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April 17, 2003

Perilously close to respectability
Posted by Teresa at 07:06 AM *

Paul G. Allen, billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, is planning to build something called SFX (Science Fiction Experience) in Seattle. He’s calling it a “cultural project”, and says he sees it as “a jumping-off project for examining the future”:

According to promotional material, SFX “will explore our culture through the broad, historic and compelling lens of science fiction.” The material promises models of “bug-eyed monsters” and exhibits that illustrate “science fiction’s alternate realities.” …

Plans call for a hall of fame for science-fiction heroes, another hall shaped like the interior of a spaceship and a third that would commemorate terrifying aliens and other evil creatures. SFX’s advisory board includes the science-fiction writers Greg Bear, Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke.

Writers like those transfixed Mr. Allen when he was young. He said he was a small child when he stumbled on a book called “Spaceship Galileo” and has been “a huge fan” of science fiction ever since.

That’s Rocket Ship Galileo—and so did I.

These things are bound to happen, though the gradually increasing respectability of Our Beloved Genre over the course of my lifetime has caused me considerable bemusement. It’s a normal process. We love as adults what we read as kids, back when we had no thought of the respectability of a book, but only cared whether it was a good story. Meanwhile, the ones who grow up to be authors reshape that rapturous indiscriminate junk-laden reading into better art that resembles, not the original work, but what they saw in their heads when they read it.

We’ll live to see skiffy become respectable. And that’s good, I suppose; but there’ll be something lost the day that teachers try to get kids to read it on the grounds that it’s good for them.

Comments on Perilously close to respectability:
#1 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 09:31 AM:

I just saw a display of books by women writers at Borders which included _Cerulean Sins_ and _Kushiel's Dart_. Now, maybe this is getting out of one ghetto into a more respectable ghetto, but I was more surprised to see that than to see sf mixed in with the new paperbacks as though there isn't any difference.

As for "We’ll live to see skiffy become respectable. And that’s good, I suppose; but there’ll be something lost the day that teachers try to get kids to read it on the grounds that it’s good for them.", I'm not sure whether it's reached that point yet. Last I heard, sf is included in curricula because at least it gets students to read something, but it would be better for them to read something more respectable like Shakespeare, Swift, Spenser, or Dante.

#2 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 10:06 AM:

Mileage varies, Nancy: my high school honors English teacher assigned _The Lathe of Heaven_ my senior year because he thought it was Great Contemporary Lit'ra'cher. Of course, that was in contrast to all the *other* SF out there, or God forbid fantasy. But still, there it was.

#3 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 10:31 AM:

Though it's been a long, long time, I'm pretty sure I assigned a Le Guin book when I was a student teacher at UC Berkley in the late '70s -- just because I liked her writing. (And I did my thesis on weird imagery in Shelley because I knew they wouldn't let me write about Jack Vance.)

#4 ::: Lisa ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 11:19 AM:

>there'll be something lost the day that teachers try to get
>kids to read it on the grounds that it's good for them.

It's already happened, both in K-12 and in higher education. There's SF in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, (Forster The Machine Stops, among others), and there's a pretty good Norton Anthology of Science Fiction--Norton, because of the ubiquitous nature of its anthologies almost sets the canon for higher ed.

In K-12 Scholastic and other publishers have deliberately created curricula, with all the surrounding paraphenalia, around SF. Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven and Dispossessed, not to mention The Beginning Place, are standards in assigned reading, and so is Podkayne of Mars. (I'm not sure that's a good thing . . .)

#5 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 11:32 AM:

TOP SECRET!

Greg and Astrid Bear will be part of an exceptionally talented team rolling out a very impressive and top-secret project at Norwescon, in Seattle, Washington. The announcement will take place during the halftime of the masquerade on Saturday. This project has been in the works for over six months now. We can tell you nothing more, but if you miss out on this one, you'll kick yourself... hard. Science fiction history is about to be made. Check the Norwescon web site http://www.norwescon.org/index.html for membership information.
http://www.gregbear.com/

#6 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 11:59 AM:

What will be lost I suppose is the teachers trying to get kids to read it on the ground that the teacher reads it - certainly my experience at the time was teachers were passionate about SF both pro and con.

Should get a "back in the gutter where it belongs" button and wear it to Norwescon and around Seattle.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 12:27 PM:

Neat, an excuse for a road-trip to Seattle!

I predict Allen's expo is going to be a mixed bag:

Showy media stuff (The Costumes of Star Trek) to drag in the crowds, museumish exhibits (timelines of SF spaceships, little shrines to Wells and Verne) for the middlebrow, and -- the payoff for us -- a venue for interesting academic tie-ins (teachers' workshops, maybe a small press imprint?).

#8 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 02:00 PM:

If this is half as much fum as the Experience Music Project we are in for an e-ticket ride indeed.

#9 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 02:06 PM:

Well, first of all, the EQ test doesn't measure your capacity for empathy, it measures your _evaluation_ of your capacity for empathy. I know serveral people who would answer "I have an easy time empathizing with other people", even though many observers would strongly disagree!

It's like an IQ test asking you to rate your agreement with statements like "I have an easy time solving puzzles" and "I'm often smarter than the people around me". There may be some correlation between people's self-evaluations and their actually capacities, but the test isn't directly measuring the capacity.

#10 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 02:12 PM:

Argh, wrong comment thread, sorry!

#11 ::: Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 03:07 PM:

Claude Muncey wrote:
>If this is half as much fum as the Experience Music
>Project we are in for an e-ticket ride indeed.


Yeah! Instead of interactive music exhibits with real electric guitars for visitors to play, there'll be ray guns and killer robots and mutant troglodytes and a snack bar serving ground-up processed human flesh.


#12 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 03:59 PM:

That's one great board of directors.

#13 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2003, 06:29 PM:

Where do I go to buy a ticket? I've already done the reading.

#14 ::: Tim Kyger ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 12:57 AM:

This really pisses me off.

Why? Complicated reason(s). Paul Allen is worth a couple of gigabucks, easy. And, if one can judge from the Paul Allen Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Seattle (yeah, I know it's called something else) he's gonna spend several *hundred* millions of dollars on this SF museum.

In the meantime, a cheapo-cheapo means of getting to low Earth orbit could be bought for...oh, a few hundreds of millions of dollars...one that could open the space frontier for one and all. Finally.

Instead, we'll get Yet Another Theme Park. Feh. Worse yet, an sf theme park.

I can't *stand* the impulse of being more interested in the simulation instead of the real thing. Feh again.

His buddy, The Prince of Darkness, Billy Gates, ain't interested in space either. I know. The company I used to work for had a meeting with him. (Bill Gates is one day older than I am. Why ain't *I* a gazillionaire? Alas, only a thousandaire; and not many of those either...)

Pardon me. I have to finish this copy of /For Love and Glory/ now...

#15 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 01:45 AM:

Tim Kyger writes: "In the meantime, a cheapo-cheapo means of getting to low Earth orbit could be bought for...oh, a few hundreds of millions of dollars...one that could open the space frontier for one and all. Finally."

Tim, that would be "low Earth orbit", as you said.

That's not really opening the space frontier. If the American colonies had such low expectations, they would have stopped with the western frontier at, say, Pittsburgh.

"Low earth orbit" joyriding seems to be pretty antithetical to the sfnal ethos (if there is such a thing), since the real show is rather farther away - and we know it.

"I can't *stand* the impulse of being more interested in the simulation instead of the real thing. Feh again."

If space travel doesn't involve distances larger than the Empire Builder Amtrak run, it *ain't* the real sfnal thing.

Going just 50-100 or so miles up *is* a mere simulation of sfnal space travel.

IMHO.

#16 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 01:49 AM:

TNH wrote: "These things are bound to happen, though the gradually increasing respectability of Our Beloved Genre over the course of my lifetime has caused me considerable bemusement"

That's just what happens when geeks turn into billionaires.

Let's be thankful that Paul Allen's life-changing novel wasn't by John Norman.

#17 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 02:38 AM:

I remember reading the original King Rat and expecting a much more interesting book. I can't help suspecting that that's why China M. finally wrote it.

#18 ::: Oliver Morton ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 06:07 AM:

Tim Kryger wrote:
"His buddy, The Prince of Darkness, Billy Gates, ain't interested in space either."

Which is kind of true (though didn't he have a stake in teledesic?). But Gates is interested in alleviating human suffering through poor health, and has set up what is sometimes the world's largest charitable foundation to try and make it happen ("sometimes" because of stock market fluctuations). The foundation, to which he seems to devote a fair amount of time and thought, is spending serious money on good projects overseen, as far as I can tell, by people who know what they are doing.

It doesn't get people to low earth orbit -- but it's not exactly satanic, either...

#19 ::: Oliver Morton ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 06:08 AM:

sorry to have mispelled your name, Mr Kyger

#20 ::: Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 09:25 AM:

Oliver! do you come here often?

#21 ::: Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 10:10 AM:

Will one of the exhibits be, say, an audio-animatronic Great Moments With Mr. Dick?

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 11:53 AM:

Oliver, I think it's the senior Bill Gates, not the Microsoft megalomaniac, who does the charity stuff...could be wrong.

#23 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 12:25 PM:

Mr. Womack, if that last slug of coffee hadn't just passed my gullet's point of no return, it would be all over my monitor.

I can picture the robotic PKD periodically illuminated with a brilliant pink floodlight . . . which, in the hagiography of the Sci-Fi Experience, would be the cue for it to pound away on a manual typewriter, producing the screenplays for Bladerunner and Total Recall.

* * *

Xopher, while the older Mr. Gates is indeed politically active (leading the fight *against* upper-income-bracket tax cuts as I recall), it's the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that doles out money for immunization campaigns and other good works.

#24 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 12:41 PM:

Low Earth Orbit IS half way to anyplace in this system - all or nothing is poor engineering.

Methusalah's children left from low earth orbit - see e.g. how some people reached the ship.

Further "Earth is room enough" for fine science fiction.

Feeding the trolls but maybe somebody here is remnant without being choir.

#25 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 01:22 PM:

A better use of Paul Allen's money would be to rebuild and recover anything left from the museums and libraries destroyed in Iraq: seven thousand years of Western cultural history.

#26 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 01:45 PM:

See also the Seattle Times for local coverage at:
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/134678071_emp18.html
And the Seattle Post Intelligencer at:http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/117894_scifi17.html

#27 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 05:21 PM:

Jon, of course that'd be a wonderful use of his money, but choosing to devote some of his money to preserving some of this particular part of our cultural history doesn't make him morally responsible for the loss of what was looted or destroyed in Baghdad. The responsibility for that lies with the people who did it, and the people who had responsibility for preventing it and chose not to.

I think I'm as angry as anyone over the destruction of the libraries and the museums, but I have no use for the joyless view of the world that looks at any good thing someone does to see what better thing they could have done instead. There's _always_ something better, more important, more effective, more worthy, that could have been done instead--in someone's eyes, somewhere.

If Rumsfeld & Co. had truly had a choice to make between preserving the libraries and museums, and preserving the hospitals, and had chosen to preserve the hospitals, I wouldn't be angry with them. They didn't face that choice, and they didn't preserve the hospitals, either.

Anyone who chooses to devote their private wealth to recovering what can be recovered from the museums will be doing a very good thing. The primary responsibility lies with the US government, though, and in doing something else, Paul Allen isn't doing a bad thing. He's doing a good thing, a less important good thing, but still a good thing and not a bad thing.

#28 ::: Helen Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2003, 06:36 PM:

I could practically tack a certificate in speculative fiction to my English major at Temple. More so had I finished Delany's SF course, which I had to drop this semester because of time constraints. I'm hoping he offers it at night again before I have to jump ship and find a real job, but the clock is running out. But other than that, I've done extensive work in children's fantasy and myth retellings, two creative writing workshops, one with Delany and one with a cyberpunk-favoring grad student who assigned the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Literature, which had all manner of excerpts from SF.

I vacillate between finding a grad program where I can study the speculative genres (my latest insight has been why some guidelines say "wants experimental, no genre" and where my stuff fits between those two characterizations) and journalism, which is my profession. One will make me a better reader, but the other--which I'm leaning toward, will doubtless make me a better writer.

My son just got a perfect score on his book report for a Brian Jacques book. I know that's not science fiction, but it's the highest grade he's ever gotten in language arts.

#29 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2003, 11:34 AM:

Stephan/Xopher: Yep, the medical philanthropy is from the younger Bill and his wife -- currently to the tune of over a half billion dollars. Also a big chunk of change going to libraries. The elder Gates (often called Big Bill as he is well over 6 feet), I believe, is one of the main administrators of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, though.

#30 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2003, 11:48 AM:

Tim Kyger/Jon H.: speaking about the X Prize, what do you think about yesterday's announcement of Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One, which looks like a real contender -- the Scaled Composites site has a quite a bit of information, for a start.

It has been funded by an anonymous backer (who knows, maybe it was Bill) and the two vehicles, the carrier plane and the rocket itself are just about ready to test. According to stories, this has been in the works for more than two years. This is normal for Rutan and Scaled as they do a lot of DARPA and corporate development work and do not announce a project until it is ready to flight test.

I like Rutan's answer when asked why:

I want to go high because that's where the view is.
#31 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2003, 04:05 PM:

"I want to go high because that's where the view is."

Spoken like a true son of a brachiating ape.

But I really want to know what the building's going to look like. It would be hard to copy the high '50s sf look, when the real thing--the Space Needle--is already there. Though it might be possible to set something in relation to it, depending on the site.

Anyone know if a design firm has been selected?

#32 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2003, 05:03 PM:

Hi Randolph!

This morning's paper (can't remember if it was Houston's or Waco's) said Allen was going to redecorate a wing of the Music Experience building.

#33 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2003, 02:00 AM:

Hello Anne. Do I know you from a.c, perhaps?

Thanks--that makes sense. The Experience building is between the monorail and the Space Needle; there's a roller-coaster right behind it. Despite all complaints about its weirdness, it actually sort-of fits.

It's also parsimonious, since all Allen has to do is hire an exhibit designer...wonder who that's going to be? Hope they consult some sf artists!

#34 ::: Oliver Morton ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2003, 08:01 AM:

Following on from Claude: the half a billion dollars plus for the Gates foundation is annual spending. The total endowment to date is somewhere in the $20 billion range.

#35 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2003, 05:50 PM:

Randolph: yes, that's where we "met."

My first, uncharitable thought was "Hm, maybe the music thing isn't working out and they want something to make money." But I don't know if it's a for-profit venture.

Idle curiosity, now: _Smithsonian_ did a spread on the music exhibit just before it opened; I wonder if they'll do the same for the sf wing.

#37 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2003, 05:48 PM:

Let's be thankful that Paul Allen's life-changing novel wasn't by John Norman.

Jordin read this out to me this morning while I was still mostly asleep and trying to recover from Minicon. It brought me wide awake with shivers and cold chills. After I managed to go back to sleep, it gave me nightmares. You will pay for this.

MKK

#38 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2003, 09:48 PM:

From the website, it appears as though Forry Ackerman is on the advisory board for this project. If he has records of the people who bought his stuff, maybe some of it can still be recovered and exhibited.

#39 ::: Jon h ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2003, 11:59 PM:

Mary Kay wrote:

" After I managed to go back to sleep, it gave me nightmares. You will pay for this."

Bwahahaha.

Did you have one about getting trapped on the "It's A Small Gor After All" ride?

On a somewhat more serious note, someone should get Allen to devote a small, out-of-the-way, VIP backstage pass and sekrit handshake-requred niche to the "Eye of Argon".

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