Every time I see an artist whose work makes me tell myself, "There's a story there," I know I'm on the right track.
Among many of the nice goodies I received for my birthday this year, one was a recently published compilation of the design work of Syd Mead. You know him from Blade Runner and TRON and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and tons of other things. A valuable component of the book is how much material it contains about projects he worked on that never saw the light of day, such as the live-action Jetsons movie. Whatever I might think of the merits of that project, I could scarcely think of anyone more suited to creating its visuals. Mead seemed to be tapping into a Jetsons future for everything he did. It's one flavor of a future I have wanted to write about, although for me Mead would be a starting point rather than a destination for such things.
On leaving behind a teacher who's outlived their usefulness.
This past week, while putting together my new office, I found I still owned a couple of books from a spiritual teacher whose work meant a great deal to me once upon a time. The work still does; the person does not. The person, I am not happy to say, has worn out their welcome by proving to be an increasingly reactionary character. (Note: I don't want to make this person into a target of anyone's ire, so I won't name them here. Dogpiling doesn't help anyone.)
On beloved books, grown distinguished with age and wear.
Among the many nice gifts I received for my birthday and Christmas was the 50th anniversary edition of a favorite book, John Cage's Silence. For decades I have kept an older, beaten-up, heavily thumbed copy, typically in a slot on my desk. When the new hardback edition arrived, I had more trouble parting with my old, beat-up, heavily thumbed copy than I anticipated. I almost felt bad browsing the new edition; I didn't want to mess it up. My banged-up edition, with tape on its spine and the edges of its covers, felt more like something that deserved to be held and read.
We all know something like this. It takes a while before we're willing to place our brand-new airplane-aluminum case laptop on anything but a pillow-top surface. We hardly want to even drive a brand-new car, or live in a brand-new house. Or we look in the mirror and fret about that wrinkle at the corner of the eye, or that gray hair. Decrepitude of any stripe dismays us.
What I did on my extended winter vacation. For one, I moved house.
So, where was I? Good question. This has been the season of headless chicken imitations.
Last year, my wife and I decided to buy a new house in a different part of town. This kicked off a year-and-change odyssey of struggle that only came to a conclusion the week or so before Christmas 2022. For most of November and all of December I dashed back and forth, finalizing the sale of my original house, organizing the move, packing, clearing out, and occasionally remembering to eat and sleep. We finally moved in as of December 17th. Protip: don't ever try to move right before a major holiday. You'll die of exhaustion. But after death comes transfiguration, and so here I is once again, in my newly appointed office.
Especially when you want to write about your world, of which you've not seen very much yourself.
Many of the folks who heavily shaped my view of what science fiction and fantasy could be had pretty storied lives. One was Theodore Sturgeon, who according to the 'Pedia worked in the merchant marine, sold refrigerators door-to-door, managed a hotel in Jamaica, worked in construction and other blue-collar jobs, and wrote ad copy. Another was Frank Herbert, who worked as a journalist, photographer, political speechwriter, Navy Seabee (also as a photographer), and a few other things I can't find right now. They got around.
Compared to Sturgeon, or Herbert, or whoever, I haven't done anything, and I know it. And I have never been in much of a position to run off to have Adventures™. Neither the cash nor the opportunity — or for that matter, the desperation. For those who have write what you know mantra'd into their ears their whole lives, it's painful to realize you don't know much because you haven't lived much either.
Fixing little problems makes it easier to fix bigger problems. But we keep thinking it's the other way around.
Most people are far too quick to jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with society, and vehemently try to avoid the possibility that there is something wrong with them. Once upon a time, I wrote an article that argued that prestigious universities should use a partial lottery to allocate places. I no longer endorse this, but nonetheless, the most common response was that this would only be a bandage on the true problem, and that to really fix this, we would have to invest in education and eliminate the discrepancies that led to the privileged being so overrepresented in elite universities. From my perspective, it seems like people are absolutely desperate to go on multi-decade long questionable social engineering projects, and they don’t want to put bandages on problems enough.
A couple of posts ago I mentioned Karl Popper's The Open Society And Its Enemies. One of the principles Popper outlined in that book was his opposition to utopian planning, where you try to picture a perfect society and then bring it about in one fell swoop. Instead, he advocated "piecemeal social engineering", where you start from the bottom and fix things as you go up. This is the "putting bandages on problems" approach described in the above quote.
Commercial success for creative work is less about the work itself and more about its circumstances.
It's become clearer to me over the last few years that the vast majority of creative work that's done in a commercial context is successful for reasons that have less to do with the work itself than you might think. That doesn't make the quality of the work irrelevant, just that the quality of something and its success don't influence each other as much as we want them to.
Most of the reason a given thing gets in front of people is because of network effects or the community around the thing. That can happen to things that are well worth it; that can happen to things that deserve none of the attention. The number of truly original and influential works out there is very small, and almost none of them exist as they do without those network and community effects. I'm not laying any of this out with a moralizing tone, mind you, but as a way to unpack the situation. It's part of the thinking I've been doing lately about the motives people bring to this work.
Our mistake with intelligence was to consider it as possession rather than a skillset.
Brain droppings, continued:
Peter Woit: "Often very smart people are not good at realizing they were wrong about something and admitting it. Perhaps being smart even makes things worse: you lack experience at being wrong."
One of the worst things we ever did vis-a-vis intelligence, as a society, was think of it and talk about it as it were a possession rather than a skillset. We end up saying "I'm a smart person" instead of "I am trying to do the smart things". Intelligence becomes a matter of identity and not behavior.
How consistency, foolish or otherwise, can be the hobgoblin of small minds in SF&F.
Yet more brain droppings until normal service resumes:
You probably know by know the theories about what the Kessel Run was in Star Wars. Namely, that because it was calibrated in parsecs, it was something you gauged by how short the total distance was, in the same way a lower score in golf was a better one. Of course there was a simpler explanation — "parsec" was just some word George Lucas had thrown into the screenplay to sound all science-fantasy-y — but that would have been no fun.
Why I find the obsession with "prescience" in science fiction to be misguided.
I find the obsession with "prescience" in science fiction to be misguided. Not wrong, just ... maybe left of center. The B-sides and remixes, as it were, not the album tracks or the singles.
When you have so much fiction being written, of all different kinds, it's not hard to trawl through it and pull out a few examples that square, sometimes quite precisely, with current events. We then label such a work "prescient". I've done this myself, talking about how John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider predicted not only the Internet but its second-order effects (e.g., WikiLeaks)! Exciting, no?
It's great when a work ends up being uncannily spot-on about what's to come, but I think it's foolish to contrive a work in this light — to try and make predictions with it, as opposed to just speculate and see what arises. The former is closed-ended; the latter is open-ended.