Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Fear of Boundlessness: Explanation for the Mundane SF Movement

1. The Mundane SF Movement

As some of you may know, Julian Todd and Geoff Ryman have created what they have called the "Mundane SF" movement. The full list of premises underlying this movement are available here.

To summarize them, the governing assumptions are that:

1) Due to a lack of plausible FTL drives, interstellar travel is fantasy,

2) Travel to alternate worlds is even more fantastic, and thus

3) We have Only One Earth and had better make the best of it.

Or, in their terms:

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


Geoff Ryman has contrasted mundane science fiction with regular science fiction through the desire of teenagers to leave their parents' homes.[2] Ryman sees too much of regular science fiction being based on an "adolescent desire to run away from our world." However, Ryman notes that humans are not truly considered grown-up until they "create a new home of their own," which is what mundane science fiction aims to do.


Now, let's consider the rationality of the Mundane SF assumptions, because I don't want to do what so many critics often do and simply call an idea I don't like "irrational" based on my not liking it.

First of all, they equate the practicality of interstellar travel with the practicality of FTL travel. Leaving the issue of FTL open (as physics currently does allow FTL under certain circumstances, but we're not sure if these circumstances are humanly replicable, or even really possible in this Universe), what does limitation to STL ravel mean?

Well, it means that (1) the fastest you can move mass asymptotically approaches 300,000 km/sec, or 1 LY per year; and (2) it takes a lot of energy to do this.

This does not preclude interstellar exploration, or even colonization -- as numerous futurists and science fiction writers, starting with Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, pointed out as early as the 1900's and 1910's, interstellar operations were possible provided that one was willing to engage in very long-term planning (decades to millennia). Science fiction picked up on this starting in the 1930's and 1940's, with Murray Leinster's "Proxima Centauri" (1935) and Robert Heinlein's "Universe" (1941). These are both very well-known stories of those eras, repeatedly anthologized, and STL starships have been used in numerous SF stories to the present day. Indeed, the Fermi Paradox is largely based on assumptions involving the construction of such starships by hypothetical advanced alien civilizations.

Hence, the Mundane SF advocates cannot reasonably claim ignorance of this possibility -- one which is not referenced at all, however, in their "manifesto." They simply ignore the real possibilities of STL interstellar expansion, because it doesn't fit their model of mature Only One Earthers versus immature SF escapists.

To be fair, Geoff Ryman allows for STL interstellar travel, but points out that popular SF -- by which he means mostly TV and movie SF -- avoids it because of the inconvenience to plotting. He doesn't seem to see why this pokes a huge hole in the claim that we are limited to Only One Earth, though.

He says:

"Very fast sub-light speed would still impose a horizon on how far we get."

Really? Personally, perhaps, but what prevents humanity from spreading out in "stepping-stone" fashion, from one exploitable or habitable world to the next, building a civilization at each point and then, when that civilization is mature enough, launching starships from it? Indeed, because one of his limitations is:

It depends how long you think a starship can keep going without risking major malfunction and how fast an anti-matter driven starship could be. I reckon 30 years in its own time-frame, you may think more.

he is implicitly disallowing even fuel or maintenance stations!

In an apotheosis of selfishness, he says:

For most of us whose descendants will not be among those specially selected interstellar crews, for our children, for humankind as whole, the future is here on Earth.

Really? First of all, even in genetic terms this is a dodgy statement -- it would already be technologically possible (though economically impractical) to record the genotype of every living human being, and, having done that, send it across interstellar distances. Secondly, I prefer to think of "humanity" in more memetic terms, and it is certainly possible for Earth to play a part in the creation and transmission of ideas across interstellar distances as part of an interstellar civilization.

He also explicitly disallows immortality/downloading, based on what are I consider fairly specious arguments: in particular

Immortality? Suns die, galaxies die, the universe dies. Nothing is immortal outside of God’s heaven. We will all die one day. Leaving Earth won’t stop it.

It's quite true that no immortality scheme would be perfect, but merely being able to live (say) a few hundred or few thousand years would be perfectly adequate to permit a small interstellar civilization with considerable cultural and political unity. And, of course, if you're concerned about the fate of humanity in general, unity isn't necessary -- a galactic-scale balkanized STL civilization, or even Sagan's cooperative "Galactic Federation," would require little political unity yet would ensure the survival of Man and many of his memes into the indefinite future.

Brain downloads: transferring something that has four switches (up and down in both directions) to a system works through binaries?


This is so scientifically illiterate that I am astounded he said this in public. There are some fairly serious obstacles to brain downloading, though these are mostly because we don't yet know how the human mind works and is supported by the physical structure of the brain at the nuts-and-bolts level. However, the system he describes could be easily mapped to binary by using two bits per switch ("00"="not present", "01"="inactive," "10"="up" and "11"="down"), as anyone who's taken an Introduction to Computer Science course would instantly realize. Hence, each unit could be represented by a sixteen-bit "word," well within the capabilities of even existing computers!

Again, there are obstacles to this technology (for one thing, it's much more complex than Ryman describes), but this isn't one of them!

Secondly, and even more devastatingly, they dismiss interplanetary expansion by, without even discussing their reasoning, assuming that we can only colonize planets which are "habitable like Earth." He dismisses colonizing worlds within our own Solar System, such as Mars, with:

Terraforming Mars may be a better bet than travelling those vast distances to terraform a rocky, radioactive wilderness. Both efforts would take tens of thousand years. What human endeavour has lasted tens of thousands of years?

which implies that we must terrfaorm to colonize. But we already, in theory, know how to create self-sustaining life support systems, assuming that we are allowed to import energy (and some quantity of replacement volatiles to compensate for leakage) into the loop. The technology enabling us to do this in practice is not far off, certainly not far off on the time horizons of science fiction.

And why "tens of thousands of years" to terraform Mars? That's pessimistic even in terms of present-day engineering capabilities. Wouldn't both the technology and the engineering capabilities increase, even a bit, after even a few decades to centuries of attempting the project?

By the way, this techno-pessimism has a trap that Ryman hasn't seen yet. If we're so totally limited to present-day science and technology, forever, how are we to prevent the Earth's ecosystem from collapsing? We don't yet know how to do this, and the technologies that we would have to develop to do so are essentially similar to the ones which we would need to terraform another planet.

Indeed, there is a general assumption that we are forever limited to the technology we have now running all through his speech, as in

Will cramped, smelly spaceships full of people who have been trapped with each other for twenty years, with terrible food, no light, drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out, is that really the most exciting thing we can imagine?

which I've heard variants of from many techno-pessimists, many times before.

Take a moment, look at this statement, and think about what Ryman's saying here. He's talking about STL starships, but similar comments are made about spaceships and habs in general.

He's saying, basically, that we can never improve the comfort level of any off-world habitation!

Why must it be "cramped?" (depending on the energy available to the launching civilization, a starship could be quite massive and hence quite large).

Why must it be "smelly?" ("Smelliness" is not a mystical property of enclosed systems, it is a reaction between our olfactory apparati and molecules physically present in the environment, hence meliorable).

Why is there "no light?" (this is the weirdest one of all: one envisions a Regency spaceship where they can't keep the candles lit because it would use up the oxygen supply)

Why "drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out" ...? Oh, I can see why "the computers" would be important, but why are they running down? Surely spare circuitry would be one of the easiest things to ship?

Applied to a hab, which could actively produce more minerals and volatiles from nearby celestial bodies, this critique is even stranger.

Indeed, though early colonies in space or on other worlds would be quite spartan, in the long run they might be luxurious. If one is, for instance, hollowing out cavern complexes under the Lunar or Martian surface, one's work is cumulative, which means that once the colony has been established for a while there could be vast amounts of space in which the population was living. Far from "cramped," such colonies would eventually offer their inhabitants more room than they would be likely to have on an overpopulated Earth.

Finally, though this is a trivial point, Ryman ignores the fact that "fantastic" SF actually created most of the ideas and perspectives that inform his concept of focusing on creating an ecologically sustainable future on the Earth. For instance, the notion of a beautiful, comfortable and yet non-industrial civilization "close to Nature" was greatly popularized, in the 1950's and 1960's, by the man who most argued in favor of "escapist" fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien. The very concept of the Earth as a unified system was grasped only by a specialized few until expeditions to space brought back pictures of the Earth from outside.

And much of the data with which planetary ecologists form their theories and plans come from a source every detail of which was "fantastic" science fiction a mere century ago -- man-made moons with electronic cameras operated by artificial brains, launched into orbit by rocket ships!

This illustrates a crucial point. Consider how much progress we've made in a hundred years. Ryman is essentially assuming that this was a once-in-a-species event -- that we will not make an equivalent amount of progress in the next century, or even the next millennium, or (if you take his Mars statement seriously) the next tens of millennia.

2. The Real Future

Obviously, we could fantasize about any technology or event we wanted to have exist in the future, but this would be unrealistic (although, based on the historical evidence, numerous events and technologies that we now deem fairly improbable will probably be realized over the next century). So I'll limit myself to developments and technologies based firmly on known physics. I will assume no catastrophic civilizational collapse, nor the extinction of the human species by any means other than transformation into a post-human form: obviously the first would greatly delay, and the second prevent the expansion of our civilization.

The total amount of energy, and hence wealth, available to humanity will increase at a rate roughly equivalent to compounded interest (because the process of accumulation is quite similar). Over the next century, fossil fuel power generation systems will be replaced by nuclear fission with solar and other passive systems as auxiliaries; over the centuries thereafter, nuclear fusion and perhaps more exotic power generation systems will replace nuclear fission, and space-based solar will replace ground-based solar in the auxiliary role.

Why is this inevitable? Because the drive to produce wealth is fundamental to human nature, and energy is the ultimate source of wealth. And there is no scientific, or even technological obstacle to the "next century" projection: the farther-future projection implies technological but not necessarily scientific progress.

An increase in the amount of energy and wealth available to Mankind will accelerate the human expansion into space. This is a bit less certain a prediction, because over a mere century some social movement might prevent this from happening, but it is very certain over many centuries, because social movements are transient, while technological capabilities last for as long as our species survives.

Among the ways in which increased energy and wealth will accelerate the human expansion into space:

A. The wealthier humanity as a whole, the wealthier each subunit, hence the smaller the size of the subunit required to make space ventures. We can see this happening right now: the first space race involved only two superpowers, while the current one involves America, Russia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and over a dozen private corporations. A century from now, even small corporations will probably be able to participate in extraterrestrial ventures, and many centuries from now, we may reach a point where the average human family has the resources to emigrate from Earth, if they choose to do so.

This is inevitable assuming anything short of complete civilizational collapse. All regimes politically benefit by possessing greater general wealth, and even command economies consider costs when deciding upon whether or not to launch space ventures.

B. Technological progress offers improved launch technologies. We currently only launch spacecraft by means of chemical rockets, but magnetic catapults and laser launchers are also technologically and space elevators, skyhooks, and ion-beam acclerators are scientifically possible. All offer significant energy advantages and dramatic payload advantages over chemical rockets. It is likely that within a century electromagnetic and laser launch systems will be common, and within centuries the other named systems will be common.

This is fairly inevitable because any or all of these launch systems would also improve military and scientific space capabilties: furthermore, a private launch system operator would realize considerable commercial advantages from being able to sell cheaper launch capabilities. It is difficult to see any social movement, short of the complete collapse of human civilization, preventing the emergence of such technologies, since even fairly anti-space expansion regimes would want to be able to loft satellites as cheaply as possible.

C. Technological progress offers improved spacecraft construction. Most of the cost of spacecraft operations today is maintenance and repair work: because the physical demands stress the capabilities of existing materials severely, spacecraft have to be in near-perfect conditions to launch or re-enter safely. As improved materials -- iridum and osmium based steel alloys, and fullerene based plastics and composites -- become more widely available, spacecraft will be safely operable in far less perfect conditions, greatly reducing ground crew operational costs.

This is inevitable because improved materials technologies are not specifically "space" oriented applications -- they would also make many earthly operations, such as the construction of bridges, skyscrapers, and tunnels, and the operation of ships and aircraft, much cheaper and easier. Only the most rabidly anti-technological regime would oppose such materials, and it is difficult to see how it could maintain its dominion given this attitude (as its foes would have better military equipment).

D. Infrastructure improvements are cumulative. Improved infrastructure makes operations cheaper -- if you can simply order a launch system off the shelf, or rent space on an existing launch, rather than have to build a rocket from scratch to support your space venture, that venture has become a lot cheaper, and easier to organize. Furthermore, even if specific infrastructure is allowed to decay (the American abandonment of the Saturn V heavy-lift rocket is a case in point), the knowledge of how to do it is never completely lost, and still less the knowledge that it has been done.


E. Once you're in orbit you're halfway to anywhere. This is cliche, but cannot be overemphasized. Something like half the difficulty of any space venture comes from launching and landing in Earth's deep gravity well. Once there are even a few functioning offworld habs, trade between them can be conducted far more cheaply than any of them can trade with the Earth. Since the initial habs need not be built for commercial purposes, but once they are built they can easily generate both supply and demand, this in part gets around the obstacle of initial profitability.

This is semi-inevitable over the next century: I could imagine a World Government both so anti-space that it would not found space habs and so anti-commerce that it would not let private organizations do so either. It is inevitable over centuries, since eventually the World Government would change its policies or be replaced by a more expansionist one. 15th-century China forbade oceanic exploration, but nevertheless over the ensuing centuries, the Chinese people did expand into Indonesia. Policies are never as eternal as their authors may imagine.

Given all this, the next century will see humanity plant its first outposts and colonies on and around the worlds of the Inner Solar System; we may succeed in getting farther (the revelation of the interesting features of the Galileian moons and Titan offer obvious incentives for manned exploration of the Jovian and Saturnian lunar systems). Over centuries, we will extensively colonize the Solar System: a millennium from now, the majority of the human species will no longer reside upon the Earth, due to the expansion over time of these colonies from both emigration and natural increase.

The question of interstellar travel is more difficult to answer. Electromagnetic ramscoops may turn out to be forever impractical, at least given the low density of the local medium. If ramscoops cannot be built, then we are limited to fusion and antimatter rockets, and to passive assists such as launch lasers pumping starsails. This keeps travel times down in the range of 0.10 to 0.25 C, which means that even for immortals, most travel will be one-way emigrations. On the other hand, if it proves possible to completely upload and download human minds, people could be transmitted (between existing bases) at a full 1.0 C, which is fast enough that immortals could regularly tour small to moderate-sized interstellar empires.

Energy considerations are limiting but mostly for near-future operations. Within the century, we may be able to launch unmanned interstellar probes. If we develop fabricator and nanobot technology to a sufficient degree, even an unmanned probe could construct facilities to receive a later manned expedition.

As our civilization grows in energy generation capabilities, large starships become increasingly practical. A large antimatter rocket, for instance, would require many current world-years of energy to accumulate the necessary fuel, but a civilization centuries from now will probably generate at least a few orders of magnitude more energy than does our own, and would find the launch of such an expedition a much lighter burden.

If you want my guess, I think we’ll launch an interstellar probe within a century, the first manned expedition within two centuries, and within a millennium will have planted at least one colony in another star system. This all assumes no FTL travel.

Even if we don’t make any concentrated effort at interstellar travel, we are likely to achieve it in time, anyway, in consequence of gradual progress in extended-duration spacecraft and colonization of the extreme outer Solar System, especially the Oort Cloud (which extends out halfway to Alpha Centauri). Over time, successive waves of colonization of Oort iceteroids and other interstellar bodies will lead men to other star systems, even if their ancestors never intended to go out that far. Within, say, ten thousand years, we might colonize near interstellar space (within 10-50 LY) in this fashion.

3. The Rejection of Boundlessness

From this discussion, it is easy to tell that I think the rejection of a human future containing expansion to other worlds is an essentially irrational one. Current science already supports the capability to colonize other worlds. Existing technology is up to the task of, at least, Lunar colonization; and technology already on the drawing boards to the colonization of the rest of the Inner System. Readily predictable technology is adequate to the colonization of the Middle and Outer Systems, and probably the stars beyond.

You will also note that the Mundane SF movement is actually friendly, however, to other forms of change. Superintelligent computers are allowed – as long as humans can’t be uploaded into them (because that would make space travel too easy). Posthuman intelligent life is allowed – as long as it can only live on the Earth (because if it could then interplanetary colonization would be too easy). Indeed, Ryman goes on about the “new wonders” he wants to substitute for the old – provided that they all remain firmly on Only One Earth.

Part of the clue lies in the way in which we have traditionally thought about “the Earth” as the realm of “mundanity” (naturalness worldliness, normality) as opposed to “the Heavens” as the realm of transcendence (supernaturalness, unworldliness, literal “unearthliness.”) Yes, the Scientific Revolution that changed our world view is four centuries old – but the essentially Mesopotamian concept of “the heavens” that preceded it is over forty centuries old, and it has not yet completely departed our way of thinking.

Notice how many scientists decry manned space exploration as a distraction from the “real work” of scientific study of other planets, and are positively horrified at the notion of commercial or military activities in space? Science is abstract and sacred, suitable for the “pure” spheres above the Mundane, spheres dominated by quintessence rather than the vulgar four elements known on Earth. Commercial and military endeavors are tainted by worldly ambitions. This is not their explicit argument, but it constantly peeks through the rationalizations.

Notice how resistant most people are, even after a century of science fiction and half a century of actual space travel, to the notion that the future in space can really be a human one, with human concerns? Repeatedly, politicians are cheered for arguing that we should put “human concerns” before the space program – implying that the space program is esoteric, beyond normal human interests, and irrelevant to the practical future.

The new religion of environmentalism feeds into this attitude. To their credit, this has not been the case for most of the scientists who have advocated the Gaia Hypothesis (but, then, to them it was never a religion) – they, instead have pointed out that human colonization of other worlds would fulfill Gaia’s evolutionary promise, by spreading Earthlife beyond the globe of its origin. But many on the Left have taken environmentalism to mean that one must demonstrate loyalty to the Earth by manfully resisting the call to expand beyond her confines.

This is close to Ryman’s reasons. He argues that the science fiction dream tempts us to “burn through” the Earth in the assumption that there are other potentially habitable planets for us to move to when we’ve used up our homeworld.

This is, still, irrational. There is nothing about the ability to colonize other worlds that means that one should logically destroy one’s homeworld – a world that, in any case, will be the most habitable one for Man for countless centuries to come, probably even if we developed FTL interstellar travel! Must the owner of a mansion who buys some other houses therefore trash his ancestral residence? The idea is ridiculous, when translated into more familiar terms.

No, what I think is operating here is something deeper.

We evolved on the Earth, and our perceptions of space and time are adapted to the limitations of life on her surface. Indeed, they are adapted to much smaller areas than the surface of the whole Earth – notice how many science fiction stories treat whole worlds as if they consisted of one town and some countryside around? The scales of space and time in the Solar System, let alone the Galaxy or the Universe, are dizzying to our minds. Some find them awesome and beautiful – others, I suspect , find them frightening.

To those who want a planned, controlled future, the implications of the size of the Universe are terrifying. What happens to the hopes of a tidy little back-to-nature utopia if the amount of energy available in just a single planet-sized solar orbital collector array utterly dwarfs that available to the “sustainable” planetary civilization, condemning that civilization to the status of quaint backwater? Posthuman superminds can be kept cozy and manageable if limited to Earth-surface renewable energies – what happens if they can burn sizable fractions of gas giant atmospheres as fusion fuel for their unguessable purposes? What is the glory of a united World Government, when that World Government is a speck on the vast dapple of the Cosmos?

To paraphrase H. G. Wells, fantastic science fiction makes what they think great seem small, what they think strong seem weak, and they don’t like it at all. They have a point – change is dangerous, and if we handle it wrong we may get not progress, but destruction, on an unimaginably vast scale. But what they don’t get is that change is unavoidable.

Boundlessness is frightening. We stand suspended across immensity and we fear to fall. But we may also fly, and we will never fly until we have the courage to spread our wings and hop off the edge of the nest.

There is also a strong Sour Grapes effect. The Silent and Boomer generations grew up with the promise of science fiction, promises which have taken longer to come about than was first hoped in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The generations which will be colonizing the Inner Solar System will not be theirs: it is the Millennials and those who come after them who will reap the glory which the earlier generations sowed. This is normal in human affairs, but the Boomers in particular imagine themselves a special generation, and consider it very unfair that such normalcy should limit themselves. Their pessimism has strongly influenced the Slackers, who are also just a bit too old to participate.

They would rather have it that it be final truth that the dream of space was a lie, that they were the first ones sophisticated enough to realize it, and that all future generations live within the prison that has restrained their own ones. What they don’t get is that future generations will not consider themselves bound by this, any more than the generations who first had the benefit of antibiotics refused to use them out of sympathy for the sufferings of their elders in childhood. When they can, they will stride boldly forth to colonize the planets, and the stars.


In the end, I think it is H. G. Wells who best expressed why I think the inexorable march of history will roll over, plow under, and pass by the smoking wreckage of the Mundane SF dream:

“Rest enough for the individual man - too much, and too soon - and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning” (Things to Come)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Historical Cycles and the Anachronism Argument as Applicable to Space Opera


I have often heard the complaint, addressed to space opera from more serious sorts of science fiction, that space opera is anachronistic. Star-spanning empires? Future religions? Feudal interstellar intrigue? Surely those are the features of the past, not the future. Mankind went through all that in the Roman Empire, rise of Christianity and birth of the West respectively.

I. The Assumption of Succession of Economic and Ideological Systems

The underlying assumption of this argument, though not all who make it are fully aware of its basis, lies in Marxist economic history. According to Marxism, each age is dominated by a "means of production" which results in an "ideological superstructure" which reconciles men to the means. The "means of production" of Classical Antiquity was chattel slavery; that of the Middle Ages agricultural serfdom, that of the Early Modern world (*) commercial capitalism, and that of the Late Modern world industrial capitalism. The Marxists, of course, expected industrial capitalism to be succeeded by a state socialism which, as the state "withered away," would become "full" or "true" socialism (which we might call today "anarcho-socialism.")

And indeed, if we leave out the part that hasn't happened yet (and is very unlikely to ever happen), this is pretty much the pattern we have seen in the history of the Western world from around 500 BC to the present day. We even see a long-term trend toward state socialism, of an authoritarian to totalitarian variety.

By this logic, how could we ever have interstellar "empires," of the Roman sort? The Imperial system was created to stabilize and justify a system supported by slavery, where the importance of stabilization was to prevent falling into slavery being too easy and thus interfering with personal economic planning. Christianity was adopted first to stabilize the Empire, and then the feudal states that the barbarian kingdoms formed in order to raise armies, within the limitations of a pre-industrial agricultural serfdom. Why would either messianic religions or feudal magnates appear, absent those reasons?

But there is another way to look at history, and in this view, a recurrence of roles appears exceedingly likely.

I am using here the scheme of Perry Anderson, probably the best of all the Marxist economic historians. He correctly saw that Marx and Engels conflated the Medieval and Early Modern worlds as "feudal," when in reality Western European "feudalism" had pretty much died by the late 15th century, and the national monarchies that replaced it were something very different: "absolutism," to use his term.

II. Historical Cycles

The concept of cyclicism in history is very old (it dates back at least to Aristotle), but requires some explanation. The basic idea is that human cultures tend to follow a natural pattern of change that eventually returns to its starting point, in terms of economics and politics. The proviso is very important, because technology is not cyclic: technological change, as far as we can tell from the 10,000 or so years that we've enjoyed rapid progress, is progressive. Technology has a "ratchet effect" and it is rare for a technology to be forgotten unless it is replaced by a more effective one.

The Ancient concept of cyclicism did not have this progressivism, mainly because their technology was advancing too slowly for most individuals to perceive in the scale of their own lives, or even known familial histories. Think of the Ancient cyclicism as a potter's wheel, turning but going nowhere; by contrast, Modern cyclical theories view the wheel as mounted on a vehicle progressing along a road. The wheel spins, and winds up further along the road with each turning.

The best-known Modern cyclical theories are those of Spengler and Toynbee. Spengler noted great similarities in the histories of different civilizations when he put their timelines side by side; for instance, messianic prophets and great conquerors tended to appear at roughly the same stages of development for each culture. A particularly useful site outlining this is found at Spengler's Future (

Spengler noted that the West seemed to have reached its height of cultural productivity, and that while we might have a long future ahead of us it would in many ways be downhill from here (the early 20th century). This is why his most famous book is entitled The Decline of the West). (

Toynbee attempted something even more ambitious. He catalogued "civilizations" as entities, and showed how they were arranged in "generations," with civilizations not only rising and falling but giving birth to successors, sometimes by a phoenix-like resurrection, sometimes by an almost sexual combination (for instance, he saw the Greco-Roman Classical civilization as having combined with the Western-Semitic one to produce Eastern Christendom and with the Western-Semitic and Germanic ones to produce Western Christendom).

In the view of both authors, history does not repeat precisely, but it does fall into patterns -- patterns which emerge from basic human nature as expressed through culture, economics and politics. In consequence, history does repeat itself roughly.

Toynbee saw the life cycle of a civilization as having four stages, which he termed "Spring," "Summer," "Autumn" and "Winter" (on Classical-Chinese historical models).

In the Spring stage, a civilization is born (usually from the ashes of and/or combination of predecessors). Its basic culture forms -- during this period, it is very susceptible to foreign influences. Wars are almost continual, but usually small in size. For the West, this happened during the Middle Ages. This is generally an extremely chaotic and violent era, often remembered as a "Heroic Age."

In the Summer stage, a civilization grows and explores its possibilities. During this stage it often expands greatly beyond its original homelands. Economic growth is rapid, and there is considerable cultural growth as well, though the civilization is no longer as plastic as it was in Spring. Wars are less frequent but larger in scope. For the West, this was the Modern era from the Renaissance roughly to 1914.

In the Autumn stage, a civilization consolidates. Economic expansion is slower but steadier, and geographical expansion also slows, with an emphasis on fuller exploitation of existing territory. Wars are now infrequent but very large when they occur. During this period the number of Powers is reduced; by the end, one Universal State will emerge which will rule all or nearly all of the territory controlled by the civilization. The West entered the Autumn stage around 1914, and is probably still in it today.

In the Winter stage, a civilization stagnates and dies. The Universal State, once flexible and relatively free, hardens and grows totalitarian. Economic expansion slows, eventually becoming contraction. Geographical growth also slows and then reverses; if any colonies are founded they will not be held. Wars are now either civil (within the Universal State) or are inflicted on the Universal State by more vigorous rivals; in the end the Universal State will go down before the blows of "the barbarians."

From the ashes the phoenix rises again. The barbarians who bring down the Universal State imbibe its culture in the process, and the Winter of the earlier civilization becomes the Spring of the successor civilization. And the wheel has turned, and goes on turning ...

The West has not yet entered the Winter stage, but it is plainly approaching. The likeliest Universal State for us will be America, though a late upset is not beyond the bounds of possibility. IMO (not Toynbee's, as he believed interplanetary colonization to be impossible) the West will colonize other worlds, but lose control of them as the demands of the increasingly-totalitarian Universal State of America grow insupportable, and these other worlds may well be the breeding grounds for the "barbarians" who will bring us down in the end.

The most famous case of a civilization which went through all those stages is that of Greco-Roman Classical culture. Their Springtime came after the fall of Troy; their Summer began with the Persian Wars and continued into the time of Alexander; their Autumn saw the rise of the Hellenistic Successor States (of which Rome was one by choice); and the Roman Republic became their Universal State. The Republic became an Empire, and their Winter saw Rome, which had conquered the Classical world, ossify and slowly lose control of the West to the Germanic barbarians ... who then spawned our Western Civilization from the ashes of the Western Roman Empire.

The interesting thing here is that there are traces of an earlier civilization, the Minoan-Mycenaean culture from whose ashes the Classical Greco-Roman culture rose. Their Springtime is lost to prehistory, but there are archaeological traces of a Summer in which the Minoans colonized the Aegean basin, and mythological traces of an Autumn in which great kingdoms arose both on Crete and on the mainlands, and in which the Mycenaean monarchy became the Universal State by defeating rivals including Minoan Crete and Ancient Troy, only to finally succumb to a Winter in which it perished in the coming of the Sea Peoples, including the Dorians.

III. Applicability to Space Opera

Now, imagine yourself a person living in (say) the Roman Republic of the 2nd century BCE.

Suppose that a poet writes what we might call a "hypothetical epic," in which a hero of the future has adventures like those of Odysseus, trying to return home after an apocalyptic battle but being constantly taken off course by ill-fortune and hostile tribes (we'll leave out the monsters). By virtue of his heroic cunning and fortitude, he triumphs and returns home to his petty kingdom.

Call this a "wine-dark sea opera," by analogy with "space opera." Is it reasonable?

"No!" you would protest, if you are a well-educated Roman. "That sort of thing happened in the Heroic Age, a thousand years ago (*), but now we live in a civilized age in which the Mediterranean has been mapped and strong states exist almost everywhere. Surely in the future these states will grow, until bandit kingdoms and pirates have been eradicated from Our Sea."

And you would be right. In the very next century, Pompey put down the pirates, and the Roman Republic extended its sway over everything West of the Rhine and south of the Dacians, to the Sahara.

And you would be wrong. Five centuries after his own time, the barbarians would flood over the frontiers, and bandit kingdoms and pirates would dominate almost everywhere. The wheel would have turned back to the end of Winter, and the Springtime of the Western Civilization would be its "Heroic Age."

While Greco-Roman Classical culture did not have "archaeologists" in the modern sense, they did have traditional history reaching to before their written records. Because this included genealogies, they could make guesses about when things happened, and these guesses turned out in most cases to be roughly right -- the Classical Greeks and Romans were correct as to the approximate periods of the Fall of Troy and the Foundation of Rome, for instance.



The same applies to us.

Yes, the West has for the most part put aside monarchy (as America did in CE 1776, and as Rome did in 510 BCE). But that doesn't mean that our future doesn't hold Empire (as Rome's did in 33 BCE), or a return to feudalism (as Rome's did in the 6th century CE) or even absolute monarchies.

Will they be the same as what we knew in the Middle Ages or Early Modern Era? No, especially not technologically. The "serfs" of some future Solar Civilization won't be tilling the soil with oxen -- perhaps they'll be grubbing the lithospheres with swarms of nanobots, or tending vast orbital solar power collectors. The "kings" of that future era won't sit on thrones in crowded courts -- maybe they'll inhabit vast computer networks, or occupy powerful space dreadnoughts as if they were their own bodies.

But the flavor of the culture and politics will be similar. And that's all the similarity you need for good space opera science fiction.

Which is as serious as any other projection of an inherently-unpredictable future.

Web Comic Review - Mindmistress

Introduction:  I came across Mindmistress, by Al Schroeder, about a month ago, and am now a confirmed fan.

Premise:  Lorelei Lyons is rich, beautiful -- and mentally retarded, with an IQ around 66.  She's the daughter of Ezekiel ("Lightning") Lyons, a dynamic and rather ruthless multi-billionaire; and Dr. Prudence Lyons, a brilliant neuro-biologist.

Prudence Lyons was trying to develop a handheld MRI scanner.  Instead, her invention increased the ability of neural impulses to leap synapses, vastly augmenting the intelligence of any human or animal.  Unfortunately, after two weeks of augmentation, it inflicted fatal brain tumors upon the subject.

Dr. Lyons died before she could solve the problems with the Lyons-Burns effect.  She bequeathed a prototype of the augmentation device to her daughter Lorelei, built into a locket, with a videotape explaining to her that she should use it only in dire need, and then would have around two weeks (with her now-augmented intelligence) to figure out how to avoid dying of brain tumors.

Lorelei (sensibly) chose not to use it.  But then she was caught in a bus accident, with little idea how to get help for a dying boy -- so she used the locket, and Mindmistress was born!

With an intelligence far beyond even the highest unaugmented human supergenius, she was able to figure out how to reverse the process, and discovered that if she did not remain in her smarter form for more than a week or two at a time, the reverse transformation would also reverse any brain damage.  The first (as far as she knew then) "neohuman," she embarked upon a career of discovery, invention and (occasionally, reluctantly) fighting crime!

Comments:  My synopsis of the premise really doesn't do this wonderful webcomic justice.  Think of a really good Silver Age science fiction comic book, but with a modern understanding of society and technology.  The concepts are incredible and awe-inspiring, with the main theme being Mindmistress' attempts to develop advanced technology and explore the mysteries of the Multiverse while avoiding inadvertently destroying human civilization in the process.  Characterization is strongly drawn and numerous subplots deftly balanced by Mr. Schroeder.  There is a strong effort made to preserve consistency of setting, and the plots are exciting and much less predictable than in most superhero books.

This is the more amazing because the whole series is inspired by Greek classical mythology, a mythology with which I am very familiar.  Mindmistress herself is like Athena, while her other friends and enemies are mostly based upon other Greek mythological gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines or monsters.  Many of the stories are strongly derived from specific Greek myths.  You would think that it would be obvious to me how everything would turn out, in detail.

But it's not.  The reason why, I think, is that Mr. Schroeder does not blindly copy the Greek myths; he adapts them intelligently and imaginatively to the modern world and to the characters he has created.  Mindmistress is like Athena, but she is not Athena, and the same goes for everyone else in the strip.  With different motivations and personalities, and different rationales for the wonders presented, one cannot count on any myth ending exactly like its inspiration.

Another good point of the series is Schroeder's strong grasp of real-world science and technology.  While the series as a whole is of course more science fantasy than hard science fiction, at every turn the author strives to base his devices on real-world science or at least real-world scientific speculation.  And when he brings a wonderful device into a story, he makes a serious effort to try to consider the implications of the postulated technology upon real physics (for instance, he knows that one can't, unbraced, pick up a heavy object by the end, no matter how strong is the would-be lifter).

Finally, his characters are real, distinct and often likeable people.  Mindmistress herself, while strongly principled, is no plaster saint -- she's arrogant and often obnoxious about her intellectual superiority.  Her father, Ezekiel (the Zeus-analog) genuinely loves Lorelei, even while he auditions for the David Xanatos Magnificent Bastard contest.  Their actions and situations are driven by their personalities, rather than being too obviously the pawns of plot-considerations.  The reader cares what happens to these people, which is ultimately the best thing that one can say about any kind of story.

There is only one flaw.  The artwork, especially in the first few stories, is a bit poor.  Schroeder is attempting a very realistic style, which when muffed can look very bad, with malproportioned heads and mistakes in shading.  The style improves and settles down as the series progresses, however, and one should not prevent the learning curve from letting one enjoy what is a truly excellent and highly imaginative science-fiction superhero series.

Al Schroeder also does another superhero comic, Flickerflame, loosely based upon the myth of Loki and Norse mythology in general, also set in a modern world.  This is also a well-written and imaginative webcomic, which I also do not hesitate to recommend.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Retro Review - The Dispossessed (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1974)

This is a reposted copy of an (edited and slightly updated) reprint of a review I posted on Usenet back in 2001 of Ursula K. LeGuin's great novel The Dispossessed, a book which I greatly enjoyed but also found to be greatly flawed. Here are my comments, which focus more on the world-building logic and its effect on the theme than on the characterization or description, which are excellent.


I. Loaded Comparisons

It's interesting that Ursula K. LeGuin does not dare to compare Anarres with any society as free as, say, the 20th century West (even the one existing in the early 1970's, which was in many respects more troubled that the one of today).

There are three major nations on Urras.

A-Io, the capitalistic liberal democracy where most of the Urrasti action is set, can best be described as a country with the social attitudes of Victorian England, the riot control skills of Late Tsarist Russia -- these coexisting with fusion power and interplanetary space travel. Women are barred from most occupations. Lower-class persons defer to upper-class ones. Peaceful demonstrations are dealt with by strafing the crowd and then hunting down the survivors for days.

(Now, A-Io is of course a fictional culture, and the author is within her rights to make it misogynistic, stratified, and cruel. But when she deliberately structures the novel to invite comparison -- for instance, by cutting from Arras to A-Io each alternate chapter -- one is bound to ask why she picks a very nasty society to serve as her example of a capitalist liberal democracy).

Thu, the main rival of A-Io, is not described in detail, but from the clues given is obviously a Stalinist communist dictatorship. Benbili, the country that A-Io and Thu have a war over during the course of the book, is a chaotic "Third World" country, normally ruled by a military dictatorship, which is overthrown by an unconvincingly described revolution, with the A-Iotians then restoring the dictator to power.

Terra (Urras and Anarres both orbit Tau Ceti) has suffered a catastrophic population collapse in her past (from 9 to 1/2 billion), and submitted to a horrendously totalitarian regime in reaction to this die-off:

As a Terran character says:

"Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force, toward the goal of racial survival."

This "solution," incidentally, is one that based on the historical evidence seems unlikely to work: one can more reasonably assume that "racial survival" is the excuse the rulers of the horrible culture described there uses to maintain their dominance. I wonder if this was one of the inspirations for Vernor Vinge's hellish "Emergency," the space bad guys in A Darkness in the Sky?

The Hainish are "total altruists" dominated by awareness of their own age and cultural guilt for some crime: we don't learn much about them (maybe in her other books?).

At no point do we see a non-mysoginistic, humane, liberal democratic capitalism -- such as the one that we live in today -- practiced by anyone. In fact, LeGuin implicitly argues that such is impractical over the long run, because one may presume that such a culture (ours)was at least partially responsible for the ruin of Terra. But I submit that almost every reader, given a choice between, say, the America of 1970 and any of the cultures detailed in the book, would have picked America in 1970. Let alone America c.2000!

II. Unconvincingly Utopian Ambiguity

For all the talk of an "ambigious" Utopia, Anarres is culturally working far better, 167 years after the colonization, than seems likely. We're supposed to believe that the Syndic of Initiative is the first serious dissent that the culture has ever had, that the reaction to them is the first repression that the culture has ever known, and that Anarres is in some meaningful sense a society perpetually "in revolution" (I'm minded of Kodos and Kang's "twirling, twirling towards progress" when I read that line!) :)

This despite the fact that there are features in this culture that would be obvious handles for a tyrant to grasp. For instance, the worst sins are "egoism" and "profiteering." Thoughts along these lines are bad; expressing them is worse.

Now, because all humans have a strong sense of personal identity, and try to ensure that they produce more than they consume in any endeavor meant to constitute "work," these are "sins" which every (sane) human being can be properly "accused" of. This means that every Anarresti should know he's a miserable sinner (or be convinceable of same by a skilled speaker). This is a tailor-made opportunity for petty tyranny.

Yet, apparently, nothing like this happened until Shevek and his pals were born?

(We don't know, it after all could be that they never tried to find out what happened in the past. But it's a big omission, that even Shevek's slightly paranoid friend never tried to find this out).

III. Anarrean Lethargy

At that, there are aspects of Anarresti society that don't make a lot of sense unless we assume that their culture is not very good at identifying and pursuing opportunities. I don't know if this was _intentional_ on the part of the author, but here goes.

A. Tourist Lethargy - The Anarresti have and enforce a de facto non-intercourse policy with the rest of the Universe, analogous to that of Shogunate Japan. Their trade with Urras is grudging and restricted to vital items. Information going in and out is censored. They ignore (!) the coming of interstellar aliens (!!!). Shevek is supposedly the first person to travel from Anarres to Urras for over a century, which if true argues that the restrictions used to be even more severe. He has to avoid a rock-throwing mob in order to leave the planet. This is a level of xenophobia the Iranian ayatollahs only wish their own people possessed.

B. Navigational Lethargy - The Anarresti have a space fleet consisting of 12 ships, which are currently capable of repeated atmospheric launch and re-entry (they haven't lost any in some 167 years, unless they have a treaty with the Urrasti to replace the losses), and which were originally capable of inter-lunar flight (these ships are how they got there).

This means that the Anarreans, at least theoretically, could go anywhere in the system -- if you can reach the orbit of a terrestrial planet, you're "halfway to anywhere" (in Pournelle's famous phrase). Unless Tau Ceti has a very weird system, it's gotta have more than the twin Anarresti-Urrasti planet.

Yet the Anarresti can't think of anything better to do with their ships than to arm them and use them as a patrol against (apparently non-existent, because there's no mention of even attempted smuggling anywhere in the story) alien incursions. Given that their ships are over one and a half centuries old, and that the Urrasti have been updating their own spaceflight technology, they would presumably be as useful against an Urrasti invasion as war junks against ships of the line.

Now, you could argue that the Urrasti don't let the Anarresti colonize anywhere else in the Cetan system. You could -- except that nobody mentions this, not even the paranoidly anti-Urrasti who oppose the Syndic of Initiative. You'd think that if the Urrasti were so restricting the Anarresti, that this would be a sore spot with the Anarresti patriots, wouldn't you?

Heck, it doesn't even seem to occur to the Anarresti that they have what amounts to 12 capacious suborbital transports -- all Anarresti air transportation seems to be accomplished by dirigible! The limitation of their most valuable craft to "defense" against a non-present "enemy", who would be overwhelming if he ever came, is profoundly irrational, and creepy in terms of the level of implied paranoia.

C. Industrial Lethargy - The Anarresti have a metal-rich planet. This is, in fact, the whole _basis_ of their interplanetary economy. Yet, at the same time, they have so little heavy industry that the construction of a single oceanic barge will consume a good portion of their whole industrial capacity for a year, according to Shevek. Why?

D. Commercial Lethargy - The Annaresti metals output includes gold. Yet, for some reason (probably their horror of "profiteering"), it doesn't occur to them to increase their gold output, develop a foreign exchange surplus, and use this to purchase heavy durable goods from Urras to improve the standard of living on Annares. Instead, they limit their trade to what sounds like a mutual tributary arrangement; the sort of thing the Egyptians and Hittites had with each other on the royal level.

They do primarily import high-tech machinery and biotechnicals from Urras, in fact, but they don't seem to be cutting very good deals. My opinion is that the Urrasti are probably sharping them for everything they can).

E. Maritime Lethargy - Anarres has a very sparse, very fragile land ecosystem, but a much richer and more complex oceanic ecosystem. So what do the Anarresti do?

They live on the plains and mostly ignore the oceans, though at the point of the story, they are just beginning (!), under the lash of famine (!) to research the possibility of fishing and aquaculture. Um ... duh?

F. Biological Activity - There is one thing that the Anarresti do a lot of, though it's described by LeGuiin with all the eroticism of a musketry drill. That's have sex.

Unfortunately for the Anarresti, they make motherhood real easy -- free food, and free creches and education for the children. With the predictable result.

Anarres is overpopulated. BADLY overpopulated.

"What!" I hear you cry. "But there are only a few million Anarresti!" How can they be overpopulated?"

The answer is that "overpopulation" is a problem of the ratio between energy, food, and other economic resources, on the one hand, and people on the other. A wealthy, crowded city is not overpopulated. A poor community living dispersed on an arid plain may well be overpopulated.

We know that Anarres suffers from severe overpopulation because they have evolved a way of lie (farming on an arid planet vulnerable to years-long droughts) which should require immense food surpluses be laid up in granaries and other storehouses. Instead, everyone can take food as long as there is no extreme shortage. (This is explicitly stated by Shevek in the scene with the laid-up train).

Thus, the accumulation of large food surpluses is impossible. (Heck it would be "profiteering" to even try!) And, when the drought hits, we witness an atomic-powered industrial civilization suffering from the sort of famine that the Pharaohs of Egypt had managed to avoid with a muscle-powered agricultural one.

Good going, Odonists. Circle of Life, and all that. *snicker*

IV. Weird War Tales

A. Weapons, Weapons, Who's Got the Weapons?

The Benbilian revolutionaries overthrow an armed military dictatorship -- presumably, they defeat his troops. Yet, when the A-Iotians invade, one reason the A-Iotian forces can conquer so easily is that most of the revolutionaries are unarmed.

Huh? All I can say is that the Benbilian Army must have made the Tsarist Russians look competent by comparison. And what happened to all the weapons that the Benbilian Army presumably had before the revolution? Did they commit suicide out of grief for the fall of the ancien regime?

B. Guerrilla My Dreams

Shevek, master of military strategy, floors an Urrasti in debate by pointing out that military hierarchy is unnecessary, since, after all, guerrillas manage without such things. Apparently, LeGuin had never troubled herself to learn anything about guerilla warfare, which is especially funny given that America was actually involved in a guerrilla war at the time that she wrote this book -- with guerrillas who had a very highly developed military hierarchy.

C. Crowd Control -- The Final Solution

The climatic A-Iotian riot scene, set in their capital city, involves a crowd of a hundred thousand or so workers, being strafed by helicopter gunships (the Blue Thunder approach to riot control, apparently). After this, the crowd is broken up by troops supported by armored cars (apparently, riot police weren't an Urrasti invention). THEN, the A-Iotian military tries to hunt down and kill the survivors.

Why? Are the A-Iotians utterly determined to decimate their own workforce? What's the point of hunting down defeated demonstrators, anyway? And how, incidentally, can the troops tell rioters from other people in the city. It looks to me as if the A-Iotian army is sacking its own capital!


The Dispossessed is a good book, but very deeply flawed. Ursula K. LeGuin intended to compare and contrast Anarres with the real world, but did so only by loading the balance scales -- the "real world" shown is a combination of the worst of capitalist societies; Anarres is an idealized anarcho-socialist utopia with very managable problems. At the same time, many of the problems are "the planet ate my work" type problems, supposedly due to the harshness of the environment, but clearly (to me, anyway) due to Anarresti lethargy in exploiting their opportunities.

It is peculiarly a book of its times -- the early 1970's, when many intellectuals felt that America was fundamentally flawed, and that there was something better -- and alien to our founding principles -- that could be built. This is not how we feel today.

As such, I don't know how well it will last, save with the support of nostalgic teachers.

(c) 2001, 2006, 2011, Jordan S. Bassior

Reflections on a Reign

"Reflections on a Reign"

by Jordan S. Bassior
(c) 2009, 2011

Sitting in the place of honor among his court, Tsar Nicholas II, Autocrat of All the Russias, reflected on his long inglorious life.  Following giants like his father and grandfather, was it inevitable that he was dwarfed in comparison?

The war with Japan in 1904, had been a disaster.  He might have gained glory defending Serbia in 1914, but he decided upon peace instead.  After that, the chance for valor had never come.

He’d lost all his old rights, slowly whittled away by the Duma, forced to accept constitutional limitations on the monarchy.  Granted, the people were richer than ever before, and he was greatly loved, which served him as some consolation.

He was 74 years old, and knew he had not much time left on Earth.  At least young Nicholas, his grandson by poor short-lived Alexis, would succeed him.  His daughters had made good matches: they were half the queens of Eastern Europe.

Family had always meant much to him.  He might not have been much of a Tsar, but as a father, at least, he had not failed.

The rocket ignited. And the last true autocrat watched, as Russia launched the first man into orbit.

(c) 2009, 2011

Comments:  This short-short (current version:  197 words) originally appeared on Ficly and subsequently in a post on Livejournal in a shorter form.  The story takes place in 1942 (deducible from the age given), and is obviously alternate history:  the point being that this Nicholas II has been far more successful than the last Tsar of OTL, and by implication has saved the lives of something like a hundred million human beings -- and will never know what horrors he avoided. 

It came from a speculation on my part that the worst disasters are often those that would have been unimaginable had they been averted, and the subsequent thought that the worst disaster of the last 250 years was the First World War, which led to Communism, Fascism, and both World War II and the Cold War.  The events of the last decade have only firmed my conclusion.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Entering Some Fantastic Worlds

Greetings, gentle readers.  Welcome to Fantastic Worlds, my first fantastic fiction e-zine.

What do I mean by "fantastic fiction?"  I'm trying to sum up the common factor underlying science fiction, fantasy and horror, that distinguishes them from more "mundane" forms of literature.

I have a strong belief that there is no hard and fast difference between science fiction, fantasy and horror.  Rather, all are "fantastic" fiction, in that they do not limit themselves to the narrow world of known reality, but instead speculate about the possibilities of other realities, ones in which things were or are or will be a bit different from the here and now.  To my mind this distinction, between fantastic and mundane fiction, is far more fundamental than any distinction between types of mundane fiction.  And the different kinds of fantastic fiction tend to flow one into the other.

Really, "science fiction <---> fantasy" is one axis defining the "hardness" of the elements of a fiction in various ways.  The hardest of hard science fiction takes only known scientific and social principles, and reasonably extrapolates from them to present stories which might have been, be, or become true, even though the odds are strongly against them doing so in precise detail.  An example of this would be a science fiction story written in 1965 which depicts a successful NASA moon landing, and takes care to use real-world science and technology in describing this landing.

The softest of fantasy assumes that many aspects of physics are different than we currently believe, and explores the consequences of such alternate rules.  For instance, a world in which magicians can turn their psychic energies into lightning bolts or summon demons from other dimensions is not one which is likely to have been or ever be real, but it can make an interesting setting for a story.  This is pretty obviously fantasy.

In-between are science fiction stories which assume numerous variant physical laws and devices deriving from them (such as genesis effects or hyperdrives), or fantasy stories that make an exceptionally-strong effort at internal consistency and examination of the societal and technological effects of their magical laws.  This is generally called "science fantasy," or sometimes "hard fantasy" -- this is where science fiction and fantasy meet and merge.  For instance, if the magicians learn to automate the lightning-casting effect and use it to generate electricity to work the appliances of a whole city, this is science fantasy.

Horror is also one end of an axis, which I term "wonder <--> horror."  People often wrongly suppose that "horror" must deal with the supernatural, and hence is a subset of "fantasy," but this is not so.  There are no supernatural elements in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" or John W. Campbell's "The Thing," but both are profoundly horrific tales, which have inspired much imitation.  The real question here is the intended effect produced on the reader by the events depicted -- is he to experience wonder at the beauty of, or horror at the ugliness of, the story's fantastic universe?

This is not primarily an issue of whether or not the story shows friendly or hostile elements of the Universe, though of course friendly elements generally lend themselves better to wonder and hostile elements to horror.  This can be clearly seen in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, which has some incredibly nasty aliens on the side of Boskone, and some really alien aliens on the side of Civilization, describes a space war in which numerous planets and many billions of people die, often without warning, and yet is one of the purest examples of "sense of wonder" writing in science fiction.  Likewise, Jack Williamson's Humanoids novels depict very gentle invaders who nonetheless are as bad as anything coming out of the war-arsenals of Boskone, generating true cosmic horror (the more so because one must constantly struggle against the fear that the androids are right). It's all in the attitude.

I'm also a strong believer that fantastic fiction written in the past should be enjoyed as much, if not more so, than the fantastic fiction written in the present (I'd be even more enthusiastic about fantastic fiction written in the future, but my time machine is sadly on the fritz). There are a number of reasons for this, but the most basic one is that the present should not be "privileged" from a critical point of view. The "present" is just a thin slice of time (*), and if one restricts oneself to the fiction which is based on our current understanding of physics or the currently dominant social prejudices, one denies oneself the enjoyment of a tremendous body of work.

We should not take such understandings or prejudices too seriously. I grew up reading science books written mostly from 1950-75, and have seen our understanding of the Universe repeatedly revised. Theories once sound have been challenged and replaced with newer ones; phenomena assumed to be impossible or improbable have been confirmed; other phenomena assumed inevitable have turned out to be imaginary. As for prejudices, I lived through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's through 1970's, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980's, and the current bout of Poltiical Correctness that currently grips our civilization. I have seen the fashions of intellectual and social life change more than once, and expect them to change again and again should I be so fortunate as to live much longer.

Certainly, we should not let an improbable scientific theory or a now-unfashionable social habit or prejudice ruin our enjoyment of a good story. Poiticians and pundits don't deserve the effort from you -- when's the last time that any of them went out of their way to please your prejudices?

Finally, though this blog will (at least initially) mostly contain reviews, I don't intend to limit it to such. I will also include essays (such as the one you're reading right now) about fantastic literature, and about such aspects of science, technology and history which are relevant to fantastic literature; I will also include stories and poetry.

Guest bloggers are welcome, though I of course reserve the rights of rejection and editing. I can't afford to pay at present, though this may change in time. Since I can't pay, you can keep all rights to any such content save (of course) for its publication herein.

Comments are always welcome, and I love discuassions. I do not want harassment, insults and deliberate ad hominem attacks, and will delete or edit such comments at my discretion. I want this to be a friendly place.

Hope to be hearing from you soon ... you'll certainly be hearing more from me :)

(*)  To be strictly logical, we are always reading something written in the "past" -- even if we were standing over the writer's shoulder as he typed the story, it has to travel from his brain to his hands to the screen or paper and thence from our eyes to brain: and normally, of course, we are not so fortunate; we read stories months to years after they were first written, even if we buy them as soon as they hit the bookstores.