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May 13, 2014


Quite right. SFF is and always has been one of the most political genres, even when the authors actively attempt to smother their own allegory.

The novella that was nominated is a heavily Christian novel about a white male in a dark medieval Europe-ish setting. For a story with no female characters, it manages to gently sexualize what I assume was the moon. "Arbhadis, Night's Mistress, would unveil herself as well." Also, there is this gem of a line:

"He wore his fair hair long, like a woman’s, but despite that and his slender frame, there was nothing feminine about him. Indeed, he projected a powerful air of strength and confidence that was surprising given his modest attire and humble demeanor."

Because power and strength and confidence aren't feminine traits, for no woman has ever had those.

It is intrinsic even to his grotesquely cliché world of elves and goblins and Christianity (so blatant that Psalms are seemingly identical in this world to the Bible's); the misogyny he's displayed outside of his writing resonates within it. His choice of a whitewashed Europe reflects his racism.

No, his novel isn't a treatise on the straight white man's burden, but anyone who claims it is apolitical just has the same damn politics as Day.

If readers and writers of SF are in it to get their prejudices validated, they're doon it rong.

"He wore his fair hair long, like a woman’s, but despite that and his slender frame, there was nothing feminine about him. Indeed, he projected a powerful air of strength and confidence that was surprising given his modest attire and humble demeanor."

That is some textbook telling-not-showing there.

He kept his prose choppy, like a child's, but despite that and his beady eyes, there was nothing childlike about him. Indeed, he projected a powerful air of arrogance and entitlement that was surprising given his modest accomplishment and fetid odor.

I would say that what is political is not the social and cultural world that the author creates, still less the physical world (e.g. Ringworld). What can be political is what the author sees as the behavior of people withing that social and cultural context.

See, for example, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galexy. The world it starts in sees slavery as normal. Does that mean that Heinlein is making a political statement embracing slaveery? Clearly not, since his characters are devoting themselves to attacking the system. Which, from what I know of Heinlein, is what he would have done in that situation.

But an author can also create a world and follow the actions of someone who lives exclusively there. No attack on the world itself; just an exploration of how someone raised in that context would behave. It's hard to set aside the author's personal world-view, and see a different culture in its own context. But it can be done. And the only political overtones that I can see from that are if the reader believes that particular culture would be wonderful (socialist, libertarian, etc.) and the way the author sees someone raised in it behaving doesn't fit that optimistic image.

I'm a somewhat sporadic reader of SF, but unless it's really extreme I usually ignore mildly unsavory political aspects of a story if I like the story. For example, I like the world that Niven and Pournelle create in "The Mote In God's Eye" and in the sequel, which I gather is based on a series of novels Pournelle had already written. The government seems to be a sort of aristocracy, but the aristocrats are serious-minded and decent people who do a good job running their technologically advanced society. I don't believe anything like that would occur in the world I live in, but am willing to accept it in the Niven/Pournelle world. The liberals in "Mote" are well-meaning and wrong, but that's okay too. Facing a species like the Moties, liberals might very well react with insufficient paranoia regarding the danger.

Vernor Vinge throws in some libertarian views in "Of a Deepness in the Sky", but again, I don't mind. (Partly because I agree with some of what he says, but mainly because I get caught up in the story and the world he's constructed.)

Now this Vox character I've never heard of outside the confines of blog threads, where his name comes up as the quintessential SF jackass from time to time. It might be an interesting question--Would I read a good novel by Vox, given his loathsome and idiotic views?--but it doesn't sound like I have to worry about it in real life.


Would I read a good novel by Vox, given his loathsome and idiotic views?

My familiarity with Vox is equivalent to yours. But I gotta say he doesn't even strike me as a good writer, if the quote Mother's Day post is any indication.

It took me a minute or two to slog through the prose to even understand what he was trying to say.

Slogging through unclear literature is rarely worthwhile (to me, many would disagree), and definitely not if the reward is misogynistic crap.

Of a Deepness in the Sky was a really fascinating example of worldbuilding. There was a strong antropomorthic strain running through the work which would occasionally completely crash as the sheer alienness of the world he described would suddenly surge to the foreground. The politics weren't very obvious to me, but that may have been because I was just soaking up the narrative without particularly digesting the implications of it. That points, I suppose, to Vinge's talent as an author.

(I'd never actually realized that he wrote two related novels as well as Deepness. I suppose I know what I'll be laying hands on when I'm done with Stross's Laundry (which is not a particularly compelling example of worldbuilding, but that kinda goes with the genre; when your world is alternate contemporary reality, you tend to just point out isolated islands of difference rather than building a world).)

It might be an interesting question--Would I read a good novel by Vox, given his loathsome and idiotic views?--but it doesn't sound like I have to worry about it in real life.

My closest experience comparable to this would be Dan Simmons - an excellent author, a technically proficient writer, a compelling worldbuilder, and a disturbing right-wing xenophobe who's been having more and more trouble separating his politics from his art. He's been a pleasure to read since I was a teen, but it's grown to be more and more of a guilty pleasure. (Un)fortunately(?), his most recent work I read (Flashback, 2011) was sufficiently hackneyed (and an explicit, hamfisted exercise in political worldbuilding) that I don't think I'll be overly tempted to read future writings of his.

Loathsome and idiotic views inevitably color the writing.

The reason writers with such views are able to prosper, at least for a while, is that their audience doesn't notice the loathsomeness, because it's directed at people or issues their readers pay little attention to anyway.

That kind of audience is dwindling.

I was a massive consumer of science fiction up until I started university. I was in a small town in the South, so the whole conference scene passed me by, but I read tons and tons, but the reading load in university pushed it out and then I've been overseas where tackling languages doesn't leave much time for picking up SF to read for pleasure, so there is a functional aspect, but after reading this post, I realize that another thing that pushed me away from SF was that the world building is often a very conscious enterprise, sort of a 'hey look at what I'm doing, isn't it amazing?' and I realized (I think) that _not_ drawing attention to what you are doing is actually a lot harder.

Often those with the best ideas lack the writing talent and those who at least are capable of writing well are deficient in the ideas department. The German (actually Austrian) Herbert W. Franke is a prime example. The guy is a polymath with a PhD in theoretical physics but best known for his SciFi stories and novels. It's telling that he is best (at times brilliant) with short stories where individual characters are of low importance. When he expands to novels it becomes clear that he simply cannot create 'living' characters or write believable personal relationships. Those tend to be extremly wooden and cliche-ed and disctract from the very solid substance of the stories themselves. Iirc Franke himself described his stories as 'experimental settings' used to explore the outcomes caused by the boundary conditions set by the writer.


shibumi? (The characteristic, not the novel.)

"Until I started looking for "Ringworld" images, I had no idea that the game Halo involved ringworlds."

This old strip from Unshelved deals with that:


"My closest experience comparable to this would be Dan Simmons"

That's a good example. I've read three of his books--the Illium/Olympus books and the "Terror". I liked all three, but the first two involved his Islamophobia, so I had to take a deep breath and ignore it. The "Terror" book is a science fictionalized account of a real life British expedition into the Arctic Circle around 1840 that vanished. Muslims are nowhere to be seen, so it was fine. But yes, he is a whack job. I might read his other books at some point.

Thompson--The politics in Deepness are mostly in the background, but they do pop up from time to time. He's a libertarian, but he doesn't beat you over the head with it. And in the context of that novel, the points he makes are legitimate.

His other two books in that universe are very good and disappointing, respectively. I really liked "A Fire Upon the Deep", though there is something morally dubious about--well, if you haven't read it I don't want to do spoilers. The sequel to that "The Children of the Sky" was a bit of a letdown. Not terrible, but I had hoped for better. There is probably going to be another sequel, and I'm cautiously optimistic it will be better.

I got mixed up on who I was replying to--it was NV, not Thompson.

Read Simmons' Hyperion Cantos - it's a much earlier work of his, so while there are hints of his Islamophobia (and closely-coupled fawning secular reverence for Israel) creeping in on the periphery, it's only on the very periphery, and is actually quite ignorable. The style and scope is comparable to the Illium books, and to stay on topic, I found his worldbuilding is compelling. The first two (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion) are IMO better than the latter ones, though.

I read The Terror as well, and enjoyed it, and I agree the setting helped a lot with keeping his politics out of it (although the human villain of the piece was a bit much, a bit unsurprising given Simmons' politics (yeah, I know, conservative = homophobe is a crude stereotype, but Simmons really seems to be playing to it here), and frankly grew to feel a bit lazy towards the end). I'm actually tempted to hunt down his most recent work because of this - The Abominable is also a historical horror/suspense piece set in an isolated environment, so it should be less steeped in his politics.

Are there any examples of SF world-building creating changes (positive or negative) IRL?

Not a snarky question, I'm curious to know.

Certainly there are cases I can think of where ideas introduced in SF literature have entered the popular discourse.

Fahrenheit 451, frex.

Can anyone think of cases where there was a more direct effect?

if you accept Ayn Rand as SF, maybe. certainly the ideas she popularized have had an impact on real life.

shibumi? (The characteristic, not the novel.)

Ha! First of all, I hadn't thought about that novel in a long time, what a hoot!

I'd like to claim that I am appreciating the shibui quality and my reading tastes have been refined by living overseas, but I'm pretty sure I'm the same slob as I was in college and I'll happily watch crappy movies or TV dramas and spend time reading manga. But when I'm reading in English, I really don't have time for it. Your comment makes me realize that I'm happy to watch these things (where I don't have to add the details myself, they just get routed to my brain via my optic nerve), but to actually put out the effort to figure out things that are not imitating life (thinking back to those webpage arguments about the possibility of building Ringworld) seems a bit extravagant. Maybe getting older is all about getting lazier...

Also at issue is the fact that when I came to Japan for the first time in the late 80's, shibui was used by young people as meaning 'cool' or whatever the hell the young are using now (rad? sick? wicked?) so the term doesn't correspond, and the other English words I can think that fill that slot (refined? elegant?) sure as hell don't fit me...

Agree. All good books - good damn writing. Splooge.

hadn't thought about that novel in a long time, what a hoot!

Me either... but curiously on topic:

Whitaker earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Washington. While there he wrote and directed his three-act play Eve of the Bursting, which was his Master's thesis production in the UW Playhouse. The Company Manager and Assistant Director of the production was Jerry Pournelle...

I'm slightly surprised that Hugo winner China Mieville hasn't entered the discussion, as evidence that world-building, literary merit and Hugo success (not to mention Marxist/Socialist politics) are not incompatible.

Nigel: and an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Russell: I'm not sure quite what would count, but: Communications satellites? They were predicted by Arthur C Clarke but I couldn't swear that their development was influenced by his prediction.

Star Wars may have popularized a cod eastern mysticism, and Star Trek Roddenberry's own Californian tech utopia.

On the other hand I'm certain sci-fi and it's cousin techno thrillers have distorted popular expectations of what technology can achieve, and thereby encouraging acceptance of smart bombs, death penalties and enhanced interrogation (though the only examples that spring to mind are 24 and CSI).

Ayn Rand as mentioned above. And Scientology might be the best, worst example.

Can anyone think of cases where there was a more direct effect?

We're still talking about on-orbit solar energy collection, so not that.

We are still talking about space elevators, so not that.

We're just starting to make nanoscale machines work, so I think this is our huckleberry. Although probably not to the point of assembling matter atom by atom, as imagined by Neal Stephenson.

I think hard SF authors aren't so much lacking at predicting the arc of technology as they are in predicting what use of that technology looks like. We have computers right now that are far more powerful than anything that might have been easily predictable e.g. back in the 1960s, but we mostly use them for looking at cat pictures and surfing for web porn.

Socially, we're a decent way toward what Philip K. Dick has imagined in various works, which is not in any way to be what I consider a good thing.

For now, I am wondering when I will be able to own a variable-sword and a Slaver disintegrator. And when I will be able to put my excess vegetable crop in stasis, instead of in the freezer.


"distorted popular expectations of what technology can achieve"

The first thing that came to mind was Kevin Mitnick (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Mitnick ) who was accused of being able to "start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone."

His actions inspired WarGames, which is the reverse causality, though. But I feel the FUD surrounding him was probably enabled by the distortion you describe.

Oh, I know:

The Crazy Years, as envisioned by Heinlein. We're soaking in them.

Heinlein imagined that they would one day be over, but I am less of an optimist.

Heinlein also predicted the US would end up with a theocratic government (much more absolutist than Iran today). While that hasn't happened, we have clearly taken a large step in that direction since Heinlein was writing.

There was a Philip Jose Farmer story written in the '60's in which a spaceship, travelling beyond the speed of light, bursts out of our universe, and then a crewwoman goes mad and throws herself out of the ship. Because the ship and body are outside the universe, they all have roughly the same mass and so they and the universe are all in orbit around one another. The ship's computer is madly spitting out punch cards as it tries to provide sufficiently good estimated solutions to the three-body problem that the crew can determine whether the ship will run into one of the other objects.

Finding solutions to a ménage à trois is always difficult.

The guys that developed the rockets that were the basis for the later space programs were influenced by SciFi of the early 20th century. Some of the authors were (private) scholars that tried to popularize their technological ideas. Not to forget that Jules Verne and H.G.Wells were the reason that quite a few guys went the way of science/engineering and became crucial in the above mentioned projects.
More concretely political: The genre of invasion fantasies popular in Britain before WW1 had clearly an influence on political decision making. It was not necessarily the politicians that believed that crap but they had to deal with a public that did. And some of these books had that very intention to create public paranoia and were thus means to an end.



You're referring to the classic series that starts off with Transman of Gor?

When it got to "CPAs of GOR", that's when you know that a shark had been jumped.

While much of my SF reading was more than 20 years ago, when people talk about world building I think of Andre Norton. I remember her as good at bringing me there.

"Although probably not to the point of assembling matter atom by atom, as imagined by Neal Stephenson."

I don't think you can really attribute progress in nanotechnology to SF, in as much as the concept was popularized by Drexler, and only then adopted by SF. I was at the Worldcon where Drexler spoke, and copies of Engines of Creation were first distributed, and that well predated Diamond World.

You might be able to attribute LACK of progress in nanotech to the effort led by Smalley to discredit the concept. They really pulled out all the stops, I don't think I've ever seen before an affirmative effort like that to sabotoge a technology as it was just getting started.

I thought the idea of nanotechnology was attributed to von Neumann with his self-replicating machines.

No, Feynman.

Though the term itself came later.

I originally misread someotherdude's one-word comment above as "GDR," and for a while it actually made sense. Actually.

"No, Feynman."

That's why I said "popularized", rather than "invented". Though I have to admit Drexler did a much more in depth exploration of the concept, which Feynman just sort of tossed out there and dropped.

The amazing thing about Vernor Vinge is not just the fascinating worlds he builds, but the wide variety of them. Look at Across Realtime, Rainbows End, Tatja Grimm's World, True Names, The Witling. Even Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky are very different worlds ostensibly in the same universe. I'm flabbergasted that the same person wrote all of those things. The only major SF author who comes near that kind of breadth is Philip K. Dick.

I'm encouraged by the fact that Vinge, 19 years my junior, has long since retired to write full time. Get to it, Vernor; my Kindle has a lot of empty space.

Jeez, "... the only other major SF author..."

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