Friday, May 27, 2005

Muggle SF

The brilliant and talented Ian McDonald has started a blog, wherein he recently responds to the equally talented and brilliant Geoff Ryman's Mundane SF manifesto.

For those who came in late, the Mundanes hold:

That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.

That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe.

That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence -- however, it is unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.

That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.

That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens.

That there is no evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited.

That therefore our most likely future is on this planet and within this solar system. It is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous, and unprofitable.

That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.

Now while I applaud the Mundaners their laudable concern for our own little blue marble, I believe that it is way-dangerous to make predictions that close the book on hitherto undiscovered technologies. This seems naive even without having to invoke the famous Charles Duell patent office legend. Nor, last I checked, has the jury yet come in on the multiverse. (See, for instance, physicist & science writer Michio Kaku's recent work, Parallel Worlds.)

Leaving aside these quibbles, they are partially correct in their criticisms of past and contemporary "Wide Screen Space Opera," as Ian concedes when he writes, "Whatever kind of humanity makes it into interstellar space is not going to be like us. It’s needs and ecological niche will be very different."

Claiming that we can't make it into space ever, at all, in any way, shape or form, however, is very different from asserting that we can not make it as we are now. The Mundanders seem, then, to be arguing a focus on near-future extrapolation vs. far future vision.

But Ian further comments, "If we confine ourselves only to the most likely near-future, does MSF run the risk of becoming almost a shared-world anthology, a future history?"


In the introduction to my 2003 anthology, Live Without a Net, entitled "Disengaging from the Matrix" I argued against what I perceived at the time as an apparent bottleneck in our speculative futures. I wrote then that, "one has only to read Wired magazine and Scientific American with any regularity to see that some form of that Gibsonian existence is barreling down upon us with ever-increasing speed. As advances in computerization, miniaturization, and neural interfacing are being made every day, it becomes increasingly hard for writers of speculative fiction to imagine near-future scenarios that do not contain at least some of the tropes of cyberfiction. "

Now, the anthology was a long time in the making, and I was really writing from a cusp-of-the- millennium perspective, talking largely about an American-only SF scene that seemed obsessed with VR simulations and post-cyberpunk and which had yet to embrace the New Space Opera, the full importance of the Vingian Singularity, the New Weird, et al. to the degree that swiftly followed. But I still hold that a restriction of imagination for whatever reason - whether internally imposed or externally compelled - is an undesirable thing.

Charles Stross makes the very good point in his comment wherein he says that "declaring that certain technologies are almost certainly not going to happen therefore we shouldn't consider the consequences of them is almost certainly about as wrong-headed as you can get..."

I think that the problem stems in part from the fact that science fiction has evolved to fulfill multiple roles, and each successive movement or manifesto that comes along seems to section off one of them in isolation from or opposition to the rest.

If I may...

Science fiction can serve as an actual communicator of science and the scientific worldview. As such, it may employ the rigorous application of current scientific principals, but it need not do so in order to communicate a general sense of the value of a rational (verses a superstitious) world view. (I would suggest that this is an increasingly-important function in America's current political climate. Intelligent Design anyone?)

Science fiction can serve as allegory, as social criticism, as a lens for examining the present by casting it in the future. As such it can employ loose or rigorous extrapolation, though it is not by any means obligated to do so and its extrapolation may be exaggerated for satirical effect. (Again, see parenthetical above as to the current importance of this aspect of SF.)

Science fiction can serve as predictor, as prognosticator of the future. As such it generally strives for rigorous scientific extrapolation, and as such, it is generally wrong. That it is often wrong is not the point. (And it is sometimes right!) But in that it serves as a community of forward-looking individuals in part dedicated to the idea that technology creates social change and to the examination of the ramifications of each new technological potentiality in advance of its actual development and implementation is value in and of itself. (A value which, one wishes, was paid more attention in light of the absurdity of certain Congressional debates on stem cell research and cloning. The work has already been done for you folks. If you only paid attention...)

Science fiction can serve as catalyst for the future. The number of SFnal devices that were later created by enthusiastic engineers and inventors is too numerous to list here, though examples range from Clarke's communication satellites to Captain Kirk's cellphone to Geordi LeForge's visor. The website Technovelgy is a good start for some contemporary examples. (In this regard, it seems clear that even bad science fiction can serve as the catalyst for invention.)

Finally, yes folks, science fiction can serve as entertainment. And that may be my most strenuous objection with the Mundaners. They seem to have forgotten that it's okay to have fun. (And in an age where science fiction literature is loosing rapid ground to its less-informed cinematic counterpart, sacrificing SF's entertainment value may be cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. It is certainly counter-productive to communicating one's message.)

I think I'm fine with any movement that seeks to describe one aspect of science fiction however they want, but I'm opposed to any movement that seeks to proscribe for the rest of us. And in closing, I want to summarize with a quote by Arthur C. Clarke who wrote, years ago, that "the limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible." Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, I think we should all strive to believe three impossible things before breakfast. Maybe by lunch, one of them won't look so improbable after all. And by dinner time, it might even be a reality. And if not, we were still guaranteed an interesting day.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Pyr's 2nd Season Preview

I'm please to announce that individual book pages for Pyr's fall/winter season have just been added to the Pyr website. This time, we're very proud to be publishing titles by Keith Brooke, Scott Mackay, John Meaney, , Michael Moorcock & Storm Constantine, Mike Resnick, Justina Robson, Martin Sketchley, and George Zebrowski. Covers are by the wonderful Dave Seeley, Jim Burns, Brian W. Dow, and John Picacio. Our current catalog is also available is as a PDF download.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Wascally Wabbits

Okay, this one is a bit far out, but it's short and sweet. You know how Bugs Bunny is always getting abducted by Marvin the Martian right? He's in his rabbit hole and a UFO lands on top, and he climbs up into its shaft - then he runs around on Mars stealing the Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Well, on the surface it's just a harmless cartoon - funny rabbit gets abducted by UFO. Ask no questions and think no more about it, right? But what a weird connection - rabbits and UFOs. Could it be there’s something there – lurking just right below the surface, hiding in plain site, pointing us in the direction of hidden truths where we dare not go? You bet’cha.

That first Warner Bros cartoon was originally broadcast in 1948. "Haredevil Hare" was broadcast before any claims of human abduction in UFOlogy, well before, in fact, the famous 1961 abduction claims of Barney and Betty Hill. So now our Bugs Bunny cartoon is somewhat prescient, and we've got a genuine rabbit-UFO connection. Let's look a little further, shall we?
Would you believe that MUFON - the Mutual UFO Observation Network in Evanston, IL - has records of scores of cases in which farmers claimed that UFOs and weird humanoids were stealing the rabbits out of their hutches? They do. And then there are reports of processions of rabbits seen just before UFOs land, and country folk out hunting for rabbits spotting UFOs, and even one case of jack rabbits dancing before a UFO encounter.

So - at least as far as UFO lore is concerned - Marvin's Martians really do abduct bunny rabbits. There's even a name for this field of study - Lepufology! I kid you not.

Now, go back and watch E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Notice that when E.T.'s spaceship first lands - it's greeted by a rabbit. And rabbits run across the road before the second UFO sighting in Steven Spielberg’s classic film Close Encounters. And take a closer look at the Teletubbies too while you’re at it. Those weird alien babies with televisions in their bellies – and don’t try to tell me they’re not aliens. They all live underground in a partially buried space ship! But when they come out to play on their impossibly green, perfectly manicured rolling lawn - they're surrounded by bunnies! Real live bunnies hopping all over the place. There’s really something going on here folks.

On a scarier note, there have been a score of dead rabbits found in Central America, all connected with their bloodsucking monster down there - El Chupacabre.

So what's the deal folks? Is Marvin really after Bugs? Well, back in the 1970s, the L-5 Society - the organization trying to foster interest in space colonization and research - published the results of a study that proclaimed that rabbits were the ideal space livestock - given that they produce the most meat for the least feed. So maybe it really does make since that Marvin would stop by the third rock from the sun if he needed to restock his pantry before a long trip.
But just in case you want some more proof – he’s a bit of weirdness from the history books: Fact - the only US President to ever go on record as having seen a UFO was Jimmy Carter - and he was ridiculed in the press for this admission and for one other very strange occurrence. Do you remember what it was? On April 20, 1979, while on a fishing trip in Plains, Georgia, President Carter claimed to have been attacked and said that he had to fend off his assailant by beating at it with his oar. What did our President claim it was that attacked him, "hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared"? You got it, folks - he was attacked by a "Killer Rabbit."

Eh, what's up Doc?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Complete History of the Hugo Awards in the Best Professional Artist Category

The following study of the Hugo Awards for Best Professional Artist has come to my attention, and I pass it along.

Bold type denotes a Hugo-winning Artist.

The years listed next to the artist denote a Hugo nomination in that year.

1. Jim Burns -- 1987, 1990, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999. 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005

2. Thomas Canty -- 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999

3. Bob Eggleton -- 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005

4. Don Maitz -- 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000

5. Michael Whelan -- 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002

6. David Cherry -- 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2003

7. Donato Giancola -- 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005

8. Nick Stathopoulos -- 1999

9. Frank Kelly Freas -- 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1983, 1986, 1987, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005

10. Frank Frazetta -- 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1974, 2004

11. James Gurney -- 1990, 1993

12. Tom Kidd -- 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990

13. J.K. Potter -- 1987, 1988

14. Barclay Shaw -- 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987

15. Rowena Morrill -- 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986

16. Vincent Di Fate -- 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1985

17. Val Lakey Lindahn -- 1984, 1985

18. Darrell Sweet -- 1983

19. Carl Lundgren -- 1982

20. Steve Fabian -- 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981

21. Paul Lehr -- 1980, 1981

22. Boris Vallejo -- 1979, 1980

23. David Hardy -- 1979

24. Rick Sternbach -- 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978

25. George Barr -- 1976, 1977

26. Tim Kirk -- 1975

27. John Schoenherr -- 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975

28. Jack Gaughan -- 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974

29. Mike Hinge -- 1973

30. Jeffrey Jones -- 1970, 1971, 1972

31. Leo & Diane Dillon -- 1969, 1970, 1971

32. Eddie Jones -- 1970, 1971

33. Vaughn Bode -- 1969, 1970

34. Chesley Bonestell -- 1954, 1968 (his win is a retro-Hugo, awarded in 2004)

35. Gray Morrow -- 1966, 1967, 1968

36. Ed Emshwiller -- 1953, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965

37. Virgil Finlay -- 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964

38. Roy Krenkel -- 1963, 1964

39. Mel Hunter -- 1960, 1961, 1962

40. Alex Schomburg -- 1962

41. Wally Wood -- 1959, 1960

42. H.R. Van Dongen -- 1959

43. Hannes Bok -- 1953

44. John Picacio -- 2005

Frank Kelly Freas has the most nominations ever in the Best Professional Artist category, with 26.

Michael Whelan has the most wins ever in the Best Professional Artist category, with 13.

In the 50-year history of the Hugo Awards, only 15 different artists have won the Hugo for Best Professional Artist. Only 44 artists have been nominated.

Interesting, no?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Evenly Distributed Godhood

Robert Anton Wilson had a lot to do with helping me formulate and articulate my problems with organized religion when I was in my early 20s. I was heavily into both his fiction and nonfiction then, though it's been years since I've read anything by him. Nonetheless, the following RAW quote came to my attention today, and I was struck with how eloquently and simply he has encapsulated some of my own ideas about how the Internet provides us with new analogies
for understanding a potentially interactive Universe:
I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions. I strongly suspect that a world "external to," or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense. I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignity, like Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology. I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback.