Wednesday, December 13, 2017

No Genre for Old Men

My consumption of science fiction, both in print and in other media, has been declining steadily for the past fifteen years, even as my overall consumption of books and television has increased. Sci-fi, like other genre fiction* (especially horror, fantasy, and supernatural romance), primarily appeals to a younger audience, and Your Aging Narrator no longer fits that demographic. Popular franchises like Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, and (a level or two below them but still well-known) the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tend to feature young or childlike protagonists, quest-like central stories, conflicts with stupid and mulish authorities, and lots of action. Those of us in the "(wo)men of a certain age" category usually aren't much into action, unless we are paying someone else to do it, and are likelier to sympathize with the stupid authorities than their antagonists. (You kids get off my lawn!)

Trying to think of exceptions to this rule, in the form of SF novels or shows specifically aimed at middle-aged audiences, I recalled a fragment of a movie line from memory: "Before you really do grow old." Of course! The Star Trek movies, or the first six of them at least, aimed themselves at fans of the Original Series - most of whom were hitting or passing 30 when ST I appeared in 1979 - and at members of their age cohort. The first movie hit the mark too well in one respect: it had the sloooow pacing of a European art film, though without the charm. The other installments had peppier (or at least more suspenseful) narratives, while presenting themes that would appeal to more mature audiences: peace making (ST VI), fighting extinction (ST IV), looking for personal or divine meaning (ST V, alas), and coping with death (ST II and, to some extent, ST III). The corny dialogue, references to classic literature (Shakespeare and Melville, for example), and offbeat villains also denoted an older target audience. The later Star Trek films adopted an action-movie format** and, with the Abrams reboot, a much younger cast. I can't blame the producers for reaching out to a newer, younger, and more profitable market, but I have not been able to take either pleasure or comfort from any of the ST movies made after 1991.*** 

So hand me my copy of Julius Caesar, in the original Klingon, pass me my Romulan ale and my reading glasses, give me a star to sail by, and I'll be happy.

* Mysteries, westerns, and spy novels and movies are the exceptions here, but the western is dead and spy movies are moribund except as parodies.

** A friend referred to Star Trek: Generations as "three old white guys fighting on a rock."

*** I liked Star Trek: Nemesis, but that was just a tribute to Star Trek II  and VI.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Did You Ever Take the Voight-Kampff Test Yourself?

When someone (one of my college TAs, as I recall) introduced me to the most popular fan theory about Blade Runner (1982), namely that Rick Deckard was a replicant, I got rather angrier than the remark warranted. The aforementioned theory rested on Rachel's pointed question to Rick about the Voight-Kampff test, a mechanism used to distinguish replicants from "real" humans: "Have you ever taken that test yourself?" I think many fans, and eventually director Ridley Scott himself, read the question as a hint* that the VK machine would reveal Deckard's android identity.

I read it instead as a deeper philosophical question, a rare one in movies and one a science-fiction film was well-positioned to ask: how does anyone know s/he is real, is human? Most of the replicants in Blade Runner were "Nexus 6" models who strongly resembled humans: they had the same physical abilities as humans, could reason, could feel love and fear and pain, could and did hope for a future. Rachel had even more human features. She had a childhood, or at least the memories of one; had mastered a creative art, piano-playing; had the capacity for complex human emotions. She had, in short, all the attributes of a human being. All that became irrelevant when she failed the VK: she was now a replicant and a slave, a lesser life, someone whom Rick could murder at will. The only things separating Rachel from Deckard or Bryan, however, were the Tyrell Corporation's (presumably secret) records of her manufacture and the results of a mechanical test. How many natural-born humans would have fared any better at the VK exam than her? How arbitrary, then, is the difference between a full person and a fake person, between freeman and slave. This interrogation of mental and social reality is, I suggest, the philosophical heart of the original Blade Runner film. Simply saying "Oh, Deckard must be a replicant" robs it of its power.

To its credit, the sequel movie, Blade Runner 2049 refuses to answer the "human or replicant" question, except to imply (through the film's villain, Niander Wallace) that in Deckard's case it doesn't matter. All of the (other?) replicants in the new film are aware of their artificiality, have easily-accessible serial numbers, and in some cases routinely take a "baseline" test determining their level of obedience. The main character, K., not only knows what he is but prefers being a replicant; indeed, he is upset by even the possibility that he might be partially human. The other replicants in this film don't want to be human, either. They merely want the few things that make human beings independent, including control over (to borrow a Marxist term) their own means of reproduction. "More human than human" was a subtle joke in the first Blade Runner movie; now it is something audiences are willing to accept at face value. BR 2049 has shed some of the poetic ambiguity of its predecessor, but it has made its social criticism more explicit. And it has put a spoke in Ridley Scott's rhetorical wheel, which these days is a plus.

* Another supposed hint was Captain Bryant's threat: "If you're not cop, you're little people." Bryant didn't explain what that meant. One could translate "little people" as "replicants who don't have a badge to protect them." Or it could mean "regular shmoes like everyone else in this dump."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cyril Kornbluth, Accidentally Encountered

Margaret Atwood‘s ecological-collapse novel Oryx and Crake, which I have just gotten around to reading, contains a concept that one might call accidentally derivative. Researchers in the book’s pre-collapse era, the setting (in flashback form) for much of the narrative, discover how to breed a giant, brainless lump of chicken cells, a sort of “chicken hookworm,” from which one can harvest meat at will. Long time science-fiction readers will note the similarity between Atwood’s idea* and an equally horrifying entity in The Space Merchants: Chicken Little, a huge poultry-flavored teratoma whose flesh feeds the corporate future’s proletariat. I think the similarity is an accident because I doubt Atwood read Cyril Kornbluth (1920-58) and Frederick Pohl’s novel; the profit-oriented, price-cutting logic of her future dystopia simply pointed in a similar direction. It is unfortunate, though, how few authors encounter Kornbluth’s ideas, if only so that they can build on rather than duplicate them. Not This August is a far grimmer version of “Soviets Invade America” than Red Dawn, whose one-dimensional Russian bad guys seem comically inept compared to Kornbluth's methodically murderous communists. “Two Dooms” imagined a bleakly believable Hitler Victorious future whose survival Kornbluth grounded in the mental and physical starvation of the helot class and the Nazis ' careful use of psychological manipulation. "The Marching Morons," in its cynical cruelty, still feels surprisingly modern - I remember first reading it in 1983 or '84 and thinking it was new. In one respect it is the exception to the above rule: it served as the unacknowledged basis for Mike Judge’s 2005 film, Idiocracy, though Judge played the scenario more for laughs. Atwood, like Judge, might benefit from doing a little more literary slumming.

*Granted, neither Kornbluth nor Pohl thought to have their chicken cancer colony turned into anything quite so memorably and lubriciously named as “ChickieNobs Bucket o’Nubbins.” Atwood can outwrite practically anyone else alive.

Monday, October 16, 2017


At the second or third Arisia convention in Boston, back in Nineteen Ninety-Something-or-Other, Your Humble Narrator attended a panel on science fiction writing, a profession he  hoped one day to undertake. None of the panelists' advice left an impression, alas, but I do remember one author remarking that she had written several hundred blurbs for sci-fi novels. The other panelists asked about the logistics of such an operation; apparently it involves reading a lot of books' first and last pages. I recall thinking that while I might never become a fiction writer, there seemed to be a demand for blurbistes, and perhaps I might one day write one myself.

And so it came to pass! My first SF blurb* appears on Sue Burke's forthcoming novel Semiosis, a tale of interstellar colonization and first contact with an original, unforgettable alien species. I would say the book reminds me of, and compares quite favorably to, the early work of another prominent SF author, but I couldn't do so without giving away some surprises. Best to just read Semiosis and find out for yourself.

(Many thanks to Jennifer Goloboy for making the appropriate introductions here.

* Since someone will likely ask: yes, I read the entire book, cover to cover. Skimming isn't my strong suit.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

How Larry Niven Made Donald Trump President (Sort Of)

The American press periodically ascribes the election of Donald Trump to working-class rural whites, but post-election polling tells a different story. DJT’s core support came from “respectable,” middle-class white suburbanites. It seems hard to believe that this staid cohort supported such a vulgar, racist demagogue, but it really shouldn’t surprise us. The suburban populace has historically chosen to live in a racially-segregated, socially isolated environment, and to view with suspicion city-dwellers and activist governments.

What did surprise me was my discovery, in reading David Forbes’s long article “The Old Iron Dream” (2015), of how strongly the reactionary ideology of the suburbs infused one of the most ostensibly progressive, escapist genres of American media: science fiction. Forbes observes that sci-fi has nurtured authoritarian and racist tendencies since at least the late 1950s, and that publishers and booksellers gave prime placement to the more fascistic sci-fi authors well into the 1980s. To an extent not found in contemporary mainstream literature, the “Iron Dream” writers indulged in thinly-disguised racism, less thinly-disguised elitism, sexism, authoritarian leader-worship, and a narrow definition of liberty. John Campbell, the much-lauded editor of Astounding Science Fiction, prefigured the SF reactionaries' racism in his editorials. Robert Heinlein became the most well-known example of the type, with his seminal military/authoritarian sci-fi novel Starship Troopers (1959, movie review here), his libertarian parable The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and his racist fantasy Farnham’s Freehold (1964).* Jerry Pournelle gladly assumed Heinlein’s mantle in the ‘70s and ‘80s, inveighing against revolutionaries, urban “barbarians,” and welfare cheats in his novels. He later colonized book racks with his There Will Be War anthologies, each a melange of masculine mil-porn and Cold War propaganda. Orson Scott Card, probably the hottest new SF writer of the 1980s, purveyed an increasingly toxic brew of elitism, moral casuistry, and right-wing paranoia. Piers Anthony, who seemed to have an entire bookcase to himself in some bookstores, laced his fantasy and SF novels with sexism and misogyny, not to mention occasional pedophilia. Much of the popular sci-fi of the Reagan era thus reinforced the attitudes that helped Reagan's conservative and reactionary successors (George I, George II, DJT) win elections and push their political agendas.   

Forbes adds another name to his list, though only as a part-time “Iron Dreamer:” Larry Niven. Niven seems and odd fit for this category. His Known Space stories and novels, written in the ‘60s and ‘70s - the most famous of them the classic RINGWORLD (1970) - featured exotic alien worlds, bizarre aliens, and morally easy-going if over-populated human societies. He did co-write several novels with Jerry Pournelle, such as LUCIFER’S HAMMER (1977) and OATH OF FEALTY (1981), which featured darker and more reactionary story lines. Most readers ascribe these stories' right-wing politics to Pournelle alone. This, on reflection, seems another mistake.

Educated in Kansas, Niven spent most of his life in southern California, where a large inheritance (family oil money) helped him begin his writing career. He liked the libertinism of 1960s Los Angeles, but it did not make him a liberal. Niven considered himself a “right-libertarian,” one willing to support the Vietnam War (he co-signed a 1967 pro-war petition) and Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), and to advocate anti-immigrant policies. His Known Space novels and stories suggest that even early in his career, Niven leaned more to the conservative side of the libertarian spectrum. His future societies were libertarian utopias, populated by pleasure-seeking “flatlanders” (Terrans) and self-reliant, problem-solving miners and colonists. Not surprisingly, his heroes (like Beowulf Shaeffer and Gil Hamilton) tended to come from the latter elite group.** Niven did not obsess over welfare drones like his friend Jerry Pournelle, but he did base one alarming feature of his 22nd and 23rd-century societies, the Organ Banks, on a right-wing epigram beloved of Pournelle and Heinlein: democracy can only last until the poor realize they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. In Known Space, the “treasury” consisted of the bodies of criminals broken up for organ transplants, and the “poor,” the mass of unhealthy citizens willing to approve the death penalty for increasingly trivial crimes.

Niven later evoked the Organ Banks in his (2007) proposal that the Department of Homeland Security spread the rumor, in Spanish, that doctors were kidnapping emergency-room patients and stealing their organs. This would, he hoped, drive Hispanic immigrants away from public hospitals. Niven might perhaps say that he meant his “modest proposal” as a joke, but it is an unspoken rule in comedy that you avoid punching down. L.N. probably thought he was “punching upward,” because he sees poor non-Anglo immigrants as a threat, financial if not cultural.

Some of Larry Niven’s SF contemporaries went beyond mere elitism, anti-democratic skepticism, and anti-Latino racism to endorse authoritarian leader-worship. Pournelle admired monarchy and what he called “Iberio-Italian” fascism (i.e. Mussolini), and Orson Scott Card valorized ruthless warlords and religious leaders. Niven implicitly endorsed anti-democratic politics in LUCIFER’S HAMMER, in which the besieged heroes bring back slavery, and OATH OF FEALTY, whose heroes' massive gated community brings back feudalism. Even before these works, however, Niven included a troubling speculation about freedom in PROTECTOR (1973). In this later Known Space novel, an asteroid miner named Jack Brennan was transformed by an alien disease into a sexless monster - but a monster with enormous strength and superhuman intelligence. Asked by one of his former fellow humans to describe his new mental abilities, Brennan replied that he no longer had free will: he could immediately see the optimal course of action to take in any situation, and any other decision would have been a stupid one. This is a fairly narrow definition of intelligence, privileging problem-solving over creativity or kinesthetic acumen, but that's not altogether relevant in this context. The implication of Brennan’s revelation is that true freedom belongs to the young and stupid, and that those who want good, intelligent leadership cannot value freedom. It is a pretty short way from this to the conclusion that free societies are immature and stupid, and that the best leadership comes from supermen, warlords, or other autocrats.

So, let us not let Larry Niven off the hook. He had a lot more creativity and joie de vivre than his more didactic contemporaries, but he still shared their elitist, autocratic principles, and shared them with his impressionable readers. I was a big fan of Niven in my youth, having been introduced to his novels by my gaming buddies in the sixth grade, and read his fiction almost compulsively until I was eighteen. If I left my teen years feeling politically schizophrenic, this may have resulted from my dual interest in history, which introduced me to revolutionary idealism, and sci-fi, much of which told me that was dangerous hokum and that I should defer to my Republican political betters. Fortunately, my interest in history won out, and the emergence of a more progressive group of popular SF and fantasy writers - Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett, Nancy Kress - in the 1990s helped turn the genre back into one that offered a genuine escape from suburban reality.

That a small but dedicated group within the "alt-right" are now earnestly trying to restore Card, Pournelle, Heinlein, and their reactionary kindred to the center of the genre should alarm us. Youthful dreams shape adult attitudes, and the merchants of Iron Dreams apparently want adults who will support out-and-out fascism. Last year more than fifty percent of American voters my age and older voted for a fascist TV celebrity, and I will bet that at least some of my DJT-supporting contemporaries were old sci-fi fans. If we are to keep the millennials from climbing on the Trump-and-Brexit train, offering them alternatives*** to Heinlein, Niven, Vox Day, and their creepy future visions is essential.

(Photo of Larry Niven [2006] is by David Corby and licensed by him under Creative Commons. Space Nazi Armstrong photo via

* Featuring a future African civilization that eats white babies.

** Louis Wu, the sybaritic flatlander hero of Ringworld, was a partial exception, but he was also a xenophile and explorer.

*** Examples of SF authors pursuing more progressive visions include Ann Leckie (author of Ancillary Justice and its sequels), Ted Chiang, Adam Rakunas, and Becky Chambers.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Games That Don't Suck: Biblios

(For the other games in this series, click here and scroll down.)

Fans of designer board games soon become familiar with expansiveness - with games that feature large, well-illustrated boards, lengthy rule books, and hundreds of plastic or cardboard or wooden playing pieces. (Fantasy Flight Games made its reputation producing such behemoths.) These titles impress the observer and can satisfy players’ craving for an immersive experience, but they tend to intimidate beginners and to consume lots of time. Fortunately, the hobby-games industry long ago - well, over twenty years ago, anyway - recognized the concurrent demand for products with simpler rules, a more compact set of components, and shorter playing time, yet also with opportunities for deep play. I have reviewed several such games here; Biblios is another recent example.

Physically, Biblios takes up little space, comprising just a deck of cards - category cards, gold cards, and bishop cards - a small cardboard “scriptorium,” and five dice used (with the scriptorium) to indicate the current value of each category. The objective is to have the highest scores in the most valuable of the five game categories: monks, pigments, books, manuscripts, and forbidden tomes. Each category’s victory-point value starts at 3 but players may modify it by playing bishop cards. One wins a category, and takes all of its victory points, by accumulating category cards whose total value exceeds that of all the other players. As one would expect, whoever wins the most victory points wins the game.

Players acquire cards in two phases. In the gift phase, each person takes turns drafting cards, drawing from three to five (depending on the number of players), taking one for him/herself, putting one in the auction deck, and placing the others in the “public space” for the others to choose. Once all cards have been chosen or allocated to the auction deck, the auction phase begins. Players in this phase take turns bidding for each card in the auction deck. One bids gold cards for category or bishop cards, and category cards for gold cards. (One cannot bid bishop cards, since one plays them as one acquires them.) During the auction phase players can interfere with each other’s acquisition of valuable cards by bidding up their prices - provided the player can afford to pay the bid price.

Bishop cards are another vital part of the game’s inter-player dynamic, as they allow players to raise or lower the victory-point value of categories mid-game. A bishop card gives the player the choice of which categories to modify, specifying only the direction (or directions) in which they may move the die/dice, up or down. Bishops advance one’s own plans and interfere with other players, and can prove especially valuable late in the game, after players have chosen which categories to accumulate.

That’s the whole game: three kinds of components, two playing phases, 20-30 minutes of play time. The “skin” or “chrome” on this game is thin; the game dynamics and objectives have little to do with the rhythms of a medieval monastery*, and I am more likely to refer to the categories by color - brown, blue, green, yellow, and red - than by name. It doesn’t matter. Biblios is quick to learn, features ample opportunities to interact with other players and with the field of play, and thanks to the drafting and auction mechanics has almost no down time to speak of. It is both a good introductory title and a very good light game to play during a break or a late-evening session.

* Or any medieval institution, for that matter. “Realistic” medieval games should at a minimum have some sort of disaster mechanism, since plague, famine, robbery, and other maladies were so common a part of medieval life. Bruges is one game that does this well.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Them Bones: The Poison Serenade

Them Bones, 74-78, 89-90, 97-98:

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

First contact, again.

Madison’s separated Army companions finally meet some of the inhabitants of the era into which they have traveled. A party of Indians, drawn to the soldiers' camp by "Moonlight Serenade" (they call the newcomers "the Music People,") has come in to say a cautious hello. Warrant Officer Smith, who is keeping a diary of the time travelers’ experiences, tells us that “they don’t look like movie Indians.” They wear abundant tattoos, of animals and lightning bolts and more dangerous-looking images; some wear large ear spools, while a few have flattened heads, the result of head binding as infants (a common practice among some southeastern Indians). Smith and CIA officer Splevins determine that the visitors belong to a “proto-Muskogean” confederacy of villages, each led by a Sun Man, with a “Sun King” presiding over the whole. They farm, build large temple mounds, and have a small “death cult” within their larger Sun-oriented religion. In short, they strongly resemble Took-His-Time’s people. There are some subtle differences: these Native Americans have no contact with mysterious “Traders,” none speak Greek, and as far as we know none have met mammoths. Splevins believes that his company has traveled to the pre-Columbian past, but a different past than the one Leake fell into.

Finding themselves at least 400 years* further back in time than planned, the company’s officers decide to prepare a contingency plan, and task Smith and one Specialist Kilroy with the first draft. We remember that Waldrop served as a draftee in the U.S. Army, and acquired considerable familiarity with its foibles, its bureaucratization and tendency to pile dirty jobs on middle management. Kilroy has taken a lot of officerial chickenshit in his time, and he refuses to take the order very seriously, drinking and flirting with Smith while asking when, between “bunker guard and shitburning detail,” he’ll have time to work on the report. Smith expresses similar pessimism: 

"What are we supposed to do, kidnap Indian kids, brainwash ‘em, set up an operation that will elect Stevenson instead of Eisenhower in ‘52?"

Perhaps so.

Relations with the Mississippian Indians remain friendly for a few days, but when Smith writes her next journal entry she reports dire news: an epidemic has broken out in the nearest village. Three people have died from an illness characterized by fever and “running bloody noses,” and many others have fallen sick. The survivors have fled in haste, not even stopping for a proper burial. Smith notes that she and her companions received multiple vaccinations before leaving 2002, but someone might have brought an infection to which the indigenes lacked immunity. (The symptoms suggest influenza but could indicate a number of respiratory illnesses.) Nothing much happens in the Army camp for the next couple of weeks, but the silence is ghostly and apprehensive. What will come of the newcomers’ contagion none can really say, but we doubt it will lead to a good end.    

Coming next: the expedition to Pipe Hill.

* That is, no later than the 1530s, before De Soto’s entrada. Waldrop is pretty careful with his chronology.

(Image above is a 1735 drawing of the Creek chief Tomochichi and his son.)