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Respectful Worldbuilding

One of the biggest determinants of what I look in SF/F books and television (and plenty of those supposedly set in the real world) is whether or not it takes place in a world that the writers have created with respect. How is it possible to be ‘disrespectful’ to an invented world? There are a couple different ways.

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How to Fail the Prisoner's Dilemma

I’ve been getting into more arguments about piracy lately. It’s the kind of argument that can get very emotional for both sides. I want to take a moment to develop my thoughts about why I find so much on both sides aggravating and inadequate.

I’m going to be writing about video game piracy in very general terms that are probably familiar to those of you who’ve encountered the debate before.

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History is an Angel Falling Backward into the Future

*Title credit Laurie Anderson

One of the things that’s surprised me about my fictional universes (both SF and fantasy) is how closely their development mirrors our history. I certainly hope this isn’t because of a dearth of imagination on my part, but because I’ve been finding myself paying less attention to the capabilities of new technology than to the incentives facing the people using them. It may just be because the past is my only model, but the past predicts more than most people give it credit for.

One persistent problem in SF is that people tend to predict that any technology on an upward curve will continue rising on an upward curve into infinity. SF from the 1950s and 60s present interstellar (or at least interplanetary) travel in the year 2000. Given the strides that had been made in the fifty years prior to those books, it didn’t seem implausible that the curve would continue rising. It didn’t. It plateaued.

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Part and Parcel

One of the side-effects of parceling my apartment up, even if it's just to move eight blocks, is realizing how increasingly dependent I am on material possessions. "Really? I can't bear to part with this? How sad."
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Habit Forming

Sometimes it seems like I’m spending as much time breaking my freshmen comp students’ high school habits as I am teaching them how to write.

I’m tired of repeating that I do mean the things I say in my syllabus—especially the late work policy. If I ask them to turn in an assignment or a paper before a break, and they want to leave early, at the very least they need to e-mail me their work before class. I won’t take it on the Tuesday after.

I shouldn’t have to tell them that yes, the grading scale really does mean that these assignments can sink you if don’t do them, and no, there is no extra credit.

And yet…

Can I really blame them?

We’ve drilled it into their heads (and their parents’ heads) that they need to attend college the same year that they graduate from high school. A lot of them have come to think of college as non-optional, as high school mark two but with more freedom and a great deal more cost. When they start thinking of college as mandatory, they stop taking it as seriously. Because, really, it’s not like we have a choice about coming here, right? Something else made us come, so something else can take responsibility.

I can usually tell which of my students have been with the college for two or more semesters, because they’re the ones who actually turn in their work on time, read the instructions on the assignments I gave them, and make sure that they’re familiar with the course policies. They know what my late work and attendance policies are. They know to contact me if they can’t attend class because they’re sick, because I won’t track them down of my own volition. They’ve gone through the transition. They can tell the difference.

Though I’m not being paid to teach them that college is different than high school, there are a few things I can do to help:

• Stress how difficult it is to get an A in my courses. I take grade inflation seriously, but I can’t say the same about many of the high schools my students come from. So some of them may need some cushioning for a shock.
• Make sure they not only know my contact information, but that they know they need to use it.
• Make it clear that I’m not the cruel exception. Their other instructors require more of them than just showing up. It’s not just me.
• Offer as much help as I can, but always let them know that the assignment is their responsibility, not mine.
• Always be accessible. I’m not just an instructor; I’m a resource. They can bounce ideas off me, ask me to check a paragraph, or clarify assignment guidelines.
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Genre tug-of-war

Charlie Stross’s post “Why I Hate Star Trek” has already gotten a lot of attention—as I’m sure it was designed to—so anything that I say about it is probably repeating something said elsewhere. So I’ll spare you.

However, it did leave me wondering where the boundaries of science fiction ended and speculative fiction began. To some extent, this is a meaningless debate. No matter what we call it, it will still be shelved in the same section of the bookstore, and that’s the most important arbiter of genre in the business. So remember that little dose of reality while I meander through the following.

My short story “Outside the Standard Deviation” was science fiction by Charlie Stross’s definition. (Whether it’s any good at that is a question I’ll leave to the reader, but I’m fairly confident of the genre it would be slotted into). It asks a question about the nature of the universe and attempts to answer it. By this definition, the fact that it uses SFnal tools—von Neumann machines and artificial intelligences and traveling to other stars--to answer that question aren’t as important as the fact that it asks the question at all. It’s the question, not the tools, that make it fit this definition.

Yet a lot of what I write and read doesn’t fit the definition. My current project is an SFnal refracturing of the story of Gautama Buddha. The fact that it’s a different perspective on a story that already exists means, almost by definition, that it doesn’t necessarily have to take place in the future. Some of it (though not all) already took place in the past. The remainder could just as easily take place in the modern day as in the future.

Frank Herbert’s Dune consciously borrows the forms of feudal societies and transposes them onto an interstellar civilization eight thousand years beyond us. Those old politics that drive Dune. Many of the science fiction tropes that underlie those politics—the Kwisatz Haderach propechy, the spice, telepathic space pilots—are either quasi-religious or ridiculous even by the standards of the day in which Dune was published.

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, problematic though is it, similarly focuses on politics above its SFnal elements. The nature of the buggers, the space station, the interstellar war, and so forth, to the story of a child soldier that could have been told in the present day. The story’s most interesting prediction is an early imagining of what, in real life, became the blogosphere—but that isn’t what drives the story. It’s a sidenote, a tool, not the plot’s motivator.

Are these still science fiction? Yes, and damn anyone who says otherwise.

That strong response aside, though--why do I call it science fiction?

I sure hope it’s not just because the genre offers so many gee-whiz gadgets, though I can’t make any promises on that score. The gadgets are awfully entrancing. And shiny.

I’m interested in the patterns of history, in studying human behavior on a broad spectrum from its beginnings to its potential futures. I think many of those patterns will repeat more than we think. Or more than we’d like to think. If that’s my current project’s only SFnal prediction, then so be it.

I think something more is at work, though.

Other worlds, whether they're constructed using fantasy or SFnal tropes, should be like mirrors. Reversed or distant or distorted, they show us something about ourselves that we didn’t realize was there. Sometimes the distortions show us more than the real thing.

I didn't believe in the future Stross constructed in Glasshouse. But I enjoyed reading it anyway--hopefully for some of the reasons he intended.
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Navel-gazing--Oooo, some lint!

For the first eighteen years of my life, I didn’t know what kind of town I was living in. I lived in a suburb, surrounded by other people but isolated from anything that might be worth walking to. There were no stores in walking distance--no movie theaters, no malls, no concerts, no social gatherings. I could have visited any of the above once I was old enough to drive, but I didn’t like driving and, by then, had gotten used to being on my own.

I got enough socialization at school. What I got there was enough to turn me off it for a while. It was easier to stay in, and focus my efforts inward.

In my adult life, what used to be isolation by choice has become isolation by location. For the past seven and a half years, I’ve lived in small towns: Bowling Green in Ohio for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and now Gunnison in Colorado for a teaching position.

Both of these towns are limited in the idle entertainments they offer; Gunnison moreso than Bowling Green. In flat, gray Bowling Green, the nearest movie theater was a five-minute drive out of town, which was still a little too intimidating for me without a car. In the tiny, cowboy college town of Gunnison (home of five thousand people, half of whom are students), the nearest movie theater is half-an-hour’s drive away, in Mt. Crested Butte. There’s an arts center and a handful of restaurants, but certainly no museums or malls.

I have no car to reach it or much else that would interest me, nor do I want one. Why am I happier staying here, out of reach of most things that, when growing up, I imagined I would always want? I’d always imagined “settling” (to the degree that any teenager imagines settling) in a city, not in a small town. Yet I never regretted my choice.

One of my friends from Bowling Green once remarked that, “there’s nothing for the creative writers to do except drink and write.” And I don’t drink.

So that leaves me with writing.

I have a personality type that’s badly suited to some professions. I drag my feet when I’m on a regular schedule. I can’t stand not having flexibility in the way I want to run my life. And I’m a little too easily tempted by some distractions.

Gunnison is a nice town filled with nice people (aren't they all?), but it presents me with little in the way of distractions. The town is small enough that anything I actually need—the school, the library, the grocery store, and so forth—is within fifteen minutes’ walking distance.

If I were in a city, I'd probably have to do the same amount of hiding to get any work done. But I wouldn't be able to see the stars through the light pollution.
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Fiction, anyone?

My hard SF short story "Outside the Standard Deviation" was published this week in M-Brane SF's eighth issue. It contains (among other things): self-mutilation, opinionated starships, Von Neumann machines, unwinnable interstellar wars, and people with asterisks in their names. Plus a dash of Fermi Paradox. You can find it here.
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Posts after long, unexplained absences are always the awkwardest.



I am still alive and getting writing done. I've just been buried under graduate school.

Progress report posts are boring as hell, so no more of those. The general rule about writing anything remotely public is to be entertaining (except in academia), which is something that, over the summer, I hadn't been doing my best at. I started tuning myself out. Somehow I defied stereotype and got too full of myself before I started grad school, not after. I'm a clown; I should dance. And I don't mean that in a demeaning way, either. If my chief goal in life is to be a public entertainer, I should be doing much more interesting things with my words. Or at least provocative.

So I need to figure out what I'm going to do with an online journal. Or if I even need it. I don't know yet. It's nice to have sometimes, but if I'm ever entertaining or provocative I usually like to put that into my stories instead. And if the past few months have been any guide, I can go long stretches without feeling like I need to post.

Does the Internet really need one more blathering keyboardist? Can I be anything more than that? Stay tuned.
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What I spent Labor Day working on

I'm with the NYT. We need a labor week.

6 freshmen sample essays critiqued, check
5 workshop stories read and critiqued, check
4 techniques exercises read, check
1 lawn mowed, check

If grading freshmen essays takes as many hours as these ones, I'm going to be in for a fun time when my kids hand in their first rough drafts this Friday.