This post couldn't have appeared on my Tumblr dash at a better-timed moment:


…because I’m working on a question someone posed during Karen Joy Fowler’s KU talk last week on feminism in SF and the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award. The question was why does the supposed literature of change appear - at least from the outside - to be conservative or non-imaginative in its projections of the future, especially in terms of gender, class, and so forth compared to the literary mainstream.

That’s a fair and interesting question. I mean, if you’re aware of the Sad and Rabid Puppies and what they’ve been trying to do to science fiction, particularly the Hugo Award, and not an avid reader or scholar of SF, you’re unlikely to know the best that the field has to offer is much more diverse and socially progressive than what you typically see in movie theaters or on best-seller shelves.

But I also think it’s a flawed premise, because you can’t pick the best of any other genre (say, the college-literary-journal genre) and compare that to the worst of another (in this case, SF).

The first part of my answer to the question is, if science fiction is, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke repeatedly said, “the only realistic fiction,” that’s in part because of his love for what SF can do, and in part because its practitioners are held to a (often ridiculously) high level of realism, necessary for maintaining the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief - while at the same time developing alien or future or worlds otherwise  utterly different from our own. I mean, I’m working on a story right now where the editor’s only revision request revolves around working out the punishingly challenging math of some new physics I’ve proposed (for Analog SF magazine, naturally). Why? Because we can’t have the highly educated audience being distracted from the main drive of my story (how poisonous traditions and sense of communal honor combined with conflict can lead to tragedy) by faults in the reality of this future alien world-building.

It’s a real challenge to create, for example, an anarchist utopia populated by humans that’s believable (though I was deeply influenced by Le Guin's The Dispossessed). But it’s easy to write yet another dystopian future, because so much of human history provides examples of the horrors humans bring upon the world. It’s not difficult to imagine a future with increasing power differentials between rich and poor, and the power of our technologies suggests that the world is more likely to look like a gritty cyberpunk vision than a Kim Stanley Robinson future.

One of the drivers of my series of Jupiter stories (which will accumulate into an eventual novel) is that I wanted to experiment with how we as a species could evolve human civilization beyond capitalism (at least as practiced today in our culture) to an egalitarian, socialist society - and to transition in a natural and realistic way, co-existing within a broader capitalist society.

The best answer to this question is to refer the questioner to Sturgeon’s Law. Theodore Sturgeon (known for his urging everyone to “Ask the next question” - his signature included a stylized Q with an arrow through it; more here if you’d like to see his essay on this) had grown weary of defending speculative fiction for so many years and pointed out that SF was the only genre evaluated by its worst examples rather than its best.

“When people talk about the mystery novel,” he said at the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia in 1953, “they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it ‘that Buck Rogers stuff,’ and they say ‘ninety percent of science fiction is crud.’

“Well, they’re right. Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important. And the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere.”

SF authors are and have been for a long time addressing progressive social concerns right now. I could point to some of the biggest contemporary names, such as Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow, Ann Leckie, Ian McDonald, Seanen McGuire, Linda Nagata, Nnedi Okorafor, Kim Stanley Robinson, and a thousand others who might not be published through major presses but which, nonetheless, have a major impact on the genre.

I posed these thoughts on my Tumblr blog and my private SF-workshop alumni group, who quickly engaged in vigorous discussion of the topic. A few very smart insights from their responses:

A theater-program director and author added more authors to my abbreviated list: Daniel Jose Older, Malka Older, Nisi Shawl, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Amal El-Mohtar, Ted Chiang, Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Sarah Pinsker, China Mieville, and Samuel Delany. We could go on for days, but that list, alone, is solid argument against the notion that progressive-change-oriented SF isn’t being written or published.

The Tumblr blogger @saffronhare​ says, “I’m commenting here not as a literary scholar or even as a person who reads a wide variety of SF, but I am a professional communicator. Part of what I think happens is that storytellers bring an audience through certain levels of agreement and acceptance in the process of world-building. Before we can get a person to believe in what a better future could look like, there is the work of getting that person to agree on the extreme effed-up-ness of things.” Great point! I suspect this is a major reason we see so many more dystopias than utopias.

A former NASA geologist and professor (now SF author) adds, "many of these stories are indeed being written. They just can't get published. Many of the stories appearing in mainstream lit are in fact written by self-proclaimed SF folk that couldn't get their stuff published by the supposed SF publishers." This suggests that the age-old problem of publishing's conservatism is part of the problem, rather than the genre-mindset itself.

The author who blogs under @copperbadge sent a link to this fantastic piece on the subject, addressing the importance of empathy in SF, and “meditating on why so many scifi writers appear to be so conservative.” From near the conclusion (my bolding):

“You can’t control the future. There are too many variables. And if you can’t control the future, but you desperately want to, the next instinctive, illogical step is to prevent it from happening. Keep things the way they are. Maintain the status quo and you don’t have to worry. Ray Bradbury likened social justice to censorship, and was violently opposed to his book about censorship being turned into an e-book that literally could not be burned. Orson Scott Card is terrified that legalising gay marriage is going to screw up the social fabric of the entire country, despite the fact that gay people were happily cohabitating with each other long before he was born and will be long after he is dead. Science fiction writers don’t automatically want to see the future. Some want to script it. Some think the only way to do that is to prevent it from happening.” A great read!

Along those lines, I’d like to share a book that does strive to provide visions of a positive future: Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (I mean, it’s even in the title), put together by Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn, the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, which provides great support for their SF center (and one of members of our new International Science Fiction Consortium). That project proves it’s possible to write excellent future-leaning SF that isn’t dystopian.

Another alum wrote, "One of the problems is the intersection between forward-thinking literature and experimental literature. Often the best examples of literature of change are the least accessible. Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice was a tough read for me. Because I've lived my life in a society mostly dominated by men, but making space in language for women, reading her book with the default of female pronouns was difficult. [...] I presumed that the most exciting literature of change, the most progressive in the genre, would not be best-sellers. Then I looked up Ancillary Justice and Slaughterhouse Five. Both were best-sellers. [...] When the majority of writers are the ones in positions of privilege (who list no women writers or writers of color as influences on their work), we are not going to see as much writing exploring gender, race, class, etc."

This last observation points to the problem rests on societal issues rather than the genre. In fact, the genre has often been the first to call out those very problems: How often do we use “Orwellian” these days? Or refer to Fahrenheit 451? Or any of the vast back-catalog of speculative fiction which has shaped how we view not only the future but also the world we live in? We cannot accurately predict which of our contemporary works will endure the test of time, or shape the future.

Back to the original question: Why does SF so often appear to not address (especially in utopian ways) progressive social change? Partly it’s because it’s really tough to create realistic worlds that demonstrate such change, partly because humans are kind of terrible. But largely it’s because, like anything humans do, 90% of it is crud. And unless you’re deeply involved in any genre, you only encounter the best work by accident.

I believe it’s safe to say that SF doesn’t shy away from the tough questions, the big criticisms, or exploring all aspects of change. It is the literature of the human species encountering change.

In "How America's Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future" (May 2014 Smithsonian), author Eileen Gunn writes, "Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions. Samuel R. Delaney, one of the most wide-ranging and masterful writers in the field, sees it as a countermeasure to the future shock that will become more intense with the passing years. 'The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes - sometimes catastrophic, often confusing - that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.'"

She quotes MIT professor and engineer Sophia Brueckner, who "laments that researchers whose work deals with emerging technologies are often unfamiliar with science fiction: 'With the development of new biotech and genetic engineering, you see authors like Margaret Atwood writing about dystopian worlds centered on those technologies. Authors have explored these exact topics in incredible depth for decades, and I feel reading their writing can be just as important as reading research papers.'"

In her speech at the National Book Awards, when she was awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K. Le Guin said, "Hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality."

This is what science fiction does, and why it has remained at the center of my life for as long as I’ve been a self-aware being. And why I made it the Gunn Center’s mission to “Save the World Through Science Fiction!”

Now that I feel this is complete enough to blog here, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this discussion, as well!
 

mckitterick: (Galaxy Magazine cover)
( Feb. 24th, 2017 10:16 am)

I have so many thoughts on this article, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” how changing our minds is vital to human survival, and some suggestions for how to achieve change.

* In my teaching and personal conversations, I repeatedly stress that the most important lesson anyone who wishes to become a better writer (or artist, or teacher, or scholar, or partner, or friend, or human being, or...) can learn is to work on developing one's empathy, on being able to see outside one's point of view. To follow the scientific method in everything we do.

* That means becoming less selfish, less self-centered. If, as this article argues, our form of "reason" evolved from the need to not be taken advantage of by others in our civilization, we need to evolve our minds beyond this inherent self-centeredness. Technologies like capitalizm reinforce it to such an extent that, combined with our primitive fears, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia - plus military, biological, computer, and other technologies - puts us on a perilous path toward self-annihilation.

* We need to admit we're wrong more often. Especially when faced with evidence that undermines our unexamined beliefs.

* More evidence that human intelligence is hella flawed.

* Evidence for where bigotry comes from.

* More reasons to worry that human civilization is doomed.

* This study also reinforces the importance of being a polymath, or at least of studying outside one's limited expertise, working across disciplines, and getting to know and understand a broad diversity of people who are also interested in expanding their POV.

* And, of course, it explains why reality has a "liberal bias" - progressive-minded people actively strive to see outside of their limited POV (at least they should if they want to call themselves good liberals or good progressives). Encounter a fact that counters what you used to believe? Well, if you seek human progress, that means you need to grow your POV to encompass this new information.

* Closed-minded people (extremist conservatives, extremist liberals - anyone unwilling to embrace a new POV or facts that counter their established beliefs) will ultimately be left in the dust... or reduce civilization to dust. Change is vital to the long-term survival of any species, especially one that is capable of utterly transforming its environment, as we do. If we cannot change, we'll perish. And - in reference to yesterday's post about how the Earth is going to try to throw us off in very short order - we better get right on that. Or we'll all be dwelling in the flooded rubble of our collapsed civilizations.

The question becomes: How do we create a fundamental shift in our social relations where listening to others is valued higher than winning arguments or disagreements? Where logic and the greater well-being of our people is valued over individual wealth or power? Where we are taught to exercise literal reason from an early age? Where we are taught from childhood to see the world from others' POVs, to embrace diverse thinking, to not fear the Other, to welcome those outside our tribal associations, to put the good of the species and our habitat above short-term acquisition?

These are huge – perhaps insurmountable – challenges. These shifts in perspective do not appear innate to the human mind. But, now that we've achieved a level of technological advancement that threatens our very survival, these changes are necessary.

Short of a YA-fiction-style apocalypse that wipes the slate clean, how do we get there from here?

The solution might not be as challenging as trying to transform the very basis of human civilization to something that feels too akin to socialism. Perhaps all we need to do is teach the scientific method. Actually teach it, from the very earliest moments when reason begins to appear in the child's mind. That's when we begin to shape our perspective on the world. Children are full of wonder, full of questions. When adults give kids unsupported information, they're passing on a mental disease.

But when we encourage them to explore the question to "Ask the next question" per Theodore Sturgeon's rule, we might be able to transform human reason into something useful, something non-destructive. We might transform humankind into a species that might be welcome into a galactic civilization, if such a thing exists. (Because you know any intelligent aliens would stay the hell away from a species as primitive-minded as ourselves, one willing to destroy itself in order to sustain its worst aspects out of fear and selfishness.)

Changing the adult mind in such a radical way is possible - I've seen it happen in my classes! - but way challenging, and requires dedication and effort on behalf of mentor and changee alike. But positively shaping children's minds in these ways from a very young age is far simpler. And ought to be the purpose of parenthood, anyhow.

The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction's motto and mission is, "Save the world through science fiction." I've given a couple of keynote addresses recently, both of which centered around the notion that we all need to think like science-fiction writers. And that means thinking like good scientists. And that means using the scientific method in everything we do. The only way to do something better is to eliminate the flaws in our actions and our reasoning. The way to do that is to incorporate new information and new points of view into our understanding of the world and of ourselves.

We can do this. It'll take at least another generation of people who are dedicated to the hard work of changing our entire way of thinking, of raising a new generation of people who are better than we are. But we can do it.

It's imperative that we do. We owe it to our children. We owe them a world of possibilities limited only by their imaginations. We owe them a future.

- Chris
 


For decades, Christofascists and and other far-right extremist conspirators have been training and indoctrinating children to take over our secular institutions. (If that term is new to you - as it was when I woke up this morning - check out this wiki article about the totalitarian and imperialistic movement. tldr: The Christian parallel to al Qaeda.)

Most of us have heard of the “Quiverfull” and similar extremist movements before, people who are trying to overwhelm the nation through rapid breeding and homeschooling, but had no idea just how common such radicals are, nor how effective their training, until after meeting a growing number of escapees from that system in my classes.

This leads me to this article: “I Was Trained for the Culture Wars in Home School, Awaiting Someone Like Mike Pence as a Messiah.”

The article, written by a woman who escaped the brainwashing, tells the horrifying tale of how this nation has come to the precipice over which we now stand shaky and about to fall. These cryptofascist "Christian" extremists have been methodically indoctrinating and training their rapidly growing agents - innocent children - in the tools and weapons of government to make them more effective combatants in political warfare. The most well-known example I can think of is the Phelps family, which was ruled by a dictatorial father who created an army of philosophically violent lawyers by using these strategies to train his children to use otherwise-reasonable rules against the very systems that operate on them.

Excerpts from someone who intimately knows the movement:

“They see Election 2016 as their moment. Pence, with his proven track record of legalizing discrimination and acting against women and marginalized people, is in the White House. The Right has given the tyrant Trump power and fame; he will do whatever they want in order to keep it. This way they can sneak Pence in on a piggyback while filling Congress with even more evangelical conservative Republicans

“Evangelical conservatives are convinced that their agenda will save the country from God-ordained death. Pat Robertson and many others believe that natural disasters are sent from God specifically to punish America for letting marginalized people have rights and be alive. This motivates them to do everything in their power to “save” the country from the ungodly – even, maybe especially – if it involves stripping others of the freedoms they deem to be against God’s wishes. They don’t care if their war for Christ hurts humans they see as living wrongfully, because they are capital “R” Right and that’s what matters. Their Rightness, they believe, comes from God Himself. Their beliefs are callous and without empathy, prioritizing dogma over people. These beliefs are dangerous. Many of us who have come out as queer, trans, or even merely gone to college, have lost family because of this worldview. A single powerful person who is convinced of their own Rightness with no thought of introspection is dangerous. We now have a government full of them.”

With the election of the Trump administration, Christofascists have begun their coup in earnest:

When the “Senate Confirmed Dangerous Christian Extremist Mike Pompeo as CIA Director,” we see how the administration installed someone who believes the US is at war with Islam as the head of our intelligence services.

Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools” describes how she plans to use school vouchers to strip funding of public schools and support religious training.

Trump’s top strategist, Stephen Bannon shares the vision of a threatened Christendom: “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis,” he said in 2014. What crisis? “...of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” Here’s an article worth reading to understand Bannon: “President Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon called for Christian holy war: Now he’s on the National Security Council.”

At the heart of the Christian far-right’s response to this imagined crisis is its “apocalyptic conviction that extreme measures are needed. There is nothing conservative about this agenda; it is radical. Gutting public education will be just the beginning.”

We need to stop them before it’s too late.

We’re in a fight for the survival of our democracy, but only one side seems aware that it’s at war. Right-wing extremists literally call this “the culture war,” and have spent generations preparing for this. The rest of us - the majority of this nation - must immediately organize to fight this existential threat. Moderates and the Left have been piss-poor organizers. We’re only just starting to figure out how to work together for an extended period.

There’s no time to prepare for this. We don’t have generations to train, as they did. The war has already begun. Flags should already be flying upside-down. As the utopian Culture in Iain Banks’ novels (which starts with Consider Phlebas) had to do when faced with religious extremism bent on war, all we can do is organize, defend our present freedoms, train for this form of battle, arm ourselves in the ways that Christofascists have spent generations building up ideological arsenals, and hold the line against aggression until the day we can realistically expect to start pushing them back.

If we are to save this democracy, and (because the US is still the world’s dominant military power) the Earth itself, we need to immediately stop wasting time and resources fighting ISIS and other daesh militants. They’re only a minor threat, and their only big PR victory in the US took place 16 years ago. You deal with small bands of criminals through police actions, not by mobilizing national militaries or stirring up primal fear of The Other. The only thing studying ISIS and daesh attacks has been useful for is as training to combat our real threat: home-grown Christofascism and far-right terrorism.

Make no mistake: As soon as they begin to lose, they’ll resort to terrorism, just as their Islamic brothers-in-philosophy have in the Middle East. The only reason the Christofascists’ attacks have been limited so far to small-scale murders like at Planned Parenthood clinics or Canadian mosques is that they’re winning.The winning side doesn’t need to use terrorist tactics. Their position as the dominant force, by itself, puts them into position to create all the terror they need to control the minds of the masses. And that puts them in de facto control of our nation.

In the same way that moderate Muslims are in the best position to fight Islamic extremism, moderate Christians - those who follow the words of Jesus - need to stand up to Christofascism. They’re on the inside, and the only way to change an institution (short of destroying it) is to clear out its toxic influences and work within the system to rebuild something healthier.

Fight Fascism in all its forms. Restore the separation of church and state. Restore and expand personal freedoms - and that must include children’s freedom from dangerous and destructive cryptofascist indoctrination and brainwashing. 

We’re in the midst of ideological war. The enemy doesn’t need to murder the entire US government (as in The Handmaid's Tale) to create the Republic of Gilead. 

They already are the US government.

Stand up. Speak out. Protest. Create change. And do it now, because time is running out.
mckitterick: Thanks for the art, M'chelle! (robot joy)
( Feb. 13th, 2017 08:14 pm)
My response to the original poster's call for "radical kindness":

"ultimately i think kindness is the most radical thing you can do with your pain and your anger. it’s like, you take everything awful that’s ever been done to you, and you throw it back in the world’s teeth, and you say no, fuck you, i’m not going to take this. you say this is unacceptable. you say that shit stops with me.

"humans are fucking terrible and this awful world we live in will fucking kill you but if you are kind, if you are brave and clever and try really hard, you can defy it. you can impose on this bleak and monstrous structure something beautiful. even if it’s temporary. even if it doesn’t heal anything inside you that’s been hurt.

"i’m gonna sleep and i’m gonna wake up and i swear by everything in this deadly horrible universe i’m gonna make someone happy."


This is why I’ve dedicated so much of my life to doing what I can to help make the world a little better for at least some people.

Because fuck you, world. You don’t get to ruin us! You don’t get to decide who we are when that’s not who we are! If you try to beat us down, we come back stronger and smarter, better able to avoid your next attack. We teach one another how to fight, how to survive and thrive. We work together to make the future a better place, because you can’t divide us. Not as long as we love and care for one another! Not as long as we try our best to empathize with those who also try to do the same with us.

Radical kindness wins when enough choose it. Choose love. Choose life. Be kind. Spread the word. Teach others.

But never surrender. Wherever you encounter it, fight the forces of evil, so we can survive long enough to win this war. So far, humans have always lost to the worst in us in the end: Fallen cities lay in our wake, beauty burned to ashes, freedom crushed to rubble, greed consuming nations, languages lost, civilizations evaporated in the heat and erosion of time, hate devouring the minds and lives of countless generations.

Choose to succeed. Failure is not an option. Fight for a better future by using the forceful power of love, unity, education, and discovery. Together we’ll win. Isolated and alone, helpless and hopeless, we’ll lose.
I acknowledge that you can't ALL support the awful things your chosen candidate said during the campaign. You might even believe that he just said those things to get elected. Okay. NOW YOU HAVE A SPECIAL RESPONSIBILITY TO SPEAK OUT AGAINST THOSE THINGS.

Speak out against racism, fascism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and all the other sick, disgusting things your cohort are spewing and doing right now. Speak out against your candidate's choices for advisors when they embody the worst in human nature. Let the rest of the nation know that Not All Trump Supporters are the awful creatures we're hearing the loudest. And because most Americans are so confused and scared right now, you need to do it not in a "Rah-rah we won!" or "Stop whining, we're Not All Bad" kind of way. Be sensitive to other people's real fears and let us know that a Trump presidency is not a parallel to what happened in 1930s German, only in a nation that's the world superpower with nukes and drones over every nation and pervasive surveillance.

Right now, most Americans fear an impending dystopian nightmare. Let us know that you won't allow your chosen representatives make that a reality.

So, please, speak out against hatred and bigotry. You put this guy in the position to change this country. Don't let him and his people destroy it or the rest of the world.

You're the only ones that the incoming administration might listen to.

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.

mckitterick: (write hard die free)
( Mar. 8th, 2016 01:11 pm)

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.

You might already knew about this, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is reprising Carl Sagan's most-awesome-ever program, Cosmos! It'll show on both the FOX network and National Geographic TV starting next spring.

More details:

"More than three decades after the debut of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan's stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Seth MacFarlane and Sagan's original creative collaborators - writer/executive producer Ann Druyan and astronomer Steven Soter - have teamed to conceive a 13-part docu-series that will serve as a successor to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning original series."

Here's the original-series trailer:


"Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series explores how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. It brings to life never-before-told stories of the heroic quest for knowledge and transport viewers to new worlds and across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey invents new modes of scientific storytelling to reveal the grandeur of the universe and re-invent celebrated elements of the legendary original series, including the Cosmic Calendar and the Ship of the Imagination. The most profound scientific concepts are presented with stunning clarity, uniting skepticism and wonder, and weaving rigorous science with the emotional and spiritual into a transcendent experience."

And here's the brand-spankin'-new trailer for the new series, just released for DragonCon:


"Carl Sagan's original series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was first broadcast in 1980, and has been enjoyed by more than 750 million people worldwide." Including me, a few times now. I can hardly wait for this new one!

Chris
Extending yesterday's post about the national conversation about guns. Thanks to everyone for contributing (even the "f**k you" response shed some light on the discussion).

My related Facebook post generated some interesting discussion, as well, that combined with this discussion got me thinking.

  • It's vital that we shift our national focus from ridiculous, horrible, treasure-wasting, murderous, human-suffering-inducing military adventures like our wars on [insert item here: drugs, terror, etc.] and instead invest this wasted creative energy, power, money, resources, and so forth into things that make our nation and humankind better and stronger in the long term.

  • We need to invest in vastly improving our public schools, mental-health institutions, scientific research... you name it: all the things that make us grow healthier and stronger instead of weaker and sicker.

  • To do this, we need to get money and religion out of politics. When our political representatives must spend the majority of their creative, emotional, and intellectual energy on gathering support from big donors and financial interests as well as anti-intellectual powers, we the people are not represented or served. These are all forces of entropy.

  • We need to debunk the corporate fiction of logarithmically increasing profits. It's unsustainable and leads to financial collapse, as we've witnessed recently. It imbues people with starry-eyed notions that they, too, can become wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, which leads to all manner of sickness and moral decay.

  • We need to teach our children that money is an abstract tool, not a goal in life. At the same time, we need to teach them how to be a productive, contributing member of the world while earning a living, and that becoming wealthy for the sake of wealth is a goal unworthy of a good citizen.

  • We need to teach people - especially our children - that working to understand empathy for others is the answer to most of our problems.

  • Something we can all do: Love things deeply and share your love for those things, one classroom at a time, one room of gamers at a time, one dinner-party at a time, one person at a time. If someone wants to share their love with you, give them a chance. Open your mind. Don't exclude people, don't dismiss their love.


What would happen if, instead of wasting money and resources and mental energy and lives on war and destruction as a nation, we invested it?

What would happen if we made building a better future the goal instead of inducing and propagating fear? Would people feel the need to own guns if they didn't fear others? What would our culture look like if our greatest aspirations revolved around building a better world instead of protecting against threats and becoming rich?

Would people grow up emotionally healthier if they weren't bombarded with the messages of a culture of war and fear and rape and violence and profiteering?

Is it possible that being tacit supporters of such horrors as our nation commits in our name is a root cause of our national dysfunction?

If this is supposed to be a "Christian nation," as defined by so many of those who propagate these horrors, why do we value and act out the inverse? I believe we really could make this country a respectable place and become a beacon of hope for humankind if we actually followed the teachings of Jesus. But we don't, and organized religion always falls prey to the rot that destroys other human institutions, so the religionists need to either shut up about our "Christian nation" or else start acting in a way the historical Jesus taught. But they need to leave out the notion of gods and instead work on building an actual heaven on Earth.

Indeed, making this a truly secular nation would go a long way toward saving us. Heck, eliminating the notion of "nation" would help, too, as would eradicating all the other sub-tribal, exclusionary concepts with which we've enchained ourselves and dragged along through time like sledges since our earliest ages. Religions ruin civilizations, which I find to be a bitter irony, in that they were formed to organize and help people. Religious leaders destroy religions. Politicians ruin governments. Governments destroy nations. And so on.

Establishing anything leads to entropy, a crumbling and ruination and dying of everything that people build with their energy and enthusiasm. Whenever an institution settles, wherever bureaucracy forms, entropy sets in. So we must continually rebuild, reinvest, explore, discover. We must let go of what we cling to out of fear and comfort. We must always keep growing and learning, else we begin dying. This is the lesson all of history teaches us, as does physics, as does medicine....

Wanna save the world? Wanna make it a better place? I wanna hear your ideas.

Chris
Oh, John Scalzi, I love you!

See, a few days ago, some self-appointed arbiter of geekdom wrote a piece for CNN about how "fake geek chicks" are ruining his fandom. See below:


Click the cosplayers to see Peacock's icky piece.

This misogynistic fella hates on models hired for Comic-Con, cosplayers, and women in general, because they do not meet his geek standards. Well, thank you for playing, Mr. Peacock, but you're missing the core point of what fandom is. Scalzi says it best thus:

Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think - and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking - that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”

Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome.


This statement has that kind of intuitive rightness that speaks directly to one's soul. I'm not only an SF geek, but because of my love for a multitude of things and powerful desire to share that love, I'm a geek in pretty much every aspect of life:



For example, I love building machines - and then sharing photos of said machines, taking people for rides, going to car and motorcycle shows, and so on. It's pleasurable to work on them myself, and I get great satisfaction from making an engine work better, but it's sharing the results with others is where I get my real pleasure.


Click the image to see a page about the most beautiful engine of all time - that of the Vincent Black Shadow.

I love astronomy - my favorite thing to do with a telescope is to show other people things through it; one of my favorite jobs in college was running the public-viewing nights at Hobbs Observatory. Heck, I started the science club in my high school because my greatest pleasure in doing science is sharing it with others.


Click the image to see the NASA page about lightning on Saturn.

When I get student feedback on my classes, a common comment is that my enthusiasm for the topics I teach helps them get more involved in the material, even if they didn't care for it to begin with. I'm a teaching geek!

I'm a thousand kinds of geek... like most geeks. I would argue that most likable people are geeks of some kind. Though I don't like sports (and actively dislike much of the culture), one of my best friends is a huge sports-geek, so it's always fun to watch a game with him. He's also a Marvel Comics geek, so going to superhero movies with him is fantastic, because he knows the backstory that makes the movie meaningful.

And this is the core of what it means to be a geek: Loving something (often weird, but sometimes mainstream) and sharing one's love. In his mistargeted article, Peacock forgets that. If a person's geekiness is dressing up (or taking off clothes) to get attention, well, what makes that not valid geekery? The point is to share that love of *insert fandom here* with others in a way that lets them in on what you love. If you go to a convention and see a gorgeous costume, do you look away or do you watch the costumer for a while? How about if you see a person clad only in a chainmail bikini - or even just body-paint? If you find someone attractive, does that somehow invalidate the person's geekiness? If that person's greatest pleasure comes from feeling the attention of other people, can't that also be sharing one's love? So can't even Peacock's greatest villains - models - also be geeks? I have trouble imagining none of them love doing what they do and sharing it with others, but cosplayers are some of the biggest geeks out there!

Geez. Mr. Peacock: YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

Wanna save the world? Wanna make it a better, more accepting place? Here's how you do it: Love things deeply and share your love for those things, one person at a time. If someone wants to share their love, give them a chance. Don't exclude people, don't dismiss their love... until they've spent an hour detailing their latest D&D adventure. There are limits ;-) However, that doesn't mean that only your geekdom is a valid geekdom.


GEEK IS LOVE. SHARE IT.

Chris
mckitterick: aboard the New Orleans trolley (just Chris)
( Apr. 14th, 2012 07:15 pm)
Whether you're an inventor, writer, teacher, or any other kind of human being, you will find great enlightenment and hope in this talk by Jeremy Rifkin at the Ross Institute:


I first wrote about the core of Rifkin's talk months ago after having watched an abbreviated, illustrated version. But after watching his entire talk today, it's changed my life in a few ways:
  • I'm going to redesign all my courses to enable students to share in the teaching to help them learn better. This is part of Rifkin's urging, that teachers join the "distributed and collaborative communication and energy/mind revolution" that's happening right now. I already do a lot of this in my literature and advanced courses, but I'm also going to use this framework in my 300-level technical-writing course.

  • I'm going to re-roof the house with solar collectors to tranform my habitation from energy-consumer to energy-producer. Heck, I expect to sell power back to the utility most days!

  • I want to create a course centered around the concepts in Rifkin's talks and book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, or at the very minimum include the book in my spring "Science, Technology, and Society" course.

  • On a larger scale, I want to create a school - could be for young people, could simply be part of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction's mission - that is centered around this approach, is cross-curricular, and empowers students to be active participants in their education and the education of their fellow students. This is an idea I've been kicking around for years, outlining details, but Rifkin's talk finally crystallized the structures in my mind. SO EXCITED and movitvated!

Anyhow, go listen to the talk. It's about 1-1/2 hours long, so it might take a while. I'd love to hear what you think.

Chris
mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (monkey at computer)
( Feb. 27th, 2012 01:35 pm)
That keynote address I'm delivering this Wednesday at the University of Central Oklahoma's Liberal Arts Symposium XXIV? Done!

(Check out the promo poster they made! Love it!)

One of the most difficult writing tasks is revision - especially when one has to meet a maximum word-count. Even more challenging is when minutes read aloud, not word-count, determines the length. I've not given a one-hour talk before, and it's complicated because one hour thins down to about 40 minutes when taking into account the introduction and Q&A - so it was pure guesstimation on my part about how long it should be. I knew what I wanted to say, the structure and content, but one never knows how long it'll end up after one's research and writing are complete. To get a handle on this, I used some other people's keynote talks as guidelines.

Everyone reads at different speeds, and because I learned to talk in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I speak more quickly than some. I figured I could use a few more words than my models if needed.

My first draft came to 9000 words, quite a bit longer than my generous target. Typical. When I've tried to write short-short stories (or flash fiction), I end up with a couple thousand words. My short stories turn into novelettes, novelettes into novellas, and novels into giant bricks of interwoven stories. Revision usually lengthens them as I enrich the setting or character or fill in plot holes.

Read aloud, 9000 words amounted to about 80 minutes - though a lot of that was stopping to make changes, or hearing [profile] chernobylred's feedback. Even so, it would surely run longer than an hour read as-is.

Crap.

After a revision (that added words) and some cutting, I got down to 8800 words, which took almost exactly one hour to deliver. CRAP.

[profile] chernobylred suggested some major cuts, I cringed, but one cannot create time, so back to the cutting table. I targeted about 15-20% shorter, because that's how many minutes I needed to trim.

After two more passes, I got it down to 6900 words. Pretty close. After one more set of brutal cuts this morning, it's down to less than 6500 words: a full 20% off the top.

I can't tell you how helpful it is to have another set of eyes, another perspective, to determine what's really necessary and what just gets in the way. It's also incredibly useful to get the kind of completely honest suggestions that only [profile] chernobylred can offer, because she doesn't feel the need to sugar-coat her candor. Ahem. Thanks to her, I now feel confident not only in my delivery (she patiently listened to me read it twice), but also the content.

And, y'know, being able to finish the talk during the time alotted.

Can't wait! It's called, "Science Fiction: Mythologies for a Changing Age." I think it's a really good talk. Hope the audience finds it inspiring.

Chris
A couple of posts I made over the weekend that I don't want you to miss!

How to Save the World, with a great video from Jeremy Rifkin and an essay by me about empathy and how we must exercise our empathy or lose our humanity. It's the most important thing I can write about.

Library Journal wrote a review of Transcendence - a very nice one!

Now back to grading.

Best,
Chris
In this wonderfully illustrated talk about "preparing the groundwork for an empathic civilization," Jeremy Rifkin discusses the evolution of empathy how it has shaped human development and how we interact. Check it out, then come back and we'll talk:



What he's saying here is that we need to broaden our sense of identity from selfish or tribal or religious or national identity to identifying as part of human civilization, as a fellow living being, as part of the Earth's biosphere - and I would add, as part of the Milky Way Galaxy, as part of the universe as a whole. He says that we are "soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship," and that our "first drive is to belong. It's an empathic drive."

He summarizes, "If we are truly Homo Empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature. Because if it doesn't come and out it's repressed by our parenting, our educational system, our business practices, our government, the secondary drives take over: the narcissism, materialism, utilitarianism, violence, and aggression."

This is the primary theme in all I write. It's what Transcendence is about, what Empire Ship is about, and what my upcoming young-adult SF books will be about - that we must be empathic in all we do, because all we produce (our "fictions," technology and nationalism (in its broadest sense) and religion build barriers to understanding one another. Those walls we build rise so naturally when we don't exercise empathy - which is hard! It hurts to feel the suffering around us - and the wall-building grows as we stifle our empathic capacity, thereby limiting our ability to see others as like us in some way, even as human.

Lack of understanding leads to lack of empathy. Lack of empathy leads to easy dehumanization (or de-bunny-ization or so forth). Next, our identity shrinks until at some point it shrivels down to just Me. Then selfish drives take over, and it feels right and sensible that all I care about is what I want, because I can't imagine what others would think or feel. Now it's easy to hurt others; it's easy to disregard others, to lock them away in dungeons, to steal from them or take advantage of them, to rape or kill them.

It's only natural that prisoners and victims develop powerful empathy for their abusers, because the victim's world makes no sense: Why would someone do this to me? So they grope for understanding, exercising their empathic powers, delving into the minds of their abusers. This is why we have Stockholm Syndrome, why people stay with their abusive parents or partners.

It also explains why people who consistently behave in sociopathic ways - guards at secret prisons, habitual criminals, investment bankers - appear to lose their humanity. It's why military training works hard to erase the humanity of the target, and why soldiers make poor police. In fact, I would like to see a study that seeks to cure "sociopaths," because I hypothesize that such people might be curable over time if they exercise their atrophied empathy.

The dude who wandered around the Middle East a couple thousand years ago preached love and understanding and forgiveness: He preached that we must exercise our empathy or we will descend into Hell, which - In a literal sense - means that our world will become horrific if we are incapable of understanding and empathizing with one another.

Saving the world is simple: The sooner we start embracing the people and animals and natural wonders around us as part of us, as our identity, the sooner we will solve all the problems facing us.

This is also what I love about science fiction: It is the literature of the human species, not limited to the individual or nation or religion or even species or planet. Taken as a whole, SF says that we are all in this together, and when we're not - and when we lose our capacity to think of us as in it together - things go to hell in a hurry. As our technology grows more powerful, so too does our capacity to dehumanize and destroy others.

The Cold War was so horrible because it institutionalized anti-empathy. All wars are like this, including the current "war on terror" (and we all know that, right now, that means against Islamic fundamentalism), which is worse in many ways because it is not nation vs. nation or ideology vs. ideology: It's Us vs. Them. There's no reasoning with that, and the side-effects are pervasive and creeping. We all know The Terrorists are evil, right? And they all know that the West is evil. There's no room for understanding when our walls rise up and meet at the top.

When we cease empathizing, when we lose the capacity to imagine the other as our self, we build mausoleums around our cultures, nations, religions, and everything else that constitutes our identity - around our very selves! But empathizing is hard, I know. Listening to the news is painful, because it's all about suffering and loss. As the Dread Pirate said, "Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Heck, every week I see an animal on the side of road, needlessly killed by inattentive drivers, and that makes me suffer a little more. When I can, I stop and move the dead thing to the bushes and tell it that it's safe now, but at a deeper level that's just for me, to ease my empathic suffering.

One can argue that the most selfish thing you can do is to empathize. But as Rifkin says, "To empathize is to civilize," so this is one need we should satisfy whenever we can.

To be able to feel others in our heart: This is what it means to love. When people say that love is what life is all about, that there's nothing greater than to love and be loved in return, they don't mean some cheesy Hallmark version of love; they mean empathize with each other. This is all that matters in life. This is how we save the world.

Go out and empathize today!

Love,
Chris
This article describes how "Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, heart disease... all may finally be defied by a single new class of drugs, a virtual cure for the diseases of aging."

Whoah. Who cares about politics and pirates, bailouts and bastard-CEOs when we might be facing the single most world-changing piece of news since the atom bomb!

"'It's going to revolutionize western medicine,' said Doug Wallace, a pioneer of mitochondrial medicine at the University of California at Irvine."

Here's why:

"The new drugs work by stimulating enzymes that regulate the function of mitochondria. Hundreds of these structures are found in every cell in the body, ceaselessly converting glucose into usable energy. But over time, mitochondria degenerate. They lose strength and efficiency, releasing highly reactive oxygen molecules that bind easily with other molecules and wreak cellular havoc.

"A growing number of scientists suspect that the breakdown of mitochondria is among the most important causes of cell-level changes that eventually cause the body's tissues to degenerate with age. The damage accumulates gradually until hitting some critical mass of malfunction, at which point diseases arrive rapidly. That may be why so many diseases first occur during middle age, and become steadily more common afterwards.

"Repair and prevent this damage, say proponents of the mitochondrial theory of disease, and those afflictions can be averted."

Now that's news. Here's hoping that James Gunn was wrong in his The Immortals, that we will all be able to reap the benefit of drugs that stop the diseases of aging. We'll still die of old age, but at least we won't suffer the ravages of the diseases that have plagued humans since they started living past our ripeness date.

Chris
Last night was the 25th Anniversary showing of The Day After, celebrated here in Lawrence at Liberty Hall (it was filmed here). One of the best things about the experience is that the film's producer, director, casting director, and an actor all took part in a Q&A afterward. One of the most profound things we heard is that the film changed President Ronald Reagan's mind about the "feasibility of a winnable nuclear war."

Wow.

Same with Chernenko; apparently Reagan sent him a copy, and along with activists' encouragement, this film got them talking. More importantly, the movie so influenced the Cold War leaders that it prompted the 1986 Reykjavik Summit that nearly cleared the world of nukes.

Imagine how things might have gone if that had happened. Would North Korea, India, Pakistan, China, and everyone else have felt the same drive to build their own nukes if the US and USSR had dumped theirs? We'll never know, because Reagan was too much of an idiot to not realize we didn't already have a Star Wars-like missile defense in place.

The point I want to make is that science fiction can save the world, and here's the evidence. People like Reagan simply couldn't imagine the fallout of catastrophic decisions. But seeing the result of the decision to launch a nuclear war - watching the characters in the movie suffer - provided the imagery he needed to understand that it was a bad idea. That a nuclear war was not winnable.

Science fiction: Saving the world one person at a time.

Chris
God, this is beautiful. (And ugly. And heart-rending.)

I don't often have such a strong reaction to an essay. We read essays like this because they're emotionally true; we read this kind of writing and poetry and fiction, we listen to music that does this for us and watch movies that touch on truths we know inside because what the words express is so true for us. It's as if finally - at last! - someone understands well enough to speak for us honestly and with perfect clarity. It's as if our minds touch just for a moment. Being understood and hearing our inner truths expressed so well is cathartic. We are never the same again after veils of misunderstanding are pulled aside; when we look inside without filters or walls, we become someone different; after facing the truth about ourselves, ironically we are never the same.

This essay describes concisely and lucidly how it felt to grow up Gen X American. And this phrase nails exactly about how it felt to hear Obama accept the Presidency:

when we watched Barack Obama's victory speech on Tuesday night, we looked into the eyes of a real leader, and decades of cynicism about politics and grass-roots movements and community melted away in a single moment.

For my entire life, I've had to knuckle under to conservatives (yes, I count Bill Clinton as such); for the students I teach, it must have been so much worse to have mostly only known the fucking tragedy that was the Bush dynasty. Though I have vague memories of Jimmy Carter, I've never felt someone represented me in the White House. Seeing Obama accepting the Presidency... I just wept for joy. And now I'm wet-cheeked all over again. Here, read it:

Essay text archived behind the cut. )

Fucking brilliant.

With hope,
Chris

PS: I've deleted five LJ icons re: Bush and cynicism. It's time.
mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (President Obama)
( Nov. 4th, 2008 11:40 pm)

Woohoooo! Woooohooooo!


Did you hear his speech? I am so proud to be an American right now, and finally - FINALLY - I'll be able to listen to presidential speeches and not be embarrassed for living in a country that elected someone like Bush. Because, my friends, this country has elected someone worthy of making speeches to the world, someone we can be proud to call our leader.

It's a great day in America.

Cheers,
Chris
This could be huge, folks:

A fungus that lives inside trees in the Patagonian rain forest naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel, biologists announced today. And the fungus can grow on cellulose, a major component of tree trunks, blades of grass and stalks that is the most abundant carbon-based plant material on Earth.

Also, this :

Because the fungus can manufacture what we would normally think of as components of crude oil, it casts some doubt on the idea that crude oil is a fossil fuel.

"It may be the case that organisms like this produced some — maybe not all — but some of the world's crude," Strobel said.

So we can actually eat our corn rather than make it into fuel, then toss the sticks and leaves into our vats of fuel-making fungus.

In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, "Whoah."


Chris
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mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Default)
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