Spawn of Mars
Blog of Fictioneer David Skinner
Religion as Fraud Is Boring
Why Not Try Harder With Your Conflict?
Tuesday, November 20, 2018 3:48 pm
There's a couple of things I dislike about the Ori arc in Stargate SG-1.
First, it is facile and cowardly to cast Origin, the religion of the evil Ori, as a sort of medieval Christianity. Of course the Ori instigate a crusade
against our galaxy. Why not a jihad? Because modeling Origin on Islam and having Stargate Command oppose a jihad would, I suppose, be mean to brown people. Or something. Mustn't be phobic! Except, of course, against Christians. Natch.
Second, the Ori offer enlightenment and outright ascension to their followers. Those who heed Origin will themselves become gods! But then it is revealed that this is a lie. The Ori want followers only to literally consume the energy of belief. Ascension will never be granted to anyone. Origin is a fraud.
This, I think, I dislike even more than the arc's implicit Christophobia — which, these days, I'm somewhat resigned to. Haters gonna hate. Amirite? But to posit a religion as a fraud? That is artistically tedious.
The modern screenwriter, being so far removed from true religion and bound, by his university-credentialed brilliance, to the truths of SCIENCE! alone, cannot even imagine religion as anything other than fraud. Gods aren't real; God isn't real. How do I know? The SCIENCE! tells me so!
We might, as Good Liberals, indulge the ethnic employment of religion. Aren't those Mexicans adorable with their Signs of the Cross? Aren't those Blacks adorable with their Gospel Spirituality? And my, the little bon mots we can extract from the religious expressions of these adorable ethnics! Despite the fraudulence of their silly religions.
But imagine the Ori weren't lying. Imagine that ascension truly awaited the followers of Origin. Imagine that Origin was not a fraud. Suddenly the Ori arc is interesting.
It's easy to fight charlatans. The moral high ground is so very high. But what if your foe is not a charlatan? Where then is your moral high ground? Is it right to oppose the dissemination of enlightenment? When the rewards are so great? The truths so real? True dilemmas arise. It's not so easy anymore. The Crusade has a point after all. It is bloody, yes. But not pointless. The conflict between the Ori and Stargate Command is suddenly deep.
Or at least not tedious.
Since I actually like the trappings of medieval Christianity, I mostly enjoy the Ori arc even as it irritates me. They squeezed a lot of decent adventure into two seasons. (Squeezed perhaps too much: One potentially deep and interesting story — the implantation of a Goa'uld into the incarnated avatar of the ascended Ori — was somewhat flaccidly disposed of in a single episode. That story should have been a three parter, the very climax of the Ori arc. Oh well.) I also like Tomin, and Vala's relationship with him. And finally I have one word for you: morenabaccarin.
As the Humans Say
Dialogue for Aliens
Saturday, July 21, 2018 5:28 pm
In The Corbomite Maneuver
, an episode from the original Star Trek
, an alien named Balok has decided to destroy the Enterprise. Balok then grants the crew some time to make peace with their Deity or deities. And how much time does Balok give the crew? "Ten Earth time periods known as minutes."
Unless you're a steady fan of SF, you might not appreciate how amusing that is. It is the epitome of an SF meme, namely the alien who must use human measurements just to make it clear how long or far or big something is. And since the writer must concede that an alien would not normally use "minutes," he must therefore qualify "minutes" with "your" or "human" or "Earth."
But it sounds so silly. It's even a tad pedantic.
These pedantic qualifications are constant in Babylon 5; and it's not just for measurements such as "days" or "megatons." These past weeks I've been bingeing the series and you can all but make a drinking game out of "as the humans say." Straczynski, the prime mover and writer of the series, too often uses "as the humans say" to qualify a colloquialism or allusion or metaphor that, yes, might seem odd from the mouth of an alien. But surely the alien knows that his listener, a human, knows what humans say, and would qualify nothing. I have conversed with quite a few Japanese and Indians in the context of an English-speaking company, and they have never said "as the Americans say."
It's especially grating when Straczynski has two aliens of the same species conversing. He wants an alien to use some obvious and appropriate phrase like "kill two birds with one stone," and of course he feels a pedantic twinge and has to have that alien prepend "as the humans say." Honestly, if the phrase seems that out of place in the mouth of your alien, don't use it. Besides, why would two aliens, speaking to each other, use human turns of phrase at all? For one thing, they'd be speaking to each other in their own language, not English (the English is just a concession to the reader or viewer); and for another, they'd surely have their own phrases.
Never be like Straczynski and deploy "as the humans say." Either narratively establish that the aliens are linguistically assimilated and let them speak naturally, or bite the bullet and use a measurement or metaphor without qualification. Only in first-contact situations need you fuss with this issue at all, and in such situations do try to avoid the overblown balokisms.
P.S. Although the writing and the "humor" in Babylon 5 can be cringe-worthy, the characters and their arcs are really good. The characters actually develop. Their relationships and struggles are interesting and relevant. They're not just cogs in the plot or literary mixtures of personality traits. They support the space opera nicely — and that opera, Shadow War and all, is also really good. Hence my bingeing.
No, Not That Kind of Pulp
Here's the Kind I Mean
Tuesday, November 21, 2017 10:53 am
Old pulp has a reputation as vulgar, trashy, lurid, and low; and in their apologetics, the proponents of new pulp are usually quite aware of that reputation.
Sometimes the apology is an outright apology
. Some proponents, for example, explicitly disavow the "racism" and "misogyny" of old pulp. Well, okay. I'm not here to hate races or women, either. But declaring against "racism" and "misogyny" is a concession to the very Stalinist conformity that has been destroying our fiction. Those words are no longer reasonable; the enemy has defined them. These days, putting a woman in a dress and saying she is not the same thing as a man is considered "misogyny." Virtue signaling is not the path to better fiction.
But generally the apology is an affirmation. It is not trying to stay in the good graces of the modern zeitgeist but simply reminding people of the excellence to be found in old pulp; an excellence that is grounded in the pulp style.
Even so, there was something a bit vulgar about pulp. Consider the extent to which the Good People of the time sought to suppress pulp as injurious to morals. The Good People had a point. Scantily-dressed women and salivating killers are not precisely sublime.
But two things can be said.
First, there is a sense in which some vulgarities are better than others. George Orwell, in considering the naughty postcards of Donald McGill, noted that the cards, though obscene and (in Orwell's view) rebellious, were only funny because they presumed a stable society of indissoluble marriage, family loyalty, and the like. I myself have noted that pulp presumes the natural order. So long as the salivating killer is the villain and is so precisely because he is salivating and a killer, morals are not necessarily injured.
Second, even if one were to concede that a lot of old pulp was total trash and beyond redemption, there's still a lot that wasn't. As I read it, the Pulp Revolution has never been about total reversion to the past. It idealizes pulp. And ideals are not bad. Every revolution idealizes. A revolution is only guaranteed to be bad when its ideals despise the past. One can embrace old pulp and still set aside the vulgarity; for it is rather the wonder and excitement that guide new pulp.
Why the Pulp Attitude Has Attracted Me
On Becoming a Fellow Traveler
Tuesday, September 26, 2017 10:09 am
You can be shaped by what you will not do. I will not drink. I will not curse. I will not lose my temper.
Exclude the vices and you become other than vicious.
But “other than” is not enough. The bad is a privation of the good; but the good is not a privation of the bad. You must also be shaped by what you do. Include the virtues and you become virtuous.
We all know science fiction has become vicious. It is a platform for despising God, truth, men, women, and civilization. It gathers the mentally disordered and celebrates their diverse disorders. I just want to read about the defeat of killer robots and instead I must read about six-way sex on the planet Luvwyns.
As a writer I can — rightly, wisely, sanely — refuse to serve the vicious. No, I will not bash the Church. No, I will not bash masculinity. No, I will not bash the family. No, I will not bash this civilization or the people who built it.
But in some ways that is easy. It is easy enough to say I will not step in filth. The real question, the thing to ask of my stepping along, is: Quo vadis?
Whither are you going?
Without question, whither I go as a writer should be towards the virtuous. However, I don't want merely to propagandize for the good. Nothing wrong with propaganda, per se; the Gospel is propaganda, after all. But fiction, as we all know, suffers when story is subordinated to the message. That has been a primary lesson of these past dreary years of SF. In writing, as in all art, whither is only part of it. The more pertinent question may be: Quomodo efficis?
How are you doing it?
As you can tell from this blog post, I have a condition that might be called High-Falutinitis. My work can be overdone. Yet a virtuous work is best if it is at ease with virtue; if it is at ease in general.
Pulp is so much at ease.
I've read a lot of commentary from the Pulp Revolution. And what have I gathered? That pulp accepts the natural order of things and just runs with it. Right; wrong. Good; evil. Men as men; women as women. Even when weird, pulp is not deviant. That doesn't mean pulp is simple-minded, or that it foregoes high artistry, or that it disallows moral ambiguity in its characters. Pulp simply starts with story and, hewing to story above all, lets virtue take care of itself; because a good story cannot be in service of the vicious.
Nihilism is never served by a rip-roaring tale.
I have been writing for a long time. I have written my share of more or less nihilistic works. To be sure, even nihilism has a place in art. If nothing else, a privation depicted (but not extolled) can inspire a healthy lament for the good that was lost. But in this age of nihilism ascendant, I've wanted to be more manifestly on the side of good. I wrote The Giant's Walk to accept, against this age, the reality of God, but also to acknowledge how hard it is, in any age, to be on God's side. Since then, as I have watched the Pulp Revolution unfold, I have learned a forgotten lesson, an efficacious way to write on behalf of right:
Tell an exciting story.
Let heroes be heroic. Let villains be punched and girls be kissed! And God will inevitably be smiling in the background.
Now, you may notice that the title of this post refers to a pulp "attitude" and the subtitle to my being a "fellow traveler." I have not actually read lots of pulp and I can't claim to be among the revolutionaries. Of late, and prompted by the enthusiasm of bloggers, I've been exploring authors like Moore and Brackett and magazines like StoryHack and Cirsova, but my definition of “pulp” comes primarily from those bloggers. For all I know, the Pulp Revolution is misapprehending the nature of pulp. But I don't think so. It sounds right, given my independent experience of pulp (such as Hammett and van Vogt).
And I'm being only a little hyperbolic when I say that God smiles at pulp. It's akin to the assessment that pulp presumes a Christian worldview. It's why the Pulp and Superversive movements overlap so much. But in some ways Pulp seems the safer path, at least initially, for those trying to escape the modern modes of writing. Superversive, insofar as it consciously rejects the subversive, risks creating its own kind of message fiction; and whatever its exemplary attitude towards wonder and grandeur, it might be a better second step away from the modern rot.
Anyhow, I'm learning to pulp my fiction, and enjoying it.
Flea Markets. In Spaaace!
The Peculiar Novel Quarter Share
Monday, March 13, 2017 1:16 pm
It's been difficult to find a good SF novel. Most, these days, are beset with SJW imbecility. But I keep trying the samples at Amazon. Once in a while a sample is good enough to prompt me to say, "What the heck, I'll finish this one." Quarter Share
by Nathan Lowell was my latest choice.
But like pretty much all the books I have obtained hopefully after a decent-enough sample, QS
has proven to be... well, this one's peculiar. I had been expecting a Hornblower with spaceships and, indeed, QS alludes to Hornblower. And yes, it all begins with a boy (named Ishmael, no less) joining the space merchants as the lowest of the low; and soon he demonstrates how exceptional he is.
His first great demonstration is to make fantastic coffee. You can tell Lowell knows how to make fantastic coffee. Now I, too, know how to make fantastic coffee. And that's fine, I guess. I wouldn't expect our Ishmael to defeat the Galactic Overlord in Chapter 2.
And the entire book becomes How Ishmael and His Galley Mate Pip Figure Out Ways to Make a Profit On the Side. And no, no, no, this is not a tale of endearingly roguish space-boys finagling and maneuvering to squeeze a few credits out of rubes on orbitals. It is rather a series of discourses, soaked in Accounting 101, about market speculation and doing boring stuff with inventory.
In fact, by Chapter 21, which according to my Kindle is 71% into the book, the most profound thing our heroes have done is rent a booth in a flea market in a port of call. With the full blessing, and some investment, of their Captain and First Mate. The paragraphs about the flea-market booth have been a thrill a minute, let me tell you.
The thing is, I feel like I've stumbled onto some sort of niche fiction. Something that appeals to a peculiar, obsessive, crypto-autistic audience — like furry-fic or slash-fic or fic about Hummel figurines. As if there's a sub-sub-category of science fiction called Running a Lemonade Stand.
QS is not badly written, I suppose. At least I haven't stopped reading. But it is so bland. The characters are all so nice to each other and borderline cloying. It wasn't until Chapter 20 and the presentation of a curmudgeonly couple in a nearby booth, that I finally got some characters who conflicted. If your schtick, as an author, is adventure-via-accounting, you really need to compensate with some lively characters.
I feel bad even continuing this book. Hey, I waste time all the time, but wasting time with this book almost seems foolish. What a silly, lightweight, peculiar, peculiar book.
And to think this is the first of six books in a series — a series that is well-regarded! Maybe the series gets more properly Hornblowerish and our hero will combat the Space-Bonapartes, or cleverly conquer a Fort of Space-Spaniards, or something.
But I don't think I'll bother finding out.
An Inadequate Number of Robots
Hugo Awards 2015 - Short Stories
Sunday, June 14, 2015 10:42 am
I am a voter for the 2015 Hugo Awards. I am posting my thoughts about the candidate works. Be warned that spoilers abound.
There are five short stories on the Hugo list. I'll be referring to them using the following abbreviations.
OSP — On a Spiritual Plain by
PBB — The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by
John C. Wright
SS — A Single Samurai by
TT — Totaled by
TC — Turncoat by
My comments on these shorts will be short — and scattered.
PBB is beautifully written.
Above the coliseum and circus, where athletes strove and acrobats danced and slaves fought and criminals were fed alive to beasts for the diversion of the crowds...That is just one early phrase, with no particular thematic purpose. But read it aloud. It is pointed and rhythmic. And the argument among the Beasts, about who dare enter the final city of Man, is adroitly — let us say — highfalutin'. SS, though less blatantly poetic, turns words in a way that makes a fight with a Godzilla contemplative.
I appreciated that, right after a brief setting of weirdness (narrator huddled on a polar plain with aliens and a human ghost), OSP just explained the mechanics of the situation. I love piecemeal revelation; but especially in a short story, sometimes bluntness is best. TC makes very fine use of a biblical quote, one not well known, that enriches and does not merely decorate. TT's ultimate point is emotional, and to that end nicely uses emotional imagery as part of the SF mechanics.
TC's villain, if you will, is not an AI, but a post-human. The genocidal impulse of the Integration is grounded in hatred from humans for humans. This is better than the usual (often inscrutable) hatred of the Golem for its Master. All I know about samurai I know from fiction yet it seems to me that SS well depicts the point of a samurai, and makes use of it for the resolution. The defeat of the kaiju comes not from some superpowered hero but from the soul of the samurai, as distinct from the souls other warriors. I can't help but think that TT is a commercial for euthanasia; it seemed a little sour, somehow. In the end it's all emoting, not even a frank assertion of this or that point of view on human life.
That the rebellious AI in TC calls itself 'Benedict' at the end seems inapt. Arnold was a turncoat, yes, but not in a good way. Using the name of an American villain as a kind of punchline nearly knocks over the plot. Meanwhile, TT makes a cheap jab at conservatives (calling them 'Treaders'), which, like most left-wing jabs, incorrectly ascribes to conservative intent some evil that leftists actually do (i.e., government-run healthcare-rationing panels).
What distinguishes SF from other sorts of fantastical fiction is, of course, the science; and nothing says 'science' like numbers. TC's litany of empirical specifics just tickles me. True, in some ways it is less science than tech porn, but it is a milieu I love. Wright, who loves to work in eons, is very good at depicting the End of Man, no less so in PBB. SS makes the kaiju a force of nature, frightening in a way that a mere Godzilla can't be; the enormousness and enormity are very well evoked.
I love hard SF. These stories weren't thrilling me in that regard, at least not until I got to TC. Then again, I don't always like cold-hearted SF. (One of the reasons I love Solaris is that — rarely for Lem — there is actual human emotion amid the philosophy.) So while I was disappointed by the rotten paucity of robots, I did like what I read (except for TT, which is nonetheless well-written). In fact, my favorite was SS, which had nary a vacuum tube.
My final vote will be, in this order: SS, TC, PBB, OSP, TT.
Ages as Bright as Any
Michael Flynn's Eifelheim
Saturday, June 21, 2008 9:37 pm
In seeking science fiction that is neither left-wing nor Christophobic, I would have thought the worst
place to look would be in a novel about aliens crashing in a medieval German town. O! the opportunities to condemn the superstitious villainies of the Dark Ages! Beleaguered aliens — so like ourselves in their adherence to Science! — against the base and ignorant Catholicism of dim-witted villagers! Goodness me, the cliches write themselves.Eifelheim
is absolutely nothing like that. This is a work that depicts medieval Catholics with sympathy, not by supposing them to be unwashed Episcopalians who would vote Democratic if only they could, but by eschewing condescension and hatred — and, more to the point, by depicting the faithful Catholics as fully rational
In trying to understand the alien Krenken, Pastor Deitrich does not struggle to accommodate his religion and his science. He doesn't overcome any "provincial" shortcomings nor abandon his beliefs. Rather, he quite intelligently employs the scholarship of his age — secular and religious — to explain the Krenken. His categories may be medieval and Catholic, but they are rational. Put simply, Dietrich is not forced into some sort of proto-Enlightenment. He remains medieval. Best of all, his understandings are never made to seem pitiful for being insufficiently post-Einsteinian.
So Eiefelheim plays upon the actual strengths — intellectual and technical — of the Middle Ages. Does that mean we get an apology for the Middle Ages, a novel of Medieval Boosterism? No. But we are spared any nonsense about "Dark" Ages. Although the villagers are, quite properly, depicted as 14th-century people, they are also depicted as human beings, fearful and wise.
And wonder of wonders, Christianity itself is presented well — not as a generic stand-in for Belief in God but as a precisely dogmatic view of things. I'll give you two significant examples of this.
First: The fervent, hard-line Franciscan Joachim, who like others of the villagers believes the Krenken to be demons and, at first, seems like he's going to be the stock Intolerant Bigot, instead proclaims: "Show these beings what a Christian is. Welcome them into your hearths, for they are cold. Give them bread, for they are hungry. Comfort them, for they are far from home. Thus inspired by our example, they will repent and be saved... Imprisoned in flesh, they can wield no demonic powers. Christ is all-powerful. The goodness of Christ is all-powerful... Now we may see that it will triumph over Hell itself!" And Joachim is as good as his word.
Second: Much as Dietrich uses his categories to understand the Krenken Science, the Krenken use theirs to understand Dietrich's Christian Faith. Of course, much as Dietrich's categories fail him a bit, the Krenken's fail them a bit; yet as time goes on, many of the Krenken are actually converted and baptized! Not frivolously, either, but — as Joachim had hoped — in reaction to the Christianity of Dietrich and the villagers. Yes, the baptized Krenken have their moments of doubt (Eifelheim is no more a booster for Christianity than it is for the Middle Ages), but they remain faithful — even unto their personal detriment.
Now, on top of its respect for and intelligent engagement with medieval Catholicism, Eifelheim is simply a beautiful story. As science fiction it is sound, if a little unremarkable. That is, don't come to it expecting any unprecedented ideas about aliens or interstellar travel. But as a story it is beautiful. It is not about aliens but about a medieval village confronted with non-human souls, and there are episodes and events and scenes and characters that are great and plentiful and excellently arranged. Even granting that I am a soft touch, Eifelheim moved me. I can't recommend it enough.
P.S. I'm currently deep into Flynn's novel The Wreck of The River of Stars. Believe the hype: It's masterful. Read it — before or after Eifelheim, it doesn't matter. Gosh and damn, I've never been happier being an SF geek than in the past six months! And all it took was well-written SF that doesn't hate on my beliefs...