Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Ursula K. Le Guin and the “myth of the veneer”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (who is easily in the topmost tier of my favorite writers ever) dismantles a common conception I’ve had a problem with for a long time — the idea that everything good about human society is merely a mask concealing our “true” destructive urges:

If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.

What is this substance?

Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?

Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?

Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.

There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.

In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.

I’m reading Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron right now, and I’m struck by how this theme plays out in that novel as well, as two groups of people explore different conflict-resolution strategies — violence versus nonviolence, cooperation versus coercion, reasoning together versus deception and terrorism — and Le Guin awesomely refuses to privilege one approach as more “natural” or “valid” than the other.

We’re all people, figuring things out, and there’s no “human nature” that dictates that we must inevitably take the darker road; whenever we choose the more civilized path, we’re not denying our nature but affirming it, as evolved social beings. We are, by nature, capable of both the best and the worst that we can imagine. What’s left is the will to choose.

There’s more to Le Guin’s essay; read it in its entirety here.

(Photo by Andy Black)


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The case for optimism, cont’d: “The future is never the way you can imagine”

Jo Walton sums up a science fiction panel she participated in, and offers thoughts on “The Future”:

There are ways in which this future, the one we’re living in, is a whole lot better than what we imagined. It has women in it, and it has women who are not just trophies and are not manipulating their way around because they have no power. This future has women with agency. It has men and women who aren’t white and who aren’t sitting at the back of the bus or busy passing. It has gay people out of the closet, it has transgender people, and all over the place, not only in the worlds of Samuel Delany. Beyond that, unimaginably shaping the future we couldn’t imagine getting, it has the internet. […]

[T]he future’s still there. The moon’s there and people have walked on it, the stars are there and extra-solar planets, and I still believe we’ll get there. We won’t get there the way we imagined, but the future is never the way you can imagine. After the panel, I was talking to a group of four fifteen year friends who had been in the back of the room and asked interesting questions. They were local, they had come to the con on their own after one of them had come last year. They didn’t think that we’d lost the future, far from it. They thought it was just that we had too limited an idea of what the future could be.

Check out the rest here; it’s a wonderful read. Philip Reeve’s and Neal Stephenson’s takes on imagining the future are worth looking at as well.

More reasons for optimism here.

(via Tor; image via Wonkette)

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The case for optimism, cont’d: Towards a literature of hope in the “age of man”

I like how David Biello thinks:

We move more earth and stone than all the world’s rivers. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere all life breathes. We are on pace to eat to death half of the other life currently sharing the planet with us. There is nothing on Earth untouched by man — whether it be the soot from fossil fuels darkening polar snows or the very molecules incorporated into a tree trunk. Humanity has become a global force whose exploits will be written in rock for millennia. […]

As in all things, however, it is up to fiction — make-believe, imagination, speculative play — to really show us what the Anthropocene could be. And it is in science fiction that the Anthropocene often plays out, most recently perhaps in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which depicts a Bangkok post-apocalypse, with high sea levels kept out by dikes, an absence of fossil fuels replaced by manually wound springs to run robots or sailing ships, and the routine use of genetic modification and warfare. It is typical of the genre, which features, above all, doom. Yet, in all this dystopia — albeit resilient dystopia where humanity endures against all odds — can no one imagine hope? […]

Ultimately, I’d argue the Anthropocene needs a non-fantastic literature that directly grapples with the problem of managing a planet so that it can remain the sole (known) home in the universe capable of providing life support and a passage through the void to a rich array of animals, plants, minerals, microbes and more. This literature will need [Ray] Bradbury’s optimism and imagination, heralding a new “green morning,” rather than the end of nature we find in Blade Runner’s dystopian portrait of a world whose only hope lies in migration to other presumably, less ruined planets or Frankenstein’s suggestion that we will be undone by our own creation. […]

Things can get better, and there’s a large portion of humanity working towards that these days, a global hive mind connected by the internet. In the end, science will give us clues and cues for the pathways that will either save or destroy us, but it is our own imagination that will light the way.

There is no other planet like Earth, no other home than the one we now run […] The most important literature we write in the Anthropocene will be the words that enable us to ensure breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, and the persistence of the abundant life that makes it all possible on this rocky mothership. […] We need an enduring, resilient, hopeful literature for the Anthropocene.

Read the rest here. More reasons for optimism here.

(Photo via Wondering the World)

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Ray Bradbury goes home

A video from an earlier post, reposted here in memory of the magnificent Ray Bradbury:

Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.


(I find it a little ironic to be writing this in a medium that Bradbury hated: he considered the Internet “a big distraction,” “meaningless,” and “not real. It’s in the air somewhere.” A surprisingly narrow-minded view of an entire medium of informational exchange, with enormous potential as well as pitfalls. Judging from all the online encomiums, however, it seems the Internet has no hard feelings.)

More quotes from Bradbury over at Brain Pickings, here and here. After losing this tremendously wise storyteller so soon after Maurice Sendak, all I can think is this: Ursula K. Le Guin, please stick around for a good while longer. We continue to need your voice, and the wings you lend your readers.

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Miscellany, and an apology for long silence

I’ve been away from this blog recently, trying to devote some more time to fiction writing (but not yet quite comfortable enough to talk about that personal creative process, as I know others do). Working on this blog has been, and continues to be, an interesting writing experience — but a reactive one, a curatorial process of finding and commenting on cool things that others have said or done. It’s rewarding to be plugged in to the cultural conversation on the net, adding my humble two cents; but it’s been a while since I’ve made something of my own, and that’s something I’d like to spend a little more time doing. If you’ve been following my posts, I’m very grateful for your time and attention. I’ll try to keep it up as best I can.

Meanwhile, some things of interest:

1) Gregory Benford writes about the future of space exploration, arguing that the time has come for NASA to give way to commerce-driven space initiatives. Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom my family and I just saw giving a brilliant talk at the American Museum of Natural History) offers a different take on NASA and the vital importance of government funding for exploration. (Tyson videos have been popping up all over YouTube recently, eloquently presenting and sometimes re-editing his arguments: some choice ones here and especially here.)

2) A fascinating talk by author Neal Stephenson on our society’s increasing inability to get big stuff done, and why it’s important to revive that sense of ambition and possibility.

3) Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has a must-read essay on “The Storytellers of Empire,” asking America why “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She makes a compelling argument for empathy, connection, and identity beyond ethnicity: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”

4) NPR host Bob Mondello points to a science fiction story by E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” that eerily predicts our (sterile?) virtual culture, our overreliance on technology, and what that says about who we are.

5) Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova asks: “what if we engineered […] selective attention purposefully and aligned it with our emotional and mental well-being?” She calls our attention to Ruth Kaiser and the Spontaneous Smiley Project, which invites us to see — and photograph — the smiley-face configurations that are literally everywhere around us. Kaiser makes the case for optimism on her blog, and quotes some inspiring Dr. Seuss passages as well. You can also watch her TED talk here.

And now I’m off. Have a great day, wherever you are. Go make something beautiful. Make someone smile.

(Photo via Do Something)

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Miscellany: Blume, Hitchens, Lamarr, Tyson; The West Wing as science fiction; groupthink and solitude; what e-books can’t do; and the end of SOPA (for now)

Time for another grab-bag of links that caught my eye:

1) An NPR interview with the incomparable Judy Blume, who talks about censorship, how to inspire kids to read (and how not to), the folly of labeling authors and books according to “audience age,” and how perseverance determines a writer’s success more than talent. (Note to self: time to get to work. Again.)

2) An interview with Richard Rhodes on the scientific career of actress Hedy Lamarr, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Fascinating stuff, and one I’ve touched on before, in a post on stereotypes and women scientists.

3) A compilation of articles written for The Nation by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, spanning 28 years (1978-2006).

4) Over the past few months my wife and I have avidly watched all seven seasons of The West Wing. Graham Sleight explains why the show is, at its heart, science fiction in spirit and impulse: “I want to argue […] that it’s SF in a more profound sense […] It makes an argument, as SF does, about possibility, about what can be done, and it does so by presenting us with a world already showing a change from our own.” Highly worth reading if you’re a West Wing fan.

5) A provocative New York Times essay by Susan Cain on “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” about the folly of insisting on constant collaboration and “teamwork” at the expense of creative solitude. This is happening in schools as well, as Cain points out, a fact that I personally find a bit worrying. Learning to work with others is great, but are we failing to appreciate the virtues of aloneness, of introspection?

6) Why books are made of win: the Abe Books blog, via Matador, offers a list of things you can’t do with an e-book. Including leaving it on a beach towel, throwing it across the room, and using it to press flowers and fallen leaves.

7) Carl Zimmer’s excellent profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

8) And finally — victory! Talking Points Memo analyzes how Netizens killed SOPA and PIPA. No doubt the advocates of censorship will try again; but those who stand for freedom of speech will be ready and waiting.

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The case for optimism, cont’d: The need for vision, and letting visionaries soar

Echoing Philip Reeve, Neal Stephenson calls on science fiction writers to once again imagine a bold future — “an over-arching narrative” that provides “a shared vision” — that can inspire scientists to make it real:

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees. […]

“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at [the FutureTense conference]). He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense.

Elsewhere, Thomas Friedman — a self-described “frustrated optimist” — tells WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook that the visionaries are already among us, waiting to be unleashed:

What always makes me an optimist about this country: it is still full of people who just didn’t get the word. They didn’t get the word that we’re down and out. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a slow decline. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a recession. And they go out and start stuff and fix stuff and heal stuff and organize stuff […] whether it’s on Wall Street today or in places that you’ve never seen before. […] What they tell you is that the country is alive.

If you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head […] because there is just a huge thrust coming from below, and as I’ve said ad infinitum, it looks just like the space shuttle taking off — all that thrust coming from below.

In That Used To Be Us, Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum elaborate:

We are optimists, but we are also frustrated. We are frustrated optimists. In our view, the two attitudes go together. We are optimists because American society, with its freewheeling spirit, its diversity of opinions and talents, its flexible economy, its work ethic and penchant for innovation, is in fact ideally suited to thrive in the tremendously challenging world we are living in. We are optimists because the American political and economic systems, when functioning properly, can harness the nation’s talents and energy to meet the challenges the country faces. We are optimists because Americans have plenty of experience in doing big, hard things together. And we are optimists because our track record of national achievement gives ample grounds for believing we can overcome our present difficulties.

But that’s also why we’re frustrated. Optimism or pessimism about America’s future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things. It also has to be a function of our will actually to do those things again.

More arguments for optimism here.

(via io9; image via Soulful Scribe)


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