The Evolution of Magazine Covers

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Karen X. Cheng explores the evolution of magazine covers:

Together, these magazine covers reveal a peek into our history. Sure, we’ve gotten more sexualized. More superficial. We read less. We have shorter attention spans.

But we’ve also gotten more open-minded. At each step along the way, society has pushed the limits of what’s considered acceptable.

Cosmo Covers 1937 vs. 2015

We’ve come a long way in 100 years.

In the right direction though?

Crash Course in Manhood

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Point and Shoot tells the odd story of an odd young man — timid, obsessive-compulsive, 26-year-old Matt VanDyke — who left his Baltimore home in 2006 for a crash course in manhood:

Space Conquerors

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Henry Kujawa first encountered Al Stenzel’s Space Conquerors comic strip in Boys’ Life in 1968, soon after he’d joined the cub scouts, but the series had started back in 1952:

SC 1952 09 1

SC 1952 09 2

SC 1952 10 1

SC 1952 10 2

SC 1952 11 1

SC 1952 11 2

SC 1952 12 1

SC 1952 12 2

It was a simpler time. By 1954 the stories became a bit harder, scientifically speaking.

SC 1954 02 1

SC 1954 02 2

SC 1954 03

SC 1954 04 1

SC 1954 04 2

SC 1954 05 1

Trump Makes Univision do the Perp Walk

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Scott Adams (Dilbert) deems Trump a magnificent bastard for making his Mexicano enemy do the perp walk on International TV while appearing 100% in charge of the situation:

And do you know what his core supporters saw? They saw Trump deport that Mexican reporter right out of the room, metaphorically. Those other candidates are talking about immigration but Trump has already started. Remember we are not talking about anyone’s rational thinking. These sorts of images sneak through your rational defenses.

And Trump sent a message to the rest of the press, which helps to keep them nervous during future interviews. That’s how a world-class negotiator does it. He makes the other person less confident. Throws them off their game. And apparently he decided some collateral damage in the press would delight the viewers. I know I appreciated it.

And on some level every person watching that episode was happy they did not have to endure another round of gotcha outragism as one “news” outlet after another rushes to take Trump’s words out of context. Trump’s show was far more entertaining.


Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Pete Hottelet’s Omni Consumer Products — named after the mega-corporation in Robocopdefictionalizes products from movies and TV into real products.

He started with Brawndo, the “thirst mutilator” from Idiocracy, and moved on to Sex Panther cologne and Fight Club bar soap.

His biggest hit was True Blood, which he licensed before the show premiered:

It would have been easy and cost-efficient to consider the tie-in a novelty and use plastic bottles. Instead, Hottelet used heavy-duty glass to match what viewers see on-screen. Each pack weighed eight pounds, adding to shipping costs. But Hottelet figured consumers didn’t want a tacky approximation. “The value,” he says, “is in a perfect 1:1 replica bottle.”

True Blood wound up being a hit for HBO, lasting seven seasons—which amounted to 80 hour-long commercials for Hottelet’s bottles. Priced at $4 each, the four-packs sold in the hundreds of thousands and became the biggest hit of his six-product inventory. Though Hottelet usually targets online venues, the cultural impact of the series allowed him to jump the beverage queue at major retailers, including 7-11. “The big drink companies basically own shelf space,” he says. “Creating a brand from scratch, the chances of getting into stores were almost nothing. It took Red Bull years to do it.”

His bet on Stay-Puft marshmallows has not paid off though, as the Ghostbusters sequel been delayed a few years.

Some Words with a Mummy

Friday, August 14th, 2015

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy,” an Egyptian count awakes from his suspended animation to face interrogation from modern, forward-thinking Americans, who find out that the ancients were far, far ahead of them technologically and scientifically:

This disconcerted us so greatly that we thought it advisable to vary the attack to Metaphysics. We sent for a copy of a book called the “Dial,” and read out of it a chapter or two about something that is not very clear, but which the Bostonians call the Great Movement or Progress.

The Count merely said that Great Movements were awfully common things in his day, and as for Progress, it was at one time quite a nuisance, but it never progressed.

We then spoke of the great beauty and importance of Democracy, and were at much trouble in impressing the Count with a due sense of the advantages we enjoyed in living where there was suffrage ad libitum, and no king.

He listened with marked interest, and in fact seemed not a little amused. When we had done, he said that, a great while ago, there had occurred something of a very similar sort. Thirteen Egyptian provinces determined all at once to be free, and to set a magnificent example to the rest of mankind. They assembled their wise men, and concocted the most ingenious constitution it is possible to conceive. For a while they managed remarkably well; only their habit of bragging was prodigious. The thing ended, however, in the consolidation of the thirteen states, with some fifteen or twenty others, in the most odious and insupportable despotism that was heard of upon the face of the Earth.

I asked what was the name of the usurping tyrant.

As well as the Count could recollect, it was Mob.

I first read the story a few Halloweens ago, when it made excellent election-year reading, but I was recently reminded of it.

Is Dune the greatest science fiction book ever written?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Is Dune the greatest science fiction book ever written?

Dune is a great science fiction novel that everyone can enjoy, no matter how casual a reader they are, or how strongly they identify as ‘not a science fiction fan.’ It boasts the scope of Star Wars, the philosophy of The Matrix, the realpolitik of Game of Thrones, the mythology of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the anthropology of Guns, Germs and Steel and the ecology of Silent Spring. Dune is huge, bold, ambitious, and packed to the brim with adventure and excitement. And monster worms, of course.

Dune’s Half-Century

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

In 1956, Doubleday published The Dragon in the Sea, the first novel by a California news-paper-man named Frank Herbert:

Even now, the book seems a little hard to pin down. It was, for the most part, a Cold War thriller about the race to harvest offshore oil — except crammed inside the thriller was a near-future science-fiction tale of fantastic technology. And crammed inside the science fiction was a psychological study of naval officers crammed inside submarines.

The Dragon in the Sea received some nice reviews. Anthony Boucher praised it in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the New York Times compared it to sea-going works by C.S. Forester and Herman Wouk. But readers found the novel confusing, and it didn’t sell particularly well, leaving the 36-year-old Herbert uncertain where to turn next. So he accepted a commission to write something called “They Stopped the Moving Sands.”

However much that sounds like a 1950s sci-fi title, the commission was actually for a non-fiction magazine article about Oregon’s sand dunes and the Department of Agriculture’s attempt to halt their drift by planting them with poverty grasses. The dunes were amazing, Herbert explained in a 1957 letter to his agent: In their undulations, they could “swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways.” He was piling up notes for the article at a furious pace. So many notes, in fact, that he never finished “They Stopped the Moving Sands.”

That turned into Dune, of course:

With Dune, Frank Herbert (1920-1986) made the breakthrough in science fiction that J.R.R. Tolkien had achieved in fantasy — both of them showing all subsequent writers in their fields how to build what we might call Massively Coherent Universes: with clashes of culture, technology, history, language, politics, and religion all worked out in the story’s background.

At the same time, Dune is an occasionally sloppy book and oddly paced. It sprawls when it might be compact and shrinks when it might be discursive. How could an author extend his plot maneuvering through hundreds of pages — and then be satisfied with an ending so rushed that even the death of the hero’s infant child in the final apocalyptic battle is only a side note?

Meanwhile, the prose is sometimes weak, striving for the memorable epigrams it can’t always form. The psychology of the minor characters is ignored at some points and deeply observed at others, which makes those characters flicker in a peculiar way between the two-dimensional walk-ons of myth and the three-dimensional figures of novelistic realism. And the third-person narrator keeps his distance from them by printing what they’re thinking in italics, just so we understand that this is, like, you know, mental speech.

In fact, the book contains so much italics — with the many poems, song lyrics, and extended quotations from fictional sources printed the same way — that the reader wants to bang it against the nightstand once or twice a chapter. Add up all the problems, and you can see why those publishers rejected Herbert’s manuscript. It had a thousand chances to fail and only one chance of succeeding — which it grasped by being so relentlessly, impossibly, irresistibly interesting.

I had my own concerns.

A Cultural History of Capes

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

How did the cape become so dramatic?

That’s a story that starts with the very etymology of the term “cape.”

The Latin word for cape, cappa, forms the basis for the word “escape,” which comes from ex cappa. “To escape,” wrote Walter William Skeat in An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, “is to ex-cape oneself, to slip out of one’s cape and get away.”

From the early days of the cape, when Latin was still spoken on the streets, capes spoke of battle, status, and statuses in battle. Military commanders of the Roman Empire donned paludamentum — a long, flowing cape fastened at one shoulder — as part of their ceremonial battle preparations. Centurions fighting under their command got to wear capes, too, but had to settle for the sagum, a less majestic, less flowy version that fastened with a clasp across the shoulders.

Vercingétorix and Caesar by Royer

Over the centuries, the cape and the sword came to be regarded as a package deal. In 1594, Italian fencing master Giacomo di Grasse penned a True Arte of Defence, in which he included several tips on vanquishing an enemy when armed with a sword-and-cloak combo.


This “flinging of the cloak” is an early appearance of the cape as a mantle fit for bouts of flouncing. To throw back the sides of a cloak, or toss one side of a cape over one’s shoulder, is a pleasingly dramatic way of revealing a weapon, showing one’s true identity, or punctuating a satisfying riposte, whether physical or verbal. These seeds of “cape as garment of flamboyance,” thus planted, would be harvested centuries later by cape aficionado Oscar Wilde, then augmented with glitter by performers like Liberace.

The practical approach of wearing a cape over one shoulder in order to keep one’s sword arm free became a fashion trend during the late 16th century, when gentlemen donned the “mandilion,” a hip-length cloak with open side seams.

Mandilion worn by Robert Devereaux

The cape as the preferred outerwear of adventurers gained ground with the dashing swashbuckler archetype, first established in literature of the 16th century but most popular during the mid-19th- to early 20th centuries. Many of the protagonists belonging to the genre were known to throw on a cape, grab a sword, and head for the forests in search of mischief. Among characters who couldn’t spell “caper” without a cape were The Three Musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Zorro.

Amid all the suave rapier-waving and damsel-saving going on in the swashbuckler genre, a work of literature emerged that dragged the cape into the world of the macabre and the supernatural: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Stoker’s version of the eponymous Count did not, however, feature the high-collared, black and red cape to which pop culture is now accustomed.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Cape

The iconic Dracula cape now inextricably linked with the character was not established until the 1920s, when adaptations of Dracula hit the stage. And the cloak revamp had more to do with budgetary concerns and theatrical trickery than aesthetics, according to Jonathan Bignell in “A Taste of the Gothic: Film and Television Versions of Dracula”:

Stage versions of the novel needed to have Dracula on stage in drawing-room settings, rather than appearing rarely and in a wide range of outside locations as in the novel. The need to turn Dracula into a melodramatic tale of mystery taking place indoors was the reason for the costuming of Dracula in evening dress and opera cloak, making him look like the sinister hypnotists, seducers and evil aristocrats of the Victorian popular theatre.

The high-collared cape which we now recognize as a hallmark of the Dracula character was first used in the stage versions. Its function was to hide the back of the actor’s head as he escaped through concealed panels in the set to disappear from the stage, while the other actors were left holding his suddenly empty cloak.

From there, the cape became the defining feature of comicbook superheroes, like Superman and Batman.

Action Comics #1

The Cimmerian Hypothesis

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Beyond the Black River ends with these words:

‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’

This is more than a bit of bluster meant to add color to an adventure story, John Michael Greer argues:

Science fiction has made much of its claim to be a “literature of ideas,” but a strong case can be made that the weird tale as developed by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and their peers has at least as much claim to the same label, and the ideas that feature in a classic weird tale are often a good deal more challenging than those that are the stock in trade of most science fiction: “gee, what happens if I extrapolate this technological trend a little further?” and the like. The authors who published with Weird Tales back in the day, in particular, liked to pose edgy questions about the way that the posturings of our species and its contemporary cultures appeared in the cold light of a cosmos that’s wholly uninterested in our overblown opinion of ourselves.

Thus I think it’s worth giving Conan and his fellow barbarians their due, and treating what we may as well call the Cimmerian hypothesis as a serious proposal about the underlying structure of human history.

What sets barbarian societies apart from civilized ones, he suggests, is that a much smaller fraction of the environment that barbarians encounter results from human action:

When you go outdoors in Cimmeria — if you’re not outdoors to start with, which you probably are — nearly everything you encounter has been put there by nature. There are no towns of any size, just scattered clusters of dwellings in the midst of a mostly unaltered environment. Where your Aquilonian town dweller who steps outside may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by nature, your Cimmerian who shoulders his battle-ax and goes for a stroll may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by human beings.

What’s more, there’s a difference in what we might usefully call the transparency of human constructions. In Cimmeria, if you do manage to get in out of the weather, the stones and timbers of the hovel where you’ve taken shelter are recognizable lumps of rock and pieces of tree; your hosts smell like the pheromone-laden social primates they are; and when their barbarian generosity inspires them to serve you a feast, they send someone out to shoot a deer, hack it into gobbets, and cook the result in some relatively simple manner that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re all chewing on parts of a dead animal. Follow Conan’s route down into the cities of Aquilonia, and you’re in a different world, where paint and plaster, soap and perfume, and fancy cookery, among many other things, obscure nature’s contributions to the human world.

Here’s where his argument takes an unexpected turn:

“Primitive” cultures — that is to say, human societies that rely on relatively simple technological suites — differ from one another just as dramatically as they differ from modern Western industrial societies; nor do simpler technological suites correlate with simpler cultural forms.


Thus traditional tribal societies are no more natural than civilizations are, in one important sense of the word “natural;” that is, tribal societies are as complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent as civilizations are. There is, however, one kind of human society that doesn’t share these characteristics — a kind of society that tends to be intellectually and culturally as well as technologically simpler than most, and that recurs in astonishingly similar forms around the world and across time. We’ve talked about it at quite some length in this blog; it’s the distinctive dark age society that emerges in the ruins of every fallen civilization after the barbarian war leaders settle down to become petty kings, the survivors of the civilization’s once-vast population get to work eking out a bare subsistence from the depleted topsoil, and most of the heritage of the wrecked past goes into history’s dumpster.

If there’s such a thing as a natural human society, the basic dark age society is probably it, since it emerges when the complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultures of the former civilization and its hostile neighbors have both imploded, and the survivors of the collapse have to put something together in a hurry with nothing but raw human relationships and the constraints of the natural world to guide them. Of course once things settle down the new society begins moving off in its own complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent direction; the dark age societies of post-Mycenean Greece, post-Roman Britain, post-Heian Japan, and their many equivalents have massive similarities, but the new societies that emerged from those cauldrons of cultural rebirth had much less in common with one another than their forbears did.

Human societies that don’t have urban centers tend to last much longer than those that do, he notes:

As we’ve seen, a core difference between civilizations and other human societies is that people in civilizations tend to cut themselves off from the immediate experience of nature nature to a much greater extent than the uncivilized do. Does this help explain why civilizations crash and burn so reliably, leaving the barbarians to play drinking games with mead while sitting unsteadily on the smoldering ruins?

As it happens, I think it does.

As we’ve discussed at length in the last three weekly posts here, human intelligence is not the sort of protean, world-transforming superpower with limitless potential it’s been labeled by the more overenthusiastic partisans of human exceptionalism. Rather, it’s an interesting capacity possessed by one species of social primates, and quite possibly shared by some other animal species as well. Like every other biological capacity, it evolved through a process of adaptation to the environment—not, please note, to some abstract concept of the environment, but to the specific stimuli and responses that a social primate gets from the African savanna and its inhabitants, including but not limited to other social primates of the same species. It’s indicative that when our species originally spread out of Africa, it seems to have settled first in those parts of the Old World that had roughly savanna-like ecosystems, and only later worked out the bugs of living in such radically different environments as boreal forests, tropical jungles, and the like.

The interplay between the human brain and the natural environment is considerably more significant than has often been realized. For the last forty years or so, a scholarly discipline called ecopsychology has explored some of the ways that interactions with nature shape the human mind. More recently, in response to the frantic attempts of American parents to isolate their children from a galaxy of largely imaginary risks, psychologists have begun to talk about “nature deficit disorder,” the set of emotional and intellectual dysfunctions that show up reliably in children who have been deprived of the normal human experience of growing up in intimate contact with the natural world.

All of this should have been obvious from first principles. Studies of human and animal behavior alike have shown repeatedly that psychological health depends on receiving certain highly specific stimuli at certain stages in the maturation process. The famous experiments by Henry Harlow [sic], who showed that monkeys raised with a mother-substitute wrapped in terrycloth grew up more or less normal, while those raised with a bare metal mother-substitute turned out psychotic even when all their other needs were met, are among the more famous of these, but there have been many more, and many of them can be shown to affect human capacities in direct and demonstrable ways.

Jim Baen’s Top 10 Science Fiction Books

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Jim Baen called David Drake on Thursday, June 8, 2006, saying that Amazon had asked him at BookExpo for a list of the ten science fiction books that everybody should read. David Drake goes on:

He wanted me to join him in coming up with the list. Jim and I did this sort of thing — him calling me as a resource — very frequently. The only thing unusual is the fact that he’d had a mini-stroke during the night. When he finally went to the hospital on Monday, June 12, he had the fatal stroke. This was literally some of the last thinking on SF that Jim did.

I was rather shocked that I had in fact read all ten:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  3. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
  4. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert
  6. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague deCamp
  7. Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
  9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  10. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

I went to back to see when I mentioned any of these book earlier, and the last time I mentioned Jim Baen’s list, I lamented that I’d missed a few. So, I have made some progress.

Anyway, I’ve mentioned Foundation repeatedly, but not to discuss its literary merits:

I’d consider myself a Heinlein fan, but I barely made it through Stranger in a Strange Land as a teen, and I didn’t make it through a few years ago. I much preferred the short novel he wrote while taking a break from Stranger:

I didn’t find Citizen of the Galaxy memorable.

When I tried to read A Canticle for Leibowitz in college, the pre-Vatican II Catholicism didn’t work for me, but when I re-read it a few years ago I found it powerful and insightful:

I did not know it at the time, but Walter Miller, the author, had served in a bomber crew that helped destroy the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, and he converted to Catholicism after the war. Seen through his sympathetic eyes, the Church is a source of great practical wisdom, with established methods for steering flawed human beings toward productive behaviors — not unlike the Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong crowds, but more experienced, if also tied to a peculiar cosmology.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea never did much for me. He’s supposed to be the father of science fiction, so he may simply need a better translator.

Dune I mention here regularly, as a powerful novel that didn’t quite work for me — but obviously stuck with me:

I definitely enjoyed Lest Darkness Fall, which has its modern-day protagonist bring telegraphy without electricity to ancient Rome. That scenario raises the interesting question of ideas behind their time.

The Time Machine is an absolute classic. Lawrence Auster would certainly recommend it. Wells wrote many novels worth reading.

By contrast, Mark Twain might qualify as a wit of the highest order, yet I found A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court hard to take. It’s mainly hamfisted whig history, which played to his audience, I’m sure.

Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Science fiction is speculative fiction, John C. Wright argues:

Many a fan of Science Fiction would like to include any classical work containing an unearthly or supernatural element in the work t be Science Fiction, including the Odyssey, Aenead, Fourth Eclogue, Divine Comedy, Tempest and Faust, not to mention the Ring Cycle of Wagner.

Science fiction is the fiction of the scientific revolution. It is the unique product of the revolution in thought that ushered in the modern age. That revolution changed both the theory and the practice of life, the paradigm and the technology, both what men thought about the cosmos and how they lived their daily lives.

Having lived through one paradigm shift and its attendant technological advancements, an audience was ready for fictional speculation about the next paradigm shift, the next technological advancement.

Speculative fiction, properly so called, is fiction taking place in a cosmos that differs from what the audience understands to be the real world, either (in science fiction) after the next paradigm shift or (in fantasy) before the previous one. Both challenge the imagination by rejecting the paradigm, or the technology, current to the time and place in which the author and his readers generally agree they live.

Even a single element unearthly or extraterrestrial element in an otherwise mundane setting —a Mindreader in Brooklyn—can make the story science fiction; this is because discovering a Mindreader in Brooklyn would overthrow the current paradigm. We don’t believe in telepaths, and James Randi disbelieves even less than we do. Therefore a tale where the reader is asked to take that possibility seriously, to think through the implications, challenges the current paradigm.

The genre is called “speculative” because of the emphasis on implications. The Invisible Man of H.G. Wells has to run around naked because his clothing was not also transparent; and his footprints dinted the snow. The invisible ring in Orlando Furioso had no such logical limitations: it was magic. When Brandamart puts it in her mouth, she vanishes.

All this is in marked contrast to the epics and poems mentioned here. They were written by authors whose purpose was to confirm the paradigm of the time and place in which they wrote.
Dante was not attempting to lead his Christian readers into speculations about what the pre-Christian world looked like to pre-Christians, or to imagine what the world was like had that long-lost world-view been true. Dante did not write a fantasy. He wrote the opposite. Pagan elements are introduced (Ulysses, etc.) for the express purposed of being retrofitted into a Christian philosophical framework. This would be the same as if some author (for example Mary Renault) took a character from the previous prescientific world view (for example, Theseus) and retold his story explaining all the supernatural elements in terms of scientifically and anthropologically modern ideas (for example THE KING MUST DIE).
The speculative element is exactly what is missing in Dante: and I say this with the greatest respect for Dante’s scientific learning. His astronomy and his optics are spot on perfect. But when the shades in Purgatory see the shadow of Dante on the ground, and the departed spirits cast no shadow, it is not explained how the ghostly eyeballs can see Dante’s shadow, if the photons are passing through them–and if the photons are not passing through them, then how is it that the departed spirits cast no shadows? Common folk wisdom of Dante’s time said shades were shadowless, and he had craft and art enough to work this cleverly into his poem. But he did not speculate about scientific implications. Dante’s take on ghosts was meant to confirm the paradigm of his age.
In contrast, Robert E. Howard wrote fantasy. Conan does not live in our universe as we understand it: he cannot be fitted into the modern scientific world-view. Conan is a speculation (if we may dignify it with that term) about what the world would have been like had the men of the previous paradigm been correct in their view of the universe: a realm of capricious gods, monsters, bold barbarians, beautiful slavegirls, pirates, kings, where magic worked and sorcery hung thick as incense on the air.

Do not be deceived by the presence of wondrous and fantastic elements in the great poets. All tales are really about wonder. All readers suspend their skepticism at least in part for the sake of the tale being told. I truly doubt every man in the audience of Homer believed in Amazons or Centaurs. Certainly Plato scoffs at Homer’s portrayal of Gods and demigods. And there were skeptics even in Shakespeare’s day who did not believe the ghosts: but ghosts were an accepted part of the revenge story, and so a ghost in HAMLET was not something alien to their paradigm of the universe. There are many modern skeptics who do not believe in love at first sight, but who will accept it as possible for the sake of watching a love story.

So, with all due respect, while we have the liberty to define SF broadly enough to include anything and everything we want (indeed, a liberty I take here), we run the risk of sounding puffed and presumptuous. I have never been at an SF Con were a fan said his three favorite science fiction authors were Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil. I have never found a copy of Shakespeare’s TEMPEST in the Dungeon and Dragon’s aisle at the bookstore, even though Prospero is clearly a Twelfth Level mage, able to cast a seventh level control weather spell with an area-effect modifier.

The Point of Disbelief

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Definitions of SF are a subject not likely to be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction, but John C. Wright makes an effort:

The simplest definition is to say that, where normal stories are about rescuing princesses from pirates, science fiction stories are about rescuing space-princesses from space-pirates.

Behind this facetious definition there is a thought worth examining:

All stories are falsehoods used to reveal some truth. The falsehood is one the storyteller and the audience tacitly agree shall be treated as true for the purposes of telling the tale. In this respect, the storyteller is a magician who enchants his audience; they are willing to believe the unbelievable, to suspend their disbelief. But if he makes too great a demand on their willing suspension of disbelief, the spell is broken, and his illusion stands open to their contempt as a cheap trick.

Different audiences will place this ‘point of disbelief’ at different heights.

For example, in a comedy, the audience is willing to accept the most unlikely and unrealistic coincidences in plot or stunts in action, merely because it is funny. The tolerance is high. In a gritty action thriller, however, any unrealistic detail, such as shooting seven bullets from a six-shooter, will break the spell for a serious audience.

Every reader will recognize when it has happened once or twice that his point of disbelief has been notched upward. Let me use a war picture as an example. When the hero runs through a hail of machinegun bullets fired by Nazis unscathed (or, in Science Fiction, when he runs through a lightningstorm of blaster fire from Imperial Stormtroopers) something clicks in our brains, and we smile, and settle back in the theater seat, and we don’t take the movie was seriously as we did the moment before. We might still like it: but now it is a ‘popcorn’ movie, light entertainment. Our tolerance for unreality for light movies is more generous than for gravid ones. Compare that, on the other hand, with the opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where the whistling storm of machinegun-fire was realistic and horrifying. No one was running around protected by an invisible aura of ‘main character glow’. The point of disbelief was low.

When we have put our tolerance at the high point, either because it is a genre we like or an author we like, we react grumpily to any evidence that the scenes are unrealistic. Complaints seen like nit-picking, small-mindedness. The complainer cannot get in the spirit of things. He is trying to break the spell.

What makes the calculation of where to put the point of disbelief complex is two factors:

First, unbelievable things actually do happen in real life: there are moments of high heroism and deep horror, eerie coincidences and true love. There really are men like Napoleon and George Washington, who change history. Stories are supposed to be about the unusual: anyone who works on a newspaper can tell you that.

Second, the craft of the artist consist of certain tricks and devices he uses to make the unbelievable seem real. This is called verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the illusion of reality: a thing that is not real, but which seems realistic.

Stephen King writes with masterful craft by using settings and people as one might find in any small town in America; only after the reader is habituated into trusting these descriptions, do odd, and then unearthly elements begin to intrude on the picture. He is correctly regarded as a fine horror writer, perhaps the finest, because of his mastery of this device of verisimilitude.

There is a famous scene in Homer, when Andromache brings her baby out to say farewell to Hector before that warrior prince issues forth to battle. Astyonax is startled by the plumes on his helm of his father and begins to cry. This is the type of realistic detail suddenly makes the unearthly elements in the epic seem more realistic. When Hector batters down the gate of the Achaian palisade, he hoists a rock so large that “two men, such as men are now, could not have lifted it.” The fact that the baby was startled by his gleaming armor makes Hector seem like a real person; even when he does feats no one now-a-days can do, the feeling of reality is maintained. Instead of shaking their heads, and saying no one could lift up so large a rock, the listeners nod and listen.

Now, along the spectrum of realistic to unrealistic fiction, Speculative Fiction (by which I mean Science Fiction and Fantasy together) occupies the more unrealistic side. Indeed, Speculative readers not only tolerate but demand that a high demand be placed on their imaginations: they want to see life or Mars, or Barsoom, or Middle Earth, or in the Year 2000 or in the Hyperborean Age. We place the point of disbelief very high.

The separation of fantasy from science fiction is merely the difference in the craft of verisimilitude used. Fantasy impersonates the tone and style, the tropes and details of medieval and ancient songs, epics and folktales. Unearthly and unbelievable things can happen in Middle-Earth, provided they seem to happen in the same mood and atmosphere as ORLANDO FURIOSO or LE MORTE D’ARTHUR. If the mood is not broken, the audience will accept the illusion as real.

Science Fiction impersonates science. The science does not need to be real, but it needs to produce a realistic illusion. Time Travel, or Faster-Than-Light drive, are both as fantastical as Santa’s Elves: but, in the communal imagination of SF, they are assumed to be the product of scientific investigation, built in a workshop or lab, produced by the same ingenuity as Robert Fulton or the Wright Brothers.

This point is worth dwelling on. In order to create verisimilitude in THE TIME TRAVELER, the author H.G. Wells has a frame in the first chapter. The scene opens with an unnamed first-person narrator describing a conversation at a dinner party: the idea that time is a dimension that can be crossed like length, breadth, and height are introduced, and a machine for crossing time, similar to a flying machine, comes on stage as a prop. Now the reader is ready to accept the idea of a man who crosses time in a time machine the way a sea-traveler crosses the sea in a steamship. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be might bring Scrooge into the future to view a prophecy, but this is a supernatural visitation. The Time Traveler’s vehicle is natural, a product of his workshop, no more supernatural than a steam engine. But without the frame of the dinner party, where we meet the Time Traveler, without the initial theoretical discussion, the stress on the readers willing suspension of disbelief would be greater.

This is the unique property of Science Fiction. The readers of Science Fiction are expected to know something about modern science, and they expect that whatever fantastic adventure about to be told them will be framed in terms of some explanation that is plausibly scientific. Whether the science fiction is hard or soft depends on how implausible the scientific explanation is, and how central the story it is.

Science fiction readers expect to be convinced by having a discussion or lecture take place in the text, which has enough real science to make the fake science seem real. These lectures are unknown in other genres.

Tales where the props and settings from science fiction are merely thrown in for flavor, or to produce a background of wonder, are rightly called Space Opera: adventure stories that take place in space, no different, really, than similar tales taking place in remote jungles, pirate-infested seas, golden palaces, or the mountains of Tibet. STAR WARS, for example, is space opera, since the science is there merely for flavor. The same tale could have taken place, almost unchanged, in the fairytale Japan of legend.

There is, by the way, a similar division in fantasy between hard and soft, or high and low. Fantasy that accurately follows the ancient models of the world, now lost, which our ancestors knew, is realistic fantasy (if we can use that term). The language is elevated, the action is mannered. Sword and Sorcery stories follow the themes of ancient epics and folktales. Oriental fantasy follows the model of Arabian Night’s Tales, with their strange vistas, Jinn-haunted palaces, and cruel bejeweled splendors. The ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Jack Vance are a superb example of this opulent oriental flavor, even though they take place in the Far Future rather than the Far East.

Fantasy where the characters talk and act like middle-class gamers from Southern California, except that they swing swordsand shoot lightning from their fingertips, is a tale where the fantasy settings and props are merely thrown in for flavor. We should call such unrealistic fantasy Elf Opera.

But the point, the main point, of speculative fiction, both fantasy and science fiction, is that they are both ultramundane. Fantasy is unearthly, and science fiction is extraterrestrial. They deal with things that do not happen in the here-and-now. Either the setting is in another world Beyond the Fields We Know, or something from the Other World or Outer Space has intruded into our comfortable little reality. When something from Beyond intrudes into our little world, the reaction is either terror or awe. All the old SF magazines had titles reflecting this: Thrilling, Wonder, Amazing, and so on. Any definition of Science Fiction or Fantasy that does not point to this central characteristic of unearthliness is defective.

Great Books and Genre Books

Monday, July 27th, 2015

There is no great Science Fiction literature, John C. Wright admits — or, rather, great Science Fiction isn’t necessarily Great Art:

To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak.


I must emphasize that the science fiction value of the work proceeds, in my opinion, from different standards. Whether a science fiction book is good as science fiction depends on several things, of which I will here list the top three:

Scientific – Are the ideas extrapolations from real (or fairly realistic) science? SF gets points form me when it is based on something legitimately scientific, even if my personal taste runs more toward the softer end of the spectrum. Larry Nivens “Neutron Star” captures this criterion: despite the magic technology of hyperspace or invulnerable hulls, the problem and the solution in the tale is all legitimate, basic Newtonian physics.

Wonder – Does the work awe, terrify, or inspire the reader with the contemplation of the scientific view of the universe. A book that delivers this might be written in an unpalatable style with stiff and lifeless characters, but still win on sheer strength of its sense of wonder. GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith, and THE NIGHT LANDS by William Hope Hodgson fit into this category; so does NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by Geo. Orwell.

Imagination – A good SF story is speculative in small things as well as in great. That is to say, given the counterfactual premise of the story, what details in the lives of the characters logically must also differ? If the author imagines the ramifications in greater detail than the reader, it is a better SF novel than one where he falls short. The Golden Age writers of John W. Campbell Jr.’s stable, for all their merits, were not good at this: some imagined future society would have remarkable technological changes, but the characters would still have to go downtown to make a long-distance phone call or send a telegram, the wife would be in the kitchen, and the porter on the train would be a black. When an author does it badly, the reader’s reaction is to slap his head and ask “Why not?” If these people can raise the dead, why not kill the sick and resurrect them in new bodies? If those people have teleportation, why not have your ‘house’ have a room on every continent? A whole book could be written on what Star Fleet in real life would do, if they had transporter technology, which they do not do on STAR TREK.


To sum up, these criteria are unrelated to the criteria for good literature. A books can have crummy characters, a weak plot full of wholes, or no plot at all, tin-eared dialog and cardboard characters, but if it is hard, wonderful, and imaginative, science fiction readers will rightly count it as a first class science fiction book for decades.

Star Wars Ukiyo-e

Friday, July 24th, 2015

Japanese period dramas, or jidai-geki, influenced George Lucas well beyond lending the Jedi their name. Now traditional Japanese artists have crowdfunded ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Darth Vader, the Battle of Hoth, and Queen Amidala (with R2-D2 and an adult Anakin Skywalker):

Ukiyo-e Anakin and Amidala Close-Up

Ukiyo-e Battle of Hoth Close-Up

Ukiyo-e Darth Vader Close-Up