In Defense of James Cameron

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Steve Sailer loved Terminator and Aliens, and he’s a bit of a contrarian, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he wrote a piece in defense of James Cameron — but calling Cameron a worthy successor to the greatest American science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) strikes me as going a bit too far:

Heinlein’s thumbprints can be found all over Avatar’s pastiche of a plot. For instance, the device that launches Cameron’s scenario — one identical twin must substitute at the last minute for his brother on an interstellar voyage — is also in Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Moreover, Avatar appears to borrow one of its central ideas — Pandora, a planet where the entire ecosystem is a single living network exchanging information — from the climax of Heinlein’s 1953 book for boys, Starman Jones.

Indeed, Avatar’s main plot — a human soldier teams up with a seemingly primitive but actually wise alien tribe to prevent an evil Earthling mining company from despoiling their sacred tropical homeland — an be found in Heinlein’s 1948 “young adult” story Space Cadet.

This is not to say Cameron is plagiarizing Heinlein. Rather, Heinlein’s ideas are part of the creative DNA of every artist working in hard sci-fi.

Further, Cameron is confronted with the same storytelling problem as Heinlein: they both love giant machines, but audiences don’t want to see the overdog win. Heinlein used a more convoluted variant of the Avatar plot in both Red Planet (1949) and Between Planets (1951). In these, the heroes are human settlers on Mars or Venus who enlist the admirable indigenous aliens in their fight for planetary independence from the oligarchic rulers of Earth.

In Heinlein’s books, it’s as if the American Revolution saw the American settlers allying with the American Indians to defeat King George. (The reality, of course, was closer to the opposite. As the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “merciless Indian Savages” suggests, “democracy” and “indigenous rights” are more antonyms than synonyms.) Not surprisingly, Cameron, who was born and raised through age 16 in Canada, can’t be bothered with Heinlein’s contortions, so Avatar is politically simpler than its sources in the Heinlein canon.

Boxing Day

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

John Derbyshire wouldn’t call himself a great boxing fan, but enrolling his 9-year-old in Fitness Through Boxing reminded him of his own long-gone glory days:

I had a brief moment of glory at age thirteen when the gym teacher at our boys-only school organized a boxing tournament, with a ring set up in the school auditorium. Though a fundamentally unathletic kid, I was going through a growth spurt, and, as often happens, different parts were growing at different speeds. The part of me that was growing fastest at this particular moment in time was my arms. I looked like a gibbon.

At our low skill level this gave me a great advantage. With decent wind and some grasp of basic technique, I could hold off any opponent till he tired enough to give me an easy opening. I won all my bouts.

The glory didn’t last long — does it ever? The gym teacher left that year, his successors had no interest in boxing, and society soon passed into a zone where the idea of thirteen-year-old boys punching each other’s faces for educational purposes became as unthinkable as the dense fug of tobacco smoke in our school’s staff room.

John and his son both like the boxing gym:

There is an agreeable and good-humored atmosphere in a boxing gym that cannot but be healthful for a growing boy to inhale. Robert A. Heinlein famously remarked that “an armed society is a polite society.” Well, a trained fighter is always armed. It is an odd paradox of human nature, seen in sergeants’ messes as well as boxing gyms, that there is never more ease of manner, concentration on mastering tasks and skills, and warm fellowship among men than when they have come together in a group to perform lawful acts of physical violence.

It is of course an open question how much longer boxing will be lawful in our feminized, lawyered-up society. Rob makes his customers sign a sheaf of wavers before they can put on the gloves. For a while longer yet, though, a boy can still come to a place like this and learn how to take on others in physical combat with skill, courage, and discipline, as men have done for longer than time itself.


Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

For whatever reason, Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit site has never made its way into my regular reading — maybe I’m just too contrarian — but this interview makes two unusual references — to Heinleinian libertarianism and to Luftwaffe, the old pre-computer hex-grid wargame — that made me reconsider.

(I would embed the video, but their embed code isn’t editable for height and width.)

VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket)

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Lisa Grossman of New Scientist takes a closer look at Ad Astra’s VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), which uses a radio frequency generator to heat plasma:

VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam. The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma. This stage was tested for the first time on 2 July at Ad Astra’s headquarters in Webster, Texas.

The plasma could produce thrust on its own if it were shot out of the rocket, but not very efficiently. To optimise efficiency, the rocket’s second stage then heats the ions to about a million degrees, a temperature comparable to that at the centre of the sun.

It does this by taking advantage of the fact that in a strong magnetic field – like those produced by superconducting magnets in the engine, ions spin at a fixed frequency. The radio frequency generator is then tuned to that same frequency, injecting extra energy into the ions.

Strong magnetic fields then channel the plasma out the back of the engine, propelling the rocket in the opposite direction.

Thanks to the radio frequency generator, VASIMR can reach power levels a hundred times as high as other engines, which simply accelerate their plasma by sending it through a series of metal grids with different voltages. In that setup, ions colliding with the grid tend to erode it, limiting the power and lifetime of the rocket. VASIMR’s radio frequency generator gets around that problem by never coming into contact with the ions.

“It’s the most powerful superconducting plasma source ever, as far as we know,” says Jared Squire, director of research at Ad Astra.

Scientists at Ad Astra began tests of the engine’s second stage – which heats the plasma – last week. So far, team members have run the two-stage engine at a power of 50 kilowatts. But they hope to ramp up to 200 kW of power in ongoing tests, enough to provide about a pound of thrust. That may not sound like much, but in space it can propel up to two tonnes of cargo, reaching Jupiter in about 19 months from a starting position relatively close to the sun, says Squire.

Of course, a starting position relatively close to the sun is half-way to anywhere, in Heinlein’s phrase, because the real challenge is getting out of earth’s gravity well, which requires more thrust than ion engines can generate:

At its current power level, VASIMR could be run entirely on solar energy. Squire says it would make a good Earth-orbit tugboat, pulling satellites to different orbits. It could also shuttle cargo to a lunar base, and because it could travel relatively quickly, it could be deployed to dangerous asteroids to gravitationally nudge them off course years before they would reach Earth.

To travel to Mars in 39 days, however, the engine would need 1000 times more power than solar energy could provide. For that, VASIMR would need an onboard nuclear reactor. Early versions of the reactor technology were used from the 1960s to the 1980s by the Soviet Union, but have not been used in space since and would take time to develop. “That would be quite a ways down the line,” Squire says.

Destination Moon

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I recently watched Destination Moon, the 1950 film about — what else? — a manned rocket flight to the moon.

Unlike most 1950s sci-fi flicks, this is a work of serious science fiction with no rubber-suited monsters. Robert Heinlein contributed to the script and served as technical advisor — which might also explain why the atomic rocket gets built by private industry and launched early, against a local demagogue’s court order.

Because many concepts of space travel were so new to the public, the film features an expository film within a film, starring a major Hollywood actor — Woody Woodpecker:

A Polite Society

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Years ago, Jeff Cooper cited paleoconservative Samuel Francis on why modern Americans are so rude:

The society of late twentieth century America is perhaps the first in human history where most grown men do not routinely bear arms on their persons and boys are not regularly raised from childhood to learn skill in the use of some kind of weapon, either for community or personal defense — club or spear, broadsword or long bow, rifle or Bowie knife.

It also happens to be one of the rudest and crudest societies in history, having jubilantly swept most of the etiquette of speech, table, dress, hospitality, fairness, deference to authority and the relations of male and female and child and elder under the fraying and filthy carpet of politically convenient illusions. With little fear of physical reprisal Americans can be as loud, gross, disrespectful, pushy, and negligent as they please.

If more people carried rapiers at their belts, or revolvers on their hips, it is a fair bet you would be able to go to a movie and enjoy the dialogue from the screen without having to endure the small talk, family gossip and assorted bodily noises that many theater audiences these days regularly emit. Today, discourtesy is commonplace precisely because there is no price to pay for it.

Or, as Heinlein succinctly put it:

An armed society is a polite society.

I suppose there are some trade-offs to consider.

The Language of Clear Thinking

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Alfred Korzybski famously said that the map is not the territory. This is the key point of his general semantics: we should be conscious of the abstractions we use.

If we try to reason from the “essence” of something, in true Aristotelian style, we might abstract away meaningful complexity. If we apply binary logic, we may label things true or false when they are largely true or largely false, or likely true or likely false. Korzybski thus recommended what he called null-A, or non-Aristotelian logic.

The language we use also introduces many questionable abstractions, and Korzybski believed that ambiguous language lent itself to unclear thinking. Most infamously, he railed against unclear use of the verb to be, which led a former student of his to suggest a modified form of English, E-Prime, which eliminated to be entirely:

To exist or not to exist,
I ask this question.
— modified from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Proponents of E-Prime believed that it would do more than clarify communication; they believed it would clarify thought. This is an example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking. That was the rationale behind Loglan, the logical language, with its grammar based on predicate logic.

These ideas soon found their way into Golden Age science fiction. A.E. von Vogt had his protagonists overcome their totalitarian foes through clever use of intuitive, inductive logic in The World of Null-A. (Peter Chung’s animated Æon Flux shares many motifs with The World of Null-A.)

Robert Heinlein also embraced many elements of general semantics, especially the notion of languages designed to improve thinking. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the self-aware computer receives its precise instructions in Loglan — which makes Loglan sound like a variant of Prolog. Heinlein took the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis much further in his short story, Gulf, which posits a new language used by a race of supermen. The language, Speedtalk, uses every phoneme (sound) used in any human language, not the small subset that belongs to any one language, and maps every word in Basic English to its own phoneme.

Basic English also shows up in H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come as the lingua franca of the future. Similarly, it inspired the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. (It doesn’t take much to turn Wells’ utopian ideas upside-down.)

Nyrath has much more to say about future languages, but I thought I’d end with this amusing bit of geekery:

Raphaël Poss (AKA “Kena”) took the obvious step and adapted the Tengwar alphabet to the Lojban set of phonemes. As Mr. Poss puts it: “…it is far more natural to write Lojban with a logical writing system…. the tengwar system inherently contains some main Lojban morphology rules, making Lojban easier to learn when it is written with tengwar.”

Ten Books Lexington Green Wants To Read Again

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Lexington Green has too little time to read, let alone re-read, but he lists ten books he wants to read again — and I share my thoughts:

    1. Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine – Green’s list starts with an old work new to me.
    2. Eric Rucker Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros – I enjoyed Eddison’s work immensely, but I can’t recommend it, because it is far from accessible. Written in the 1920s, it is a work of fantasy from before the genre existed as such, and it mixes archaic English, a Norse mythological style, bits of Greek and Roman myth, a setting called Mercury, with no meaningful relationship to the planet, and peoples called Demons, Witches, Goblins, etc., that are not in any sense demons, witches, goblins, etc., but ordinary men. It’s hard to explain.
    3. Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Green mentions how strongly Starship Troopers affected him as a boy, and how well it held up years later. I felt the same way. So, when I heard that Heinlein had written a more-or-less libertarian science-fiction novel, I assumed it would be right up my alley — but, regrettably, Moon is not on my re-read list.
    4. Homer, The Iliad – Everyone has to re-read The Iliad, right?
    5. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four – I need to read Animal Farm more than I need to re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four.
    6. Quentin Reynolds, They Fought For The Sky: The Dramatic Story of the First War in the Air – Sounds intriguing.
    7. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge And Decisions – I usually enjoy Sowell’s writing, and a number of EconTalk podcasts have reminded me to read his Hayekian classic.
    8. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace – Does anyone have time to read Tolstoy’s classic more than once?
    9. Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honour Trilogy – The name Evelyn Waugh always struck me as exceedingly English — like Wooster and Jeeves — and I never paid it much attention until I read about the then-upcoming James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which borrowed its title from an Ian Fleming story that only used James Bond as part of its framing story, so Fleming could write an Evelyn Waugh-style story and get it published.
    10. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds – Wells’ early science-fiction stories have held up amazingly well — and much better than Verne’s “harder” science-fiction. It’s hard to stay amazed by a submarine and by waterproof doors lined with India rubber.

Zenpundit calls the list of books you read over and over again your quantum library. He borrowed the idea:

The Quantum-Library is the layer that co-exists as a member of both the Library and the Anti-Library. It is something you may have read, but when read again with a different perspective it exists in another form.

I suspect that many, many folks have Tolkien in their quantum library — and Green does, apparently outside his current top ten:

The Lord of the Rings is a poetic / mythic / epic depiction of the defense of the West (especially England and its medieval inheritance) against tyranny and evil. Where most writers view the West through an Enlightenment frame, and see it as Antiquity then an interregnum followed by Modernity, Tolkien more accurately sees it as Antiquity + Christianity + Teutonic folkways and love of freedom. Modernity he has little use for. It is also a depiction of the working of Providence in History through the instrumentality of individual responses to grace, the primacy of the virtues, especially humility, and the unity of prayer and action (e.g. Sam’s prayer for water and sunlight that turns the course of the war in ways he cannot know) and hence anti-Hegelian, anti-Marxist, anti-determinist, anti-economistic.

A Political History of SF

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Eric S. Raymond explains the history of science fiction through an unusual lens — politics:

There was also a political aura that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by Campbell and right-hand man Robert Heinlein. That tradition was of ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion. Exceptions like Asimov’s Foundation novels only threw the implicit politics of most other Campbellian SF into sharper relief.

At the time, this very American position was generally thought of by both allies and opponents as a conservative or right-wing one. But the SF community’s version was never conservative in the strict sense of venerating past social norms — how could it be, when SF literature cheerfully contemplated radical changes in social arrangements and even human nature itself? SF’s insistent individualism also led it to reject racism and feature strong female characters decades before the rise of political correctness ritualized these behaviors in other forms of art.

Nevertheless, some writers found the confines of the field too narrow, or rejected Campbellian orthodoxy for other reasons. The first revolt against hard SF came in the early 1950s from a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York. The Futurians invented a kind of SF in which science was not at the center, and the transformative change motivating the story was not technological but political or social. Much of their output was sharply satirical in tone, and tended to de-emphasize individual heroism. The Futurian masterpiece was the Frederik Pohl/Cyril Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants (1956).

The Futurian revolt was political as well as aesthetic. Not until the late 1970s did any the participants admit that many of the key Futurians had histories as ideological Communists or fellow travellers, and that fact remained relatively unknown in the field well into the 1990s. As with later revolts against the Campbellian tradition, part of the motivation was a desire to escape the “conservative” politics that went with that tradition. While the Futurians’ work was well understood at the time to be a poke at the consumer capitalism and smugness of the postwar years, only in retrospect is it clear how much they owed to the Frankfurt school of Marxist critical theory.

But the Futurian revolt was half-hearted, semi-covert, and easily absorbed by the Campbellian mainstream of the SF field; by the mid-1960s, sociological extrapolation had become a standard part of the toolkit even for the old-school Golden Agers, and it never challenged the centrality of hard SF. The Futurians’ Marxist underpinnings lay buried and undiscussed for decades after the fact.

Perception of Campbellian SF as a “right-wing” phenomenon lingered, however, and helped motivate the next revolt in the mid-1960s, around the time I started reading the stuff.
The New Wave’s inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.

But the New Wave, after 1965, was not so easily dismissed or assimilated as the Futurians had been. Amidst a great deal of self-indulgent crap and drug-fueled psychedelizing, there shone a few jewels — Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse stories (1961, retrospectively recruited into the post-1965 New Wave by their author) Langdon Jones’s The Great Clock (1966), Phillip José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage (1967), Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (1967), and Fritz Leiber’s One Station of the Way (1968) stand out as examples.

As with the Futurians, the larger SF field rapidly absorbed some New Wave techniques and concerns. Notably, the New Wavers broke the SF taboo on writing about sex in any but the most cryptically coded ways, a stricture previously so rigid that only Heinlein himself had had the stature to really break it, in Stranger In A Strange Land (1961) — a book that helped shape the hippie counterculture of the later 1960s.

An Interesting Test

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

David Foster looks at An Interesting Test:

In an old Heinlein SF novel, applicants to the Space Academy are required to take a variety of aptitude tests. One of these tests involves dropping beans into a bottle…with the eyes closed. Applicants are told that the test measures “spatial perception” or something along those lines — but it’s actually a test of honesty.

I was reminded of this scenario by an article titled For Love of the Game, which appeared in the 3/12 issue of Forbes. There’s an old test that was originally used by the military to find people with an aptitude for clerical positions. All you have to do look in a table for a four-digit number and circle it where it appears. It seems like it would be difficult for any literate person to fail at this. Yet this simplistic test turns out to have predictive power for career success across a wide range of fields, including those that have little or nothing to do with clerical ability.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed 12,700 people (ages 14-22) and then follwed them to see how well they were doing. The subjects were paid $50 to take several tests, including a traditional Army intelligence test and the coding-speed test described above. They had no particular incentive to do well on any of the tests.

Recent research by Carmit Segal of Harvard indicates that performance on the coding-speed test has significant predictive power for the individual’s income 20 years later. This is true even when holding IQ score constant. And for participants who never earned a college degree, the coding-speed measurement has more predictive power than does IQ score.

The explanation suggested by Carmit is that what is really being measured by the coding speed test is intrinsic motivation: how much effort will someone put into the performance of a task when the only reward is the task itself? Just like Heinlein’s bean-in-the-bottle test measures what someone will do when no one is watching, the coding-speed test as performed by BLS measures what someone will do when no one is paying or otherwise rewarding good performance.

25 Skills Every Man Should Know

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Popular Mechanics magazine has cleverly promoted its most recent issue with a list of 25 Skills Every Man Should Know — “ready for your debate”:

1. Patch a radiator hose
2. Protect your computer
3. Rescue a boater who has capsized
4. Frame a wall
5. Retouch digital photos
6. Back up a trailer
7. Build a campfire
8. Fix a dead outlet
9. Navigate with a map and compass
10. Use a torque wrench
11. Sharpen a knife
12. Perform CPR
13. Fillet a fish
14. Maneuver a car out of a skid
15. Get a car unstuck
16. Back up data
17. Paint a room
18. Mix concrete
19. Clean a bolt-action rifle
20. Change oil and filter
21. Hook up an HDTV
22. Bleed brakes
23. Paddle a canoe
24. Fix a bike flat
25. Extend your wireless network

I can’t say I can do too many of those.

Anyway, I thought I’d be clever by citing Heinlein on the subject, but Glenn Reynolds, writing in his new PM column, beat me to the punch:

Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once wrote: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert A. Heinlein’s Legacy

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Taylor Dinerman looks at Robert A. Heinlein’s Legacy — and starts by looking at science fiction’s legacy:

Science fiction at one time was despised as vulgar and “populist” by university English departments. Today, it is just another cultural artifact to be deconstructed, along with cartoons and People magazine articles. Yet one could argue that science fiction has had a greater impact on the way we all live than any other literary genre of the 20th century.

When one looks at the great technological revolutions that have shaped our lives over the past 50 years, more often than not one finds that the men and women behind them were avid consumers of what used to be considered no more than adolescent trash. As Arthur C. Clarke put it: “Almost every good scientist I know has read science fiction.” And the greatest writer who produced them was Robert Anson Heinlein, born in Butler, Mo., 100 years ago this month.

Specialization is for Insects

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

I just re-stumbled upon one of my favorite Robert A. Heinlein quotes, from Time Enough for Love — which, I must admit, I have not read (yet):

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Adam Smith might not agree.

Robert Heinlein at 100

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Brian Doherty looks at Robert Heinlein at 100 and “how the science fiction master created the template for our looser, hipper, more pluralist world”:

Heinlein venerated the armed forces, most notoriously in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which celebrated an elite military order. Just two years later, he was publishing the counterculture classic Stranger in a Strange Land, with its simultaneously beatific, sexy, and heroic vision of Martian-inspired communal living. A rich mix of bohemian and straight-arrow values, Heinlein’s unique take on American individualism made him the bridge between such disparate ’60s icons as Barry Goldwater and Charles Manson.

Heinlein’s novels and short stories reflected the rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message associated with Goldwater and the conservative movement he sparked. At the same time, his writings exuded the communal desire to live in blissful togetherness, ignoring the repressive sexual and religious mores of bourgeois America. With a libertarian vision that appealed to individualists of both the left and the right, Heinlein not only set the template for the American 1960s but helped create the looser, hipper, more pluralist world of the decades since.

Read the whole article.

Jim Baen’s Top 10 Science Fiction Books

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

Jim Baen, of Baen Books, created a list of ten science fiction books that everyone should read, and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve missed a few.

Jim Baen’s Top 10 Science Fiction Books:

  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