pseudo science fiction

“Fear is the Mindkiller” at Tangent Online

Dune cover art by Henrik Sahlstrom

Dune cover art by Henrik Sahlstrom

Tangent Online has published my essay on culture wars in science fiction here. A key paragraph:

A significant chunk of the population is still guided by the sentiment that women are weak and need more protection. These people are the Baptists in a bootleggers-and-Baptists coalition that unites to give statists more and more power to meddle and regulate, with the bootleggers being political parties that use these sentiments to justify their social engineering. Every new law and regulation is an opportunity for graft and extracting campaign contributions from businesses who want to be left alone or mold the law and regulations to hurt their competitors more, and every new edict (beyond dealing with obvious externalities like pollution) decreases the total wealth and growth rate of the economy. Politicians whip up fear — fear of terrorists, illegal immigrants, “the 1%,” sexist men, authoritarian Christianists, whatever works — to gain power, and then shy away from any actual solutions so they can repeat these emotional hooks for the next election. “Fear is the Mindkiller” — make someone afraid, and you weaken their reasoning power.


“Red Queen: The Substrate Wars” First Part

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars, Cover

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll have noticed my rate of posting has declined lately. This is because I’m working on a novel, my first venture into fiction in years. It’s science fiction and adventure; my effort to write a good story the kids will both enjoy and learn from, as I did in my youth.

I have criticized modern “politically correct” science fiction for its grim view of progress and its conformist political content. This is my answer to books for young people like Pills and Starships. And the resemblance to Hunger Games is intentional — what Hunger Games gets right is that young people can remake the world to be a better place.

The world of Red Queen is post-terrorist disaster, repressive and regimented — rather like China today, but poorer. In that sense it is a dystopia, though not so far from our own day and time; only a few steps beyond where we are now. The kids are cowed but not unaware, and they seize the opportunity to make a difference when their smarts and courage allow it. And so they change the world.

I’m putting the first section out for beta readers. I’d appreciate any thoughts and error corrections you might have. The science gets more fully explained in the next section, for those of you into physics.

I’m doing a Hugh Howey and publishing this myself. I’d be most interested in hearing from agents or publishers who are interested, but I expect to finish in three months and the legacy publishing timetable is simply too slow, even though a good editor would be very helpful.

So I’m counting on you folks. If you read the first section, send me your comments at jebkinnison@gmail.com, and also email me if you want to be on the beta reader list for the full draft version. I apologize in advance for getting you interested and involved in the story, then making you wait to finish it!

[edit: removed drafts since full book is available]

YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again

Heinlein's "Citizen of the Galaxy"

Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy”

Reason has a good think piece by Amy Sturgis on the political content of popular YA (Young Adult) dystopias, compared with the “sensawunda” (sense of wonder) of Golden Age science fiction with its technological optimism. “Not Your Parents’ Dystopias”:

Anyone who has wandered by a bookstore or a movie theater lately knows the kids these days love a nice dystopia. Their heroes are Katniss from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Tris from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Thomas from James Dashner’s Maze Runner novels. The number of English-language dystopian novels published from 2000 to 2009 quadrupled that of the previous decade, and not quite four years into the 2010s, we have already left that decade’s record in the dust….

Youth-oriented fiction about worlds gone awry is not new. The tradition stretches back generations and involves works now revered as classics. Some of the giants of what was then called juvenile science fiction — Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson — wrote what now would be classified as YA dystopias. But the exponential recent growth of the genre suggests something else at play: a generation’s lost wonder and mounting anxiety.

In the Golden Age of science fiction (which may be measured roughly from the time John W. Campbell Jr. came into his full powers as editor of Astounding Stories in 1938 until the time Michael Moorcock’s editorship of New Worlds in 1964 signaled the rise of the New Wave), worlds gone wrong often served as catalysts for young protagonists to pluck up their courage, exercise their agency, and affect change. The titular character in Heinlein’s Starman Jones (1953), Max Jones, inherits a bleak Earth depleted of natural resources. Hereditary guilds have the planet in a stranglehold, regulating information and determining what (if any) profession an individual may pursue. Young Max’s options are few, and his dream of being an “astrogator” in space seems completely out of reach. The risk-taking, indefatigable character pursues his goal anyway, ultimately finding himself in the right place and time to showcase his hard-won skill and — just as important — moral integrity.

Max’s scientific expertise and common sense save lives and win the day. When he finally confesses to lying his way past the rules that would have excluded him from gaining the position at which he excels, that only serves to illustrate how wrong-minded the laws are. The novel ends with Jones not only secure in his chosen calling but paving the way for changes to the oppressive guild system.

These early dystopias showed young men, and sometimes even young women, facing down dangers in their fallen worlds with determination and commitment. The novels suggested that the forward march of freedom and science may meet grave obstacles and even grind to a halt, but if young people rise to the occasion, the story doesn’t have to end there.

Heinlein gave his characters agency — that is, they were able to meaningfully effect outcomes not only for themselves, but for their larger society. Individual effort, knowledge, and pluck, usually with the help of wise older mentors, could triumph over injustice and restrictions on freedom. The Heinlein juveniles, written in simplified style and beginning with relatively unimaginative plots, became increasingly sophisticated until his publisher rejected Starship Troopers for outgrowing the intended youthful audience. The typical protagonist of a Heinlein juvenile is a bright but inexperienced young man from a disadvantaged background who has to learn the ropes and use his wits to make his way into a leadership role in his society–and his female characters also were portrayed as intelligent and strong, often helping the protagonist at a key point with superior knowledge of the social system. It’s interesting that Social Justice Warriors, in their attack on Heinlein and all Golden Age science fiction as essentially patriarchal and in need of political guidance, fail to notice how progressive Heinlein actually was for his era (the 1950s and 60s.) The juveniles are still empowering for both boys and girls, and a protagonist like Podkayne in Podkayne of Mars is a modern empowered girl, with some stereotypically feminine aspects but fully capable of agency in tough situations.

Those Golden Age dystopian visions were balanced by another subgenre of juvenile science fiction popular at the time: tales that portrayed the future as exciting new territory full of marvels and possibilities. Contemporary scholars classify these books as “sensawunda” works, because they conveyed a sense of wonder in contemplating tomorrow.

The poster child for this phenomenon is Tom Swift, the hero of more than 100 novels across five fiction series. In the 1950s, while Heinlein’s Max Jones was fighting for his life and struggling for his livelihood, young Tom was inventing new technologies in his basement (our modern word Taser is an acronym for “Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”), journeying underwater and into space, thwarting baddies of all descriptions, and illustrating just how cool the future would be.

Tom Swift had a triphibian atomicar. Where have all the triphibian atomicars gone now? The millennials, it seems, don’t want a ride….

I’m not sure it is the lack of interest of millennials in technological optimism that has lead to this drought in technology-positive YA science fiction. It may be that very little is getting published because boy’s dreams of agency — the powerful dream of being effective and admired for skill and courage — are no longer seen as important by publishing gatekeepers, now mostly coming out of non-scientific academic literature backgrounds. The videogame industry is now the primary source of young male empowerment fantasies, and it, too, is under siege from the Social Justice Warriors who want its themes to support their political vision of social justice, meaning all visions of the future must be screened for heretical thought — note this month’s war over game politics and SJW influence: “The Gaming Community is not a Wretched Hive of Sexism and Misogyny.” I have personally had my book downgraded by a literary establishment sort for incorrect thoughts — my chapter on entitled Fairy Tale thinking (and the many young women who were brought up with unrealistic expectations of being Princesses catered to by fawning males) was flagged as misogynistic.

The legacy publishing industry has been hiring bright young grads from the academy for some time, and critical mass has been achieved: political screening is now a reality. That is why depressing and unimaginative tales with little commercial appeal (like Pills and Starships) get promoted and plugged on NPR and in the Washington Post and go on to fizzle, while optimistic and empowering science fiction is mostly being self-published. This is because few in publishing now have any education or respect for the sciences and technology:

Another difference between yesteryear’s dystopias and today’s: The older authors were usually either trained in the sciences (Heinlein was a naval engineer; Anderson earned a B.A. in physics) or sympathetic to them (Norton, a librarian, conducted her own research). Like the pioneering author/editor Hugo Gernsback, they believed that quality futuristic fiction could seduce readers into a love affair with science and show them the possibilities it held for a better tomorrow. Thus Anderson’s teenage hero Carl, in Vault of the Ages (1952), ends a future dark ages by unearthing and reintroducing advanced technology to the world. Progress and science walk hand in hand, these authors implied, and no one is in a better position to appreciate this fact than young people.

Today, science is often portrayed as the problem rather than the solution. Many current authors, children’s literature scholar Noga Applebaum notes in her outstanding 2009 study “Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People,” are neither trained in nor sympathetic to the sciences. In fact, a majority of the many novels she analyzes vilify the over-polluted, over-complicated, and over-indulgent present while glorifying the past and the pastoral, a kind of mythical pre-industrial, pre-commercial, subsistence existence — in short, the kind of dark ages that Poul Anderson’s teen hero Carl brought to a welcome end in Vault of the Ages.

As active participants in the contemporary world, young readers are dished a heaping plate of guilt and self-loathing. Why is there global warming, or worldwide poverty, or runaway disease? The answer is as close as the millennials’ smartphones and tablets and gaming systems: Youth and innovation and modernity are to blame.

David Patneade’s Epitaph Road (2010) throws in everything but the kitchen sink when describing the sheer trial of being alive in the oh-so-terrible year of 2010: it was a “world of poverty and hunger and crime and disease and greed and dishonesty and prejudice and war and genocide and religious bigotry and runaway population growth and abuse of the environment and immigration strife and you-get-the-leftovers educational policies and a hundred other horrors.”

Saci Lloyd goes a step further in her award-winning The Carbon Diaries: 2015 (2008). Teen heroine Laura apparently is part of the problem by pursuing a music career with her band, gaining a following online, and benefitting from how easy it is to record and distribute music digitally. She only becomes part of the solution after abandoning her music to become a commune-dwelling, pig-raising, socially conscious activist-though not before performing the novel’s anthem, “Death to Capitalism….”

Are these works the literary equivalent of yelling at those darned kids to get off your lawn, oldsters scolding the youngsters for their perceived failings? Applebaum thinks so, arguing that the trend toward technophobia exposes “adults’ reluctance to embrace the changing face of childhood and the shift in the power dynamic which accompanies this change.” Viewed through its attitudes about technology, she writes, “literature aimed at young people is exposed afresh as problematic, a socialization agent serving adults’ agenda.” Certain adults’ agenda, to be sure.

The biggest exceptions to these trends can be found in the Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), which celebrates self-reliance, individual choice, and markets (like The Hob), while warning readers against those who gravitate toward power. (Suzanne Collins also masterfully answers the classic question “Who was right, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell?” by agreeing with both.) But although the Hunger Games novels and their film adaptations are an undeniable sensation, they also represent something of an outlier in terms of theme.

Another exception — or partial exception — is the work of Cory Doctorow. Doctorow’s novels depict technology as the natural ally of youth. The millennials are at a tremendous advantage in the 21st-century landscape, he proposes, because unlike their elders they grew up with a high degree of comfort with both technology and its continual state of change. But even Doctorow’s novels tell a sobering story about the present.

Whether it’s the hackers of Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013) or the fan filmmakers of Pirate Cinema (2012), Doctorow’s teen protagonists are routinely forced to defend themselves from older interests who are supported by the government simply because they are more powerful and entrenched in the system. The mighty surveillance state will not disappear, readers realize time and again; the most that kids can hope for is to watch the watchers and let them know that the scrutiny goes both ways. Readers cheer on the gutsy young heroes fighting for their liberty, but we also mourn all the time and effort and creative energy they lose in the struggle simply to stay free and see another day. Their best-case scenario is to fight the powers-that-be to a stalemate.

Amy’s piece continues with more examples.


More on the politics of YA dystopias:

Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
“Pills and Starships” – Pseudo Science Fiction
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters

Modern Feminism, Social Justice Warriors, and the American Ideal of Freedom

More on the legacy publishing-indie battle:

Hugh Howey and JAKonrath on the Indie Revolution, and Amazon’s Netflix-for-Books

More on Writers, Novels, Amazon-Hachette

“Pills and Starships” by Lydia Millet – Pseudo Science Fiction

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

As a reader of science fiction from age 6 (if Tom Swift books qualify, which they do), it pains me to see politicized and depressing stories for young people, promoted by a certain negative East Coast US mindset that believes technology and the future are bad things, that freedom of thought is dangerous, and that Progress is about appointing certain right-thinking types (the nomenklatura that are literate in the arts but not in the sciences) to direct everyone down the righteous path to equality and Utopia.

I also have a background in literary fiction: I have, for example, met John Updike at a Harvard writing class where he was a special guest, and experienced the joy of rejection slips with encouraging notes from the New Yorker. The New York/East Coast literary establishment — the academics, the publishers in Manhattan, the magazines that dictated tastes and high culture like the New Yorker — are in steep decline these days, and the damnable public insists on reading much more genre fiction, finding the literary novel less accessible and entertaining. Nothing makes a high-literary sort burn with resentment more than seeing self-published trash like 50 Shades of Gray and good science fiction like the Wool series route around the tasteful gatekeepers to make $millions for their authors.

Thus there is a temptation for literary authors whose sales are flagging to try to write in genres that might sell better. Unfortunately they sometimes try science fiction (which, if it is less technological but still projects a future society that runs on different principles, is sometimes called “speculative fiction.”) Being a futurist or technologist, or both, is not something most literary authors have the background for, and their lack of interest shows when they try it — generally they pick up the most hackneyed, uncreative current memes about the future and project them, mixed with their political biases, into a future world or society that is implausible to any student of technology or history.

A fine early example of this was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which could only have been written by someone ignorant of the true American character. Somehow a people who are cantankerous and barely able to tolerate gun regulation are going to acquiesce to a fundamentalist religious dictatorship that enslaves women — really? Only an academic author would believe something so preposterous. The Wikipedia entry on the novel sets the scene:

Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremist terrorists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.

This book became a bestseller and a movie, and the East Coast literati (with their paranoia about the feared Other, the fundamentalist religionists who were then getting headlines) were completely willing to believe that only one or two elections separated the US from a totalitarian religious state.

I was listening to NPR yesterday and heard an interview with author Lydia Millet about her new book, Pills and Starships. The book sounded like similar literati scare-mongering by someone of little or no scientific background, so I investigated further.

The PR blitzes legacy publishers can provide for a new book are still amazing. Not only is she getting a PR plug by those influence-peddlers at NPR for her crappy book, there are reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Journal of Books, as well as dozens of planted reviews at Goodreads. The book has climbed to around #2,000 on Amazon’s bestselling list but has only two reviews there so far, meaning the publisher was not able to game Amazon’s review system as effectively.

The world she proposes for the future (from the Amazon page):

Earth reached its ecological tipping point some years ago, and corporations now manage all aspects of life. No more babies are being born, the elderly must purchase contracts to die, and drugs (“pharma”) control a dwindling human population. Natalie’s parents have purchased a death contract, and they have one final week together. The 17-year-old must keep a journal, which she addresses to an unknown space traveler—the only place where starships come into the story. As the Bountiful Passing approaches, Nat and her rebellious younger brother, Sam, begin to make plans to save their parents, or, at the very least, to rescue themselves from the tyranny of the corps and their Death Math. A predictable plot and strained teen voice distract from the very beginning and with 90-plus pages of backstory, the real action doesn’t begin until well into the book. The ecological theme, clearly a passion of the author, unfortunately comes across as too heavy-handed and didactic in tone. An additional purchase only.—Katherine Koenig, The Ellis School, PA

Here’s her author bio from Amazon:

Lydia Millet is a novelist and short-story writer known for her dark humor, idiosyncratic characters and language, and strong interest in the relationship between humans and other animals. Born in Boston, she grew up in Toronto and now lives outside Tucson, Arizona with her two children, where she writes and works in wildlife conservation. Sometimes called a “novelist of ideas,” Millet won the PEN-USA award for fiction for her early novel My Happy Life (2002); in 2010, her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008, 2011, and 2012 she published three novels in a critically acclaimed series about extinction and personal loss: How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, and Magnificence. June 2014 will see the publication of her first book for young-adult readers, Pills and Starships — an apocalyptic tale of death contracts and climate change set in the ruins of Hawaii.

She has no background in economics, history, or hard sciences, but with “feelings” and a literary sensibility, she is willing to project a stunningly unimaginative future designed to reinforce current public school emphasis on “climate change” and the depressing fate that awaits us all if we don’t follow “feelings” as a guide to policy. The widespread promotion of this kind of propaganda to young people might have been useful when the education establishment drenched them in optimistic technocratic futures, but now it is just piling on a Conventional Wisdom that discourages any kind of planning for a brighter future. A subversive work now would be technologically optimistic and recognize how much better the future will be than the past for most people.

There’s a place for dystopias in Young Adult fiction, for example the Hunger Games series. But they should be sharp and imaginative and realistic about how real people respond to conditions.

Here are some fragments from reviews less influenced by PR quid pro quos:

I didn’t love this book. The book is told as a journal, with the audience some unknown spacefarer on a ship somewhere out in the solar system. And for me, that’s where it doesn’t work. Okay, I understand the point of a journal, but I think Millet sticks a little too strictly to the format, telling us far more than she shows us. If anything, the beginning drags as she explains and explains the world where Nat and Sam live.

I did care about the characters, but it would have been more enjoyable for me to see things as they unfolded. Millet even describes the dialog in places, rather than recounting it — or trying to recount it — which comes across as a rookie mistake. Just when the plot was getting good, the book ended, too, which left me feeling like I’d missed something. — Dean Fetzer at LitReactor.com

… When, from beneath the glossy surface, a disturbing reality begins to emerge, Nat’s emotionally flat narration makes it hard to care. Passive and without affect, she accepts her parents’ choices and later abandons her brother during a horrendous storm with elegiac regret. Despite exposition that’s rarely interrupted by dialogue, this world’s puzzlingly out of focus, real places carelessly portrayed. The novel’s narrative conceit has Nat explaining her story to a hypothetical distant reader. Summarizing the action robs it of suspense and interest: Readers do not see the story unfold and watch characters act and interact, making it difficult for them to interpret their behavior for themselves.

Detail may be the lifeblood of fiction, but storytelling is its pumping heart; without it, this all-premise effort is DOA. — Kirkus Reviews

In other words, it’s bad fiction as well as bad science fiction. Yet it will be sold and pumped up by the ideologically-biased publishing industry, which is doing a fine job of destroying itself by promoting the dull and correct while blocking the novel and subversive works of much better authors.

For an update on this topic and the ongoing war in gaming see: YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again

For more on pop culture:

The Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
“Mad Men”
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family