06 Sep

Space Traders, DACA, and Good SF

In listening to fallout over Trump’s recent DACA decision, I’m drawn to parallels with Derrick Bell’s Space Traders, a controversial novella published in 1992 that examines what might happen if an alien race offered the US government a wondrous bounty in return for the entirety of the country’s African American population.

Outlandish, right?

I say read it, and decide for yourself. Read it and watch as the world around us seems to follow the script.

I first read Space Traders somewhere around 2012 when a flurry rose around it due to Obama’s candidacy. It seemed…valuable…I got it, anyway, but in my worldview it wasn’t really relevant to what was going on at the time. It was republished in Dark Matter two years later. My memory was jogged again a year or two ago when I saw a FSI piece Nisi Shawl wrote on the history of African-American Science Fiction. I didn’t re-read Space Traders then, but I recalled it, you know, reintroduced it into a slot in my memory of Interesting Science Fiction that Exists.

Maybe this is why, after listening to recent conversation about DACA, Space Traders came back to me. Maybe this is why I Googled it today and read it again. Maybe this is why I didn’t find the story outlandish this time. Or, well (pun intended?), yes, why I find the the story outlandish, but not for its conceit. The story explores public arguments made for and against accepting the aliens’ deal by politicians, clergy, businesses, other minority groups, and the general voting public. Its parallels to the conversation around DACA are both eerie and unnerving. Reading Space Traders today feels uncomfortably familiar.

At one point, one of the characters defines the problem for resistance as follows:

“The question is to how best to counter an offer that about one third of the voters would support even if the Space Traders offered America nothing at all. Another third may vacillate, but … that in the end … will simply not be able to pass up a good deal.”

Read that passage again. Go on. It’ll only take a moment.

Sound familiar?

This is the thing about good science fiction. Good science fiction is about what it means to be human—the good, the bad, the amazing, and the outlandish. Good science fiction does not flinch. Good science fiction can make you look at yourself differently.

Some time ago I was sharing a dinner table with a well-known African-American writer who I will not name because that’s not my point here. Eventually our conversation touched on race and gender, and partially on things like the Alt-Right Sad/Rabid Puppy wedge that’s the SF field’s contribution to right-wing bullydom. Somewhere in that conversation I said the situation seems so much sharper now than it has ever been. This is when the writer very politely asked why I thought that was true. Not as in “what are the causes of it being sharper?” but as in “how do you measure such sharpness in order to judge it one way or the other?”

To be honest I didn’t have an answer. When I think about it, our rhetoric today is probably not sharper than it’s ever been—and, as divided as we sound now, we’re probably not even close to being as violent right now as we’ve been in the past. This is America, after all. Pretend as we might, our history has been far more bloody than inclusive.

So, yes, my statement at dinner was clumsy. It was clumsy because for me it was correct—the world is sharper for me now, but that’s because I’m seeing the situation in ways I didn’t earlier. Today I focus differently, but I’m not used to that focus so I sometimes have to fight through all my gut reactions in order to let my brain lead me to it. Today I understand that even writing this statement in this blog post is, in its own way, clumsy. Not that I have a choice here, but I’m good with that. I would rather be a clumsy, well-meaning guy who stumbles my way to understanding than a person whose view is based on privilege so strong I’m blind to what it means to be human.

As far as DACA is concerned, I have opinions, of course. But they don’t matter here. I’m not some leading-edge activist. I’m just a 50-some year-old science fiction writer trying to figure out what life means, you know? And I know this post all by itself will never change anyone’s mind. This post is not Good SF, after all.

All I really want is for you to sit down and read Space Traders, then think hard about it. When the narrative makes you angry, I want you to ask yourself why. Compare that passage to arguments happening today. See how they are often so similar you can’t tell them apart.

Space Traders is about much more than DACA, of course, about much more than immigration or even race relations in general. Space Traders is about humans, power, and how we organize and manage that power, how in America that power is clearly in the hands of a culture whose foundation is to staunchly steeped in white supremacy that, even when it’s brought to the surface in its most explicit and impossible to ignore fashion, that third, vacillating part of our population can find ways to pretend it’s not there. It’s about how people use power, how we cloak it in common good, pretend that we are e pluribus unum when is in our interests, but find ways to shove that idea aside when it’s no longer as convenient. It’s about the fundamental nature of people and how the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are aspirational more than true. It’s about those times when we’re willing to let power brokers stand certain laws of logic on their heads when we benefit from make the Declaration and Constitution bend in different ways.

Human beings are strange after all. Sometimes we’re clumsy. Sometimes we’re oblivious. Sometimes we’re selfish, greedy, or just outright cruel.

And, sometimes, for any or all those reasons, we’re just straight out wrong.

The best science fiction helps us think about these things.

That’s why I want you to go read Space Traders today.

04 Sep

Sunspring … extreme SF, all the way down

A little bit ago, I wrote an entry that I titled “The Rules They Are A Changin’, in which I discussed some “sky is falling’ kind of thoughts about what happens to the economy when AI do almost all the work. The piece got a comment or two, both on the site and on the Facebook feed it went into. The comments were similar to what I hear when I talk to people about this: “Yes, Ron,” the comments all start, “but a computer will never be able to fully replace a human’s thinking. It will never be able to make art!”

This, of course, ignores the fact that they already are making art, oftentimes indistinguishable from that which humans do today, oftentimes … er… distinguishable?

In the later category one might include Sunspring, a fascinating 9-minute short SF film that was made off a screenplay written by an AI that had been feed a whole bunch of SF screenplays, and then prompted to write one of its own. I should note that the film was written and released well before my little note—but I’ve only now ran into it, so I’m only now talking about it. I’ll link to the film at the end of this blurb. You should watch it. It’s intensely interesting for all its aspects, both good and bad. It’s meta. SFnal in concept and content in a strangely delicious way (delicious to me, anyway, your mileage will certainly vary).

In other words, it’s a weird film. The kind of thing a college kid who’s a fan of Phil Dick and David Bowie might write while on an acid trip. But it’s also oddly beautiful, as I suppose such things can be. As with all screenplays, it is infused with the human aspect of the actors, so the entire product is not AI/CGI, but then this kind of fits part of the questions I asked in the piece I first wrote. What happens to us when the AI starts to write screenplays that are “better” than what we can write? or at least “similar enough” to what we can write to make them more attractive to the marketplace?

Do we become merely interpreters?

At least until AI constructs can learn to act?

Dunno.

And let’s be clear, Sunspring is in no way an indicator that human screenplay writers are on the precipice of getting run out of business tomorrow.

But in two years? Five? Ten?

Who knows? But, yes, friends, I do think the rules really a changin’.

Regardless, here’s a really interesting foray into the idea that a computer can already come up with in 2016.

24 Aug

The Hugos

If you’re focused at all on the Hugo Awards, by now you know that the Sad and Rabid Puppy slate was soundly defeated by an avalanche of “No Award” votes, and that the fallout is beginning to spin in multiple directions. This is, alas, almost certainly not over.

For those interested in the two spins, here is the Wired article, that paints one story, and the Brietbart article that paints the opposite.

Looking back on it all, my own take is pretty much this:

  1. The Rabids pulled of a feat worthy of a high school Sophomore by legally, but idiotically, stealing the nomination vote. Most people, in moments of clarity, would call this “pulling a dick move.” To them, this was equivalent to stealing your rival’s mascot the night before the big game.
  2. The Sads have been horrifically tone deaf to every element of the situation (though I believe them a little when they say their primary goal is to return the field to its laser-gun roots).
  3. The Sads’ tone deafness allowed the Rabids to use them as their mouthpiece.
  4. The Rabids are anarchists at heart, and consider anything that increases entropy around a case to be a “win” (as such they are, of course, declaring victory today).
  5. Being human beings, the Sads have now defended their stupendously flawed logic by doubling down on their position so many times that it’s impossible for them to acknowledge they were wrong—even if they ever figure out they were.
  6. The magnitude of the numbers pretty much show how out of touch they are.

I have no idea what will happen going forward. I suspect this is not one that will blow over, though. Larry C., Brad T., and their gang have pretty much burned whatever bridges there are to burn, so if there are long term ramifications to them, we’ll clearly be able to find out. My guess is that their fan base will grow due to the Trump effect if nothing else.

In the meantime, I see the voting results as a firm response from the SF world as a whole, a world that despite commentary to the opposite, is a broad thing. Yes, the historical core is getting older, but Fandom is not “old.” And the historical core leans heavily toward white and male, but Fandom is not “white and male.” Fandom is changing. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s getting to be a bigger and different thing than it ever was. I was smugly proud of the folks in Spokane this week. I liked that they stood as a whole and made a statement that was a firm rebuke to the Rabids (and by association, the Sads). It was the community standing up and saying: “Go away, Dudes. This is not how we play the game in my house.”

27 Jul

Books that changed SF forever

Jackie Allen-Peters, a friend of mine, linked to this list of 21 books that changed science fiction from io9, and she asked how many I had read, and what I would add. Here are my answers.

I’ve read at least 16 of the 21, and maybe 17 … I can’t remember if I actually read The Martian Chronicles or just feel like I have. [Note to self, time to go find out!]. It’s certainly an interesting and deserving list, but I find Jackie’s next question to be more interesting. What would I add?

I’m sure that given a half day to fritter, I could come up with a grander list, but here are a few that jump immediately to my mind:

  • Roger Zelazny’s Amber series: I think Zelazny’s stylistic approach changed the field in ways that are almost impossible to fully define.
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: This was arguably the first modern science fiction story. Beyond that, I think it’s coolness factor created a lot of geeky kids, and I figure most SF writers begin life as at least somewhat geeky. Go figure.
  • Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon: Technically, this was a short story before it was a novel, but in the 50s and 60s it raised a SFnal conversation out of the SF ghetto and into the mainstream.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: I believe this served to change SF more than The Martian Chronicles (which made the io9 list). Just my opinion, though…an that and $5 can get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
  • Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: Perhaps something like this could only come out of the early 60s, but it seems to me to have changed the game—it seemed to reset the areas that SF could explore, and was perhaps the “true” beginning of the Alternate History. That said, I suppose many would argued that guys like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison made their biggest impact on SF through the full body of their work rather than through any one specific piece.
  • Ann McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (and the subsequent series): I think this series spawned a bunch of writers, and you can argue it was among the first to essentially mix the fantasy and SF fields into a crossover genre of its own, something everyone is doing today (yes, I know this may be cheating by expanding the context across a series, but it’s a liberty I’m willing to take).

I admit I was tempted to put Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game in that list, but I’m not sure it influenced the field so much as it made a huge splash, and I think there’s a difference there. In addition, I thought about adding things like Poe and Lovecraft and

I know there are other folks who scan through this blog who will be able to add more thoughts. So feel free. I’m all (virtual) ears.

07 Sep

Mur and the Totally Trick Question

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast interview of Mur Lafferty. Mur is a writer, an editor, and a big name podcaster. And, of course, a recent Campbell Award winner as best new writer. The questions were interesting overall, but it seemed that the interviewer was not, let’s say, the most positive-minded person in the world. Eventually he tossed her this one: “If you could wipe either Star Wars or Star Trek off the face of the timeline (make it as if they never happened), which would you chose?”

My first reaction was: Aaaarrrhhhggghhhh!!!!!!

What kind of question is that? What kind of a person even thinks to ask that kind of question? I hope that if I’m ever in that situation, I would calmly say “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” The right answer, after all is: “Neither.” I mean, there are many perfectly good answers to the question “What TV show or movie would you make disappear?” but Star Wars and Star Trek are not any of them.

Mur answered nicely, though, and chose Star Trek because she didn’t have the heart to be able to pull the plug on Star Wars. Treating this question straight-up, I have to say this is an understandable, but bad answer. Especially coming from a person who thinks in SF, which is proof that the heart is a powerful thing. You see this was a trick question, right? I mean, I’m sure that if she actually thought about it a little more, Mur would realize that if Star Trek were removed from this modern-day timeline, it’s likely Star Wars would just not exist. Two for one, see?

That would be very bad.

11 Jul

100 Greatest SF Stories, Written by Females

I’m all for the concept of posting this list of the 100 Greatest SF stories written by women. But what about what was arguably the first SF story ever written? By that, I mean Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was written in 1823, five years before Jules Verne even appeared on the scene.

Since I love numbers, I wanted to see if there was a progression, here.

Here’s a breakout of these by quarter-century groupings (except for the last group).

1900-1925: 0
1926-1950: 7
1951-1975: 17
1976-2000: 38
2001-Now: 36

Over two-thirds of the list have occurred in the past 38 years. In fact, the rate of appearances in this list is actually growing exponentially (assuming we would see more womens’ SF being added to the list in the next twelve years of the latest quarter century period.

What does this mean?

Not a clue, of course. A lot of other folks have written deeper studies of the issue of gender in SF than I’ll be able to pull off here in a quick blog post on a Thursday night. But it’s a list of great fiction, so I suggest you go and enjoy it. 🙂

24 May

On Spec Arrives

Imagine my joy when I came home from work this evening to find in my mail box a pair of copies of On Spec, complete with my story “Operation Hercules” and Roberta Laurie’s interview of me.

I am seriously not used to all this activity around my writing. It’s kinda nice …

Don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a long weekend. I expect it to be full of sleep, and working out, and maybe a movie or two. And I think I’ll write a bit, m-kay?

23 May

Interstellar Fiction takes “Out of the Fire”

In quickly breaking news, I am happy to announce that I’ve come to agreement with Adam Crouse and the good folks at Interstellar Fiction to have my short story “Out of the Fire” published in their June issue–which should be going up, well, in June. June 1st, to be specific. Very pleased, of course. I mean, you pretty much have to be pleased to be in a publication that releases an editorial on the 4th of May and proceeds to use the phrase “May the fourth be with you,” eh?

Fourth or not, May has not sucked.

12 May

“Three Days in May” Launched!

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for practice yesterday, and that can mean only one thing! Yes! Launch day is finally here! John C. Bodin and I are pleased to announce that we’ve made a short anthology of our Indy 500 collaborations available in e-formats.

You can find it in these places:

Kindle Format
All other Electronic Formats

This work includes or two previously published works “Oh-oh” and “The Day the Track Stood Still,” as well as “Speeding,” an original story written just for this collection.

Interested in a print version? We’re looking into releasing a print version, also. More on that later. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a print version, drop me an email (ron_at_typosphere.com) and I’ll let you know when it’s available.