Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Happy Blog Day!

Today, Aug.31 2005, is Blog Day - so here are five links to weblogs which I think deserve attention (and which relate to the theme of this blog - the craft of writing).
Have a Bloggerful Day!

1. GapingVoid: "How To Be Creative"

2. 14theditch - the weblog of writer Jeffrey Ford

3. Iowahawk: "Ingmar Bergman's 'Hazardous Dukes'" (a parody in which the Swedish film classic THE SEVENTH SEAL is crossed with the redneck TV-show THE DUKES OF HAZZARD)
4. MoorishGirl - the weblog of writer Laila Lalami

5. Conversational Reading - the weblog of writer Scott Esposito

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Losing Your Nerve

You're probably familiar with the myth that drugs and drink "stimulate creativity."

I think the myth confuses "creativity" with "nerve." When a man has to get drunk before he dares to approach a woman and talk to her, he might tell himself and others: "Alcohol shtimulates my libido!" But his real problem is, he's afraid. And we know what alcohol really does to the libido.

The issue, then, is fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of imperfection (the most paralyzing of all anxieties), fear of ridicule. Writing skill is a combination of abilities, but losing your nerve can wreck your writing life completely.

It fascinates me how individuals are prepared to risk their health in the most reckless manner possible - drunk driving, bungee jumping, walking on the edges of rooftops, paintball fights... but ask them to read a speech (or sing a song) before a live audience, and they freeze up with terror.
Talk about keeping your priorities straight! :)

Ditto with writing fiction: would-be writers and active writers alike are gripped by paralyzing fear. What to do?
I'm no psychiatrist... but why not try this:

1. Write under a pen name. If you're afraid of having your name associated with (and shamed by) your novel, use a pseudonym. Like a clown mask, it provides a measure of ego protection. And in any case, "Rex Mackenzie" is a cooler writer name than "Melvin Poznovski."

2. Regression therapy. Imagine yourself as a kid playing with crayons or Lego. You're eight years old, and you write. See what happens. (Then grow up. You can't remain a child forever.)

3. Listen to really loud rock music while you write. It works for others. It can work for you. (Be careful so you don't damage your ears, though.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Yep, that's me. I'll wait for the movie. Got other books to read. No, I'm not Catholic, not fanatically devoted to the Pope, not part of the Spanish Inquisition... just not interested in yet another conspiracy theory involving the Vatican.

To further convince me that I should remain The Last Man On Earth who hasn't read that bestselling novel, here is Geoffrey K. Pullum's analysis (or should I say evisceration) of the mangled language, style and syntax in THE DA VINCI CODE:

"The Dan Brown code"

By the way, I have a theory about the success of that book: let's call it "Displaced Paranoia." For obvious reasons, many people today fear a certain form of religious extremism which can lead to terrorism and oppression. But since this fear is so great, people are scared even to express it.

And when the pressure of this anxiety becomes almost unbearable, people will find a "safe" outlet for it: the fear and paranoia that they cannot digest or express, is projected onto the Vatican - a religious/political institution which was once feared and powerful.

To put it bluntly, THE DA VINCI CODE offers a perfect straw man for today's anxiety about religious fanatics. Do you want to sell millions of books? Do you worry that your writing skills just aren't good enough? Find that perfect target for displaced paranoia, and your success is guaranteed!

For example: if there is a widespread fear of, say, global warming, you don't write about the subject directly. Instead, find a "straw man" subject with a conspiracy theory attached. Your novel might be about a Russian supervillain who threatens to change the climate by artificial means... or an ancient conspiracy of Freemasons to cause the flooding of European cities.

The plot of your novel doesn't have to make too much sense, as long as it
A) Presents a metaphor for what the public really worries about;
B) Offers a paranoid conspiracy theory which blames a harmless institution/group as "behind it all."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Story As Process of Events, Vs. Story As Character Development

There are two basic ways you can depict history - real history, that is - and they also apply to writing fiction:

A) History as a process of events.
Why bother with individuals? Let's just look at "the system" - all peoples, all institutions, the world as a whole - and watch them interact. In the greater scheme of things, what the individual thinks, feels, says and decides matters not.

The forces of history are supreme. We're just going with the flow of things. If Hitler hadn't been, somebody just as vile would have been there instead, doing roughly the same things. It was that time of the century.

Apply this principle to a novel, and you get a very grand panorama of nations, factions, groups and nature's forces (the Sun, the Earth, the cosmos, the echosphere), clashing mightily over time. It can be awe-inspiring, if done right, but may also come across as cold and impersonal (which it probably is).

And if you're not up to the task, the story is guaranteed to turn out utter crap. There's a thin line indeed between the sublime and the pompous.

B) History as Character Development.
Why bother with the big events? Focus on the individual - how she grows up, how she is shaped by genes and environment, and what becomes of her.
By understanding one person, we will understand the whole of The Human Condition.

Many novels are written with this approach, and you have to be a real schmuck to fail at it. Because this is how every single human being perceives history: as "The Story of My Life" - the early years, the adolescence, maturity, and old age. This story is intensely personal, and universal.

But it has severe limitations. Does everything have to be about YOU? Galaxies collide, stars are born - what's that got to do with YOUR ingrown toenail? (Or with my receding hairline?) Absolutely nothing!

So it's perfectly valid to write a story where characters don't get into play at all. (A classic example would be Olaf Stapledon's STAR MAKER. )

But... who will read it? And you can bet your ass the critics will despise it. The cultural paradigm is still "We are all individuals!" (-Monty Python's Life of Brian)

Try to seriously express the notion that human individuals are not (and cannot be) in control of their own lives, and you will be shunned... also by people who claim they are the instruments of Fate/God/History, but really are just narcissists with a God complex.

OK, enough with the philosophy. What I'm getting at here is that is dead simple.

Your chosen point-of-view in fiction-writing -- impersonal/distanced, or personal/intimate -- will, whether you mean it or not, reflect a certain view of the world. Do you wish to depict "how things work?" Are you focusing on "how does this person work?" Can you fuse both perspectives? You can, but you don't have to.

The choice is yours (assuming there is a choice, he-he!)...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Quotes From the INTERCON 2005 Panel (3, Final Part)

Intercon 2005 Panel "Militarism and Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?" - 3rd and Final Part
(Continued from the previous post)

From right to left: A.R.Yngve, Elizabeth Moon, Öyvind Myhre, Heikki Sörum, and Gunnar Bakken(?).

In the Einsteinian universe of course we cannot have any sort of intergalactic war. It takes too long a time. You cannot reach Alpha Centauri in less than 4.3 years, stationary time. Then you'll need another 4.3 years going back.

We will in all likelihood have various local conflicts of a military nature between ourselves (in the future)... but nothing like intergalactic war. Unless, of course, there's some flaw in the Einsteinian universe that allows us to travel faster than light. I doubt it...

Now, interplanetary conflict is possible - it takes only a couple of months to go to Mars - and there's a real possibility of a war between the powers of the Earth and the colonies on Mars sometime during this century.

(An audience members talks about Peter F. Hamilton: in his books, future colonists on other planets change genetically, in order to survive in the alien environment.)

The evolution of the human brain from Homo Habilis until early modern humans took at least 1 million years for the brain to triple in size. Now, that is fantastically fast... and if you have less than a million years to change a human organ, evolution itself will not do it. You have to modify people artificially.

In Peter Hamilton's book, was this genetic operation artificial or natural?

(Audience member replies: A combination of both.)

A combination is (of artificial and natural genetic change) is certainly possible. What was the name of this island in the Southern Atlantic... where there was a small population - and it didn't have sufficient genetic variety to survive long term. It dwindled and dwindled, its fertility dwindled with too much inbreeding. And it got down to a very small number of people, who were finally evacuated, if I remember correctly.

When you have a small population, which any space colony is likely to be for a while, you're going to run into the problem of insufficient genetic variability. It would be reasonable to carry along some extra variability that you could then add in.

But probably, as you (Myhre) are saying, you're not going to get a species - speciation - in historical time. What you could do, however, is to add a few things artificially - which we now are getting the capacity to do. Which might actually produce humans who could not interbreed.

(Someone asks: Are the supersoldiers of military science fiction realistic?)

Yesterday I bought the DVD of the movie RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. And it struck me - as I watched Rambo decimate the entire Russian and Vietnamese army, singlehanded: "This is a science-fiction film!" (Audience laughter)

He's got weapons that don't exist yet! Those fantastic little nitroglycerin-tipped arrows he uses to blast choppers out of the sky... where did he get those toys?

(Heikki (?) makes a comment about how the Russian soldiers in that movie always shot and missed.)

Yeah, they're all cross-eyed.

(An audience member makes a comment about the perceived lunacy and disorder of the Vietnam war and/or any real battlefield.)

There is lunacy. Definitely. I think it may depend somewhat on unit structure. I know that when I was in, my branch was considered much more disciplined than my husband's branch, for instance.

And I would be appalled when I went home on leave, looking at the way those people wore their uniforms. Like, "Hmf! Ridiculous."

You would've hated my platoon. We were a bunch of slackers.

There are slackers. There was disorder on a level of nobody quite knowing what was supposed to be going on. The level I'm speaking of was the difference between the soldier and the warrior.

Everybody that I knew, in the units I served in, were certainly obedient to discipline - with the exception of Saturday night and a few other times - going wild occasionally but only occasionally.

And the people I know - that I've known since, who consider themselves warriors, were never under anybody's control. At all. I certainly saw enough of what we call FUBARs. When things go totally wrong and the whole division, the whole group...

We spent 2 years (in Moon's Marine Corps unit) doing some programming one time... and were told - at the end of it - that we'd been doing it in the wrong language! So you know, stuff goes wrong... but my experience was fairly disciplined within the branch I was in.

But programming requires discipline.

No, the Marine Corps requires discipline.

(An audience member asks about how the unforeseen "human factor" affects military planning.)

The human element is definitely one of the spanners in the works.

(An audience member comments: so much of war is mostly about waiting.)

That's perhaps the most unrealistic thing about Military SF: something happens all the time. (Audience laughs)

But you know what happens with readers, if you don't have something happen all the time! (More laughter)

(An audience member comments: in real military life, things frequently don't work: for instance, ordnance that doesn't go off - this rarely happens in fiction.)

(Agrees) How many of you have read David Drake's work? The difference between his "Hammer's Slammer's" work and a couple of short stories that he wrote - I think, fairly soon after he came back from Vietnam - is astounding!

And it is so realistic that you can smell it, the hairs stand up on your arm, and you're ducking and saying "Please God, get me out of this place, I don't want to be here!"

(In contrast to these short stories) the "Hammer's Slammers" stuff is exciting and bloody... and if you don't mind a certain bloody-mindedness, it makes a good page-turning read... but it's just "military SF." This other thing he wrote, is good military fiction - for any war, for any writer. It's brilliant.

REDSHIFT is another (short-story collection of his), that has a lot of that reality - I think one of his later ones - he got away from writing slam-bang things for a while... and REDSHIFT is brilliant.

(Heikki makes a comment about depicting the human side of war.)

I think there are some people who aren't that interested in the human side (of war). There is a market for military fiction - not just science fiction - which appears to be entirely for the "guns and glory" crowd.

They're purely masculine-oriented, purely about "the soldier as the hero," the soldier as the person of courage, as the person of honor - and it's all fighting and killing and fornicating.


By the way... I have to mention a special subgenre of War/Military SF, that's Alternate History.
Where you make up an imaginary historical conflict - "what if... "

And there is one particular sub-subgenre (of Alternate History) that is sort of "the bottom of the barrel" (Moon laughs)...

There are people who actually write war fantasies about say, World War II, where the bad guys win. I've heard that in Japan, there's a very popular type of books where Japan wins World War II - heroically... (NOTE: Yngve here said "World War III" then corrected himself)

And I have seen American comic-books titled "Luftwaffe 1945" - which have these sort of masturbatory fantasies about the glorious high-tech weapons of the Third Reich. And my jaw just dropped: "Americans write comic-books glorifying the Nazi war machine??"

The young ones do... How many of you read Newt Gingrich's "1945"?

If that isn't a wish-fulfilment fantasy... I'm sorry: I do not think that's a good book, I do not think it's good military SF. Although there are people who come up to me and say "Why don't you write something like that?"

(An audience member(?) suggests he'd like to see a military SF book where a major character is unexpectedly killed in action.)

If you kill off the protagonist you don't have readers for very long. That is one of the facts of publishing.

Yeah, I heard that from my former agent: "You can't kill off the hero; the readers will hate that."

You can kill off some of the heroes. You should kill off an important person now and then. (Much laughter) But you can't kill your main character and have a consistent readership... because they become highly annoyed with you and they go away.

They become attached to the character.

Well, I get attached to the character! But I can't get too attached. Then on the other hand, you've got writers who will pick their character apart in pieces... like David Weber did with Honor Harrington. You know - first you lose this body part, then you lose that body part...
(Audience laughs) Okaay...

But in SF, you can always attach new body parts...

Well, remember she can't have some of the attachments. She can't have regeneration.

But there was one horrible one - this is really, really bad. It was supposed to be a fight against an intergalactic alien that came down to conquer Earth ever so often... and Earth people had to fight them every time.

And one book of this type I read - the heroine is specially trained in all these ways - she gets up to the alien ship... and in the course of the fighting she loses three limbs: both legs, and one arm.

And she had a special suit that cuts off the circulation, so she doesn't immediately bleed out. But at one point the author comments that "she (the heroine) found it easier to roll across the floor, now that she didn't have legs."
(Audience laughs)

And at that point I burst into laughter, and had to show it to my husband - oh no - we had to read on and find out how she got out of there, how she killed the alien with one arm left. She lost part of that arm on the way out.

(And there was much rejoicing among the audience.)

Like the Black Knight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL? (Yngve makes a very poor impersonation of The Black Knight)

I don't know what this person (writer) was thinking! They wrote it as if it were dead serious.
It was hysterically funny - and yet at the same time, when I think about a writer who could write that scene and not understand it was hilariously funny... that was someone with a deficient sense of reality.

The psychology has to be real, and the physicality has to be real. I remember reading a book where someone was shot in the chest. And the author got rid of that by saying the character's breastbone was very thick. (Audience laughs) And he was just knocked out for a while.

I have dealt with chest wounds for gunshots. No, that doesn't work!

(An audience member - Heidi Lyshol? - asks about the "repeating plot clichès" in stories about war. Certain things always seem to happen in this type of fiction.)

Well, most of the situations we write about have a "set" format.

If you write about somebody who's unhappy in their job, you know there's going to be a bad middle manager. We know there's going to be other employees who are disgruntled, and other employees who are trying to fight their way up the ladder, and are backstabbing the one who's not happy with his job.

Most of the stories we tell do have a common structure and are fairly repetitive. Military fiction makes it pretty obvious - but I see this in other books... consider mysteries: somebody's dead, and somebody's going to figure out who did it! You have the detective, the detective's friend or subordinate, the people around the dead person, the police...

And people like the predictability?

Oh yes!

Could you mention one Military SF story where a human person fights a war... and then suddenly realizes that he wants to belong to the other side? That he defects and starts a new life among aliens?

Bujold has written some characters like that. There's one in, I think, her last Miles book...
A character who falls in love with someone from a totally different culture, and deserts. And causes a diplomatic problem. It's a good story.

The reality is, there are people who want to change sides, and there are people who just want to get out of it. And if your publisher gives you the space - enough books, enough wordage - you can make it more and more complex.

If you have to write 80,000 words in one story, there's a limit to how much additional stuff you can put in.

(Here a discussion ensues between panel members and audience, about predictable "fairy-tale" style plot patterns with stereotypical heroes. Bad sound quality made it impossible to transcribe this part of the recording faithfully.)

Which reminds me: recently, listening to the story again of Lance Armstrong's life - you couldn't write that and sell it; nobody would believe it! But it really happened.

And it's affected a lot of people (who heard the story of Lance Armstrong), because that's the kind of story that many of us tell ourselves inside: We started as nothing much, we're making a life, we're making progress...

When little children want to play games in the backyard, they want to be the "good guy."
My childhood playmates had to remind me that I couldn't be Robin Hood all the time. Sometimes I had to be the sheriff of Nottingham. We all wanted to be the hero.

And for a lot of children there's a "savior" aspect to it. As well as wanting to be the hero who fights, we want to help somebody else.So many people are built that way - I think it's part of the human hardwiring.

There is always this inherent danger in Military SF, and it often happens, that it degenerates into basically a power-fantasy. You give people (in books) these invincible miracle weapons...

Yeah, Stirling's books, for instance.

Or that book which I won't mention, where someone simply presses a button, and a whole planet explodes...

I thought that was a movie.

Yeah, that one too. (Laughter) Then it becomes a fairy-tale.

(Myhre talks about a novel/series where aliens at war with humanity breed human-killing monsters, created to kill.)

When finally there is peace, what do we do with these monsters?

That's always a problem - what do we do with the soldiers after the war? They can become a "political liability."

These are monsters (in the books he describes) that have been bred specifically to kill...

Yeah, they can't do anything else.

Is that an argument against "super-soldiers" in science fiction?

Take one of the very first war stories... Odyssevs. He's a war veteran! A half-crazed war veteran who comes home from a long war with Troy... people are trying to take his property on Ithaca - it's almost like FIRST BLOOD.
(Ominous voice) "They pushed him too far."

(Elizabeth Moon laughs)

It's a problem, but - it's kinda funny... You know, my husband came back from combat and settled back into life, and doesn't have bad dreams.

Maybe it's because both he and I are military, we could talk about it - and the fact that we could discuss it, helped him. He was a primarily involved in the medical corps, but he did get involved in some fairly difficult things.

So not all veterans are "liabilities" - but some certainly can be, and part of it has to do with how society treats them when they get back. A lot of Vietnam veterans, because they got so much flak when they got back, did turn into liabilities. I don't know if they would've been (that) otherwise. A lot of World War II veterans were not.

(Someone - Heikki? - talks about the importance of returning soldiers to "have something to come back to," to be integrated into society.)

A problem with many Military SF stories is that they basically paint the situation of perpetual war. There is no peace. There's just -

(And there the tape ran out... only a minute before Yngve made a sophomoric joke about trying to find the bathroom on the Death Star.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Quotes From the INTERCON 2005 Panel (2)...

Intercon 2005 Panel "Militarism and Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?" - Part 2
(Continued from the previous post)

I met one woman who wanted to talk to me about something military, and I told her "I'm not active duty anymore, you need to talk to someone who is." And she said "I don't want to talk to a soldier."

Well, gee, I'm sorry, that's the only way to find out. Be one, or be close to one. I think that those who are close to or actually themselves have been in the military as I am, we have a better feel for what a soldier's mind is like, for the kinds of conflicts you get into.

I've been in situations myself that were very conflicted, very difficult to deal with, and that I still think about 30-40 years later.

Is there any place in the modern military for the warrior personality, rather than the soldier personality?

In a regular war, definitely. Guerrilla war, any irregular force has its place for them (warriors). Special Forces of different kinds, SEALs, SAS, all that sort of things.

The warrior personality does not have the same approach to discipline that a soldier does.
For instance, one woman said to me, when she found out I've been in the Marine Corps: "Oh, you must be a warrior!"

I'm not a warrior, I'm a soldier! The soldier is completely disciplined, in the terrifying sense, that you become the tool and you do not have the right make certain kinds of decisions yourself.

The warrior is independent. It's what makes a warrior fantasy different from military fantasy.
Because a warrior can go out there, take a dislike to some tyrant, go chop heads off his guards, undermine his castle or whatever. It's all entirely up to him, he's an independent actor.

The soldier does what he or she is told. Up to the point where there is a conflict with your training - which unfortunately some of our people have not learned, but we certainly had a lot of training in that specific thing - exactly when it was legal to disobey, what you had to do to make your disobedience legal. And the fact that you were supposed to take the consequences (of disobedience) - there would probably be a court-martial.

But that is a difference; you don't hear about "court-martial warriors."

The warrior is responsible for his own acts. The soldier is a tool and doesn't expect to be held accountable or responsible for his acts. The Nurnberg Trials taught us otherwise -

They were supposed to teach us otherwise.

Yeah. But except for that, the soldier is under somebody else's responsibility.

If you are a commanding officer, you are responsible for what you told your troops to do. And if you are a Commander-in-Chief you are also responsible for what you told your troops to do - although bringing that fact home to commanders-in-chief has been quite difficult!

I want to talk more about the conflict in the soldier's mind... these conflicts would not be nearly as strong, as long you'd only been killing "bad-guy monsters" - rather than other human beings.
For instance, you can't find much remorse among the soldiers in STARSHIP TROOPERS.

That's a seminal example of inventing a dehumanized enemy (Yngve is speaking metaphorically - or he's mixing up the metaphors?). They're insects, so you just want to stomp on them.

By the way, STARSHIP TROOPERS has of course been sent up as parody by other writers. Even the movie is in some sense a satire of the book. My favorite example is Harry Harrison's novel BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO... where the hero is basically press-ganged into the imperial army, to fight the supposedly evil alien lizards.

And when he finally finds one of the enemy, the enemy lizard is about this tall (Yngve shows with his fingers: 6 centimeters). And he was told they were 7 feet! But the War Office decided that no soldier would be afraid of an enemy who was this tall (6 cm), so they had to tell the soldiers they were 7 feet tall.

There's a book titled ON KILLING. It talks specifically about what it takes to train people to kill, and what it does to people when they have killed. The common reactions of soldiers who have killed in combat, the problems they have for 20-30 years after.

It talks about the need to dehumanize the enemy, to make them into bugs, or lizards or something, in order to get people to kill them.

Shortly before I left the United States, I saw a TV documentary - interviews with Kosovans and Albanians (from the Yugoslavian Civil War). And on both sides, young men - quite nice-looking young men with families, they looked like normal people - but on both sides, they would say of the other: "Oh, they're just animals. It doesn't matter how many of them we kill."

That ability to dehumanize has been in the species for a while. It is still being used, still being forced on people. The child warriors that are kidnapped in Africa, and turned into fighters at age 12-13... they come to believe that the people they kill aren't really people.

But the odd thing is, that underneath they know it's a lie.

When these men get to be 60, they will be thinking: "What did I do?" The faces of those they killed, the cries, will come back to them. You can try that (the lie), but it will take more and more energy to hold that fantasy - that the enemy is not real.

There's a minority of people, who discover when they're being trained to kill people, that they like it.

And most of those people... become insane. Their entire background has said killing is wrong. If they go to war and kill because they were ordered to take the village, and they feel bad about it afterwards... fine. But what do you do, if you discover that you are the monster? You are the monster who likes it.

It happens to a minority. They can go two ways: either they become completely inhuman, acknowledge themselves as "I no longer feel part of the human race. I am the alien, the nonhuman one, and therefore I can kill them, because we're not the same species."

Or they can be struggling for years until they finally lose it - and often commit suicide - to realize that they are the person they've been warned about for their entire childhood.

A very few - a tiny memory - are able to integrate that with the military discipline. And even though they enjoy killing, they discipline themselves; they never allow themselves to be angry in a situation, to be tempted to kill except in a military situation. They avoid things like the Special Forces, because they know that would tempt them.

Have these people been warrior types?

No, I don't think so. Because they accept the discipline of the conventional military.

During the civil war in Rwanda in the early 90s, the Hutu-controlled government media used this analogy that the "others," the Tutsis, were "cockroaches." So the Hutu population was basically instructed by radio to go out and kill "the cockroaches."

Now, is it coincidence that a government's propaganda likens people to insects when it wants to enforce a genocide... and that science-fiction writers tend to, when they want a completely dehumanized enemy, to describe them as insects?

I think that changes through history. In the Pre-Civil War South, black people were shown as "monkeys." That was the choice, not "insects."

And that continued even after the Civil War, through the Reconstruction and the very bad years in the 20s and 30s particularly - and even a bit into my childhood: "We weren't killing people, they were just monkeys. They were subhuman."

So whether it's dogs, rats, or pigs... whatever is considered vile by that culture, will be chosen to dehumanize them (the target).
(The third and final part of the panel will be posted on this blog.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Quotes From the INTERCON 2005 Panel (1)...

The above photo is from INTERCON 2005, Norway, the panel debate on "Militarism & Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?".
From right to left (no pun intended): A.R.Yngve, Elizabeth Moon, Öyvind Myhre, Heikki Sörum, and Gunnar Bakken(?).

I have not yet transcribed the whole 1-hour tape from this panel (which occurred on July 31), but here are some quotes:
Elizabeth Moon:
I'm not sure the line is always that firm (between military SF and Space Opera).

One of my books might start out an adventure story, some military creeps into it, you get interested in that, it leans toward military SF, you think that is too serious; you throw in something as idiotic as a hot-air balloon, or a horse; it wanders back toward being Space Opera, and then gradually - for me - the series is going to end up being military SF - but it can take six books for me to get there.

Heikki Sörum:
We can't really imagine a past, our future, without serious conflict.

Öyvind Myhre:
Primitive man didn't have war - there wasn't the resources for it.
In a well-organized society, we have an accumulation of power and riches - things to catch hold of - and there's no way to take away these resources from anyone without force.

Early literature was all about this fight for power: who's going to come on top.

There's one thing that makes science-fictional war stories unique from "mainstream" war stories: in this genre we have a complete freedom to shape the conflict situation and how it is fought.

You can invent weapons, enemies and situations that don't or can't exist. And there's the inherent danger of the genre, of inventing a straw-man enemy who represents whatever the writer is against.

You can set up the odds, so that either it seem impossible for the "good" side to win - or you start cheating by inventing a miracle weapon at the last possible minute - push a button and Kaboom! the enemy just vaporizes - Jack Williamson did that in THE LEGION OF SPACE.

I think there's a thin line between science fiction and mainstream war fiction. Take Tom Clancy's books: He will invent what he claims are weapons presently under development - and while these books seem realistic, there is a strong element of fantasy in them, from my point of view.

You have no doubt in old war stories - non-SF - the people who write them always know who is good, who is bad. That's how they're written, and it's one of the attractions, like cowboys-and-indians movies. You know which side is supposed to win. In real life that may not be the "right" side, there may not be a clear victory.

This kind of of story is very satisfying, very comforting to people, and that's why it can be very dangerous - if you become comfortable with something that is not real, and you expect the world to be like that - you're out of luck.

STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE FOREVER WAR, ENDER'S GAME... what makes these books so popular?

The ones that are popular are ripping good stories. They have all the characteristics of an excellent story: you have a main character who is faced with a serious dilemma; has to fight their way through it; characters you can attach to and care about.

Most people would not characterize Lois McMaster Bujold's books as military SF - and yet, through all the Miles Vorkosian books, the main characters are military people; they're either veterans or active duty.

Her handling of the military aspects is good, her handling of how it affects Miles and the other is excellent, it's very realistic... and yet people continuously refer to these books as romances, because some of the characters fall in love with each other.

Soldiers do fall in love each other! Here's a marine (Elizabeth Moon) who married an Army guy. I know all about falling in love with military.

I'd like to quote Steven Francis Murphy, a real Gulf War veteran, what he wrote on the ASIMOV's Message Board...

"Why is it that so many writers seem to focus on the pyro, the technical, and the doctrinal/tactical, while glossing over the human side with a patina of their own personal views?"

And he describes the peculiar schizoid nature of a soldier's mind:

"I'm proud to be a soldier; I hate to kill people; I have to kill to protect my buds; I feel guilty about what I've done; I'm proud to have taken part."

That's a very complex psychology, and would be interesting to write or read about. But how many writers succeed with that?

A few do. If a person has not been a veteran, or has not known one closely, in the family usually, and listened to stories, to understand what veterans are going through, then you can't write it.

I think a lot of the (gung-ho, military-glorifying) sort of books are written by people with no military background. They may have read other writers' military SF, but they haven't themselves ever been around soldiers that much.

There's more, but I'll post it later. Thanks to Steven Francis Murphy for letting me quote him.

Monday, August 01, 2005

ELIZABETH MOON On "Autism & Science Fiction"

As Guest of Honor during Intercon 2005 in Oslo, Norway (July 28-July 31), Elizabeth Moon held a lecture about her experience with an autistic family member... and how there is a connection between autism, Science Fiction, and aliens in Science Fiction.
The experience clearly inspired her writing of the Nebula Award-winning novel THE SPEED OF DARK (2002).

This is a compressed account of Elizabeth Moon's lecture - and the conversation which followed in the cafeteria afterward.
Elizabeth Moon's autistic son was unable to speak at age 2 1/2, but he could read and write.
Psychologists told her that her son's condition was incurable.

But Moon, who had worked as a computer programmer for the U.S. Marine Corps, decided to approach her son the way a computer programmer does: "Don't blame the CPU if the program can't process all the input!"

She studied the then-available knowledge about the human brain (which she found lacking), compared it with the studies of animal behavior... and arrived at the insight that "behavior is communication." While the psychologists at the time did not adequately try to analyze the behavior of autistic children, Moon mantained that "all behavior has meaning" and studied it as if it were animal behavior.

Moon mentions as an example, how a horse grazes in a field - it takes one bite, walks around, takes a bite at another spot, and so on. Instead of dismissing the horse's behavior as "random," we understand it is "sampling" the grass - just as humans "sample" tidbits of the different foods on a plate. So why condemn autistic behavior as "random" or "pointless"?

She studied her son's behavior to see what it communicated, and found that he couldn't perceive patterns in motion - but he was interested in patterns that stood still.

He also showed a delayed reaction to speech. Instead of simply assuming he was "retarded," Moon analyzed the way he processed information (i.e. speech).

The son could read words well - but if you spoke the same word, he couldn't hear it. And like other autistics, he didn't understand the meaning of pointing.

Many autistics can't perceive brief sounds - i.e. consonants (b, c, d, f, g, h, etc...), but vowels are long enough for them to perceive (aaa, ooo, eee, etc.). Naturally, this impedes their learning of language.

So Moon started to train her son to recognize consonants, for instance in the facial expression of the speaker. She made great progress, taught him to process and use speech, worked with other autistic children... and realized that her son was normal.

Moon asks: "What do autistic children want out of life?" The same things as any other person: They want friends, they want to be comfortable... they want a good life.

They are very sensitive. (As an example, Moon mentions how a neck collar tag can irritate an autistic child much more than a non-autistic child.)

But they meet much rejection and prejudice - especially from "experts" - or from frustrated parents/relatives who don't understand their behavior - and so many autistics, who are treated as "aliens," come to believe they aren't human.

We make autism worse by treating autistic behavior as "pathological" (i.e. "sick").

It is our choice to either accept or alienate people whose perception-patterns are different from ours... which leads us to fandom and science fiction.

In (science-fiction) fandom, Moon says, she finds people who are comfortable and relaxed among each other.

There is a high quota of science-fiction fans with Asperger's Syndrome - a form of "mild autism."
Typical of Asperger's Syndrome is to be
1. socially awkward,
2. very verbal
(can talk obsessively about one particular subject for a long while),
3. intensely interested in certain "pet" subjects (fly-fishing, fountains...)
4. showing other autistic-like symptoms.

Autism symptoms may vary, but are all in the area of perception difficulties. More research is needed - and better research.

It's not all bad to be in the "borderlands" of autism. It is possible to understand and communicate with autistic people.

Moon says she herself had Asperger's symptoms as a kid ("I was pigheaded, bossy, insensitive"). But she reminds the audience: whatever your behavior is, you're not "bad in your own mind." The same goes for different cultures.
How many of us, Moon asks, are ambassadors for cultural understanding? She likes to write about how different people perceive the world.

Having said that fandom is an environment where people with Asperger's can feel at home, Moon also warns: "Any group can become a comfortable hiding-hole." You should give people a little nudge - without being judgmental - to "try other things" too. Then you can help people out of their hiding-holes.

Is autism increasing? Rather, it's NOT going up - but people who once would have been classified as "retarded," now get diagnosed as autistic or Asperger's.

There are social environments where people with autistic/Asperger's behavior fit right in - such as nuns in a convent! But in an army platoon, the members need to "bond" well, so Asperger's doesn't really work there... except possibly as a single "mascot" member with highly specialized skills.

There seems to be a connection between Asperger's Syndrome and synesthesia. Moon herself has mild synesthesia: she associates certain numbers with specific colors.

We compared Moon's mental "color chart" for numbers with those of some audience members, and came up with interesting variation patterns.

At this point in the conversation, sitting in the cafeteria after the lecture, Moon had to declare herself "wiped" and retired for the evening. (Seeing as she was surrounded by eager people with Asperger's symptoms, we could have continued talking until she collapsed... )

August 1, 2005