Putting the life back in science fiction

Magical Conservatism
August 30, 2010, 10:06 pm
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I normally don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, but when I see reports arguing about how many people showed up for some Tea Party event in Washington to somehow mark the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I get…well, what?

Annoyed, certainly. But this is so typical, I really don’t want to spend the energy. What’s the description for just wishing that a problem would go away? I don’t particularly want to ignore it. I just want the people involved to spontaneously combust, so that the rest of us can mourn their passing and getting on with our lives.

Rather, I want all the talking-head reporters covering Washington (yes, I’m looking at you NPR) to understand that there’s this thing called reality. Reality generally has numbers attached to it. One set of numbers, with an error bar as needed.

It seems that the Conservative segment of US politics has wholeheartedly embraced magical thinking. As defined by me, this is the idea that you can through special knowledge and practice, change reality, mostly by changing how you see it.

Remember good ol’ Bushie II? He seemed to run on the idea that if he said something, it was therefore true, especially if he could threaten anyone who disagreed with him. That’s the playbook we see now: bullshit (or lying when they care about the truth), threaten those who disagree, and keep reinforcing the story up until it becomes people’s consensus reality.

This is magic, and unfortunately, it works. It’s also not new: if you look at spell, enchant, charm, glamour, even fetish, you see that these all describe types of media manipulation. People often think that our ancestors were stupid to believe in magic. They weren’t: what they called magic was when a slick-talking stranger came to town and drew up a paper that said that the land they had farmed for generations now belonged to some other dude. And they knew they couldn’t fight him, because they didn’t know how to spell. Only the truth would set them free, and all to often, their church told them that they owned that truth too, bound up in the words of the Bible. Magic is a perfectly good way to describe such a world, when you’re ignorant and powerless. The fact that people still use it today should leave us wary, not complacent.

What’s fascinating to me is how inefficient this type of magic is: No one is sure how much the Koch brothers (link to New Yorker article) are spending to bankroll the Tea Party movement, but it’s a lot. And it’s not terribly effective, despite the noise.

Still, it sucks that so many angry people are getting manipulated so badly, conned into parroting the interests of a group that demonstrably do not have their best interests at heart. Unfortunately, this group would be perfectly willing to destroy my life in multiple different ways, so I’m not that sympathetic.

But all things considered, I prefer the cold iron of real numbers. They’re more useful than the magical BS these dudes are promulgating.


Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies
August 23, 2010, 7:02 pm
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I must admit, I love this title, because it says everything that’s wrong with ecology these days. Right. Don’t worry, this ends up in science fiction in about seven paragraphs.

The title comes from the August 2010 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which fortunately for all of us is available free online. This journal is published by the Ecological Society of America (yep, I’m a member), and it’s about all the problems ecologists, climatologists, and environmental scientists are having getting the public to tune in to reality. And yes, that’s my bias.

But the interesting thing for me is how much a culture clash there is. Back as a grad student, I got a paper bounced from several publications on the grounds that “we don’t publish speculation.” To their credit, they did publish a mathematical model I created, but this mindset was fascinating. Some of these people were colleagues of a late, lamented giant in that field who said something like “evolutionary biology is for people who can’t do field science.” Since I respect his field science a great deal, I won’t name him. However, this refusal to deal with the past, or to play with conjecture, was and is striking.

Back to the Frontiers in Ecology articles, on “Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies.” It made me sigh, because it’s so earnest. My favorite is the shortest, Katherine Ellison’s ‘Media mea culpa’. She’s a professional journalist, and she points out the problems the media have in covering environmental issues.

Two quotes particularly stand out:
“’The great need isn’t to explain the science one more time, as many reporters seem to think’, says David Roberts, who covers climate-change issues for the online magazine, Grist. ‘People just can’t absorb it unless they can picture a reasonable way out.’”

and her closing thought:

“Averting the worst climate-change scenarios will require nothing less than the systematic upheaval of our economy. My hope is that we journalists still have time to help lead the charge, instead of merely being swept up in it.”

This is where we get to the culture conflict and science fiction. Science fiction, to grossly oversimplify, uses the future as a setting, and when it inspires, it seems to inspire mostly the wonderful gadgets and scenarios that inspire young readers to go into the technology fields to create these things. Love it or hate it, Start Trek has inspired loads of engineers, as did Neuromancer (cyberspace) and Snow Crash (Second Life).

Ecologists tend to get into their science by reading John Muir, or by those long hikes their families took when they were young, and they tend to get radicalized when they see their favorite areas trashed. Many have read science fiction, but now days, they are too busy saving the world (ideally), or at least trying to keep employed (speaking for myself).

Beginning to see the disconnect between cultures? While there are whole subfields of disaster science fiction, the future inspires SF. In ecology, the past inspires, and the future is the problem. To make it even more explicit, I’ll point to a question from Don Fitch to John Scalzi the current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a few months ago:

from Don Fitch: ” Plants. I’m pretty sure you’re not A Plant Person — not much beyond lettuce, tomato, onion on a hamburger, or grass; a small tree in photos of sunsets — but I’m wondering if you’re as virtually-blind to plants the way some s-f writers/readers I know are.”

Scalzi’s answer: … “So, no, I don’t think I’m virtually-blind to alien flora, but I do think alien flora on an earth-like planet (where many of my books take place) will be at least slightly familiar.” (I cut out the rest).

Oh dear. It’s not a question about alien plants, John, it’s about whether you see the world around you.

I like Scalzi. He’s one of the more ecologically aware major authors out there. He deserves credit, but the thing that sucks is that there are so few authors like him. And even he may have trouble seeing the trees outside his window, unless a camera is involved.


To oversimplify, we have ecologists who don’t like the speculation on one side, and on the other side, we have science fiction writers who, as a group, are thought to be tree-blind if not totally clueless about anything that isn’t shiny.

We also have declining readership of science fiction.

To me, this looks like a couple of problems that have a common soluton. The environmental community is stuck with doom-and-gloom as their deeply engrained belief in the future, and the science fiction community has a lot of trouble imagining a future that realistically solves the problems we all know are out there. Part of the problem may be the publishing culture of science fiction, rather than the authors, but still, good environmental science fiction is scarce, and it even more rarely gets wide readership.

Recently there was Scalzi’s Metatropolis and Jason Andrew’s Shine, both collections of short stories. And…I’m not sure what else. Did any of you read either of these? They’re not bad.

So the question for discussion is: what does a reasonable future look like? Can we bridge the cultures of the ecologists and the futurists? Or do we see both of them, bashing their heads on opposite sides of the same brick wall?

And while we’re at it, can we have some of the writers from Wired go over and help on the titles of Frontiers? “Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies” is a sleep aid, not a phrase that gets me motivated.

Hello World
August 23, 2010, 6:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hi All,

Since I’ve been having fun commenting, I thought I’d make space for others to return the favor. As the title says, I’m interested in putting back the life back in science fiction, otherwise known as encouraging SF and fantasy writers to pay more attention to this world and to their own. My background is that I have a couple of advanced degrees in ecology, and I’m happy to field questions and discussions.

What I’m going to post here is what I’m missing in what I read these days, both in print and online, and what I like to see in literature. Feel free to agree or disagree. This blog is strongly pro-science. It isn’t anti-religion, anti-fantasy, anti-imagination, or anti-humor. I just think that most people suffer from the green blurs, and I have ideas about how to cure that. If you’re allergic to discussions of evolution or ecology, this won’t be a comfortable place for you.

While I assume that everyone’s an adult here and I value a diversity of opinions, there is a sun-blasted courtyard over there where I do experiments on troll postings. If your post disappears, it’s because I thought it would make suitable experimental material. And yes, the experiments are destructive.