Ursula K. LeGuin has died


Ursula K. LeGuin (with Harlan Ellison) at Westercon in Portland, Oregon, in 1984. Creative Commons photo by Pip R. Lagenta. 

Ursula K. LeGuin, who has died at age 88, wrote a variety of fiction and poetry. She preferred to be known as an “American novelist.” But we science fiction fans can claim her, too, as the above photograph illustrates. Her awards included a Hugo and Nebula for The Left Hand of Darkness, but she also won our Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1993, for The Dispossessed.

Futures in Collision: Firefly’s Divided Society

Actor Nathan Fillion, who played Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds. Creative Commons photo by vagueonthehow. 

By William H. Stoddard

In the decade and a half since Firefly came on the air, it’s emerged as one of the high points of television science fiction, both for its characterization, and for the unusual depth in which its setting is imagined. In fact, that depth helps explain the characterization. The crew and passengers of the Serenity come from different places in a complex world, and their motives and relationships reflect this. On a first viewing, they’re inevitably two-dimensional, inviting the watcher to see them as dramatic stereotypes. Fitting the description of Firefly as a “space Western,” they often seem like Western stereotypes: the cynical veteran, the glamorous dance-hall girl, the preacher, the naïve city dweller out of his depth. But over the course of the first (and only) season, viewers came to know their backstories, and to see their actions in more depth, in relation to their pasts as well as their presents.

Their society is an internally divided one. Unlike Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, it isn’t a unified organization with only external foes; unlike Star Wars, with the Empire facing the Rebel Alliance, it isn’t neatly divided into heroes and villains, who see each other only from a distance. Both sides are represented on board the Serenity: the Alliance by Inara Serra, Simon and River Tam, and probably Derrial Book, as part of his mysterious past; the Independents or “Browncoats” by Malcolm Reynolds, his loyal ally Zoe Washburne, and Kaylee Frye. The two main romantic tensions within this group, between Mal and Inara and between Kaylee and Simon, both cross over this split.

The situation can be read as part of the “space Western” aspect. Many of the classic Westerns took place in the years following the American Civil War, a struggle between the central authority of the Union and the rebellion of the Confederacy. The Independents could very well have adopted the motto of the American South, “All we ask is to be left alone.” It’s noteworthy, though, that Whedon has inverted one aspect of that struggle: His Alliance, after the war is over, maintains what amounts to slavery, with many people held legally in bondage (at one point Inara claims Mal as her “bondsman”), whereas the Browncoats appear to have defended independence for others as well as themselves. This allows Mal to be a sympathetic figure, and helped lead to the show’s fans calling themselves “Browncoats.”

But there’s more to it than that. The ‘Verse, the setting of Firefly, also reflects a quite different conflict, one within science fiction itself.

How do we envision the future? Much of science fiction is set in imagined futures. Of course the human imagination can produce all sorts of things, and science fictional futures are diverse. But are there common patterns?

One common pattern can be seen in the fiction of H.G. Wells. Wells is a deeply ambivalent writer at times, one whose work often is deeply pessimistic, as in the grim visions of humanity’s evolutionary future in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (where the vampiric Martians are described as the inevitable end state of intelligent life) or of the imperfectly humanized creatures of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But he also hints at a different future in novels such as The Sleeper Awakes and A Story of the Days to Come and in the final paragraphs of “The Star.” This Wellsian future is highly urbanized, with large, centralized populations sustained by advanced technology. At his most optimistic, Wells hoped to see this technology developed and controlled by scientific elites, such as the “samurai” of A Modern Utopia. Visually, this is a world of clean, well ventilated, brightly lit cities, usually with urban planning that ensures a consistent architectural style – in other words, it’s what James Scott (in Seeing like a State) calls “high modernism,” as exemplified by Le Corbusier.

Wells’s vision was picked up, after him, by Hugo Gernsback, who made it part of his vision of the future. Isaac Asimov portrayed several such urbanized futures—in the Earth of The Caves of Steel, for example, and in Trantor, the planet-spanning city of the Foundation stories; he also portrayed scientific elites, such as the Council of Science of his juvenile “Lucky Starr” series, the Eternals of The End of Eternity (though they were a deeply flawed elite), and the psychohistorians of the Second Foundation. Disney’s Tomorrowland started out offering a similarly shiny high-tech future, and the original Star Trek helped bring it to a mass audience: The Enterprise’s voyages might take it into all sorts of dark, dangerous places, but the ship itself, with its clean, brightly lit corridors, was like a Wellsian city of the future in miniature.

At the same time, a different image of the future was emerging. If space really was “the final frontier,” as Star Trek described it, its people could be envisioned as frontier dwellers—explorers and colonists struggling for survival and perhaps wealth in a rough, dangerous environment. E.E. Smith hinted at such a vision in his Lensman novels, with their portrayals of “meteor miners” and of a uranium mine on a remote planet (with two different heroes assuming the role of miners during undercover investigations); but it was Robert Heinlein, in his juveniles, and later Poul Anderson, who gave us a fuller vision of space travel as a continuation of the American westward movement. Their stories also reflected American ideas about constitutional government and free enterprise, in contrast to the more planned worlds that Wells and Asimov thought were inevitable.

What’s striking about Firefly is that its setting combines both visions of the future. Most of the episodes take place in “frontier” worlds, with relatively small populations leading hardscrabble lives and having little access to technology on a day-to-day basis. But elsewhere in the same interplanetary community are the wealthy, high-tech, shiny worlds of the Alliance. Alliance military ships travel the same regions of space as the Serenity and other beat-up small spaceships, imposing the authority of the central government. And the political and cultural elements of both futures are also present, perhaps best captured in the opening of the film Serenity, which shows a very young River Tam in a high-tech classroom questioning the rationale for Unification, the Alliance’s imposition of its control over the outer worlds.

Curiously, Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is definitely progressive politically, and opposed to the libertarian or conservative ideas the “frontier” setting suggests; and it’s not uncommon for the show’s fans to share his political outlook. But Whedon made Malcolm Reynolds, a staunchly libertarian independent, the show’s hero, and the “Browncoat” fans of the show largely seem to identify with him. Firefly seems to offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, not allegory, which imposes an interpretation on the viewer, but applicability, which sets views free to find their own understandings of it, and to like it even while disagreeing with aspects of it. And this is also the case for libertarian viewers, who can appreciate Whedon’s making such an eloquent case for values he doesn’t entirely share. (The Libertarian Futurist Society awarded Whedon a Special Award in 2006, for Serenity.)

As for the “science fictional” aspect of Firefly, here, too, its two colliding futures embody two different understandings of science itself. The Alliance reflects science as an organized body of knowledge, on whose basis rational plans can be made and order imposed on the world, in Scott’s “high modernist” style. This is science as the application of existing knowledge. But frontier settings, which the independent worlds represent, confront things that aren’t yet known or ordered, that have to be discovered, and thus reflect science as a process of discovery, one in which we don’t yet know what we’re doing. And at the deepest level, the revelations of Serenity show that the Alliance, in important ways, didn’t and doesn’t know what it’s doing, and needs to be open to discovery, and to the free communication of what has been discovered.

Prometheus winner ‘Ready Player One’ out soon as a movie

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the 2012 Prometheus Award winner (in a tie, with Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze) is about to become much better known. A movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, will be released March 30.

Not everyone has climbed on Ernest Cline’s bandwagon. “Second Opinion: Ready Player One is the Worst Thing Nerd Culture Ever Produced,” published last year and written by I. Coleman, tries its best to live up to the title. Sample paragraph:

Ready Player One is a 2011 novel that lifts its setting, premise, and most of its story beats from 1992’s Snow Crash, removes all of the self-awareness, badass action, and philosophical musings on the nature of the relationship between language and technology, replaces them with painfully awkward 80s references, and changes the main character from a samurai pizza deliveryman and freelance hacker to the asshole kid in your friend group who claimed he ‘didn’t need showers,’ vomited onto the page by Ernest Cline. Its bestseller success and Cline’s subsequent 7-figure sale of the screenplay to Steven Spielberg is as close as we can get to objective proof that the meritocracy isn’t working.”

More here.

I’ve noticed other folks on social media who are scornful of the book. Disclosure: I enjoyed reading it..

I wasn’t the only one. Reviewing the book for the Boing Boing website, Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder wrote,

“It seems like every decade or so a science fiction novel comes along that sends a lightning bolt through my nervous system: Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). And I recently discovered what my mind-blowing novel for the 2010s is: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.”

Just in case you couldn’t tell if he liked it, Frauenfelder later adds, that the book is  “a rollicking, surprise-laden, potboiling, thrilling adventure story that takes place both in the OASIS and the real world. It is loaded with geek-culture references from the 1980s that resonated strongly with me — but they are all integral to the story and never feel gratuitous. You don’t need to know about 1980s pop culture to appreciate the story. I loved every sentence of this book, and was a little sad when I reached the end and re-entered reality.”

— Tom Jackson

 

 

 

Article on Robert Heinlein now available online

Robert Heinlein signs autographs at the 1976 Worldcon. (Creative Commons photo).

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, a project of the Cato Institute, has now been published online. 

As a result, the article on science fiction author Robert Heinlein by academic and LFS member Dr. Amy Sturgis, originally published in 2008, is now available to everyone.

Sturgis argues that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is his chief work. “Heinlein here offered a loose retelling of the American Revolution, with the revolt against tyranny set on the moon. The ‘Loonies’ rebel against the iron control of the authorities on Earth and in the process learn the lesson that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ or, as Heinlein states it in the novel, TANSTAAFL. Ultimately, the Loonies, like the colonials after whom they were modeled, achieve an independence of sorts, but not without great cost,” she writes.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1983, the first year the award was given.

— Tom Jackson

Victor Koman classic returns as an ebook

Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier, winner of the 1997 Prometheus Award, has just been reissued as a reasonable priced Kindle ebook ($5.95.)

We weren’t the only folks who liked it; see the Amazon page for endorsements from the likes of Gregory Benford and Ray Bradbury.

Koman is a three time winner of the Prometheus Award; more information at his official site. 

 

 

 

Review: Drug Lord by Doug Casey and John Hunt

By William H. Stoddard

Drug Lord is the second volume in the authors’ High Ground series about international entrepreneur and libertarian idealist Charles Knight. I can’t fault it as a libertarian work; of course, libertarians disagree about a lot of specific issues, but any libertarian reader will recognize the basic point of view. And I didn’t bog down in reading it, or find it a struggle to turn the next page.

Nonetheless, I have to say I’m ultimately not satisfied with it as a book.

To start with, the authors seem insensitive to prose. I was struck by one passage where a secondary character, an overtly gay man, makes a joke about being turned on by naked power—“Not so much the power, but definitely the naked part”—in what the authors describe as a prominent lisp. I’ll accept that as a deliberate mockery of the stereotype. But the sentence only contains one sibilant! How can anyone lisp words without sibilants? Casey and Hunt seem to have put words down on paper without thinking about what they sound like. There’s nothing else quite that striking, but the style throughout the book seems flat and unmemorable.

The presentation of libertarian ideas is handicapped by a tendency to present the authors’ evaluations to the reader, rather than showing people and events and letting readers reach their own conclusions. That may appeal to some libertarians (though it doesn’t to me personally), but it’s an obstacle to readers who don’t already share those ideas.

Beyond that, this reads to me like a conventional mass market bestseller. The characterization and motivation don’t seem very deep; I mostly don’t get a sense for why the different characters are doing what they’re doing. The protagonists succeed at most of their actions, even when their approaches look poorly thought out and could plausibly fail; on the other hand, when an action fails, it’s not because there was any deeper error—it reads as if the authors decided they needed a reversal of fortune there and put one in without showing why that specific plot twist would happen. I read through all the action scenes without getting into the heads of the characters, and without any sense of tension about the outcome . . . and that’s really not a good thing in an action novel, such as this sets out to be.

Perhaps the big issue is that I don’t have enough sense for what’s at stake in these novels. We see the libertarian ideas. But we don’t see Charles Knight starting a radical movement to defend liberty, or the antagonistic characters engaged in a sinister plot to annihilate it once and for all. The story goes through the motions of struggle and crisis, but the liberty that’s its nominal theme never really seems to be at stake. I think that above all is why I don’t feel strongly involved in this series.

Tyler Cowen re-reads ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’

The very first Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, back in 1983, was given, in a tie, to Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, won the Hugo for best novel in 1967. It was a favorite of mine when I read it during the 1970s, as a high school student. Evidently it was a favorite of lots of people.

Tyler Cowen, the influential libertarian-leaning blogger, author and columnist, recently re-read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and found that it holds up. His blog post is not very long, so I’m going to quote it in full:

Yes, by Robert A. Heinlein. I wasn’t expecting too much from this one, which I last read at age 13. Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully. It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice. TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea. The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak. Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles! This is also perhaps the best novel for understanding the logic of a future conflict with North Korea, furthermore Catalonians should read it too. Most of all, I recall upon my reread that this book was my very first exposure to game-theoretic reasoning.

NB: The “character” of Adam Selene is poking fun at H.G. Wells’s lunar Selenites, from The First Man in the Moon, arguably suggesting they descended from earlier human settlers.

Tyler’s post inspired 55 comments (so far!)

— Tom Jackson

 

‘Eric Kotani’ has died

Science fiction writer Eric Kotani  has died. His novel The Island Worlds, co-written with John Maddox Roberts and published in 1987, was a finalist in 2016 for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

The name “Eric Kotani” actually was a pen name for American astrophysicist Yoji Kondo, who was born in Japan.

See this excellent obituary in the Baltimore Sun.  Some highlights: Kondo wanted to see the world, so he learned Portuguese, which allowed him to obtain a job in Brazil. He eventually moved to the U.S., earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He then worked for NASA and held various academic jobs.

When Robert Heinlein asked him questions about astronomy, the two became friends, and Kondo began his second career as a science fiction writer, collaborating with Roberts on a series of novels and also writing a Star Trek novel, Death of a Neutron Star, on his own.

Review: Arkwright by Allen Steele

Arkwright, by Allen Steele (TOR Books, March 2016)

By Michael Grossberg
Science-fiction writers and fans have imagined the spread of humanity to the stars for generations.
Allan Steele hasn’t given up the dream.
In Arkwright, Steele sketches out a generations-long saga in an effort to dramatize how we plausibly can get there – even if we can’t overcome or get around such implacable limitations as the speed of light, a major stumbling block to interstellar travel given the vast distances between solar systems in this spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.
A heartfelt valentine to the golden age of science fiction, which embodied an optimistic view of human progress and technology fueled by a stlll-potent Jeffersonian liberalism (i.e., libertarianism) that has since sadly faded, the novel is especially flattering to SF fans because of its focus on a popular science fiction writer whose financial success and legacy sparks a long-term plan to reach the stars.
Arkwright Cover photo
Epic but also highly episodic, the 332-page novel seems consciously aimed at those who yearn for the return of a can-do American era, such as the early 1960s, when the popular culture was more heroic and hopeful about the future.
Steele, who has carved a respectable niche as an SF writer inspired by the golden age of Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, tends to write more in the realistic and prosaic style of Ben Bova but with a touch of the poetic flair of Ray Bradbury.
While some fans may question in certain ways just how likely is the real-world success of Steele’s particular space-flight scenario, Steele has written a story that flatters the assumptions of diehard SF fandom that’s been waiting for what seems like forever for humankind to finally figure out a way to colonize nearby exo-planets.
Better yet, it’s a story easy for hardcore SF fans – the kind who attend Worldcons and regional SF cons – to fall in love with. (In fact, I haven’t read an SF novel so appealing to knowledgeable SF fans since Red Shirts, John Scalzi’s clever and amusing starship-mission reconception of and tribute to the template of Star Trek.)
Arkwright fleshes out a multigenerational, private and largely discreet effort to develop, finance and launch the first working starship without government support or state bureaucracy. Such a broadly libertarian approach prompted the nomination of this entertaining work last year for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel.
Early chapters should entertain older SF fans in particular because of their charming focus on the Legions of Tomorrow, a fan-based group that emerges from the first World Science Fiction conventions as the roman à clef story blends fictional characters with such familiar faces as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Frederick Pohl. That fan spirit animates the entire novel.
The novel’s title refers to beloved author Nathan Arkwright, best known for his “Galaxy Patrol” series of space adventures. (Think Heinlein crossed with E.E. “Doc” Smith, but with a heavy dose of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek.)
When Arkright dies, he leaves his entire and considerable estate to create and sustain the Arkright Foundation. The goal of the foundation: to send human genetic material inside a rocket to a habitable planet, so that the rocket’s computer can create embryos and raise them in artificial uteruses into people who would colonize the new frontier.
Succeeding generations of Arkrights further the foundation’s efforts, with varying degrees of commitment and doubts, in what’s basically a series of loosely connected vignettes, stories and novellas. (Some sections initially were published in Asimov’s Magazine.)
But the devil, as always, is in the details.
Perhaps inevitably, as a byproduct of the novel’s very concept and structure, generations come and go too quickly to allow much reader identification with particular people. Even when a character sustains interest, he or she departs from the story within another few chapters as a new generation dawns.
There’s some welcome suspense and mystery – What obstacles will pop up to delay or foil the plan? And will the latest generation of characters have the means and will to recognize and overcome difficulties? – but the ultimate resolution is rarely in doubt.
One gets so involved with some initial leading characters that one misses them as the story moves on through five centuries.
One concern: A small part of Steele’s scenario is simplistic or stereotyped (the worst stereotypes are about religion or race, but are thankfully minor and brief, largely reflecting familiar SF tropes that champion reason and science while condemning religious fundamentalism or ethnic fanaticism), making it a little harder for this novel to connect with today’s welcome and more diverse readership.
Beyond questions of plausibility about the science and social changes, some have wondered whether even a wealthy private foundation would have enough millions to sustain any effort over a century. I didn’t have a problem with that – not only because of what financial investment advisers like to refer to as “the miracle of compound interest,” but also because of the widely underreported or taken-for-granted incredible progress that humankind already has made over the past century or two. (I highly recommend reading British science writer Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist or Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, insightful and revelatory books that marshal an amazing range of (often revelatory) history, statistics, science, economics and logic to demonstrate that our species has made enormous progress over the millennia and in recent centuries, largely because of the moral and practical policies that only in very recent generations have gelled into the social philosophy of market-oriented liberalism.)
If we’re so much richer, healthier, freer, more peaceful and longer-lived than past generations – and we are worldwide, with only a few grievous exceptions in the remaining dictatorships – then it’s certainly plausible for Steele to imagine that his centuries of further advances in prosperity, growth and wealth will be more than enough to fund interstellar travel.
The focus on human achievement – through private enterprise, and largely outside politics – is refreshing. Steele is at his best in exploring and dramatizing the real-world challenges of building and powering the starship, and identifying and later terraforming a suitable planet for colonization.
Yet politics does intrude here and there, which also seems sadly plausible.
Some libertarians, in judging this novel for the Prometheus Award, objected to one plot point, when the foundation makes a sizable campaign donation to a prominent member of Congress in order to affect federal legislation in a way favorable to future private space flights. My view: If the donation had been made to obtain a special federal subsidy or to directly harm competitors through government penalties, I’d agree with that criticism. But the foundation’s action seems acceptable (if not ideal) to me because it’s taken to forestall coercive governmental overreach threatening the foundation’s legitimate private efforts. Individuals – and groups of individuals, working through an organization, union or company – do have rights, including the right to self-defense, the right to advocate and to lobby to preserve their freedom.
Overall, despite the episodic gaps built into its four-part generations-spanning structure, Arkwright offers an inspiring and realistically complicated family saga about a seemingly plausible effort to develop the technology to build an interstellar starship that flies at up to half the speed of light and is capable of colonizing a planet in a solar system about 20 light years away.
Ultimately, this is a novel that champions initiative, entrepreneurship, private enterprise, innovation, technology, progress, fandom and the animating power of science fiction itself.

(Michael Grossberg, co-founder of the Libertarian Futurist Society and currently LFS board secretary and chair of the Prometheus Best Novel Finalist Judging Committee, has worked for more than four decades as an award-winning journalist and theater critic based in Columbus, Ohio.)

Prometheus Award winner Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017)

Jerry Pournelle at NASFiC in 2005. Public domain photo by G.E. Rule. 

If you follow science fiction news, you likely have heard by now about the death of Jerry Pournelle, who died Sept. 8, age 84.

Pournelle was arguably best known for his collaborations with Larry Niven, which earned Hugo nominations for The Mote in God’s EyeInferno, Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall. He won the Prometheus Award in 1992 for Fallen Angels, a collaboration with Larry Niven and Michael Flynn, and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2001 for The Survival of Freedom, an anthology he co-edited with John F. Carr.

You can read a tribute to Pournelle from Sarah Hoyt, herself a Prometheus Award winner (for her novel Darkship Thieves.)

There is also a useful Wikipedia entry. 

See also the Science Fiction Encylopedia article.