Great decisions by the court; now a caution

SCOTUSbuilding_1st_Street_SEIt’s been a good week for liberals.  The Supreme Court once again, in dismissing a ludicrous lawsuit, decided not to tank Obamacare, and in a historic decision, recognized the right of same sex couples to marry.  By any measure, the court has moved the country forward in a progressive way this week.

Now a caution.  If, like me,  you are a liberal, you must remain aware of a crucial fact.  What the Supreme Court giveth, the Supreme Court can taketh away.

Yes, the court rarely takes away rights, but it you think it never happens, then google “Dred Scott” or “Plessy v. Ferguson”.

Many social conservatives are outraged.  They are enraged.  And it would be naive to think they will nurse their anger without future actions, that they will simply meekly retire and allow the broad sweep of history to move forward.

Remember, Supreme Court justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Court nominees are some of the longest lasting legacies of any President and Senate.  Decades after their terms are done, their choices about who sits on the court influence American policy and society.  The current court has nominees from Ronald Reagan, 26 years after he left office.

All of which is to say, elections matter.  It’s easy to dismiss them when the politicians don’t seem to be arguing about things we care about, when they’re mired in petty sounding policy squabbles.  But the philosophy of those who win those elections have long lasting consequences.

Just about every President gets a chance to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice.  And the next President may get a chance to nominate several.  It’s worth remembering that the marriage ruling was a five to four decision.  Ideologically, the court often sits on a knife’s edge.

If you have strong feelings about the court’s decisions this week, then pay careful attention to the reactions of the various Presidential candidates.  It would be naive to assume, should they become President, that those reactions wouldn’t be reflected in their future nominee choices.  Yes, nominees don’t always vote the way Presidents think they will, but most do.

By all means, celebrate this week’s decisions.  But then prepare to be vigilant.  Because these types of fights never completely end.  Just a couple of years ago, this same court scaled back the 1965 Voting Right Act, a fight many liberals thought was long over.

Pay attention to the next Presidential election.  And vote.  That vote could have repercussions for decades to come.

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What is the crucial element of a story?

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction short stories lately.  As an aspiring author, one of the things I’ve been trying to pay attention to are what the properties are of the stories I end up enjoying.  And, just as important, what are the properties of the stories I don’t enjoy, particularly the ones I end up abandoning.

After probably about a hundred or so of these stories, I think I’ve figured out a crucial element that is missing in many of the stinkers.  It’s one that is easier for a short story to omit since its absence in a longer work would be much starker.

It’s often said that a story requires a conflict, that without that conflict, there is in fact no story.  But I don’t think that’s quite right, particularly after having read many books on writing.  The required ingredient is more fundamental.  Rather than a conflict, what every story needs is a question.  Seeking the answer to the question is why the reader cares about what is happening.  Without it, the story is little more than just a chronicle of events rather than a cohesive story.

Often the question is, “Who will prevail in this conflict?” but not always.  For instance, in a romance, the main question might be something like, “Will these two characters get together?”  In a murder mystery the question is, “Who is the murderer?”  In science fiction, the central question can sometimes be, “What is the nature of the world?”

In a long work, there will likely be several questions, but there’s usually one overarching one that the the lion share of the story is about answering.  For instance, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the question is, “Will Frodo succeed in keeping the ring away from Sauron long enough to destroy it?”  In the original Star Wars movie, the question is, “Will the rebels get the Death Star plans and be able to exploit them?”  In the Lost TV series, the question is, “What is the nature of this crazy island?”  All of these works have lots of subsidiary and concomitant questions, but the main ones hang throughout.

In longer works, it’s often possible to ask a question, and answer it at some point in the story, but in a way that asks another burning question, so that the story can be a chain of related questions.  Indeed, even in a work with one overarching question, each scene is often a subsidiary question followed by an answer that implies another question, leading to the next scene.  (Which makes sense since scenes are essentially mini-stories in and of themselves.)

But in a short story, there’s usually only time to ask and answer one question.  And it needs to be asked, explicitly or implicitly, early in the story.  In a novel, the author might be able to take two or three chapters to get around to it.  In a novelette, it needs to happen in the first few pages.  But in a short story, it usually helps to have it happen in the opening paragraphs.

And here I think is where I see a difference between the shorts I’m enjoying and the ones I’m finding problematic.  The ones I enjoy ask their question early, and spend the rest of the story answering it, often in an unexpected way.  I know fairly early what the story is about, and it eventually comes to some definitive answer, albeit not always a happy one.

Many of the ones I don’t enjoy never get around to asking a question.  Often, the de facto question becomes, “What is going on?”  The whole purpose of the story is to leave the reader in a state of confusion until the end, where enough clues might have been dropped that we can deduce what is happening.  More often than not, I find the answer in the “What is going on?” stories to be lame.  And that’s when an answer is given; too often, no answer is offered, or the answer is so subtle that it’s easily missed.

This isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” story can’t work.  But if that’s the sole question, at least for me, it has maybe 1000 words before I start to lose patience with it.  If it’s going to be longer than that, the writer has an extra burden to find another way to to keep me interested while I’m waiting for the big reveal.  (In other words, to ask and answer other interesting questions.)  And if there is no big reveal, if the story is only there to confuse me and make me feel unsettled and lost, I’ll feel robbed.

It also isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” question in the early part of a story is bad.  Sometimes it just takes some setup for us to become aware of the story’s main question, although again, I think there’s a time limit on this, which for me is probably along the 1000 words I mentioned above, at least for short stories.

Of course, some stories ask a question and then never answer it.  I’m actually a bit surprised by how many of these there are.  But at least these stories are compelling while they’re being read, even if they never deliver.  (Although, again, I usually feel robbed when this happens.)

At least, this is what I think after a couple of months of intense story reading.  I might feel differently after another couple of months?  What do you think?  Is the question as crucial as I’m thinking it is?  Or am I completely on the wrong tract here?

Posted in Science Fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

First Peoples documentary series to air on PBS starting Wednesday

I’ve posted before on prehistorical societies, and the fact that, for virtually all of human history, including the history of our particular sub-species: Homo sapiens, we lived in nomadic hunter gatherer tribes.  The evidence points to anatomically modern humans first appearing in Africa over 200,000 years ago, and that much of what we consider normal human society: agriculture, cities, states, etc, only arose within the last 10,000 years, in other words, in the last 5% of the history of Homo sapiens.

If you find this as interesting as I do, then you might want to catch a new documentary that will be airing on PBS starting Wednesday evening: First Peoples.

Anthropologist John Hawks, who will appear throughout the documentary, has some additional information on it.

I’m looking forward to this series.  The story of where we came from and how the world as we know it developed always fascinates me.

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Quantum computing will not rescue Moore’s Law

I found this video on quantum computing educational.  It confirmed some things that I’ve been pondering about quantum computing for a while, notably its limitations, which are discussed after about the five minute mark.

The strength of quantum computing is that it makes use of superpositions, the fact that quantum particles can be in multiple states at the same time.  But it’s always bothered me that superpositions disappear as soon as we try to determine what they contain (or, if you’re an adherent of the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics, they spread to us in such a way that “we” only have access to one of the superposition branches).

It was fellow blogger Disagreeable Me who explained to me, and this video confirmed, that the way to think of quantum computing is as of a type of double slit experiment, but in the shape of a logic circuit.  Quantum computing allows for much more complex logic circuits than classical computing.  But as soon as that circuit outputs its results, decoherence, the wave function collapse, the disappearance or spread of the superposition, or whatever we call it, happens, and all the data aside from that in the collapsed state, disappears.

This means that quantum computing is good for certain types of CPU bound processes, such as calculations, but not for I/O bound processes, which is most of computing.  It means that those who believe that Moore’s Law is some cosmic law of physics are going to be disappointed when classical computing eventually hits fundamental physical laws.  Science fiction authors and singularity enthusiasts shouldn’t expect quantum computing to ride in and provide infinite computing power.

Of course, no one knows when Moore’s Law is going to end.  Experts seem to place it somewhere between 5 and 30 years.  I suspect we’ll only know about the end in retrospect years after we’ve hit it.  It won’t mean the end of progress in computing power, but it will mean that future gains past that point will be much harder, requiring alternate architectures.

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Literary “rules” I wish science fiction and fantasy books would break more often.

Image credit: Jonas de Ro via Wikipedia

Image credit: Jonas de Ro via Wikipedia

Read any book on writing, or take a creative writing course, and there are certain pieces of advice that you are almost certain to encounter.  In many cases, the advice is good, but some have a tendency to take these tools of the craft and turn them into rigid rules.  And just about any rigid rule is guaranteed to cause problems.  Here are some I wish, as a science fiction and fantasy reader, that authors could be a little more flexible on.

Show, don’t tell.

In film and TV, “show, don’t tell” literally means to show the viewer things rather than tell them in narration or by dialog.  In literary fiction, it usually means to give details and let the reader reach their own conclusions.  Robert J Sawyer gives the typical advice on this concept.

First, what’s the difference between the two? Well, “telling” is the reliance on simple exposition: Mary was an old woman. “Showing,” on the other hand, is the use of evocative description: Mary moved slowly across the room, her hunched form supported by a polished wooden cane gripped in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand that was covered by translucent, liver-spotted skin.

…Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like “vivid,” “evocative,” or “cinematic” to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.

Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary’s age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively.

Here’s the deal.  Looking through Sawyer’s examples, I’m struck by the fact that I would prefer reading a book filled with his telling examples rather than his showing ones.  No doubt this comes from the fact that I’m not a particularly detail oriented person.  I can be detail oriented when I need to be, but it requires extra mental energy, work I’d rather not do to be entertained.  To me, reading detailed descriptions of everything in a story is a chore I have to endure to experience the story.  It’s like trying to appreciate a painting while scanning it with my eye one inch away from the canvas.  The problem is that many authors are naturally detail oriented, but most of the general population isn’t.

Ann Leckie, the Hugo Award winning author of ‘Ancillary Justice’, recently did a post about the evils of rigid adherence to the show-don’t-tell rule, advocating that showing character development is a good thing, but that always showing aspects of a fictional world, isn’t necessarily.  I think Leckie’s point is probably a good rule of thumb, but one of the commenters on her post said it best: “don’t be boring.”   In other words, show when it’s fun, exciting, dramatic, maybe even horrifying, but never when it’s tedious, when it’s just done to fulfill some literary rule.

Sometimes telling just gets the point across faster, and moves the story along in a much snappier fashion.  An author should be sure not to pass up opportunities to entertain by showing, rather than telling, but only when it’s entertaining.  (Of course, everyone’s judgment on that will be different, but that applies to all of writing.)

Third person limited.

Third person limited is the most used narrative viewpoint in modern fiction, and for good reason.  It can give much of the same level of intimacy of the first person viewpoint, but still provide the flexibility to switch to a different viewpoint character after a scene or chapter transition.

The problem in science fiction, is sometimes it helps to back off and describe large scale events from a third person omniscient point of view.  Yes, an author can always find ways to work around doing that, but only at the cost of additional dialog and/or scenes especially designed to reveal that information.  Sometimes it’s just faster to briefly go into omniscient mode, describe things, and then move on to the next scene.  But contemporary conventional wisdom is that this is a no-no, even though it’s done in a lot of classic speculative fiction.

A few years ago, I was reading an epic fantasy trilogy, and came to the climactic battle at the end that involved all of the viewpoint characters.  The trilogy was done in third person limited, and the author stuck to that for the battle.  The problem was that there were aspects of the battle that we needed to see from each of the viewpoint characters’ perspectives.  So, the author switched between perspectives, with a blank line break used for each shift that is normally used for scene boundaries.

Given the fast moving events of the battle, I found each of these shifts disconcerting.  Each line break made me think that we were finished with the battle, when all we were really doing was jumping into another perspective.  Each shift briefly threw me out of the story.  (At least for the first two or three, until I picked up what the form was going to be.)  This fast moving battle scene practically begged for the utility of third person omniscient.  In a less rigid literary form, the author could have simply adopted third person omniscient, just for that sequence.

No infodumps.

Closely related to the above points, is a contemporary loathing of infodumps, of just relating information to the reader through narration.  Rather than do this, you’re supposed to use incluing, that is, drop clues in the story narrative and dialog to reveal the world or setting to the reader.  When it works, this is great.

But incluing often requires assuming a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader.  I see authors, including experienced bestselling authors, get this wrong from time to time.  The sign that this has happened is usually readers complaining about being confused by the story, or missing key aspects of it.

Some authors seem to take delight in challenging their readers, with the idea being that the reader has to earn their way into understanding what’s happening in the story.  It’s not unusual to have to take breaks from reading these stories to Google terms the author drops.  I don’t doubt that some readers enjoy this game, but my attitude toward such authors is that there better be a lot of other compelling stuff in their story, otherwise I’m going to put their book down and go do something else.

Brief infodumps placed strategically in a story can make it a lot easier to parse.  Even lengthy infodumps can be useful if well placed, for instance, once I’m vested in the characters and the world.  As long as it’s relevant to the plot, I’m usually okay with it.

One nice tool for infodumping is the much maligned prologue.  Yes, they can be done very poorly, flooding the reader with too much information up front, but I’ve also read prologues (mostly written decades ago at this point) that gave me a lot of insight into the world, and dramatically reduced my confusion in the story that followed.  Many editors reportedly will immediately stop reading a manuscript if it has a prologue; an attitude I find a bit dogmatic.

Personally, I don’t even mind the infamous, “As you know Bob, the warp drive works by…” type dialog.  Everyone says this type of dialog is unrealistic, that “people don’t talk that way.”  Except if you actually pay close attention to real people talking, they often do talk that way, albeit without the awful “As you know…” preamble.  Think about all the pointless conversations people often have about the weather.  And look at just about any discussion forum on the internet.  People repeat basic information all the time.

Why do people talk this way?  Sometimes it’s to advertise their knowledge, or to plant ideological markers, or to think out loud.  But often, I think it’s just an excuse to make conversation.

Of course, the idea that this kind of dialog is unrealistic is now so pervasive, it’s virtually impossible to get it past editors.  So authors have to come up with excuses for characters to relay that information, such as having an argument, or having an experienced character teach a less experienced one, etc.

The point is that infodumping, however it’s accomplished, is often a good thing in science fiction and fantasy settings (and probably in historical fiction as well), provided it’s brief and strategically placed.


I  think the bottom line for me, is that I read speculative fiction for the story and ideas, for the content.  Each of these tools should be used when they enhance the author’s ability to convey that story, and dispensed with when they interfere with it.  If an author has a compelling story, I’m going to overlook a lot of form awkwardness when taking it in.  I suspect there are a lot more readers like me than there are ones who get upset when the author violates some writing rule.

One of the nice things about the self publishing revolution, is that it may bring back some old techniques that the publishing gatekeepers have filtered out, despite their utility across decades of genre history.  To the extent it enhances storytelling, and increases the number of people reading in the genre, I think that will be a very good thing.

IO9 has an interesting post similar to this one, albeit with more rules they dislike.

Posted in Science Fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , | 41 Comments

How about a presidential candidate science debate?

Can’t say I’m too optimistic that this will actually take place, but any pressure on the presidential candidates can’t hurt: How About a Science Debate? : Political Wire.

ScienceDebate is ramping up efforts to host a live presidential debate on science policy in 2016. Their goal is to get candidates on the record on issues such as human health, climate change, space exploration and more.

Over 42K supporters — including lawmakers, Nobel laureates, over 100 university presidents, and many organizations — have signed the petition so far.

If you’d like to see it happen, it’s worth adding your name to the petition.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Philosopher’s Lexicon: A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge

Originally posted on Stories & Soliloquies:

Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go. 

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This week’s entry into the lexicon will be the last of a string of distinctions. I began some weeks ago by discussing the de dicto/de re distinction, then moved onto the distinction between ontology and epistemology, after which I tackled logical and causal possibly, and most recently I covered the difference between analytic and synthetic reasoning. To these, I add the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge.

In its weaker sense, a…

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