Category Archives: Society

World SF Convention, Hugos, and You

Last year I purchased a membership to the World SF Convention.  I ended up going to Dragon*Con instead, but I still voted for the Hugos.

For those who don’t know, the Hugos are the awards for the ‘best’ new stuff in Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Why is this important?  Well, it’s a combination popularity contest and kudos for authors.  While selling well is nice, it’s also good to know that your peers like your work.  Of late, however, the Hugos have often gone to people with messages, books that are more about causes and politics than about what we all got into SF&F in the first place: being entertained.

Larry Correia writes quite a bit on the subject, and if you haven’t read his take on it all, you should.  It’s highly entertaining, if nothing else.  I personally beleive that ‘best’ in Science Fiction and Fantasy should mean “well written” and “entertaining” and maybe even “fun.”   I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.  As a disclaimer, I am eligible for two catagories, so I’m pitching my hat in the ring.

Luckily, because I bought membership last year, I get to vote this year as well.  Seeing as I hope to attend next year, I’ll be voting next year too.

Without further ado, here’s my nominations, they’re all books I’ve enjoyed (well, I enjoyed writing mine, ok?)

Best Novel:

A Few Good Men, Sarah Hoyt, Baen

Grand Central Arena, Ryk Spoor, Baen

Warbound, the Grimnoir Chronicles, Larry Correia, Baen

Best Novella:

Renegades: Deserter’s Redemption, Kal Spriggs, Sutek Press

Best Short Story:

Skyspark, Ryk Spoor, Baen

Best Editor:

Toni Weisskoph

Best Graphic Novel:

Schlock Mercenary, Howard Taylor

Campbell Award (For a new author)

Kal Spriggs

Frank Chadwick

 

Why does this matter to you?  Well, you might be like me and have a membership lying around from last year.  Might as well use it, right?  Vote for the books and authors you enjoyed and let’s make the Hugo awards into something we can enjoy again.

 

SFWA, the Great SF/F Censoring, and WAFFLES

For those of you who aren’t really interested in the great hubub in the writing world, you can just skip this post.  For the rest of you, I’m sure it’s been highly entertaining and also somewhat like watching an avalanche or train wreck.  We’ve had the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The good comes in the form of various established authors who are standing up against what amounts to censoring.  Authors (from a variety of political perspectives) saying that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) are being unreasonable.  The organization designed to protect and support authors is, well, doing the opposite.  Attacking members, limiting their free speech and the topics they can discuss, and generally being very juvenile.  If you’ve been following it, I’m certain you have a good idea of what’s been going on.  If not, well, read Sarah Hoyt’s article, or Larry Correia, Kate Paulk, or Mike Williamson.  They delve into the depths plenty and they’ve far more patience for it than I do.  They also say it better than I could and often in ways to poke fun at the stupidity manifest in the organization of SFWA.

I’ll preface this next bit by saying that I’m not a member of SFWA.  I don’t qualify, as a self-published and independent author.  Even if I do become published… well, I don’t really see much point in joining the organization.  At it’s root, SFWA has become that most dreaded of institutions… it’s a clique.  It’s rather like the juvenile groups I saw in High School, groups which hung together from popularity and commited terrible actions against their own members and individuals in the interest of establishing a social heirarchy.  This is most ironic to me because, well, isn’t SF/F supposed to be made up of the free-thinkers and the outcasts, people who don’t go for the social heirarchies?  Oh, officially it is a professional organization… which spends far too much time worrying about hurting feelings and making sure that all the ‘qualified’ members feel good about themselves.  It feels more like a union or guild to me… complete with popularity contests and a party line.  Anyone who steps over that line is a ‘scab’ or worse.  Anyone who doesn’t stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the collective is double-ungood.  What is SFWA, anyway?  How is one supposed to say such an acronym?  Try to say it with me “SFFFWUH?”  It sounds oddly like when I tried to catch a football with my stomach or that time I sneezed after the dentist had used local anesthesia.

But that’s just my perspective from the outside.  And like I said… I don’t even qualify as a member.  What gives me any ground to say such mean and derisive things?  Well, I’m someone who has something of a deep interest in the future of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I’m a writer.  In my perspective, every piece of drivel that some yah00 writes right now, with some thinly veiled message resembling a steel bar mace coated with a thin layer of flowery paper, is a book that some poor unsuspecting sap will be forced to read in college or high school and told that it is “Great Literature!!!”  I don’t know about you, but when I go to relax at the end of the day, I don’t want to be beaten over the head repeatedly by a heavy chunk of metal.  I just want to relax and read a book.

So, I propose a new writer’s organization.  If nothing else, it needs to be something that has a name you can actually pronounce.  I’ve already brought it up in other forums: WAFFLES.  Writers, Authors, Fans of Fantasy literature and Excellent Science fiction.  Yes, it flows somewhat like the acryonym for the PATRIOT Act… but there’s a reason it passed the House and Senate, after all.  Who can oppose being Patriotic?  Who doesn’t like WAFFLES?  See where I’m going here?  WAFFLES is an organization for everyone… no rules or restrictions, no clique, no saying you aren’t good enough to participate.  I think part of where SFWA went wrong is that it didn’t allow readers a voice… so it’s become detached from the one group they really need to hear from: people buying their books.  WAFFLES is going to be part help-group and part discussion forum.  The biggest part is that you come to discuss, in a logical and non-emotional manner.  Leave your thin skin and easily bruised emotions at the door.  Lets talk about possibilities and This is something of a trial run, in part to see who is interested, in part to stick a thumb in the eye of SFWUH?, and mostly because I don’t like guilds, unions, popularity clubs, or cliques.  Why WAFFLES?  Well, it’s kind of hard to call someone a jack-booted thug for liking Waffles… kind of hard to get worked up in a frenzy in that fashion, eh?

So, if you like SF/F books and are an author, artist, or fan, join WAFFLES.

Robocop Movie Review

I am not, as a general rule, a huge fan of movie remakes.  Now and again, however, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  When I went to see it, I expected it to be a simple action flick.  Lots of shooting, some explosions, and robots and bad guys getting mowed down left and right.  What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly deep (for Hollywood) action movie with political and ethical questions.

Without giving too much away, let me say this: the movie has a rather murky and mixed message.  In some aspects, actors come across as almost caricatures and in others, you might feel almost like you’re being preached to… but you aren’t really sure what the message is supposed to be.  At the same time, there are moments in the movie where I was nodding my head at a reveal… or chuckling at a bit of satire.  The politics of security versus freedom was touched upon.  There was a good bit of character growth for a doctor, which I found interesting, while he fought between his ambition and his medical ethics.  There was also some decent discussion of the ethics of using automated weapons on American citizens…  Messages were there, but they were sometimes open ended, almost as if the director or actors didn’t want to agree with the conclusion.

As far as the action itself… by and large it was impressive.  There were some excellent firefights… if you could get past the ‘shaky cam.’  I don’t know about most viewers, but I don’t like leaving the theater feeling dizzy.  There were a couple of scenes where it was literally too much, where my brain just kind of went into shut-down because there was strobing lights, dark backgrounds, and a shaking, spinning camera.  To top it off, even the the moments where the main character was literally getting pounded, it was hard to have any dramatic tension… I mean, the moment of drama was solved before we really had any anticipation of danger.  There wasn’t enough build-up, I suppose.

The movie looked good, though.  And despite the nausea inducing shaky-cam, it was mostly fun.  In my opinion, it was a better movie than the original, which is a good thing.

The Romantic Pessimist’s Argument for Space

I consider myself a romantic pessimist.  I hope for the best… and plan for the worst.  That said, I’m also a dreamer and most of my hopes and ambitions are tied to space.  Not surprising, then, that I write science fiction, eh?  I’m writing this post as something of a dialogue, a hope that we continue to look out and push the boundaries.

So what do I think of space right now?  Well, to be honest, I’m afraid.  There is a very vocal percentage of Americans who seem to think that space is something that we should avoid.  Their arguments run a gamut of points.  Some are the simple ‘we need to fix things here before we worry about that stuff.’  Some are economic ‘it’s too expensive, we don’t get anything out of it.’  The most insidious, I think, are the people who seem to feel that humanity is somehow a corrupting influence, that we have polluted and destroyed our world and will go out and do the same elsewhere.

I’ll tackle those arguments, since they’re the ones I hear the most.  The first one, the one about fixing things here on Earth, is at its heart, an illogical argument.  What exactly are we supposed to fix here on Earth?  Poverty, crime, war, social injustice, sad puppies… the list goes ever onward.  The truth is, there will always be things that need to be fixed.  Humanity, is at its nature, imperfect.  We can never fix things here on Earth entirely, not without unlimited resources and a fundemental change in human nature.  Poverty is an effect of limited resources, economic factors, and supply and demand.  As wealth increases throughout  a system, it trickles down to others.  This is the free market… which can be imperfect and can be distorted, but that’s a can of worms I’ll open another time.  Crime is caused by a variety of factors, many of which stem from a society plagued by poverty, social inequality, corruption, and a failure of society to enforce the Social Contract.  War is another event triggered by limited resources and economic factors.  Add in perceived injustices and nationalistic fervor.  Sad puppies we can address at another time.  These are big issues, many of which do not have easy or simple solutions, no matter what some politicians say.  Most of them, short of a perfect world, cannot be fixed by us, they have to gradually shift over time.  Are we to focus all of our efforts upon these issues and any others, we still may not change them.  Indeed attempts to end poverty have often shown to make things worse, instead of lifting people up, they pull the rest of us down.  Attempts to end war, peacekeeping, is often a band-aid, which prevents violence while peacekeepers are present but fails to achieve long-lasting solutions.  Saying that we need to fix something first is akin to the man who says he’ll go look for a job… tomorrow.  Putting off a serious investment in space is not allowing us to focus more resources on problems, merely to offset the cost of space exploration to the future.

The economic arguement against space exploration and development is, in my opinion, the most spurious.  People said much the same about expeditions to the New World in the Age of Exploration.  Yes, many of those expeditions bankrupted people and others brought back only meager returns.  Exploration and development is not something that pays off instantly.  It, horror of horrors, requires hard work.  Space requires us to travel further, experience a harsher environment, and to put ourselves at risk… but in return we will gain access to resources and options far beyond what we now possess.  It will require the development of new engines, the construction of a space elevator, and yes, it will cost in lives lost in the effort.  Space is far harsher an environment than any place on Earth.  People have died in explorations of lonely mountains and remote polar regions here… but they expanded our knowledge and they died doing what they dreamed of.  It is far better to die doing something grand, in my opinion, than to live a life where you never accomplish anything.  And yes, I’m someone who lives and may well die by that opinion.  The resources we can harvest in space make our current resources laughable.  A single nickle iron asteroid could meet our steel requirements for a year.  Energy shortage?  A solar array in space could have more surface area than anything we could build in space, be dispersed, and still provide us with power, either directly beamed down in the form of light or converted to microwaves and transmitted down in that fashion.  No, these are not things that will come right away.  These are things we’d have to work for and work hard at… but hey, poverty’s one of those issues we want to fix, right?  Booming industry in space, lots of people needed, trained people.  New jobs created to train them and build the training areas.  New jobs created to provide them with support and services.  Going back to the previous argument, let’s fix the environment.  Don’t care for all those nasty coal plants?  Really like solar power, but you don’t like the nasty chemicals that solar plants produce?  Building it in space won’t contaminate our planet and if we’re smart about it, we could provide power to the entire world.  Cheap power for the entire world.  How’s that for fixing some problems down here?

The last argument is one of philosophy and outlook rather than one of reason and logic.  Some people seem to think that humanity is, at its core, a vile and wretched thing.  These people point out that wherever we go, we bring war, bloodshed, destruction.  Movies such as Avatar make me sick to my stomach.  Because under all that pretty CGI and ‘big dreams’ there is black withered heart that hates itself and wants to make you hate yourself too.  Those poor oppressed people who don’t really exist and those nasty military-industrial complex types who want to tear their planet apart.  It’s a movie with a message about how horrible people are… and how technology is evil and the only people who want to go out there to the stars are nasty, greedy, self-serving, types.  Why?  Why should we beleive that message, brought to us by Ferngully In Space?  Why should we look back at history and see only the negative… white Christian settlers slaughtering the peaceful Native Americans.  What about the Declaration of Independence?  What about great American artists and writers?  America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, Edgar Allen Poe.  What about the American Industrial Revolution that brought about the rise of the first real free society in the world?  What about standing up to the Soviet Union and showing that a free society is a match for a totalitarian regime any day?

There are people who honestly are plagued by such guilt that they would rather see humanity huddling naked in caves than happy, prosperous, and long lived.  This nihilistic tendency is a nasty, virulent ideology that upholds that people are bad… and all to many of them seem to think that the best thing anyone can do is to take themselves out of the picture.  They hate themselves, and they want us to hate ourselves too.  Rather than conservation, they want nature to remain immaculate, untouched, perfect.  They have some image of the world without people as being pristine.  This would, by necessity, lead to the removal of the human race.  And in, their hearts, they’re glad for that, because not only do they hate themselves, they hate you too.  The very thought of us polluting ‘untouched new worlds’ and the construction that would allow us to reach them causes them emotional agony, not just from the thought of what we might do out there, but also because we might expand, live, prosper… and show that their beleif structure is flawed.  If we succeed out in space, we show them that humanity is not bad and we show the potential that we hold in ourselves.

We have in us a desire to go forth, to see what lies beyond the next horizon.  To pent that up, to reject it, is to reject ourselves… to reject our very nature.  Our past is here, our home is Earth.  Yet in the nature of all children, as we grow up, we must take those first steps away from home, to find our own path.  That path lies in space… and the sooner we begin that journey, the sooner we continue our growth to adulthood.

Here’s some interesting links, people who say some good things… and people who argue the opposite.  Feel free to link anything in that you think pertinent.  Thanks for reading.

http://accordingtohoyt.com/2014/02/07/a-radical-notion-a-guest-post-by-james-cambias/

http://debatewise.org/debates/137-space-exploration-is-a-waste-of-money/

47 Ronin Movie Review

Going with my decision to write up movie reviews for science fiction and fantasy movies, I feel I must review 47 Ronin. That said, while I enjoyed the movie, I feel a little conflicted. On the one hand, it was enjoyable, in and of itself (a popcorn movie, but fun), in a lot of ways I feel it didn’t do the original story justice.  While I’m not extremely knowledgable about it, I do have at least a passing familiarity with the history as well as the original fictionalization: the Chushingura.  The movie 47 Ronin is loosely based upon actual events that occured in the early 1700’s.  Notice, I said loosely, because in the original story, there is no halfbreed, trolls, monsters, or evil witches.

These things, I feel, were added to make the movie more flashy, and less of a historical drama.  That kind of thing can draw audiences, but the story of the Chushingura is one that, in many ways, can stand by itself without flash (ie, lots of special effects, huge explosions and weird pirate towns).

In 47 Ronin, they went for the flash and, in many ways, they succeeded.  It is a fun movie, with lots of amazing scenes.  There were a few times where I felt like they did a scene just to give it the feeling of a comic book, much like the movie 300.  47 Ronin has a solid story which sticks (mostly) to the original, other than the prementioned additions.  The reasons for those additions are extreme at times, but looking at them from the perspective of a writer, I can see why they made those additions, even if I don’t agree with them.  The additions, at least, are ones which are internally consistant and maintain the flow of the story.

The movie doesn’t pull any punches and doesn’t try for a happy ending, which I appreciate.  Though only lightly explained in the movie, the dedication and loyalty of the samurai is there to be seen.  Though I wish there were more characterization of them as individuals, as a whole, they come across as men who follow an iron-bound code of honor in an imperfect world… and they know that sometimes the right decisions are ones which will require sacrifices.  Their unflinching focus on duty that forced them to make those sacrifices is what makes the story so powerful.  Personally, I think it is a story that resonates very well with western cultures, the draw of duty, the necessity of revenge, and the idea of self sacrifice.

The movie captures this, often with small, yet poignant, scenes.  Sometimes those scenes are between the action and sometimes they are right in the middle of it all.  All in all, it was an enjoyable movie with several underlying themes which I appreciated, and it sparked an interesting discussion on the way home from the theater.

A SF Writer’s Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving, a purely US holiday. I was talking with a friend of mine, an immigrant, who told me that he really didn’t get the whole idea of Thanksgiving, so he mostly just ignored it. I’ll say this, everyone has their own take on it, but for me, it’s a time to reflect on all the good things in life, to appreciate what I have. As a writer, I’m appreciative of all the books and authors that have inspired me. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I couldn’t curl up around a good book on a chill fall day.

I’m very thankful that we’ve had the great authors who inspired so much. I’m grateful that those pioneers dared to think about the possibilities. I’m grateful for Jules Verne  and Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote the first fantastical fiction.   I’m grateful for the writers they inspired such as Robert Howard, Doc Smith, and Robert A. Heinlein, and Issac Asimov.   And I’m grateful for the science fiction writers who followed, who continued to think big, and to dream of what lay beyond the horizon.

As a writer, the important part of Thanksgiving for me is the reflection, the time spent looking at where we are and where we’re going.  Take the time today, as a reader or a writer, to think about the stories you love, and to be grateful for the people who wrote them.

Thor: Dark World Review

I’ll preface this by commenting that I grew up on action and even a few comic book movies… but I never read comic books. So while I’m sure there are some diehard comic book fans who know far more about Thor than me, well, that’s fine. I’m reviewing this as a movie, and also as part of the series of movies that Marvel has done.

Disclaimer aside, I really enjoyed Thor: The Dark World. It was fun, exciting and adventurous. Better yet, the previews, for once, didn’t give the whole movie away. The movie had an irreverent sense of humor, epic scope and felt almost more like space opera than a comic book movie. Which is good, because I’m awful sick of the ‘dark gritty’ feel I’ve gotten from some comic book movies of late (Batman and Superman, I’m looking at you).

I’ll do a quick rundown of things I liked first, and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers. First off, the characters. We got to see a different side of Thor, Loki, and the ‘mere’ mortals who run around in their circles. We got to see Thor planning and thinking, rather than just smashing. We saw Loki and some of his other motivations… and just how twisted his brain can be. There was some character development for Jane Foster, we got to see the long term effects of Loki’s mind control of Doctor Selvig, and we even got to see the indomitable Odin affected by events.

As far as the plot, things worked along at a pretty reasonable pace. There were plot twists, and changes and all manner of transitions. Thankfully, the movie didn’t try to overwhelm. I would say the best plot twists are those used in marketing. The trailers often suggested certain things to happen, yet they didn’t happen quite the way you might expect. In fact, some of the trailers set up false expectations which I really enjoyed during the movie, because when I got to those points, I had context and I realized that I didn’t know what was going to happen from the trailers. In fact, I had to figure things out during the movie.

As far as the actual effects and visuals… I found it interesting. I would not watch it in 3D if I saw it again (which I might). The 3D graphics were sort of meh. The overal visual effects were pretty good, though I would say that they made some parts of Asgard less grand in scale and other parts much bigger. I thought the overall looks of the movie were very impressive, and I never felt like the plot or any particular scenes happened just to show of some new special effect.

As far as the emotional impact, this movie managed to generate excitement, happiness, laughter, sadness, and even a sense of wonder. That’s pretty good for a superhero movie. In fact, they managed a couple scenes that were both beautiful and sad, which I found impressive. I’ve heard some complaints about the humor being buffonery of certain characters, but I’d disagree. In the context of how they presented the characters, it was at least internally consistant. Besides, they managed to produce the humor without undercutting the principle characteristics of those characters. The humor, the irreverence, kept this movie from feeling pretentious, and showed the audience that it wasn’t afraid to laugh at itself a little.

I continue to be impressed by how Marvel has both handled the individual movies of their series and also how they have continued to build the franchise. They’ve planned how these movies connect and yet managed to make them stand effectively alone. They’re big, blockbuster movies, but they’re fun, and they go into all of them with goals and plans of what they want to attain. It’s a refreshing change for movies, rather than how most sequels are “quick, milk the franchise for all the money we can!”

Urban Fantasy

It's easy to imagine the extraordinary when superimposed on the ordinary...
It’s easy to imagine the extraordinary when superimposed on the ordinary…

Urban fantasy is, at its root, a mishmash of a variety of genres.  The typical urban fantasy author often combines one or more genres of fiction with fantasy in their story.  The fun of urban fantasy stories often lies in the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Wizards duke it out with magic and bullets, Police investigate supernatural crimes, and elves drink Miller Lite and watch Nascar.   The possibilites are limitless, especially when the stories can be told in so many ways.  Supernatural Romance, Paranormal Investigation, Zombie Apocalpyse, even Superpower Crime Noir novels are all under the broad catagory of Urban Fantasy.  As a market, the genre has been extremely successful, from the Harry Potter series to Twilight, there has been far more mainstream appeal to Urban Fantasy than other aspects of Science Fiction or Fantasy.

Why is that?  Well, there’s a number of reasons.  Honestly, one of the big ones is that it’s easier for the average person to get into.  They don’t have to try to memorize funny names for people or places, they don’t have to figure out some other world.  The setting is someplace they’ve heard of, maybe even lived in.  The events and history, while different in the particulars, are the same history that they learned in school.  Sure, magic might be a smaller or greater effect in that history, but these little changes often are part of the charm.  What if the Kaiser used necromancers in World War I to raise zombie hordes such as in Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles?  What if the Red Vampires secretly seduce and abduct thousands of people across the country as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files?  It doesn’t change how the main course of history went, and society, places, and events are still the same.  This makes it easy for the average person to pick up a book for casual reading.

Another reason that Urban Fantasy novels tend to be so popular is that they’ve gotten their hooks into this generation.  Many kids grew up with Harry Potter, and now that they’re adults, urban fantasy seems relatively mainstream.  They read these types of books, they’ve seen the movies, they are ready to suspend their disbelief that magic exists in secret.  The resurgence of general media such as Warehouse 13, Doctor Who, and others has also encouraged this.  These are shows that amplify the paranormal, and put out logical reasons for the existance of the supernatural.  These shows are also extremely popular because they encourage such imagination and questions of ‘what if.’

Another reason for the popularity, urban fantasy stories often provide characters that the readers can easily identify with.  A soccer mom makes an easy person to relate to, she drives a minivan, picks her kids up from school, films her daughter’s softball game, and happens to channel the powers of light to slay demons such as in John Ringo’s Princess of Wands.  It is an easy buy-in for a reader.  A private investigator who helps out the police now and again could be the character in almost any standard fiction story.  When that story’s character happens to be best friends with a twenty thousand year old vampire who is the lone survivor of Atlantis such as Ryk Spoor’s Digital Knight, the story becomes interesting to say the least.  Yet everyone has the odd friend or two, so this isn’t something that would totally confuse a new reader.

Of interest to me, both as an author and a reader, urban fantasy often acts as a gateway genre to more traditional fantasy books.  Readers sometimes really like the ideas and concepts and so they’ll dive a little deeper into the overall broader fantasy genre.  Also, writers who have made their break in urban fantasy often branch out into other areas, such as Jim Butcher with his Codex Alera series.  Sometimes it works the otherway, such as with John Ringo, who wrote Princess of Wands after he established an extensive science fiction bibliography.

Overall, there are a number of excellent books that I’d recommend.  Urban Fantasy is an exciting and fun genre of books to read, and there are plenty of books to check out.  Off hand, I recommend: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series, John Ringo’s Princess of Wands, and a few others in the Books I’d Recommend section.

  

Eagles and Jet Engines

The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS.  Photo courtesy of space.com
The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS. Photo courtesy of space.com

I distinctly remember when two NASA astronauts visited my elementary school. They showed off bits and pieces of space technology, talked about how bright a future we’d have (where all of us would be afforded the opportunity to go to space) and generally made a lot of kids really excited.

Like some other things, the space part has not come to pass. Indeed, the US really doesn’t have a space program right now. We don’t even have a launch platform for people. NASA has to rely upon Russia (you know, the former USSR, who has a 10% launch failure on their Proton rocket) for cargo and personnel transport to the International Space Station. It’s fallen to private entrepreneurs to lead the way, such as Branson’s Space Ship Two which looks to be narrowing in on the space tourism gig.

As a SF author, I’ve something of a confession to make. If I could get out there and do this stuff, I would. I’d drop writing in a heartbeat, and take living that life. I’m certain there’s a lot of others who both read and write SF who feel the same. Clearly, some nerds with a lot of money have decided to stop waiting on someone else to make it happen and do it themselves. Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo and Elon Musk’s Dragon are two of the better known examples.

So, the question I’m asking… why now? Why has NASA steadily stepped back and why as the federal government essentially stepped out of the space business? Oh, there’s lots of talk about drones and robots, and missions such as the Spirit and Opportunity are great, but what about people?

And why are the private companies (albeit sometimes with trivial subsidies or grants), the ones who are doing the heavy lifting? I think a big portion of it has to do with how drastic the consequences of failure have become in America, and more specifically American politics. Americans, as a whole, have become increasingly risk averse, especially at government levels. A politician who backs a financial (or life-ending) failure will see his career destroyed. A bureaucrat who does the same will have similar consequences. Corporations, such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, are by necessity, risk adverse. They don’t want the market to change, they want things stable, they’re on top of the market, innovation could jeopardize all of their ongoing profits. There’s a saying that I’ve always liked: Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.

Entrepreneurs are different. They make their money through innovation, through start ups. They aren’t afraid to fail, and they know how to pick up the pieces afterwards and move on. We’re in a unique position in history right now where money, correctly applied, will allow a private sector individual to leverage a place in the space industry. These people run the risks of the eagles, they’ve put their money and, in some cases, their lives, on the line for their dreams. And that’s something I respect. I think companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are keeping space alive and hopefully soon they’ll be expanding the frontiers.

That’s the important part. Keeping us out there and then pushing for greater expansion is essential. Somewhere, right now, I’m certain someone is telling a bunch of kids that they’ll own space when they grow up… it’d be a shame if they were lying to them.

Remembering September 11, 2001

I started to post something rather trivial about books that have affected my writing, and I realized I really should write something about September 11, this being the day and all. For those only interested in writing, well, this is mostly me rambling about my impressions of the effect on society and a bit on me.

For some background, I was there in New York when it happened. I was in college, right across the Long Island Sound, playing a computer game and waiting to go to class. I still remember the guy who came past my room and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought he was joking with me. Even so, I followed him down to the waterfront area of my campus. I could see the tower (yes, only one at that point) from there, on the steps of the chapel. I could see the column of smoke from that one and the ruins of the first tower. And I saw the second tower fall.
There was a crowd of us, midshipmen, all wondering what was going on. We didn’t know who had done it, we didn’t know why. We didn’t know about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon or the other one, Flight 93 where the passengers fought back. We were kids, confused, worried, and a little angry that someone had attacked us.

These were things we all, as Americans, felt and learned as time went on. And for those few days and weeks afterwards, we mourned our dead and started our recovery. The event itself wrought profound changes on our society. There was fear and uncertainty, and that caused a shift in what many people were willing to accept in the name of security. This can be seen in everything from TSA, to the PATRIOT Act, and even in the current NSA scandals.

American society has become more risk adverse. This can be seen in politics, our economy, our decline in space exploration, and even clothing trends. It can also, I’d argue, be seen in some of the literature written since. There’s been a shift in American SF, away from the big dreams and vast panoramas of classic SF and towards darker and grittier stories. There have been many more novels about empires in decline or simply futures where humanity never leaves Earth, where the science doesn’t support it and our society has turned inwards. In fantasy, the genre has also grown darker, and either magic has faded out or it is something that corrupts. The reemergence of the antihero and the morally ambiguity of heroes and their choices is another aspect. Right and wrong seems less clear and our world is more frightening; so the unknown and mysterious has become something frightening too.

There are any number of arguments as to why society has taken this turn, but I think in some respects most of them come back to September 11th. Everything from the politicians who stir up further uncertainty to appear strong to the increasing use of ‘retro’ clothing fads to the continuing struggle with the economy… these are products of our own uncertainty as a society. It’s almost the equivalent of societal PTSD… which is ridiculous. In giving into our uncertainties, we fail to properly honor those who lost their lives that day. They would not want us to live in fear. That’s what the terrorist scum who attacked our country wanted.

We have to continue to live life, to dream big and to have confidence that we are strong. We have not yet even begun to test ourselves. We are the country that put man on the moon, created rock and roll, and invented the airplane. America is founded on the idea of big risks leading to big results. That aspect of pioneering is what led to our success in the first place. We are, as a people, drawn to risk, drawn to big dreams. And I would argue, if we let uncertainty and fear take that away, we will lose the very thing that makes us so great.