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November 4, 2009

“Radical Presentism”
Posted by Patrick at 08:11 AM * 186 comments

Cory Doctorow writes about the kind of science fiction I find myself most wanting to read these days. As he says, “science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally), but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.”

Mary Shelley wasn’t worried about reanimated corpses stalking Europe, but by casting a technological innovation in the starring role of Frankenstein, she was able to tap into present-day fears about technology overpowering its masters and the hubris of the inventor. Orwell didn’t worry about a future dominated by the view-screens from 1984, he worried about a present in which technology was changing the balance of power, creating opportunities for the state to enforce its power over individuals at ever-more-granular levels. […]

Some of my favorite contemporary speculative fiction is instead nakedly allegorical in its approach to the future—or the past, as the case may be.

Consider Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids (Bantam, 2009), an environmental techno-thriller—Sterling once defined a techno-thriller as “a science fiction novel with the president in it”—set in a mid-twenty-first century in which global warming has done its catastrophic best to end humanity. Finally forced to confront the reality of anthropogenic climate change, humanity fizzles and factions off into three warring camps: the Dispensation, an Al-Gorean green-capitalist technocracy; the Acquis, libertarian technocrats who’ll beta-test anything (preferably on themselves); and China, a technocracy based on the idea that technology can make command-and-control systems actually work, in contrast to the gigantic market failure that destroyed the planet. The play of these three ideologies serves as a brilliant and insightful critique of the contemporary approach to environmental remediation. Sterling especially gets the way that technology is a disruptor, that it unmakes the status quo over and over again, and that a battle of technologies is a battle in which the sands never stop shifting. Casting his tale into the future allows him to illustrate just how uneven our footing is in the present day—and the fact that the book consists of humans getting by, even getting ahead, despite all the chaos and devastation, makes The Caryatids one of the most optimistic books I’ve read in recent days.

All of which has something in common with Mundane SF, but it’s different in an important way. Cory isn’t prescribing rhetorical devices; he isn’t categorically dismissing as “wish fulfillment” stories that include time travel or warp drives. Indeed, Cory isn’t prescribing anything; rather, he’s pointing out how some of the most effective SF works.
Comments on "Radical Presentism":
#1 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:22 AM:

This reminds me of a passage from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don't recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It's none of their business. All they're trying to do is tell you what they're like, and what you're like - what's going on - what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don't tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.
#2 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:56 AM:

Engaging with the near-present in SF is hard. It's no surprise so few authors are trying to write this sort of stuff -- the world we're living in today looks like the result of a collaboration between Philip K. Dick and John Brunner.

(This is not to say that it isn't worth attempting, of course. But easy? Hell, no. Sparkly vampires and space dreadnoughts, those are easy. But engaging with healthcare reform, climate change, and the political consequences of the bandwidth explosion? Before you go here you've got to actually try to understand the present, and all the maps of the territory in question are by definition out of date.)

#3 ::: mds ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 09:12 AM:

Charlie Stross @2:

Engaging with the near-present in SF is hard.

Say, how's that sequel to Halting State coming?

Finally forced to confront the reality of anthropogenic climate change, humanity fizzles and factions off into three warring camps

All of the camps are technocratic? That seems wildly optimistic. (Or wildly pessimistic; your kilometrage may vary.)

#4 ::: Zander ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 09:43 AM:

"present-day fears about technology overpowering its masters and the hubris of the inventor."

Um, I keep coming across this--it's the standard view of "Frankenstein"'s message, rehashed in all the film versions, and for all I know Mary S herself thought that was what she was doing.

It doesn't say anything like that to me. It says: if you are going to do something, take responsibility for it. Do not go Ooh Ick and run away, do not blame your creation for your bad workmanship, do not pretend that it wasn't you, and damn well carry it through to the end. None of the troubles that Frankenstein suffers stem from the fact that he created a man; all of them stem from the fact that he then abandoned it because it wasn't as pretty as he wanted it to be.

Is this me being weird, or is it something I see that other people, better and wiser people than I, for some reason don't?

#5 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 10:08 AM:

Xander, #4: It's been quite a while since I read Frankenstein, but I think you just nailed it.
The more powerful or dangerous one's creation, the more need to keep an eye on it, ride herd on it, maybe even destroy it if you have to, to protect your neighbors. (Of course, if your creation happens to be sentient, then you have a responsibility to it as well. Ask any kid who's ever been abused.)
Technology having unintended consequences, and the downfall of hubristic/short-sighted inventors and promoters thereof, that does fit in with this interpretation. Sometimes.

#6 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 10:12 AM:

Zander@4: Is this me being weird, or is it something I see that other people, better and wiser people than I, for some reason don't?

If you're weird, so am I, because your interpretation makes sense to me. It certainly strikes me as the sort of story that spending a lot of time around Percy Bysshe Shelley would drive an intelligent and perceptive young woman to write.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 10:39 AM:

Zander @ 4... It says: if you are going to do something, take responsibility for it. Do not go Ooh Ick and run away...

That is exactly the message from the Frankenstein I had mentionned in the Halloween thread. If I remember correctly, the first word uttered in it by the child-like Creature is "Beautiful", and it is its last word.

#8 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 10:56 AM:

mds: it's coming along: first draft is one-third written. On the other hand? Anyone expecting another book about MMOs and gaming is going to be disappointed.

NB: I want to second Cory's plug for The Caryatids. It's one of those significant novels that is going to be cited over the next decade as being hugely influential ... (by folks like me).

#9 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 11:45 AM:

Zander @4: It's been some years since I read Frankenstein but I tend to agree with your reading. Most of all of the bad consequences follow on Frankenstein's abandonment of his creature, not on creating it per se.

I thought I had something to say about near-future sf, but putting it into words is proving difficult. More later perhaps.

I have one question, though: most fantasy is either set in alternate worlds unconnected to our own, or alternate worlds similar to our own but with magic as part of their history, or set in the present or the recent past with magic intruding into our world or people from our world wandering into another magical world. But it seems as though there ought also to be near-future fantasy, with science-fictional elements based on what's going on *now* when the author writes and what seems as though it could plausibly happen in the near future interacting in interesting ways with the intrusion of magic into our world or people from our world into magic. I can't think of many examples offhand; Galveston by Sean Stewart comes close, and various elfpunk works from the 1990s whose titles elude me are sort of what I'm thinking of but not quite. The elfpunk stuff seems to me (though I haven't read much of it) to be mixing urban fantasy elements with cyberpunk, when cyberpunk was already an established genre, a conventional near-future that was becoming less and less likely to be realized. The ideal near-future fantasy I'm thinking of would simultaneously have original thinky bits about where we are now and where we might be headed soon, like Halting State or Rainbows End, and liminal or fantasy stuff going on as well.

A tricky aspect of such genre-bending would be fairly incluing the reader sufficiently early as to what kind of story it's going to be; introducing both the magical and sf'nal elements early on in ways that don't confuse them, or confuse the reader only insofar as the viewpoint character is (hopefully temporarily) confused...

Or not. Cluelessly unreliable narrators are fun, but I expect they get exponentially more difficult to write if you're working in a less-established genre or violating genre conventions as well as narrative conventions, because the reader can have fewer safe assumptions about how the world works by which to correct the narrator's honest mistakes and deliberate lies.

#10 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 11:51 AM:

As soon as I posted that comment I thought of an example Patrick's post itself should have reminded me of: Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. It's the best of Cory's works I've read so far, and one of my favorite recent urban fantasies; it's set in a much nearer future than Halting State, probaby in our past by now, but it's got the mix of cutting-edge-present/near-future technology and characters from a magical background that I was thinking of.

#11 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:06 PM:

#3 ::: mds
... (Or wildly pessimistic; your kilometrage may vary.)

Initially this was read not as a variation on mileage, but as [something]-rage, a comment on an angry as well as pessimistic view.

#12 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:17 PM:

Zander @4: make more room in the boat. I know the academic arguments about Mary Shelley commenting on intellectual arrogance and arrogating to oneself the powers of God, but...what you said. Frankenstein is about taking responsibility for what you've done, whether you father a child in the traditional manner or create one out of spare parts.

#13 ::: mds ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:20 PM:

Charlie Stross @8:

On the other hand? Anyone expecting another book about MMOs and gaming is going to be disappointed.

On the gripping hand, it could've been about the collapse of the global banking system, since last year's implosion has switched back to a combination of "business as usual," massive transfers from the public purse to the parties responsible, and electoral surges by those who believe in even more deregulation (see, e.g., Germany and almost Norway). So we're still due for a genuine meltdown.

Carol Kimball @11:

Initially this was read not as a variation on mileage, but as [something]-rage, a comment on an angry as well as pessimistic view.

Actually, I hate Kilomet so much. . .

#14 ::: Marty Kelley ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:21 PM:

This may be the worst sort of nitpicking, or it may be just plain old fun: I just saved a copy of Doctorow's essay for use in one of my writing classes, and noticed that the Tin House blog post's publication date is listed as "October 6." Wow! The Future!

#15 ::: Marty Kelley ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:24 PM:

Uh, Yeah. It's November now.

"More coffee for me, Bob. I'm not as messed up as I want to be."

#16 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:42 PM:

Zander @4: I always saw it that way too.

Funny enough how so many of those cyberpunk novels have had a lot of the tech predictions come true, and the societal ones to varying degrees. I am preparing to start messing with an Augmented Reality app on my iphone as I type this.

#17 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 12:53 PM:

Charlie Stross #8: Anyone expecting another book about MMOs and gaming is going to be disappointed.

I'm dreading the prospect of beta-testing the upcoming HCLARP; there's no "save game" button in health-care....

#18 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:05 PM:

Re Frankenstein. Been a long time since I read it too, but the comments here are skewing toward the assumption that Dr. Frankenstein's creation was a human being and entitled to the respect & care due a dependent human being for which one is responsible. I would agree, but I wonder if Shelley or most of her readers were capable of seeing it that way? I get the impression many of them didn't even view their servants that way, much less this "monster."

#19 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:07 PM:

Zander @4: It doesn't say anything like that to me. It says: if you are going to do something, take responsibility for it. Do not go Ooh Ick and run away, do not blame your creation for your bad workmanship, do not pretend that it wasn't you, and damn well carry it through to the end. None of the troubles that Frankenstein suffers stem from the fact that he created a man; all of them stem from the fact that he then abandoned it because it wasn't as pretty as he wanted it to be.

Bravo! *applause with footstomps and whistles*

#20 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:16 PM:

Jim Henry @ 9 -- Would Emma Bull's Bone Dance meet your criteria?

#21 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:27 PM:

Charlie Stross, #2: "Engaging with the near-present in SF is hard. [...] Sparkly vampires and space dreadnoughts, those are easy."

True enough, but that's not quite the point Cory is trying to make. (Or perhaps it's not quite the point I was trying to make.) It seems to me that when SF is powerful, it isn't necessarily because it "engages with the near-present" in a direct and literal way, but rather because two important elements power one another:

* the story's imaginative element, and
* actual present-day real-world concerns.

Among the works of SF cited by Cory are Asimov's robot and Foundation stories:

Asimov's robots were not supposed to be metaphors, but they sure acted like them, revealing the great writer's belief in a world where careful regulation could create positive outcomes for society. (How else to explain his idea that all robots would comply with the "three laws" for thousands of years? Or, in the Foundation series, the existence of a secret society that knows exactly how to exert its leverage to steer the course of human civilization for millennia?)
I'm vigorously in favor of the kind of overtly near-future SF Charlie is talking about, and I certainly agree that it's hard to write. But I also think that there are a lot of ways for SF (and for that matter fantasy) to be "about" the actual world we live in -- and that, in fact, almost all SF and fantasy that's worth reading is in some deep sense connected to the real world and our actual lives. I can even imagine a novel about "sparkly vampires and space dreadnoughts" being such a piece of work.

I realize that this is a point that can become so gaseously generalized that it loses analytical usefulness, but I think it's an important true thing about imaginative literature anyway. When I find SF and fantasy boring, the most frequent reason is that it seems arbitrary -- it lacks enough connection to lived experience. Powerful SF and fantasy aren't just about imagination, they're about imaginative connection.

#22 ::: Madeline Ashby ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:53 PM:

More and more, I think Dickens could have just as easily been discussing a writer's work:

"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

#23 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:53 PM:

Patrick, I'm with you in principle -- I, too, like fiction that's relevant to real life.

I fear it's a minority pursuit, though: there seems to be a growing segment of the population out there who just don't get metaphor, these days. (Maybe I've been sensitized by recent events on my blog, but: it certainly rubbed my nose in the phenomenon.)

#24 ::: Susan Kitchens ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:57 PM:

Zander, #4:

It says: if you are going to do something, take responsibility for it. Do not go Ooh Ick and run away, do not blame your creation for your bad workmanship, do not pretend that it wasn't you, and damn well carry it through to the end. None of the troubles that Frankenstein suffers stem from the fact that he created a man; all of them stem from the fact that he then abandoned it because it wasn't as pretty as he wanted it to be.

I know you were giving your perspective on Shelley and Frankenstein (for which, kudos!), but it occurs to me that this is you are also talking about the presidential administration of George W. Bush, too.

#25 ::: R. Emrys ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 01:59 PM:

Zander @ 4: Thank you. Yes, exactly. Also, somewhere in all the adaptations, the creature went from being a literate genius to a grunting monster.

OtterB @ 18: Speaking as someone who adores her work, Shelley's not exactly a subtle writer. Frankenstein's treatment of the creature is constantly placed in opposition to *his* mother, saintly and selfless and wildly affectionate. And when the creature eventually "goes bad," it's explicitly as vengeance on the world in general and Frankenstein in particular for rejecting him. And it takes about 2/3rds of the book to get to that point.

Other entertaining things that get left out of the adaptations: hanging out with too many romantic poets apparently gave Shelley a skewed view of what normal men do under stress. Dr. F, when startled, faints dramatically, in extremis taking to his bed for months. He's a deeply flawed character, but the narrative doesn't seem to see this particular behavior as strange or problematic.

#26 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 02:21 PM:

R. Emrys:

Other entertaining things that get left out of the adaptations: hanging out with too many romantic poets apparently gave Shelley a skewed view of what normal men do under stress. Dr. F, when startled, faints dramatically, in extremis taking to his bed for months. He's a deeply flawed character, but the narrative doesn't seem to see this particular behavior as strange or problematic.

Stephen King goes into some of this in his excellent history of horror fiction, Danse Macabre. (Which desperately needs a corrected edition, as the copyediting for the second edition to remove errors managed to add in new horrors of its own, including swapped footnotes.) My copy isn't available right now, but King points out that Frankenstein's full-speed-ahead to his wedding after the monster's promise "I'll be with you on your wedding night" isn't a obvious show of smarts on Frankenstein's part. It's been years since I read the book but I think King's other comment that Shelly's inability to decide if usurping God was worse than not taking responsibility for the monster hurts the book is correct as well.

#27 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 03:00 PM:

Bruce Durocher @ #26, thanks for the King book mention. I'd never heard of it, but I've now reserved it at the local library.

#28 ::: Gareth Rees ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 03:35 PM:

it’s different in an important way

So it's Mundane SF, but politer?

#29 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 03:37 PM:

Zander @4, when I read Frankenstein, I came away with pretty much the same idea of its theme as you did. (I saw it specifically as about child-rearing, and the importance of doing it right.)

From what I understand, the 1931 film emphasized the technology-out-of-control aspect, and that's influenced many peoples' readings of the novel.

#30 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 04:15 PM:

I once read an inversion of Frankenstein where you get to the scene "It's alive!" and then the creature starts bawling like an infant. In that story, the scientist ends up raising the monster, having a really hard time with kindergarten and the like, through college, the monster's professorship, and his marriage (to a blind woman) and children.

At one point, he goes to a convention and overhears somebody saying, "I wondered what happened to him." At that point he's grown up enough that it doesn't bother him.

Not a deep story, but I've always been glad it existed.

#31 ::: Keifus ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 04:21 PM:

Frankenstein was subtitled A Modern Prometheus, and Victor Frankenstein's failure at godliness (and at the female sort of life-giving as well) and the creature's failure to rise to some ideal humanity probably shouldn't be left out of the analysis.

I tend to agree it didn't always work. Dr. F. is written as a drama queen from the get-go, so maybe his descent isn't so unexpected, even if it was un-scientist-like. The creature's fall was much more disappointing. It took a lot of authorial decrees to work up much sympathy for the doctor, or to get angry at the made man. I think the book is best read for a couple or four really compelling scenes.

De-lurked mostly to chime in agreement...I've been evaluating things similarly of late. What has grabbed me in sf over the last several years, has been when it is used as a lens to examine the human condition more critically, looking at our limitations as much as our hopes. Naked optimism is a hard sell, and so is pure fatalism, but there can beauty in that balance, and when an author finds it, it's really been getting to me. I read John Varley's Steel Beach this summer, for example, and was deeply impressed with it. Robert Charles Wilson always gets a lot of love from me for these reasons as well. (Shelley's masterpiece fits in too!)

#32 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 04:23 PM:

I think the failure mode of this is people trying to be relevant and ending up producing those painfully earnest things that sell their birthright for a pot of message.

I'm not sure, but I suspect this might be one of those things it's not possible to do on purpose.

#33 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 04:31 PM:

Jo Walton @ 32: a pot of message

"A Spoonerism, Walton, a definite Spoonerism!"

#34 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 04:35 PM:

What I mean is, I didn't sit down to write [i]Farthing[/i] thinking "Now let's write a parable about the present!" or "What can I find in the present world to write SF about" and I think it wouldn't have worked if I had. I think we write about the present because we're in the present and alive, not because we're trying to be relevant.

#35 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 04:53 PM:

Spinning on What Jo Said:

Whenever I read something like "the best science fiction is really about the present," I think about those awful Star Trek: TNG episodes which were pained and clunky parables about current events.

Or "topsy turvey" stories about an "alien" culture which is essential human, but with one societal relationship reversed.

Or painful artificial setups from the mainstream, like Wouk's Lomokome Papers.

I don't think SF should ever try to be about the present. The really good stuff my offer insights into the present by virtue of being written by someone in the habit of looking at the fishtank from the outside.

#36 ::: Keifus ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:03 PM:

Ah, one must write, letting experiences and careful observations of human nature suffuse the script. But! Should the attempt to write about those things be dared, it will surely fail. Only by not writing about them can those things be written about. (That sound you cannot hear is thunderous applause made with only one hand.)

#37 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:04 PM:

One person I saw in the open mikes I go to has a story about a guy who was released from the psych ward after a few years and it's a plot point that he's all freaked out by the fact that cell phones are now ubiquitous when they weren't before.

Perhaps the difference between this story and When The Sleeper Wakes is a difference of degree, not of kind.

Another guy I know wrote a play that involved a student newspaper in the nineties. He had some production notes explaining the differences between communications technology then and now. The audience thought these notes were funny.

#38 ::: Jim Parish ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:06 PM:

At least some academics agree with this interpretation of Frankenstein. I recall an occasion, before a university committee meeting, when I was shooting the breeze with an English professor, and the book came up. She agreed quite firmly with my suggestion that if there was a monster in that book, it was Frankenstein himself.

#39 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:13 PM:

I think what I really really want to say (I've been away and made dinner thought about this) is that even though PNH is an awesome Hugo Winning Editor and has expressed a preference for a kind of SF, don't rush to the word processor thinking that now you'll write a relevant novel and he's bound to buy it. Even more than with most sorts of thing, this is easy to screw up.

This does sound very zen, but there are certain things that work best if they're not done with intentionality -- falling in love, being happy, writing zeitgeist books.

#40 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:27 PM:

I think I remember hearing somebody say, "nowadays we don't have future shock any more. We have present shock."

#41 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:36 PM:

Jo, if I could write novels as easily as I fall in love...well, I might not have as many books as Asimov, but I'd be in the couple-of-shelves range.

But they'd all be depressing novels, full of distressing events and with endings that are sad, annoying, or just pathetic.

I can't write without some fairly intense intentionality. I've never attempted a novel, but I have to know exactly what I'm trying to do and where I'm going to have any hope of getting anywhere at all useful or interesting.

Maybe that's why I'll probably never write anything on the level of Farthing.

#42 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:40 PM:

From Cory Doctorow's essay:

Sterling especially gets the way that technology is a disruptor, that it unmakes the status quo over and over again, and that a battle of technologies is a battle in which the sands never stop shifting. Casting his tale into the future allows him to illustrate just how uneven our footing is in the present day—and the fact that the book consists of humans getting by, even getting ahead, despite all the chaos and devastation, makes The Caryatids one of the most optimistic books I’ve read in recent days.

In an eerie coincidence, just today I read Bruce Sterling's superb short story Kiosk which deals with exactly this - but on a micro level, dealing with the ripple effect on a society of a transformative technology (in this case, a matter replicator).

Then again, is it surprising that writers, particularly good writers who have been at it for a long time, wouldn't have recurring themes and ideas that would evolve, be refined, and ultimately explored?

Mr. Sterling is himself a sterling example* of such. He's always so engaged with the interface of technology and society and what you might call "the ricochet effect" of sudden technological shock.

*(impossible to resist - a thousand apologies)

#43 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 05:43 PM:

Or "topsy turvey" stories about an "alien" culture which is essential human, but with one societal relationship reversed.

I see this as more a failure of literary mechanics than anything else. The writers of said parable are forgetting that Martians aren't Martians, they're manifestations of an abstract concept. The failure happens when you just add a rubber forehead to communists or Arabs and expect that to sustain you through a story arc.

#44 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 06:11 PM:

Jo Walton @ 32, or a spot of massage?

and @ 39, I agree about intentionality. I've likened writing, when I'm in the flow, to falling in love -- because of the way the world shapes itself for you when you're falling in love, the synchronicities and coincidences that all come together to create resonances and surprises, when you didn't think you meant to go that way. Good writing is always like that for me. (So is reading good writing -- then I get to enjoy the feeling without the work!)

It's the same as much contemporary Christian music, or Left Behind: creating a piece of art with the aim of Making A Point causes one to lose the integrity, honesty, and quality of the art. Insights, emotions, and truths can come out in the creative process which don't fit with the point you thought you wanted to make, or the story you thought you wanted to tell. Ignoring and denying those things creates a false, forced product. Owning and engaging with those things creates something much more interesting -- and something with a much better point.

#45 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 06:19 PM:

I have to say . . .

Sterling has written some of my favorite SF; "The Shores of Bohemia" and Holy Fire made me feel as if I'd been slammed in the forehead with a 2 x 4 lead weighted sunsawunda stick. I utterly adore many of his essays. (Homework: Go read "The Updike Version" and "Cyberpunk in the 90s.")

I was a big contributor to bruces' Dead Media and Viridian Green project.

But I really didn't like The Caryatids.

#46 ::: LDR ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 06:32 PM:

Chiming in late on the Frankenstein thing: yeah, I always thought F. was a complete jerk, and wondered if Shelley saw him that way.

#47 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 06:52 PM:

It's always interesting to read an approving description of a book that makes you sure you don't want to read it. Not that I think The Caryatids sounds like a bad book or anything; I just don't enjoy books where none of the characters is at all sympathetic.

Now, Cory is making a literary point using the The Caryatids, rather than reviewing it; there maybe sympathetic characters in the book who reject all three of the grotesque and horrible ideologies described in that paragraph. Accordingly I won't decide not to read it just based on that, but my gut reaction was "wow, what an unpleasant read that sounds like."

#48 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 06:52 PM:

I also agree with Zander's interpretation of Frankenstein at #4. The novel makes it pretty clear that the monster had the potential to be, for lack of a better term, human. He's an abused child who becomes an abuser.

The "playing God" interpretation comes mostly from later plays and movies. I suspect it comes from a worldview that sees scary new ideas and new technologies springing up and disrupting things and changing the world, and just wants it all to stop. (See Dresden Codak's "Caveman Science Fiction," recently linked on another thread.)

#49 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 07:24 PM:

Stefan Jones, #35: Another hazard is the Depressing Near Future story, in which every negative trend at the time of writing has plunged straight down to the bottom of the graph and created a world where most people are miserable. I can't read these at all. If I have to read about the near future, I'll take a near future in which I have no reason to be suicidally depressed, thanks.

What I really want to read are stories that connect to the present, but connect to it through a cool space opera future with spaceships and aliens and people sauntering across the galaxy in a way that is probably impossible in real life, and in which the specific problems peculiar to our current society have been dealt with. I'd rather read about somebody else's problems.

#50 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 07:59 PM:

Jo Walton @ 39:

Maybe it's as simple as this: you have to write about people and make them as real as you can if you want to engage your readers; when you do that you inevitably include your own knowledge of how those people would fit into the world you live in.

#51 ::: cherish ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:11 PM:

re: radical presentism in fiction and Wesley #49 -- I have to put in a plug for Kage Baker's "Company" novels and stories. We enter a history of the Earth as seen by immortal cyborgs who all work for The Company, saving and hiding priceless knowledge, art and biological species from war and catastrophes, for "rediscovery" in the far future. Baker has performed and directed historical re-enactments for educational parks, so she knows how to make intersections of ancient civilizations and all-too-advanced technocratic bureaucrats into a theater of comedy, thriller and horror.

A Present theme that grows through the books, illustrated by people from the future, is what results from legislating a Nanny State society: a mortal humankind of anxiously polite, infantile techno-vegans stay in charge of things, while the cyborgs, who have lived as servants for millennia with violence, meat-eating and lack of plumbing, are the ones who retain vibrant human soul.

#52 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:13 PM:

Bruce: I don't think so at all. I think it's very important to have characters who belong to their own world. I think the important thing is that the characters and the story be more important than whatever message. I'm not saying art can't be propaganda, or that the artist can't be thinking about it as propaganda, I'm just saying it has to be art first.

Xopher@41: I'm also not saying that I write in a naive trance without knowing what I'm doing.

#53 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:39 PM:

Stefan@35, saying that "the best science fiction is really about the present" is in no way contradictory to saying "the worst science fiction is also really about the present" .... I haven't gotten to The Caryatids yet - it's the kind of work that could easily be done badly, and is hard to do well, but it's Bruce Sterling who's one of my favorite authors, so it's got a good chance of being good. I have to agree with your comment on Holy Fire, and Distraction worked really well for me also.

Cory also mentioned William Gibson's Spook Country. I liked its predecessor Pattern Recognition better, partly because it was the first time I'd seen Gibson writing in the near present instead of the cyberpunk nearish future, but partly just that I liked the directions he took it better.

#54 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:42 PM:

I see this as being about our own Western civilization-wide existential crisis. What I mean by that follows - noting in advance its ridiculous subjectivity and inaccuracy:

OK, survival & reproduction are basic drives present in a large majority of humans (not quite universal but close) so at a basic level "the purpose of existence" is not and never has been in much doubt. The two big drives beyond reproduction are for pleasure and status. Early civilizations were largely devoted to acquiring and securing the latter for ones descendants and then enjoying as much of the former as possible.

This is never very popular with the 50% of the population who get less of those things than the other 50%. So one wizard scam that held sway for a few thousand years was the claim that all of this was just a prelude to the next life in which all that pleasure and status one lacked in this life would be delivered, as long as you didn't rock the boat in this life. That lasted pretty well and maintained a fairly stable pattern of society (kings-nobles-merchants-peasants) where everyone understood what they were supposed to be doing until a few hundred years ago when the industrial revolution and all that started to screw it up.

Colonization and the industrial revolution and onward sees a string of existential justifications come along, roughly:

* Manifest destiny (runs out of steam when it runs out of "empty" land)
* Utopian socialism (mostly done for when it becomes clear that communist states are no fun)
* Ethnic nationalism & racial superiority (hits a brick wall in WWI which just gets it so mad that it finds a much bigger brick wall to smash its brains out against in WWII)

Now we get the overlap with SF:

* Scientific utopianism (nuclear weapons sort of put the lie to that one)
* Conquer the universe! (universe turns out to be 1. dangerous, 2. expensive, 3. empty, 4. very very very far away with FTL impossible)
* Nanotech/VR/cryptocurrency/online community/THE SINGULARITY will solve all our problems (not so far)
* Extremist green (oddly it is a tough sell to get people to believe that most of them dying is a good plan)

Meanwhile the old standby of "you will go to Heaven and it will be AWESOME" is sounding pretty silly even to the people who still claim to believe in it. And the one modern ideology or existential justification that survived the 20th century intact, corporate capitalism, isn't looking as great as it used to; the idea that it will deliver a future of security, equality and leisure seems ever more implausible as people work harder for a smaller slice of the results.

SF has been part of the popular understanding of these existential justifications for maybe 50-80 years now. And so its record has been tarnished by their repeated failure to match reality. One approach to that is to extrapolate them anyway and make it clear how miserable they would be if you stuck with them. Cyberpunk did that with corporate capitalism. Alaister Reynolds does it with space opera. But there's a limit to how much depression one can take.

If you stick to the old formulas, you wind up writing books that look ridiculous. Even the Mars trilogy - KSR not being anyone's Pangloss - looks ridiculous in light of our inability to accomplish simple things like universal healthcare. And most traditional spaceships-N-aliens stuff might as well be classed as straight fantasy at this point.

So we're dragged back to today, and so maybe what we want to read about is not a society of immortals a thousand years from now but a society of universal health care five years from now. I think that's natural, and probably healthy. I think the fact that near-future SF is more interesting matches what's happening in the society as a whole as those grand societal ambitions crumble in the face of our failure to make progress on our smaller ambitions. As a good example, I just read Metatropolis (Scalzi ed.) and while that was hardly utopian either, it wasn't completely depressing and it did at least have a whiff of potential reality about it that most traditional SF no longer does.

Of course as soon as the next shiny cure-all comes along we'll probably forget it all over again. Unhealthy though it is, I have to admit that I look forward to whatever that might be.

#55 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 08:55 PM:

cherish, #51: I liked the Company books and didn't mind the future they presented, mostly because it was too silly to believe.

I also managed to like Brian Francis Slattery's Liberation, because he writes beautifully--he's probably the best new author to hit the SF genre in the last couple of decades--and because, despite everything, the book felt hopeful and compassionate.

#56 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 09:41 PM:

"Are you satisfied now? Have you punished me enough for giving you life? I've wronged you, I know. I, I disowned you. I wanted to destroy you. How can I blame you for anything that you've done? Poor creature, you're as weary of life as I am. If only I could rid mankind of us both. I'm a weak human, I can't stay long in this terrible place. But your iron body will keep you alive against your will. You'll be all alone here. That would be too cruel. Forgive me. Please forgive me. Forgive me!"
- Victor in Frankenstein: The True Story

#57 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 10:41 PM:

#53: I totally loved Spook Country. Gibson has successfully used the habit of mind that makes good SF to writing an intriguing present-day thriller.

Thriller? Well, not really. It was a wonderfully calm book. It didn't have a thumping edge of the seat soundtrack. More carefully choreographed cool jazz.

I won't go into why I disliked The Caryatids, out of respect.

#58 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2009, 11:16 PM:

I understand what Jo's getting at, though I'm not a writer and not sure I could put it into words if I were.

To have a different stab at it, if the world in the book isn't a real world and if the people in it aren't real people doing real things and if the story that's happening in it isn't the real story - then it turns into by-the-numbers allegory not rich metaphor. (That doesn't preclude people liking it, of course.) It has to be living and rich on its own before it can stand in for anything in the real world.

That's the thing that saves Narnia from being an unsubtle and now-forgotten allegory - C. S. Lewis couldn't help writing the characters in it as real people with their real worries and quirks, and the world of Narnia as real on its own, not just a symbol, and the stories themselves matter. That breathes life into it.

Going back to Orwell, nobody's mentioned that 1984 was specifically intended as 1948? He mentioned somewhere that he just swapped the digits of the year.

#59 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 12:58 AM:

Jo Walton @ 52:
I'm just saying it has to be art first

I'm in heated agreement with this. There was a thread here at ML sometime in the last year or two about art and propaganda. My own position, starting at "Propaganda and art don't mix well", got pretty beaten up and pushed back after a few hundred comments, and I ended up just there, that it has to be art first.

#60 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 01:13 AM:

Since we are speaking of presents and futures, it may (or may not; I'll take the risk) be interesting to note that Frankenstein is set in the past. The framing story is given in Robert Walton's letters to his sister, written from the Arctic.

Though Mary Shelley picked up her pen in 1816, and the book was published in 1818, the dates on Walton's letters are given as "17--." So she imagined that the story, which stretches over several years, had taken place many years in her past.

Given the rapid pace of recent advance in chemistry and medicine, it might have been more plausible to set the story closer to the present, if not in the future. But that's not the choice Mary Godwin (she was not yet Mrs. Shelley when she started writing the tale, and not yet nineteen) made.

#61 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 09:32 AM:

re 58: What's more, Lewis recognized this himself, WRT The Pilgrim's Regress. The book now comes with a preface which in which he apologizes for one section in the middle of the book where (he says) he lost his temper. It's easy enough to recognize the passage, though ironically as has typically been the case of late, caricature was belied by reality in the latter's fulfillment rather than in the former's exaggeration. It's not as crass as Yangs and Coms, though.

#62 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 10:02 AM:

Clifton Royston #58: That's the thing that saves Narnia from being an unsubtle and now-forgotten allegory - C. S. Lewis couldn't help writing the characters in it as real people with their real worries and quirks, and the world of Narnia as real on its own, not just a symbol, and the stories themselves matter. That breathes life into it.

As contrasted to his Silent Planet trilogy, which suffers greatly under the weight of its message....

#63 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 11:50 AM:

I think this discussion touches upon the failure mode inherent to classic literature as well. When people read Dickens, or Faulkner, or whomever, and say they hated it and don't know why anyone likes it, I think what they mean is this piece didn't speak to me or my experiences as a human being living right now. The more the setting and characters are removed from the lives of the reader, the more danger there is that they simply won't speak the same language, that to the reader it will just be symbols on a page. Conversely, there's a higher chance that what the piece says will be something new and interesting, something that fundamentally changes how the reader sees the world. In the end though, it's all about now--how does this piece relate to me right now?

#64 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 11:58 AM:

For a long time, I've said that sf is almost the only literature dealing with the present. One of my frequent responses to "good" mimetic/mainstream fiction is severe claustrophobia. It seems to be dealing with one ten-thousandth of humanity.

When I read Frankenstein, I was startled that there's nothing whatsoever about Victor's actual techniques. The reanimated graveyard stuff is pure Hollywood.
And the discussion needs a gesture toward the heavy Freudian layer, too. Mary Shelly's mother had had nothing to do with men for most of her life, fell in love late -- and then died in childbirth (or was killed by doctorly filth to be more retrospectively precise). So the motif of the creator being destroyed by the creation was very personal.

@Charlie #23: The trouble with teaching in parables is there's always someone who thinks you're talking about sheep.

#65 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 12:20 PM:

I forgot where I read it, but someone pointed out that House isn't a doctor show, but rather a science-fiction series set in present day. I mean, just how many totally weird diseases are going to pop up in that hospital?

And isn't Greg House just a more nuanced version of Heinlein's Wise Grumpy Old Man?

#66 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 01:15 PM:

Erik Nelson@37:

Another guy I know wrote a play that involved a student newspaper in the nineties. He had some production notes explaining the differences between communications technology then and now. The audience thought these notes were funny.

It's difficult to predict the near-future, but it's also getting very hard to remember the recent past accurately. If you're writing a novel set in Britain in 1998, which of your characters should own mobile phones—just the well-off ones, or the poor ones as well? Does text messaging exist in 1998? What about photo messaging and polyphonic ringtones? Not to mention the Internet... It's a hell of a job to get all this right even now, and it'll be far worse for the poor historical novelists of 2059. They'll be doing a lot of swotting-up from the archives but it'll be fun to look out for their slip-ups and heckle their clichés. British bookstores are full of variously funny or serious Bildungsromane set in the last few decades, with lots of remembered or researched period detail (``Mam! The striking car-workers made fun of my Slade LP so I had to escape on my Raleigh Chopper!''). The eras pass; partial documentation remains to be looked at, but false reminiscences and parodies and speculation eventually outvote them. God alone knows what posterity will think of us.

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 01:27 PM:

ISTM that the whole premise of SF is that we can talk about the future (perhaps near, perhaps far, perhaps one low-probability possible future, perhaps one very implausible future requiring suspension of disbelief on some points) based on what we can know now. This is a premise that the whole singularity idea breaks--if you really think that the things running the planet in 2050 will be fundamentally different from humans, and the world will be unrecognizably different, then you can't write stories in that world. That means we're always dealing with universals that we can recognize. Some SF seems like it even makes pretty strong statements about the universalness of those universals. For example, in A Deepness in the Sky, we get to see the complicated relationship between Hrunk, Victory, and Sherk. That relationship is full of stuff humans deal with, like how you interact with friends whose lifestyle you can't accept, or how you reconcile your deeply held beliefs with the existence of monsters on your side. In Banks' Culture novels, both post-scarcity humans and godlike AIs enjoy playing the Great Game and feeling important and believing they're doing good and sometimes believing they're the Hard Men Making the Hard Decisions. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, the characters are living on Mars, they're drawn from the smartest millionth of the human race, and they're long-lived and surrounded by high technology--and yet, their problems are familiar enough that we can recognize them and learn from them.

None of those is near-future or placed precisely in this world. And yet, I think all three say stuff about our current world and situation, partly because that's when those authors are living, and partly because they're talking about human nature and societies and such, which don't change automatically when the scenery and technology changes.

#68 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 01:35 PM:

Bruce Cohen @59 reminded me of a quote I have tacked up on my wall: "Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television."
Rita Mae Brown

(Well, she may be consigning some damn fine TV to the dustheap, but the point is elegantly made.)

#69 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 01:57 PM:

Bruce:

What I remember from that conversation is a kind of consensus that a defining feature of propoganda is being more committed to delivering your message than to telling a story, or being honest, or making your characters behave in an internally consistent way. I think consciously writing as part of a movement or style might have some of the same properties--like, there's a place here where I must either break from the rules of my style/genre/movement, or I must f--k up the story or make the characters do something dumb or something.

If you're going to tell em a story that works, I think the story has to be more important than following the conventions of your movement or genre. That said, fiction worth reading tells you something about yourself and your fellow humans and your society and your world.

As an aside, I came to reading Jane Austens' novels in my mid-30s, as an SF fan. And I perceive myself to use the same basic world-building, suspension-of-disbelief, acceptance-of-weird-assumptions processes reading her books as I do reading SF.

#70 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 02:20 PM:

Stefan Jones #57:

Spook Country read like a paean to brand-name-dropping to me.

#71 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 02:59 PM:

As an aside, I came to reading Jane Austens' novels in my mid-30s, as an SF fan. And I perceive myself to use the same basic world-building, suspension-of-disbelief, acceptance-of-weird-assumptions processes reading her books as I do reading SF.

Now you can do this twice as much, with the Zombies and Sea Monster versions.

I'm really enjoying Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. They went to eleven on this one, not just tacking in sea monsters but altering the world and the characters to fit the changes, while still keeping the story intact. It's lots of fun.

#72 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 03:39 PM:

Soon Lee #70:

SM Stirling's Conquistador did this to me. There were a dozen or so brand names thrown in constantly--I think part of this was to make clear what stuff was being imported by the Commonwealth, and part was to simplify description. But about halfway through the novel, I began to wonder if the thing had been sponsored by Segway and Hummer.

#73 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 04:36 PM:

Soon Lee #70: Spook Country read like a paean to brand-name-dropping to me.

I bought a Braun coffee maker because the brand was mentioned in Neuromancer, and so I thought it would help make me cool.

#74 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 04:43 PM:

Janet Croft @ 68:

A fine quote. We have to remember that "Dollhouse" and "Mad Men" make up about 0.01% of the total production of TV programs, so they don't affect the average significantly. The average is something on the order of the reality show, "So You Think You Can Brachiate!"

#75 ::: MikeWalsh ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 05:07 PM:

I have often thought that the basis of actual science fiction is to imagine the invention of anti-gravity, then write about what happens to elevator repairmen. Olaf Stapledon wrote about a dog as intelligent as a human, and we felt for a creature caught between his knowlege and his doggy instincts. This is what makes the genre so enthalling. It explores changes that will come whether we want them or not, and dares us to react to them.

What I dislike are "speculative novels" by literary lions who don't really believe anything will change from their current situation. They end up with bad characterizations and everyone being a plastic symbol of a current social archtype. My best example would be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, set in a US taken over by religious zealots. Its a good take on sex roles, but it is increasingly obvious as you read it that Atwood has never actually met anyone who really believes in God.

#76 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 05:57 PM:

#75: "What I dislike are "speculative novels" by literary lions who don't really believe anything will change from their current situation."

From an essay I mentioned uptopic:

"Updike is wrong. He clings to a rotting cultural fabric that he knows is based on falsehoods, and rejects challenges to that fabric by declaring "well you're another." But science, true science, does learn from mistakes; theologians like Roger Lambert merely further complicate their own mistaken premises.

It's a shuck, ladies and gentlemen. It won't wash. It doesn't own the future; it won't even kiss the future goodbye on its way to the graveyard. It doesn't own our minds any more. We don't live in an age of answers, but an age of ferment. And today that ferment is reflected faithfully in a literature called science fiction. SF may be crazy, it may be dangerous, it may be shallow and cocksure, and it should learn better. But in some very real way it is truer to itself, truer to the world, than is the writing of John Updike."

#77 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 06:07 PM:

Earl Cooley III #73:
It's the age old conflict: Braun vs. brains.

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 07:09 PM:

John Houghton @ 77... I must be an old geezer because, where I hear 'Braun', I don't think of coffeemakers, but of rocket engines.

"Man! That brew is STRONG!"

#79 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 07:57 PM:

heresiarch, #63:

When people read Dickens, or Faulkner, or whomever, and say they hated it and don't know why anyone likes it, I think what they mean is this piece didn't speak to me or my experiences as a human being living right now.

albatross, #69:

As an aside, I came to reading Jane Austens' novels in my mid-30s, as an SF fan. And I perceive myself to use the same basic world-building, suspension-of-disbelief, acceptance-of-weird-assumptions processes reading her books as I do reading SF.

Now I'm wondering if all that time I've spent reading science fiction, with its utterly alternate cultures, is the reason I can get into Dickens, and other nineteenth-century novelists, so easily.

#80 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 08:18 PM:

Serge #78: I must be an old geezer because, where I hear 'Braun', I don't think of coffeemakers, but of rocket engines. "Man! That brew is STRONG!"

You'll probably appreciate Rocket Fuel Coffee, then. heh.

#81 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 08:22 PM:

Serge @ 78:

There's an apocryphal story about an engineer from White Sands getting plastered in a bar one night. At one point he turns to the bartender and says, "I've burned more alcohol in one minute then you've ever sold across this lousy bar!"

#82 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 08:28 PM:

Earl Cooley #73: I feel rather disappointed, having read Neuromancer et al that there are no Cray laptops or netbooks for sale.

#83 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 08:28 PM:

Earl Cooley III @ 80... I like the fact that the coffee comes in a gas can.

#84 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 08:30 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 81... Meanwhile, at Ground Control...

#85 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 09:00 PM:

Steve with a book @ 66: It's difficult to predict the near-future, but it's also getting very hard to remember the recent past accurately.... The eras pass; partial documentation remains to be looked at, but false reminiscences and parodies and speculation eventually outvote them. God alone knows what posterity will think of us.

Ob-XKCD.

#86 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2009, 09:49 PM:

In the course of sorting out my recovered stuff, I found this item I saved from the UNIX "fortune" file. It pretty well sums up the futility of trying to predict the future....

I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors
would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, "Where are they all going to go? It's not like you need a computer in every doorknob!"

Years later, I went back to the same hotel. I noticed the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors.
There was a computer in every doorknob. -- Danny Hillis
#87 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:41 AM:

Joel Polowin @20: I haven't yet read Bone Dance, though I've heard it recommended.

B. Durbin @30: That sounds familiar. It's probably "Willie" by Madeleine E. Robins, F&SF December 1992. My copy is packed up somewhere so I can't confirm all the details you mentioned, though.

#88 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 08:00 AM:

The ceaseless reflection of the present is why much 1950-1990 SF is rather bizarre to re-read today. You can see the shadow of the Berlin Wall cast long across the field. But often, when it was recent/new, I couldn't. And I don't just mean the Yangs and Comms or Asimov's divided world (just Us and Them, quite brilliant), but in the background of very many stories. Unfortunately, the Analog collection is currently packed, so I can't drag out too many. Fred Pohl's "The Coming of Quantum Cats" is one more or less obscure example from a major name.

Has any university created a program in Cold War studies yet?

#89 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 09:58 AM:

Henry:

Just look at the sex roles in 1950s era SF for an example of that. You could have interesting and smart and capable women (think of Penny in Double Star), but the underlying assumptions about sex roles were as invisible to the writer and most readers, I think, as the assumptions about computers (or their lack). And I think you could see that as a kind of attempt to work out what those sex roles might look like, when you moved out to space and accepted that women were going to do important work and be edcuated and all, but still tried to integrate that into more traditional roles. (And it's not clear to me that their prediction was less plausible/likely than what we got, which is largely the result of social and political movements, as well as all kinds of technological change.)

#90 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 10:16 AM:

albatross (#72), the brand-name dropping in several of Stephen King's books was immensely irritating. It kept pulling me up and out of the story, trying to work out from contexts what the heck these ones were now!? And this from the person who was always being translator between Australian and American groups when travelling together.

In-culture, it was probably quite effective & evocative. Elsewhere, it was like using in-jokes, slang, jargon, or code-words to subtly(?) exclude Not Us, or at least demonstrate no interest in communicating to anyone else. Perhaps only English versions went untouched and foreign-language ones had "translations", at least at first use.

#91 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 10:44 AM:

Let me second Mez @90; any text (be it a blog post or a novel) that refers to any American TV personality generally leaves me going "whut? who?" ... I've heard of Walter Cronkite, but couldn't picture his face or recognize his voice; anyone below that level is a placeholder or cipher. This stuff really doesn't travel, even if it can be used to establish a sense of place to those who're familiar with the refernece points.

#92 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:11 PM:

Do big-name authors get paid to include product placements in their fiction?

#93 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:24 PM:

I do enjoy the books where an author creates a fake brand and, just by the way the characters talk about and react to it, you can imagine what kind of thing it is supposed to be. But a little of that goes a long way, and the real thing dates quickly. (And, as Charlie Stross and Mez point out, is culturally limiting.)

#94 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:34 PM:

Charlie@91: I read Greg Bear's Eon in 1990, in which it turns out that a far-future civilisation reveres a titanic figure of 20th-century history called Ralph Nader. It didn't click that this was actually a real person, and it gave me quite a shock when I read about him for real a few years later.

Authors who try to evoke a past era they lived through by naming then-cool bands usually lose me very quickly by being too coolly obscure. ``I've never heard of these people; stop going on about them.''

#95 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:35 PM:

Earl Cooley III @92: Do big-name authors get paid to include product placements in their fiction?

Don't know about that, but on another thread Teresa describes publishers editing authors works to include product placement.

#96 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:39 PM:

@91; I fully agree. This goes double for breakfast cereals, etc. Fashionable throwaway brand references get on my nerves; what the fuck are Triscuits, Mr. Coupland, and more to the point WHY SHOULD I CARE?

(The inverse of this was the period when BBC TV presenters were under orders not to mention any brand name whatsoever for fear of committing advertising.)

Mind you, thanks to blogging I have emotional reactions to a wide range of American journalists, going the whole way from hatred to hatred via sarcasm, contempt, half-amused cynicism etc. I could probably parody several of them. But sportsmen, general purpose TV personalities, etc - these actually work as a distancing device, rather than a familiarising one.

Like using the bizarre sex organs of the Wqlzhk slime mould colonies of the planet MK3458 to render the familiar human drama playing out aboard the starship thrillingly strange.

#97 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:42 PM:

#24: I know you were giving your perspective on Shelley and Frankenstein (for which, kudos!), but it occurs to me that this is you are also talking about the presidential administration of George W. Bush, too.

Which is as good a place as any to suggest Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-sided : how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.

#98 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:43 PM:

Also: Tin House #41 should be hitting your mailboxes or newsstand any day now. The dual theme is Hope/Dread

Isn't that the dual theme of all science fiction?

#99 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:48 PM:

Alex:

Like using the bizarre sex organs of the Wqlzhk slime mould colonies of the planet MK3458 to render the familiar human drama playing out aboard the starship thrillingly strange.

And after bizarre alien sex, what could be more refreshing than a nice, hot bowl of Campbell's Soup, and a Coke? Especially while sitting in your Hummer, listening to your iPod, and smoking a Marlboro?

#100 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:54 PM:

Expanding a bit: One could argue that the worst excesses of the current teabaggers, right-wing religious types, etc. stem from the belief that they are entitled to their view of heaven and get upset when they don't get it. Or worse, they do get what they thought they want, they discover that it isn't pure and so they abandon it. Or even worse, push even harder to get the purest version of all (a phenomenon best summed up by the phrase "clap harder").

It's the world-view of someone who's only ever been in a Christian bookstore. Or watches Fox News.

#101 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 01:59 PM:

What the Future will think about the Present...

I seem to remember reading about an early-1960s Buck Rogers strip about a sect of the 24th Century that worshipped a person of our era called Hari-Hari - who it turns out bears an uncanny resemblance to SF writer Harry Harrison.

#102 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 03:01 PM:

albatross @ 67: "This is a premise that the whole singularity idea breaks--if you really think that the things running the planet in 2050 will be fundamentally different from humans, and the world will be unrecognizably different, then you can't write stories in that world."

Another example is of someone trying to deal with this problem is Accelerando. The action stays focused on the recognizably human characters even when they've been reduced to a tiny fraction of the jungle humanity has become.

Mark Walsh @ 75: "It explores changes that will come whether we want them or not, and dares us to react to them."

I think that's exactly what sf is about--exploring the relationships between our technology, our society, and our psychology. They all condition each other, and I think a large chunk of sf is exploring how the other two change when the first changes. (In this model, fantasy is about exploring what happens to all three when nature itself is altered.)

Wesley @ 79: "Now I'm wondering if all that time I've spent reading science fiction, with its utterly alternate cultures, is the reason I can get into Dickens, and other nineteenth-century novelists, so easily."

I think that's exactly why.

Allan Beatty @ 85: "Ob-XKCD."

Ob-Dresden Codak.

#103 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 03:57 PM:

Charlie@91: Yeah, me too. With far less excuse than you, since I live here and even own a TV.

#104 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 03:58 PM:

Earl #92:

There was the rather well-publicized case a few years back in which Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection was the result of seriously well-paid product placement by the jewelers of that name. Eighteen thousand pounds, for at least twelve mentions of Bulgari. I have no idea whether this was in addition to her regular contract.

#105 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 04:04 PM:

One of the things that reads strangely, today, to me, about the Nero Wolfe books is that they don't use brand names for things widely known to have them. Their cars are mostly "Herons", and their guns include several "Marleys" but no Colts or Smith & Wesson's (or Charter Arms).

There was a Bill Cosby (I think) routine about horror movies, in which he explained what to do if you suspect you might be in a horror movie: You start chanting "fuck Pepsi Cola", because in a horror movie you can't use bad language or mention brand names. If you try and find you can't, you're screwed. I believe Steven King and company have changed all that, not necessarily for the better (I haven't read much King, but generally the brand name uses he's famous for that make some people feel at home apparently, seem gratuitous or just puzzling to me).

#106 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 04:33 PM:

albatross@89:

Just look at the sex roles in 1950s era SF for an example of that. You could have interesting and smart and capable women (think of Penny in Double Star), but the underlying assumptions about sex roles were as invisible to the writer and most readers, I think, as the assumptions about computers (or their lack).

I recently read The Demolished Man for the first time and was bludgeoned by a 22nd century that had blithely accepted telepathy and interplanetary travel, but still had Freudian psychoanalysis, stark gender roles and a massive crime solving supercomputer that ran on punch cards. I'm still not entirely sure what a knife-pistol that resembles a flower is supposed to look like. Is it a magnum with a bayonet and orchid scope? A six-shooter/Ginsu/daisy? A long lost Salvador Dali sculpture? Whatever it is, it shoots weaponized jello.

#107 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 05:34 PM:

Keith@106: Oh, man, computers in science fiction. Mostly SO bad.

#108 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 06:24 PM:

albatross @ 89... the underlying assumptions about sex roles were as invisible to the writer

... and to JJ Abrams, based on what one could see in the recent Star Trek movie.

#109 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 06:53 PM:

@Mez #90: How did the repeated mentions of "sweet old Detroit rolling iron" in The Stand come across?

I think that King used brand names very effectively from a USian point of view in that novel. The first scenes take place in a Texaco station just outside city limits, which calls up an immediate set of associations for most USian readers: a little grimy, lit by unforgiving fluorescent lights, a place where nearly everybody local stops and nearly everybody who's just passing through for that matter, but starkly utilitarian. One of the characters is addicted to chocolate Payday bars, which were dropped from the Hershey's lineup shortly after the book was first published, putting the original edition firmly in the 1980s. (It was set in 1990.) Paydays are very sweet, salty, and rich--essentially a handful of salted peanuts held together by caramel--and covering them in chocolate makes them messy to eat as well, especially in the summer heat; they fit the character very well. The different models of car that the travelers stumble across on their journey say something about the people who owned them if you know what they are; in fact, they're practically epitaphs, since the people in question have mostly been anonymized by death.

#110 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 08:10 PM:

"Say, how's that sequel to Halting State coming?"

Gosh, that title sounds familiar.

Yep, there it is, atop my "buy this and read it" list, on the recommendation of a friend the other day.

Once again I'm reminded that some pretty awesome heads hang out here. This place is special.

#111 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 08:25 PM:

David Dyer-Bennet @ #107, at least the orchid varieties were real.

When I first ran across Wolfe (sometime in the mid-1960s; "Gambit" was the first one I read) I had fun trying to figure out just what a Heron would look like. I think I decided it was an American knockoff of a Rolls.

#112 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2009, 08:57 PM:

Linkmeister @111 and David Dyer-Bennet: On the other hand, there were those Rabson locks . . . I always kind of liked the fact that Lawrence Block decided to use them in his Burglar Who series.

#113 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 02:21 AM:

Speaking of localization*, my comprehension of the ironies of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy would have been higher if I'd realized that the Prefect was a model of Ford car.

-----
* Or in this case, localisation

#114 ::: Ken MacLeod ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 07:16 AM:

A wonderfully pure example of, well, just about everything discussed here: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Written in 1969, set in 2010.

2010! Next year! That makes me feel old.

The book is set in a fully-realised, richly-textured world that is nothing at all like the world we live in, but is very revealing about how the world looked in 1969.

It's probably too late for the full-on academic conference this book deserves, but I hope someone is scheduling a panel at one of the 2010 cons, or at least organising a room party. Though not, I hope, one modelled on Guinevere's.

#115 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 09:38 AM:

Ken MacLeo @ 114... The reason that Stand on Zanzibar wound up being off the mark about the year 2010 is that Brunner, and other SF writers if the Sixties, made a flawed assumption. They somehow thought that Conservatives would just sit there while the rest of us would build on the progress of the previous years. In Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron, the Republican Party tries to woo Jack as their Presidential candidate because, by the time of the story, they've been irrelevant to the political scene for decades.

#116 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 09:59 AM:

Any theories about why the popular version of Frankenstein is so different from the book? Is it just that it's more fun to think about monsters than responsibility, or is there something deeper?

Speaking only as one reader of the stuff, I still like big cool ideas, and find accurate prediction very satisfying. There's lots of wonderful things about Simak's City, but it also starts off with an automated lawn mower.

I'm not totally bored by vampires or elves, either. I consider this to be good luck.

#54 ::: Jacob Davies:

Interesting essay, and I do think that purpose is harder to identify as life gets easier.

Afaik, many religions don't use heaven as a major motivation. Judaism doesn't.

I'm not sure where health care fits into your argument -- it's an indication that basic survival stuff isn't solved.

#79 ::: Wesley :

It may be that the temperament which drew you to science fiction that makes historical fiction accessible for you, rather than the time you spent reading science fiction.

I don't think that's all there is to liking historical fiction, or to liking history for that matter.

There's a particular pleasure in thinking that something really happened, just as there's a particular pleasure in the imagination which isn't bound by facts.

Not everyone is strongly motivated by both pleasures.

#117 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 01:17 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 116: "I don't think that's all there is to liking historical fiction, or to liking history for that matter."

I think we're talking about different things. The drive and desire to pursue something is not the same as the skills necessary to do it. I think you're right that the things people get out of sf and historical fic are very different--nonetheless, I think the skills necessary to read the two genres have similar foundations.

#118 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 02:58 PM:

#117 ::: heresiarch:

I think the skills needed for reading science fiction apply for historical fiction if you're reading hf about a period you're not familiar with and you're interested in deducing what's going on.

If you're familiar with the period or you just want a preferred flavor of exoticism, not so much.

#119 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 05:03 PM:

abi@113: Despite being in Britain, I didn't know that either when I first heard it. My initial interpretation of 'Ford Prefect' was that it meant an official in charge of a ford (across a river), though the narrative didn't seem to support that.

#120 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 06:29 PM:

Andrew M. @ 119 -- I only found out about the car a few years ago. Until then, I'd assumed that Ford was clueless about British naming conventions and had selected a random respectable surname and a minor title to go with it.

#121 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 07:57 PM:

Ken McLeod #114:

It's not altogether not like today. "EngrelaySatelserv's" headquarters is a mile and a half from my office.

#122 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2009, 11:15 PM:

113, 119, 120

At the time I first read the novel, I had never heard the word "prefect" and read it as "Perfect." I thought, like Joel Polowin, that it was just an illustration of his cluelessness about naming conventions.

#123 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 12:45 AM:

Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down, although not a tour de force like Stand on Zanzibar, has some more pessimistic and accurate predictions about the growing role of fundamentalism in public life.

#124 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 08:08 AM:

Teach me "just a quick look before bed".

Andrew M @119, Joel P @120, First appearance of Ford was first episode of first radio series – 1978 (see h2g2). Perhaps vehicle was more known 31 years ago.

Crawling off to drop now.

#125 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 09:48 AM:

Epacris @ 124 -- I first heard HHGttG via an nth-generation audio tape only a few years after it was broadcast, probably in 1982. (The tape recording had the original name of the worst known poet, so may have been a dub from the original broadcast.) But I've never paid much attention to car makes and names.

#126 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 10:39 AM:

Epacris@125: same as Joel; I was first aware of HHGG through the radio series (and still get quite annoyed when people treat the books as the first point of reference for the series), but I have never been very car-conscious. I think I finally grasped the point when I saw the TV version; at this point a number of car names come up on the screen.

#127 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 11:15 AM:

Andrew M @ 126 -- That list in the TV version didn't help me; I wasn't familiar with any of the car names.

#128 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 11:39 AM:

When I first heard of Ford Prefect decades ago, I remember being puzzled by the pairing of a type of automobile with what I thought was a British boarding-school term for "hall monitor." The word "prefect" sort of made humorous sense (I kept looking around for characters surnamed "Major" and Minor"), but why "Ford," I wondered. Nice to finally discover the real "Ford Prefect," so to speak.

#129 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 11:57 AM:

So... Ford Prefect and A Dent?

#130 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 01:32 PM:

The British only have one problem regarding the name Ford Prefect, namely that Ford stopped making them in 1961 (according to Wikipedia). Americans are doubly caught off guard because it's rare to have the same car model names (or the same car models at all) on both sides of the pond. It was, apparently, available in Canada, though.

The only reason I ever knew was because it was explained in the foreword to the version of HHGTTG that I have. I'd guess that these days, Ford Mondeo might be a better mistaken choice.

#131 ::: John Hawkes-Reed ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 02:11 PM:

Oh, this is strange. I think I'm having one of those anti-validation moments: ("Is it just me who...?" "Yes, it's just you. Freak.")

So. On listening to the talking-type steam radio as a thirteen-year-old when Hitch-Hiker's was first broadcast, I knew what a Ford Prefect was and laughed appropriately. I can't claim some unlikely and pre-Internet worldliness, because I was a singularly unaware sort of child.

Perhaps the things I was aware of were mostly mechanical.

#132 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 02:19 PM:

#128: some guy named Morris Minor, perhaps.

#133 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 03:06 PM:

JESR @ 123:

You could make a long list of Brunner stories that predicted aspects of our world: "Shockwave Rider", "The Sheep Look Up", ... I think part of his ability to see what future societies might do was that he saw what was happening in the present very clearly. He was one of the first SF writer to write explicitly about contemporary racism, for instance. Even some of his space operas were reflective of contemporary international politics in a very broad way: "Sanctuary in the Sky" talks about the way nations bully each other.

#134 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 04:00 PM:

JESR @ 123... Is that about the time when televangelists started making their presence felt?

#135 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 05:34 PM:

Erik Nelson@132: A character called Morris Minor (commonly known as Mini) appears in The Case of the Silver Egg by Desmond Skirrow.

#136 ::: John Hawkes-Reed ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 06:10 PM:

Andrew M @ 135:

There was a mob called 'Morris Minor and the Majors' who had a novelty hit with, um, something or other. (It's dreadful how the malign influence of Google has denied a chap the simple pleasure of pretending not to know a fact for the purposes of dramatic wossname. As Oscar Wilde once said, 'Those search-engine people can be right tossers sometimes.' Um. Probably.)

There's also a rugger player called Austin Healey, which is endlessly confusing.

#137 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 07:24 PM:

In #116 Nancy Lebovitz writes:

Any theories about why the popular version of Frankenstein is so different from the book? Is it just that it's more fun to think about monsters than responsibility, or is there something deeper?

I have some thoughts, though not a full explanation.

First, the popular notion of Frankenstein is derived more from movies than from the novel. And James Whale's definitive 1931 movie, for one, is derived from stage versions.

The novel's narrative consists of letters from Robert Walton, Arctic explorer, which for the most part transcribe Victor Frankenstein's first-person narrative as dictated to Walton. Walton also has a brief conversation with the Creature. So there is a lot about Frankenstein's thoughts and feelings.

In transferring this (mostly) first-person account to the stage-- a generic problem-- the solution was to give Frankenstein an assistant, so that dialogue between them can reveal exposition, thoughts, and feelings. This may distort the story away from Mary Shelley's storyline. Dramatists also tend to add new characters.

A premium is placed on action as well. I have seen a playbill from the first stage version, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, which appeared in 1823, just five years after the novel. Guess what?

Among the many striking effects of this Piece, the following will be displayed:

Mysterious and terrific appearance of the Demon from the Laboratory of Frankenstein. DESTRUCTION of a COTTAGE by FIRE. And the FALL of an AVALANCHE.

That's right, even in 1823, producers were emphasizing the special effects!

My second point is that the whole story springs from the question: "What if someone could make an artificial person?"

(See also Pygmalion, the Golem of Prague, etc.)

There are a lot of thoughts that might follow that question. Mrs. Shelley explored some of them, but subsequent Frankensteinians trod different paths. In hundreds of plays and movies, only a few have followed her storyline closely, and those examples are fairly recent.

#138 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2009, 08:24 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 137... even in 1823, producers were emphasizing the special effects!

I seem to remember that, not long ago, you mentionned a ballet of the era where the SFX were handled by Faraday and, I think, Babbage.

#140 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 12:10 AM:

John Hawkes-Reed @136: does the rugger player have unusually protruberant eyes?

The Austin-Healey Mk 1 Sprite has been my dream car since I was ten years old, and I saw one in a TV ad for soda. Doesn't everyone want a car that looks like a cheerful Muppet?

#141 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 12:33 AM:

Bill Higgins @ 139... It still sounds like the premise of a skit with Rowan Atkinson & Steven Fry.

#142 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 04:33 AM:

Erik @132: alas, that's a real name. Not only that, but at least one Building Society in Yorkshire (US: credit union) had, on its list of customers with funny names (so that new staff could have the chuckle now and keep a straight face in front of the mortgage clients) a married couple -- Morris and Minnie Minor.

#143 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 07:27 AM:

Bill Higgins, #137: That's right, even in 1823, producers were emphasizing the special effects!

Even earlier than that. David Garrick at one point played Hamlet in a hydraulic wig that would, on the appearance of the ghost, stand its hairs on end like a fretful porpentine.

It was probably impressive in the 18th century, but I can only imagine it accompanied by the sound of a slide whistle.

#144 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 10:34 AM:

Huh, chalk me up as another Brit who'd never heard of the Ford Prefect. I thought it was just the random glomming together of two words, in the manner of Writers Who Do Not Do The Research (I'll spare you the TVTropes link) naming foreign characters by mashing up two words found in the appropriate dictionary. It explains the gag about Arthur's first encounter with Ford, though.

#145 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 10:51 AM:

NelC @ 144... I thought it was just the random glomming together of two words

That reminds me of the long-ago Dilbert cartoon where the boss decides to call their new product Uranus-Hertz.

#146 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 11:47 AM:

A middle-school friend of mine had a name carefully selected by his mother for its lack of associations. She was determined that his name not be a source of teasing when he got to school.

How she must have screamed in frustration when Sesame Street came out, and the name Kermit ceased to be effective in that regard. How her heart must have ached as her chubby and bespectacled son trudged to yet another day of having his middle name be 'the'.

He wasn't the only Kermit at my school, either, but the other one was slim and athletic and did not need glasses.

#147 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 12:09 PM:

There are people in the UK who would love to be still associated with a gopher.

Or a floor-cleaner of remarkable speed.

#148 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 12:22 PM:

Gopher? Floor cleaner? Could you identify those for us?

#149 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Gordon the Gopher, a hand-puppet that regularly appeared on morning TV a while ago (never watched morning TV, so I don't know much more than that). The floor cleaner is stumping me, though, unless it's one of those with the face printed on it.

And the more modern association is with Gordon Brown, btw, unless I've critically failed my Cultural Knowledge (native) roll.

#150 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Oh wow. Babbage's Ballet sounds SO NEAT. Unforunately, it seems it didn't quite happen--the theatre owner backed out for fear of fire.

The danger from fire remained the main obstacle to staging the ballet. Lumley had been greatly impressed by the brilliancy of the colours and the effect of the Rainbow Dance, but prudently hesitated to make a decision that, in his opinion, might involove the destruction of his theatre. Babbage tried to reassure him, and, to show that he apprehended no such danger himself, even offered to be present in the house at every performance, but to this Lumley pointed out that if the theatre were burnt, his customers would be burnt with it, which, Babbage allowed, 'was certainly a valid objection for though he could have insured the building, he could not have insured his audience.'
#151 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 02:04 PM:

#150: I want to see Lovelace and Babbage do this.

#152 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 02:41 PM:

Dyson for the floor cleaner?

#153 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 02:45 PM:

In #150 Hersiarch writes:

Oh wow. Babbage's Ballet sounds SO NEAT. Unforunately, it seems it didn't quite happen--the theatre owner backed out for fear of fire.

Thanks for digging that up-- I had always wanted to know more about that affair! It is disappointing to realize that, according to Ivor Guest, the performance never occurred before an audience. According to Babbage's autobiography, they seem at least to have gotten as far as a sort of dress rehearsal:

The night proposed for the experiment of the dance at length arrived. Two fire-engines duly prepared were placed on the stage under the care of a portion of the fire brigade.

About a dozen danseuses in their white dresses danced and attitudinized in the rays of powerful oxy-hydrogen blowpipes. The various brilliant hues of coloured light had an admirable effect on the lovely fire-flies, especially as they flitted across from one region of coloured light to another.

Since Alethes and Iris calls for sixty dancers, I suppose this wasn't a full-blown rehearsal. Still, Babbage's lighting system was demonstrated with real dancers on the stage of a real ballet, and how many mathematicians can claim that?

Irrelevant, but fun, fact to know: Congressman Bill Foster founded a major stage lighting company while a student, before embarking on a career as a particle physicist and accelerator designer.

#154 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 05:52 PM:

Steampunk/dieselpunk challenge; how does Babbage's ballet interrelate with the three new British national institutions created immediately after the first world war, all of which insisted on mastering all the technologies and career paths involved as vertically integrated complexes?

That'll be Lord Reith's BBC, Lord Trenchard's RAF, and Dame Ninette de Valois' Royal Ballet. At one point the BBC actually administered colonial territory - a couple of islands where key radio transmitters stood - as well as having all its trades in house and doing very serious radio engineering R&D. John Causebrook, who essentially founded GSM radio planning at Vodafone in the 90s, started out as a propagation engineer with BBC Research.

Trenchard insisted from the word go that the RAF would have not only its own Staff College to create its own doctrine and its own corps of general staff officers, but its own Technical College to create its own craftsmen and engineers. This was a key difference between the RAF and the Luftwaffe in 1940; Hitler insisted on spending every penny on moar aircraft. We spent a lot on institution building - not just the radar project, but the maintenance shops and flying schools and warehouses full of parachutes and many, many telephone lines to tie it all up.

De Valois wanted, and got, an institution that would provide a regular income for dancers, but also a career path for lighting technicians, musicians, choreographers, costume tailors, etc, etc.

Lesson; it's fun to tear down the dead wood, but you'll end up putting it all back and more.

#155 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 06:07 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 153... a dozen danseuses in their white dresses danced and attitudinized in the rays of powerful oxy-hydrogen blowpipes

That sounds kinky.

#156 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 06:43 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 153 -- Am I correct in thinking that a "fire-engine", in that context, would have been a device for generating fires?

#157 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 08:08 PM:

Joel Polowin @ 156: "Am I correct in thinking that a "fire-engine", in that context, would have been a device for generating fires?"

I don't think so--I think they are fire engines in the modern usage brought because of the afore-mentioned fear of fire.

#158 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2009, 08:25 PM:

No, I think Joel Polowin is correct. The anti-fire forces would be the fire-brigades, watching carefully over the fire producing fire engines.

#159 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 12:40 AM:

156, 157, 158: Fire-engines are equipment for fighting fires. Mr. Lumley was preparing for a possible accident. I think Babbage may have been referring to something like this.

#160 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 06:39 AM:

There's also a rugger player called Austin Healey, which is endlessly confusing.

I blame the parents, myself.

Xopher, I'm a bit surprised that in the pre-Sesame Street world the name Kermit didn't immediately invite comparison with the younger Roosevelt, or with his son. Not that I wouldn't personally prefer being green.

#161 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 11:41 AM:

We had a 9th grade math teacher named Kermit; this would have been the 1968-69 school year, and it seemed a very strange and old-fashioned name to us (not that it was ever used in class).

#162 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 12:18 PM:

Heard on an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent a couple of years ago:

"Their clientele is all anorexic models and Eurotrash named Serge."

#163 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 02:34 PM:

I understand that Mercedes Benz was the name of a real person, who the car was named after.

#164 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 02:56 PM:

Yes, the daughter of the Benz gentleman who built the car. "Sweetie, look, I built a car for you! I'm naming it after you too!"

Too bad the name 'Mercedes' now conjures up an image of a woman built like a big old clunky car.

#165 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 03:14 PM:

Xopher @ 164... 'Mercedes' now conjures up an image of a woman built like a big old clunky car

...while, for me, it makes me think of Ornella Mutti, who played Mercédès in Depardieu's Count of Monte Cristo miniseries.

#166 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 05:02 PM:

#66 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) :::

"It's difficult to predict the near-future, but it's also getting very hard to remember the recent past accurately. If you're writing a novel set in Britain in 1998, which of your characters should own mobile phones—just the well-off ones, or the poor ones as well? Does text messaging exist in 1998? What about photo messaging and polyphonic ringtones? Not to mention the Internet... It's a hell of a job to get all this right even now, and it'll be far worse for the poor historical novelists of 2059. "

Somebody mentioned this on another blog, asking if there were any studies of movies *made* in a certain era, vs made later, and *set* in that era.

#167 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 05:42 PM:

Barry @166, that question came up today in my office. Someone commented that everyone on Mad Men smokes like a chimney. I was trying to remember if everyone in Billy Wilder's movie The Apartment, set in a similar environment but filmed in 1962, featured quite as much smoking, and I don't think it did.

#168 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 05:46 PM:

Erik @163, Xopher @164, *ahem* Not quite, M'lud.

Bertha Benz (now there's a warship-worthy name) was an important investor in Karl's company, pioneer motorist & had several children with him. None called Mercédès.

'Mercedes' was the daughter of an extraordinary agent/partner/customer/collaborator of Benz's, Emil Jellinek. The whole Benz epic & Benz/Jellinek saga is a long, twisted, up & down story.

#169 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 06:07 PM:

I stand corrected.

#170 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 06:10 PM:

One of the NYT's science writers is named Gina Kolata (read it aloud). She's married, so she knowingly entered into namephreak territory. Had she become a bartender it would have been even better!

#171 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2009, 07:09 PM:

#167 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) :::

"Barry @166, that question came up today in my office. Someone commented that everyone on Mad Men smokes like a chimney. I was trying to remember if everyone in Billy Wilder's movie The Apartment, set in a similar environment but filmed in 1962, featured quite as much smoking, and I don't think it did."

IIRC, the US adult male smoking proportion peaked at 2/3 in the mid/late 1960's.

#173 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2009, 03:06 PM:

Linkmeister@170: "She's married, so she knowingly entered into namephreak territory" sounds rather assumption-laden. I suppose one can argue that, in this society, a married woman must have considered changing her name, and thus whatever name she ends up with afterwards she can be considered to have chosen. Not sure what you actually mean, by the way -- that you know she changed her name on marriage? Or what?

#174 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2009, 03:26 PM:

#172 is spam advertising one of the books "published" by Strategic Book Group.

Robert Fletcher really does tell his authors to advertise their books via comment spam. How they do it: They set up Google Alerts on certain keywords related in some way to their books. When those keywords pop up on message boards or in blogs, they go and paste in their ad in the comment thread.

This particular one, poor grammar and all, gets over twelve-hundred hits on the Google-indexed web. I'm sure there were more, but the sysops deleted them as spam. As just happened here.

Unfortunately, there is just about zero chance that the author will come back to see this comment.

#175 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2009, 06:33 PM:

The only thing I really know about Gina Kolata is that she was once covering the AIDS beat back in the 80s. I know this only because an activist group had stickers printed up that said "Gina Kolata of the New York Times is the worst AIDS reporter in America."

I seriously doubt that that was true.

#176 ::: Paul the ex-poet ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2009, 05:21 AM:

I thought I'd bring up the book "Mad Women in the Attic" which argues that "Frankenstien" is the author's argument against Milton's "Paradise Lost." In "Paradise Lost", Eve is blamed for the fall, along with other anti-women imaginary, while in "Frankenstien", as many of you have pointed out, the Creator is blamed for doing such a bad job.

I also find it amusing to watch "Star Trek" and compare their computer speeds to ours. I like Star Trek, but I like it more when it is dealing with its own universe instead of ours. I feel the same way about a lot of Josh Whedon's work. I like it when writers really dig into their imaginary universes and explore them and deal with ramifactions of past actions or refer back to them in dialogue.

I read an article in the most recent "Internet Review of SF" that techno-thrillers are near present SF. Those written in the tradition of "Hunt for Red October" or "Jurassic Park" assume a new technology and consider the ramifactions.

#177 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2009, 01:33 PM:

David D-B @ #175, well, you're right; I assumed she took her husband's name at marriage, and I shouldn't have, since I don't know that for sure. I wish I knew the stats on name-changing after the ceremonies, but I don't. I wonder if anyone keeps track. It would be interesting from a sociologist's viewpoint.

#178 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2009, 04:13 PM:

Linkmeister@179

Your assumption does appear to be correct in Gina Kolata's case, however. At least nearly as I can gather by a bit of googling.

#179 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2009, 06:03 PM:

Steve@66, et al.@166ff, the New York Times today has an article on Mistakes in Typography Grate the Purists, and "the otherwise excellent" Mad Men gets special mention for using typefaces in their advertising that either didn't exist at the time or weren't in common use in the US. (Other worse offenders also get mentioned, such as Titanic having Helvetica type faces 45 years too early; had The Philadelphia Experiment done that, it might have been excusable...)

#180 ::: Tina Black ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 08:44 PM:

That was the day a door opened into an alternate world. The one where Armageddon receded. The one where the Soviet Union collapsed as a threat.

Unfortunately, Bush steered us right back into the bad old nightmare world.

#181 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 10:10 PM:

I think of "techno-thriller" as an artificial marketing niche specifically and cynically designed to pander to people who suffer from certain variants of genre denial syndrome.

#182 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 10:34 PM:

Earl Cooley III @ 183...

What's a techno-griller? Is it a story of international intrigue about hi-tech outdoorsy chefs?
("Not techno-griller, Serge. It's techno-thriller.")
Oh.
I guess I won't need that BBQ sauce after all.

#183 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 11:56 PM:

Earl @183, "an artificial marketing niche"? As opposed to genres that grow on trees?

#184 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2009, 01:08 AM:

As opposed to genres that grow naturally in indie book stores, like "science fiction" and "fantasy".

#185 ::: Sebastian ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2009, 01:55 AM:

Earl Cooley @186: Who was it who described the techno-thriller as "a science fiction novel where the POTUS appears"?

#186 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2009, 05:43 AM:

I'm not going to complain too stridently when people I respect like Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling use the term "techno-thriller" (see the top of the thread). Well-meaning people use the condescending euphemism "handi-capable", too. I can't stop people from using words that make my cringe muscles sore, and I understand that your mileage may vary.

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