Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

The great SF writer Frederik Pohl is dead

September 6, 2013

Frederick Pohl, the great science fiction writer, died earlier this month at the age of 93.  He was politically aware, scientifically literate and a fine storyteller.  His stories are imbued with a hopeful cynicism—a knowingness about how the world actually works and the possibility it can be made better.

I have read and admired Pohl’s work for 60 years, since as a teenager in 1952, I read “Gravy Planet,” a serialized novel in Galaxy magazine by Pohl and his friend Cyril M. Kornbluth about a future United States ruled by advertising agencies and corporations.  Pohl’s imagined future society has no tolerance for subversives known as the “Consies”—conservationists, or what we’d now call environmentalists, who oppose unlimited consumption.  One of the characters says that these fears were unfounded.  When the world’s oil and gas was used up, “science invented the pedi-cab.”

waythefuturewasThe serial was published the following year in book form as The Space Merchants, which critics consider to be one of Pohl’s two greatest novels, along with Gateway, published in 1977.  If you have any liking for grown-up science-fiction—as distinguished from science fiction as wish-fulfillment fantasy [1]—I’d recommend one of these two novels or Slave Ship, The Age of the Pussyfoot, Man Plus, Jem or The World at the End of Time.

Pohl  also was a fine short-story writer.  Some of his best were “The Midas Plague,” “The Gold at Starbow’s End,” “The Merchants of Venus” and “The Tunnel Under the World”—the latter a Philip K. Dick-type story written before Philip K. Dick was ever heard of.

He was a Unitarian-Universalist, like me, and UUs will be amused by the Unitarian minister protagonist in The Cool War and the Unitarian exorcism performed in A Plague of Pythons.  

While nothing Pohl wrote was completely without interest, some of his works—especially sequels to his most popular works—were not as good as his best.  If you’re curious about Pohl and not familiar with his work, I’d recommend you keep your eye open for the titles I mentioned the next time you’re in a used-book store or the stacks of your public library.  They’re better than 99 percent of what you’ll see in the SF section of Barnes & Noble.


Would I take a spaceship to Anarres?

May 31, 2013


I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel set in an anarchist utopia on the fictional planet of Anarres, which has no government, corporations, private property, money, buying and selling, police, criminal law or prisons.

I have questions about whether such a society is feasible, but the more interesting and important question for me is whether I would want to live in such a society.  I was undecided when I reviewed the book in an earlier post.

anarres1The moral atmosphere of Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres is like the church and volunteer groups to which I belong.  Everybody picks the job they like the best or feel best suited for, the work nobody wants to do is divided up, most people do their share and a vital few do much more than their share, without any reward except respect.  The work gets done, maybe not in the most efficient way, but without anybody being bossed around or made miserable and frustrated.

This is highly appealing.  I have been retired for nearly 15 years, and spent a fair amount of time in retirement doing church work, volunteer work and helping people out.  What I do has no monetary value, but I think what I do has some usefulness to society.  I expect to continue as long as I can.

But I would hate to go back to doing paid work, even though I have been much luckier in my work life than most people.   I’ve been able to do work that I wanted to do, and get paid for it.  As a newspaper reporter, I had much greater freedom than most wage earners to act on my own initiative and use my own judgment, although this diminished in the last few years before I retired.   If I had a guaranteed income and were young, I think I would work as a journalist without pay, and I think I would do as good a job as if I were dependent on an employer for my income.

leguin-the-dispossessedThe other aspect of life on Anarres, no private property and no laws, has less appeal for me.  I like owning my own house, free and clear, from which nobody has the power to turn me out.  I like thinking that I am free to speak and act as I wish, so long as I stay within the bounds of statutory law.   If my sense of security is an illusion, it is an illusion to which I cling.

If there is no private property and no Bill of Rights, then the freedom and security of the individual depends on public opinion.  I do not want my well-being and freedom to depend on public opinion.  As Adlai Stevenson once said, “A free society is a society in which it is safe to be unpopular.”  On Anarres,  I would be an “individualist” and a “propertarian,” both unpopular things to be.   On the other hand it is not exactly safe to be unpopular in the contemporary USA.

Now it is true that I am highly fortunate, even by American standards, and this shapes my judgment.  My new anarchist acquaintances point out that my thinking reflects the assumptions of the capitalist society in which I was born and grew up.  This is true.  The value of a book like The Dispossessed is that it helped me to re-examine my assumptions and think of new possibilities.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist utopia for my original post.

Click on The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.

Click on Planets of the Hainish Cycle for a Wikipedia guide to Ursula Le Guin’s fictional universe.

Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for an admirer’s thoughts.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarres as Description of the Communist Future for a thoughtful review from a Marxist perspective by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya.

perspective (more…)

Starships: a musical SF fanvid mashup

May 18, 2013


Good fun!

I didn’t even know there was a genre called “fanvid” until I came across this a couple of days ago on Obsidian Wings.

Click on bironic for details and background information.

Why I like science fiction so much

May 16, 2013

Science fiction is a great medium for conducting thought experiments.  What makes it so great is that nothing is at stake.  Science fiction is just a harmless form of entertainment, so you can let your imagination have free rein without worrying about the consequences.

2578-planets-science-fiction-photomanipulations-fresh-new-hd-wallpaper-bestI’ve read science fiction for 60 years, and I’m struck by how many times I am reminded of old science fiction stories when I read speculative articles about politics or metaphysics.

Of course science fiction is also a form of escape literature.  It creates a virtual reality that people enjoy imagining they live in.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  As C.S. Lewis once remarked, the only category of people hostile to the concept of “escape” are jailers.

Currently my favorite science fiction is Ken MacLeod, a Scot whose novels are published in the United Kingdom, but not always in the United States.  I order every book he writes without waiting to see if it will be published in the USA.

Click on The Early Days of a Better Nation for Ken MacLeod’s web log.  I don’t include it on my BlogRoll because he doesn’t post very much.

Click on Science fiction novels for economists for a list.

Click on Science Fiction (Bookshelf) for links to science fiction stories available on-line through Project Gutenberg.

Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist utopia

May 16, 2013

THE DISPOSSESSED: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula LeGuin  is a thought experiment on how an anarchist society would work.  I read this science fiction novel when it first came out in 1974 and I re-read it a few weeks ago because of a new-found interest in anarchism.

dispossessed2The novel begins with the journey of the physicist Shevek from the hardscrabble planet Anarres, which was settled by anarchists a century and a half previously, to the lush planet Urras, a caricature of our own world in the 1970s.

In alternating chapters, it tells the story of Shevek’s life on Annares and its discontents, leading up to his decision to leave, and his adventures on Urras and how grotesque a society based on power and profit seems in his eyes.

The Dispossessed is worth reading as a novel, but in addition it gives an idea of how a possible anarchist society could function and, more importantly, the moral foundations of such a society.  Anarres is flawed and falls short of its ideals of individual freedom, mutual aid and voluntary cooperation, but is still infinitely preferable to the money-hungry, power-hungry nations of Urras.

I think LeGuin was realistic in putting her anarchist society on a separate planet. Utopian societies, anarchist and otherwise, have sometimes flourished in the United States, but they have all been pulled apart by the gravitational pull of the larger society around them.  By this SF device, she was able to show the normal functioning of a hypothetic anarchist society rather than its battles with external enemies.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Anarres is a society without government, laws, police, courts, corporations, money, salaries, profit, organized religion or private property, except for a few hand-carried personal possessions.  Its people speak an artificial language, a kind of benign Orwellian Newspeak which lacks words for concepts such as “debt” or “winner.”

The society is organized to forestall any possibility of hereditary privilege.  There are no family names.  Everybody has a unique two-syllable, four- or five-letter name assigned by computer.  Couples may stay together or not, as the choose.  Some are bonded for life, but there are no laws pertaining to marriage or divorce.  Children may be raised by both parents, either one or public nurseries.  People live in dormitory rooms.  Nobody lives in an free-standing house.

Productive work on Anarres is done by syndicates of workers, who produce what is needed and receive what they need without monetary payment.  Every local community strives to be self-sufficient in food and energy, but there is some exchange and specialization among the communities.

Although there is no government, there is a coordinating agency called the PDC.  It is guided by policy debates and consensus developed in public meetings in which anyone can take part.  Advanced computer technology substitutes for central planning or the working of the law of supply and demand.  The PDC advises the syndicates on what is needed, and keeps postings of jobs that need to be done.  People volunteer for difficult and dangerous jobs, mostly when young, because of the challenge and because their work is honored.

dispossessed.quoteIn the individual syndicates, unpleasant work is done in rotation.   People who shirk their duties are subject to social pressure, then to public reprimand and possibly summary justice with fists and then, in extreme cases, to expulsion.  There are no police and no courts, but there are mental institutions.

By locating her society on a world where living is difficult, Le Guin avoided the easy path of saying that people in the new utopian society would live a life of ease simply because of the absence of exploitation and unnecessary work.

In the course of the novel, there is a near-famine on Anarres which strains the social fabric.  Shevek in one chapter is on a food train which is raided by hungry villagers when it stops.   But the ethic of mutual aid is strong enough to keep things from falling apart.

leguin.anarchist.quoteThe people of Anarres possess the full range of human impulses and desires, but as in any society, they suppress some impulses and foster others.  Children are taught to share and not to compete.  They are taught to not be “egoists,” but also not to be altruists.  Nobody, in theory, is asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  Instead they are asked to cooperate with others for their mutual benefit.

In the novel, it is hard to maintain the ideal of the free and equal society.  Power-seeking, privilege and envy creep in, and conformity to the group becomes oppressive.

I might have thought that she was depicting her anarchist society as a failure if it were not for the contrast with Urras, with its wars, power structures,  privileged rich and oppressed poor.  Conformity on Urras is enforced not by social pressure, but by helicopter gunships firing on rioting mobs.

perspectiveI confess that I don’t completely understand how Le Guin’s hypothetical society would work.  For example, Shevek and his wife Takvar decide Anarres has become too conformist and they form a Syndicate of Initiative which, among other things, publishes works that can’t otherwise find a printer.

My question is:  Who supplies the Syndicate of Initiative with paper?  There is no money, so they can’t buy paper.  They can ask the paper syndicate to allocate paper, but since they are unpopular and paper is scarce, they would be unlikely to get an allocation.  There are no laws that would give them a right to claim a share of paper, or of anything else.

The great merit of the novel, aside from being a good story and a good science fiction story, is that it shows a set of moral values in action that are different from the values that guided the United States of 1974 or of today.  The challenge to the reader is whether the reader would want to live according to those values.

For some people, a society without competition, private property or structures of authority might be the opposite of a utopia.   For myself, I’m not sure.  I rewrote this last paragraph several times, and may rewrite it again.

Click on The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.

Click on The Dispossessed Quotes for 61 quotations that give the essence of Ursula Le Guin’s novel.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarres as Description of the Communist Future for a thoughtful review from a Marxist perspective by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya.  [Added 5/27/13]

Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for thoughtful comment from an admirer.  [Added 5/31/13]

 Click on And Then There Were None for Eric Frank Russell’s classic 1951 anarchist SF satire.

We’re living in a bad science fiction story

April 11, 2013
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I have been worrying about giving the President of the United States unlimited power to order killing by means of flying killer robots, but the world is moving on.  Now we have to worry about giving computer algorithms power to order killing by means of autonomous flying killer robots.

Research is going forward on how to program flying killer drones so they can respond automatically without waiting for the command of a human operator.  This is a bad idea for many reasons, but the basic reason was well stated by P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  The problem, Singer said, is that Moore’s Law [that computer processing power doubles every few years] is still in effect, but so is Murphy’s Law [that whatever can go wrong, will].

There already are many examples of the danger of abdicating decisions to computers.  In 1988, U.S. Navy crewmen shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all the passengers, because the ship’s computer told them it was a war plane, and they believed the computer instead of their lying eyes.  During the Cold War, there were incidents in both the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the warning systems indicated the nation was under attack, but the commanders had the good judgment and moral courage to wait before ordering a retaliatory attack.

Autonomous drones would likely be programmed for what are called “signature strikes”—more accurately “pattern of behavior strikes”.   This is the use of drones to kill men who are behaving in a way an enemy soldier might act.   Over time it is reasonable to think that the actual enemy soldiers learn to avoid suspicious behavior, and an increasing number of “signature strikes” will fall on innocent civilians.

What happens if a malfunctioning autonomous drone wipes out a village like My Lai?   Who is responsible?  The operator who didn’t override the drone’s decision?  The software programmer?  The longer the link of responsibility, the less responsible the decision will be.

What happens if an enemy hacker reprograms the autonomous killer drone to suddenly turn on its operators?

Technology has its own momentum, and the path of least resistance is to adopt policies that fit the technology rather than finding a technology to implement the best policy.   This is a technology that enables killing without human agency and human responsibility.

Click on The Terminator Scenario: Are We Giving Machines Too Much Power? for a good article in Popular Science magazine.

Click on It’s Come to This: Debating Death by Autopilot for Conor Friedersdorf’s thoughts.

Science fiction writers have been speculating about the consequences of autonomous killing systems for a long time.

Click on the following for good stories with food for thought.

WATCHBIRD by Robert Sheckley (1953)

SECOND VARIETY by Philip K. Dick (1953)

JIPI AND THE PARANOID CHIP by Neal Stephenson (1997)

An alternate apocalypse

February 11, 2013

My previous post was about Philip Wylie’s 1954 novel, Tomorrow!, about a nuclear attack on the United States, which ends with massive retaliation wiping out two-thirds of the population of the Soviet Union.  It reminded me of a 1947 short story, Thunder and Roses, by Theodore Sturgeon, a less renowned, but more gifted and original, writer, also about the United States in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

In Sturgeon’s story, the United States was wiped out in a first strike, and the remnants of the population are doomed to die by radiation poisoning.  The means of retaliation still exist, however, if someone can find them.  The result, however, would be to raise the total level of background radiation to such a level as to destroy all life on other.  A beautiful and beloved singer and movie star is traveling across what’s left of the USA to try to persuade the survivors to not retaliate.

She begins her performance with her signature song, which is a reminder of all the reasons that life is worth living.

When you gave me your heart, you gave me the world

You gave me the night and the day

thunder-and-rosesAnd thunder, and roses, and sweet green grass

The sea, and soft white clay

I drank the dawn from a golden cup

From a silver one, the dark

The steed I rode was the wild west wind

My song was the brook and the lark

With thunder, I smote the evil of earth

With roses, I won the right

With the sea, I washed and with clay I built

And the world was a place of light

She then makes her plea against taking justified revenge.

The spark of humanity can still live and grow on this planet.  It will be blown and drenched and shaken and all but extinguished, but it will live if that song is a true one.  It will live if we are human enough to discount the fact that the spark is in the custody of our temporary enemy.  Some—a few—of his children will live to merge with the new humanity that will gradually emerge from the jungle and the wilderness.

The protagonist then discovers the secret missile installation from which massive retaliation can be launched.  His best friend tries to  fire the missiles.  The protagonist (apparently) kills him to stop him, destroys the installation so that the missiles can never be launched and then sits down to die.

“You’ll have your chance,” he said into the far future.  “And, by Heaven, you’d better make good.”

A decade later the anti-war Russell-Einstein manifesto called upon the peoples of the world to “remember your humanity and forget the rest.”   Philip Wylie’s novel Tomorrow!, which describes a U.S. victory through nuclear genocide, is a reminder that the best of us can forget our humanity.  Theodore Sturgeon’s novel reminds us that it is always possible to remember your humanity.


Apocalypse then

February 11, 2013

A friend of mine recently lent me a novel about World War Three as imagined in 1954 by Philip Wylie, an author who is virtually forgotten now, but famous in his time for his iconoclasm about American political, social and sexual taboos.  Tomorrow! was enjoyable to read, and a reminder of a very real danger which we escaped.

tomorrowHe wrote Tomorrow! to advocate for a better U.S. civilian civil defense program.  The characters live in twin fictional Midwestern cities, resembling Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.  One city has a functioning civil defense program; the other does not.

Wylie sketches his characters, and their struggles and hypocrisies, as in a Sinclair Lewis novel, and then the atomic bombs fall, and their reactions reveal their characters, as in a Hollywood disaster movie.   The characters who support and participate in civil defense are self-defined liberals.  The main opponent is a wealthy businesswoman who admires Senator Joe McCarthy and thinks the real Communist enemy is within.

The climax is that the surviving members of the U.S. government decide to unleash their secret Doomsday weapon against the Soviet Union—a superbomb in a nuclear submarine on a suicide mission in the Baltic Sea.

The rays, the temperatures, vaporized Finland’s Gulf in a split part of an instant.  The sea’s bottom was melted.  The Light reached out into the Universe.  Finland (!!) was not.  Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, they were not.  Kronstadt melted.  Leningrad.  …   On the wind currents … a thick dust that widened to a hundred miles and then five hundred, moving, spreading, descending, blanketing the land … The further it surged from the reshaped Finland Gulf, where the sea had come sparkling back, the longer men took to perish.  But they perished. … Men swallowed, ate, breathed, sickened and died in a day, a week, two weeks—men and women and children, dogs and cats and cattle and sheep, all of them. … There was no refuge from the death, it took them all, the birds of Arctic winter, the persistent insects who had survived geologic ages, the bacteria—all.

Everyone in the USSR dies except a remnant in its southern fringes.  Although this is a greater mass slaughter of human beings than carried out by Hitler, Stalin or Mao, it is regarded as a happy ending in the novel.

The last great obstacles to freedom had been removed from the human path.

We then see scenes of rebuilding, with Americans, instead of being condemned for having committed history’s greatest crime, receiving foreign aid from a grateful world.   Of course this was only fiction, but it is sobering to think about what was regarded as acceptable thinking back then, and how easy it is to accept enormities as normal.   I first read the novel back in the 1950s.  I don’t remember my exact reaction, but I was not as appalled as I should have been.

Theodore Sturgeon, another writer of that era, had a similar theme, but opposite conclusion in his 1947 short story Thunder and Roses.   I’ll write about this in my next post.


Can Cloud Atlas be made into a movie?

September 9, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is an amazing novel.  It consists of six interlocking stories—the journal of an idealistic young American in the South Pacific in the 1850s, the letters of a penniless Englishman working his way into the household of a distinguished Belgian composer in 1931, a hard-boiled detective story about a woman investigator proving wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant in 1970s California, a comic account of an English publisher in the present trying to escape for a home for the elderly where he was confined by mistake, a dystopian science fiction story about a cloned worker in a future totalitarian corporate Korea, and an account of inhabitants of a more-distant future Hawaii who have relapsed into barbarism.

Each of the stories would be good as a stand-alone story.  But in the novel, each of them except the last breaks off in the middle and becomes an element in the next story.  So the novel as a whole is more than the sum of its parts.  It shows how the past shapes the present, and both past and present will shape the future.  The structure was more than a clever trick.   Mitchell made it work—at least for me.

Now Cloud Atlas is going to be made into a movie.  I don’t see how this is possible, but I’ll certainly go to see it.

Click on  David Mullan’s Cloud Atlas Review Part One and Part Two, David Mitchell on Writing Cloud Atlas and Reader Responses for a discussion of Cloud Atlas in The Guardian newspaper’s Guardian Book Club.

Click on The Wachowskis for a New Yorker feature article on the making of the Cloud Atlas movie.

Rocket science and free enterprise

March 19, 2012

When I was a boy, I read the Robert A. Heinlein books for boys — Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky and all the rest — and then graduated to his Future History series — The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth and so on.   They depicted the human race going to the Moon and the planets, and living among the ancient canals of Mars and the teeming jungles of Venus, and then figuring out how to get around the faster-than-light limit which kept us from the stars.

It turned out that Mars and Venus aren’t like that, but I still was stirred by the thought of exploring and settling the Solar System.  The moon landings took place in 1969, six years ahead of Heinlein’s schedule, but it turned out that it was just a stunt, and didn’t lead to Heinlein’s Luna City or anything else.

With all the urgent problems that need to be solved on our home planet, I’m ready to give up on this boyhood fantasy.  But Jeff Greason, who is shown in the TED video above, is not.  He is one of an number of entrepreneurs who, like Heinlein’s fictional D.D. Harriman, think they can make space travel a paying proposition.

I think the odds are against him, but I hope he succeeds, and I think it is just barely possible that he might.  In any case, he and his competitors represent the free enterprise system as it ought to function.  They aren’t trying to cheat anybody out of anything.  They are striving to outdo each other on the basis of performance.  If they succeed, everybody benefits.  If they fail, nobody loses except themselves and maybe their creditors.

Years ago, as I recall, Newt Gingrich had the idea that the federal government should finance the space program by offering prizes.  Rather than having a government-operated program, the government could award cash to the first companies to each certain milestones.  I forget exactly what they were—the first to keep human beings alive on the Moon for more than a week, the first to send a human in orbit around Mars, the first to send a human to step for on Mars, something like that.

This is a concept that could have many applications.  For example, the federal government could offer prizes to pharmaceutical companies for being the first to develop certain kinds of life-saving drugs for which the potential market is small.  Then the government could take the rights to these drugs, and license them to be marketed at affordable prices.

Hat tip to Virginia Postrel.

Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

December 26, 2010

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.



Which do you like better? Yoda or Spock?

September 25, 2010


Sturgeon’s Law

August 29, 2010

Ninety percent of everything is crud.


Replaying your life

June 3, 2010


The science fiction novel Replay by Ken Grimwood, first published in 1988 and recently reprinted, is based on a fascinating premise.  The central character dies in 1988 at age 43 of a heart attack, and wakes up as his younger self at age 18 in 1963.  He gets a chance to live his life over, not once but many times, but in decreasing intervals. In each replay, he starts over at a later point in his life, but he always dies at the same instant in 1988.  The fascination is in the question: What would I do if I had that chance?  Would I retrace my previous life and this time do things right, or would I try something entirely new?

In its execution, the novel does justice to its premise. Grimwood has a good feel for how things were in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and how these decades differed. There are clever plot twists, which I won’t reveal.  In one replay, the central character tries to alter the course of history and inadvertently brings on an intensified version of  War on Terror and Homeland Security state (not called by those names) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, resulting in a cancellation of the 1984 elections.

Grimwood had a lot of insight to foresee that possibility, unless he was a replayer himself (he died in 2003).

Clarke’s Laws

May 16, 2010

Clarke’s First Law. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Asimov’s Corollary. If a scientific heresy is ignored or denounced by the general public, there is a chance it may be right. If a scientific heresy is supported by the general public, it is almost certainly wrong.

Clarke’s Second Law. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way into the impossible.

Clarke’s Third Law. A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke was a British science fiction writer whose works include Childhood’s End and the script for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey.”  Isaac Asimov was an American science fiction writer best-known for the I, Robot and Foundation stories.

Heinlein’s Rules for Success in Writing

May 16, 2010

You must write.

You must finish what you have written.

You must put what you have written on the market.

You must keep it on the market until sold.

Robert A. Heinlein was possibly the leading American science fiction writer of the 1940s and 1950s and a popular writer until his death in 1988.  He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929 and served as a radio communications officer on the USS Lexington, the U.S. Navy’s first modern aircraft carrier. He was discharged from the Navy in 1934 with pulmonary tuberculosis, and tried different ways of earning a living until he submitted a story to Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1939.

He wrote a series of young adult novels which I read as a teenage boy, and I read most of his novels and stories during his lifetime.

His rules for success in writing is that most people who think about writing never actually start, those who start never finish, and those who finish either never submit their work for publication or become discouraged at the first rejection. He had a fifth rule, Do not rewrite except to editorial order, which I have omitted.  His idea was that any writing is marketable at some level of publication, and that if you think of a better way to write something, you should write a new and better story or article.  I think everything Heinlein wrote was marketable at some level, but this is not necessarily true of less talented writers.

Heinlein’s Rule

May 2, 2010

Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.

Robert A. Heinlein was perhaps the leading U.S. science fiction writer of the 1940s and 1950s and continued writing into the 1980s.  He wrote books for boys that I loved as a teenager.

“…the most violent ethnic group in America.”

April 23, 2010

Science fiction stories generally have a short shelf life, especially if they’re set in the near future. Reality has a way of going in a different direction than predicted. But Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, published in 1998 and set in 2044, holds up well.

Distraction is set in a future United States in even greater disarray than at present. Government doesn’t function, the dollar has crashed, there are 16 political parties, the off-the-books economy is bigger than the legal economy and “Wyoming is on fire.”

The main plot is the struggle of a political operative named Oscar Valparaiso to keep a vital federal research laboratory from being taken over by a demagogic governor of Louisiana, who wants to make his half-underwater state a haven for rogue biotechnology.

The part that sticks in my mind is a subplot, involving Oscar’s championing of a despised ethnic minority called the Anglos, the politically-incorrect name for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  I am reminded of it when I hear white, self-identified liberal friends holding forth on the hopeless (as they see it) dysfunction of poor black families.

Oscar gets flack from his peers for hiring a roughneck Anglo as his chief of security.  As one of them says:

“It’s not that I have anything against Anglos!  I mean, sure, there are good, decent, law-abiding Anglo people. But — you know — look at the statistics! Anglos have white-collar crime rates right off the scale.  And talk about violent — man, white people are the most violent ethnic group in America.  All these cross burnings and militia bombings and gun-nut guys … the poor bastards can’t get a grip.”

Oscar considered this. It always offended him to hear his fellow Americans discussing the vagaries of “white people.” There was simply no such thing as “white people.”  The stereotype was an artificial construct, like the ridiculous term “Hispanic.”

Oscar’s peers are alienated by the bodyguard’s personal habits, such as smearing his body with Sunblock and his food with mayonnaise.  He shrugs this off.  “It’s an Anglo thing, man,” he says.

At another point in the novel, Oscar takes a date to a nightclub with an Anglo band.

Buzzy’s was a music spot of some pretension, it was open late and the tourist crowd was good. The band was playing classical string quartets. Typical Anglo ethnic music. It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene. Anglos seemed to have a talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn’t match.

An idea for a science fiction novel

April 5, 2010

My idea for a science fiction novel begins with American freedom fighters struggling against a dictatorship – perhaps resembling the theocracy of Nehemiah Scudder in Robert A. Heinlein’s If This Goes On—.

In my version, the freedom fighters are unable to win on their own, and call for military assistance from the Chinese, as we Americans called upon the French to help us during the Revolutionary War.  In the story, it works. The dictatorship in defeated, although in the process American cities are devastated, public utilities and public services are put out of commission and thousands of Americans die in collateral damage as the Chinese attack.

Then the Chinese decline to go home.  Instead they build luxurious compounds in areas such Beverly Hills, Palm Springs and Westchester County, where officers and officials live in luxury, eat Chinese food and watch Chinese movies and avoid contact with ordinary Americans, except as servants and helpers. Meanwhile the United States remains in chaos.  An election is held, under Chinese auspices, but it is understood that the new government has nothing to say about what the Chinese themselves say.

Increasingly the Chinese forces become subject to terrorist attacks. To make the novel suitably complex, the resistance forces would not only be brave patriots. They would the worst elements in American society – the equivalents of the Ku Klux Klan, the Weather Underground, the Aryan Brotherhood and urban street gangs such as LA’s Crips and Bloods.

In my novel, I would have two main viewpoint characters.  One would be an idealistic young Chinese officer, who sincerely believes his mission is to liberate America from tyranny and bring the blessings of the Chinese way of life.  But as Chinese soldiers were picked off one by one, he would begin to wonder what Americans he could trust. He would become increasingly alienated from the American populace, not knowing who he could trust, and increasingly doubtful as to wbat his mission was.

The other viewpoint character would be an American who had studied Chinese and respected Chinese culture. He originally welcomes the Chinese as liberators, but as the occupation drags on into months and years, he becomes increasingly disillusioned.  The breaking point comes when his aged parents and little baby sister are killed at a checkpoint for failing to respond quickly enough to orders, given in Chinese by troops who don’t speak English.  He decides it is better to live under homegrown thugs than foreign occupiers, and joins the resistance.

I don’t know how I would end the novel.  Maybe I will have a better idea when I see how things turn out in Iraq and Afghanistan.