A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, September 7, 2012

TOF at Chicon 7

TOF attended Chicon 7, the World Science Fiction Convention and both he and the convention escaped unharmed.

TOF has always liked Chicago as a city.  It is the one major city that most resembles New York, that has that old 1930s/40s feel to it.  He also likes the three-layer streets, which have a SF feel to them.  Why not have all the trucks move on the lower level streets and the passenger cars on the higher level?  Indeed, why not indeed rent the same square footage three times?  The city scape is also more interesting.  In the New Cities, the skyscrapers are all glass boxes with not much of interest to them; but Chicago has skyscrapers from the first time skyscrapers were bespoken, and they have architectural interest in their facades and roofs.  They were built in a day when craftsmen included details that the street level could not see.

The Con Exclusion Principle was still at work.  This is a corrolary of the Pauli Exclusion Principle by which those con attendies you run into on the first day are hardly ever seen on subsequnet days, while those seen on subsequent days were not visible earlier.  Perhaps the con deploys different attendees on different days. 

Many were surprised to see TOF there, as his name was not on the list of attendees.  Heck, =I= was surprised to see me there, as I dillied and dallied until the last minute, until the Incomparable Marge reminded me that I am the Ft. Knox of Frequent Flier miles.  So I flew and lodged for free, with more miles still to go before I sleep. 

The flight went smoothly: Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton is not the most laborsome airport to wend through.  In TOF's heyday, some of the TSA folks knew him by sight.  And still let him board.  And the flight to Chi-town is short and to the point.  The bag was already on the carousel when TOF reached it.  Forsooth!  Job was lifted up just before he was crushed.  But no such encrushitude overcame TOF. 

Well, except that his first panel was starting up about the time his plane was touching down.  This was his own fault, as he had not looked closely at the date and time. 

This was not TOF's fault, since he was scheduled on two panels of the same name starting at the same time but on two successive days.  That these were two different panels did not click until the day before departure, and by then it was too late to change anything.  Oh, well.  Since TOF was not on the con attendee list (due to a late payment of membership) likely few people knew he was supposed to be there anyway.  I was the Stealth Attendee. 

For the same reason, TOF found himself in the overflow hotel and so had to walk to and from the con hotel twice a day, but few there are who can say that such exercise was unwarranted.

Comfortable With Numbers

The first panel (the one I had missed on its first incarnation) had to do with innumeracy.  Does it exist?  Is it important?  After Yes and Yes, resp., what more is there to say?  Very little, which was fortunate as I found it difficult to get a word in edgewise.  The moderator did not moderate much; and so it was like four people all trying to monologue at the same time.  Often, they did not wait for another to finish his comment before starting on his own.  Each regarded the panel as an opportunity to showcase his own opinions.  This was unfair, as the panel was clearly there to showcase TOF's opinions. 

A few points were made.  There is no such thing as a fact, only a number produced by a particualr method of measurement.  TOF mentioned his degree in math, but topology being more qualitative than quantitative, was not really a numbers guy.  Jonathon vos Post (who was on the earlier panel, not this one) commented in the Green Rood that math has three aspects: quantity, structure, and motion; or: arithmetic/algebra, geometry/topology, and calculus/analysis.  Hard to say which makes people more uncomfortable. 

Not Harry Turtledove
Turtledoves All The Way Down 
Ran into Nancy Kress and her husband Jack Skillingstead and we had lunch with Gene Wolfe and some others.  Nancy is always worth listening to in matters of writing.  If you can find her Writer's Digest books give them a read.  Likewise, the disturbing thriller Dogs.  (Think Hitchcock's The Birds, but with more bite.)  Gene Wolfe is of course legendary. 
Not Nancy Kress

Later, bumped into Harry Turtledove, Laura Frankos, and one of their daughters, Rebecca.  I remember when the Turtledovlings (there are three) were playing Headless Barbies on Mars, now they are all grown up.  I hope.  They be tall.  But then I have always looked up to Harry.  I sorta have to.  There is a different climate crowning his brow than at his feet.  But I like his writing.  His historical novel Justinian, as by H.N.Turtletaub, is most excellent.

Jack McDevitt looking into
the Future
Allen Steele, grinning
Also encountered, though more briefly, were Allen Steele and Jack McDevitt.  I am a big fan of McDevitt's fiction, and had just purchased his new one Firebird.  My copy was autograph-ready, but he was expected elsewhere.  I'll catch you later and of course, I never saw him again the whole con, save briefly at distances.  I finished the book before the con was over BTW.  Allen is also an excellent writer and I have been fond of his near-future construction in space stories, as well as of Coyote.

Chuck Gannon.  Why is almost
everyone gazing to the left?
Writers Under Glass 
I had volunteered to participate in this interesting exercise.  Writers had pledged to write in public for half an hour each on a "novel", each picking up where the others had left off.  When I entered the story, it was a sort of fantasy-horror tale of people shipwrecked in the arctic who had been in search of a magical gem.  The narrator's two friends and the ship's captain had all died by the time I took over; but the dead guy had come back on a tropical isle inexplicably set in the arctic wastes.  So I took it in an Aristotelian/metaphysical direction, ending with Schroedinger's cat running through the clearing.  Then I handed off to Chuck Gannon.  I'd not mind finding out what he did with it, as we've been discussing off and on an alien invasion collaboration. 

Strangely enough, no fen gathered round to watch, which was supposedly a key aspect to writers under glass. artwork for "The Iron Shirts"
Sidewise Awards
I was nominated for the Sidewise alternate history award for my novelette, "The Iron Shirts."   It had originally been titled simply "Iron Shirts," but there was fear some readers would suppose "Iron" to be a verb rather than an adjective.  I went to the awards fully expecting to lose to Harry Turtledove, who is not called the King of Alternate History from sheer whimsy.  He was up for his story "Lee at the Alamo," also on   

George RR Martin, also
looking right
Alas, we both lost! 

The Great Bearded Glacier
On Saturday was an interview with George RR Martin, and all the questions were directed (surprise!) at Game of Thrones, et seq.  George regards the changes made by HBO to be mostly beneficial, given the differences in the media.  Too much of Robb's story took place off-stage in the books; but the showrunners wanted the guy on screen.  To do that, they had to bring in the love interest, and that meant it could not be the same person as in the book.  There were other changes of the same kind.  He was also asked if he was making it up as he went along, and he claimed he was not: that the major plot elements were planned that way from the beginning.  If so, my hat is off to him, because that series is one godawful convoluted mass of spaghetti of plot threads. 

I greatly admire George's writing, and recommend for your enjoyment a collection of short stories: Portraits of His Children.

Moral Ambiguity in SF
This was also on Saturday.  I sat in the audience...  No, I stood in the audience.  The room was packed to the gills -- and I got there early!  I guess SF types are really interested in moral ambiguity.  Maybe they were looking for pointers.  Faithful Reader will no doubt be shocked to learn that the panelists - with some exceptions - came out four-square in favor of ambiguity.  Now there were two reasons for this, one of them defensible. 

Several panelists relied on the tired trope that there is no such thing as an absolute morality anyway.  That is, morality is ambiguous, per se.  What's good for me may be bad for you.  Etc. etc.  This is really just the triumph of the unbridled will.  Quite likely not one of these had ever read the Nichomachean Ethics.  Or the value of a bridle in riding a tiger. 

The real value of moral ambiguity is that is generates conflict in fiction.  The pro- and an- tagonists must both believe they are pursuing the good, yet be at odds.  Even if morality is absolute and objective, there will always be situations in which it is not clear what the correct course of action is.  (This uncertainty of the intellect is why the will is free.)  I am forcefully reminded of a co-worker of my wife many years ago who had smothered her baby lest the crying alert the East German border guards during their escape.  This would have meant everyone's death.  The act was intended to keep the baby quiet, but it had the effect of smothering her to death.  A film example was Sophie's Choice, in which a mother entering a concentration camp must choose which of her two children will be exterminated right away.    In fact, this makes a sharper tension of the human heart in conflict with itself than does the anything-goes morality-is-personal, because in that case there is really no conflict at all.  Nancy Kress presented the more nuanced case. 

TOF says that if "the good is what all things seek," then perfection of one's nature is an objective morality.  The end of strategy is victory, so a good strategist is one who is victorious; just as a good doctor is one whose patients thrive; etc.  Since all humans share in the same nature, that morality holds for everyone.  It may not hold for aliens possessing a different nature.  After all, what is good for the lion may not be so cool for the lamb.  So here is a second real opportunity for moral ambiguity.

There were actually some people who showed up for TOF's reading.  They were given a choice between the current In the Lion's Mouth, the upcoming On the Razor's Edge, the newly-released Captive Dreams, the fact article "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown...", or some WIP: The Chieftain and The Shipwrecks of Time.  They went with the latter, so I read an early portion introducing Francis Xavier Delacorte, the historian post-doc. 

The Resurgence of Pseudoscience
TOF inhabited the audience, not the panel.  The concern was that pseudoscience was on the rise - astrology, handwriting analysis, Meyers-Briggs, climate change denial, creationism, and the like.  As TOF entered the room, someone was just saying how "the Catholic Church came out in favor of creationism," so you didn't have to be a weatherman to see how the wind was blowing, and blowing hard.  Just a little time was spent bewailing handwriting analysis, if you catch the drift.  TOF manfully resisted pointing out that a system of handwriting analysis was what got Bruno arrested in Venice.  Interestingly, no one mentioned psychiatry or sociology among the pseudo-sciences.  A big oversight.

The answer to the question why pseudo-science is on the rise was obvious, but no one mentioned it.  When discourse was religious, dissent took the form of heresy.  When it became scientific it took the form of pseudo-science.  This is why the reaction to climate skeptics resembles nothing so much as the enforcement of orthodoxy, including efforts to fire journal editors, get grants canceled, and in one case a discussion of getting someone's doctorate revoked!  These are not the tactics of Scientists™, but of activists.  Some comments from the audience suggested that dissent from orthodoxy need not be pseudo-science, but may be only ahead of its time.  The persecution of Semmelweis and of Wegner come to mind.    To be a pseudo-science one needn't be wrong.  A pseudo-science is to use the trappings of science - including white lab coats and passive voice pronouncements -- but not the substance.  Dennett's "science" of religion" is a good example.

The harping on evolution vs. creation took the fundamentalist position that the two were somehow about the same thing.  It's nice to know there are things that atheists and fundamentalists can agree on. 

The suggestion was also made that pseudoscience was not really on the rise but that it was subject to more scrutiny than before.  I don't know.  I did overhear a conversation in the Green Room that was a serious discussion on astrology.  Those had to be fantasy people, not SF.  I hope. 

Getting It Right: Religion
This was evidently part of a series on how SF screws up on various matters, in this case Religion.  The basic stance of the panel was that there has never been a human society without religion, so efforts to portray a religion-free future were unrealistic.  The same might apply to alien religions or fantasy religions.  Realism, not the panelists' personal commitments were the issue.

Br. Guy Consolmagno, the Jesuit Vatican astronomer, offered that many writers approached religion like an engineering problem.  That is, they assemble their societies from the outside, like an engineer assembling a product out of disparate parts with no natural relation to one another.  Hence, fictional societies are often unrealistic because these separate parts don't mesh.  A real society otoh is organic and grows from the inside.  This was a point made earlier in another context by George RR Martin, who called this writerly approach "the gardener." 

There was the usual myths brought up about the conflict between science and religion; but since this overlaps with the next panel and I honestly cannot recall what happened at each one, I will segue directly to....

Faith in SF
This was not about whether one trusted or relied upon SF but about how faith was treated in SF works (and elsewhere).  TOF was on the panel for this one, and panelists were all asked to suggest a book that treated faith.  TOF went off-center and suggested Toby Huff's Intellectual Curiosity because it demonstrated how faith in the telescope differed between the West (where it started a scientific revolution) versus Islam and China (where it was virtually ignored). 

In discussion, TOF decided to break with tradition and define terms before discussing them.  In the post-rational modern ages, folks are more prone to discuss first, and define later or not at all.  TOF noted that faith comes from fides, which means to put one's trust in another.  Hence, it is related to truth rather than fact.  If you have no superconducting supercollider of your own, you must put your faith in those who do have one, basing it on how reliable such folk have proven in the past.  It does not mean "to believe particular facts," except insofar as you have been told them by people you trust, like Richard Dawkins or Pope Benedict.  Even fact is a matter of trust: are the instruments reliable?  Are your own senses reliable?  And since facts are not self-demonstrating, is the interpreter of the facts reliable.  Faith is thus something independent of religion.  Religio means "to bind-again" and is thus a cultural ritual.  Roman religion was not based on faith, but simply on performing the rituals that bound Romans together.  They had little trust (faith) in their gods, who tended toward the arbitrary and whimsical, but thought they could be placated by sacrifices.  The Greek and Latin Christian Churches OTOH combined the binding rituals of religio with faith in Jesus as a reliable source of trust. 

Intriguingly, as Dorothy Sayers commented in the previous post, TOF's left-hand neighbor objected to the clarity by huffing that such distinctions were "old."  TOF is uncertain how "new" muddy lack-of-definitions are supposed to be an improvement. 

Naturally, someone brought up the conflict between science and religion.  Woo-hoo.  The name of Galileo was invoked along with "many others" whose names most curiously languished unevoked.  TOF's right-hand neighbor, a Methodist priest named Randy Smith, leapt to the defense and pointed out that Galileo was chastized more for honking off powerful and important people than for any astronomical mathematics.  TOF noted that in his letter to Peiresc, Galileo referred obliquely to the "true motives" that lay behind the "mask of religion."  In fact, it was Galileo who had demanded to be taken on faith and Cardinal Bellarmino who asked for empirical proof.  The Church had (mistakenly) relied on the "settled science" of the "consensus" of scientists that the Earth was immobile in the center of the world, and many treatises had been written using that imagery.  The exegetes were not about to abandon that, certainly not in the midst of the Protestant literalist Revolution, just because Galileo had a hunch that a century and a half later proved almost right.  Details will be covered in TOF's forthcoming Analog article: "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown and Down and Dirty Mud Wrassle." 

It was also pointed out that we owe heliocentrism to a canon who was shortlisted for the bishop's chair, genetics to an Augustinian monk, and the Big Bang theory to a Belgian priest.  That elicited the stock answer that "in those days" everyone pretty much had to believe.  TOF is convinced that these people lack skill in reasoning, or perhaps in listening.  Both Mendel and Lemaitre were mid-to-late moderns and it was hardly true even in Copernicus' day that one was required to be religious in order to practice natural science. 

A couple audience members asked for the empirical evidence for God, but the Panel was on the portayal of Faith in SF, for which it is not necessary that the faith be fact-based, only that it be believed by the fictional characters in the story.  The main problem is (the panel mostly agreed) that people who believe themselves faithless have a hard time portraying people who do have faith.  The default assumption is that such people are either fools or con artists, depending on which side of the altar they are on.  George Martin OTOH does a good job of portraying very sincere worshippers of the Old Gods, the Seven, and the foreign Fire God along with cynics who believe only in themselves.  It's one reason why his Game of Thrones world seems as real as it does. 

Inevitably someone mentioned The Sparrow as a "good" example.  But in the earlier panel, Br. Guy had dismissed it.  It portrayed a member of the Society of Jesus who never once in the book so much as mentions Jesus.  How realistic is that? 

The End


  1. Poul Anderson also manages to do convincing pictures of believers. I remember because it's so rare.

    What struck me about Martin's world was the lack of social pressure behind religion. You could pick and chose as you pleased. Isn't anyone afraid that the gods will be angry if they aren't properly propitiated?

  2. A delightful recanting. And I should say -- Sir, that Writers Under Glass exercise reminds me of Harlan Ellison's fantastic period of cranking out remarkably decent short stories in bookshop windows, stories generally typed on actual typewriters, while chatting merrily with the otherwise admiring or (not xor) befuddled. I am sure he'd have quite a bit more to say about such exercises, all rude yet full of pith. And vinegar.

    As to your move to "define terms before discussing them"... well, I say G-d Bless you, so to speak, as a (so to speak) social scientist. Which is to say, reality is contextual, but one has to enter it to win. As to the historically challenged, well, one must resist the urge to ask, "Ah. So. Are you making that up?" Doesn't go over well on panels.

  3. I frequently find TOF's fiction to be excessively ornate, but I agree with the majority of his philosophical and theological positions, so it grieves me to feel obliged to pick a nit regarding anything on his blog. However:

    I attended the Faith in SF Panel, and I think TOF's neighbor's objection was that TOF was drawing a distinction between faith and religion that might have existed between the Latin words _fides_ and _religio_, but that did not exist in contemporary English. The current meaning of words is not defined by their etymology. (Consider the curious etymology of "guy," for instance.) He may have been a little ungracious in not allowing TOF his own definitions for the sake of his own argument, but it might have been a better strategy on TOF's part to make the argument about the distinction between external sociopolitical ritual and internal faith without playing etymology games. I think the characterization of the neighbor as "huffing" is inaccurate.

    On the other hand: When Mary Doria Russell was the Worldcon way back when (I believe it was in San Antonio), I made a similar objection directly to her about the absence of a reference to Christ, particularly regarding God's attitude toward suffering. Russell had some character say that God feels compassion along with the sufferer, but conspicuously fails to mention that Christians believe that God became incarnate and got Himself tortured to death. Russell seemed to accept the validity of the objection, although she did say she had run the draft past Jesuits (obviously not Brother Guy, who may not even have been a Jesuit yet then).

    At the Faith panel, I had my hand up in the question session but was not called on. Had I been, I would, like marycatelli here, have adduced Poul Anderson as an agnostic/atheist who did a good job of depicting characters with religious faith. I would also have similarly mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold.

    1. Certainly usages may change. When the change is to make discourse less clear, I reject it. When the change clarifies, I may embrace it. The problem really arises when the topic under discussion was formulated and argued in another language or under a different distinction, yet is argued against from a muddier modern street-understanding. How long would Evolution stand if discussion was allowed only under common usage?

      That is, Adam formulates an argument or a testimony for X (and Y and Z). Centuries later, Bob messes up the definition of X by creating his own version X' which then becomes the common understanding. Later still, contradictions and paradoxes arise between X' and Y and Z and Charlie becomes completely confused by arguments against X' which are presented as arguments against X.

      In any case, the distinction of faith and religion stands, even today. There are clearly people who participate in religious services who do not believe, but rather prize the social interaction. It may be a chance to make a sale. And as well we find those who claim to be "spiritual" but "not belonging to any religion." Why cast about for euphemisms when the terms are ready to hand?

      The confusion may rise because Christianity is a religion based on faith (i.e., trust in Jesus) and we Late Moderns tend to project our categories onto other times and places.


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