Monday, September 7, 2009

Mario Bunge on Science and Pseudoscience

It must be sad when a philosopher of science has to resort to Skeptical Inquirer to get a popular audience. Popper and the apparently immortal logical positivists rule the day. That same issue the Quincey recension of Feynman's QED had a fascinating article by Bunge on pseudoscience. Not quite fascinating enough for prompt reply in a letters column. That couple of years, on checking, is literally three years. It was the July/August issue of 2006!

Scientists like Feynman are fond of believing that if they refuse to explicitly or consistently think about philosophy they are rising above it. This is folly. As Bunge points out, concepts like reality, time, causation, truth are also philosophical concepts. Indeed, well known philosophical topics as the nature of mathematical objects are directly relevant to science. An even better example is the notion that cognitive neuroscience can study mind by studying the brain. The implicit assumption that mind is ultimately a material phenomenon requires using scientific method instead of speculation.

Scientific investigation he holds assumes that the facts of some domain of investigation are material, lawful and scrutable. Personally I would phrase this as saying the universe is consistent and intelligible. According to him, the scientific method is a fairly typical (and correct) sequence of choice of subject; discovery of problem; hypothesis; experiential test (observation/measurement or experiment); evaluation of results of experience; necessary corrections (to principles of subject, to the hypothesis, to the experimental technique); emergence of new problems. As always, it should be added that this is a collective process, not an individual one. An individual may do merely part of a single step, and knows nothing about order. Bunge correctly adds that speculation is a necessary part of the hypothesis process. The key point is that at some point, the results must match reality, which is to say, be true, another philosophical concept. It also assumes, a good point for Bunge to emphasize, that scientific hypotheses and explanations (theories) are logically valid, although it is rare for scientists to explicitly analyze logic. He notes unbridled speculation is for art.

As a collective process, practice of the scientific method means that the science changes with the discoveries and the formulation of new concepts that lead to new discoveries; a continuity with knowledge from other sciences, accepting their contributions and positing no contradictions; overlapping areas of interest with other sciences; scientific community. To rephrase, the first means science is knowledge because it is based on facts. When additional facts or refutation of incorrectly accepted false statements as facts requires change in the science, it changes. The notion that if it can change it wasn't knowledge implicitly assumes some sort of supernatural aspect to Truth, that it must be unchanging, eternal, ideal, etc. Theological concepts never change, they merely go in or out of fashion, which shows how unlike science (knowledge) theology is.

The continuity with other science, as in signals cannot travel from one mind to another at a speed greater than light (a stumbling block for "parapsychology" and a sign said field is a pseudoscience,) and the overlap with other sciences, like physics and chemistry in physical chemistry, are consequences of the unity of nature. For the first, what is true in one science must be true in all. For the second, since there is really one one subject, nature, the individual subjects called branches of science must inevitably collide. And last, the existence of scientific community is the collective way that testing of hypotheses and deduction of consequences of principles and formulation of explanations is conducted. But all that is the operation of the scientific method.

Pseudosciences lack one or more of these characteristics of science. It may be formulated in vague or even contradictory terms. It may aassume facts without empirical justification. It may accept the existence of immaterial entities or postulate that reality may not be described by laws. It may ignore other knowledge from other scientific fields. Its experimental methods may be deeply flawed or it may even dispense with empirical tests completely. It may examine only partial evidence (which is a more general way of saying it doesn't use control groups.) For these reasons, pseudoscience doesn't make new discoveries.

Bunge identifies the specific philosophical ideas in science as logical consequence/consistency; meaning and truth; fact and law; knowledge and test; intellectual honesty; community. The way he rephrases all this is: "Because scientific researchis, in a nutshell, the honest search for true knowledge about the real world, particularly its laws, with the hlep of both theoretical and empirical means--in particular the scientific method--and because every body of scientific knowledge is expected to be logically consistent and the subject of rational discussion in the bosom of a community of investigators."

Expanding, he notes that
logically, science accepts analogy and induction as speculation but denies a priori validity;
semantically, science sees meaning as denotation together with connotation but not extension and truth as correspondence to fact, not coherence;
ontologically, science is materialistic (metaphysically, not spiritually, meaning made of matter following laws, whether mechanical or stochastic) with all material things in flux and part of systems making their ideal descriptions (created by phyical processes in brains) fictions, whether they accurately describe portions of the truth or not, with phenomena emerging from systems, which their components lack;
epistemologically, science is realist because reality is intelligible (at least so far and presuming it isn't is unfounded by any evidence,) skeptical in that it can change (but it is meaningless to insist that there is all concepts are equally doubtful,) empirical in that its propositions must be testable (but experience can provide both positive and negative evidence,) rational in that it advance by making deductions from laws (which are then tested by experience, whether observation or experiment,) and scientistic, in that scientific knowledge is to be regarded as the best form of knowledge;
ethically, science is secular and humanist;
sociologically, science is what he calls epistemic socialism, which seems to be what I would call a kind of technocracy where the experts prosper with their followers.

The last is directly specifically against Marxists and post-modern social constructivists. Existentialists get short shrift, but Marxists, logical positivists and the Popperians have contributions acknowledged. Bunge's desire for a unitary philosophy of science including ethics is interesting. It grounds philosophical critique of some practices, I would think, but intellectual property law is not a topic he addressed.

Bunge notes the tendency of pseudosciences to accept the idealist philosophical presuppositions of religions: idealist ontology (supernatural entities really do exist and do not obey natural laws);
idealist epistemology (some people have superior knowledge, by divine revelation or other unexplained gift, or just because they're better, more sensitive people); heteronomous ethics (they are not required to justify their beliefs with evidence nor does God have to justify Himself.)

"In short, tell me what philosophy you use (not just profess,) and I'll tell you what your science is worth. And tell me what science you use (not just pay lip service to,) and I'll tell you what your philosophy is worth."

Fascinating, even if buried in a fringe magazine.

A Double Dose of Feynman

Speaking of Duncan, his unintentional slanders of Feynman prompted a search in the library catalog for Character of Physical Law. No luck, but Six Easy Pieces was available. It was instructive about Feynman's alleged notions how "everything" we know may be wrong.

Science according to Feynman like watching a chess game without knowing the rules. Learning the rules is to understand the game. Learning the rules by merely watching of course is the tricky part. Applying the metaphor to nature, the rules are laws. When we know the laws, we understand. Science is not just deductions from the laws, because we don't know them, and because the mathematical deduction from the laws is beyond our mathematics. The principle of science, "definition almost, the test of all knowledge is experiment." Mathemantics, which has no experiments is therefore not natural science. The scientific method to find the rules, the laws, are "observation, reason and experiment..."

In other words, Feyman believes firmly in the intelligibility of nature, that it has rules, laws. So why does he talk about the impossibility of understanding quantum mechanics, for instance?

One reason is that he sneers at consistency. This makes him hard to understand.

For another, he has the magician's love of befuddling his audience. When at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, he loved to break into safes. In his memoirs, he reveals that cleverly deducing combinations in the same way modern hackers deduce passwords were a major technique. He enjoyed impressing teachers in competitive questioning in seminars by secretly reading up on the material, although the unwritten code was that the students were supposed to use native intellect. This concern for effect made him an entertaining lecturer. But there's a reason he was not a particularly successful teacher of graduate students.

And a third reason, of course, is that he, as a mathematical whiz (not into proofs, but then, not even all mathematicians are into proofs!) he relied upon his mathematical intuition. A man who humiliated himself into a 4F for mental instability during WWII by talking about how his mental pictures of the integers is not someone who is fastidiously empirical, despite all his talk about experiment.

And last is that much of his metaphysical certitudes are left to the non-science, mathematics. Which according to P.C.W. Davies' introduction, Feyman held to be Platonic metaphysical entities, except that he wouldn't quite, though almost, openly confess to. Davies observes that Feynman was "suspicious of philosophies..." Well, being suspicious is not the same as not having one. Davies' conclusion that "it was formalism he disliked, not content," is surely true.

In other words, Feynman's metaphysical certainties lay in mathematics. When he talked about not being able to understand, he meant physical, commonsense intuitions. When he talked about everything we know being wrong, he did not mean that the notion of natural law was a nonconcept, he meant something like Einstein revising Newton's view of the world might happen again. This has nothing to do with denying the intelligibility of the universe.

It is not really a secret that Feynman did not mean the universe was lawless. QED certainly attempted to lay bare quantum mechanics in the simplest possible terms. Thus is was possible for Paul Quincey, in a Skeptical Inquirer article a couple of years ago (one of the things that gave me the idea of blogging, which time delay shows how important I consider this blog!) to write an article popularizing QED even further, except as a cure for the notion of quantum weirdness!

Quincey does so by the metaphor of Nature using a surveyor's wheel to measure the action of all possible paths. "The" path is the path of minimum action. When the particles are large compared to the surveyor's wheel (which measures increments in Planck's constant,) the path is a classical trajectory. In other cases, the inability of the surveyor's wheel to distinguish multiple of Planck's constant, plus the circularity of the wheel itself, gives the (identical) mathematics of waves. If you add the concept of "spin," properly isospin, then quantum mechanics gives us chemistry via the Pauli principle.

Thus, according to Quincey, the alleged difficulties of QM come to three. First, QM gives probabilities, while the world is discrete fact. A set of coexisting probabilities is dubbed the future. How the future comes to be one particular thing instead of a mixture is not properly the realm of QM. (This seems to covertly borrow the unspeakability of the notion of the reduction of the wave function from Bohr et al. without confessing to it, to be frank.) Second, the interconnectedness of all phenomena seems to violate special relativity except that it doesn't: There is no information that can be sent superluminally. Third, there is no such thing as a determinable trajectory. This is not a problem since QM sets limits on what can be known. If the trajectory cannot be known, it can't be known, therefore failure to know it is not a failure at all. It is merely an unreasonable expectation. (This too seems to hark back to Bohr and his postivist notions of physics as correlates of experimental measurements, which are unquestionable facts, aka epistemic certainties.)

As to point one, since the equations of QM are time reversible, the inability to predict the future means the inability to retrodict the past as well. The second point, the interconnectedness of events, calls therefore into question the ability of QM to describe a unique spacetime. Which seems to me to be the fundamental problem in reconciling QM and general relativity, which can only be time reversible by adding a cosmological constant. Which I suspect is still Einstein's greatest blunder, even if it has become fashionable as a way to say QM as a description of the real universe. The third point about the inability to determine trajectories of course flows from the previous. The real question is what it says about the reality of the particles. If they have no trajectory, what does it mean to say they are real?

Quantum weirdness exists. Feynman used mathematical intuition to navigate in the topsy turvy world of QM. Our view of nature is likely to be as drastically revised as Newton's was by Einstein. How any of this suggests that Nature is inconsistent is a mystery.

Why Science Fiction Isn't "Literature"

Hal Duncan over at BookSpotCentral has begun a series of columns answering this question. As anyone whose read widely in his blog would expect, Mr. Duncan is aiming to portray the disdain for the fantastic as upper class contempt for the puling masses. Or, even worse, the mingled fear and contempt of the putrid, stodgy middle classes faced with the lure of the proletarian nihilist carnival. As ever, he begins with some doubtful equations, not just Romanticism with the Gothic, or Enlightenment rationalism with the realist, but sensationalist with popular and "intellectualist" with high brow. What indeed is "intellectualist" literature and drama when it's at home, you may ask? Well, as I say, it's all a little dubious. The sole examples that Duncan gives, The Foundation series as rationalist and Dune as romantic, on brief inspection don't show what he thinks. I expect there will be few details to give meaning to all these terms.

Duncan's whole project is dubious, starting with the astonishingly simple proposition that science fiction as a pulp genre is dead. Since the pulps are moribund, so are the pulp genres. Why this simple conclusion requires the recasting of language and literary history is uncertain. I think in the end that Mr. Duncan is not just a professional fantasist, but a committed irrationalist. The suspect chains of equations and false dichotomies have to be erected to turn fantasy into the liberation of the ego from the chains of reason, that ruling class scam.

In reality, science fiction, like historical fiction, is not "literature" because it does not accept the way things are now as eternal. Instead of the individual soul being the determinant of a permanent way of life, unquestionable, even if tragic, both science fiction and historical fiction go past the bourgeois individualism (or can, since both have just as much junk written as other modes of fiction and drama,) which is the dressed up version of economic man found in Economics 101. An historical novelist like E.L. Doctorow will be acceptable as literary in a way that a Gore Vidal or a Cecelia Holland will not. The easy assumption that "literary" means good is nothing but snobbery, but putting a John Jakes on the same level as the previous three is to abandon all judgment. The point of course is that Vidal should be regarded as a major novelist, which he isn't: He just sells too well to be completely ignored. Doctorow, whose work suffers from being "literary" in preferring to recapitulate ideology about character, receives critical attention far beyond his ordinary merits.

The notion that "genre" as an opposition to "literature" is marked by sensationalism while the other is marked by intellectualism is a pretty hard vacuum. The assumption that insight and relevance lie solely in character studies is an ideological prescription. Most "popular" fiction and drama is just as fixated on the characters as the most highfalutin' "literary" fiction and drama. And there are plenty of thrills in lots of "literary" works. The difference isn't sensationalism. The difference is that the "literary" rediscovers the eternal essence of bourgeois society, the final society, forever and ever, amen. The "popular" regrettably tends to be vicarious fantasy. The reader identifies with a hero, and the hero wins. The rest is detail. Which heroes earn reader or viewer commitment is a matter of personal taste, not amenable to discussion. Which fantasy victories are satisfying also is a matter of personal taste, no more of interest to others than the details of the satisfying sexual fantasy.

Insofar as this is true, the popular should be rejected. But of course in practice this is not the dividing line between the popular and the literary. The supposedly literary might have reader/viewer fantasy, while the popular might answer more questions than "Who's the hero, and does he/she win?" I repeat, the real dividing line is ideological. The literary is about "character," where character means the eternal psychological necessities that have created our contemporary capitalist society. This, not being intellectual or boring, is what makes literature's pretensions offensive.

The notion that the sensational is rejected solely because it is popular is really nothing more than faux populist posturing, a visceral hate prompted by the certainty that one's own superior moral sensitivity raises one above the snobbery of the literary elites. In fact, many define sensationalism as the false, as when talking about tabloid journalism. Such sensationalism should be rejected. Approaching the question from another angle, although the literary presumes the eternal verities of capitalist society, that no more means it is all false, root and branch, than any other aspect of bourgeois culture. Popular fantasies that ignore society do no one any good. They are pabulum. Bourgois culture is no more to be ignore than the bourgois state. It is in fact part of the wealth to be appropriated.

Literature and drama that attempts to do this will not be literary or popular, it will be human.

Going Out a Winner: Donald E. Westlake

Comedy is the redheaded stepchild of literature and drama. From Shakespeare down to SG1 or Westlake, the humorless and pompous have downgraded the funny, the farcical, the merely genial. Vicarious self identification with characters turns into an unrewarding business in the bright light of comedy. It is no wonder that the "dark" is preferred for the furtive business of stroking the ego.

In Get Real, the last of the Dortmunder novels, Dortmunder and the usual suspects, Stan, Andy, Tiny and the kid, are approached to make a reality series about a heist. The reality series of course is as phony as possible, existing primarily as a way to avoid paying actors and writers prevailing wages. Dortmunder agrees to the scheme because it allows them to case the building where the bulk of the work would be done. The real heist would be covered by the reality heist. The situation allows, no, demands the typically acute Westlake commentary.

Befittingly, here, at the end, Dortmunder finally gets to keep the money. It is appropriate, not just because Dortmunder should go out a winner, but because reality TV is a victim that not even a comic novelist can let off the hook.

If you have not, by some bizarre mischance, read Westlake, do so. He also wrote straight thrillers, such as The Ax and The Hook. As Richard Stark he specialized in the dark and gritty before it became a fatuous cliche. He also wrote some science fiction, notably Smoke, about an invisible thief. (And at least one fantasy, Sacred Monster.) As a screenwriter, Westlake gave us The Stepfather and The Grifters.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Slings & Arrows

This Canadian fantasy ran three season. In the first season, a US action star comes to a Canadian theater to play Hamlet. The artistic director is inadvertently run over by a bacon truck. His ghost haunts his ex-protege, who had a nervous breakdown years previously while playing Hamlet, partly because Oliver slept with Geoffrey's girlfriend Ellen (Ophelia naturally,) despite Oliver being gay. The eccentric board president persuades the board to reinstate the flake, who, seeing the ghost, is flakier than ever. Well, except for attacking the swans.

This is inspired by the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario (renamed the New Burbage here,) and Keanu Reeves' turn as Hamlet in Minnesota or some such. Rachel McAdams plays the Ophelia. Despite much intrigue, including sabotage by a US board member who seduces the executive director, Keanu turns in a sound performance, vindicating the crazed director.

In the second season, Geoffrey stages Macbeth, using notes from Oliver. Geraint Wyn Davies, of Forever Knight fame if I remember correctly, plays Mackers as they like to call him. The executive director, played by Mark McKinney one of the main writers (another Susan Coyne, is also in the cast, as admistrative assistant Anna,) rebrands the theater festival to get a loan from the foulmouthed minister of culture. Naturally he hires Colm Feore. Despite Colm ending up in jail, the PR campaign is a huge success. The Macbeth is even huger, ending up on Broadway at the beginning of the third season.

The third season has Lear. The gag here is that the actor chosen by Geoffrey (played by William Hutt, apparently a highly respected actor in Canada who has in fact played Lear,) has cancer. And he's taking heroin for the pain. Geoffrey at this point begins therapy with an Episcopal priest. The whole scheme comes unraveled. Geoffrey is fired, but the cast puts on Lear in the priest's church to satisfy a dying man's dream of playing Lear. Anna loses her job for this. The executive director, who almost became likable, hires a dreadful director precisely to increase his own power, to put on musicals. He plans to do the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre. The dying actor has also been able to see Oliver, having one foot in the grave. Geoffrey and Ellen get married and move to Montreal. The end.

As is usual, the first instalment is by far the best. Serialization is almost never successful in artistic terms. As should be obvious, there is a great deal of farce about seeing ghosts. Backstage humor and fraught love affairs supply much entertainment of a lighter sort. There are even delightful songs by the elderly gay couple in the cast. There too, the first season one is the best. I gather the people behind this series managed to produce a successful Canadian musical. The only one?

There is one thing quite serious about the show, which is its interest in interpreting Shakespeare. When Geoffrey (played by Paul Gross,) is coaching "Keanu" he orders Keanu to decide whether Claudius and Polonius are listening to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. He says that the scene can be played either way but it should be played for one of them. In addition to incorporating actual discussion of interpretation into the script via Geoffrey, the various characters recite selections, sometimes as examples of bad readings, other times as show stoppers that compel the characters to listen and watch with reverence. Or at least appreciation.
If the selections were not well done or Geoffrey's interventions compelling, the show, despite its humor would fail. I think in the end the only thing I would change would be to stop announcing the Shakespeare selections that are suppose to awe us with a specific harp theme.

The first season is an outright jewel. But the whole thing is well worth watching. And they are only about six hours each, an astonishing example of suiting length to material, instead of the other way round. Highly recommended. I would sing O Canada if I could sing, or knew the lyrics.

Nobody's that stupid

Since Caprica the series and The Plan are soon to be inflicted upon the world, discussion of BattleStar Galactica is appropriate. That, in honest discussion, means discussing the politics. To be accused of saying Israeli Zionism is inherently apocalyptic or that Zionisim is inherently Christian by Rachel Nussbaum should be expected. I'm not quite sure why it came as such a shock. She went out of her way to post love letters to Deep Space 9, where an Israeli Jew managed not to discuss any of the Zionist implications of the show. She badmouthed Kings without even being able to discuss the show at all. Whether she's kind to dogs or has never, ever given head or has a high credit rating are aspects of her character relevant only to her personal acquaintances. In the blogosphere, what is relevant is the integrity of her thoughts. In that respect, she is a lying bigot.

Although Ron D. Moore was not in fact the creator nor the main writer of Deep Space 9, the cult begins there. Deep Space 9 had Cardassians/Nazis, Bajorans/brave Zionist Jews (secular without earring, Hasidic with earring,) Ferengi/lovable comic Jews, the Dominion/Soviets, God/the Prophets, alliance of Cardassia and the Dominion/nonaggression pact between the Nazis and the Soviets. It was all as silly as space Nazis must be, but done with a clueless pomposity that makes adults writhe in embarrassment for the boobs who think this is good writing. The treatment of religion displays religious bigotry of the smug sort that dismisses religion as it is as the harmless follies of the lower classes, while endorsing its animus of hate when directed against the proper enemies. Certainly no one questions the benevolence of God the Prophets despite the overwhelming evidence. A taste for this malignant shit betrays something about one's character.

The fans of BattleStar Galactica are in even worse position, since BSG's stock in trade from the days when the swine at Peabody rewarded the show for its political engagement. The regular Cylons are Muslims, the Final Five are perilously close to being Jews, with the messianic ones surviving the apocalypse, while the evil Muslims are genocidally annihilated. Baltar makes a brave speech about secular humanist values which is totally irrelevant. The humans triumph by treachery, except by shamelessly ridiculous writing It's Not Really Their Fault. The shitheads who like BSG will never honestly discuss this because it shows too much about what kind of people they are. Just remember: Nobody's that stupid. They know what they are, they know what they want, and they know how to cover up with conventional groupthink about character.

Quitting The Magicians

The hero has never said "sir" to an adult before in his life. He is so attuned to the finer things in life that he can tell the mozzarella on the sandwiches served on the school of magic is not just fresh, but "very" fresh. If I wanted to read about Dudley Dursly's adventures at Hogwarts, instead of Harry's, I wouldn't have read J.K. Rowling. So I'm not reading it now.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

If SG1 Were As Good As DS9?

For one thing, we would have found out that the ascended Daniel Jackson had gone back in time and caused the whole sequence of events. He would have arranged the gate addresses so that the SG1 team was guaranteed to make the right discoveries in the right order, for one thing. He would have angsted terribly over killing Sha're. He would have deliberately tipped off the Ori to the existence of humanity in the Milky Way so that a war to annihilate them would begin. He, not Merlin, would have created the genocide device. We would have had a lot fewer scenes with Daniel Jackson because that goody two shoes shit makes grown ups puke. He'd basically just be seen in the beginning and the ends of lots of episodes.

Jolinar wouldn't have been killed, but Sam/Jolinar would have been kept for the rest of the series. Sam's hand to hand combat skills would have been awesome. Jacob would have been possessed by Apophis so that she would be the step-daughter of the series' first Big Bad. She would have had a love life, that included, progressively, the greatest Tokra covert ops agent evah!, the President and a mutual affair with Orlin that was led to the defeat of the Ori. And Replicator Sam would have been a lesbian that we saw in at least six episodes. She would have been the greatest female character ever written. And not just in scifi, either.

We would have seen Jack living Joe the Barber's life, and vice versa, from the time the communicating stones were found. Jack would have personally killed the reporter who found out about the stargate way back when. Jack would have always known about NID but refused to take action. Jack would have ordered the use of the symbiote poison to annihilate whole planets of go'a'uld and Jaffa. Jack would have used alien technology to topple the Russian government. Jack would never be the butt of a joke.

T'ealc would have killed every competitor for leader of the Jaffa with his bare hands because they were insufficiently pro-human, not just Raknor and Garak, but Bra'tac too. But he would have angsted about killing Bra'tac for at least ten episodes. Ry'ac would never have reconciled and T'ealc would have killed him too. But he would angst about it in every intimate scene for the rest of the series. T'ealc's only dealings with other Jaffa would be to replace the leadership with aforementioned hand to hand combat.

Hammond would have been unhappily married and his problems with his wife would have taken up at least four episodes. And he would have been captured and tortured, or subverted, then tortured, or accidentally locked in a closet and tortured by his claustrophobia, in at least six episodes.

Dr. Fraiser would have been sexually active with all the male characters plus Lesbian Replicator Sam. Cassandra would have become a drug addict because of her sluttiness. Then Cassandra would have run amok with her superpowers and Fraiser would have had to put her down. Then, Fraiser would have starred in the greatest SG1 episode ever as she desperately plunges through time in an effort to undo Cassandra's death.

Major Davis would have been an agent of the NID the whole time. All the characters would love having an NID agent around because he had the best one liners in the show. He would have been the hero of at least one episode a year. He would have been the bastard son of President Harold Hayes.

Bill Lee would have been driven mad by his jealousy of Sam's genius. He would have attacked the SGC to take over command of the war against the go'a'uld, believing he was destined to lead humanity to victory. He would be defeated, but never imprisoned, much less killedm although he would keep coming back to the SGC. One or two episodes a year, SG1 would have to cooperate with him in a mission. He would have had a great episode where he hallucinates at random moments that Jack is a go'a'uld.

Siler would have been an alcoholic spy for Bill Lee, until Lee stopped hallucinating but started worshipping the go'a'uld.

Kinsey would have tried to take over the US government but was caught by SG1 and never seen again. Everybody knows that right wing plots against democracy are just schemes by lone nuts.

Jonas Quinn would have kept his superpower of prophecy, and his position on the team. Although his power of prophecy would never be helpful, at least when he was on mission Jackson wouldn't come along and no one would have to listen to that Pollyanna shit.

Get the drift, people.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ian Banks

The thing about Ian Banks is that his left politics are nowhere near as extreme as fancied.
The big thing, is that sensationalism for its own sake is, remarkably, not forbidden by his political views. The Wasp Factory is not devoid of humanity but it's very like the bait on a hook: We feel something for the characters so that their dire fates are more frightening, more horrifying. When the protagonist of Complicity confesses, then finds he has cancer, he is being condemned for his complicity as thoroughly as any National Review subscriber could wish, while the killer is deprived of the love that was his driving motive. The protagonist of The Bridge even approves the Falklands war, as I recall.

So the notion that the Culture, as a true communist utopia, is the subject of Banks' work strikes me as a fundamental miscalculation in reading his novels. That's why the Culture is almost always off stage, with the bulk of the action taking place in lesser societies. Banks' tendency to sell shock and sensation is the driving force in most of his fiction. He does it with more wit, imagination, style, even depth of feeling than the vast majority of sensation mongers. But that is still his primary stock in trade.

That is why most of his work is essentially set in Ruritania, an imaginary land inhabited by people from other novels. Banks is as good a reader as he is a writer, so this is apparently not so obvious. The proof is that, in fictive universe terms, the inhabitants of the Culture, are not human beings. (Does State of the Art show some connection? Haven't found it yet.) Yet the Culture novels are written as though the characters, by and large, were human. The aliens and the Minds and knife-missiles and drones are rarely main players but wise commentators and plot henchmen instead.

The Algebraist and Matter are showing some signs of growth. In the US, his mainstream novels are even harder to find, though, so it's harder to be sure. As it is, The Bridge is probably his finest novel to date, with very little new thematic material found anywhere else, nor any handled better. The Wasp Factory and Walking on Glass have a lean, tight, pointed impact; Complicity has a topicality forthright politics; The Crow Road has a familial feeling and Scottish background. These seem to stand out more but it's pretty much a matter of taste. If you have read The Bridge, you've gotten, so far, at any rate, the essence of everything Banks has to offer.

When Banks has nerve enough to write science fiction set on Earth, the clash between his formal leftism and the rest of his ideology will force him to find a new voice.

Who Am I? YA SF

The predominant surviving forms of new SF are tv/movie tieins, and military SF. Of the remainder of new SF books an increasing proportion are YA. Now, YA is not a well defined genre, but the expectation that there is a young lead character for younger readers to identify with in their quest to find their place in the adult world. This has always been a major element of science fiction, from Andre Norton and Robert Heinelin down to the lowly superhero comic.

A reasonably success entry in the YA SF genre is Paul Melko's The Walls of the Universe. The book is a fixup of a successful novella. It is still left incomplete in one sense. What will ultimately happen and why the hero is chose for his bizarre fate is left for a book series. Serialization will probably decompensate what good has been done, but the demands of commerce must still be met. That good done is an interesting exercise in adolescent roleplaying, literalized as the same person from different parallel universes.

One is a typical good guy, of geekish persuasion, but notably successful in attracting not one but two women to love him, which takes the curse off being smart. Plus he seriously humiliates the real physics geek. And he rises to the occasion when battle is forced upon him, and kills the enemy.

The other is a modern day Magnificent Bastard, who is a murderer, in self defense of course so he's not really a true murderer. And the victim is a psycho who torturers animals for fun. And although he screws lots of his predestined girl friends in parallel world after parallel world, so that he's callous horny dog, he is a remarkably successful horny dog, which really soothes the sting, don't you know?

Both become tycoons at an early age by use of their knowledge of parallel worlds. The gadget making all this possible wrinkles the plot by only working one way. Geek version reverse engineers the gadget so that the plot is successfully resolved by returning to previous universes. Together, they kill numerous bad guys, get rich, get the predestined girl, as well as the adoration of assorted parents, even the parallel world version who didn't give birth to the protagonist! There's nothing quite so predetermined as the other characters' love for the hero, no matter what world they come from.

Putting aside all the plot huggermugger, the basic story is this: An adolescent, choosing what kind of man he will be chooses to be a badass, but eventually realizes that he needs love and reestablishes family relationships and a nonexploitative relationship. The adolescent also get to be the goody two shoes, who must leave home to grow up, never coming back, and finally becoming a man by killing. This is all literalized by the bad ass conniving to send the nice guy on a one way trip with the sabotaged transport device, which he himself received from another parallel world version of himself. (Presumably infinite regress means Melko can milk this till he dies.) So the adolescent reader can be both.

But, in the end, the very best conventions of the CW triumph, with twenty somethings Lords of the Manor, worldweary and beset with cares but still smoking hot. Bad ass literally gets away with "murder," by replacing the victim with a parallel world copy. Forging a corpus non delecti is a novel twist. There is a general flabbiness due to the wish fulfillment, and a bitter undertaste due the underdeveloped moral world created. The contrast between the modern notion of a hero and the older notion of a hero however is much more honest than the ruck of YA stories I've seen of late. Recommended, but approach with modest expectations.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Five Fingers

This thriller opens with Dutch tourist Ryan Phillippe meeting guide Colm Meaney at a Moroccan airport for a trip into the Rif mountains. The Dutchman is starting a food program, using money donated. There are periodic flashbacks to idyllic scenes on a Dutch dyke with his Moroccan girl friend. (That doesn't read quite right?) On the late night bus ride, two men grab Philippe and Colm.

The men awaken blindfolded and bound to chairs. Colm Meaney blusters about terrorists being animals while Phillippe protests that they aren't. The men hope that they were mistaken for Americans and it will all end well. But as Meaney rants, Lawrence Fishburne in typical Muslim clothing, including cap, takes off Phillippe's blindfold and shoots Colm dead. Then, he begins to question Phillippe. It turns out that they know about the money (a million dollars.) Fishburne repeatedly accuses Phillippe of being well trained by the CIA. Phillippe was a banker, until fired for taking part in protests against neoliberalism. The questioning turns into torture. Fishburne cuts of a finger. Gina Torres in a veil treats the wound, changes Phillippe's clothing, bathes him since his pants were soiled (a touch of realism usually avoided as most people don't get an erotic charge from the smell of piss and shit.)

Phillippe tells Gina he is a sympathizer, and convinces her, although it takes more fingers. Fishburne, now convinced that there is at least a possibility that Phillippe is a sympathizer. Phillippe protests that he truly is a sympathizer. His food program is a terrorist plot to poison food, McDonald's especially it seems. Fishburne declares he is indeed a Nigerian Islamist leader but that they didn't get Phillippe's name as a cell member. If Phillippe tells them some names of the Dutch cell, it will constitute his bona fides. Phillippe jibes a little, but says both of them should write names down simultaneously. They write. Fishburne merely writes "Thank you, thank you, thank you." With the names, Fishburne murders Phillippe. He, Gina and Colm, back from the dead, shuck their Muslim attire and go outside where they have a view of the statue of Liberty.

You have to wonder what to make of actors and writers and producers who do stuff like this. The plot hinges on Colm being someone who Phillippe trusts enough to guide him into the Rif, but thinks might genuinely be some antimuslim bigot, or a CIA plant. (A line of dialogue suggests that Colm acted as a provocateur.) It's rather like those Mission: Impossible episodes where so much information was given to the team at the beginning of the episode that the villains really had no chance. The plot also relies on Phillippe not being swift enough to suggest that both men write the names with first and last names mismatched and with false names included. Then the other could rewrite the list given to him to the real versions. If both lists matched, both were what they said they were. Most of all, there is no reason given for not just holding Phillippe prisoner until more information comes throught the regular communication lines. So the plotting is pretty loose.

So, what's the point? That idealists will murder people by the thousands? That torturing and murdering people will save humanity from the idealists? These are rotten old ideas that should embarrass everyone concerned. Or is it merely the pragmatic lesson that torture alone doesn't work, but deception does? (Except why then the torture? Fishburne tacitly acknowledges that taking all five fingers on the hand won't get any more information.) Or was it just a sensationalistic reversal, where the pretty white guy is the villain and the dark-skinned guys are not? That our expectation that Islamists are torturers is right, and that to pass as Islamists they have to act as torturers? That even their sympathizers know that Islamists are torturers?

Overall, very nasty stuff.

More Madness from John C. Wright

An extraordinary "Apologia pro opere sua," with no apologies to Cardinal Newman or whoever, was posted over a series of days. This is the philosophical rationalization for Wright's deranged homophobic rant over Scifi's positive response to GLAAD. Hal Duncan is continuing his logorrhetic annihilation.

For my part, there is very little of note. Wright affirms that his antigay position is in fact part of his anitleftist position, and preceded his conversion to Christianity, or specific adherence to Roman Catholicism. There's no particular reason to doubt his word but it is hardly relevant in the sense that he thinks. Religion is the rationalization and organization of superstition and bigotry in the service of social order. That usually is straightforward subservience to the ruling class. A bigot will always find a happy home in a church.

Wright also affirms that his homophobia is a political consequence of his defense of marriage, which as noted preceded his religion. This too is likely true. Marriage as an institution exists for the control of property, which in this society consists even for the poorest of the wife and children. That is why marriage is not just a contract, a point he childishly belabors. Wright foolishly imagines that Christian marriage is somehow in opposition to the bourgeois conception of marriage as a contract. He therefore takes the extraordinary position that the oppression of polygamy (which he is so confused he dare not categorically call oppression!) is justified by the contract approach. In truth, polygamy, as an inherently unequal contract for sexual services (amongst other things,) cannot be consistently enforced by a consistently democratic government. It violates the principle of equality that democracy is founded upon. It is the view of marriage as "the cornerstone of civilization" that turns the state into the Scourge of God that enforces the divine sexual order. He apparently didn't realize that cities are the cornerstone of civilization, although the etymology of the word might have given him a clue.

Wright also seems to think that marriage itself is founded upon copulation. Somehow this doesn't include anal copulation. Given such vacuous notions, the possibility of superior marriage law than bourgois contract doesn't even come onto the radar screen. One of the simplest possible reforms, permission to children to leave the home at adolescence for a job, instead of staying under the parental thumb, doesn't even occur to him. No wonder this guy wrote that end of time crap, where Clarke's Law is invoked to cover nonsense.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Defense of John C. Wright!

Point One: Every writer worthy of the name wants to go to Hollywood.With no exceptions. Writing on spec for the Colbert Report is laudable ambition. Laud Mr. Wright, and emulate! Point Two: The Golden Age was dull as dirt and I couldn't read more than fifty, a hundred pages through. I was laughing hysterically when I read his rough draft for a comedy sketch. The brilliant switch from end of time SF (aka advanced science=magic,)enabled his talent to flower.Point Three: When so many people are so concerned the US is engaged in multiple wars while the government funnels dollars by the trillion into certain banks and Wall Street firms, the importance of being both pure for God and respectable for society can easily be overlooked. Mr. Wright has an astounding ability to see the genuinely important issues of the day.

^^^Can't help it, I like my own jokes, even if I'm the only one laughing.

There's not much argument to take seriously. (Hal Duncan does some amusing overkill trying to do so on The notion that homosexuality is wrong derives from religion, which means it should automatically be questioned as superstition. There is no rational argument against homosexuality anywhere, least of all here. Ethically speaking, sexual mores should address taking care of the children and STDs. That leaves a pretty wide latitude.

Equally, the notion that the networks are agents in promoting or retarding social mores on sexuality has two problem. First, the networks follow public mores timorously. Homosexuality is becoming more acceptable because society is changing. Fewer and fewer people are middle class by the old meaning of the term (mom doesn't have to work, own business, actually own home as opposed to struggling with mortgage and so on.) The lower classes we are all coming have always had less to lose by engaging in cheap indoor sports. Scientific progress in birth control has changed sexuality too. Plus who knows what else. There is little reason to think that television has or could played a major role in spreading new ideas.

Which brings us to the second problem with Mr. Wright's concerns. Namely, television relelentlessly advocates heterosexuality, constantly associating it with commercial products. Its relentless search for sex appeal likely does have a total cumulative effect. But in the opposite direction to what he fears!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Defying Gravity

Coed locker rooms. The hero is a grown man but punches out two different men in the first episode. Even if it was two hours long, that just tells you something. Said hero goes into women's room to flirt with his True Love. Said hero and True Love have sparks flying but have to fight, like some tired rom-com. Said hero's vasectomy fails and True Love apparently has abortion and is tormented by hallucinations of crying child. Other people don't notice she's hallucinating. Now, as it happens, I've dealt with someone who was hallucinating. Even if you don't realize they're having a psychotic break, you know there's something terribly wrong. The Hindu guy goes completely bonkers and goes out into space so there's a personal rescue by the supersensitive Hero.

Oh, my.

There's some sort of sf plot in there too. But this show has plainly gotten way too much influence from the BattleStar Galactica school of bullshit characterization in pursuit of trite sensationalism.

Pass. Or should I say, Fail?

The New Improved Old Testament

Kings is finished. People avoided the show in droves. The ratings didn't drop precipitously, they were bad from the first episode. The same was true for The Book of Daniel. Although there wasn't an organized campaign against Kings as for Book of Daniel, I'm pretty sure that religous suspicions were a major cause of the widespread disinterest. People just didn't think a reboot of the Bible was needed. Perhaps the nature of the show was not as well understood as I believe, though.

The strong implication that God wants land for peace, although soundly based in the best official traditions of Christian ethics, has an impertinent relevance to contemporary politics. When Kings explicitly shows soldiers rousting citizens (settlers in the real world,) it has an uncomfortable sharpness. The thing is, that land for peace, is very much a Christian improvement on the real OT. On the other hand, the insistence for peace just might be why God has turned against Silas (the series name for Saul.) Having it both ways is typical for would be edgy television, which usually has it the accepted way. Genuinely bold TV by my lights takes a dissident position. Asking hard questions is easy, contrary to the idiots who liked BattleStar Galactica: It's answering the hard questions that's difficult.

Another improvement on the OT is the treatment of David and Jonathan. Now, the love passing the love of women simply cannot be ascribed to the glorious Son of God (a title for a King, after all,) so Jonathan, who is dubbed Jack in the series, is an enemy of David. This is because he sees David as a rival, just as does Saul. This turns Jack into another EVIL HOMO. By dramatic jujitsu, his evilness is rooted in his sacrificing his gayness for power. His true love, definitely not David in the corrected version offered here, even commits suicide as he outs Jack, in order to liberate his true self from the sacrifices required for power. And Silas' fury and contempt at Jack's gayness is just another aspect of Silas' evil. The role of religion in justifying homophobia pretty much disappears. Actor Sebastian Stan, whose career has probably peaked, should get a supporting actor Emmy for selling this stuff. (Ian McShane naturally should get the best actor and Susanna Thompson, a Book of Daniel alumna, should get best supporting actress, too.) Naturally, David's true love is Michelle, Michal in the OT. The Bible's loud proclamation that David wouldn't even fuck her is tactfully unforeshadowed.

Wes Studi did a one note performance as Abner, who is killed off here, unlike the OT. He adequately captures the murderous nature of the Biblical Abner, but it is necessarily one note. Abner being a henchman for David as well as Silas would give away too much, so this is another of the improvements. Dylan Baker plays brother in law William Cross, a tycoon responsible for much plotting for war and palace revolution. He is a totally fictional character. Adding a fictional villain allows uncomfortable questions about how a villainous Silas could once have God's approval as king.

The land for peace position on Palestine is merely officially US policy. The real policy is total US support for Israel in its conquest of the Promised Land. It appears that the show knows this, hence the careful ambiguity about Silas' peace program. Or was it David's? Would David's progressive disillusion with Silas come to include the cession of Port Prosperity? The name intensifies the issue, and is not an OT name adapted for the series. Shiloh, Silas' new built capital, may stand in for Jerusalem, or it may not. Is it really part of God's plan, or not? As I say, implications about the real "Promised Land" are carefully confused.

Not ambiguous, and therefore distinguishing Kings from religion respecting trash like Deep Space Nine and BSG, much less fantasies like Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven, is the show's frank acknowledgement that God's ways are so damn mysterious that observant humans can naturally be peeved at the way He does business. Indeed, possibly even outraged.
In one sense, it is tempting to forgive Kings its temporizing on Zionism and homosexuality on the grounds that it was picking its battles.

It is also tempting to forgive Kings because it is so well written. It's forthright setting in a fantasy world of the nations of Gath and Gilboa may lead sf fans to think it is alternate history. It is not: There is no branch point where the imagined history touches our real history. God has no dialogue, however, nor are there angels. One visitation to David takes the form of a dream of his own father, not his Father. The main actions shown by God are a plume of smoke defying the wind and a glass falling off a table unnoticed by the protagonists. The hokey Witch of Endor disappears, but the ghost of Samuel is seen mainly by people who don't know he is dead. The exception is Silas. In the series, Silas orders the execution of Rev. Samuels, the Samuel character. This is a rather neat resolution of the power conflict between the Judge Samuel and the King Saul.

Such improvements in the plotting are a notable excellence of the series. Quite aside from such necessary clevernesses as David not being a shepherd, but a Sheppard, and Goliath being a giant tank, there is an abundant invention in cleaning up peculiarities in the OT. For example, Rev. Samuels' secret annointment of David the boy, prior to his coming to Saul's attention, is done as an accident, when Samuels inadvertently smears motor oil on the young man. David in the series is a pianist, and he is first noticed playing by Silas . But it is in passing, and Silas does not learn his name, so when David destroys the Goliath he can be formally introduced. The OT tells us that Elhanan slew Goliath, so when the series David is framed for treason, prosecutor Jack says that a Lawrence Hannon took out the tank with a remote.

Silas flawed nature is flambuoyantly portrayed by writers and actor. The minor characters, including even two simple security guards, are depicted with a specificity and reality unusual for main characters in other series. The dialogue includes a highly formal version used on state occasions by the upperclass characters, or by minor characters aspiring to formality. The awareness of class differences of this sort is surprising for US television, which generally knows only the dregs of the lumpenproletariat and the vast "middle class." And usually dare not notice an upper class at all. In an extraordinarily amusing scene, the evil brother-in-law starts to make a formal announcement, then exasperatedly cries "Now you've got me doing it!"

All these virtues elevate Kings above its competition. If it doesn't win the Emmy for best drama, it will be because the implicit politics and the mere permission for characters to question God make it too risky for approval. Like all fantasies, though, in the end it does imagine the fantastic as real, and you have to wonder, what is the point? But it's so well written! But it's got another Evil Homo, even if said evil homo is still written like a real human being might be in such a bizarre situation.

I suppose it's like The Wire. Perhaps it is just absurd to be so perfectionist about something that has so much goodness in it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What are the school league tables for? A review of Torchwood: Children of Earth

Children of Earth what BBC did instead of a third season of Torchwood. As probably everybody on Earth already knows before me (I waited till it was available on Netflix, not getting BBCA,) Captain Jack Harkness in 1965 turned over eleven children to aliens. The twelfth is left to lay the groundwork for the climax. They return, this time demanding ten percent of all the Earth's children. The UK government, to cover up the previous deal, tries to execute some of the survivors of the previous deal, which involves blowing up and killing all of Torchwood for some reason. What determined which people who knew of the previous deal could survive is unknown by the movie's end. The aliens, for some reason, make all the children of the Earth speak in unison some of their dialogue, so everybody is thoroughly freaked. The Torchwood team is running around trying to escape or rescue Jack. The government takes out insurance by seizing Jack's previously unseen daughter and grandson.

Which they do. They manage to recruit a secretary to record the secret meetings. What with everything, Jack realizes it's the old aliens back. Jack then uses the recording to blackmail the government into permitting his meeting the alien spokesman. Jack makes a defiant speech, the alien calls the bluff and releases poison into the building where the secret meetings take place. Ianto perishes. The government then proceeds to go forward on the surrender, while Jack calls off releasing the recordings of the plans for the surrender. He is taken to his daughter and grandson. The implication that Jack caved to save them is not quite drawn. Gwen and Reece try to save Ianto's previously unseen niece and nephew. The government assassin who has religiously tried to kill Torchwood has a change of heart, releasing Jack and helping him fight the aliens. In a sensational turn of events, this demands sacrificing Jack's grandson. Ianto is dead, Gwen is pregnant and Jack goes off into space for rehab time from the gruesome tragediness of it all. In short, hardball negotiations on actor contracts for any more Torchwood are GO!

Of course, Torchwood, as a Dr. Who spinoff, suffers from merely recounting the plot. Dr. Who has always suffered from childish beliefs about how if it's not mundane, there's no rhyme nor reason. Unlike other shows, it has at least used imagination and a certain amount of heart to turn out a superior product, usually. This latest outing shows both the advantage and disadvantage of such disdain for science, society and sanity.

The ostensible heroes get rather less screen time than is usual. They are extremely ineffective. It mostly plays because the government itself has kept Torchwood from working effectively, concentrating on killing everyone. When Jack and Ianto confront the alien spokesman, though, it appears they had no plan beyond shooting the glass of their atmospheric chamber. When the glass is bullet proof, Jack can only scream "Not him!" This sets up much emo as Ianto dies. And when for some obscure reason the grandson is the only child in reach to sacrifice to kill the aliens, it is extremely difficult to accept that 1.) it really is the only way to attack the aliens, because it doesn't actually make any sense and 2.) it is not at all clear why the kid has to die and 3.) the old guy whose death was supposed to be the clue to the mechanics of the final jeopardy died without anything of the sort being clear. It is forced upon the viewer that this is all about Jack emo. And the silly idea that to save us it is necessary for heroes to take the burden of sin upon themselves and commit terrible crimes. Enjoying the climax is strictly a matter of how much affection a viewer has managed to invest in Captain Jack Harkness and whether the political moral resonates.

So much for the disadvantage of thinking the science in science fiction is a synonym for magic. You get to thinking that any childish fantasy is acceptable. But what about the advantage?
The advantage is that you can use thes gaudy excesses as disguises, to leave a certain emotional space. Or as hightlighters, to draw caricatures. Caricature is underrated. A good caricature is more recognizable than the original precisely because it emphasizes some real aspect.

In the government discussions on surrender, one character asks the question "What are the school league tables for?" In context, plainly, to identify the loser children. In the story, the children sacrificed to the aliens are plugged into the aliens as a sort of prosthetic attachment for chemicals that make the aliens feel good. Since the school league tables in real life mean exactly that, to identify the loser children who get plugged into a system that makes its masters feel good, the Whovian huggermugger in this movie highlights the real horror of a system where the masters knowingly write off whole swathes of the population because, basically, it feels good, for the pocketbook as well as the ego. We get to see what "we" really do, everyday, in disguised form that lets us deny it as simply sensationalism. When the group decides to sacrifice the children the drama climaxes. There is something of a counterparallel climax, where the civil servant doing the dirty work, informed that his children have been selected as tokens of elite sacrifice to the system, goes to his home and slays wife, children and self. The awfulness of the system and the impossibility of standing up to it are driven home.

This is far too intense and real (despite the sf trappings) to let stand. Lois Habiba, the offwhite secretary who records the session with Torchwoodian contact lens (which Gwen and Reece had at home for DIY porno with extreme closeups---that is very Torchwoodian!) is at first sneered at as a revolutionary! Captain Jack of course is no rebel. He's a Rebus, whose maverickness signs true dedication and whose flaws are really not so bad, in fact, something someone like him might need to do the job. The sacrifice of children to the system has to be made, because nothing's more important. Therefore, Jack has to sacrifice a child. To be a hero, instead of a pathetic loser like John Frobisher, the suicidal civil servant, Jack has to not only sacrifice his child but somehow win. He not only survives but defeats the aliens. Frobisher's secretary (and lover, for a time, at least) Bridget Spears, had gotten the contact lens from Habiba. She recorded subsequent conversations, which are, we are shown, will force the evil PM Green to step down. The main villain punished! The show does at least hint that his replacement will be just another of the ones who argued for the sacrifice.

Thematically, the recordings should have been released. The alien threat should have been shown to be either a bluff or the consequences of defiance dealt with.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Learning to Despise the Military Mind

Learning is lifelong. The latest lesson was prompted by a quarter copy of Robert Heinlein's Expanded Universe, which I don't think I have actually read. It must have been one of the first Heinlein works to come out after I'd matured some. I'd started noticing things terrribly wrong with I Will Fear No Evil. Then, Time Enough for Love proved there was not time enough in my lifetime to continue loving the Heinlein oeuvre. I was grateful that Friday and Job were at least readable, if not read too closely.

But a quarter at the Goodwill is quite enough to justify enough someone as disreputable as Heinlein. Of course, he isn't disreputable. That right there says altogether too much about the fans of science fiction. Somehow, Andre Norton, the other dead giant of YA SF, is absently mindedly dismissed. But Heinlein, Heinlein is somehow still respected.

The thing about this collection is that it contains some of Heinlein's overtly political fiction and nonfiction. Two essays in particular, about a tourist trip to the Soviet Union, are also revealing about Heinlein the man. In those essays, Heinlein announces his conviction that Moscow's population was falsified. The railroad yards, the shipping on the Moscow river, and the testitmony of other brave and forthright military officers expert in logistics are cited to confirm the astounding inability of the West to see through Communist lies. Since the famous Moscow Metro was also famous for carrying freight at night, Heinlein's survey of railroad yards proves him either a halfwit or a liar.

I tend to favor the latter. Also in these essays, Heinlein gives tips for dealing with Intourist. His prescriptions are really quite simple. They merely elaborate on the sociopath's only wisdom, that most people are fundamentally decent, thus disarmed against an aggressive foe unencumbered by empathy. He recommends refusing to move, leaning into personal space, open insults (with helpful hints on what is particularly vile by Russian standards,) screaming. In Heinlein's other fiction, such tourists come in for authorial abuse. This was no doubt very amusing for him, in effect bragging about what he got away with. The notorious incident with his vicious attack on Arthur C. Clarke at Greg Benford's place shows how Heinlein was a practicing socioopath in his US domestic life as well. (If it pleases you to substitute mean, lying dirtbag for "sociopath," feel free.)

Which puts his other fiction in a different light. Jubal Harshaw's asides about manipulating sentimentality in his audience, the political dirty tricks and spying also seem to be autobiographical. It is interesting to speculate about Heinlein's real motives and role in Upton Sinclair's EPIC campaign. A naval officer retired young for TB, with some contacts via free love (Heinlein's first wife) with the left, is ideal for a second career as a political operative. Like those "disilliusioned" Vietnam vets were ideal for infiltrating antiwar movements. We'll never know, most likely.

One of the pieces repeats some of his favorite subterfuges re Starship Troopers. Since everyone with the slightest education knows that the franchise in ancient democracies, as in the well known example of Athens, depended upon service in the military, Heinlein's basic thesis, that the responsibility of service stabilizes, is false, and known to be false, throughout the entire book. The occasional sentence thrown in about Federal Service not being military service were deliberately inserted for polemical purposes. If ninety five percent of the Federal Service were nonmilitary, there was no need for the scene in which examiners talk about forcing a cripple to withdraw by deliberate harassment. Counting the hairs on a caterpillar was the example, I believe.

The anthology also contains his Patrick Henry appeal. Apparently he tried to ride this political hobby horse somewhere. Then it turned out not to be Republican party policy. I don't think Heinlein ever forgave Eisenhower. But as a general, Eisenhower was exempt from real criticism. The appeal itself was the most ludicrous, vicious Red Scare mania imaginable. Vicious personal slanders, equation of disagreement about facts equated with treason, non sequiturs and double standards abound. Heinlein knew very well what the US military was up to, in the past and in the present. He just didn't care. In Glory Road, though, he really only cared to explain how his Hero didn't screw outside his race. The man knew how to duck. He threw in miscegenation in Farnham's Freehold to sweeten the pill of black on white cannibalism. People still tend to sort of glide over Farnham's Freehold, like it didn't even exist. Ah, but it did. What does it say to pretend it didn't?

The funniest thing of all, is that with a little maturity, reading Mark Twain, and a little Jack London and H.L. Menchken, reveals how unoriginal Heinlein's style really was. His play with scientific ideas was nowhere nears as imaginative as Arthur C. Clarke's. So he used his grasp of basic science in juveniles, where excessive creativity would have been a handicap. Of his adult work, the influence of John W. Campbell on the Future History stories gave them an interior strength. His later "adult" work is notoriously bad, with even trash like Spider Robinson unable to make a coherent case. (The defenders picked up one thing from the poisonous toad they worship: The best defense is a good offense. They trash the motives and politics of Heinlein critics.)

His true strength was a certain kind of fantasy characterization, straight from the pulps, to the reader's vicarious daydreams. For the mature reader, Isaac Asimov far excelled in his portrayal of real human beings. Since no one makes a brief for the Good Doctor's literary talents, that really shows how truly awful Heinlein is.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Welcome to Promise City

In the series finale, Great Leap Forward, Danny Farrell, was assured by Kevin Burkhoff that he was sure to survive the promicin injection, making fifty/fifty last season. Danny took the injection, acquired the power to continuously emit contagious promicin. The promicin killed his and Shawn's mother (and Tom Baldwin's sister,) and sparked a massive outbreak at the hospital, which escaped into Seattle at large, including NTAC headquarters. Meghan Doyle (replacement for Samantha Ferris and Karina Lombard!) Marco Pacella, his new Theory Room girl friend whose name I've already forgotten (!), and Garrity survive, acquiring 4400 abilities.

Tom Baldwin was safe from the contagion as he and Jordan Collier were being held prisoner by the Marked. Isabel Taylor turns on the Marked, sacrificing her life to save Tom and Jordan. Instead of arresting Jordan, Tom gives him the list of the Marked, realizing that the Marked were beyond his NTAC authority, leaving Jordan free to deal with the Marked.

It was unclear whether "Cassie's" real plan was for Isabel to actually terminate the 4400 movement by turning Jordan. It is not obvious that freeing Isabel was the only way to deal with the Marked, especially since it required knowing that Isabel would have a change of heart so powerful and sincere to demand self sacrifice of life itself. Diana Skouris is discovered to be immune to the promicin contagion. Investigating this, Kevin Burkhoff more or less instantly discovers that a homone, ubiquinone, prevents the acquisition of promicin. And it turns out this is already a commercially prepared medicine. Shawn takes revenge on Danny for killing his mother, albeit at Danny's request, by taking his life. Thus ends the epidemic.

The deaths number about nine thousand, implying that there were about nine thousand new 4400s surviving. Overwhelmed by the catastrophe, Seattle NTAC asks for Collier's help and Kyle implements the plans Jordan has made for taking over Seattle. The series ended with Kyle telling Tom it was time to take the shot; a montage of the NTAC 4400s discovering their new abilities, and Welcome to Promise City written upon a road sign on the outskirts to Seattle.

Instead of writing a huge, series changing climax, which the next several episodes spent time undoing, Behr wrote this season finale (which of course became the series finale) which maintained the status quo. The uncontrolled spread of promicin was instantly controlled. The end of fifty/fifty meant that promicin could spread safely, but the discovery of ubiquinone meant that promicin spread could be stopped. There were still zero indicators as to the nature of the catastrophe. Collier was still arbitrarily written as somehow equal in villainy to someone like Dennis Ryland. Collier was shown as pleading with Tom to kill him before the Marked could finish turning him, but everything Collier does is rejected as fanatical and/or revolutionary.

There are two follow up novels planned for the series. Greg Cox has written the first, officially released Tuesday but now available by preorder. The status quo remains unchanged. Tom does not take the shot. This fits the series, which exhibits a visceral fear and hate at the thought of the future being different. The notion of common people become powerful seems to the stumbling block. As THE HERO, therefore, Tom must reject the temptation to evil promicin offers. The name "promicin" of course alludes to the false promises of the future, revolution, power for the common man. The title of the series finale, "Great Leap Forward," was meant to inspire fear and revulsion by alluding to Communism.

On a personal level, with son and nephew, girl friend(s), boss and coworkers as 4400s, Tom's feeling of being left behind, should be a factor. Even more important, the feeling of helplessness should be even more a factor. And even more important than that, the feelings of guilt over being used by the Marked to murder two men should affect his feelings over promicin, which is what the Marked are supposed to be fighting.

The novel focuses on huggermugger over Danny Farrell's body being used for research to recreate the contagious promicin. Although the series has always showed Collier holding to his insistence that promicin must be voluntary, as noted above everything Collier does is suspect, especially for motive. This is not true of Dennis Ryland, who is back for the novel, which is also true to the series characterization. As in the novel, Ryland desires the use of promicin as long as it remains in elite hands. The possibility that the catastrophe is the monopoly of promicin powers by the elite is unexplored. Therefore Jordan's insistence that everyone take promicin is simply fanaticism, not democratic.

The basic premise of the story is that the effort to recreate the contagious promicin would be the trigger for a military attack on Promise City. Not only is Danny's body missing, showing there is a real plot, there is also an effort by Ryland to establish Collier as responsible as a justification for attack. Collier is shown as manipulating Richard Taylor into attacking the Marked in revenge for Isabel's murder, while maintaining deniability. This is supposed to leave it open for Collier to violate character and be equally responsible for the new plot.

There are a couple of problems. First, the notion that Ryland or the government needs any justification beyond loss of power is nonsense. Second, the notion that Collier would bother to manipulate Richard seems unlikely. Collier has no deniability because Baldwin knows exactly what he's doing, for the good reason Baldwin wanted him to do it. And Baldwin's superiors know who the Marked were supposed to be, because Tom tried to do it the legal way to start off with.

The narrative deals largely with the attacks. There is a little bit of unintentional wheel spinning when Richard is sprung from jail, then is recaptured, then is sprung again. The emotional story is the repudiation of immoral (subtext reads, "revolutionary") violence. Kyle is sickened by having to kill Marco's new girlfriend (who was converted to the cause when she became a 4400.) Richard is sickened by killing one of the Marked. Burkhoff and his girlfriend Tess are sickened to the point they abandon the 4400 cause completely, not just Collier, as previously shown.

These conversions to the forces of law and order are unconvincing. Kyle's grief over killing people in self defense situtations is particularly symptomatic. Kyle thinks Cassie is a manifestation of his own prophetic ability. Kyle released Isabel so she could kamikaze the Marked. Kyle loved Isabel. The inescapable conclusion is that Kyle sacrificed his lover. Ignoring this is false characterization. Making Kyle feel guilt over self defense instead is a way of imputing guilt to the 4400 movement in general, and Collier in particular for violence even in self defense.

Richard of course is converted to nonviolence even against the people who killed his own daughter, over whom he supposedly feels much guilt for his own errors and failures. Yeah, right. Assuming the absolutely unacceptable awfulness of violence by ordinary people is the only thing that makes this believable. Burkhoff's obsession with his research is one of his defining traits, which makes his withdrawal also unbelievable. But it makes it a more powerful statement against Collier.

Kyle's belief that Cassie is merely his feminine side does not keep him from having sex with her. The logical possibility that Kyle was, in the original plan, taken as a 4400 whose ability was to communicate with a person in the future, as a liaison with NTAC authority Tom, is not broached. Since the elites began interfering with the plan, starting with Isabel, then by subverting Kyle to assassinate Collier, it seems logical that Isabel and Kyle are still agents of the elites, knowingly or not. The peculiar differences between Kyle's release and Tom's release could be retcon. Or it could be that Kyle was abandoned because his cover was blown. Or something else? The further possibility that the elites took over the future end of the Kyle link, either by putting Cassie in place or by Marking her, is also not broached. The fact that Cassie seemed eager for the promicin plot to succeed therefore reads more a hint of what Collier's faction really stands for, which is still supposed to be the slaughter of half of humanity. Why there wouldn't be a promicin power to give people the ability to survive the shot escapes me. Cassie's eagerness for the plot to succeed would then read as eagerness for an attack on Seattle.

Shawn is basically written out of the story with the statement his political career is over, due to the catastrophe. I'm sure that every anti-Collier force would favor Shawn as a counterweight within the 4400 community. Following up on the father/son relationship between Jordan and Shawn would be too favorable to Collier? In any event, the 4400 movement has to be reduced to the personality of Jordan Collier. Because all revolutionary movements are fraudelent personality cults?The final volume is titled Promises Broken. This suggests that Collier will fall to Baldwin and promicin will be exposed as false promise and eternal human nature will not be violated and the future will be the same as today. And this novel is just marking time til the real end.

Howard L. Myers

A Sense of Infinity collects about half of his total work, including his two novels. Myers himself, judging from the copyrights was a pulp author, mainly Analog, main Sixties and Seventies. The short stories, considered as a light hearted variant of Robert Sheckley, are engaging enough. But they could be considered as less imaginative and less evocative than Sheckley. They share a similar loose regard for the science part of science fiction.

This is not literally true of the novels Cloud Chamber and Ultmo Novo (a fixup of two novellas.) Cloud Chamber takes it titular image from the scientific instrument. But it involves antimatter entities, which are therefore antilife, their machinations against a science hero of our universe and his eventual triumph. The science in this one explicitly avows that thought is prior to matter, that the human soul is eternal and the ascent of humanity culminates in a kind of paradise, called here Avalon. The science here regards openness to metaphysical discoveries as part of science. By a curious synchronicity, I read this in conjunction with an internet discussion with Hal Duncan, wherein he avows the need for such an openness. It was a perfect commentary on the possible consequences. Incidentally, the Lafe in the glimpse of heaven we get, there is a Lafe, coworker with Siggy in the field of the mind, which is surely Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.

Similarly, Ultimo Novo, which centers upon the hero's triumph in true science, holds that the false scientists who rule out the value of psychic powers (as evolutionary regression,) explicitly holds that science must accept the possible validity of metaphysical entities superior to matter. Indeed, even the scientististic scientists are at least advanced enough to accept that the human will affects evolution. Is it Lamarckism if psychic powers are involved? Science demonstrates that materialism is a justified belief. Pragmatically, there is nothing else that could be called truth or knowledge. There is no reason for insisting upon opennes to other metaphysical possibilities except the hope or wish or pretense that such nonsense as Myers', isn't.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

(continued from below)

The way that fans of a particular genre are familiar with previous works, take pleasure in the tension between novelty and familiarity, evaluate intention and success in meeting intention in their search for the best, is nothing unique. Dedicated readers or playgoers do exactly the same. For what is dubbed literature, works that are not commonly marketed as specific genres, professsional academics are a major portion of such an audience. Because of their credentials, what they call literature is commonly accepted as being in some respect of genuinely higher quality. The notion that literature is the Good Stuff is exactly paralleled by definitions of science fiction that smuggle in notions about genuine scientific plausibility or the meaningful exploration of scientific issues in fictional form.

Sometimes stuff is called literature just because professors say so. For some reason, it is much more popular to rail against the professoriat. In fact, the marketing specialists have a great deal to do with labeling works as genre or literary or classics. Or mislabeling, as when science fiction and fantasy are lumped together. Certainly no publisher would bother to separate alternate history from alien invasion, even if both are separate genres in the science fiction mode. Perhaps it is easier to criticize professors than big corporations?

But it is still true that while genres are commonly select tastes, what is called literature includes not just the select tastes of the professoriat, but works that have stood the test of time. Things like the novels of Charles Dickens or the Sherlock Holmes stories have been grandfathered into literature with a capital L. The implicit suggestion that this is all merely snobbery is absurd and a little offensive. People tend to rate such things more highly not because they think they're supposed to but because they do in fact find them more engaging, more meaningful than simple genre works. People who are love Jane Austen, for instance, in fact tend to be defensive about imputations of snobbery. Further, genre works remembered over time are also grandfathered into literature with a capital L. All these are popular works in the best sense of the word, as well as being literature in the best sense of the word.

The main points of contention are in literary and dramatic criticism. The process of evaluating literature and drama highlights issues of the functions of literature and drama, both their ethical import and the implications about the reader or audience. First, there is the fact, confirmed by simple observation, that most literature is basically wish fulfillment fantasies of one sort or another. Either the reader gets off on the scenario, or he/she doesn't. Generally there isn't much more to be said. There is little to argue for there is nothing to praise or condemn. But there's no getting around it: If enjoying 24 means the viewer is getting off on torture, then that is going to be felt as a personal insult.

Second, there are the James Fenimore Coopers or Edgar Rice Burroughs, who create something new. There are the Star Wars which rearrange the old with new style. Such originality is uncommon. Often it is accompanied by noticeable deficiencies of another sort. The question of how to add up points for originality and how much they compensate for points lost for characterization or seriousness or literary style is both unanswerable and not worth answering. The tendency to rank things is a game. It may played like ice hockey on the internet or in some English departments but it's still a game. The difficulty is that criticism means examining what something is. One inextricable aspect means evaluating what it means to do, and whether it does it. Both of these are factually contentious. They also practically beg for the rating game to be played, because comparisons between works, authors and genres are part of critical evaluation.
The endless disputes are as absorbing and as meaningless as the BCS. Time and numbers are the best cure for fads, academic or otherwise, but not very helpful for current works. This is why Literature tends to seem to be rather embalmed. It's a sampling error. What can be safely guaranteed to works that aim high and succeed

Third, there is the criticism of genres. In evaluating what genres do, there is an implicit evaluation of what the fan of the genre. To like classic westerns is to like the racial subtext. This realization can be painful. It is in fact so painful that criticism is constantly mired in the refusal to accept simple observation; the willfully obtuse denial of the very existence of subtext; the obscurantist denial that generalization is possible; the cynical denial that objective discourse is at all possible, even about grammar, spelling, punctuations and the facts of history and nature! Seeing what is there, correct reading of subtext, correct generalization, objectivity to sum it up is never easy and never perfect. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Fourth, there is the criticism that based on literary theory. This leads to all sorts of disputes between the popular and the academic.

One fundamental principle is, in a good work of fiction, all elements contribute to the desired effect. This is the kind of criticism that notes a science fiction story may be a western with ray guns, aliens for Indians and spaceships for covered wagons. Then it concludes that the science fiction is merely decoration. The further conclusion is that it is not true art. This assumes that decoration is not art, which simply isn't true. The idea seems to be rooted in some sort of commercial pragmatic, even when the art aims at some sort of spiritual epiphany. The attitude is that if it doesn't make money (contribute to the desired effect,) now, it's not worthwhile. The indifference in much commercial fiction to any concerns other than immediate sensation (the "money shot" is what they call it in the movies) is a prime example, showing that all literature, not just the best, is literature and has the same problems.

Another is the fundamental principle that some kinds of writing are objectively better than others. This should be the least contentious principle of all, but it is not. Nonstandard grammar, spelling and punctuation are usually bad, because they are less comprehensible. Demotic spelling, grammar and punctuation may be better because they are more comprehensible.

Another fundamental principle is that literature should model the good. This is contentious because what is good is in dispute. Also, some people like being bad.

A related fundamental principle is that literature should model the real. This is not opposed to modeling the real unless it is tactily assumed, either that only the perfect is the good, or that the real is bad. Some people explicitly dislike the real.

Another fundamental principle is that true art addresses something called the human condition, which is eternal. This is extraordinary since living memory tells us that it isn't.

A related fundamental principle is that true art addresses character. The notion is that human nature is reponsible for the human condition.

Possibly you might distinguish another fundamental principle but this is a fairly complete set revealing the discords that leave literary criticism a constant cacophony of arguments that miss confronting each other because they do not agree on first principles. Further, because these first principles are derived from deep seated attitudes about our culture they are usually unexpressed, apt to misunderstanding or even argued in bad faith.

What is generally regarded as literature, in the sense of being the best, is often marked by technical pragmatism at the expense of meaning; acceptance or rejection of the demotic for class reasons; ideological exaltation of unreasonable ideals: ideological denigration of real people; a denial of history, past and future; pyschological determinism denying the reality of society. All these of course are just restatements of the basic principle just listed. In their positive form, many people would instantly agree. They would strenuously argue my comments, particularly the observation that history tells us that times change, and the people didn't act the same.

The negative formulations would inspire huge dissent.

In the end, it comes down to, as said, why do literature and drama matter? The people who claim they like it for escape are never required to participate in the critical project, and would have no reason to. The ones who insist on the perfect validity of escapism almost invariably mean they want the conventional wisdom affirmed and strenuously object to anything else. The bland observation there's no arguing taste is only true for food. Otherwise, it is the sign of a liar.

What is conventionally regarded as good literature denies the reality of our existence as social beings, in favor of versions of the soul, usually called human nature. (The precise alias hardly matters.) It denies that there is a future that will be different, which is mad. It denies that the past is equally worthy of our attention. Plainly, all this is ideologically motivated. This kind of literature and drama is sadly impoverished, worse, self castrated. Standard literary criticism is the chief defender of this ideology.

Postscript on Style

Appreciation of style is first and foremost a matter of experience. This may not sound like much, but it is everything. With experience, the difference between an allusion and something borrowed from books becomes obvious. With experience, the difference between a simple style speeding a story or a difficult style stimulating thought becomes obvious. Style is usually something adults can appreciate. This is disheartening for the young at heart. But there you are.

Mode and Genre, Literature and Criticism, with Postscript on Style


The word's main meaning, style or fashion, is probably the one to keep in mind when discussing modes of literature. It is obviously related to modality, technically a grammatical term referring to something like tenses: might have been, might be, may becomce vs. should have been, should be, should become, for example.

In fiction, the style of narration is the first aspect noted by the reader. First person addressing the reader, third person omniscient, epistolary, stream of consciousness and so on are immediately apparent. But as the work progresses the other aspect, the way the fictive universe is fashioned for the reader, are soon noticeable. The specific mode of any work is primarily the amalgamation of the styles of narration and the style of fictive world displayed in it, whether its mere decoration or a central concern.

People have no difficulties considering narrative mode separately. They are aware that all sorts of works, in different genres, can have different narrative techniques. The fictive setting, where "mode" comes closer to "modality" is more problematic for people. The realist mode is typically the default mode in works that do not detail background. The reader is expected to assume the fictive world is pretty much like the "real" world. Fiction of course is not real, by definition, which means that "realism" is technically a matter of artifice, whether it aims as commerce or art. The realist mode selects aspects of reality. Bias in selection distorts the whole reality. Randomness in selection misses aspects of reality. The realist writer wishes to epitomize reality, correctly selecting the salient facts that tell the story. Some people of course reject the very notion that reality can be epitomized by fiction, and boast of reading only nonficion. It is naive of them to think these problems are not also present in nonfiction, but there you are.

This mode has exactly the same basic difficulties as journalism (which broadly speaking includes travel writing and essays,) history and biography, nonfictional modes of literature. The rule of thumb is that every detail should contribute to the story. But, life is full of details that do no. The problem is even more fundamental: It is not clear what the "story" is, in journalism, history and biography. This is so profoundly true that real life stories are notoriously difficult to fictionalize (or dramatize.) It is the great charge against the very concept of scientific history. The nonfictional modes are criticized as not true. The realist fictional mode is criticized as not true to life. Analysis and evaluation of literature will reflect the philosophical positions (whether the reader and critic has trouble to formulate them or not) about these fundamental issues. Generally, what is published will be acceptable to the views of the prevailing ideology of the rulers of society. And generally, what is not, if it makes it into print or stage or screen at all, will be marginalized. Some people hold that these problems cannot be successfully resolved and therefore accept only genuinely "realistic" fiction and drama. It is naive of them to think that realism is always problematic in fiction, which is by definition not true, but there you are again.

There are two pseudorealist modes, which ostensibly describe a reality that is not physically real but purports in the work to be so. They are of course historical fiction and science fiction. The past is gone, so historical fiction is not really describing it. And the future does not yet exist, so science fiction is not really describing it. The fundamental technical questions in writing either are identical. Is there a story of an individual person, especially one that is a wish fulfillment for the author/reader? Is there a story at all? How much detail of setting is useful for artistic effect? How do you meaningfully join together the quotidian lives of characters and the broad sweep of social changes? How do you depict change, the passage of time? (This is extremely difficult for realistic drama in particular.) How closely to known fact (historical or scientific) do you adhere? How much exposition is needed? How is exposition to be gracefully and compellingly written? Is dialogue to be anachronistic or suitable to the period, past or present? Do you use viewpoint character(s) who is not richly individualized because there is no need for the distraction?

Nonrealist modes, such as fable, fantasy, myth, allegory by contrast have a fundamentally different set of problems. Do you use traditional motifs? Do you create an imaginary setting or surreptititiously use a default conventionality? How do you integrate the real with the imaginary? How do you follow an internal story logic when there is no reality testing of plausibility? Do you create figures who have names but no real characterization to permit reader or audience identification? How do you write exposition of the fantastic nature imagined? What constitutes a good imagination, a stylish creation?

Some of the technical problems overlap with science fiction mode, obviously. Nonetheless, the internal claim to some sort of realism, some connection with our contemporary world (even if only in the past, as in alternate history,) fundamentally separates science fiction mode from fantasy mode. The pretense to realism in "realism," historical fiction and science fiction answers the question: Why does this matter? This question just does not have the same kind of answer in fantasy, surrealism, "magic realism," and so on.

Drama is almost always realistic in the sense that it usually tries to be visually plausible. In the movies, even if a car turns out to be a Transformer, they try to make the FX "realistic." Nonrealistic drama almost always turns out to be a dream or madness. Even the outright fantasies try to capture some sort of visual "realism," even for magic. But the differences in dialogue between science fiction and fantasy movies is usually noticeable.

Poetry as a mode is generally not even narrative, so much so that many critics viscerally hate narrative poetry. Essayistic poetry as well is often despised. Curiously, nature poetry, potentially a realistic mode for poetry, generally is accepted as being true poetry. Perhaps this is because (in my limited experience) it rarely gives details about nature, and expresses the poet's response? In any event, poetry is the last preserve of the militantly elitist. I dare not venture unarmed into the battle of the wits. So, no more about poetry.


We should think of "kind" when we talk genre. What kind of a story is it? We know perfectly well that some kinds of stories are specific kinds, so we call them genres. There are mysteries, and there are westerns, and there are romances. We know the mode is not the same as genre. You can have an epistolary romance or third person omniscient western or even a first person mystery. (Yes, it's been done. Successfully!) And you can have historical romances stories and science fiction mysteries, as well as science fiction romances and historical mysteries.

The western of course perfectly illustrates the difference between mode and genre. By definition, the western is historical fiction. But we know perfectly well that the classic western is characterized by a false history. The noble frontiersman (who is always white) fights the barbarous Indians and redeems the empty land. It is impossible to do both, but that is the classic western, isn't it? We know the romanticized sheriffs and gunslinger and range wars are stories that have little connection to real fact. We have known this so long that the modern western tends rather to be correctives, commentaries, rebuttals, outright subversions of the classic western. This explains why the modern western is an occasional thing. The western will never die. But the classic western was about race in a way that was never stated. It was manifest in the subtext, in its deviations from reality, in its suspicious omissions, in its deliberate refusal to address the problems of historical fiction, such as fidelity to fact. When times changed, when open racism became less popular, the classic western died with them.

The great lesson of the history of the western genre is that genre works are stories and plays (stage, screen or television) that have a specific emotional appeal. When the occasional subversive work comes along, it is espcesially, even more consciously, about that specific emotional appeal. The romance novel is about women finding love. The war novel is about war. The mystery is about threats to social order being resolved by the discovery of who threatens it. And so on and so forth.

The people who develop a taste for a certain genre commonly read or watch a great many works in that genre, precisely because it has that emotional payoff. Being well versed in that genre, they are aware of the previous works. Each new work is assessed for novelty in approach as well as the recognition of the fundamental task of the work, which is to deliver the emotional payoff. Originality in execution combines the shock of the new (albeit a shock more like scuffing your feet on the carpet than the plug for the electric toothbrush) with the climax of recognition. Even the subversive works approach their task by using the tropes and tools of previous works in the genre.

No one who picks up a science fiction or fantasy novel or short story, or goes to see a science fiction or fantasy movie knows what kind of emotional payoff to expect. They do not know what previous works will be referenced, implicitly or maybe explicitly. There is a sense in which science fiction can be considered to comment on now by imagining the future, perhaps in a straightforwardly cautionary way. But a more oblique approach is possible as well. Fantasy, in which anything can happen, seems ideally suited to commenting on now by manifesting our deepest wishes, the ones we dare not articulate nakedly.

What readers or viewers usually do is market research. They look for a specific genre in science fiction or fantasy. It might be space opera or sword and sorcery. Or something else. There are genres like these specific to science fiction and fantasy modes. Then there are the genres done in science fiction or fantasy mode. Isaac Asimov wrote mysteries in the science fiction mode. Richard K. Morgan wrote noir thrillers in science fiction mode. Kage Baker, Justina Robson, Catherine Asaro, Juliet Czerneda write assorted types of romances in science fiction mode. The fact that science fiction is not a genre but a mode is why there is such an astounding diversity of allegedly cross-genre works. That is a misnomer.


It is customary to separate the multitude of genres from something called "literature." This is literally absurd. Literature is everything that is written, which includes the scripts of plays. The distinction is partly political. "Literature" is that work which best expresses the ruling ideology. The stuff that entertains the masses is not literature for the simple reason that the ruling class is never about the masses. It would be nice if that were all there were to the question of literature. It isn't.

First, literature is not the plaything of the ruling class, which is personally generally rather ignorant and commonly downright brutish. The exceptions are exceptional and usually not members active in the daily business of their kind.

Second, literature is a valued esthetic experience for many people, of all classes. A ruling ideology attempts to transcend class as part of its anodyne function. There is a fundamental failure but the attempts by so many people of such varied personalities and considerable talents could never be presumed to be universally failed. In the early days of the advent of a new ruling class, there are real advances (which is the ultimate impetus for their success in the first place,) that are reflected in the highest expression of their views, literature.)

Third, quite ordinary people disdain other genres they do not care for. And more are indifferent. This is not quite the same thing as distaste for fiction or difficulty in reading at all. There is an inherent sense in which genre works are not aimed at everyone but only at fans. This limitation is something that makes genre works less than the ideal of "literature," which is undefined. Literature qua literature can be about anything. That makes it potentially bigger than genre literature.

Fourth, there is the general acceptance by people of all classes of the ruling ideology. This is the opposite of valuing literature for its successes in transcending class. This is valuing literature precisely because it doesn't. Aspirations to appreciation of literature are expressions of desire for betterment in the world as it is. It may shade into the snobbish disdain for the lower tastes of the vulgar, but it is not quite the same thing. The faux populist desire to dismiss literature in the high falutin' sense dismisses the idea of betterment in every sense, not just an illusory one. The lower orders should desire to be better, as well as more prosperous. Criticizing literature for its falsehoods is to criticize everyone, not just the big shots.

All this is commonly dichotomized as good and bad taste. Favoring educated speech and writing over demotic speech is not good taste, though it can be labeled such. Ignoring vague, meaningless language on the grounds that it is the people's tongue is bad taste, even if it poses as rejection of elitism. You must always be aware of the class issues or what you say will be nonsense. This will always be difficult to do, and contentious in practice. That's intellectual life.

The real treachery of the taste metaphor is that it's too literal. Taste in literature in not the sense of taste. The tongue has cells that respond to chemicals and send signals to the brain. This taste is a biological phenomenon, unique to the organism. Cognition has only a limited role. The response to literature, positive or negative, is not some unarguable attribute, which ends all discussion. Someone either likes this much salt on the steak or they don't. There's nothing more to say. This is never the case with literature. Even worse, biologizing the response by this metaphor also evades moral considerations.

That brings us back to the western. The racial subtext in the western exposes why genre literature, despite its superficial independence from snobbery, expresses the ruling ideology. As with all forms of literature, there are exceptions, some conscious, but genres are in fact limited. Although, being limited, they can be successful, this very limitation makes them as a rule less engaging for people in general. They matter less.

Of course, whether works that aim to be literature succeed, is an entirely separate question.