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animal behavior

So I've been reading about the spotted hyena. This is a species where the females are bigger, stronger, and more dominant. They form unusually large social groups, and they're good at tactics, but they seem to quarrel a lot over standing within the group. And as I read this, I found myself thinking of the conversation in The Lord of the Rings where one orc, inside Mordor, suggests to another that the two of them go off together and find a territory of their own as a large dominant female making overtures of courtship to a smaller male.

We aren't told much about orc social behavior, and almost nothing about their reproduction (and just as well, I can imagine some readers saying). As far as we can tell, we only see male orcs. But what if that's like hyenas, where the sexes look very much alike, even in their genital anatomy? Maybe some of those orcs, especially the big, pushy ones, are actually orc-women. That would explain some things. . . .

contract

I've sent in the signed contract for my next GURPS book for Steve Jackson Games. Once it comes back approved I'll have a question or two for the line editor—some about rules application and some about judgment calls on content.

This is a book I've been thinking about writing for a long time. In fact I found a several-years-old outline for it, though apparently I never sent it in back then. However, it's probably better that I'm writing it now, as some of my more recent work has given me a clearer perspective on it. . . .

broken immersion

I've read a number of Elizabeth Bear's books in the past, and liked them, particularly the Iskryne series, of which she was co-author. So I decided to take a look at Ancestral Night. Unfortunately, I very quickly ran into things that damaged my immersion in her story.

The first, and lesser, was a passage where her narrator explains that her upbringing left her with an aversion to chemical adjustment of her mental state, as a result of which she doesn't want to alter her neurotransmitters to enable herself to sleep. Instead, she says, she can caffeinate. Now, caffeine is precisely a substance that chemically alters one's mental state, and the fact that she uses the word "caffeinate" shows that she thinks of it in chemical terms, not just as a pleasant social ritual. So why doesn't she count it as the kind of thing she's averse to, and avoid it? That felt like the early twenty-first century's irrational pharmacological categories being relied on in a future civilization that putatively has a different and scientifically based approach to brain and mentality, in which such a distinction ought not even to be remembered.

A bit later, the narrator explains that most ships have female personae and presumably names, and attributes this to "gender essentialism," by that exact name. That raised several questions: Is there any reason to suppose that ships will still be called "she" even a century from now, let alone in a future multispecies galactic civilization? If they are, is there any reason to suppose that it will be a matter of controversy in the way such issues now are, or that, if it is, rejection of the feminine will necessarily be seen as the progressive view rather than the retrograde one? Will people still be fighting over the usage of our current pronouns, rather than having evolved an entirely different set? And worst, will the academic jargon term "gender essentialism" be what the rejected position is called, or will there be some more pungent vernacular term?

Having been twice jarred out of narrative immersion in the space of a single chapter, I'm not going to go on with this. I want the experience of imaginatively inhabiting a complex, puzzling future world, not that of being constantly shoved back into my own decade. I can't recommend this book to anyone who's sensitive to anachronism.

not a good month

I've just seen the news of the death of Brad Linaweaver. This makes the second libertarian science fiction writer to die within the month; J. Neil Schulman died just a few weeks ago. Both of them had won Prometheus Awards: Schulman for Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza, and Linaweaver for Moon of Ice, an alternate history that I thought the best of the three. Both of them were 66; Linaweaver was just two days short of his 67th birthday. It's oddly disturbing to learn of the deaths of men younger than I am; I'm still of an age where I think "so young!"

overheard

Yesterday C and I had an errand to run together. While she had ducked into a sandwich place near UC Riverside to buy drinking water as we waited for our bus, I overheard a young woman talking with a young man. The burden of her remarks was the oddity of Melania Trump being allowed to be the First Lady when she isn't American born. It sounded as if she thought First Lady was (a) an official position that (b) had to be filled by a native born citizen, like President and Vice President.

I can only quote Professor Kirke: "What do they teach in the schools these days?"

a question of genus

Having reread a few Heinlein stories recently, I went on to one I don't often reread: Starship Troopers. (That led to a fellow bus passenger telling me he'd seen the movie five times!)

It struck me that my thought about this story seemed confirmed: I don't think it's really a novel. Specifically, it doesn't appear to have a plot; at least, it doesn't have a conflict. Oh, there are external, purely physical conflicts, between humanity and the Skinnies and then the Bugs. But I don't see much inner conflict associated with them. The book starts out with Juan Rico saying that he always gets the shakes before a drop—but he's been assured that it's not fear, it's just a neurological reaction. Nor is there significant interpersonal conflict; Juan's father Emilio is angry over Juan's enlisting, as the sort of thing respectable people don't do, but their confrontation takes up all of one sentence, and the next time we see Emilio he's changed his mind on his own. So I kind of see why Scribner's turned this down.

And yet, at the same time, I did find myself moved by the time I had finished reading it.

So what kind of fiction is this?

I think that Northrop Frye's literary categories might be helpful. Frye says that there are four kinds of fiction: the novel, the romance, the confession, and the anatomy. As I analyze them (this is a bit different from Frye's explanation), the novel and romance are primarily about concretes—people, places, and things—where the confession and anatomy are primarily about abstractions or themes. In a novel, you have the emotions shown as taking place inside the characters; in a romance, they're often projected out into the fictional world. Well, in the same way, an anatomy projects ideas and themes out into a fictional world, but a confession shows them inside someone's mind.

Starship Troopers is told in first person, and it shows Juan Rico confronting certain ideas—specifically, the ideas of duty, patriotism, and military service—and discovering their meanings. He starts out as a rich kid (the name "Juan Rico" is plainly allegorical) in a high school class arguing with his teacher; over the course of the book he discovers that his teacher was right, and by its end he has fully accepted his role as a soldier. And the whole story is about how he comes to do so. The battles aren't significant in themselves; their point is to show him performing that role. And that's a much more abstract narrative.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to the book.

it is accomplished

About an hour ago, I made the final changes to GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics and sent the manuscript off to Steve Jackson Games. Now it's in the hands of the editorial and production staff, once it works its way through the queue of GURPS projects.

This has been a great project to work on; I like projects that call for research, and I did all kinds of research on subjects from basic physics to cutting edge technology.

Leda

Just lately, I reread Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, one of his later juveniles.

When the protagonist, Thorby Baslim/Thor Rudbek, gets back to Earth after a really complicated life elsewhere in space, one of the people who greets him is his first cousin once removed, Leda Rudbek. (I'm not quite sure how she came by the Rudbek name, as her mother was the younger sister of Thorby's mother's mother, but she's Thorby's mother's first cousin.) Heinlein is condescending toward her—he points out that she can do arithmetic "slowly," and not being able to do mathematics counts as not being fully human in Heinlein's novels—but in fact she plays quite a striking role in the events that follow.

Thorby finds himself being encouraged to behave as an idle rich boy, and kept carefully isolated from the actual doings of the Rudbek corporate empire. It's Leda who explains to him that he's the heir; and later she tells him about problems in the corporate management—problems for which her stepfather, John Weemsby, who has been acting as general manager since Thorby's parents disappeared, is responsible. She advises Thorby to hire a specific lawyer, and helps him arrange to do so secretly. He thanks her, and she answers,

"'Thanks' he says! Thor, this is for Rudbek."

She explains that she's a Rudbek (she has shares of stock that her uncle gave her when she was born) and her father isn't. And later, in the climactic scene, a shareholders' vote to decide whether to put Thorby in charge, she shows up at the meeting, having cancelled the proxies held by her stepfather, and casts the deciding votes for Thorby. Weemsby rebukes her, calling her "Leda Weemsby," and she answers "My legal name is Leda Rudbek." And that costs Weemsby the job he's held for a decade or two, and presumably breaks all ties between them.

So what Heinlein shows us is that Leda is the actual agent of Thor's coming into his inheritance; that she's actively opposing the man who raised her; that what drives her to do so is pride in her family. And when she sets things up for him to talk with the lawyer, she tells him, "I've had a sleepless night and I'm convinced they mean business. So I had to make up my mind." There's a story there, and a dramatic one, that Heinlein is telling the readers mostly by implication. Perhaps he thought it wouldn't be very interesting to the teenage boys he was writing for, but when I read Citizen of the Galaxy now Leda is interesting to me.

a question of semantics

As I finalize GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics for publication, I'm looking at a puzzling minor nuance of the rules. Some books and years back, I provided a classification of Musical Instrument specializations based largely on the Sachs-Hornbostel system, so that players could choose the appropriate skill for their character's instrument and figure out what other instruments it could transfer to at a penalty. In this book I've been doing the same for, obviously, electronic instruments.

For some instruments, it's the same skill; you play an electric guitar similarly to an acoustic guitar, or an electronic organ like any other keyboard instrument. The differences can be covered by familiarity penalties, for which GURPS already has rules.

Where I needed new specializations was in instruments where the basic movements were entirely novel—for example, the theremin, which you play by waving your hands at two antennae. But it turned out there were several different control interfaces! I originally had Gestural, for instruments that worked by body capacitance like the theremin or the ondes Martenot, and Tactile, for instruments that worked by touching contacts like the trautonium. But one of my playtesters pointed out the stylophone, where you touch an electrically active stylus to contacts. (Interestingly, it was used on Bowie's "Space Oddity.") Was this a different skill? It seemed sort of akin to Keyboard; but it's not identical, and I had Tuned Percussion for instruments like the xylophone and the glockenspiel, rather than calling them Keyboard. And it was different enough from the trautonium (where you slide your finger along a wire, pressing it against a metal plate) so that I didn't think they could be subsumed in the same category. But what to call this one, if not Tactile?

One option was just to use the names of the instruments—Theremin, Trautonium, Stylophone—the way I used Lute or Horn. But most of these names are seriously unfamiliar! Another, which I think I may settle on, was to describe the control input on the device: theremins are Antenna-Based, trautonia are Slider-Based, and stylophones are Contact-Based or Stylus-Based. On the other hand, I could use the instrument names and put the control surface into the short definition.

progress

This morning I sent in my revisions to the current version of GURPS Templates Toolkit 2: Races, a guide to designing "races" in GURPS and writing them up. For this purpose, "races" includes animal companions, vehicles defined as Allies (one of the options under the rules), robots, self-aware software, and spirits and other supernatural beings, so there was a lot to cover. This book is being fast-tracked for quick release; page layout has already been done, and changes had to fit within the existing pages, so new wording had to be tight.

We've reached the official end of the playtest for my other book, GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics, and I'm going to be spending a couple of weeks going over it for issues ranging from new content to style consistency. This is getting more normal treatment and a later release, and it's a less central book; about 80% of it is a huge catalog of gear for adventurers, though there are also new rules for a number of things relating to the subject matter.

Last month was busy!