Link and Quote: Hitchens on Christmas

Slate reposts a 2008 essay by curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens: ’Tis the Season to Be Incredulous: The moral and aesthetic nightmare of Christmas.

Aesthetics aside; whether Jesus existed or not, was the Son of God or not…

Suppose we put the question like this: Imagine that conclusive archaeological and textual evidence emerged to prove that the whole story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth was either a delusion or a fabrication? Suppose the mother had admitted shyly that, in fact, she had fallen pregnant for predictable reasons? Suppose we found the post-Calvary body?

Serious Christians, of the sort I have been debating lately, would have no choice but to consider such news as absolutely calamitous. The light of the world would have gone out; the hope of humanity would have been extinguished. (The same obviously would apply to Muslims who couldn’t bear the shock of finding that their prophet was fictional or fraudulent.) But I invite you to consider things more lucidly. If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.

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Link and Comment: Evangelicals Embrace Trump Because They’re Frightened in a Big World They Don’t Understand

NYT, from Dec. 15th. Amy Sullivan, who describes herself as “a progressive evangelical and journalist covering religion”, wonders “how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity.” And realizes, “Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.”

America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism

(On the one hand, I’ve realized it’s not especially productive to react to every opinion piece that observes something new about the Trump phenomenon, because a few weeks later the reference is dated and there are fifty new opinion pieces. On the other hand, I do comment when I see something that speaks to some larger issue… in this case, what the true motives of evangelicals are, since it’s obviously not fidelity to the messages of Jesus and the New Testament.

I do have to say, in general, that the Trump phemenon proves once and for all that evangelicals are not about any kind of spiritual purity or possession of a truth that the heathens refuse to accept. Rather the past two years has shown, beyond everything else to their discredit, that evangelicals are motivated by base tribalism — fear of strangers and change. And in the current case, a visceral reaction by the most racist among us to the occupation of the White House by a black man for eight years.

And the larger point is that this is an enduring aspect of human nature, ready to erupt at any time, anywhere, in any nation no matter how supposedly advanced and convinced of its own superiority. The descent into fascism; one reason civilizations collapse.)

The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.

The writer attends a screening of a film about gun restrictions at a Bible College in North Dakota.

As two dozen of us gathered for a post-screening discussion, I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. As a child in the Baptist church, I had been taught to be vigilant about existential threats to my faith. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical.

These fears are far removed from the reality of life in North Dakota, a state that saw a total of 21 homicides in 2015. Of those deaths, seven were caused by firearms, and only three were committed by someone unknown to the victim. Yet the students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”

It’s mostly about being frightened, about realizing that your small corner of the world isn’t all there is, that there are other kinds of people, people you don’t understand.

They might hear a sermon about what the Bible actually reaches for 30 or 40 minutes a week, but they watch Fox News three or four hours a day. Sullivan quotes evangelical writer Jonathan Martin.

“Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them.’”

“It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post,” said Mr. Martin. “If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.”

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Links and Comments: Regulations; Science on Sundays; How to Talk to Someone in a Conservative Bubble

Slate: Trump’s quiet attack on the regulatory state is another part of his broader class war

The conservatives’ simplistic rebellion against “regulations” will have consequences, and costs. Regulations are there for a reason.

Yes, these rules and regulations might technically kill jobs. But which jobs, and in order to accomplish what? Protections of this sort chase dodgy sellers out of the marketplace. If that’s job killing, good riddance.

Deregulation, in turn, paves the way for the return of these jobs for financial snake oil salesman.

The White House’s insistence that deregulation is liberty enhancing just goes to show how warped today’s political discourse is. Deregulation privileges the worst products, producers, and service providers over consumers, workers, and responsible businesses. All of these individuals benefit from clear, evidence-based regulations enforced by capable and conscientious public servants.


NY Times, Thomas Hooven, M.D.: Sundays at the Altar of Science

About atheist parents not taking their children to church to hear Bible tales, but by performing basic science experiments instead.

Their communion bread and wine are replaced by baking soda and vinegar, which when combined generate a satisfying volcanic eruption and the opportunity to talk about the ethereal realm of atoms. Sprouts in our windowsill herb garden offer a chance to introduce the concept of DNA. When I tell my son that the granular basil seed holds millions of chromosomes, the look on his face can only be described as revelatory.

The advantage science has is that it’s real.

While I’m sure my kids will encounter religious ideas and stories of miracles before long, I won’t rush them there. Christmas in our house is a celebration of festive decorations and family reunion. We steer clear of the virgin birth and angelic tidings. And although my kids have heard about Santa, they express doubts that I make no effort to dispel. I don’t want to indicate that the natural laws they’ve painstakingly established are subject to occasional suspension.

When they eventually ask me about God, I’ll say that He’s part of a theory a lot of people believe, but which no one has ever proven. And if they want to go to a church, temple or mosque to learn more, I’ll gladly take them. Above all, I want them to reach their own conclusions, whatever those might be.


Daily Kos: Cults, Cons and how to talk to someone in the conservative bubble

As a liberal, part of me keeps hoping that if we can just give conservative the right information their behavior will change.  If we can just prove Russian collusion or show that the tax plan benefits the 0.01% mainly, things will be better. Before being a liberal, I was a borderline 9/11 conspiracy theorist and I did the same thing. I have the truth and if people will only listen to the facts about the second tower or Iraqi oil people will change their behaviors. 

But that’s not how people work. We don’t care about information — at least at first.  We like people and stories we trust most of all.

As smart, information- and fact-based people (“reality  has a liberal bias”) how do we communicate with our co-workers, friends and loved ones? Is it all a lost cause?

It’s not a lost cause because I experienced the change. I was a Rush Limbaugh listening Republican when I was a young man and I changed. It took a lot of love and care from people to get me to change but I did. Did anyone ever sit down and give me all the answers? No. I never said “You know, You are totally right. I see it right here in the newspaper. I am a fool.”  Liberals expect that outcome, but that will never happen. 

In trying to understand my own conversion and the current GOP/Trump mindset, I did a bunch of reading on cults, con artists, FBI negotiators and salesmen- anyone who changes minds. Here are some proven tools that you can use this Holiday season to make some progress…

Points include: don’t argue the facts, that just makes things worse; realize you are dealing with the animal minds, not the rational one (cf. Kahneman); ask them to articulate their thinking; keep lines of communication open; turn off the TV and rely on printed sources. With case studies.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Psychology, Religion, Science | Leave a comment

SFNF: Heinlein addenda from The Science Fiction Novel

Addenda to previous post.

Every time I write up notes based on my reading, something else lingers in the back of my mind that seems especially significant a day or two later. Here’s a couple from the Heinlein essay in THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL.

On page 19, he mentions among his examples of fantasy, “any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics…” Star Wars, anyone? What would Heinlein think?

On a similar note, p29, he cautions that a writer of speculative fiction needs to keep himself informed.

It is not enough to interlard an old plot with terms like “space warp,” “matter transmitter,” “ray gun,” or “rocket ship” with no knowledge of what is meant (if anything) by such terms, or how they might reasonably work.

This was perhaps a fair statement in 1957 — yet, on what bases did anyone in 1957 think a space warp or matter transmitter might work? Star Trek, anyone, only a decade later?

But the true point is that, here in 2017, we are surrounded by technology which virtually no one knows, except for the technicians who built individual items, how they work. This is another theme I’ve been teasing: in a sense we live in a world of magic. In Heinlein’s era, technical guys tinkered on their cars, or on radio transmitters, and might plausibly have repaired their TVs. Today? No way. Everything has gotten too complex. Technical guys tinker with apps, or play video games, but how many of them can fix their own cars?

A consequence of this is that all science fiction, especially the popular enterntainment SF Heinlein thought would never happen, depend on technological tropes, assumptions of technological devices that may or may not every appear, and no one pretends to understand how they might actually work.

On the other hand… we do see occasionally speculative physics developments that tease at the plausibility of matter transmitters and space warps. I’m not able to judge whether or not these are merely wishful thinking… based on reading and watching the science fiction of decades ago.

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SFNF: The Science Fiction Novel

The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism is, like Of Worlds Beyond, another slim volume of essays. It was published by Advent (, stylized as Advent:Publishers), like Fantasy Press an SF small press, that specialized in critical and bibliographical material, in 1959, and consists of four talks given at the University of Chicago in 1957, by Robert A. Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Robert Bloch, lightly updated for the book. There’s no assigned editor, though SFE says it was edited, anonymously, by Earl Kemp (who the next year compiled a book called Who Killed Science Fiction?, a remarkable work for revealing the angst of SF fans at the changes, in a field of literature all about change, in science fiction of the time).

While no editor is credited on the cover or inside the book, an introduction by Basil Davenport is credited even on the front cover. (He was an academic and occasional anthologist; This introduction is remarkable in being rather rude: Davenport spends several pages objecting to several conclusions of the book’s contributors. He admits that this is a bit untoward, but confesses he can’t help himself – that the book is a good one because it invites reader reaction, and argument. I won’t address his objections to the essays themselves, but I will note this remarkable paragraph, p13:

As for defending the unpopular, one of the most striking developments in science fiction since the days of The War of the Worlds [by H.G. Wells] or The Skylark of Space [by E.E. Smith, Ph.D.] has been the realization that men and Martians need not necessarily exterminate or enslave each other. Story after story of encounters with alien races offers the same lesson, that to be different is not necessarily to be evil. And I can think of at least two stories in which the toleration which we are learning to accord the hypothetical is claimed for homosexuals, those aliens in our midst; one of these stories seems to me the most moving and persuasive plea in that regard that I have ever read.

The arc of moral progress! I’m guessing he’s referring to Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 story “The World Well Lost.” But onward to the talks/essays themselves.

Heinlein’s talk, delivered 8 Feb 1957, is called “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues.” He begins by trying to define “science fiction,” and cites previous takes on the term by Damon Knight and Theodore Sturgeon, and then a longer take by Reginald Bretnor, one that involves a three-fold awareness of the scientific method, the body of knowledge collected through that activity, and considering the effects of both of these on human beings. Heinlein then considers borderline cases, such as Sinclair Lewis’ novel Arrowsmith (about current medical research), then considers fantasy as a contrast the science fiction. (Aside: among his examples of fantasy, p19b, are “any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics…” Star Wars, anyone? What would Heinlein think?) After several pages his case is that fantasy is impossible, and science fiction is not, while at the same time allowing time travel and faster then light travel into the SF camp – because, key point, these are not facts, merely “currently respected theory.”

He then lays out all possible fiction into six groups:

Realistic Fiction

  1. Historical fiction
  2. Contemporary-scene fiction
  3. Realistic future-scene fiction

Fantasy fiction

  1. Fantasy laid in the past
  2. Fantasy laid in the present
  3. Fantasy laid in the future

Mainstream fiction is 1 and 2 in the first group; class 3 there is only science fiction; but that a great deal of fake “science” fiction is found in class 3 in the fantasy section.

He then goes on to examine additional examples that might challenge this scheme, and what strikes me most about these paragraphs, and similar ones in other essays, is how many titles and authors presumably familiar to readers at the time are now utterly forgotten. Frank G. Slaughter? Maxwell Griffith? Vincent McHugh?

As if moving down a checklist of topics to discuss, Heinlein then considers whether SF is prophecy. No, but it can seem to be, by virtue of following the news; and he then provides backgrounds for two of his own stories that were seemingly prophetic, “Waldo” and “Solution Unsatisfactory.” “As a ‘prophecy’ I was taking as much chance as a man who predicts tomorrow’s sunrise.” Another example: speculation on space suits led to the development of actual space suits. He mentions a number of scientists who write science fiction, then takes apart a passage from The Saturday Review (the kind of outsider perspective that David Langford would head with “As Others See Us”) concerning rockets and atomic power their depiction in “this somewhat crude form of entertainment”… The statement is entirely “unadulterated tosh,” says Heinlein.

Concerning literary merit, how should SF be judged? By the same standards as any other field of fiction. How does SF measure up? Not very well, he admits. It’s more difficult to write SF because of the demands of background and plausibility, that can’t rely on shorthand familiarity with the reader the way westerns or history stories can.

As a result, he notes, there isn’t a great volume of good SF. He runs down another list of titles and authors, and here again, John S. Martin? Susan Ertz? Others of course remain famous: Kornbluth, Asimov, Orwell, del Rey, Clement, Wells.

Of what use is science fiction?

It is the most alive, the most important, the most useful, the most comprehensive fiction being published today. It is the only fictional medium capable of interpreting the change, hand-long rush of modern life.

P41. While “serious” literature is “a retreat to the womb in the face of a world too complicated and too frightening for their immature spirits.” He dismisses Miller, Sartre, Joyce, et al as the “ash-can school of realism” and goes on, “In any case, I, for one, am heartily sick of stories about frustrates, jerks, homosexuals and commuters who are unhappy with their wives—for goodness sake! Let them find other wives, other jobs—and shut up!” – a passage I quote as much to suggest what Heinlein thought ‘mainstream’ fiction of the day was apparently mostly about.

He bewares of “anti-science fiction” in which science and scientists are things to be feared and blamed for problems – “Its childish, screaming, afraid-of-the-dark hysteria is easy to spot.”

Where does SF go from here? Only a slow increase in amount and quality, “We should not expect it ever to become mass entertainment, as it is directed primarily at the superior young person and secondarily at his thoughtful elder.”

While the four talks/essays in this book all ostensibly address the same topic – how science fiction novels function as social criticism – they all answer as if asked quite different questions. Heinlein discussed SF in general and never addressed its social function, except in the broadest terms. C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism” justifies its title by taking the subject to mean whether any works of science fiction have had actual impact on society compared to… Don Quixote, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Babbit, and a couple others. Well, no. He digresses through a passage from Moby Dick to claim that the reason for this ineffectiveness is that SF is too inward. P55: “In science fiction the symbolism lies too deep for action to result, that the science fiction story does not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation.”

And then explains the failures of Gulliver’s Travels to actually “accomplish” anything. And moves on to, of all people, Dr. E. E. Smith and quickly excoriates his Skylark stories as childish power fantasies. Smith’s later series, the Galactic Patrol, regresses to infancy; humans in these stories “are responsible for propitiating their wise protectors who give them magic amulets; they are responsible for avoiding their terrible and omnipotent assailants. All other activity is meaningless, a mask, a system of levers leading to the only great source of good and evil. Humans beings are, in short, about eighteen months old.” (Not much potential for social criticism there.)

He considers works by Wilson Tucker and Olaf Stapledon and then comes to Orwell, whose 1984 he admires greatly despite the fact that it didn’t actually do anything to combat tyranny. Kornbluth goes on to explore two symbolic layers of the book, one literal – Winston Smith’s life as compared to the author’s boyhood – and one unconscious – how Room 101 itself and certain language in the novel as symbolizing “torment and destruction in the womb” p71. Both claims strike me as remarkably plausible and insightful (having just reread the book last year).

He grants some small effect had by Pohl’s and his own The Space Merchants (even as he admits that if asked to rewrite it, it would come out differently).

And then he ends on a note that echoes Heinlein: he denigrates the “menace” or “monster” story – his example is Matheson’s The Shrinking Man – that trade in fear, whose characters are irrational, that appeal only to readers’ terrors and fright, whose targets are scientists and intellectuals.

Number three is Alfred Bester’s “Science Fiction and the Renaissance Man” and it’s almost embarrassingly out of place among the other three. It reads like a transcript of an after-dinner speech met to keep the audience in stitches, with regular one-liners – example: “Put any man at loose ends and he invariably starts to write a book. As a matter of fact if you put a man in jail he also starts to write a book. I don’t know if this parallel is significant, but I do know that there are many authors I’d like to see in jail.” Bada boom – and repeated digressions about the hectic pace of his job as a radio script writer, or about the nature of men vs. women. I’ll summarize the points he makes that do speak to the topic.

  • He attributes success not so much to smarts but to charm, and cites Campbell, Gold, and various writers with strong personalities as having high CQs.
  • Science fiction only works in moments of leisure, calm, euphoria.
  • Which is why women aren’t into SF; they are realists, men are the romantics. He goes on about women’s magazines…
  • SF is about ‘big’ decisions that are abstract and not concerned with matters of daily life.
  • “A woman can come home ecstatic because she bought a three-dollar item reduced to two-eighty-seven, but a man needs more. … Life is enough for most women; most thinking men must ask why and whither.” (p89) (Remember this is 1957)
  • So SF has no purpose and no value. It’s for the modern renaissance man, “vigorous, versatile, zestful… full of romantic curiosity and impractical speculation.”
  • SF is no more serious than TV. Can it move us? No. Why? Because Americans care about ‘literary religion’, e.g. who really wrote Shakespeare, but have no similar feelings about science. SF is about situations; not people.

Moving on…

The best essay, the one that best explores the ostensible theme of the book, is by Robert Bloch, remarkable in that Bloch has never been considered an SF writer (rather, a fantasy and horror writer). His essay is called “Imagination and Modern Social Criticism.”

He recalls growing up bookish and how influential writers and speakers – Stowe, Twain, Rogers, Dreiser, Sinclair, Steinbeck – gave way, after World War II, to books that rather put forth “great and inspiring messages.” E.g., “those books about businessmen … which prove that big businessmen really do their best for the country, and like, the old saying has it, ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.’”

Leading to the current situation: the only place to find modern social criticism is in science fiction, “a form of writing so minor that most serious literary reviewers aren’t even aware of it.” (p101) How did this happen? Maybe SF gained importance following the atomic bomb. (A point echoed elsewhere.)

To explore this, Bloch says he chose 50 SF novels, at random, to reread, classify, and consider. He uses the traditional themes Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man. Only a few fit the first two categories; fully 35 fall into Man Against Man. (He lists them, by title, and again, most are familiar to me, but some draw blanks: Nutro 29? The Golden Kazoo? Highways in Hiding? P102-103.)

But then he observes that the dramatic premises of many of these books are mostly simplistic – good guys vs. bad guys. Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. The common plot is the revolt against organized society, by a hero whom an adolescent reader is likely to identify. It’s significant that, unlike the current mainstream, SF sees the status quo as the villain. And again and again, we read about the Hero Who Saves the World.

(I might mention I got tired of this story fairly early on in my reading life – I think the breaking straw was Gordon R. Dickson’s novel Time Storm, in 1977 – and saw the recurrence of this theme in fantasy as a deterrent to that genre almost entirely. And found that short fiction, rather than novels, avoided such plot tropes. Is this what Thomas Disch meant by considering science fiction as a branch of children’s literature?)

Bloch goes on: These heroes are too important; they are presented as extraordinary men who immediately confront the “highest figures in the Hierearchy,” as John Carter does on Mars; in contrast to 1984, about ordinary people.

He boils down the clichés of future societies in SF.

  1. A totalitarian state
  2. An underground
  3. Forcible psychotherapeutic techniques
  4. How science will go along with the gag
  5. Economic incentives will remain supreme
  6. Angle-Saxon culture will continue to rule the world
  7. We will colonize and rule the natives of other planets
  8. The future holds little basic change
  9. Individualism is dead

As an example, he quotes at length his earlier review of Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, about a future society in which certain aspect of human nature – such as a culture of honor that allows people to gun down each other in the street over perceived slights – are depicted as inescapable aspects of human nature. Bloch takes issue with this premise, and to be fair, he notes, in other books Heinlein presents quite different theses.

Perhaps instead, Bloch suggests, we need not better government, but better citizens. He considers how the heroes of Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, are driven by revenge. What is good and evil? Most SF is no more discriminating on this subject than the crudest crime thriller (Bloch cites Mickey Spillane). Issues are solved by punches in the jaw and bullets to the gut. [[ Still true in 1960s Star Trek, as I’ve noted. And this general issue about the refinement of the human moral sense is, again, addressed in Steven Pinker. ]]

Bloch hopes for SF that doesn’t rely on Key Figures, heroes, but on intelligent, ordinary people. He gives some examples that do.

Against the more popularly-held notions in the science fiction field that technology will save the world, or mass-psychological conditioning will save the world, these few dissenters stand, affirming that only man’s spirit avails to save himself. They preach evolution rather than revolution, evaluation rather than revelation, individual right rather than individual might.

But SF needs an audience. And he notes that SF short fiction has wider latitudes to explore social issues. Yet, considering novel, as SF failed as social criticism? No; it provides a mirror of the very attitudes we need to reexamine and reflect upon.

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SFNF: Eshbach, Of Worlds Beyond

I’m revisiting some classic critical nonfiction books about science fiction, beginning with Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s OF WORLDS BEYOND, a collection of essays by Heinlein, Campbell, Williamson, and others. This is the book where Heinlein identifies 3 basic plots and his 5 rules for being a successful writer, and A.E. van Vogt describes his technique of writing in 800-word scenes that include every idea that pops into his head as he writes.

Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, ed., OF WORLDS BEYOND: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (1947)

Eshbach ( founded Fantasy Press, one of the earliest small publishers devoted to science fiction, in 1946, and compiled this ‘symposium’ of seven essays a year later. It’s a short book at 96 pages. I have a fine copy of the first edition, hardcover with dust jacket inside a Brodart plastic wrapper, that I bought from Robert Madle at World Fantasy Con in 1993. I read it at the time, and am rereading it now.

Eshbach’s Introduction notes that, in 1947, that while “stories of worlds beyond” are as old as human imagination, the field of “speculative fiction” had formed only in the past 20 years. “It appears to be well on its way toward becoming the fiction of the Atomic Age.”

The essays are by Robert A. Heinlein, John Taine (pen-name of CalTech mathematician Eric Temple Bell), Jack Williamson, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., and John W. Campbell, Jr. Each short essay is preceded by page or two ‘editor’s preface’ and a black and white photo of the author, in the formal clothes and generally stern expressions of the day. (Except for van Vogt, who looks a bit wild-eyed.)

At least a couple of these essays formulate authorial philosophies that have been passed down over the decades as common writerly wisdom, at least in the SF field. The star of the show is Heinlein, whose essay is “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”. The editor’s intro notes that Heinlein had recently begun to sell stories to the ‘slicks’ – that is, the high-end glossy general interest magazines, like Saturday Evening Post, that paid much more than the SF magazines of the day, like Astounding and Amazing. (In retrospect, Heinlein was and remained an outlier, with the limited exceptions of Bradbury and Clarke, for the next two or three decades.)

Here are some salient points from Heinlein’s essay:

  • He quotes Kipling: “There are nine-and-sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays / And every single one of them is right!”
  • He starts by claiming there are two ways to write speculative fiction: write about people, or write about gadgets. He prefers the former. [ Apparently ‘gadget’ fiction was more prevalent in the very early SF magazines, in stories which nowadays are never reprinted. ]
  • He states the three main plots for the human interest story: “boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better”. He credits the last to L. Ron Hubbard, only because he had not realized that many of his own stories fitted that plot.
  • The first plot is obvious, and has many variations. The second is about “the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa”.
  • The third is about “a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts”. He mentions example stories, including his own.
  • He dismisses various supposed SF stories as being fictionalized essays, or faux SF stories which could easily be translated to “Fifth Avenue, in 1947”; and he sets aside stories of contemporary advances in science or technology.
  • “A story is not about the new situation; it is about coping with problems arising out of the new situation”, p15
  • And he defines the “Simon-pure” sf story: conditions are different from now; they must be essential part of the story; the problem, the “plot”, must be a human problem; this problem must be derived by that new condition; and, finally, no established fact shall be violated (with various exceptions).
  • He gives examples.
  • And then finally, he gives his famous fives business habits for a successful writer:
    • You must write.
    • You must finish what you start.
    • You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
    • You must put it on the market.
    • You must keep it on the market until sold.
  • And he concludes: “[I]f you will follow them, it matters not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at them”.
  • [[ Thus, is my thought, is that Heinlein’s famous five rules were appropriate to the era of writing when very many cheap magazines were being published, some of which had very low criteria for acceptance and were desperate for material. That’s not so true now. On the other hand, in the 21st century a person can self-publish anything, so in that sense no editorial vetting need apply. ]]

The second essay, by John Taine, is titled “Writing a Science Novel” and his main concern is keeping up on current scientific developments. His key points are Knowledge, Education, and Consistency.

(Taine,,  is probably the least-remembered of all the writers in this book; but he wrote over a dozen novels, of which the most prominent might be Before the Dawn, included in Donald A. Wollheim’s The Portable Novels of Science Fiction in 1945, along with works by Wells, Lovecraft, and Stapledon. (I have a 1st edition copy of that book too.)

By ‘Knowledge’ he means keeping up on current science, via books and journals. He notes p23 that “It is wise to glance at the date of publication of any book on science. If the book is more than ten years old (two or five in some of the physical sciences), it had probably better be put back on the shelf.” This I have echoed in my own recent thought that, while religions venerate the most ancient books (no matter how overtaken by later discoveries and understandings), for science or philosophy it’s the new books that count; the newest books take into account the older books and build upon them.

He discusses scientific journals, but advises that “there is not a single periodical of this kind published in the United States that is worth its subscription price” and suggests unnamed titles from English and Germany instead. (This was 1947; what did he mean? Not Scientific American? But Nature and Science?) And he suggests attending lectures at local universities.

By ‘Education’ he means “the narrow sense of learning how to write a story that people will read”, and goes on to be skeptical about classes in learning to write. And he wonders, once the science is settled, “we land at once in unsettled controversies. What, for example, about a love interest?”

Yikes. We are in 1947. These notions about females in science fiction appear in several of these essays. Taine goes on:

If there is some logical (or biological) reason why a luscious heroine should display her charms in a science novel, she does not have to be lugged in by the hair. She will enter by herself, usually uninvited by the writer and sometimes to his exasperation. As a general rule, love interest in scientific fiction is a red herring to bewilder the reader and turn him off a trail that should, but does not, lead straight from the beginning to the end of the story. If there is not sufficient sexless interest in the story to hold the reader’s attention, no fortuitous blonde is going to lure him on to the last page. Yet many a misguided writer has got not only himself but his stories all fouled up with superfluous women.

Science fiction is one of the places where a pretty girl can be a damned nuisance. Conversely, almost any type of scientific fiction is no peg on which to hang a love story.

This passage also touches on another recurring theme in these essays: that the whole point of writing stories is to sell them and appeal to readers.

And by ‘Consistency’ he means what we’ve come to expect: no matter what the premise of an SF story, its consequences need to flow logically and consistently. And on this point, to give editor Eshbach credit, this essay flows logically to the next…

The third essay is Jack Williamson’s “The Logic of Fantasy”. He cites two principles, one from H.G. Wells: to assume in any one story only a single basic premise. The second is about the logic of character. He considers several of his own stories as examples. And he mentions things like this: “Science fiction is doubtless more popular nowadays than fantasy of the supernatural type, because science has become the modern equivalent of magic.”

One must go on, remembering this is 1947:

Now, when the news is filled with atomic weapons, rocket test flights, and astounding reports of “flying saucers,” the threshold of doubt is very low for scientific wonders. Old-style magic is somewhat out of fashion—thought doubtless some readers turn gladly to it, just to escape the harassing wonders of the scientific age.

And then he talks about the various current SF magazines.

One chain caters to sheer paranoia. Another magazine is mostly action-adventure, excellently written, with a minimum of heavy science. A third group offers a wide range of more adult material, ranging from ghost stories to highbrow science. A fourth magazine is deliberately edited for technicians, often using heavily scientific stories and articles. And the general magazines, including the “slicks,” are beginning to feature fantasy and science fiction.”

He discusses more examples of his own stories. Then he generalizes:

In the story-opening, the chief character responds to something in terms of purpose—and the plot interest depends greatly on how novel and vital his purpose is. In the body of the narrative, that same purpose impels him to make a series of attempts toward satisfaction. Usually he meets failures which test his motive traits, incidentally stirring his own emotions and the reader’s. In the ending, he either wins or fails, and the significant outcome of the test is made clear.

He attributes this frame of the action story to Dr. John Gallishaw, about whom I find this: I recall hearing this basic strategy for an SF story – problem, one attempt to solve that fails, a second attempt that fails, finally a third attempt, which either succeeds or fails – from Algis Budrys on a convention panel many years ago.

In striking contrast is the fourth essay, by A. E. van Vogt, titled “Complication in the Science Fiction Story.” Van Vogt’s scheme is to break every story down into scenes of 800 (or 600 or 1000) words, each scene with a purpose that is either accomplished, or not, by the end of the scene. Van Vogt’s scheme, furthermore, is:

Ever since I started writing for the science fiction field, it has been my habit to put every current thought into the story I happened to be working on. Frequently, an idea would seem to have no relevance, but by mulling over it a little, I would usually find an approach that would make it usable.

At the same time, he gives a couple examples from his own stories in which an intermediate conclusion (e.g. end of scene three) provides that “all the rest followed logically.” (p54) (I confess I don’t find the examples terribly persuasive to commend this kitchen-sink style of plotting.)

He also discusses what he calls plot “threads”, wherein longer stories need more threads, even if some are very minor. Some of these “minor threads” derive from “theme, science and atmosphere.” P57b. His example of atmosphere, from the opening of his story “M33 in Andromeda,” is what I think most readers today would call purple pulp prose:

The night whispered, the immense night of space that pressed against the hurtling ship. Voiceless susurration it was, yet somehow coherent, alive, deadly. For it call, it beckoned and it warned. It trilled with a nameless happiness, then hissed with savage, unthinkable frustration.

That’s enough, though vV quotes on. He reiterates his 800-word scene thesis, with new ideas appearing ideally one per scene. And he mentions, as do most of these essays, how the ultimate goal of writing is to sell stories.

There are three remaining essays: L. Sprague de Camp on “Humor in Science Fiction”; Edward E. Smith, Ph.D. on “The Epic of Space” (I don’t think anyone this days, except the occasional writer of science fact articles in Analog, bylines themselves with academic credentials, but it was common back then, and Smith’s was the most prominent such); and John W. Campbell, Jr. on “The Science of Science Fiction Writing”.

The ideas in de Camp’s essay are unremarkable. The essence of humor is a surprise: an oddity, or an anachronism. He stresses that humor should avoid offense in the realms of religion or politics. He mentions, p69, that “Western culture in general has become increasingly humane – or squeamish if you prefer—during the last few centuries, so that a lot of formerly legitimate subjects for humor are no longer considered as such.” And provides examples about the hilarity of burning witches, denigrating certain racial and religious minorities, and so on. This subject dovetails with a theme of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I’ve finished and will summarize here soon) that social standards have ‘progressed’ to the point where things once taken for granted, such as casual violence against various targets, is now unthinkable.

De Camp mentions one notion I had not heard, the Polynesian word ‘noa’ as a counterpart to ‘tabu’ [taboo], where ‘noa’ means profane, vulgar, or commonplace (p70). You can’t joke about something tabu; nor can you joke about something noa, something too commonplace. The ideal area for joking is in the middle, as in relaxing standards about nudity. In any event, de Camp concludes, a humorous story still must have all the qualities of any good story.

Smith, author of the popular early space opera series Skylark and Lensmen, discusses how to write a “space story.” He discusses the elements of a good story; here are a couple examples, p76:

It is a well-known fact that many readers, particularly those whose heads are of use only in keeping their ears apart, want action, and only action. Slambang action; the slammier and the bangier the better.

Should the characters grow, or not? Many writers—good ones, at that—do not let their characters grow. It is easier. Also, it allows a series of stories about the same characters to go on practically endlessly…

He goes on to consider various elements of a story, including whether the author should have his hero be married off by the end. (While not familiar with much SF of Smith’s era, I recognize this plot point as common from what I have read, including Smith’s first novel, The Skylark of Space.) He passes through coincidence, and motivation, and then dwells at length on how he went about concocting a ‘space-police’ story. First, by reading every prior example he could find. And then by outlining his story, first in a few pages, then with a graph to plan “the peaks of emotional intensity and the valleys of characterization and background material.” A pencil draft; notes to it; a second pencil draft; then ‘typescript’ draft typed up by his wife; notes on it from his fan clubs in Michigan and Los Angeles; then a final typescript, typed by his wife, which goes to John W. Campbell.

Finally, “The Science of Science Fiction Writing” by John. W. Campbell, Jr. Here again is the utilitarian angle: the first line is “The author’s effort in science fiction writing, or any other type of writing, is to please the editor sufficiently to make a sale.” He goes on to describe what he, as an editor believes is needed for a good science fiction story: Prophetic extrapolation; and a story about human beings.

In older science fiction, the Machine and the Great Idea predominated. Modern readers—and hence editors!—don’t want that; they want stories of people living in a world where a Great Idea, or a series of them, and a Machine, or machines, form a background. But it is the man, not the idea of the machine that is the essence.

He discusses, from his editorial perspective, how frequently stories have good ideas but poor treatment; while even overly familiar ideas can be treated well, with examples of stories by de Camp and Williamson. He sighs about having to reject stories that are mere ideas.

The author’s function is to imagine for the reader, of course—but he must either (a) imagine in greater detail than the reader has, or (b) imagine something the reader hasn’t thought of. Ideally, the author imagines something new, in greater detail.

Examples from Asimov and Heinlein (mentioned as Anson MacDonald). He rails against the first-person story, which limits what can be told. And he opines that writers are born, not made, considering how many of his writers – Heinlein, van Vogt, de Camp – sold their first stories submitted.

Then he addresses “style” – “it is based on the way an author puts his ideas into English”. And contrasts various writers, including Sturgeon. But then explains that such techniques cannot be used consciously, and describes how L. Ron Hubbard would “gather momentum” in order to write (on an electric typewriter!) 3000 to 4000 words an hour.

Finally, he discusses how writers start their stories, and whether or not they know how to end them. For Astounding, “We do not insist on a happy ending!” With examples from Williamson and Padgett [Henry Kuttner].

Well, no, *finally*, he advises against submitting manuscripts that are handwritten, or typed in red ink on yellow paper. Don’t send it rolled. Last line: “If you take the trouble to write a yarn—send it in!.

Posted in Science Fiction Nonfiction | Comments Off on SFNF: Eshbach, Of Worlds Beyond

Links and Comments: SF, fantasy, and SF cinema

» io9: 10 works of science fiction that are really fantasy

I love lists like these, and I still mean to compile many of them. Still, I’m not sure I agree with some of the selections on this list. This goes to my own definition of SF vs. fantasy, which I am still exploring.

» Daily Beast: Blame ‘Star Wars’ if You Think Science Fiction Is Brain Dead

This captures my own stance: Science fiction is brain dead in terms of most movies — with occasional exceptions like 2001 and Arrival

Posted in Films, science fiction | Comments Off on Links and Comments: SF, fantasy, and SF cinema

Lunacies: On Finland and Flat-Earthers

Vice, from December 2016: This Dude Accidentally Convinced the Internet That Finland Doesn’t Exist.

The article touches on how some people will believe anything, and the notion of Poe’s Law

There is an internet adage named after a commenter by the name of Nathan Poe, who was arguing creationism on Christian forums (because of course he was, this is the internet). Poe’s Law states that “it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers or viewers as a sincere expression of the parodied views.”

“I like to think that the Finland conspiracy is a perfect case study of that,” Jack told me. “I would say 90 percent of people view it as a parody and joke and can take it as such. But there are 10 percent of people who genuinely believe it’s something that needs ‘proving’ or ‘debunking’ from both sides.”


And from July, the Denver Post covered a meeting of people who believe the Earth is flat. These Coloradans say Earth is flat. And gravity’s a hoax. Now, they’re being persecuted: The Flat Earth movement is growing in Colorado, thanks to technology and skepticism about science.

At the Tuesday night meet-ups, dubbed “Flat Earth or Other Forbidden Topics,” believers invite fellow adherents to open discussions in which the like-minded confirm one another’s hunches and laugh at the folly of those still stuck in the Enlightenment.

“There’s so much evidence once you set aside your preprogrammed learning and begin to look at things objectively with a critical eye,” says Bob Knodel, a Denver resident and featured guest at a recent Tuesday meeting. “You learn soon that what we’re taught is mainly propaganda.”

“They want you to think you’re insignificant, a speck on the earth, a cosmic mistake,” Sargent says. “The flat earth says you are special, we are special, there is a creator, this isn’t some accident.”

As with creationism (and belief in God for that matter) you can see psychological motivations at work. The need to feel special.

Jerry Boyne noted this on his blog, er, website: Flat Earthers are still with us!.

This would seem to be the height of lunacy, even dumber than creationism, but it’s not all that surprising. If you can deny the evidence for evolution, which is as strong as that for a spherical Earth, why not deny that round Earth?

This is also partly about what I’ve referred to as ‘intuitive physics,’ a deep-seated suspicion that the world is nothing more than what can be immediately perceived. Have you ever been to Finland? Have you ever floated in space and seen the round Earth? No one can have personal experience of everything it is reasonable for most people to believe is true. How it is some people develop that attitude of reasonableness (what I think of as ‘savvy’) and a few don’t. This kind of rote suspicion is akin to the children of creationists taught to challenge biologists about evolution: “Were you there?”

Well, no. Have you been to Finland? There are many indirect ways of knowing things, and many reasons not to think that everyone is trying to put something over on you.

Later, Jerry Coyne reports that Four flat-Earthers write in and quotes from their comments.

Some people really do think that if the Bible something (the ‘firmament over the Earth’) then it must be literally true. Some are convinced there is “overwhelming evidence in favor of a geocentric universe with an immovable Earth as a flat plane and the stars, moon and sun all contained within the firmament.” And some deeply resent experts who claim things outside their own intuitive local experience, e.g. “bullshit spinning ball nonsense that the media NASA and the government shoves down our throats.”


Around the same time we got reports of celebrities who believe the world is flat, including a rapper named B.o.B., who wants to prove it.


And just a couple days ago: This man is about to launch himself in his homemade rocket to prove the Earth is flat.

Will be fun to see how that works out.

Posted in Lunacy, Psychology | Comments Off on Lunacies: On Finland and Flat-Earthers

Perspectives: Dozois and Bryson

Recently on Facebook, Gardner Dozois quotes from At Home, by Bill Bryson (author of A Short History of Nearly Everything), on the closing years of the 19th century:

“From the perspective of domesticity, there has never been a more interesting or eventful time. Private life was completely transformed in the nineteenth century — socially, intellectually, technologically, hygienically, sartorially, sexually, and in almost any other respect that could be made into an adverb. Mr. Marsham was born (in 1822) into a world that was still essentially medieval — a place of candlelight, medicinal leeches, travel at walking pace, news from afar that was always weeks or months old — and lived to see the introduction of one marvel after another: steamships and speeding trains, telegraphy, photography, anesthesia, indoor plumbing, gas lighting, antisepsis in medicine, refrigeration, telephones, electric lights, recorded music, cars and planes, skyscrapers, motion pictures, radio, and literally tens of thousands of tiny things more, from mass-produced bars of soap to push-along lawn mowers.”

(And then Dozois comments himself:)

It’s striking that although we talk about the dizzying pace of change these days, our world is still basically the same in its fundamentals as it was a hundred years ago, changing in degree — better telephones, better planes — but not really in kind. Your grandfather (perhaps even your great-grandfather) would have known about telephones, indoor plumbing (in most places), electric lights, cars. Even the atomic bomb is over sixty years old. The internet is perhaps the biggest change — but Victorians also had the ability, never before experienced in human history, of being able to instantly communicate with people in other communities and even other countries, via the telegraph, which has been called “the Victorian internet,” and had many of the same impacts on society then as the internet has had on society today. The way you live your life today has fundamentally not changed as much from the turn of the 19th Century to today as it did from 1822 to the turn of the 19th Century.

I suspect that major, substantial changes are ahead in the later part of the 21st Century. Some of them we won’t like (catastrophic climate change), some will be marvels beyond our current comprehension. Whatever marvels there may be, though, I’ll willing to bet that we’ll take them for granted and maybe even be bored by them before another couple of decades go by.

Posted in Human Progress, Technology | Comments Off on Perspectives: Dozois and Bryson

Links and Comments: Evolution of Evolution Denial, and American Gullibility

A ‘Retro Report’ article in the NY Times, Questioning Evolution: The Push to Change Science Class, summarizes the by-now familiar litany of how objections to Darwin’s theory of the evolution — along with the many lines of supporting evidence and detailed implications of the theory, of which Darwin was unaware (he knew nothing of genetics, for example), that have been discovered since Darwin lived — have changed over time. Evolved.

Darwinism has long been under siege in parts of the United States, even if its critics have practiced their own form of evolution, adapting their arguments to accommodate altered legal circumstances. This installment of Retro Report shows the enduring strength of the forces that embrace the biblical account of Creation or reasonable facsimiles of it. For some of them, the rejection of broad scientific consensus extends to issues like climate change and stem-cell research.

The article is accompanied by a 10-minute video. The article starts with the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, followed by the ploy of Creationism, followed by its ‘stepchild’ intelligent design. That last, also, was rejected by the courts.

And so, once more, the anti-Darwinists were forced to evolve. What emerged were state laws with descriptions like the “science education act” and the “academic freedom act.” One of the earliest and most successful of these endeavors, the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, carried echoes of a “wedge strategy” advocated by the Discovery Institute — a step-by-step program to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

The Louisiana law permits public schoolteachers to use materials critical of established scientific thought, with “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning” singled out as targets. No blatant advocacy of creationism or intelligent design is authorized. But those concepts make their way into classrooms all the same, as a means of fostering “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories.”

Of course, the deep motivations of evolution-deniers are revealed by their singling out of that topic and others that threaten the verities of religious fundamentalism, and more particularly, that threaten human vanity. If the Bible is literally true, then surely the fields of geology, astronomy, and astrophysics are as misguided and wrong as are the entirety of modern biology, about which one scientist remarked “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” But you don’t see the advocates of ‘teaching the controversy’ concerned about physics or astronomy.

The article goes on, “Georgia Purdom, a molecular geneticist who is also a creationist, offered much the same view. ‘I am a scientist, and I have looked at the science, and I see that it confirms God’s word,’ Dr. Purdom said.” This would be called motivated thinking; that is, you can be sure Dr. Purdom was raised as a religious fundamentalist and then went on to learn biology and strove mightily to reconcile the two. No one without such a background, looking at the evidence of the world, of biology and geology and astronomy, would come to the conclusion that the Earth and all life is only 6000 years old, any more than they might conclude the world, with all of its evidence of antiquity, was created 5 minutes ago.


This topic aligns with several other items recently:

Op-ed by David Leonhardt: America Is Now an Outlier on Driving Deaths

The reason?

Over the last few decades, however, other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. The United States has not. The fatality rate has still fallen here, thanks partly to safer vehicles, but it’s fallen far less than anywhere else.

Evidence! The strategy of drawing conclusions from evidence is antithetical not only to religious fundamentalists, but also to the current US administration.

And the themes of several recent books…

Slate: The Long Con: Hoaxes, fake news, and phonies are nothing new in America. But has it ever been this bad?, about Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, just published last week.

And Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

And Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.

American exceptionalism!

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Evolution | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Evolution of Evolution Denial, and American Gullibility