Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Going Off

This space may be a bit fallow for a while. I'm off on an extended trip, first to see my wife's family, then mine, then to the World Science Fiction Convention, which is being held early this year, in Denver, immediately prior to the Democratic National Convention.

So, in honor of that last bit, I'm going to rep0st something I put up on my Newsgroup a couple of years ago, following the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention:

[originally posted Sept. 5, 2006]

I was watching the News Hour on PBS last Friday, the Shields and Brooks segment, and Jim Lehrer asked a question about Bush’s latest PR offensive, equating the War on Terror and War in Iraq (two phrases Bush always uses interchangeably) to the Cold War and WWII. And Mark Shields. Just. Went. Off. He was nearly ranting, forcefully demanding to know why, if it was all so important, why the country hadn’t been put on a war footing, why there weren’t enough troops in Iraq, why taxes hadn’t been raised, etc. etc. etc.

Brooks was obviously taken aback, and tried his best to shift the argument, talk about how the country would never stand for such measures, and so forth. But mostly he looked nervous and, well, dare I say it, wimpy, irresolute, even lost. After all, Shields is the liberal; he’s not supposed to be the one spitting fire.

The World Science Fiction Convention isn’t anywhere close to the political mainstream, actually. Most convention going fans are college-educated, intellectual-leaning, and more respectful of science rather than, say, religion. Certainly there are plenty of right-leaning fans, but they tend toward the libertarian or Social Darwinian right, rather than the religious right that forms the core of the current Movement Conservatism.

Still, I’ve heard plenty of support in the past from various SF types for various portions of the Conservative Movement agenda, especially the anti-tax, liberal bashing part of it.

Not this last convention, however. In fact, several times, some from panelists, but just as often from ordinary convention goers, the subject would flash over to current politics and the Bush Administration and someone would. Just. Go. Off. On a tirade, a screed, a rant, a whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

And there would be no response. Not even afterwards, in the men’s room, where all the important political thoughts are voiced. No one is willing to say in public, or even semi-private, that they support the Bush Administration.

The secret ballot covers a lot. It especially covers a lot of bigotry. David Duke the white supremacist always polled about 10% higher in the actual race than he did in preliminary opinion polls. So it’s always hard to predict elections beforehand, especially when fevers run high on issues like immigration, where race matters even more than it does otherwise.

But authoritarians are bullies, and the truism is true: bullies are cowards. At a certain point, pulling in your horns becomes reflexive, especially when you’re not sure what you’re voting for in the first place. Moreover, bullies really, really, hate to lose. Better to not fight, then tell yourself that you’re the victim here.

So while I’m not exactly predicting a surprising shift in voter turnout this fall, with the authoritarian right sitting on their hands, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I'm reading Politics, by Hendrik Herzberg, a columnist for the New Yorker, and formerly the New Republic. Herzberg may appropriately be called "liberal," as distinct from "left wing," which means in part that he tends to make balanced arguments, even when they do not conform to an ideological position. Sometimes this plays him for a bit of a patsy, since he seems to have thought that Bush and company behaved well in the few months after 9/11, something that no left winger would concede, and history suggests that the knee jerk leftists may have had a point.

But I want to examine Herzberg's essays about capital punishment here. His liberal moderation forbids him from calling it "state sanctioned murder," and he notes that this would be similar to calling incarceration "state sanctioned kidnapping." (The actual analogous crime is "false imprisonment," however; make of that what you will).

Then there are the usual arguments about accidentally executing the wrong man, and how capital punishment actually demeans us, the rest of society, which is true, but only from the liberal perspective. Conservatives and right-wing ideologues actually glory in that demeaning; it's part of their vision of how society should operate.

But there is an argument that Herzberg doesn't make that I heard once from a capital punishment opponent whose name escapes me, and it is a much more powerful argument against that barbaric practice. That capital punishment is capricious is a feature, not a bug, in this view, and I find it persuasive.

We see the mechanism displayed in popular culture repeatedly, in the procedural television shows that have become so prevalent, from all the Law and Order flavors to the various CSI clones. Somebody dies and the interrogating authority figure brings up the death penalty as a threat, to shake loose information, or perhaps to force a plea bargain from the suspect. Of course in these shows the accused "perps" are almost always guilty, so it's all just part of the tools of the trade.

But in real life, the accused are frequently not guilty, at least not of the crime for which they are accused, and therein lies the problem. Because the threat of the death penalty can make an innocent man cop a lesser plea, as death is permanent, while the lesser crime allows at least some future.

Moreover, sometimes prosecutors know this, they know that the accused hasn't done this particular crime, but they are sure that he has done something for which he deserves punishment. Thus does the death penalty make a mockery of the idea of the rule of law, substituting the opinion of a D.A. for that of a judge and jury. It is a system that is made for abuse, and abused it certainly is.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Yet another Medusa

This is one serious woman with snakes. The original source can be found here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Giving Up the Ship

My 40 Year High School Reunion apparently produced much in the way of fellowship and reminiscence, to the extent that one incorrigible troublemaker volunteered to compile a set of "High School Memories," noting that the class after ours has done so, but it was lame. This, of course, sends me back to the memory bin, trying to locate some non-lame memories, but I find the pickings pretty slender.

Partly this is due to my multiple lives during high school. I have lifeguard memories that occurred at that time, but those were from the Downtown Nashville YMCA. There were girls I dated, primarily from distant high schools, possibly owing to a fear of gossip, or the instinct of self-preservation that realizes that breaking up with someone who is in your English class is Very Rough on the System. There are a number of Forensic Club memories, but I can categorically attest to the basic lameness thereof.

Besides, the best memories are about mischief made, and I was such a sweet kid, really I was.

Still, I believe that I held some sort of record for being tossed out of Mr. R's 8th Grade class, which was either technically in High School because it was in the same building, or technically not, since it was still Jr. High School. Whatever. Mr. R was an ignorant twit, and 40+ years has not dimmed that assessment.

I will leave aside the times when he said foolish things like "Rock and Roll is a Communist Plot." I seldom bothered to call him on things that everyone knew were stupid. But when he told the class that Earth satellites stay in orbit by balancing between the gravitational attraction of the Earth and Moon, my calm demeanor vanished and I said something like, "That's idiotic." That got me a quick trip to the library (Oh, throw me in the briar patch, Mr. Detention).

Then there was the pop quiz on the Revolutionary War, where one of the questions was, "This man said, 'Don't give up the ship!'" Sadly, I knew that it was a dying quote from Captain James Lawrence during the War of 1812, and that said ship, in fact, was given up shortly thereafter (though the words became a slogan used in the Battle of Lake Eerie). R had, as so many before him, confused that saying with "I have not yet begun to fight," which was from John Paul Jones, the correct answer to the wrong question. I said, "I don't think you have the correct quote," and R said, "How do you know who I'm talking about?" So I levelly answered, "All I know is that John Paul Jones never said, 'Don't give up the ship.'" My fellow students' pencils scratched the answer that R had been looking for, and I, once again, was ejected from a class that was trying very hard to make me know less than I already knew.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Does Science Fiction (Still) Matter?

It might seem like an odd question to ask, given the prominence of science fiction and fantasy in popular culture, and that part of the answer to the title of this piece is still "Yes." Science fiction still matters in the way that popular culture matters, as a shadow play for the popular psyche, as a common narrative language, and insofar as it provides insight into the way that people think and feel about various subjects in the conventional wisdom. It's only a short trip from science fiction to something like 24, where Jack Bauer does his duty and tortures the information about the ticking time bomb from unwilling subjects. It's relatively easy to find current SF that covers the same territory.

But in "Why Science Fiction Matters," I argued that science fiction is (or was) more than an escapist literature of popular culture, that it fulfilled a central role in the lives of at least one major segment of the post-war generation, the upwardly mobile children of working class (or agrarian) parents. For the tech oriented Baby Boom generation, plus a segment of a couple of generations before and after, SF provided a world view, including a program for the future, access to a social network, and a window into transcendence of the sort that usually falls to religion and philosophy.

The period of SF ascendance can be demarcated by the two major science fictional events of the 20th Century, the advent of nuclear weapons and the Apollo Space Man-in-Space Program. In truth, I would tend to move the starting point a little earlier, to the beginning of World War II, because that war was, in many ways, a science fictional war. New weaponry, especially radar, but also missiles, submarine technology, and so forth, played a major role in the fighting and winning of the war. Moreover, commentaries prior to the war speculated on whether or not the next war would be the end of civilization. And the savagery loosed during that war met or exceeded the most nightmarish visions of pulp literature.

At the other end, the lunar landings and the space program generally seemed to validate everything that had ever been written about space exploration, and an entire generation was sure that colonies on the Moon and Mars were just around the corner. That they were disappointed in this contributed to the anti-government backlash that occurred thereafter. To this day, there are SF fans who are sure that it was only the incompetence of U.S. bureaucrats that stood in the way of their dreams of interstellar civilization.

In fact, it was reality that nixed the deal. Space if far bigger and more hostile (and less economically valuable) than most people imagined.

That's the problem with reality. It keeps intruding and messing up our dreams. There was a time when it seemed like science and scientific authority would loom large on the political landscape. But science kept delivering bad news, like warning about environmental degradation, limitations on energy use, changes in the global atmosphere and the implications thereof.

And, in truth, SF had always been a bit anti-establishment when it came to science. Astounding, under Campbell, spent over a decade pushing ESP/PSI, to no good effect. Then there was the entirely embarrassing Dianetics episode. Toward the end, a good many SF types jumped on the SDI bandwagon, as yet another excuse for space research, just as solar power satellites (a truly silly idea), had gripped imaginations earlier, and still do, to this day.

But subsequent generations took a look at all this and saw what was basically an escapist literature that had been co-opted into a number of big budget motion pictures. Fun, but nothing to wrap your life around. Now, things like World of Warcraft take more of the escapist freight than does reading SF. For religious transcendence, people are showing a disturbing tendency to turn to—religion. And, as I say, the Authority of Science has a lot of people claiming to speak for it, or attacking it outright.

So where does that leave science fiction? The aging of the SF fan community has been much remarked upon, and it's a fact of life. To my eye, it doesn't really look like SF is currently the place where someone with something to say goes to say it (I suspect that blogging now occupies that ground), nor is it the place where people go to read what such people have to say. SF has spawned several sub-genres, like military SF, alternate history, paranormal romance, and the like, so maybe that is where the energy has gone, into smaller and smaller niches.

The center no longer holds, or at least it no longer holds that much attraction. But maybe that's just me being an old fart.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Woman and Snake: Amano

This one was sent to me by a friend. Amano is a Japanese artist that I don't know nearly enough about, because he's really good. In addition to the .jp site, there's a .com site for those who insist on English.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I’m not much for “tell all” memoirs. I don’t think that I have the right to invade others’ privacy to any great extent, and the diligent reader will observe that most of the times when I’ve mentioned other people in these essays, I’ve either obscured the names or tried to paint the others in a good light.

But there is the matter of how to treat those who are dead, those who can neither grant or deny permission. I can see both sides to the argument there, so it’s inevitably a case by case basis. In this case, I think that Barry would not mind, and besides, I think he deserves some sort of eulogy from me, the sort that I could not deliver at his actual memorial service, because there were friends and family there who might have been wounded by some of the details.

Barry was a drug dealer. He began peddling marijuana in the early 1970s, and had graduated to cocaine by the time I met him in the early 80s. He was, when I met him, at something of a low ebb. A while before he’d planned on giving up the trade, getting married, the whole bit, then his fiancĂ© ran off with someone he’d thought was his best friend, and then a series of ill-advised deals went sour, rendering him, if not impoverished, at least less able to finance the sybaritic life style that it turned out most of his other “friends” were interested in. So he was struggling to keep from foundering financially, a struggle made much more difficult by the lure of the product that he was back to peddling.

We met through a mutual friend, and Barry and I became friends. I won’t say that there weren’t drugs involved, because at that time, if you were around Barry, drugs were usually involved. However, we also joined a bowling team together, went to concerts, parties, etc. Barry was an amateur theater person, so I went to some of his performances, and he was interested in standup comedy. I never saw him perform, but we did go to see various comics he was interested in, and the SF comedy scene has had a lot of talent pass through.

When I started to feel the effects of “the Lurgy,” the maybe-it-was-chronic-fatigue-syndrome that I got in the mid-80s, drugs were one of the first things I gave up (with the occasional lapses, of course; I’m not some sort of iron-willed paragon). But Barry remained a friend, one of those who was willing to help with those minor things that sick people need, like the occasional trip out to a restaurant when I just couldn’t get it together to feed myself.

Barry got busted in the late 80s, but he was only holding grass at the time, the dealers’ paranoia serving him well enough that he didn’t take any coke to that particular meeting. The prosecutors tried to get him to set up his own suppliers (just as he’d been set up), but Barry was having none of that. While awaiting trial he dumped the rest of the business, cleaned up his act, and took a job as a night security guard. He sufficiently impressed the arresting officer that the man recommended straight parole, no jail time, and that was that for Barry as dope dealer.

Still, Barry was ever the entrepreneur, making frequent trips to Bali, to buy artwork that he then sold when he returned home. And he’d always been a comics collector, so he ramped that up as a small business as well.

Barry had an occasional girlfriend, whom I’ll call Di. It turned out that Di had lived near RPI during my time there, as a place called “The Farm” (did every college in the early 1970s have a “Farm” associated with it?). She’d been involved at that time with a guy I put in the acknowledgements to SunSmoke, Jim Nagy, who’d played McMurphy in the RPI Players production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and had been given tepid reviews because he obviously hadn’t been acting, just playing himself. Which is to say that Nagy had major charisma, and I had the unfortunate task of telling Di that Jim had died in the mid-80s. He’d lived an amphetamine fueled life for years and had cleaned up too late, apparently, the damage having been done, and something critical finally gave out.

It can be a small world in the fast lane, even if you’re usually just a passenger.

After I married Amy, she and I had dinner a few times with Barry and Di. Amy told me after one of them that, during a time when I’d left the table to go to the restroom, Di had confided to her, “If ever any man looks at me the way he looks at you, I’m his forever.”

Barry quit the drugs, but he kept his Corvette, and that was what did it for him. He was on Highway 101 in Northern California, a twisty turny stretch that shrinks to two lanes for periods, and he was behind a camper and he was always impatient. He tried to pass when he couldn’t see far enough ahead, and someone was coming.

I developed a theory about the illegal drug business back when I had a better vantage point for observation. It seemed to me that the nature of it was primal, stark, a world of black and white. There is no legal system to enforce contracts and the regular criminal justice system is often deliberately manipulated by criminals to their own advantage, creating situations where the police and the law was the instrument of injustice, rather than of justice. And it looked to me like the tradesmen were either snakes or honorable men, with a great gulf between the two.

A friend of Barry’s told me he saw the highway patrol report of the accident, and it suggested that Barry deliberately went through a railing and down a steep embankment, rather than hitting the oncoming car. I believe it, because that was Barry, always taking risks, but trying his damnedest to confine the damage to himself.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


We'll take today's text from a story in the Fifth Galaxy Reader, "Perfect Answer," by L. J. Stecher, Jr., originally published in 1958. I liked it quite a lot when I was young; re-reading it makes its flaws very obvious, but the flaws also illuminate.

The two protagonists are a galactic exploration team, and they have discovered that the galaxy is awash with Homo Sapiens, practically one inhabited world in every viable solar system, and all of them primitives who greet space explorers with either worship or homicidal intent. It's a puzzlement.

Then they come across a civilized world, but one that is oddly decadent. They have such technology as automatic translation machines, but have no idea how they work. When asked, the inhabitants reply, "We asked the Oracle how to make one and it told us."

So, first error in presentation. You don't build things by just being told how to make them. To build a translator (or automobile, or even a stone house) you need pre-existing infrastructure like semiconductor fabs, or foundries, or stone quarries. Knowledge alone isn't enough.

Next, one source of answers simply would not work for an entire world. This is the alien-planet-as-desert-island analogy that I once railed against when critiquing Clarke's Law. A civilized world has billions of people on it, far too many to crowd into a room.

But the Oracle does indeed reside in a room, and our explorers are given an audience. It reveals that it was created by an extra-galactic race (from the Magellenic Cloud) as a weapon that worked by answering all questions truthfully. This destroys the institution of science in those who possess it (no need to pursue answers when they are handed to you an a plate), and when taken to a empire's home world, wrecks said empire.

One of the two explorers wants to steal the Oracle and take it back to Earth, rigging it to answer only his questions. The other wants to head back empty handed and warn Earth. They fight. The first guy dies. The second realizes that he is now stranded, since their ship required two men to operate. But the Oracle could tell him how to save his own life, so….

In one of the Foundation stories, Asimov makes a swipe at what happens when you trade science for scholarship, i.e. when you stop experimenting and just look up the answers. I never bought that argument. Nobody verifies everything that they are told under the authority of science, to attempt to do so would result in another end state—where science keeps reinventing the wheel, over and over again.

However, "Perfect Answer" gets the reaction of the two explorers correctly, or, more specifically, the one that wants to monopolize the gizmo. That is how it would actually work, so our travelers should not have found a happy-go-lucky decadent society, they should have found an authoritarian state in the grip of those controlling access to the answers from the Oracle.

Now you can replace Oracle with "simulation model." But you still need that infrastructure that I spoke of earlier. In science, the infrastructure consists of scientists and the community of science. The community of science is not command-and-control oriented, as many have discovered, to their discomfort.

There is a difference between authoritative and authoritarian, which some people get and some people do not. Authoritarians don't get it. They never do.