Log in

No account? Create an account

it's dead, Jim

A couple of months ago, I ran across an article discussing the large number of "rock legends" who are now in their seventies, may well die before long, and in any case can't have long continued careers—and the absence of new legendary performers to step in in their places. The author's theme seemed to be an elegiac one: The natural aging and death of an artistic movement or style such as rock. He compared his feelings to his father's as the legends of the big band era died and were forgotten.

That started me thinking about science fiction, and how much prospect there is of its continued survival.

When science fiction was created, it was written by and for technologically oriented people. Hugo Gernsback started out as the publisher of the Electrical Experimenter; John W. Campbell started out as an engineering student. And its ties with technology continued up through the end of the twentieth century: Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon addressed the impact of growing up in a techie family as he had, and Lois McMaster Bujold acknowledged the influence of her father, a professor of engineering, particularly on her ethical views.

But when C and I moved to Riverside, I got a look at the UC Riverside catalog, which listed a program in "science fiction and technoculture." Its head, Nalo Hopkinson, is a well-known writer in the fantastic genres. But she's a professor of creative writing, and not a single member of the faculty for the program taught in any field of natural science or technology—and that is still true. And that's what I'm seeing in the science fiction community as well: Increasingly, both its readers and its writers seem to come from literature and the humanities, not from the scientific and engineering fields that originally inspired it.

I'm also seeing that the current population of readers are turning against the entire history of the genre. It was disturbing when earlier this year the John W. Campbell Award was renamed, to disassociate it from Campbell; it was a shock when, just now, the James Tiptree Award was also renamed for similar reasons. Yes, Campbell and Tiptree believed some things that are not now accepted, and did some things that are questionable. But the awards weren't based on their examples as human beings; they were based on Campbell's establishing indirect exposition as the crucial method of science fiction, and on his nurturing an entire generation of new writers, and on Tiptree's achievements as a short story writer. I don't know if either one's kind of fiction can survive if their memories die.

I don't know that the genre is dead, or dying. But I'm not sure how much longer it can survive. And I'll hate to lose it if it goes.


When we started looking at places to move to, I came across a site with a table of nerd rankings. This was interesting in its own right, with a broad swath of un-nerdishness in the South and a cluster of un-nerdish states around New York City, contrasting with a band of nerdishness across the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains.

More recently, though, I had occasion to look at the Gini coefficients for income for U.S. states. The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality: If everyone has the same income, it's 0, and if one person has all the income and everyone else has nothing, it's 1. As it happens, I don't have any ethical bias against inequality as such; if someone gets incredibly rich by providing goods and services that people want to pay for, their wealth is a measure of their virtue. But in our society, one of the things that wealth purchases is political favor; states with high inequality are likely to be governed according to the interests and biases of the very wealthy, and states with low inequality are likely to pay more attention to those of the middle strata—and these days C and I are in the middle. (There's also the use of political favor itself as a way of gaining still more wealth without actually doing anything that makes other people better off.)

So anyway, I took a look at the Gini coefficients for U.S. states, and found that the most unequal states were the core Democratic states, followed by the southern states: the Gini coefficient for the U.S. as a whole was exceeded in California, Connecticut, Louisiana, and New York, and in the District of Columbia, by far the most unequal place in the United States. At the other end, the most equal states were Utah and Alaska.

And that's when I said, "Huh!" Because those were also the two states with the highest nerd indices. And when I compared the two rankings, they looked surprisingly similar. So I did a very simple statistical measure, a 2x2 chi-squared distribution, upper half vs. lower half for each measure. And I came up with a measure of association so high that it fell off the right edge of the chi-squared table: There was far less than one chance in a thousand that so close an association could exist by pure chance.

Of course, correlation isn't causation. Does having a moderate income allow people to cultivate fannish interests? Do people without fannish interests have a higher probability of getting really rich? Do they gravitate to places where they can get rich, making fannish interests less prevalent there? Is there some third factor that influences both nerdishness and economic equality? I don't know. But it was an interesting and surprising discovery.


A bit over a year ago, C and I decided we needed to work toward moving out of California. That led to my starting Social Security payments a year earlier than I had planned, at 69 rather than 70 (reducing the amount I received) to provide us with financial maneuvering room, and to our doing a lot of online research into possible destinations. More recently, I've visited Boise, Idaho and am planning to visit Lawrence, Kansas soon; and C has been taking driving lessons to restore her skills, and we've been working toward buying a recent model used car.

A lot of the reasons for moving out of California are practical: it's an insanely expensive state to live in; the recently passed gig law could prevent me from earning a living as a freelance copy editor (it definitely restricts freelance writers, though in a way that probably wouldn't affect me); the combination of water rationing and electricity shutdowns could be really hard on us; and statewide rent control can be expected to wreck what remains of the state's housing market. We also have concerns about public health issues in California cities, and about the violence of groups like Antifa spreading from Oregon and Washington to southern California. But also, while we both have loved living in California, it no longer feels like the state we grew up in; the culture has changed, becoming less tolerant.

In the first part of this year, we both did online research, looking first at states and then at cities within those states. We found information on climate, demographics, cost of living, crime rates, public policy (especially how pro-freedom different states were), and availability of things like psychiatric services, university libraries, Apple stores, airports, and interesting restaurants. We even found a Web site that rated the states for relative nerdishness! Our original list was 36 cities in 12 states: Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. (We ruled out Colorado, New Hampshire, and Utah for their harsh winters.) After looking at them one by one, we got down to five cities, and now we're at two: Boise and Lawrence. (There were some cities we gave up on sadly: Austin for its transportation issues and growing homeless population, and Santa Fe for its incredible cost of living.)

If all goes well, we'll have a car by the end of the year, choose a destination, and find a place to move to in about six months. Wish us luck.

what I heard

I spent the past two days visiting friends in San Diego county and running a session of Tapestry, my fantasy campaign. C stayed at home.

I called her Friday night, and she asked me to call her Saturday morning at 7. I woke up rather before that, did a couple of things, and then at 6:45 I felt sleepy and decided to lie down for fifteen minutes. Then I clearly heard C's voice saying, "Bill?" I opened my eyes, checked my watch, and saw that it was 7:02.

Of course this was my brain getting my attention. But it sounded so convincing that I can see how people come to believe in telepathy!


A couple of weeks ago, I started seriously reading Minna Sundberg's online graphic novel Stand Still, Stay Silent. I had actually taken a first look at it much earlier, but it began with a long prologue set in the present day that I found slow going. This time I ran across, somewhere or other, one of Sundberg's maps, which I thought astonishing both for cartographic skill and for sheer beauty, and that drew me into the main narrative. Now I've read all the online pages of "the first adventure" and as much as is available of "the second adventure"—and bought and reread the two volumes that are so far available in print.

This is a work of postapocalyptic supernatural horror, set in the Nordic countries and based on Scandinavian and Finnish folklore and legends. The prologue shows the start of the apocalypse, in our own time, as a disease spreads across the world, rather like Stephen King's Captain Trips—but people who die of it linger on as unquiet spirits. The same thing happens to most other mammals; only cats are immune and have instinctive sensitivity to supernatural threats.

Sundberg's visual art really amazes me. I particularly like her full page or double page spread; the landscapes make me think of Tolkien's watercolor landscapes, and convey the same sense of an animistic world.

The characters are interesting to read about; they've been sent out into the empty lands to explore and fetch back books from the lost ancient world (worth a lot of money!), but their sponsors got much less money than they applied for (the funding agency thought they themselves would be half the crew, which none of them had planned on), and so they couldn't recruit highly trained specialists. Instead they got, well, what as a game master I would call "player characters": a mixed lot of people with some useful skills, occasional odd talents, and really amazing quirks, such as the Norwegian woman soldier who's utterly baffled that anyone would ever read if they weren't compelled to, or the Finnish mage who's almost unable to communicate even with the one other explorer who speaks Finnish. Later on in the story they're joined by an Icelandic stowaway with totally untrained magical talent, and then by a feral kitten they rescue after its mother is eaten. There's a lot of humor about their interactions with each other, but this isn't a comedy; it's much too dark! At the same time, we do see them becoming, if not yet an effective team, at least a group of people who like working together.

I hardly ever buy graphic novels any more, for reasons both of budget and of shelf space. But I think this one is totally worth it.

we have the technology

This morning, as I was waiting for a bus between two errands, I saw another man at the bus stop having a conversation on his cell phone. It was entirely in sign. Of course that's a logical corollary of things like Skype and Zoom and FaceTime, but I hadn't seen such a thing before, and I thought it was really cool.

trumpets, please!

I just sent my new GURPS manuscript off to Steve Jackson Games. The actual deadline for the first draft is 14 October, so it's going in early. But it had reached the point where fiddling with it any more would feel unproductive, kind of like that point in playing go where it's clear to both sides that adding more stones accomplishes nothing. So I've hit SEND and heard that satisfying whoosh!

In a way, this is a followup to a previous project, applying some of its content to a specific topic. And unlike several preceding books, it has a fairly large bibliography, which was one of the things I've been working on over the final weeks.

Elsewhere in the news, my previous book is going through the final stages of production review before it gets released. I'm not sure exactly when that will be, but I'm hoping for this month. It's partly a gear catalog and partly a history of electrical technology, for the benefit of GMs who want to have authentic toys for their campaign year. I'm hoping it sells well, as we're having higher expenses than usual. . . .

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. . . .


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.