Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inventions: Strange; Feared; and Yet-to-Come

Science / speculative fiction often deals with technology, and how it affects people, culture, and society. Less often, the idea that people affect technology is explored.

I've seen quite a change in attitude towards technology, over the decades. Tales of Future Past, a remarkable collection by David S. Zondy, celebrates the days when:
"...our future was supposed to be a sort of technocratic, atomic-powered, computer-controlled, antiseptic, space-travelling Jerusalem that would at last free us from the curse of Eden and original sin. We expected some how, some way that we would be on the road to being freed from the human condition. We expected a sort of bloodless, benign French Revolution with Hugo Gernsback as our Voltaire and Carl Sagan as our Robespierre. And what did we get? The City of Man with Tivo. The fact is, science fiction and popular science had set the bar so high that only the Second Coming with ray guns would have satisfied...."
(Tales of Future Past)
I watched that view change to the 'and we're all gonna die' belief that technology was evil. Or, for the more up-to-date: polluting; dehumanizing; depersonalizing; and humanity is doomed anyway.

Beware the Demon Technology and Other Silliness

My guess is that some circles still see technology as a sort of secular demon bent on reducing humanity to a deplorable state of ungrooviness, Although the post-apocalyptic future of mutant frogs (Hell Comes to Frogtown) and armored dune buggies has a certain panache, I really don't think it's all that likely.

Humanity somehow survived agriculture.1 If we can do that, we can take on just about anything.

Although some technologies are more dangerous than others, I don't think that anything human beings mess with is, strictly speaking, safe. That's because of some assumptions I have, about the nature of reality.
  • Some people aren't generally
    • Nice
    • Competent
    • Careful
  • Technology is most dangerous when it's used by people who are
    • Not nice or
    • Not competent or
    • Not careful or
    • Some combination of the above
I also don't think that any technology makes people do things. Yes: it's easier for people to travel, for example, now that we've got automobiles and airplanes. But people had been traveling for years before the automobile was invented.

People are People, Tools are Tools: There's a Difference

What we do can be done on a larger scale if we've got tools: but it's the human mind directing the tool; not the other way around.

Buck Rogers and the Temple of Doom

Technology can be part of the background, or it could be a central part of the conflict.

Take the early days of the industrial revolution, when people who didn't like the new technology sabotaged it with their wooden shoes. Or, didn't. Makes a good story, though. (Merriam-Webster Inc. has a pretty good discussion of where the word "sabotage" comes from.)

The point is: that's conflict, centering around technology.

A few short references to technology can place a story in history - or quickly establish a setting. Mention blowguns, poison darts, and a dugout canoe, and many (most, I hope) readers will fill in the rest of the setting from their own (more-or-less accurate) knowledge. Talk about a disrupter, shield generators, and a landing pod and you've evoked a very different setting.

Show your readers someone donning a space suit, getting into a dugout canoe, and dodging poison darts on the way to a shield generator - and you've either hooked or confused the reader.

All of which leads into another list of posts. This set deals with inventions: strange; feared; and (in the case of the warp drive) yet-to-come.

Unless otherwise noted, these posts are from Apathetic Lemming of the North.And, this decade's 'it's gonna kill us all' invention, CERN's Large Hadron Collector:
1 Agriculture may have been the single most dangerous technology humanity has come up with yet. It took us thousands of years to recover from the devastating effects of its use. ("Agriculture as a Mistake" Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 29, 2007))

2 This isn't a perfect world. Sometimes not-nice people do naughty things; and won't stop even when they're asked nicely. Which leads me to this set of thoughts:
  • War isn't nice - things get broken and people die
    • This is not good.
  • Diplomacy can lead to mutually-acceptable compromise
    • This is good
  • War is not nice
    • But sometimes it's better than the alternative
(I value individual freedom, even for people who don't agree with a country's dominant culture. I'll admit to having a rather counter-cultural attitude on this topic: which I discuss in Another War-on-Terror Blog.)

What's pertinent to writing in the science fiction / speculative fiction genre(s) is that 'dangerous' technology isn't
  • Always a weapon
  • Bad by itself
Think LP gas, computers and movable type. (Discussed in Individual Freedom: a Treasure, Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 27, 2008))

Advice, Opinions, Resources, and How-2 for Writers: Over a Hundred Micro-Reviews

There's a wealth of information (accurate and otherwise), advice (helpful, sometimes), and opinions (fact-based, idiosyncratic, and just plain weird) on the Web. Quite a lot is useful, one way or another, for writers.

Some of the 3,019 posts I've published to date on Apathetic Lemming of the North are micro-reviews of articles and other resources that might come in handy for a writer. Earlier today, I stumbled on one ("Plotting a Novel - Like a Snowflake?!" (February 10, 2009)) and realized that I didn't remember each of the one hundred forty or so posts about writing.

Looks like Socrates was right. New information technologies can be dangerous. More about that in another post.

On the other hand, I think the trade-off between concentrating on wrote memorization and learning how to index, store and retrieve information is a no-brainer when it comes to benefit/cost ratios.

Problem is, in this case, I hadn't indexed those posts about writing. Until now.

I've divided the posts into four catgories, plus the usual "miscellaneous" for the occasional oddball topic: The posts in each category are in reverse chronological order.

A few of the usual disclaimers: The links in those micro-reviews may not still work. Websites and blogs change, or disappear entirely; I have no control over what's on other websites or blogs; I've provided links to pages and posts I think are interesting, but have not verified any of the claims or assertions on other sites or blogs. In other words, before you spend money or sign up for anything: check it out on your own! "Due diligence" may seem dull, but it can save a lot of time, grief, and money.

Enough. Here are those posts:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Threat of Dangerous New Technologies: It's Not All That New

An expert recently said:
"...'My issue is that it's not just gaming. It's social networking. It's the Web in general,' said [analyst at In-Stat Jim] McGregor. 'We've gained so much, but still it puts people in front of a computer screen for hours on end. It gives Americans just another reason to be fat, dumb and lazy.'..."
Apathetic Lemming of the North (August 23, 2009)
I'd be a bit more aghast at that proclamation, if I hadn't heard it before. About the Internet, cable television, television, and the telephone. As long as I can remember, someone's been concerned, sometimes with reason, about newfangled technologies.

Science fiction/speculative fiction stories can center around the effects of technology on people and cultures. Even when the story doesn't, I think it's a good idea to give a thought to what technologies are being used, how they affect people - and what people think about them.

An author doesn't have to start from scratch, imagining how technological change might affect people. Over the millennia, we've gone through quite a bit. And, sometimes, there seem to be repeating patterns.

Agriculture as a Dangerous New Technology

And yet, somehow, we've survived. Ever since some reckless maniac shoved seeds in the ground and stuck around: instead of doing the decent, sensible thing and following the herds like a proper hunter-gatherer. Pretty soon, all the counter-cultural elements in society were putting seeds in the ground and ignoring all that was noble and decent. Well, maybe not: but my guess is that a few people saw it that way.

Somewhat after agriculture destroyed humanity's culture and heritage - or opened new vistas of promise - someone developed writing. Probably several someones.

Writing as (Dangerous) Information Storage and Retrieval Technology

As long as writing was used exclusively for recording business transactions, the damage was limited to the commercial sector.

But no: some wiseacre decided to start recording ideas in this dangerous new information storage and retrieval technology.

That's where Plato comes in.

Around 360 BC, Plato wrote a work we call Phaedrus. Yes: wrote. That's the verb used in quite a few discussions of Plato's work, and it's quite possible that the ancient Greek philosopher did use the new information technology.

New, and apparently controversial.

In Phaedrus, Plato has his mentor, Socrates, enlightening someone in a dialog. I'll pick up where Socrates tells about a story he picked up in Egypt:
"...one of the ancient gods of that country; the same to whom that holy bird is consecrated which they call, as you know, Ibis, and whose own name was Theuth. He, they proceed, was the first to invent numbers and arithmetic, and geometry and astronomy; draughts moreover, and dice, and, above all, letters. Now the whole of Egypt was at that time. under the sway of the god Thamus, who resided near the capital city of the upper region, which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes...."
(Phaedrus, p. 103-104) 1 [emphasis mine]
Interesting story, if somewhat long-winded by contemporary standards - that's just a brief excerpt. Socrates goes on, and eventually gets to where a ruler is evaluating this invention: letters. This king, it would seem, invented regulatory agencies.
"...'The king replied: 'Most ingenious Theuth, one man is capable of giving birth to an art, another of estimating the amount of good or harm it will do to those who are intended to use it. And so now you, as being the father of letters, have ascribed to them, in your fondness, exactly the reverse of their real effects. For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties. Your discovery, therefore, is a medicine not for memory, but for recollection,--for recalling to, not for keeping in mind. And you are providing for your disciples a show of wisdom without the reality. For, acquiring by your means much information unaided by instruction, they will appear to possess much knowledge, while, in fact, they will, for the most part, know nothing at all; and, moreover, be disagreeable people to deal with, as having become wise in their own conceit, instead of truly wise.'..."
(Phaedrus, p. 104-105) 1 [emphasis mine]
This was over two thousand years ago: a tad over 23 1/2 centuries. We're so used to the idea of recording and retrieving information with writing that we don't think of it as a technology. These philosophers were much closer to a time when writing was starting to affect how people handled information in a big way.

And, apparently, some didn't like it.

Socrates, of course, has more to say:
"...Soc. For this, I conceive, Phaedrus, is the evil of writing, and herein it closely resembles painting. The creatures of the latter art stand before you as if they were alive, but if you ask them a question, they look very solemn, and say not a word. And so it is with written discourses. You could fancy they speak as though they were possessed of sense, but if you wish to understand something they say, and question them about it, you find them ever repeating but one and the self-same story. Moreover, every discourse, once written, is tossed about from hand to hand, equally among those who understand it, and those for whom it is in nowise fitted; and it does not know to whom it ought, and to whom it ought not, to speak. And when misunderstood and unjustly attacked, it always needs its father to help it; for, unaided, it can neither retaliate, nor defend itself...."
(Phaedrus, p. 107) 1 [emphasis mine]

This Could be the End of Civilization as We Know It - 360 BC

Socrates was right, in a way. Before the development of writing as a medium for storing complex ideas, philosophers like Socrates and Plato relied on their own memories, and on their ability to talk about what they'd thought about. Memorizing massive amounts of information like that required a sort of mental discipline that's lacking today. I'm pretty sure that I have to work harder at wrote memorization than I probably would if I didn't know how to read and use an index or table of contents.

On the other hand, if it weren't for this dangerous new technology rotting away the mental powers of its users and (potentially) deceiving them into thinking that they actually understood what they'd read: we wouldn't know what Socrates and Plato had on their minds.

And, although they didn't have a perfect track record when it came to figuring out what things were and how they worked, they and others like them helped lay the foundation for the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.

Socrates had a point, too, when he talked about the lack of interactivity that's nearly unavoidable with writing. We didn't have a workaround for that until Information Age technologies started destroying humanity's culture and heritage - or opening new vistas of promise. Maybe a little of both.

This Could be the End of Civilization as We Know It - 2009 AD

We've gotten used to the sort of lazy memory that writing encourages, and discovered that there were advantages to being able to get at the actual words of great thinkers like Plato - not what a succession of well-meaning but less gifted people remembered someone telling them about what their teachers said Plato thought.

Don't get me wrong: oral traditions are more accurate than some people were willing to believe.2 I'd still prefer the words set down by someone like Plato or Bhagwan Swaminarayan, than what someone remembers about what those people said.

I don't think that writing - symbols on a flattish surface which record ideas - will disappear, or become something that always needs a keyboard. Anyone who remembers the 'paperless office' knows what I'm talking about.

Oral tradition, I'm pretty sure, will also continue.

It's just that it looks like we're on the edge of another radical change in how people handle information. 'Information Age' technology is already changing how news is handled - and how people communicate with each other.

Me? I'm not worried. We survived agriculture: I don't think cell phones and Internet cafes will destroy us.

Related posts:

1 All excerpts are from:
  • "The Phaedrus, Lysis, and Protagoras of Plato"
    By Plato, Josiah Wright, Immanuel Bekker
    • The book's title page reads: "The Phaedrus, Lysis, and Protagoras of Plato"
      A new and literal translation mainly from the text of Bekker
      by J. Wright, M.A., Trinity College, Cambridge,
      London: MacMillan and Co., Limited New York: The MacMillan Company, 1900
Another translation is available online:
  • "Phaedrus"
    By Plato
    Written 360 B.C.E
    Translated by Benjamin Jowett
    The Internet Classics Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law faculty website has something to say about Plato and Socrates.

2 "...The validity and reliability of this type of transmission are confirmed by modern researchers of the Nahuatl culture such as Miguel León Portilla
(Miguel León Portilla, El destino de la palabra. De la oralidad y los glifos mesoamericanos a la escritura alfabética, FCE, Mexico City 1996, pp. 19-71)....
" ("Our Lady of Guadalupe: Historical Sources" L'Osservatore Romano, via EWTN (January 23, 2002))

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Study the Best: Girl Genius Won Hugo

The Girl Genius post of August 12, 2009 announced that Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones (written by Kaja & Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, coloring by Cheyenne Wright) won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story of 2008.

I don't mind a bit. I was something of a fan of Kaja and Phil Foglio, from the days they were doing What's New for Dragon magazine, and have been following Girl Genius.

And, studying what they're doing. It's nice to get confirmation that I've been studying a pretty good example of, ah, graphic story.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Sense of Scale and Science Fiction Writers

Most people (I hope) know that Florida is closer to Jamaica than India is.

A sense of scale - at least a rough one - can, I think make or break the willing suspension of disbelief necessary for a story. Say you were reading a story about vacationers who took a bus from Hawaii to Florida, spent a day on a boat getting to Jamaica, and another day on a similar boat, getting to India?

Unless it was a magic bus, a magic boat - and the author had clued you in that the story involved (very) unusual vehicles - you might have a hard time staying focused on the story.

How Far is Alpha Centauri? Or, Let's Get Sirius

Let's say you're reading a science fiction (or, if you're up-to-date, speculative fiction) story about an epic space war. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Not for me, anyway, Think of it like this: Star Wars did pretty well as a story.

Knowing Your Way Around the Neighborhood - Stellar Neighborhood, That Is

Now, in this space epic, you discover that it takes about twice as long to get from Sol (Earth's sun) to Alpha Centauri, as it does to get from Sol to Sirius. So far, so good. Sirius, at (roughly) eight and a half light years is approximately twice as far as Alpha Centauri.

Then, you read that it takes about the same amount of time to get from Alpha Centauri to either Sol or Sirius. Hey: Alpha Centauri is half-way to Sirius from Sol, right?

Wrong. It's pretty obvious that the author didn't check his sky charts. Alpha Centauri is about a light year farther from Sirius than Sol is. It's a bit over nine and a half light years from Sirius to Alpha Centauri.1

Although the distance from Alpha Centauri to Sirius isn't obvious from a sky chart, it's pretty clear that Alpha Centauri and Sirius are not particularly close to each other in the sky: so making Alpha Centauri a sort of stellar Midway between Sol and Sirius isn't all that sensible.

Finding out, in general terms, what direction things are in isn't the worst thing a writer could do.

Space is Big: Really, Really Big

I don't remember where I ran into this discussion of cosmic distances, and can't remember the exact words, but it went something like this:
Space is very big. It's so big that it doesn't have a bottom. It's bottomless. It's bottomless at the top and at the bottom. It doesn't have any sides, either.
That's actually a pretty good description. Distances here on Earth can be big, by human standards, and the world gets bigger when we leave this planet.

A Drive-Through Model of the Solar System

Peoria made a scale model of the Solar system (micro-reviewed January 18, 2008 in another blog). I think it's a pretty good educational tool for giving people a 'feel' for comparative distances in our immediate vicinity. Remember: Earth is about 8,000 miles across.

The dome of Lakeview Museum of the Arts and Sciences's planetarium is our son, Sol, in this model. The scale is 42 foot = 1,000,000 miles.

Here's how big the model is:
(from sun/Sol)(diameter)
The sun/SolN/A36 feet
Mercury0.25 miles1.5 inches
Venus0.5 miles3.8 inches
Earth0.75 miles4 inches
Mars1.2 miles2.2 inches
Ceres1.6 miles0.3 inches
Jupiter4 miles45 inches
Jupiter's rings-76 inches
Saturn8 miles38 inches
Saturn's rings-90 inches
Uranus15 miles16 inches
Uranian rings-32 inches
Neptune23 miles15 inches
Neptunian rings23 miles30 inches
Pluto40 miles0.7 inches
Eris62 miles0.8 inches
(Source: What is the Community Solar System?)

At this scale, Alpha Centauri A and B would be around 205,290 miles away: closer than the moon, but not by much.2

Basically, Space is BIG

These models are helpful in giving some idea of just how big the Solar system is - and how far it is between stars.
How Much Detail and Precision?
I don't think a writer could be expected to - or should try to - give the reader a precise 'feel' for just how much distance is involved. Although we've got ways to deal with very large numbers in mathematics, our brains don't seem to be particularly good at translating something like "205,290 miles" into a comprehensible distance. Not the way we can translate "four feet" into something concrete: something that can be seen with the mind's eye.

I do think that a writer can use radically scaled-down models, like the Peoria Solar system, to build a word-picture for the reader.

I also think that it's important for a writer to know a bit more about the scale of things than what gets told to the reader.

One page from the Television Tropes & Idioms website, "Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale," has an impressive list of howlers in science fiction and fantasy animation, comics, and live-action shows.

Depending on how you look at it, this page could be a sort of cautionary tale of what a writer must do to avoid ridicule. Or, an example of how a series can have astonishingly goofy mistakes and still be successful. The Star Trek franchise is a fairly familiar example of this, from either point of view.

For example:
"...'All Our Yesterdays' refers to Vulcan as being millions of light-years away. Most of the stars of the entire galaxy fit in a sphere with a diameter of about 100,000 light-years. That would put Vulcan in the Andromeda galaxy or make Vulcan's sky really empty...."
("Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale")
Don't get me wrong: I like the original Star Trek series and the subsequent television series, and have seen several of the movies. But that doesn't mean that I take the franchise as particularly serious science fiction. 'Speculative' fiction - maybe. I picked part of the Star Trek collection of bloopers because the franchise is fairly well-known, at least in American culture.
"...And then there's the Green Lantern Corps. The entire universe divided into 3600 sectors, each of which is patrolled by two (it used to be just one) Space Policemen. And most of them seem to spend most of their time on Oa, or their favourite planet, or pursuing obscure goals of their own...."
("Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale")

It's a Matter of Time

It's a familiar science fiction (oops - speculative fiction) situation: Humanity reaches the stars, and there's a wide range of people out there: Some with stone age technology, a few with 'bronze tech' - quite a large number with interstellar space ships not at all unlike what humans are using - and there's an incredibly ancient race or two, a million years old.

Good stories can be told with a setting like that: but I'm not particularly comfortable with it. From my point of view, that million-year-or-so range in the length of time the various people have been around is way, way too short.

And the wild coincidence that the majority are at the same point as humanity, when it comes to transportation tech?

Today, we've got pretty good reason to believe that the universe has been around for between 11,200,000,000 and 20,000,000,000 years. Or 10,000,000,000 and 15,000,000,000 years. Or 13,000,000,000 and 14,000,000,000 years.

I'll pick 14,000,000,000 years as a reasonable mid-range guess.

Human beings have been keeping written records for about 5,000 years. (Discussion and list of resources in "Four Millennia of Human Nature: I Think Qoheleth is Right" (August 3, 2009).)

Not so many zeroes, yes?

Cosmologists are pretty sure that it took a seriously long time for elements heavier than hydrogen to build up to the point where there was enough to form rocky planets - and us.

Maybe the scenarios where humanity is one of a number of people who, on the cosmic time scale, are all about the same age, aren't all that wildly improbable. (See "Life on Other Worlds: Evolution, Orbits, and the Galactic Environment" (August 13, 2009).)

There's Ancient, and there's Ancient

I think there's a tendency to think of anything more than a few hundred years old as "ancient." Well and good, but let's look at what "ancient" can mean.

When the Roman Republic formed, Egypt was already into its late period, running through its 20th to 30th Dynasties, and upwards of 2,000 years old.

It would have been like the American Revolutionaries living in a world where the Roman Empire was still a going concern.

That's just what we know about the 5,000 or so years since Cuneiform was developed.
Getting Imaginative
Let's say the universe is 14,000,000,000 years old. And, let's say that the Solar system formed about 4,500,000,000 years ago: which makes it a bit less than a third the age of the universe.

And, let's say that the Solar system wasn't quite the first planetary system where life got started - or where people have lived.

The Carboniferous period, when Earth's coal was laid down, is about 300,000,000 years back. That's roughly 1/47 the age of the universe, assuming that today's cosmologists are pretty close to the mark, and 1/15 the age of the Solar system.

I don't think it's all that unreasonable to think that another planet was formed 3/47 of the universe's age before the Solar system was - and that there was enough non-hydrogen around then to allow a planet like Earth to form. I'll grant that I'm on slightly shaky ground here, but I'm just imagining.

That 'first Earth' would have been as old as Earth is, now, 600,000,000 years ago. They'd have had another 300,000,000 years to work on transportation technologies before the middle of the Carboniferous period came on Earth.

They might have developed ways of getting around that we're beginning to think about: and had time to check out interesting spots in this galaxy.

They might have been curious about what would happen on Earth, and left some equipment behind to keep an eye on the place. Maybe on the moon, maybe here on Earth, in rock that they figured would be stable.

Or maybe they buried something here, confident that it would stay buried under tons of rock on a primitive planet.

Part of what's now the Arrowhead region of Minnesota might have caught their eye for this burial. There's bedrock there that had already been fairly stable for about 200,000,000 years then.

Time passed.

When the latest set of glaciers melted on the North American continent, they exposed bedrock in what's now northern Minnesota that's upwards of 543,000,000 years old. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources identifies some of the exposed bedrock in the Border Lakes Subsection as being from the Precambrian, a period starting 453,000,000 years back: more specifically, from the "Late Archean and Early Proterozoic".

Maybe somewhere, a few hours' drive north of where I live, covered by a few feet of soil, tree roots and moss, a silted-in passage leads down to a chamber where equipment - and maybe something else - has been waiting for half a billion years.

Maybe what was a deeply-buried tomb has become a shallow grave. Shallow enough to allow escape.

Maybe H. P. Lovecraft was an optimist.

And the Moral of This Story Is - - -

Obsessing over nit-picking details isn't a good way of getting a project finished - and probably wouldn't result in a particularly interesting story. On the other hand, I think it's a good idea to do a little homework, check the numbers, and avoid having your characters ride a bus from Hawaii to Florida.

That yarn about a Thing buried in northern Minnesota? No, I really don't think so. On the other hand, paying attention to the scale of the universe - in time and space - allows a writer to start imagining on a large scale.

Related posts: Background:
1 I wouldn't have the distance between Sirius and the closest major star, if I didn't use The Internet Stellar Database. That website has the position of (most) stars within 75 light years of us, and a pretty-good online function for getting distances between stars. I'd be able to figure it out, with a star catalog I've got: but the math is a bit tedious.

2 At this scale, a light year (5,878,786,100,000 miles) is 246,909,012 feet, if I've got the numbers right. Or, again on this scale, a light year is around 46,700 miles. Which makes Alpha Centauri, the nearest main-sequence star (stars - it's a binary, at least), at 4.39 light years, around 205,290 miles away. Which is closer than the moon, but not by much. The distance from the center of Earth to the center of our moon is about 238,890 miles. On average. The moon's orbit is slightly elliptical, so the center-to-center distance ranges from 225,740 to 251,970 miles. According to a page at NASA, anyway. They should know, since they've sent a few ships out there - and gotten them back.

'Willing Suspension of Disbelief' - What's That Mean?

I'll be using the term "willing suspension of disbelief" quite a bit in this blog.

It's been defined as:
"Temporarily and willingly setting aside our beliefs about reality in order to enjoy the make-believe of a play, a poem, film, or a story. Perfectly intelligent readers can enjoy tall-tales about Pecos Bill roping a whirlwind, or vampires invading a small town in Maine, or frightening alternative histories in which Hitler wins World War II, without being 'gullible' or 'childish.' To do so, however, the audience members must set aside their sense of 'what's real' for the duration of the play, or the movie, or the book.

"Samuel Coleridge coined the English phrase in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria to describe the way a reader is implicitly 'asked' to set aside his notions of reality and accept the dramatic conventions of the theater and stage or other fictional work. Coleridge writes:
" . . . My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith (quoted in Cuddon, page 1044).
"Coleridge may have been inspired by the French phrase, 'cette belle suspension d'esprit de law sceptique' from François de La Mothe le Vayer, or by Ben Jonson's writing where Jonson notes, 'To many things a man should owe but a temporary belief, and suspension of his own judgment.' "
("Literary Terms and Definitions: W," Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tennessee)
I think one reason that some people declare, vehemently, that they don't read fiction is either the desire to not appear "gullible" or "childish;" or an inability (or unwillingness) to temporarily set aside the capacity for distinguishing between the real and the unreal.

I know that quite a few perfectly reasonable and intelligent people don't read fiction. Including some of my relatives. I've no problem with that. I'd no more insist that everyone have my tastes in reading, than assume that people in general should enjoy the same leisure pursuits that I do.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thought for the Day: Modern Critics, Popularity, and Masterpieces

""By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."
G. K. Chesterton, in "On Detective Novels," Generally Speaking, The American Chesterton Society

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thought for the Day: Computers and Human Brains

Computers are designed to achieve accurate results based on very large amounts of information, all of which is correct.

The human brain is designed to achieve accurate results based on very small amounts of information, most of which is wrong.

Like a Backpack With Balloons: the Moon is Unearthly

"How to Maneuver in a Space Suit Using the 'Apollo Number' "
Wired Science (August 14, 2009)

"Next time you're stuck on the moon and running out of oxygen, you'd better run, not walk, back to your lunar module — especially if you're wearing a space suit.

"Scientists say those giant, bulky suits actually make running easier and walking more difficult on the moon. By combing through video and audio recordings from Apollo moonwalks, researchers have devised a mathematical method to explain how space suits affected lunar gait during the Apollo missions, and how future space suits might change the way we get around on Mars.

"'Space suits are effectively reducing the gravity level by supporting part of the weight of everything that's being transported,' said space physiology researcher Christopher Carr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-authored the paper published Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE. 'When you're out there, it's like wearing a backpack with a bunch of helium balloons attached to it.'..."

Not all science fiction stories take place on other worlds, in space, or in the future. But, some do. An author would be well-advised to think about what effects the different environments - and technologies - would have on everyday activities like standing, sitting, and moving around.

I think it was Arthur C. Clark who pointed out in a story that snapping to attention in free fall would, like as not, result in distinct discomfort when the person's head hit the overhead.

"Self-Supporting Space Suit Makes It Hard to Bend"

wired, YouTube (August 14, 2009)
video 0:52

"During this scene from the Apollo 16 mission, astronaut Charles Duke drops a hammer on the lunar surface and has a tough time picking it up. To overcome the self-support of the space suit, he has to jump repeatedly in order to compress the suit's knee joint and pick up the hammer."

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Thought for the Day: Education and Writing

Now and again, you'll read that education is good for writers. The idea is that a good liberal arts education gives a person a sort of generalized background in the culture, and hones communications skills.

I agree with that, sort of. Over the decades I earned a degree in History and another in English - both undergraduate - and about half of a degree in computer science before bombing out. Along the way I picked up credits in art history, photography, the usual anthropology/geology/physics/whatever general studies stuff, and a minor in Speech. I think that was time well spent.

But I worked for both degrees in Fargo-Moorhead where there's three colleges, a technical school, and a trade school or two. I spent quite a bit of time in the Architecture library over at NDSU, checked out the agronomy department, and spent a lot of time in the three main libraries.

Sure getting the degrees was nice: but as someone must have said:

I never let earning a degree get in the way of getting an education.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Where do Writers Get Their Ideas?

"The Storm"
Pierre-Auguste Cot, oil on canvas, 1880
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

According to a note in a collection of Cordwainer Smith stories, that painting is the inspiration of a scene in Alpha Ralpha Boulevard 1 That's likely enough.

Where Do They Get Those Ideas?

I don't think that there's some mystic way that writers get their ideas. I do think that there may be as many ways to get ideas as there are writers: but that they can be put into a manageable number of categories.

This isn't going to be a exhaustive list, but it might help suggest ways to shake story ideas loose.

Visual Art

According to J. J. Pierce, one scene in a Cordwainer Smith story was inspired by that painting. Paintings, photographs, any sort of visual art - representational or not - could suggest a scene or setting or maybe an entire story.

The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the New York Metropolitan Museum is one place to start looking for useful images.

The work at right, by a Chinese artist, has a very specific history (and poem) that goes with it - but might suggest a thousand others.

These examples are fairly representational, but I think that contemplating abstract or other 'unrealistic' work might pry an idea or two loose from your mind.

The News

Good news: What you get in the news are the stories that editors decided might be interesting enough to grab the attention of their readers. You don't have to wonder quite so much, whether or not people would find the situation interesting.

Bad news: these are (with a few embarrassing exceptions) factual accounts of what happened to real people. If you don't change the situation enough, you could be in legal trouble. Besides, someone's going to catch on - and 'pop' goes your credibility as a writer. My opinion.

Other Stories

Same comments.

Booze, Drugs, Severe Head Injury

Interestingly, I'm not aware of anybody romanticizing severe head trauma as a means of artistic release: although it would involve the same principle of boozing or 'expanding your consciousness' with drugs. The human brain, when damaged or impared, can do very strange things to a person's perceptions.

A word of advice, for anyone thinking of re-enacting the sixties: Don't

Sure, after a few beers you may think you're unusually poetic and creative - as well as being exceptionally athletic and attractive. Anyone who's been in a bar before closing time - sober - could confirm that subjective awareness and objective reality aren't necessarily on the same page.

Like the guy at the bar. He'd down a drink, open his wallet and look in it, and order another drink. After a while the bartender asked him what he was doing. The guy showed the bartender a photo of his mother-in-law and said, "when she starts looking good, I've had enough."

Which leads, sort of, into another source for story ideas.

Actually, it's the only source.

Story Ideas: They're All in Your Head

Every method I've suggested - including reading the news - draws on the same source for story ideas. Your own memory and associations you've made between events and ideas.

It's a matter of learning how to get at the storehouse of imagery, events, experiences, and ideas that's already in your head. There, you're on your own.

I don't have much trouble getting images and associations released from whatever psychobabble for 'the unconscious' is these days. All I have to do is release the brake, and enjoy the ride. My problem is making sense of what goes past. One of my blogs, Narcissus-X is a pretty good reflection of the more conventionally 'artistic' content I collect that way.

Although there's more of that angsty artist in me than I like, that's not the sort of stuff I want to produce.

Getting Ideas is One Thing - - -

Finally, there's more to writing than nifty ideas. As I mentioned in a few days ago, written stories are over four thousand years old: and there's excellent reason to think that story-telling goes much further back than than. I suppose it's possible that there's a basic idea for a story that hasn't been used yet: but it's very, very unlikely.

So, I wouldn't worry too much about getting an 'original' idea. The trick is to find an idea that works for a story - and weaving a new narrative around it. (No, I didn't come up with that idea either.)
1Page 259, "The Best of Cordwainer Smith"
Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by J. J. Pierce © 1975 Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, New York

More-or-less related posts, from Apathetic Lemming of the North:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Four Millennia of Human Nature: I Think Qoheleth is Right

Cuneiform writing is one of the oldest information storage and retrieval technologies we know of - apart from artwork left of cave walls tens of thousands of years ago. Cuneiform made it possible to record data without relying on the memory of human beings: a breakthrough in information technology.

That was about 5,000 years ago.

Roughly 4,100 years back, someone wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's almost certain that the story dates from an earlier period. We don't know about earlier versions, because they most likely were part of an oral tradition: and left no permanent record.

There was a real Gilgamesh, who lived about six centuries before the story was written. I'm not so much concerned with the historical king of Uruk as I am of the character in the story.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Human Condition

The title character in the Epic of Gilgamesh is rather larger-than-life: one of the sort of King Arthur/Robin Hood/Luke Skywalker types that 'serious' writers are supposed to disdain. Which is another topic.

I am not doing justice to the story, but a short-short-condensed version is this: Gilgamesh starts out as a young and powerful ruler, and an oppressive one; Anu, one of the gods, creates a sort of counterweight for Gilgamesh - Enkidu; Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends, and Enkidu dies.

This is where it gets interesting, I think. Gilgamesh is grief-stricken at the death of his friend, and lets his life collapse. He's realized that, like Enkidu, he will die, too.

By overcoming enormous obstacles, Gilgamesh gains access to immortality: and loses it. He gains the power to become young again: and loses it.

Gilgamesh returns to his city, perhaps wiser.

Perfected Human Nature? Don't Hold Your Breath

There's a sort of science fiction story where all of humanity's ills are solved - generally by a combination of psychology, eugenics, and big machines. They've given way to the sort of post-apocalyptic dystopian story I mentioned in yesterday's post. I'm willing to recognize the potential for literary worth in either sort of story: but I'd rather do something I can regard as a bit more plausible.

Judging from the glimpse of the human experience we get in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient writings, I think it's safe to say that, when it comes to people:
"What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun."
"Ecclesiastes," 1:9
That's not as hopeless as it sounds.

It's getting late, and I need (desperately) sleep. I'll have to pick this topic up on another day.

More-or-less-related posts: Background:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"The Future, Far as Human Eye Could See" - Hollerith Cards and Anachronisms

Science fiction, or speculative fiction, Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon notwithstanding, doesn't always deal with The Future. But quite a bit does.

Including a set of stories I'm hoping to create.

Writers haven't had to think very hard about what The Future (capitalized) would be like, provided that they didn't mind using off-the-shelf settings. During the 20th century, The Future would be filled with gigantic buildings and sweeping elevated roadways with no obvious entrances or exits, electric biplanes and spaceships held together with huge rivets.

Later, a more (sophisticated?) standard-issue vision of the future was a post-(nuclear, bio-weapons, whatever)-apocalyptic wasteland that bore a remarkable similarity to parts of the American southwest and southern California: inhabited by desperate nomads in leather underwear and/or Rambo-styled costumes, mutant frogs, mutant people, mutant things. You get the picture.

Entertaining (or, if required, relevant) stories could be set in variations on any of these.

My intention is to be a trifle more imaginative than that.

By the way, if this post's topic looks familiar, it should. About a month ago, I started writing about my take on fictional futures and themes. ("...Into the Future..." - Excerpt; Attitude; Comment and Theme (July 3, 2009))

Today, the topic's technology, and avoiding anachronisms.

Technology, Change, and Wood-Burning Computers

Nobody (I hope) would write about someone in the far future lighting a fire in a computer's boiler - unless there was a very good reason for using an oddly anachronistic blend of technologies. On the other hand, it's easy to forget just how much technology changes. And, sometimes, doesn't change.
"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;...
Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835)
When Tennyson wrote that, the Kitty Hawk test flight was about 68 years in the future. The poet, in all probability, imagined his "pilots of the purple twilight" to be sailing lighter-than-air ships.

Today, roughly 174 years after he "dipt into the future," we do use lighter-than-air craft for some specialized applications, but fixed-wing aircraft are the dominant air travel technology.

My point is that it's difficult - maybe impossible - to predict with any degree of accuracy what technology will be like more than a few years down the road.

Except for one thing.

It's almost certainly not going to look a whole lot like contemporary technology, or what's on the horizon: with some exceptions.
Dials and punch cards on a spaceship?
"...The dim dials had shown like blazing suns upon his tired retinas before he was able to turn his eyes away. From time to time he had looked out at the black nothing to see the silhouettes of his dials, almost-blackness against total blackness...."
The Lady Who Sailed The Soul, Cordwainer Smith (1960)
I think that's pretty good writing: but one detail jumped out at me: dials?

This story is set in the far future - about 4,000 years from now, given some reasonable guesstimates about the timeline Cordwainer Smith developed.1

A few pages later, we get another look at astronautical technology of the 60th (or thereabouts) century:
"...She broke out a repair robot and sent it out to effect repairs, punching out the papers as rapidly as she could to give instructions...."
The Lady Who Sailed The Soul, Cordwainer Smith (1960)
About a quarter-century after that story was written, I earned about half a degree in computer science. At that time Hollerith Cards and paper tape were the way that programs were stored. It wasn't a particularly new technology at the time: Punched cards had been used to analyze census data for the 1890 American census.

They're not all that common these days, but dials actually do make sense for readouts of cyclic data: like the hands of a clock that rotate once every minute, every hour, and every 12 hours (or, sometimes, every 24), indicating where we're at in the daily cycle.

Other sorts of data are a bit easier to read when presented as a point or points on a scale, as a pie chart, with alphanumeric characters, or as a picture or diagram. (I hope you'll trust me on that: I worked in graphic design for about a decade, and that's part of what I picked up.)

I'll accept that idea that some of the instrumentation on that interstellar spaceship used dials. But add something like Hollerith cards to the mix, and my willing suspension of disbelief had to be hauled back to the tracks and tipped back in place.

The lesson? Don't assume that technology is static. As a rule, Cordwainer Smith does a pretty good job with keeping descriptions of future tech to what the stuff does and what it looks like - with just enough of the 'how' to keep the reader convinced.

I think that's a good idea.
Sometimes Technology Doesn't Change - All That Much
Not too long ago I ran into an article that mentioned a valve that was dug up in Italy. It was, as I recall, made of brass (or was that bronze?): nothing at all unusual. The metal is in very common use, and the design was a simple, effective one that's been common for years. The valve was 'obviously' something fairly contemporary.

Until an someone noticed that it was the wrong size. Long story made short, the valve was of Roman manufacture, and somewhere in the dozen-plus centuries that had passed since a plumber had installed it, standard sizes for valves had changed.

Technology Will Change - People, Not So Much

Although I'm pretty sure that we'll continue to add technological enhancements and implants to our basic design, like reading glasses and pacemakers, there won't be all that much change to what human beings are for the next thousand years or so. Not successful change, at least. I'm pretty sure that from time to time someone will get the bright idea of improving on the basic design. But that's another topic.

Technology, I think, will continue to be something used by human beings. That puts some very definite constraints on one part of future tech: the interface. We've already gotten to the point where our telephones are about as small as they can be, and still have buttons that (many) people can push. They'll probably get thinner, but I think we've got the keyboard down to a minimum size.

I'll admit to a bias. I have a little trouble with some of the smaller keyboards today: but my daughters don't. (Note: Human beings come in two basic models, which is yet another topic.)

So, my guess is that fifteen or so centuries from now the analog of a computer keyboard might be a bit of open space where you'd use some sort of sign language, and the analog of television might be data loaded into your sensory cortices. Whether it's a 'pay per view,' a government service (or requirement), or something else would depend of what sort of society is envisioned.

But the bathroom plumbing? My guess is that Julius Caesar wouldn't have any trouble using it - although his plumber might understand it a bit better.

  • "The Best of Cordwainer Smith"
    Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by J. J. Pierce
    © 1975 Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, New York

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