Friday, November 2, 2012

Ursula K. Le Guin - On the Topic of Science Fiction

I wanted to share with you the introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I wanted to share it because it is a perfect description of science fiction, fiction and writing in general. I've been trying to explain these idea to people for many years and never could. I'm so glad she managed to. It is as follows.

"Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.’ A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it is so depressing.’
Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.
Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in this laboratory; let’ say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens . . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.
The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger’s and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.
Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.
The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you ‘re like—what’s going on—what the weather is like now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.
‘The truth against the world!’—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and tell about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and when they say they are done writing down this pack of lies they say, There! That’s the truth!
They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology, and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.
Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted in its artists?
But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.
I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that the awen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that happens? If they did not know it happens, because they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.
Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in the number as well as in words.
But it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only insofar as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.
Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.
I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.
The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.
Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Sciences displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.
This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by announcing that it’s sent in the ‘Ekumenical Year 1490-97,’ but surely you don’t believe that?
Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.
In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re don with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.
The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.
The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words. Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positives take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)
All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors drawn from certain great dominants [domains?] of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.
A metaphor for what?
If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination."
I am still in awe of this. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Giver - Lois Lowry

The Giver was one of my favorite books as a kid. I read it over and over again in fifth grade. It all started when it was assigned in class. We read it as a group and talked about themes like individuality, morality, etc. I don’t know what made me want to read it again, but I’m glad I did because it ages very well. Needless to say I missed a lot of things the first time around. This is the type of book every parent should read to their kids, and then keep reading as the kids get older.

Precision of Language as Thought Control
The protagonist in this story is a 12-year-old boy named Jonas. In Jonas’ community they always talk about the importance of precision of language. If you said, “I’m starving,” instead of, “I’m hungry,” you had to formally apologize. You should never say, “I’m afraid,” when what you really mean is, “I’m apprehensive.” They took this “precision of language” very seriously. It was in the community rules.

As a kid I thought the community was just uptight. I thought they were “grammar Nazis.” Now I understand what Lois Lowery was really getting at. The Giver’s precision of language is a form of thought control. The idea of thought control is represented very well in Orwell’s 1984. That book raised the question, “if you can’t think it can you feel it?” If there isn’t a word for joy can you really feel joy? Personally, I don’t believe you can. I think the underlying physiological basis for joy can be there, but if you can’t comprehend what’s happening I don’t believe you can truly feel it. In 1984, they solved this problem by simply removing the word (eg. ungood instead of bad, plusgood instead of great). In The Giver, they chastised anyone for saying a word that was too “strong.” For example, when Jonas said he loved his parents, his parents became uncomfortable, and told him that a more precise way to say that would be to say he enjoys them.

Dream Telling and Feeling Telling as Thought Control
Another one of the rules in Jonas’ community is Dream Telling and Feeling Telling. Every morning each member of the community has to tell their family about any dreams they had. The family then analyzes them together. Every supper everyone shares any feelings they had that day. Like before, the family then analyzes the feelings and helps each other overcome negative feelings. Everyone, from young children to adults, have to do this. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this rule. The first one is to catch any “stirrings.” Stirrings are feelings of emotion that happen in your sleep. For boys the obvious example is something like a wet dream. Once a child starts to have stirrings they then take a pill every day. That’s obviously to stop the stirrings. The second, and more important reason is another form of thought control. If you aren’t allowed to keep any thoughts or feelings private you cease to be an individual, and simply become another cog in the community. You also can’t ruminate on thoughts or feelings and have them build up and become stronger.

While there are many other aspects to The Giver, those are the two I wanted to talk about. They are also the two concepts that are not often communicated to children. I didn’t hear about Thought Control or Newspeak until freshman year of high school when we read 1984. The Giver is very like 1984 in that respect. These ideas are the reason I’m so glad I re read this amazing book. The concepts in it are simple enough for children, but also go much deeper. There is a lot of merit in reading books like this as a child and as an adult. Now that I’m older I can really understand and appreciate the things I barely touched as a child. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Queen's Fool - Philippa Gregory

As change of pace I decided to read The Queen’s Fool. I have read Philippa Gregory’s books before, and I’ve always been impressed. The Queen’s Fool was no different; it was very real, poignant, and managed to convey the true depths of human emotion.

The Queen’s Fool (TQF) is a companion to The Other Boleyn Girl (TOBG), which is a well-known best seller that was recently made into a movie. TQF features a lot of the same families that we saw in TOBG, as it is set in England just after the reign of Henry VIII. To very succinctly sum it up, this book follows the succession of first Queen Mary I and then Queen Elizabeth I, as told through the eyes of the court fool, Hannah Green.

While it has the makings of all good historical fiction, (history, intrigue, heartbreak, romance etc.), what I really want to focus on is women’s roles in the mid 1500’s.

Power Dynamic’s in 16th Century Relationships

While I did just give a summary of TQF, you should completely disregard it. This book is really about power dynamics in 16th century relationships. In my humble opinion, the reason this book is able to so successfully portray these dynamics is because it is set at such a turning point in history. Elizabeth I was about to take the throne and become the first queen to truly rule in her own right. The world was battling over religion, and fighting the old conventions (the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is flat, god created everything in seven days). Basically everything was tossed up into the air, and people were beginning to re-write the rules.

Throughout the whole book Hannah fights against the traditional conventions of women. She wears breeches, she is educated and she doesn’t want to marry. There are several men in her life that influence her. There is her father; the supportive role that wants to see her happy but also wants her safe. There is Lord Robert, who seduces her and wants to use her to do his bidding. But, at the same time he introduces her to a new world where power is yours for the taking if you’re willing to sell your morals for it. Finally, there is Daniel, her betrothed, who wants to love her, but on his terms, where he is the man, and she is the woman, and where she will honor and cherish him as her husband and head of the household.

Hannah’s struggle to find her own balance between independence and duty is mirrored in the opposing forces of Mary and Elizabeth. Mary is the traditional side. She longs for love and ends up dying from grief when it is not returned. She abandons who she is and what she wants for the love she needs. On the other hand, there is Elizabeth, who craves nothing but her own power. She uses every relationship to further her own gains. Her independence is all she has, and she twists everyone around her to keep it.

Hannah is suck in the middle of these two women. She loves and admires them both. Lord Robert once said that she is so desperate to love and be loved that she is on all sides at once. In a way I agree with him, she is on all sides at once, but because she does not know her own mind. For most of the book she is trying to figure out who she is, independent of her father, her betrothed, and her lord.

I think that Mary and Elizabeth essentially show two sides of Hannah’s personality. Mary is the honorable, steadfast side and Elizabeth the quick witted and independent side.

Lasting Relevance

The thing that really struck me about this book was the lasting relevance. It was set in the 1500s, but I think there is still a lot to be said about the way Hannah struggles to rectify wanting to be loved and cherished, but still live her own life. I’ve often thought that the ideals of men and women, and changing modern values, are so conflicting that they are basically incompatible.

Take men’s roles for example. Men are supposed to be in control and collected during every situation. They are supposed to not need directions, instinctively know how to build something, and handle times of crisis with assured self-confidence. Yet at the same time, modern vales say they are supposed to always respect their wives/girlfriend’s opinions. They are supposed to be dominate, but always adoring and respectful. When you add the fact that women are excepted to be emotional and easily frightened, this task basically becomes impossible. How can you except a man to be the head of his family but never talk down to those he’s supposed to control? How can you except a woman to take her place in modern society when she is expected to need a man’s support? All of these tasks are totally impossible. Which leads me to my next question. If the old ways don’t work, and the new ways aren’t yet accepted, then what are we supposed to do?

In this moment I totally, and completely, relate with Hannah. And Mary. And Elizabeth. Just as I’m sure the men out there can relate to Hannah’s father, and Daniel, and Lord Robert. I simultaneously want to feel taken care of, coveted and totally independent. This is not possible. I’m sure then many men want to know their families are safe, their masculinity is unquestioned, and their wives/love ones are happy. This is probably more possible, but still very hard.

We all struggle to balance society expectations with our own wants and needs. Enough said. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Woman on the Edge of Time - Marge Piercy

First off, let me apologize for how long this review took. School is starting to get busy again so I don’t have as much time for leisure reading as I would like.  But better late than never.

Woman on the Edge of Time is a work of speculative fiction by Marge Piercy. A friend recommended this book to me, and I’m unsure why it never crossed my path before. It’s unusual but has “classic” written all over it. Woman on the Edge of Time is unlike any utopian/dystopian novel I have ever read. It doesn’t fit the “formula” I have come to expect from this type of literature. Most speculative fiction seems to be told through the eyes of a middle aged white male who could be described as middle class. The book begins by the man realizing his enslavement, continues with him fighting against it, and ends with him finally being destroyed by society. A 37-year-old Puerto Rican woman who is imprisoned in a mental hospital narrates Woman on the Edge of Time.

In Woman on the Edge of Time two possible futures are presented, one dystopian the other utopian. I’m going to focus on the utopia because it represents an ideal, and therefore holds the brunt of the social commentary.

Piercy’s utopia is set far in the future. The idea is after grueling civil war humanity reemerged to create an egalitarian, cooperative, self-sustaining society. Everyone works for the common good, saving nothing for themselves. Everyone is simultaneously wealthy and poor. Luxury items are traded throughout the counties, where they can be “checked out” and enjoyed again and again. Everyone has everything they need and everyone works towards the common good.

While this society has surpassed the need for most forms of punishment, I found it interesting that the death penalty is still practiced. The first time someone commits a violent crime that person is rehabilitated and filtered back into society with no jail time or seclusion. The second time a person commits a violent crime they are put to death. To me it seems like this society is more than willing to help people who help themselves. If you are willing to do your share you are accepted.

The second concept that caught my attention was the diversification of the society. Genetic diversity is evenly distributed among all counties and people. People no longer give birth but are created from a common gene pool. However, the society still prides its self on cultural diversity, but that diversity isn’t classified by race, ethnicity or gender. Instead of a culture sharing a common race, different villages practice different customs. Yet each village has an even number of people with dark skin, light skin, and all colors in between.

Perhaps most interesting is the complete demolition of gender roles. Men and women are both called “mothers,” and raise children with three other “co-mothers.” Women no longer naturally lactate, but men and women can both breast-feed children after being given a shot. They have even gone so far as to do away with masculine and feminine pronouns and descriptions. Instead of saying “she likes to eat apples” I would say, “person likes to eat apples.” Instead of saying, “that is his dog” I would say, “that is per dog.” The idea is that total equality will never exist as long as there are distinct gender differences in society.

Unlike most speculative fiction Piercy’s utopia is one that I truly long for. She describes a culture that combines the technological advances of the present and future with the hard work and good values of the past. I would gladly give up all I own to share true and clean prosperity with everyone. Reading Woman on the Edge of Time made me wish our society could stop arguing about things that don’t matter and work towards creating something good for everyone. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Can't Get Enough?

Then follow Findsight! That's right, we've entered the 21st century and embraced social media.

    For the tweeters:

And the pinners:


Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Game of Thrones/A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

I recently read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I wanted to read the books before I watched the TV show, and people keep telling me to watch the TV show. My only message to all-them is to read the books. They’re amazing.

George R.R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones is 1996 where it was instantly showered with awards. It won the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award, was nominated for the Nebula Award, and parts of it won the Hugo Award for best novella. Let me just say that my top 10 favorite books have all won the Hugo and Nebula, or have at least been nominated. It basically guarantees that the book is going to be fantastic. The reason I’m telling you about all of Martin’s awards is because I’m surprised his books were so removed from the public’s radar. Martin is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and I’m sure it has everything to do with the TV show. It’s good to know the old boob tube is good for something.

A lot of people compare Martin to Tolkien. I understand the desire; it is very high praise for Martin. But, to me it seems a lot like saying apples and oranges are similar because they’re fruit and round. The only thing similar about Martin and Tolkien is that they write fantastic fantasy. If there were more supremely talented fantasy writers than Tolkien and Martin wouldn’t seem so similar.

Aside from the fact that their style is very different, I always thought Tolkien was more of a storyteller and Martin more of a character developer. Tolkien’s books are all about the story; they’re about the universe he’s created, the past, the present, even the future. Martin takes character development to the extreme. The most obvious indicator is that the books are written from about nine different points of view at any one time. Additionally, each character is very different. He writes a 10-year-old noble girl as well as he writes a 50 year old ex smuggler with two sons. Somehow he manages to represent the soul of each character in a remarkably believable and subtle way. I’m not sure how he does it, I can’t think of another author who does it as well.

A big theme in A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings is the competing ides of honor, bravery and strength. The fact that the books are written from so many different points of view means that Martin is going to have a chance to represent the ideals of all those characters. In this universe (kind of like our medieval ages) honor is a very big deal. I’m very intrigued how each character represents their idea of what it means in be brave and honorable. For Arya strength means having the power to kill or elude people. She felt like a mouse when she was trapped as a servant, but once she was able to choose three people to kill she felt strong. Her sister Sansa, on the other hand, felt like honor and bravery meant remembering her courtesies even when times got tough. The castle was under siege, she was terrified, and still she was able to say something polite to the Hound, even though she feared and disliked him. Tyrion found his strength in being smarter than other people and controlling them through that knowledge. Cersei used sex to control people, and valued beauty, wealth and political power.

            Another big theme in the books was the duty required to family. Tyrion Lannister would cover up any crime and support any folly of his family for the simple reason that they were family and that’s what you did. Yet he let his contempt for his family be very pain, and didn’t feel the smallest bit of love for them (with the exception of Jaime). Bran Stark, on the other hand, took enormous pride in being a Stark and believed he was held to a higher standard of behavior because of his station. He loved his family and missed them greatly when he was parted from them. It’s all these different ideals that make A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings.

One of the most interesting things about George R.R. Martin’s books is the character he chooses to focus on. He writes from the point of view of character who seem like they should almost be supporting characters instead of main characters. For example, instead of writing from Jamie or Tywin’s point of view he chose Tyroin. Tyroin is by far the most interesting and awesome of the Lannisters, but he is not the obvious main character. Another example is choosing to write from Bran’s point of view instead of Rob the heir. Another example, to a lesser extent, is writing from Ned Stark instead of Robert Baratheon. Martin very cleverly tells the story from the point of view from people who are very interesting rather than the main characters. We actually get a better view of the events because they are being told by less biased characters. If the story was told from Jaime’s point of view, for example, we would think Cersei Lannister was pretty great (or at least really hot) instead of the wack-a-doodle that she is.

The take-a-way message from this long rambling post is that you should read the books. They’re awesome.