively short portion of the book I managed to read before I gave up also featured talking dragons and 7-foot-tall nonhuman aliens who casually interbreed with humans. The prose reads like something a bright 9-year-old might write. It’s a sort of pile of glittery SF and fantasy fripperies quoted with absolutely no regard to whether they make any sense, or even any sense that they ought to make sense.

It’s a brave new world. Anyone can publish. Sometimes they shouldn’t.