science

Idea Driven SF in its Purest State

On Saturday night, I was in one of Buenos Aires’ notable bars surrounded by Argentine science fiction and fantasy writers.  One of them was telling me how he’d recently bought a Clarke book (Childhood’s End, apparently) in a Spanish translation.  The introduction said (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember the exact wording): “this book is a classic example of the now extinct genre of ideas” (italics are mine).

He was livid.  As a postmodern exponent of literary writing, this man felt that his novels were rife with ideas, and valuable, socially-relevant ones at that.  How could a man who wrote an introduction to a book by Clarke be so ignorant, so limited, so crass?

I mumbled something noncommittal and changed the subject.  Why?  Because I tend to agree with the introducer–opinion that would likely have gotten me lynched.

I’ve been watching the SF genre descend from a literature of ideas to a kind of muddle where postmodern sensibilities have pretty much amalgamated the genre with the rest of post-modern literature.  If something is scientifically impossible, no worries, genre limits are so 20th century, aren’t they?  Plus, if the thing is more boring than watching paint dry, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s diverse, right?

Er…  I’ll let each of you answer that last one.

For a certain kind of reader plausibility is important in SF, and that is why readers are staying away in droves lately, and the last real consensus SF classic (by consensus, I mean among readers – I couldn’t care less what other writers or postmodern critics think)  was… I suppose it was Ender’s Game.

 

Larry Niven Ringworld

But there was a better time, a time when SF truly was the literature of ideas, and perhaps the purest form of this is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970).  The characters and the plot are there for one thing, and one thing only: to show us the wonderful construct of a ring around a star and to reveal how it works and why.

Are the characters wooden?  A little.  Is it diverse and sensitive?  Not in the least, Niven didn’t care, he just wanted to tell his story and show us this awesome thing he’d dreamt up (or read about somewhere and decided to flesh out).

The cover blurb says “Legendary Award-Winning Classic”, and that description is spot-on.  Everyone’s read this one, and most people remember it.

But I have this sense that if Niven were to submit it today, it would be bounced for any number of reasons.  The legendary award-winning classic would never make it past the slush pile.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the genre today.  It’s bleeding readers like a neck wound because the new stuff is more concerned with social and literary sensibilities than it is with attempting to cater to its readers.  Those former SF readers used to be going to comic books and movies but, as witnessed by the floundering of the Star Wars saga due to some of the writers wanting to use it as a platform for their politics as opposed to just a cool universe to tell a story, this way be reverting back.

Whatever the outcome, the nice thing about literature is that the classics are still around.  We can pick them up in paperback.  Most of us have already read Ringworld, but there are dozens of others… sometimes it’s even fun to pick up a random unremembered book from the Golden Age just to relive that sense of wonder (those with an overdeveloped sense of literary outrage may want to give this a pass… some of the prose is, gasp, workmanlike!).

And if you haven’t read Niven’s Masterpiece, you need to do so right now.  When a setting is universally remembered and everyone knows all about it, you can safely ignore the postmodernists and read it.  You may not enjoy every word, but you won’t forget the Ringworld.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His fiction explores big ideas, nowhere more so than in his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.

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The Fascination with Lost Worlds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown.  The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.

Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving.  It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La.  Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice.  Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness).  Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.

The Lost WOrld and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.

The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written.  Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece.  These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.

Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character.  A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.

The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism.  In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.

That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories.  While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains.  The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.

Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.

My response to this is twofold.  I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?

But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year.  It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.

Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing.  No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).

Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature.  The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place.  And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist.  He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.

A Mad Scientist Primer

The Island of Dr Moreau

Well before the pulp era, the giants of the science fiction genre were writers of novels such as Verne and Wells (Mary Shelley, as well, of course, but it seems she was inserted into the SF canon years later, when the true significance of Frankenstein was understood).

Of these, Verne clearly wasn’t concerned with any of the bad things that progress might bring.  He seemed more of the kind of man who delighted in imagining what the future was going to look like.  The conflict in his novels is either man against man or man against the elements.  Man against progress didn’t seem to be his thing.

Wells,on the other hand, always gave his speculations a much sharper edge.  He had a brilliant imagination, more than capable of asking what if? but he was also willing to go that extra step and say… what if we took it too far?  And then answer the question to the best of his ability.

Today, mad scientists (and Bond villains) are expected to have their lairs hidden on isolated tropical islands, but when Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau, he was breaking new ground: creating a place isolated from society where that society’s nightmares and anxieties could be given palpable shape.

So Moreau, though less well-known than much of Wells output such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, is equally influential.  Perhaps more than the other two in many senses.

And it’s definitely this one that really shows Wells’ true colors.  Was he enthusiastic about science?  Probably.  But he was also deeply concerned about the possibility of abuse, and this novel is perhaps the most palpable expression of that fear.  If only for that reason, it’s a must-read.

Easton Press Island of Dr Moreau

A word about the edition that I read: it’s an Easton Press edition which is just as pretty as the ones we spoke of a couple of months ago.  We probably should have added this one into that post, but I already had an Easton book there, and it would have seemed like shilling.  Still, most used bookstores have these for sale at reasonable prices, so might not hurt to ask!

Progressively Getting Dumber

Grouped tables in classroom

It’s not often that Classically Educated pulls something out of the media to discuss – but this article in The Telegraph had us nodding in agreement

Essentially, The Telegraph’s article tells how countries which use text books to help structure learning of the sciences and mathematics are consistently outscoring British children in test scores.  It also describes how the progressive elements within  Ofsted, the UK agency charged with, among other things, evaluating teachers, have been setting standards that, wittingly or unwittingly, have been leading to the eradication of textbook teaching from British public (public, in this case being used in the global sense, as schools run by the government – not in the traditional British sense of non-home-schooling institutions) schools.

This isn’t as silly as it sounds.  Some of the basic tenets of progressive education include the push to have students be more creative, which means that having a less-structured and more participative approach in the classroom would, on the surface seem to be a good thing.  When one combines this with the value placed on non-traditional strengths such as emotional as opposed to “traditional” intelligence, the classroom becomes a much more free and inclusive environment.  In theory, it sounds like a winner.

Pink Floyd's Conveyor Belt

The origins of this attitude can be traced back nearly fifty years to the Plowden report*, which advised on the state of the British public school system, and is pointed to as the basis of modern British progressive education, and certainly raises many points that have been addressed effectively.

However, the report encouraged abandoning the old structured teaching method of a teacher standing in front of the class and imparting knowledge at a board, in favor of a much more participative model… which, in turn means that teachers have since been evaluated in this light, and textbook teaching has fallen way out of favor.

Like many ideas that sounded great on paper, however, this has become a huge mess, and British public schools have dropped out of the top tier in all the sciences, which isn’t surprising.  Structure is important in teaching certain subjects and, like it or not, maths and sciences are usually the subjects that make people easily employable and make nations powerful, and all the latest reports have been arguing that while the progressive model might be good for some things, it is very bad at teaching students.

Teachers begging for help

This, of course, makes us sound like a stereotypical old man (“Back in my day, children had to learn, daggamit!  And we knew Latin!  Not like today’s young ruffians!  Now get off my lawn!”), and it’s true that people have been complaining about the decline in education for the past two hundred years**.  But the fact that people are inviting children to essentially teach themselves science, and then are surprised when said children are embarrassed by youngsters from South Korea in all the tests is mind boggling.  It’s obvious that a more structured approach is going to yield better results.

Of course, this system, which was designed to help improve the education of children who couldn’t get access to private education is only harming the very people it set out to help.  Private schools are still using the best methods available, and are more agile in their ability to switch from one to another as new information comes along – which means that they are mostly exempt from these pitfalls (although not entirely).  I seriously doubt that Eton will be bowing to progressive thinking if they fint that their academic prestige is going down.  They’ll simply revise until they find a balance that works better than everyone else’s to retake their place at the top of the list.

Even Ofsted seems to be revising its position, albeit quietly (progressives can be surprisingly aggressive and activist when their sacred cows are challenged by the real world and, horror of horrors, actual data), but it might already be too late for an entire generation.

After all, learning that competition and structure are bad and knowing that everyone is intelligent in some way or another is not exactly conducive to getting a high-paying job in a globalized economy which includes highly motivated people from countries where they are taught to compete and hone their knowledge and “traditional” intelligence from a young age.  Under that model, countries who’ve surrendered to the progressive utopia seem destined to become the new third world, as countries who are working to get ahead – particularly countries in Asia – take the leading role.

Or they might not.  The west may actually react in time.  But either way, it should be interesting to watch.

* With an honorable mention to the members of Pink Floyd, of course.

**If you have any doubts about what our view is of this, just take another look at the title of this blog and think about it for a few minutes.  We’re sure you’ll figure it out!

Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.