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Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

If this is not the only post you read this year comparing Beatrix Potter‘s books to Sex in the City, please share your blogroll with the rest of the group.

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

I started thinking and talking about this question a few years ago. (I labeled it a “personal-intellectual project” of which my “Who’s the medium now?” set of posts in 2010-2011 is one expression). The only counter-example I know well is Dougal Dixon‘s After Man: a Zoology of the Future. An author friend, Alec Nevala-Lee, pointed me to “hysterical realism” (a term for packed-to-the-gills works such as many by DF Wallace, Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith) as potential counterexamples:

From James Wood’s review coining the term:

Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together–problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer’s job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

My dad offered many more well-known and better-loved counter-examples: Beatrix Potter’s books. “They’re about animals, not people.” “Of course they’re about people!” I said. “How so?” “Because they’re about how people feel and think and interact with each other.” My dad then accused me of tautology: I define any work of fiction as being “about people.”

That might be a fair criticism, but not with respect to Beatrix Potter stories, and particularly not with respect to The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Its first line may be, “Once upon a time there was a Pussy-cat called Ribby, who invited a little dog called Duchess, to tea,” but The Pie and the Patty-Pan is, in fact, exactly like the Sex and the City (TV) episode “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.” Both are surface-funny and subtext-baffling, showing absurd examples of what one may and may not say in certain social circles, what kinds of miscommunications or properly understood communications can or cannot threaten a friendship. Both poke fun at social conventions but apparently without denouncing them. The little animal details in Potter’s book like Duchess begging for a sugar cube on her nose or the doctor being a known and accepted kleptomaniac by virtue of his species (magpie) is probably all that makes Potter’s version easier for me to stomach than HBO’s.

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This is very similar to my argument for Invisible Cities and The Twilight Zone being about people: they use tight, focused, beautiful metaphors to externalize a mind or soul’s internal conflicts. And I think it’s an argument very relevant to speculative fiction fans: the main message of a show like Babylon 5 is always, “Aliens are just people, too.”

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Interview with Mike Carey

Daniel Rabuzzi (long-time HRSFANS supporter and SF author) has just posted part one of a two-part interview with Mike Carey (SF author and Vericon Guest in 2004), over at his blog. Enjoy!

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Links of science fiction becoming reality

Haven’t posted in a while.  Recently I was emailed a few links I wanted to share.

The first was shared by Rose, the URL is worth sharing:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/10/15/proper_science_monkeys_with_robot_arms/

“Proper science!”

Therein, the link describes efforts to equip robot monkey arms with a sense of touch:

“If you really want to create an arm that can actually be used dexterously without the enormous amount of concentration it takes without sensory feedback, you need to restore the somatosensory feedback,” explains Sliman Bensmaia, Chicago uni prof.

But the (convincing) explanation is unnecessary, for my exhiliration, anyway.  THEY ARE EQUIPPING MONKEYS WITH ROBOT ARMS.  HUMAN TRIALS ARE ANTICIPATED WITHIN THE NEXT YEAR.

We should probably reflect on the implications of this.  Even the article notes,

This research is funded by our old friends at the US military bonkers-boffinry bureau DARPA, hoping to deliver better replacement limbs for American troops injured in the Wars on Stuff.

But for today, I’m just going to enjoy it.

I decided to save the next link for a later post.

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Movies & innovation – and _Diamond Age_ racting

One of the great parts of being a speculative fiction fan is watching reality catch up to and surpass one’s favorite authors’ imaginations — or just never take a step in that direction at all. As I’ve written before, I live in dread of the genetic-discrimination world of Gattaca, which I now fear may be here before today’s children are dead (though I’m still hoping it won’t be before I am dead).

On the other hand, I’m chomping at the bit for movie acting to become independent of the actors’ own physical attributes, as in The Diamond Age. Avatar was a great leap forward, but so was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, because that was the first time CGI tried to render human faces and skin in a way that might fool the audience, even for half-second intervals. (Remember how amazing that one-second teaser of a single eye blinking was at the time?) Avatar was not ambitious on that particular score: only the non-human characters are rendered.

But some day we’ll see a movie where all the actors are wearing suits like Andy Serkis‘s (LOTR and Planet of the Apes!), and I can barely wait, because then we’ll finally be able to have movie stars whose ability to use their faces matters more than their facial features. (My favorite part about this in The Diamond Age is the little bit about Miranda studying how to ract a character with “cat eyes,” since she in real life has “bunny eyes,” which are used differently.)

This is how my husband convinced me to see Les Misérables. I didn’t expect it to be impressive musically as compared to any stage production, and indeed I was pretty much not impressed on that score. But letting the actors sing on-camera and mixing in the orchestra afterwards is a new attempt. The actors were clearly and justifiably over the moon about the chance. So I went along promising to have an open mind in trying to evaluate whether this presages the future of movie musicals.

And does it? Well, of course, I haven’t a clue. Quite irrespective of impressiveness, Les Miserables is always overwhelming, and thus hard to evaluate. Yes, the sung sequences are obviously more immediate than in Singin’ in the Rain. But movies, movie stars, moviemaking, and movie audiences — to say nothing of acting styles — are so different now from then that it seems arbitrary to compare how the songs were recorded between the two.

What new innovations are you watching for (happily or no)?

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The Indigo Pheasant

Posted here upon request from Daniel:

Daniel A. Rabuzzi (’80, Folk & Myth major, Quincy House) announces that ChiZine/CZP (Toronto) has just published his second fantasy novel, The Indigo Pheasant, sequel to The Choir Boats (2009, also by CZP). Locus selected it as one of their “New & Notable Books” in November. Reviewers described the first volume as “Gulliver’s Travels crossed with The Golden Compass and a dollop of Pride and Prejudice,” and “a muscular, Napoleonic-era fantasy that, like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, will appeal to both adult and young adult readers.” Daniel’s wife, the artist Deborah Mills, created the cover art and the illustrations. Available worldwide in paper and all standard digital formats– ISBN: 978-0980941074, and ISBN:978-1927469095. For more information, please see www.danielarabuzzi.com, or Daniel’s page on Facebook. You can reach Daniel directly at drabuzzi@earthlink.net.

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Interesting reset concepts

Rolling Jubilee is about to kick off, billing itself as “a bailout of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Other comments I’ve seen on this:

I like the idea, in some ways especially the “random acts of kindness” aspect of it. One imagines there’s no way they could actually eliminate any significant fraction of American personal debt, so in some sense randomly is the ‘fairest’ way to try to help anyone. Although they will get some prety impressive ‘bang for the buck’ (in a more literal than usual sense).

This also led my husband and I to look a bit into the actual Bilblical concept of the Jubilee — which turns out to have probably made sense in ancient Near Eastern cultures for reasons including provisioning the armies. See Michael Hudson‘s article in Bible Review 15:01 (1999) “The Economic Roots of the Jubilee.”

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My errors

I owe Elisabeth a massive apology for some poorly considered writing of mine last winter.

I’m really sorry: it was thoughtless of me not to ask you directly first.

A standard apology probably would have sufficed had I given it when it came due, but that was seven months ago. And culpability, like Rumour, grows swiftly and fearfully. In other cases when someone else here has written something that baffles or otherwise inspires me, I have been more courteous about prior notification of what I’m thinking, so I really have no excuse for neglecting that step in February.

So, just a few more lines to throw out on the question of ‘pleasure’ and/or ‘work’ reading:

  • A new short essay on Aristotelian leisure
  • Franz of Sunday in the Park with George

    Work is what you do for others — Liebchen –
    Art is what you do for yourself

  • A family member overheard someone in an airport security line complaining that he was 100s of pages into a book and nothing had happened. He turned around to see what book the other passenger was reading, and it was American Gods. My family member nearly blurted out, “What do you mean?”
  • This same relative was chewed out by a friend to whom he had recommended Ilium for sending him through an 800-page “slog.” To me (and my relative), reading Ilium is much more like being poor Phaeton in Apollo’s chariot. Slog? How? I’m being dragged too fast for my feet to stick in anything!
  • But one of my blockmates says he would characterize both American Gods and Ilium very similarly, simply because he would define “something happening” in a novel as “a scene advancing the main plot.”
  • Huh. I never would have thought of that.

So in conclusion, I do grasp that, very often, someone else’s reading tastes utterly confuse me because I’m just not imaginative enough. And I should remind myself more often to ask before I expound, even if I can’t ask before I wonder.

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One small step …

Oh, my. I no longer believe I die before Gattaca. This is frightening.

The NYTimes article where I encountered this news has estimates from the study team that the technology could be available in as little as 3-5 years: whole-genome sequencing of a fetus based on only a maternal blood sample and a paternal saliva sampe, with the fetal genome reconstructed from fragments in the mother’s blood.

I still think I’ll die before direct genome sequencing is used in hiring decisions. But it seems suddenly only too feasible that my grandchildren will be born into a society where parents choose to learn genetic propensities before birth, the same as today’s parents often choose to learn a child’s sex before birth.

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Bimonthly Roundup: The Days of Summer, 2012

Ah, summer — warm air, long days, and plenty of sunshine. How better to spend it than with like-minded science fiction, anime, and gaming fans? Here are some of the events we’re looking at this summer.   Are you planning on attending any of these, or others?  Let us know!

June

  • 6/29-7/2: AnimeExpo: Los Angeles, CA
    • Hyperfocused, enormous anime convention.

July

  • 7/4-7/8: DexCon: Morristown, NJ
  • 7/12-7/15: ReaderCon: Burlington, MA
    • A nice smaller convention that is like WorldCon without the crowds. Lots of good author panels. Very specific to books; no general shenanigans.
  • 7/12-7/15: Comic-Con: San Diego, CA
    • The giant comics convention held every year in SoCal. Very specific to comics and comics characters in other media.
    • Over 120,000 people. Need to buy passes a year in advance.

August

  • 8/16-8/19: GenCon: Indianapolis, IN
    • THE big board/table game convention.
  • 8/30-9/3: Worldcon: Chicago, IL
    • Important sci-fi con, held around the world, where the Hugos are given out. Big pricetag, mainly panels (not a lot of other associated fandom activities).
  • 8/31-9/2: Pax Prime: Seattle, WA
    • The largest and most influential video game conference, created by Penny Arcade.
  • 8/27-9/3: Burning Man: Black Rock City, NV
    • An experiment in temporary community, filled with creativity and bizarreness of all sorts.
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Non-fiction for pleasure

OK, so now I’ve had two humanities people tell me more or less categorically that non-fiction reading is not pleasure reading. (The first instance prompted much of what I’ve written here in the past year and a half; the second came initially as a comment on this weblog.) I would not have expected that particularly of humanities people, honestly. I suppose I had assumed that English or classics or folklore majors and suchlike were more likely to be into any and all reading.

In both cases there has been the clarification that the information gained (“understanding stuff about the world”) may give one pleasure “even when reading about it feels like work.” And yet … this still implies that the readers approach vast categories of written documents strictly from a utilitarian point of view—news, debate, most forms of essay, and (most pertinently to these discussions) academic and non-academic book-length works: pop science and ethnography, self-help and philosophy, history and historiography, history of science, biography, literary and art criticism, poli-sci. It truly does surprise me if the ‘not-for-pleasure’ category is that broad for either elisabeth or the grad student who told me she doesn’t read non-fiction.

I am accustomed to expansive, voracious, and usually compulsive reading from my close associates in the hard sciences and social sciences. My dad, an old-school sysadmin, keeps on hand nearly the complete œvres of Faulkner, Vonnegut, Lessing, and Erdrich (one of his most evocative comments on the last: “… so fierce that I can frankly understand her husband committed suicide“). He also keeps a personal subscription to Science magazine, setting himself the goal of understanding one article per issue (an ambitious goal that is by far not always reached). The mother of a mathematician friend had to set a rule during middle school that she would select every other book for his pleasure reading: she chose good classic YA, he plowed through the local library’s math collection. This is the same person who introduced me to The Ancestor’s Tale and, on my recommendation, read The Archivist in a day and a half. My little brother, a history-major-turned-’financial-analyst’ of whom I was seriously proud when he started (with The Fourth Hand) recommending to me books based on his own taste, is an Andrew Jackson buff who is also my original source for King Leopold’s Ghost. A chemistry undergrad friend of mine, now in graduate school, recruited friends for ‘salon’ book groups in two states in which he’s recently lived.

King Leopold’s Ghost and The Ancestor’s Tale are both written with exceptional clarity, perceptiveness, and outreach towards the audience. I have actually “grown” a favoritism for interdisciplinary non-fiction author Steven Johnson, and have wished that I had been a Harvard undergrad more recently so I could have become a disciple of Daniel Lord Smail, whose academic training is in 14th-century French legal documents, but who also is passionately advocating for historians to claim as their field all of human history, the way they used to before Western culture imagined how many orders of magnitude longer than Biblical history all is.

And non-fiction can inspire such awe—often for its subjects (Catherine of Aragon or the early epidemiological triumph of 1854 London, and more shrouded figures/incidents such as Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, and the training of medical residents), but also for the brilliance of the research (Montaillou) or the mind (An Experiment in Criticism).

Truly … people can dismiss all the vast variety of non-fiction as not intended for pleasure reading? Is this another case where I am failing to understand what kind of pleasures others seek from their reading?

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