Saturday, November 21, 2009

First President!

So if in 100 years' time Europe is a single unified country and a major world superpower, are European kids going to learn in school that Herman Van Rompuy was their country's first president? Or will he be more a Peyton Randolph sort of figure - the first president of the Continental Congress in what would become the USA, who no one remembers?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

35 Amazing Science Fair Projects!

Today, a lesson in contextualizing: 35 Amazing Science Fair Projects!

Now, I'm not going to pass judgement on any specific one of these fine science fair presentations. But I'm going to say that I strongly, strongly suspect that this set of thirty-five contains a mixture of sincere projects and deliberate jokes. (My fiancee says there's unmistakable signs of Photoshopping in at least one of the photos.) What's more, I suspect the deliberate attempts to be funny tend to be arranged near the top of the page, and the sincere attempts at a science fair project are clustered near the bottom.

This means that if you look at these sequentially, by the time you reach the kid concerned about the horniness of his/her mom's feet, you're already looking for signs of Photoshopping in case it's been manipulated, and you're trying to figure out the original context in case it hasn't been changed but was meant as a joke all along.

These kids - the ones who meant it sincerely - are going to have their hard work scrutinized by legions of Internet wankers who would have simply giggled and moved on if they'd come across their project in the context of, say, FailBlog. Poor kids.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Advertising hate

Maine's Question 1, which repeals the state's legalization of same-sex marriage earlier this year has passed by a small margin. That makes me very unhappy. I expected it to be defeated.

I can respectfully agree to disagree with people who disapprove of homosexuality for religious reasons. And I've come across secular arguments against same-sex marriage that are intelligent enough to make me think, even if I don't agree with them.

But from my perch here halfway around the world in Taiwan, I hear from the media and my parents that Mainers have been subjected over the past month to all sorts of nonsensical hatred via their TVs and radios, warning them of emboldened queers coming up from out of state to prey on Maine's schoolchildren.

Now, I can't read the mind and look into the heart of every Mainer who voted "yes" on 1. I don't honestly know what influenced them. But if Question 1 had to pass, why did it have to pass following such an offensive "yes on 1" campaign? I hate the idea that someone might think this kind of ad campaign has been validated.

On my fantasy wish-list for humanity, I think I'd like to propose a "no hate-spewing political ads" rule, whereby every political action organization across the political spectrum agrees that political advertisements that encourage hatred against a segment of society cannot possibly do good. Want people to repeal gays' right to get married? By all means you can run TV spots advocating your position, but you gotta do exactly that: advocate your position. Don't feature ominous music and dark lighting to make viewers afraid of the vile faggot lurking round the corner, waiting to pounce on and seduce some pure-hearted straight children.

Sure, scaring voters may be a more effective use of dollars (AAAH! GAYS!). But if my fantasy wish-list came true, we'd all realize that it's bad for society. It increases public ambient hate and distrust. Some people might actually think the ads are real.

This applies across the political spectrum. If some extremely misguided gay rights group decided to make an ad that depicted conservative Protestants and Catholics and Mormons as threats to the well-being of same-sex couples, and used all the standard advertising tricks to make the viewer afraid of the hypothetical hate-filled religious person who could be living right next door, that ad would help us all to hate one another just a little bit more. It wouldn't do a bit of good to anyone.

There's too much ambient hate out there. If you use the powers of TV and radio to stoke it and encourage it to grow, you're just making things worse for everyone - and shaming whatever your cause happens to be.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Apparently November 18 is International Science Fiction Reshelving Day.
Join us this November in a new and unique celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature. Many books from our fine genre are regularly placed in the wrong section of bookstores. This not only hides the books from us, but it prevents readers of those books from discovering the rich tradition to which they belong.

On November 18th that changes. We will go to bookstores around the world and move science fiction and fantasy books from wherever they might be to their proper place in the “Science Fiction” section. We hope that this quiet act of protest will raise awareness of this problem and inspire new readers to explore our thought-provoking genre.

It's on November 18th because that's Margaret Atwood's birthday, as she's the author to claim most infamously that her work isn't SF even though much of it obviously is (most notably The Handmaid's Tale). The probable reason is that she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into what many perceive as a literary ghetto.

I suppose I can try to muster up some small amount of sympathy for her, by assuming she wants people to see her in particular literary tradition rather than another. If you write General Fiction you get shelved here and attract one group of people, if you write Science Fiction you get shelved there and attract a different group of people, and so on.

For instance, one recent book I read was Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning, which is marketed as and universally accepted to be General Fiction. The novel's POV character dies suddenly at the beginning (not a spoiler) and for the rest of the book she's a ghost, able to narrate the events of the story but not able to influence them directly, except that a few times she plants thoughts into key character's minds during dreams which then have a real influence on how events develop. If a short story with the same ratio of the fantastical to the realistic were to appear on, say, PodCastle, I don't think there would be much "Not enough fantasy!" grumbling in the discussion forums. But it would seem somewhat weird to see Saving Fish from Drowning shelved in the "Fantasy" section of the bookshop, rather than "General Fiction".

Why is that? I think it's because we don't see Amy Tan as following in the literary traditions of the books that generally do get shelved in the "Fantasy" section. Tan is seen as a General Fiction author. Atwood wants to be seen as a General Fiction author as well, and she's prepared to say cynical and dismissive things about SF in order to stay there. That's because we all know you can't be both General Fiction and SF/Fantasy, unless your name happens to be Iain M. Banks, and for all we know he's got super powers or something.

This is usually symbolized by the subdivisions within brick-and-mortar bookshops, where each book can be given one and only one classification (General Fiction, SF/Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, etc). You can avoid this to a degree with online booksellers, where each book can be given a variety of tags, but aren't actual physical bookstores that you can go and hang out in more fun?

But when each book can only be marketed as one thing, some arbitrary decisions have to be made. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief usually gets marketed and sold as Young Adult fiction, but if it were shelved under General Fiction instead, I bet it would cause not even a single grown-up reader to end up shaking their head in dismay thinking "This is a kid's book!"

I'm surprised there's not more controversy coming from the fact that many bookstores have separate sections with names like "African-American Fiction", "Gay/Lesbian Fiction," and so on. Can you draw a line separating "General Fiction that happens to be about gay people" from "Gay/Lesbian Fiction"? How do you quantify that?

And I'm wondering if this will be an unsolvable problem for as long as we have brick-and-mortar bookshops where books are physically lined up on neat shelves. Unless people are willing to tolerate having one great big "Fiction" section where the authors are sorted only in alphabetical order.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In spittle news

As everybody who watches American cable news knows, the way to discuss politics and society in America is to park your face four inches from your opponent's, scream utter nonsense at the top of your lungs, and the way you know you've won is when the other person flinches and wipes the spittle off their face. No wonder so many Americans don't watch the news and can't name a single Supreme Court justice.

Here in Taiwan, the English-language Taipei Times publishes a Quote of the Day on page 2, and yesterday it was taken from coverage of anti-Obama rallies in Washington DC:

"[US President Barack Obama] is a traitor. He's either a Marxist or a Communist ... I think Saudi Arabia is behind him."

And the Maryland resident who said that got rewarded for their stream of words by getting their name printed in a newspaper in Taipei. Oh good lord. I'm all in favor of letting people speak their mind no matter what weird stuff their mind contains, but maybe the media shouldn't be rewarding nonsense at the expense of actual discussion. I read the actual article on page 7, and the only anti-Obama people who got quoted were the nonsense-spouters. Were there really no anti-Obama protestors at that rally with constructive things to say?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Think of the Non-Gender Children

A highly intriguing photo from FailBlog:

Now, I'm sure there's a reasonable and boring explanation for whatever the heck that sign's supposed to mean.

But I'm more interested in the possibilities of what it could mean. If I were the editor of a fiction magazine, I would put up that photo and invite contributors to send in their tales of the society that produced it.

Why are non-gender children numerous enough to make the sign necessary? Why aren't there three sorts of public restrooms: Men, Women, and Null? Probably because the introduction of non-gender children in large numbers is a relatively new development. How will society adapt as the non-gender children grow and mature? In twenty years, will non-gender adults be common enough that every building will require a non-gender public restroom?


We divide fiction into genres. Usually you can tell from a glance at the cover whether it's General Fiction or Crime or Science Fiction or Fantasy or Romance or whatnot. And we all discriminate.

The Science Fiction Ghetto is well-known enough that it's got its own page at TV Tropes. Some well-known authors, fearful of being shunted from Serious Literature to Science Fiction, will deny writing SF even while quite blatantly doing so. (Margaret Atwood's probably the most infamous example of this). But Iain Banks quite cheerfully and profitably writes both SF and mainstream fiction, so it's obviously possible for an author to live a cross-genre existence without compromise.

And we all discriminate. I discriminate. I never pick up novels specifically marketed as Romance or Erotica, even though I have no aversion to romance or sex in my reading. I'm not greatly interested in the genres of Military Fiction, Mystery or Crime, although I'll make exceptions for certain authors (like Carl Hiaasen) and for books I've heard are good. And I have a complex algorithm for determining what science fiction I'll sample. I don't like media tie-ins, I don't like overly long series, and I'm not terribly fond of "space opera"-type SF, although any and all of this can be disregarded if I hear a book seriously, totally kicks ass.

And then there's Young Adult. I pay so little attention to YA that I don't even have an opinion on it. It's just a big blind spot.

Maybe that needs to change.

I'm midway through Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. I picked it up in a used bookstore (to be more honest, my fiance did) and brought it home. I'd never heard of the author or the title, even though the cover proclaims it "The Extraordinary New York Times #1 Bestseller" and is covered with praise from critics and various accolades the book has received. Why hadn't I heard of it? Well, it's YA, and YA goes under my radar. Or over it. Or something.

It's set in Nazi Germany. It's the story of a young girl who lives with foster parents in Bavaria, who finds herself sheltering a Jewish man in her basement. The novel is narrated in the first person by Death Personified.

Unless the quality of the writing somehow catastrophically plummets in the book's second half, The Book Thief is as good as any book for adults I've read in the past year.

Why is The Book Thief considered YA, instead of general fiction for adults? Because it's somehow juvenile?

Ha. Anyone who thinks YA = juvenile needs to read The Book Thief and then write "I will not call YA novels juvenile" on a blackboard one hundred times.

Because it's written in a style that often gets playful, with the narrator addressing the readers directly, which some might feel is reminiscent of children's books?

But there have been plenty of accoladed novels in the past decade that do that; Yann Martel's Life of Pi and Zadie Smith's White Teeth are two well-known examples I've read.

Because the protagonist is a teenage girl? But plenty of general-fiction novels have young protagonists.

If The Book Thief were published as general fiction, no one would ever think of saying "But this is clearly YA! It's a kid's book!"

The Book Thief is YA because it was published as YA. No other reason. Oh, I'm sure Markus Zusak wrote it with the YA market in mind, so the book probably reflects that. But I only get to see the finished product, not the writing process that produced it, and I say this is a book that could have easily been published as general fiction without raising any eyebrows.

So am I saying that the book was somehow done a disservice by being marketed as YA? No. No no no. Then I'd be no better than people who say "Book X isn't science fiction because science fiction is CRAP but Book X is GOOD!"

The Book Thief is totally suitable for readers in the 12-15 age range. Yes, it's dark and disturbing. So's the world.

It's also suitable for ages 16 and up. I'm 29, and I think I can handle it.'s got a smart post up about YA by author Mary Pearson. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Delicious Awkwardness

The Lyttle Lytton Contest is a variant of the better-known Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The aim of the Lyttle Lytton is to create snippets of deliberately awkward or stilted prose. My favorite of the 2009 winners is this, from Adam Box:
I have the ability to go through time, he suddenly remembered while at a bus stop near a tree.
That sentence is only nineteen words long, and yet there's so much delicious awkwardness there. The human brain can't take it in as a unit, because it doesn't form a cohesive whole. Instead, you focus on one part of the sentence, smile, then focus on another part of the sentence, and you start giggling at how it doesn't quite go together. Then you look at yet another part of this nineteen-word sentence, and you giggle still more, but now the first part of the sentence has been pushed out of your mind, and you have the pleasure of re-discovering it.

The whole sentence is a thing of beauty. I also like Deborah's walking adventures and Peter's lack of passion for surfing, but they can't beat suddenly remembering you have the ability to go through time. While at a bus stop. Near a tree.

For visual representations of the sort of awkwardness the Lyttle Lytton is all about, I recommend Awkward Family Photos. But while the Lyttle Lytton is all about intentional awkwardness as comedy, Awkward Family Photos is full of (presumably) unintentional comedy.

That's a startling picture. Like a Lyttle Lytton sentence, there really isn't all that much to it. But the human brain simply can't take it all in as a cohesive whole. You can only focus on one aspect of it at a time, while ignoring everything else.

Imagine you had to describe that picture in words. Where would you begin?

I'd probably describe the woman and the baby and the bright pink rifle and the "peace" symbol on the pants and how the baby's hand is on the trigger. And then I would describe the woman and the baby and the rifle in ever-increasing detail, much as some mentally disturbed patients draw intricately detailed mandala designs because they crave a feeling of order and centeredness in a universe that's fundamentally chaotic and alien. Everything else would get pushed to the side. Forgotten about. My mind can't integrate all that.

There's a weird, sublime beauty here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A moment of clarity

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, David P. Barash says We Are All Madoffs:
Make no mistake: Our current relationship to the world ecosystem is nothing less than a pyramid scheme, of a magnitude that dwarfs anything ever contemplated by Charles Ponzi, who, before Madoff, was the best-known practitioner of that dark art. Modern civilization's exploitation of the natural environment is not unlike the way Madoff exploited his investors, predicated on the illusion that it will always be possible to make future payments owing to yet more exploitation down the road: more suckers, more growth, more GNP, based—as all Ponzi schemes are—on the fraud of "more and more," with no foreseeable reckoning, and thus, the promise of no comeuppance, neither legal nor economic nor ecologic. At least in the short run.

Read the whole article. If you think he's wrong, try to be able to explain why you think he's wrong. I think the only flaw is that he's long on criticism, short on solutions; he offers no pointers on how we can escape eventual collapse.

And it struck me, in a moment of clarity, that if there's one idea that needs to be the basis of all my political views, it's this: I don't want the world's economy or the Earth's ecosystem to collapse in my lifetime. I don't want it to collapse, ever. I don't want the human race to be thrown back to pre-industrial conditions. I don't want the people of the 22nd century to be screwed over by decisions made in the 20th century.

I want civilizational collapse to be put off indefinitely. Maybe we can do it by achieving truly sustainable industrial practices, or maybe we'll only be able to do it through some currently-undreamed-of technological singularity. And in the process of getting there, I want to see as little human misery as possible.

That's what I want to see. That's my mental long-term goal for the future of this planet. Everything else is details. Wish I had some clue as to what the details should look like.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Zombies! (the smart kind)


Postmodern ironic horror lit is going through something of a Zombie Renaissance right now. I'm going to come right out and admit I find it mystifying. I don't find zombies compelling. I never have. Now, part of it is that I'm not a big horror fan, whether it's horror movies or horror lit. But even so, there are horror tropes I find far more compelling than zombies. Vampires, for instance. I am not and likely never will be a fan of Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer, but it seems like there's a lot more to vampires than zombies. Same goes for werewolves, things that crawl out of meteorites, and Lovecraftian horrors. They all seem like they have more storytelling possibilities than corpses that stagger about at one mile an hour looking for tasty gray matter to eat.

That said, there is one specific sub-genre of zombie stories that I find compelling: zombies who have died, been zombified, but somehow keep their wits about them, know they're zombies, and are the same person they were before zombification. And they still have free will. I guess it's because it somehow speaks to my fear of being struck down in my prime by a terminal illness or a terrible physical disability. But I'm sure most people have the same fear, and yet the self-aware zombie with free will doesn't seem to be a terribly common zombie trope. TV Tropes has no mention of this particular subclass of zombie, although they go into a respectable amount of detail on zombie classification.

As I've mentioned, I'm not all that into horror, but I've got some knowledge of the genre through my addiction to podcast fiction. Here are the instances of sentient, self-aware zombies that I've come across:

My Friend Is a Lesbian Zombie by Eugie Foster, on Escape Pod. I love that title. It's been a long time since I listened, so I'm blanking on the details, but I remember the title character is realistically freaked out to find she's a zombie (instead of being all blase about it) and if I remember right, they get a happy ending by pumping her full of antifreeze.

The Skull-Faced Boy by David Barr Kirtley, on Pseudopod. A horde of zombies is organizing themselves into battle formation to march on the living, and the viewpoint character is freaked out. Even though he's also a zombie.

American Nightmare by Lilah Wild, on Well Told Tales. As the Zombie Uprising commences, a high schooler freshly killed in an accident gets revenge on those who wronged her. Then she seeks out her still-living best friend, who kills her (for good). This is treated as a semi-happy ending: If she was fated to be killed, at least it was by her best friend.

And finally, in the realm of novel-length fiction, Neil Gaiman's American Gods has a major character who is clearly an intelligent, self-aware zombie, although the actual "Z" word is only used once, for ironic effect. The protagonist's wife Laura, after losing her life in an undignified manner, dedicates her undead days to crisscrossing the country killing bad guys who stand in her widower's way.

No matter how happy they might have been while alive, once they're zombies it's usually taken for granted that they're better off dead (and not moving). Two of the four examples above ended with the zombie character being permanently rendered an unfeeling, unmoving corpse, and in the context of the stories it's accepted as a Good Thing.

And of course, once you're a zombie, there's no going back to being a living human. At one point in American Gods, Laura drinks a potion that restores her, but all it does is revert her to pristine zombie condition; afterwards her decomposition starts all over again just like before.

That's why I find the idea of intelligent zombies who know who they are to be so wonderfully horrifying. How come we don't see more of them in fiction?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Every week presents two animated short films as its Saturday Morning Cartoon series. And every week I am impressed by the extremely and consistently high quality.

Some of the more recent computer-animated ones are startlingly well-animated - as good as a Pixar short or better in terms of technical quality, but not always meant to appeal to the mass audience Pixar depends on. I'll admit that at first I was provincial enough to be somewhat surprised at such technical accomplishment coming from French or German production companies I'd never heard of, but I'm over that now.

Some shorts are several years or decades old, but beautifully made.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Clifford D. Simak

I've finished a collection of ten Clifford D. Simak short stories that I picked up at a local used bookstore. Simak was a science fiction author of approximately the same era as Asimov and Heinlein. He never quite broke into the top echelon of popular SF writers, but he's still reasonably well-known among fans of the genre, at least those who read widely. I'd never read him before picking up this collection, but his name was familiar to me.

On the cover of the paperback there is a beautiful painting of a spaceship landing in an alien desert. An immense rock formation rises in the background, topped with a futuristic metallic city of spires. It's a gorgeous scene, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the short stories, most of which take place in Wisconsin.

"Madness from Mars" was published in 1939 and deals with the aftereffects of the first Earth spaceship to return from Mars (there were three previous ships to Mars, but they never came back). We learn in the third paragraph that it's a scientific impossibility to communicate by radio over interplanetary distances; this is treated as the same sort of obvious immutable physical fact as there being no air in space.

So it's only natural that people on Earth are mighty interested in what they're going to learn when the spaceship makes its triumphal landing in a Midwestern field. As he waits nervously, we hear Dr. Stephen Gilmer, director of the Interplanetary Communications Research Commission, exclaim between puffs on his cigar: "I hope they found something. This trip cost us a million bucks."

Wow. Sending a five-man spaceship to Mars and bringing it back to Earth costs one million dollars. Mr. Gilmer is right to be worried about his commission's enormous investment.

As it turns out, the five-man crew has murdered each other on the way back to Earth, and the only life form remaining on the ship is a captured Martian who resembles a large Tribble. Scientists converge to study the fluffy beast. Bloody carnage ensues.

Despite the opportunities for making snarky comments, I have to say the story's reasonably well-written, especially considering 1930s science fiction didn't exactly set the highest bar for literary excellence. The reveal of why horrific acts of violence follow the big furball around is well done and weirdly moving.

Despite the spaceship to Mars and the references to spaceflight between the Earth and the Moon having been routine for many decades, I got the distinct feeling that the story actually took place in 1939. Not some vague future as imagined from 1939, but 1939 itself. As if the first man on the moon in the story's internal chronology was a Victorian-era explorer who flew there in a Jules Verne-designed spacecraft in 1880.

"The Sitters" is the third story in the collection, and right there on page 57, for the first time in the book, a woman has a line of dialogue.

Now, I can't say this is entirely Mr. Simak's fault; in his genre, in that era, writers consistently forgot that humanity actually consists of two sexes. Most male SF writers of that era (which is almost synonymous with "most SF writers of that era") got better about it as the 20th century wore on. It's quite charming to read the original Foundation stories today and see the young Isaac Asimov very gradually come to realize he could write female characters, too.

That said, I feel like I ought to point out that I can't find a single compelling female character anywhere in the ten stories that make up this collection. Most Simak protagonists are fiercely independent male loners who keep even their closest acquaintances at a respectful distance. Women float in and out of their lives, but are essentially irrelevant.

"A Death in the House" is the quintessential Simak story, if this collection is a good representative sample of the man's career as a whole. An alien crashes its spaceship on the property of a crusty old Wisconsin farmer. The farmer attempts to nurse it back to health, but its injuries are too great; the alien dies. Determined to give it a proper burial, the farmer tries to have the alien corpse interred in a human cemetery, but he is rebuffed. So he gives the alien a simple burial on his own property. Word gets around, and curious folk start turning up asking questions; the farmer chases them off with a shotgun. A bizarre plant grows where the alien had been buried; a pod grows big, bursts open, and the alien pops out, fully regenerated. Farmer and alien, although they do not speak each others' language, work together to rebuild the spaceship; the farmer sacrifices greatly to help his new friend, and the alien repays him before leaving Earth behind forever.

"Final Gentleman" strikes me as two stories in one, somewhat uneasily combined. A well-known writer approaches retirement, and becomes aware that certain aspects of his life have been a delusion forced upon him in order that he may be the influential writer that the Powers That Be feel he must be, so as to set the proper societal ripples in motion. The Powers That Be turn out to be a massively powerful AI, and the creature that maintains it while disguised as an ordinary human.

I was attracted to the idea of a writer who had unconsciously reinvented himself so thoroughly that large swathes of his life story were utterly false. But the deception seemed unnecessarily elaborate. It's meant to be significant that the fancy car the protagonist drives is actually somewhat shabby, the fine restaurant where he usually dines is actually a run-down diner, and his upper-class apartment is actually rather run-down. But he really is a well-known and well-respected writer, and he really does count a powerful U.S. Senator as one of his close friends and confidants. Our hero could if he wanted to drive a genuinely luxurious car and live in fine comfort. Wouldn't it be easier for his manipulators to have him live in high style in Real Life, so less deception would be needed?

And when it's implied that the reason for the whole charade is so that a line our hero writes convinces the Senator that he should, indeed, take the job of Secretary of State at this critical moment in history... well, it seems like quite the Rube Goldberg plan.

"Day of Truce": Gangs of mischievous suburban children have become such a nuisance to property owners who want the damn kids off their lawn that there's been an arms race between the two sides that has led to self-respecting suburban homes becoming fortresses protected by electrified fences, moats, and lethal booby traps. The kids, for their part, employ catapults and bombs to break down the defenses. Deaths are common.

I was mildly surprised to see this story was published in 1963, which I always thought of as the waning end of the innocent "Leave it to Beaver" era of American suburbia. I need to learn to overcome such false impressions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Canadian, please

I'm an American citizen and I've only ever had an American passport, but long ago in the distant past, I used to be Canadian. I was born in Hamilton and spent much of my early childhood in New Brunswick.

I think I can still get myself a Canadian passport if I really want one. My fiance - wife from September of next year - thinks it would be cool if I got my slumbering Canadian citizenship validated. Shall I go for it, and become a citizen of all of North America north of the Rio Grande*?

* Except St. Pierre and Miquelon. Regrettably.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

American Gods

I've finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

There was a lot of urination in that book. Lots of scenes of characters peeing. Both indoors and outdoors, both male and female. And it seems right. The myths that Gaiman mined do not shy away from descriptions of bodily functions.

I'm going to admit that I'm not a long-time Gaiman fan. I know he's got legions of adoring fans, but I've never read his graphic novels. A few years back I read Neverwhere. It was interesting enough, and it held my attention, but it didn't make a tremendous impression on me. More like "Eh, that was nice."

American Gods, on the other hand, while it took roughly a hundred pages to really draw me in, once it got going it had me securely in its grip. And when I finished, I felt sublime awe at what Gaiman had created. He crafted a world and characters that seem much bigger than the novel's four-hundred-and-some-odd pages. Now I know why the man's got himself such legions of fans.

Gaiman, this British guy, came over to the US and focused on flyover country - he took Wisconsin and downstate Illinois and rural Georgia and made it an improbably believable setting for larger-than-life myths, and he did it without ever taking the role of the educated foreigner pouring out condescension for the American midwest. I liked that - I respected that.

Anyway, yeah, I liked it, and if Gaiman ever finds this post by searching for his name, congrats on winning the Hugo for The Graveyard Book a couple of hours ago.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Future of IT

Charles Stross has some smart comments up on the near future of computing. Nominally it's all about the future of gaming, but really it's all about computer technology in general between now and, say, 2030.

For the past few years I've been trying to write science fiction about the near future, and in particular about the future of information technology. I've got a degree in computer science from 1990, which makes me a bit like an aerospace engineer from the class of '37, but I'm not going to let that stop me.

Previously, when I thought of Stross' nonfictional speculation about the future, I thought of his essay on precisely why space colonization will probably never be affordable and feasible for large numbers of people. It depressed me, as I'm sure it depressed lots of people who grew up on good old-fashioned space-oriented science fiction. Especially since the bastard is probably right about everything.

But his essay on the future of IT makes me all excited and optimistic about human progress again.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The new Star Trek

I just saw the new Star Trek. My immediate reactions, arranged in order from least geeky to most geeky:

- My god, they actually got Karl Urban to channel DeForest Kelley's ghost. That was one of the most freakishly uncanny imitations I've ever seen.

- Presumably Starfleet engineers are eventually going to upgrade from the bridge design in this movie to the bridge design in the original Star Trek. That amuses me to no end.

- The movie declared its creative sources very clearly by making lots of references to the original series and the movies, and more or less ignoring all other Trek. Uhura orders a Cardassian drink at that bar in Iowa, and other than that I didn't notice even one unambiguously TNG-era-or-after reference.

- OK, I agree with everyone who says Nero was an ineffective villain. What annoys me is that his insanity was his only motivation for going out and being evil. What would a rational person have done in his place after being thrown back in time? A rational person would fly his butt over to Romulus, tell them everything he knows, and get Romulan scientists and engineers working on how they're going to stop this natural disaster from swallowing their planet over a century hence. Instead of this, Nero just bellows in rage, sulks for 25 years, and then blows up Vulcan. How'd he get his crew to go along with this "plan"?

- Even by Star Trek standards, that was some magnificently silly science. Especially during the two minutes or so that Old Spock is info-dumping his story into Kirk's brain. And I liked how, when Spock was watching Vulcan's destruction from the surface of that ice planet, Vulcan looked bigger in the sky than Earth is from the Moon. Evidently everything's really close together in that region of space.

- I think they changed the rules for how stardates work. I'm not certain, but I think in this movie stardates reflected real Earth dates in Trek's internal chronology. Fine with me. Trek stardates have always been nonsensical and incomprehensible.

Overall I really enjoyed the movie, although I got the feeling it works better if you think of it as a really well-produced bit of fan-fiction. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Scopin' out the Ivory Tower

I'm 29 years old. Back when I graduated from university at age 22, I figured I'd be off to grad school in just a few short years. I took the GRE, knowing that the scores would last for five years, and I was sure I would use them.

Now it's seven years later. I wouldn't say I've been vegetating all this time, but I haven't made any steps toward graduate school either. Part of it is a fear of crippling debt. But part of it is my inability to figure out what, exactly, I would study - and my not being sure what good the degree would do me, anyway.

My father makes his living in academia. He's been a professor for as long as I have been alive, and to be honest, I figured for a long time I would pursue a similar career path. Growing up, my family seemed perfectly comfortable on his salary alone. He seemed to have plenty of free time, and when he was working he was nerdily immersing himself in topics he found interesting. I can do a lot worse for myself.

But I'm terrified of actually trying to break into academia. Once I had a tenure-track position it might be pleasant enough for me, but I've heard too many horror stories about the job market for academics and the difficulties of actually getting a decent job somewhere.

In the New York Times, Mark C. Taylor summarizes why I feel scared:
GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).
His entire article is well worth reading. Unlike him, it makes me very happy to know that I live in a world where, somewhere, a person is making it his job to write about "how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations."

But, as an indictment of today's American academia, I agreed with most of it - and with his recommendations. Of course academics should specialize, but let's not do it to excess. I suspect one reason why some of today's celebrity intellectuals - like Jared Diamond, Daniel Dennett, and Nassim Taleb - got to be popular is that they can combine and synthesize learning across very different disciplines. This appeals to someone who is intellectually curious about the world and doesn't see everything neatly compartmentalized into categories such as "biology" and "history" and "linguistics".

It's hard to say exactly why, but somehow Taylor's article makes me feel better about academia as a possible career. Maybe it's that his piece's very existence is evidence that there is a shift going on. If I were to start a career in newspapers right now, I would of course do so in the knowledge that one major era in the history of newspapers is ending right now and a new era is beginning - and pretending otherwise would bring me no benefit. I think a similar shift is in the cards for universities. Maybe it won't be as traumatic as what's happening to newspapers (or maybe it will) but I will have to be just as aware of it.

(As an aside, lately I've been reading Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem, whose main characters are the equivalent of academic professor-types in an alternate not-quite-Earth. I'm not saying I want to go live in a concent on Arbre, but I must admit that it's kindled some wistfulness for a life of reading and learning.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rather a lazy bumper sticker

I saw a bumper sticker today that said:

I assume Katrina refers to the hurricane. Baldacci is our Governor (I'm in Maine).

Either there's a reference or a play on words here that I don't get, or this is a pretty lazy attempt at a smart-ass political bumper sticker.

Katrina barely affected Maine. Baldacci had nothing to do with Katrina. And I've been running this bumper sticker through my mind and I can't think of any way punning or wordplay could be involved.

I mean, you might as well say:


Or why not just dispense with any attempt at being a smart-ass and just slap a bumper sticker on your car that says:

Seems like it wouldn't be any less witty.

...and I'm back in the States

For trip details and photos written by me, see Bundaegi. For trip details and photos by Jenna, see LaoRenCha.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Big trip

On Saturday we leave on our jaunt from Taipei to Singapore to India (Karnataka and Kerala) to Egypt (Cairo and Luxor) to the USA and back to Taipei (on February 25). For the first time in my life I will have crossed every line of longitude.

In preparation for my first trip to India I have read up the remaining pieces of Indian fiction on our bookshelves. An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma, the story of a corrupt low-level official in Delhi, is a difficult and often disgusting book to read. I've read short fiction with disgustingly unlikeable protagonists, but An Obedient Father is the first full-length novel I've read with such a unpleasant first-person narrator. Sharma makes it readable by making you feel pity for the main character, even though you'll never like him.

Like Rohinton Mistry and Manil Suri, Sharma's fiction depicts Indian society warts and all - particularly the warts. That's good for me. Helps me be prepared for what I'm likely to see. I've been to developing countries (Indonesia and the Philippines), but I've never seen the sort of large-scale poverty I've heard I should be prepared for.

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize in 1975. It's about a British woman who comes to India to learn the story of a relative of hers who eloped with a local ruler back in the 1920s. Jhabvala married into Indian society rather than being born into it, so she can look at India with a knowledgable foreigner's eye.

In Beautiful Disguises by Rajeev Balasubraman is the story of a girl from a small town in Karnataka who travels to The City (never named, but I assume it's Mumbai) to seek her fame and fortune. I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The main character (whose name we never learn) is immensely likeable. Balasubraman felt the need to invent a cartoony female antagonist who seems an amalgam of every Disney villainess, from Snow White's Evil Stepmother to Cruella de Vil. At first this annoyed me a bit, but then I figured it fit the book's dreamy, we're-all-characters-in-the-movies tone.

As for the actual logistics of getting around India, I'm leaving that to Rough Guide and Jenna's knowledge of the place. Should be fun.