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This year, the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction's usual Campbell Conferenceserves as the academic-programming track for MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City. Want to attend some of those? *Full academic-track program schedule here(.pdf)* Don't miss this one, because we'll have hors d'oeuvres for 200 and a cash bar:
Thursday Aug 18, 2016
7:00pm - 8:50pm: Campbell & Sturgeon Awards Ceremony
Convention Center, 2501D
Join us as the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction honors the winners of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel of the year and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best science fiction short story of the year. These awards are unique in that they are selected by incredibly well read authors and scholars in the field. This process side-steps the politics of other award methods. Tonight we will announce the winners and honor their talent with a brief reception.
Friday Aug 19, 2016
5:00pm - 6:00pm: Autographing
Convention Center, Autographing Space
William Dietz | Derwin Mak | Ian McDonald | Christopher McKitterick | Martha Wells | Sheila Williams
Saturday Aug 20, 2016
9:30am -10:45am: Campbell Conference Round-Table: "The World of Tomorrow is Today: John W. Campbell, Astounding, the Futurians, and the Legacy of the Golden Age”
Convention Center, 2201
Kij Johnson | Christopher McKitterick | Michael Page | Dr Gregory Benford (UCIrvine) | Elizabeth Anne Hull | Joe Haldeman | Robert Silverberg | Sheila Finch | James Gunn | John Kessel | Elizabeth Bear
This year’s Campbell Conference round-table discussion, as part of the MidAmeriCon II academic programming, considers how the Golden Age shaped science fiction (including this convention) and contributed to the shaping of the present world at large. We will discuss how the legacy of the Golden Age (especially the legacy of the namesake of this conference) continues to provide inspiration, discussion, and criticism among the writers, scholars, and fans within the field; and how contemporary science fiction extends from (and sometimes diverges from) that legacy. We will also consider in what ways the World of Tomorrow envisioned by the Golden Age writers exists in the World of Today.
Sunday Aug 21, 2016Gunn Center's educational-outreach program, AboutSF, is one of the recipients.
The older I get, the more it becomes clear that most of humankind's problems stem from intentional ignorance: Choosing to hold onto problematic beliefs despite evidence that shows these beliefs lead to harm, or could, or when they're simply no longer useful or relevant and get in the way of building a better future.
If you know something causes problems for others or for our shared environment, yet you continue to support that harmful thing, you're not "following your heart," being moral, or such. You've become part of the problem. Traditions and heritage are not always good. They're history. It's okay if obsolete beliefs stay in the past.
Resist intentional ignorance. Don't be the problem. If you learn something that changes your perspective or challenges your beliefs, follow Theodore Sturgeon's advice: Keep asking the next question. When you discover that you were ignorant of the facts or of others' feelings, embrace the new thing you learned. Grow, become a better person. Be part of the solution. The better world you'll live in is yours, too! Isn't that kind of the Golden Rule? That seems like a good one to follow.
But seriously, any super-intelligent, super-powerful, godlike being that wants to keep its people in ignorance is a slavemaster or malicious asshole. If Earth's god-worshipping religions are based on such beings, well, to hell with those alien jerks! Sure, humans as a whole can be terrible monsters, but intentionally keeping us in ignorance isn't making things better. I'd only forgive them if they were to appear this afternoon and say, "Sorry, our bad. We've been reinforcing your ignorance and self-hatred for too long. Now that you're approaching the Technological Singularity, it's time you learned the truth."
...I mean, we're about to become really dangerous - not just to ourselves, but to the rest of the galaxy. If some awful group of tech-savvy industrialists or terrorists - or some gov't seeking ultimate power - builds an intelligent nanoweapon that turns Earth to gray goo, it's not just us that's wiped out. Those self-replicating machines could consume everything on Earth, float past the now-all-nanos atmosphere, between the planets, and into interstellar space. Mars? Nano-goo. Jupiter? Supermassive ball of nano-goo. Oort Cloud? All the planets in our part of the galaxy? Nano-goo. Everything they touch will be destroyed.
So keeping us down might make sense on a galactic scale. But if that's the case, just TELL US it's in everyone's best interests to keep humans down until we're not so dangerous. TELL US that we're simply too monstrous in our mental composition to be allowed to progress. TELL US that we need to grow up, eliminate our bigotries and hatreds and other personality flaws, before we're allowed to keep moving into the future.
Because humans will do it regardless, and then what? They'll just wipe us off the face of the planet before we're too dangerous? That's terrible resource management. If there's anything worthwhile in the human species, show us the error of our ways and help us cast off our inherited memes and epigenetics. Help us learn how to be better people.
I have an even better idea: Why not just fix our problems ourselves? Why don't we as a species work on becoming better people so we don't need to worry about theoretical godlike aliens exterminating us. If there's no such thing as godlike aliens, why in the ever-loving hell do we hang onto obsolete and harmful memes from our ancient past? It's like someone with peanut allergies continuing to gobble bags of peanuts, fully aware that the next mouthful might be their last. If Earth holds the only intelligences in the galaxy, we have a responsibility not to exterminate ourselves.
Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
I just realized that losing my religion as an early teenager led to a lot of troubled times throughout my teens and even into my early 20s.
I'd actually believed this religious stuff before then. I'd been raised as a Christian, and everyone I knew was a church-going Lutheran or Catholic (though the latter was eyed with suspicion), with a couple Evangelical Free friends. As I begin drafting this late at night, after pondering this article (about how Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts) and this debate on the Facebooks, I can clearly recall being really emotionally moved by hearing certain sermons or reading stories about Jesus and salvation through love and sacrifice. About how, after He came along to burn down the authoritarian patriarchy, we could throw away all those old hateful bigotries and prejudices, and look forward to a utopian future based on love - if only everyone would just believe in Him!
What ruined this for me was when my confirmation teacher forced us to say that the unbaptized go to hell. (It was a fundamentalist strain of Lutheranism that no longer exists, closest to the Missouri Synod.)
"What about babies born in areas where they could never have heard of Jesus?" I asked, trying to fit this logically into what I'd studied about this religion's eponymous founder.
"It's tragic, but that's the Lord's law," she said.
This bore no relation to anything I had come to believe about Jesus, or the very foundations of what I believed Christianity to be. So it couldn't be right. But this religious teacher - and the pastor's wife embodying the Church itself! - was insistent this irrational notion was true. When I asked my Mom about this, she said to do what I was told (ah, the underlying virus of religious authoritarianism) and "just say the damn words! You don't have to believe them."
But if that were true, what was the point of the Church (in its broadest sense), the most-massive and enduring undertaking in all human history? If we simply recite the words but don't believe in them, how can we call it "faith"? More importantly in the societal sense, if we don't need to believe what we're told or what we say, what's the purpose of organized religion at all?
The existentially horrifying part of all this is that seemingly everyone in America (where 83 percent identify as Christian) was part of a conspiracy of fear ("You'll burn in Hell for eternity if you're a disbeliever!"), or else consciously trying to suppress reality - and trying to infect the minds of their children with this mind-virus. So it seemed that either everyone was aware of the lie and complicit in its perpetuation, or they were dangerously out of touch with reality, allowing fear to control their minds so they could accept blatant untruths, or some mix of scary-unhealthy world-views. Or all of these.
So on that day, like the clouds parting for the first time to let sunlight illuminate what used to lurk unseen in the shadows, it became lucidly clear that my faith in the teachings of Jesus as told in what I'd thought of as historical documents bore no relevance to what humans had hammered into doctrine.
Worse, what if this thing that had consumed so much of human creativity and ingenuity over the millennia had merely been a tool for authoritarian oppression devised by men seeking to control a populace who appear willing to swallow nonsense and spout things they don't even believe? And who continue propagating the lies and delusions, forcing their children also to blindly obey?
This was terrifying. Remember the movie THEY LIVE? It felt like that, as if I were surrounded by threatening aliens. How could the people around me not see them? Certainly pre-teen me couldn't be smarter or more insightful than the vast milling masses of adult church-goers. So were they collaborators in some vast alien conspiracy to take over the minds of children?
Which is worse?
Regardless, this is the moment I point to, when I lost my religion and my faith in anything. From here on out, unless I see verifiable evidence of something bandied as truth, or morally right, or real, I disbelieve. Just because some authority says something is so doesn't mean a thing, because clearly authorities were fallible, all the way back to the dudes responsible for founding the early Christian church - and obviously those who created early superstitious religions were wrong: Not only are we taught this by the leaders we're told to believe and obey, they're falsifiably incorrect. I mean, only the most protean animistic religions bear any relation to the real world, because we can see how lightning causes fire or how animals behave in the face of storms. Only the philosophy-based religions seem to offer anything useful to their practitioners, yet look at how even Buddhism has been twisted by the patriarchy.
Before this revelation, I had seriously considered pursuing a career (or at least an avocation) in religious work. During my years of crisis, I spent a great deal of time and energy researching religious systems, seeking to piece together a core set of universal and rational beliefs in an attempt to construct a religion relevant to our times. Something I could believe in, something that might help make sense of a world that otherwise seems intentionally insane.
Nothing came of the search except a deeper appreciation of the universe. I've never lost my spiritual connection to nature - the animals who've inhabited this world far longer than we've built cities, the planets where such beings can live, the stars that provide the energy to fuel our lives, and the rest of the universe, which provides the soil for everything else to grow.
But that wasn't enough to soothe my existential angst. I suffered pretty traumatic and turbulent teenage years, and barely made it out of then alive. Because this is also when I lost faith in human beings. I mean, if the single greatest communal effort to build and maintain something in all of human history - the Church in its diversity of manifestations - was either a lie, or a delusion, or a shield against fear, how could we hope for a better future? If people choose ignorance, accept on faith things that are verifiably untrue, and oppress those who do not believe mutually incompatible articles of faith, there's no hope for a long-term human future.
I just now also realize that my rejection of Christianity (and organized religion in general) is probably a big part of why my Mom treated me so much worse than she treated my brother. For whatever reason, and despite her powerful intelligence and terrible childhood, she was deeply religious. She's the one who forced child-me to go to church every Sunday and holiday, and to attend Sunday school and Confirmation classes. When I was an adult, she forwarded me so many hateful, bigoted, racist spam-mails that I had to filter out most of her messages (once such capabilities appeared). These were indications that she was probably one of those hateful Christians who now rule the American discourse. She probably hated me for rejecting her God, and her Church (she did every so often tell me that she hated me). Despite her strong advocacy of feminist concerns, I know she hated how I reject out of hand all forms of authoritarianism. She was always a leader in everything she did - work, church, friends - which was an outstanding trait for a woman in the 1970s. But it was still authoritarianism, and she still served the patriarchy.
So when my brother told me at mom's funeral that my childhood experience under Mom was nothing like his, it makes sense. He went to church, and Sunday school, and Confirmation. He accepted authoritarian rule. He continued to say the words that he was supposed to say; he might not have believed them, and I know that in his heart he was not obedient to authority, but he pretended to be. And that seems to be all that really matters to religious extremists.
To Mom, my brother was one of Them, or at least a willing conspirator, whereas I was loud and determined in my rejection of the entire enterprise. Burn it all down and start fresh!
As a boy standing alone in the dark beside my telescope, I remember calling out to the starry sky, begging benevolent aliens (for what other type would visit such a flawed world yet not eradicate us like vermin?) to take me away. I drew spaceships that I could imagine piloting far away. I dreamed of exploring the moons of Jupiter alone, far from the insanity of Earth, of the coming changes that would transform our society and ourselves into something worthy to endure into the future. I wrote stories about these things, and the fall of adult civilization, and imagined a world where I could bear to live.
See, this was also the time during which I discovered most of my friends and many of my closest relatives had endured horrifically abusive childhoods. What kind of species tortures their young? The same kind that holds them down and injects cognitive retro-viruses into their brains.
I spent a great deal of my teens and early 20s in deep depression, suicidal on occasion but mostly fearless of death, because how could it be worse than having to dwell in the shadow of the monsters who rule our world, whom we must obey - or at least pretend to obey? I've never been any good at pretending such things.
Under such rule, there can be no bright future. There can be no utopia.
Ever since I discovered it, science fiction has served as my primary existential comfort, and it remains so. SF needs no gods, and if it has religion, it can illuminate what's wrong with how we do it. It offers visions of futures where things can be different.
It taught me that change is good. That it is, in fact, necessary for growth, healing, learning, and everything else that is positive in our lives. If we're not changing, we're dying. (Huh, I just realized something else: This is what The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella is all about, and where its themes come from.)
Only by finally letting go of desperately clinging onto the plague-ship of religion was I able to restore my faith in humankind. Only be letting go was I able to imagine futures without hate or bigotry, where we can build something instead of expend all our energy dragging along the toxic casks from our past.
I sometimes joke that my religion is the Church of Science Fiction. Looked at in the right light, SF does serve that purpose better than any church I've ever encountered, in that it also offers stories about the Big Questions, about our origins and our ultimate end, what's right and wrong, transformations and transcendence. It's a space where we can identify flaws in our world today and envision possible futures where those things have either gotten worse or where we've solved them. It needs no gods but those within us and around us and illuminating the sky. It does not demand faith; it rewards knowledge and imagination and creative re-envisioning. Like science itself, it questions everything and accepts nothing that cannot be verified. Best of all, it's a community and an ongoing conversation. It's a family.
And SF is more true than any religion could hope to be.
Organized religion almost killed me. Science fiction kept me from falling into the abyss. I survived to become a science-fiction writer, a teacher of SF literature, and - like long-time friend and SF writer Frederik Pohl - a science enthusiast.
The only way our species can survive is to transcend as a whole the self-perpetuating, outdated, and damaging authoritarian structures we drag along from our past, which hold us back from reaching for the future. Science provides the tools and methods to determine what needs to be changed, and science fiction provides the safe laboratory where we can test-run alternate visions of ethics, societal structures, and an infinity of other things, including ourselves.
So, yeah, if I retain any semblance of religion in my personal life, it's definitely science fiction.
A few words on the results of this year's Hugo Awards, and how it was a win for science fiction.
It's science-fiction's job to point out the problems of the world. When we see the dominant paradigm as harmful, we seek change. We're subversive and transgressive.
Hierarchical, conservative, or privileged people and organizations don't like to hear what's wrong with them or the status quo. People who don't like having problems with the world pointed out don't respect science fiction. Academia can be one of the most like this, which is why for so long the study of SF – and still, in most places, the graduate study of SF – has been discouraged, blocked, or disrespected. Organizations that fear and loathe change really don't like having colleagues whose job it is to study and point out what's wrong with the status quo, and elaborate on how to fix it. Especially if the fix means they'll lose power.
On the other hand, this aspect of SF is a big part of why disempowered, disrespected, and disenfranchised people have always been attracted to SF. For them, life is always difficult. The world is not kind to the disempowered. SF offers critiques of the world-that-was and visions of the world-that-can-be.
We need to attract more people of color, women, disabled, and so forth into the SF community. We need to support and welcome those who are disadvantaged or oppressed by society at large. Their perspectives are vital to the SF conversation. Fresh new voices offer novel critiques of the world (and our community) and new visions of ourselves and the future, and if that isn't what SF is all about, nothing is.
Your motivations need not be altruistic. Excluding those best at keeping SF vital would mean missing out on a huge audience for our work. People rejected by SF will go elsewhere, seeking writers and publishers who listen to what they want.
This is why I'm so pleased to see how the Hugo Awards turned out. Though it's painful to see so many worthy people and works fall below the Puppy Hate-Slate, the voting proved that the SF community won't be bullied. It proved that we reject rejecting change. It proved that we want to be inclusive, that we still want to boldly explore the unknown, that we still critique the status quo – even our own.
But the war is not won. Those for whom the status quo provides privilege fear change, because saying things could be different suggests they're no longer entitled to continue running the world as it has always been just because that's the way things are. Change threatens the eternal, unchanging perpetuation of their power structures. If you're incapable of change yourself, change is scary. People who can't get past their fears come to hate what they fear. Change is dangerous and threatening.
But not all futures are dystopias.
SF's enemy is not just the entrenched elite and powerful, not just the Establishment. These last few years have revealed a sickness within the SF community. People like the Gamergaters and Rabid Puppies. Misogynists and racists and other types of bigots seem to be suddenly appearing all over SF's domicile. But they've always been there, festering in the back rooms. We turned on a light in a store-room and discovered cockroaches scurrying about. Many of us just weren't aware of them, oblivious and happily chatting with others like us on SF's light-filled patio. The patriarchy might not be alive and well in SF, but that roach-farm has certainly been energetic. Fear-mongers – all people who don't question their privilege and prejudices – will continue to fight change unless they can open their minds and embrace SF's core values: Question, Critique, Change.
Whenever we see it, we must immediately combat the attempts at exclusionism of such people. Keep shining lights into the dark spaces. Keep stomping out those cockroaches when they try to infest the kitchen.
This is not a war we can win through combat. We need to swiftly support the disadvantaged and make them feel welcome into the SF community. Because if we don't, we lose out on gaining valuable new members of our community. Fresh new voices with fresh visions. Losing them would mean weakening the heart of science fiction, while – to stretch the metaphor a bit – bringing in new blood only strengthens us.
So congratulations to those who managed to win a Hugo this year. Condolences to the worthy creatives who were disenfranchised by the Puppies' nominations slate. They gamed the system in an attempt to force SF backwards in time. They threw their bodies at the windows as hard as they could, but they weren't numerous enough to block the light. I love alternate history as much as anyone else, but we're already familiar with the tired old genre-narrative they want to tell. It's been done. Their lost this game, but they'll be back. Infestations are notoriously difficult to eradicate.
The results of the 2015 Hugo Awards proves that the SF community is far larger and more vital than those who operate out of hate and fear can imagine. Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change. We explore possibilities and push boundaries. We ask the next question, and then the one after that.
Congratulations, Science Fiction! You were the big winner at this year's Hugo Awards.
These are the FIRST PHOTOS FROM THE SURFACE OF A COMET.
And if you want to see the first DRAMATIC AS HELL images of the comet from space, check out yesterday's post here.
Rosetta's little Philae probe lands safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!
The top photo shows one of the lander's feet in the foreground, safely on the ground. The second and third shots show where Philae hoped to land, but bounced: I love this description:
"Soon after the lander touched down yesterday, scientists realized they had a problem. A pair of harpoons designed to tether the probe to the surface of the comet never fired. The probe weighed more than 200 pounds when it was on Earth, but on the comet, it weighs about as much as a sheet of paper. So with nothing to hold it down, it bounced. Data now shows the first bounce took more than two hours. A second bounce lasted just a few minutes. The first photo from the surface showed the lander's leg next to a rugged-looking outcropping of rock or ice. It is humanity's first view from the surface of a comet."
The last image was taken by Philae's down-looking descent ROLIS imager when it was about 40 meters above the surface. The photos reveal a surface covered by dust and debris ranging from millimeter to meter sizes. The large block in the top-right corner is 5 meters across.
We'll get full-panorama shots FROM THE SURFACE OF A COMET later today. The aim of the ROLIS (Rosetta Lander Imaging System) experiment is to study the texture and microstructure of the comet's surface. Photo source.
PS: Bonus photo... someone giffed the Rosetta and Philae landing images from xkcd: