Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BBC News - Magnetic mysteries of Earth's Core

Crystals that are kilometers in length! Nested realms of elemental purity. Epochal storms of world-altering consequence!

Who needs fantasy! The extremes of physics generate environments and material behaviors bizarre enough to rival any system of fantastical magic or metaphysics.

BBC News - Magnetic mysteries of Earth's Core

Yeah, yeah. I know. Fantasy is fun because you can apply the fantastic and sublimely bizarre to the human world. And that certainly works better for storytelling purposes than applying the kind of heat and pressure to people that generate the wonderfully odd realms that exist beneath our feet.

So maybe it's not so odd that science articles like this always leave me wanting to write fantasy that draws on the fantastic behaviors and strange realms that science articles and journals describe.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tim Powers via Cory Doctorow off William Gibson's twitter feed

‎"Literature is hostile to ideology. It doesn't have answers, but gives rise to inadvertent questions"

~Tim Powers

I love that statement. I've loved it ever since I first heard Mr. Powers utter it at the Writers of the Future 26 workshop in LA a year ago.

Photo courtesy of Author Services 

I love it despite the fact that it's probably more an ideal than a reality.

Obviously people do and have used literature to advance ideological agendas for several hundred years now, and the same is definitely true today. Even a fast glance at current day literature quickly reveals that "literature" itself has become a genre that for better or worse is dominated by the left. One in which sub-par individuals struggle and fail, and then fail again, and end the book in an enhanced state of despair.

The same polarization is true in much of genre fiction, with science fiction has slid sharply to the left since the early 1990s.

I suspect that the present marriage of literature and ideology is one of the ultimate factors that has helped drive a wedge between literature and the general public. At a time when reading already faces stiff competition from a variety of stimulating alternatives like the internet, picking up a novel is like being clubbed over the head with the big stick of humorless indoctrination. Much of science fiction these days oozes progressivism to the point of that I often feel that I'm drowning in cynicism and self-analyzing irony and post-colonialist anti-imperialism.

The remaining fraction of science fiction--for me--has becoming increasingly militarist and intolerant over the past decade. It often seems as though there is precious little literary space left over for the moderate majority who value science, empiricism, and issues that transcend the limited scope of ideologies.

No wonder the largely ideology-free genres of fantasy and young adult speculative fiction have continued to grow and thrive even as science fiction has seen its sales stagnate. Though that is likely to change as more and more established writers make the switch to young adult in order to cash in on its popularity.

Ideology will likely choke off YA just as it's helped to smother science fiction.

Aside from its soul-killing lack of humor and warm human passions, the short-lived appeal of ideologically driven writing can block a book from becoming a classic. Oh, it might be called a classic by like-minded critics or members of an establishment invested in the same side of the ideological spectrum, but it will not be a great story that ordinary readers pull off the shelf again and again to reread.

Go back and look the famous books associated with the ideological movements of the 20th century from social realism to left-leaning post modernism. You may find that a surprising amount of the 'great novels' and the politics they advocate feel very dated and rather silly. And they are rarely ever read by anyone aside from lit majors enrolled in university courses.

My favorite example of ideological silliness is from a few years back when I came across a series of 1950s right-wing tracts and novels in a used bookstore. These works painted a picture of the US Army of the time as dominated by the Soviet Union, and its generals and colonels being fully prepared to aid in launching a communist coupe in the United States.

Yes, for real. Apparently nearly two decades of working for the FDR and Truman administrations was enough to make the military suspect in the eyes of a segment of the American right.

Prior to that, my favorite example of dated ideological zaniness in writing was a set of papers, plays, and novel excerpts from a college class that looked at the 1960s. In that collection, several authors during the period railed against the impending execution of a plan to transport millions of black Americans and leftist dissidents to concentration camps that were even then being built in the countryside.


Future generations will think much the same of our present day, politically polarized novels and written political works.

Ideologies are at best black-and-white photos of a complex, colorful and evolving world. They may be useful in generating a common understanding withing a disparate collection of human beings and to instill the motivation necessary to act as a group, but they carry a heavy, heavy cost in simplification and erroneous suppositions.

It's often amazing to look back in time through the printed word and see the glaring failures of reasoning and the appallingly bad predictions that tens of millions of human beings embraced as truths because of an acceptance of ideologies. Especially when looking at the horrific consequences of totalitarian ideology on the fascist right and the communist left.

We should question our ideologies. We should question them often, be they left wing or right.

Looking back over the last century as both a historian and a reader, it's  clear that far more often than not writers do not have the answers the world needs. The solutions to the major dilemmas of history since the industrial revolution have arisen as a matrix of competing forces from activists, soldiers, statesmen, scientists, and engineers. Our present day world simply does not appear in works of literature from past decades. Even in science fiction we've come up amazingly short on predicting the shape of our current reality and technology base. As a profession and even much more broadly as a species we writers and humans lack the faculties needed to track trends more than a couple of years into the future.

But what we can do is ask those "inadvertent questions" that Tim pointed out.  If we can't deliver an accurate model of tomorrow, we can at least look at the trends and issues of today and say "what if?" to our readers through our characters and the plot dilemmas they face. We can take timeless human problems and try to show them in the new context of the near future, even if we dress up the setting as a far future. We can also attempt to depict worlds with competing ideals and ideologies that have strengths and weaknesses.

If we can not do a good job of telling people what to think, we can at least get them to start thinking and maybe even provoke them into building a better tomorrow through our what-if-ing. We can ask questions that will help inspire today's and tomorrow's activists, soldiers, engineers, scientists, and statesmen.

Literature that provokes people to answer such questions cannot be friendly to any ideology that explains the world in simple terms. Literature that is hostile to ideology is empirical in nature or at least Socratic on a level accessible to its readers.

Maybe Tim's quote ought to read "Literature should be hostile to ideology." Maybe it's an ideal to aspire to. An urgent ideal in this myopic, polarized age of ours.

Looking over my collection of books from the past thirty years, my favorites are the ones in which the characters and the choices they make do not fit neatly into dogmatic categories. These are books that continue to be good reads years after their publication precisely because they are hostile to ideology. They refuse to embrace any creed of the ideal. Instead they show people armed with flawed memes and incomplete bodies of concepts doing their best to make their way through one crisis point after another in an imperfect world.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The dancer and the artist at the end of the age of beauty, on the edge of the age of war

An interesting article via Arts and Letters Daily about the dancer Jane Arvil (Jeanne Richepin) and the painter Toulouse-Lautrec at Moulin Rouge during the close of the late 1800s. It captures the roles of two visual artists in depicting the stresses of a historic transition point -- a time when the tensions of the Industrial Age began to boil over into armed conflict. A time when social mores rooted in rural agricultural traditions and the restraints of poverty were corroding in an urban environment with a rising middle class and elites interested in the stimulation of the exotic, the disturbing, and the complexities of stylization over realistic representation.

Being a visual species with highly developed visual cortices in our brains, much of our historical development often ends up captured in images or expressive motion.

Public domain photo via Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Building a continent

So, the East Coast shook today, from the Carolinas to Boston and all the way up into Canada. For someone like me who grew up in the American West, that's quite an impressive and worrying reach for an earthquake to display.

Typically, quakes on this side of the Rockies rarely spread destructive effects more than a few dozen miles away from the epicenter. A fact that reflects the composite, fused-together nature of the American West.

USGS image via Wikipedia

Believe it or not, about a-third of our continent is a fairly recent assemblage -- a jammed together, welded collection of ancient arcs of volcanic island chains, micro-continents, long-dead mid-ocean mountain ranges, and uplifted sea floors. All of these swept up and fused by the westward drift of North America and the halted suduction process of shards of oceanic plates.

The heart of our continent is a vastly old shield of thick basement rock -- sometimes referred to as Laurentia -- that roughly stretches from Greenland to Texas and from Eastern Nevada to the eastern slopes of the Appalachians. Overlaying it are patches of accreted sedimentry rock and layers of sediment

Aside from its stressed and distorted border regions, this stone cap is for the most part continuous. Hence the far reach of earthquakes inside this geologic province, with few West-Coast-type faults to redistribute the energy among.

Which is not to say that the area is completely free of major earthquake-producing faults.

USGS image via Wikipedia

Around 750 million years ago, tectonic strain wounded Laurentia as the forces involved in the breakup of the Rodinia supercontinent tore at the North American cranton.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone

USGS image via Wikipedia

The resulting rift has been the source of a truly far-reaching and powerful (7.0 to 8.1) chain of historic earthquakes. Earthquakes strong enough to damage buildings in Washington, DC and ring church bells in New England. That, and to generate destructive waves on the Mississippi large enough to leave some witnesses with the impression that the river had reversed course for a brief period of time.

Along with those historically documented quakes are prehistoric seismic events that have left plenty of geological evidence throughout the region. These signs  hint at eventual events that will impact as us as society here in the US, and perhaps leave a lasting impression in our culture at some future date.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The daily volcano cam

One of the first things I check when on the net in the mornings. Just 'cause, you know, the mountain could have moved closer to the city over night.

USGS image, public domain 

Well, truth be told it's more for the sense of infinite that comes from looking at mountains in the early morning. That and a reminder that there are forces and priorities that dwarf and will outlast the concerns, conflicts, and petty worries of day-to-day life.

One of those small concerns that has been worrying at me is a sense of disappointment from not being able to attend Worldcon in Reno this year. I'd really been looking forward to attending the premier convention for genre writers in my hometown for some time. Alas, trying to make a freelance living in an economy where college graduates are enduring a level of unemployment on par with that of the Great Depression did not allow for it.

What really sucks is seeing picture of my hometown posted on blogs by my neo-pro peers as well as by established writers in the genre whom I've met. I was looking forward to seeing many of them again for the first time in a year, and I was certainly looking forward to hanging out with the Portland contingent.

That said, this is definitely one of those disappointments that falls under the heading of petty sorrows that fall by the wayside when looking at the mountains. It's also a petty concern when looking at the plight of other graduates who either haven't had any kind of an income since 2007 or are stuck working part time minimum wage jobs with heavy student loans hanging over their heads. Going to school on the GI Bill allowed me avoid accumulating any significant debts, which was no small trick in a time in which we have shifted the burden of financing higher education from the states to students and their parents.

It's also small because I do have work. I'm slowly accumulating clients and creeping back up towards being able to pay the monthly bills. And I'm doing so through writing, which is a reward in and of itself.

Speaking of, I really should be doing paid work that I have qued up for today rather than blogging...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bizarre videos

Sadly, because of the many demands of post-graduation survival in the current economy, spending time on the internet reading interesting articles and hunting for good music and bizarre videos has taken a hit. Especially since it's a challenge just to get in good writing time. Still, there are moments here and there in which I still manage to stumble across entertaining bits of strangeness.

Strangeness like feudal Japanese rap videos.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

This'd make a completely kick ass science fiction sound track

You might be able to tell from the state of this lonely blog that I've been on a writing binge this summer. A lot of hours immersed in SF and techno thriller territory. At the same time I've been spending a lot of time parked in front of the computer doing freelance business writing work on commission. So, it's been productive couple of months, thought not much of a summer in any traditional sense. But such are the necessities of survival in the Great Depression II.

At any rate, aside from caffeine, I use music as a stimulus to maintain my focus and motivation during long stints behind the keyboard. The above track has been one of the summer's best songs for me, so I thought I'd share it. That and like the title says, it would make for an awesome addition to a soundtrack for a slick genre film.