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.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you A.R., for the excerpts from the Intercon. I hope there are many more for you.