Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nebula Awards 2008: speeches and anecdotes

Being in Texas, the Nebula award ceremony had to have some Texas flavor, and that was amply supplied by the MC John Moore and the toastmaster Joe Lansdale. Moore started by explaining Texas dialect to the out-of-state folks. He said, "in Texas you don't say 'I'm going to have a glass of wine', you say 'I'm fixing to mosey down to Hospitality Suite and rustle up a Shiner Bock'. And right now I'm fixing to introduce our toastmaster. He's a kick-ass Texas writer, and I mean it literally: he founded a school of martial arts."

Joe Lansdale's speech was the highly anticipated highlight of the award ceremony. Everyone in the Texas fandom knows Lansdale is pretty damn funny. And his speech was funny indeed, although a bit rambling. I managed to remember a couple of anecdotes Joe told; for the sake of brevity, I'll compress the details which, in my opinion, didn't add much to the story. (Though what do I know? Perhaps readers adore Joe Lansdale precisely because of those details I consider rambly.)

His point was that Texas is such a weird place it can't help but inspire science fiction. Here is an incident that happened to him and an even stranger one, to another Texas writer. Lansdale also listed his rules for the attendees of science fiction conventions.

Michael Moorcock, who was bestowed a title of SFWA grandmaster, gave an acceptance speech I found (rushes to pull on asbestos underwear :-)) as unmemorable as any of his books. I've read three of those before giving up. Moorcock's speech still did not inspire me to read his prose. So shoot me. I think he was saying something about those dark ages when science fiction was despised by the society-at-large, and when the mainstream media viewed SF writers and fans as "geeks with slide rules for genitals" -- the only phrase I remember from his talk. :-)

But he had his own funny stories to tell about life in Texas -- and why he likes it here.

Pictures from the Nebula awards can be found in my photo gallery.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nebula Awards -- general recap

Here is my brief recap of Nebula Awards, which were in Austin last weekend. I could not pass up a chance to go, although there wasn't much for fans to do. It's a pro event, after all. The only fannish opportunities were to mingle with the pros at the autographing session on Friday and to watch the Nebula awards ceremony on Saturday. So I did both.

Missed a chance I would have killed for 20 years ago

The only autograph I got at the autographing session was Connie Willis', since none of my favorite writers were there, and neither was anyone so famous that I would want their autograph no matter what. Before getting Connie to sign a book, I got to eavesdrop to her amusing rant on Bush, in which she supplied some factoids about Bush I never heard before. Later at home I reviewed the pictures I took Friday night, and googled some of the names on the name tags, just being curious who those people were. The guy sitting next to Connie Willis was called Barry Longyear. Teh Intarwebs told me he was the author of "Enemy Mine", a story (and later a cycle of novels) on which a movie by the same name was based. That movie was my fondest remembered SF movie of the 80s. It pushed all the right emotional buttons for me. But I was no more than 18 when I saw it. If I had known that almost two decades later I'll encounter its creator! I probably would have prepared a speech and carried it in my memory for years to come, agonizing about the necessity to wait longer than I had been alive until I meet this person. :-)

Connie Willis, Barry and Regina Longyear at the Nebula Awards 2008 Connie Willis, Barry and Regina Longyear. More pictures from the Nebula Awards 2008 can be found in my photo gallery.

As it were, I briefly regretted not knowing who this guy was, and then realized that even if I had known him, I wouldn't have had much to say. I'm not under the spell anymore, and haven't been in a long time. Though I still remember what the spell felt like, and that's good.

Broken camera and photogenic faces

On Saturday, as I was driving to the award ceremony, my camera stopped working. No, it does not mean I take pictures while driving. :-) The camera was hanging on my neck, and it turned on by itself. It does that occasionally, I don't know why. Even a little jostling can cause it to turn on. But when I tried to turn it back off, it did not -- it got stuck in a halfway state with its lens partially extended. I tried to troubleshoot it the only way I knew -- by changing the battery. :-) It didn't work. I'll take it to a camera shop to see if they know of a quick fix. If not, I'll root through drawers for an extended warranty, on the off chance I bought one for this camera.

So it sucked not to be able to photograph the Nebula awards ceremony with equipment any more decent than my cell phone camera, which produces postage stamp-sized pictures so blurry your own mother wouldn't recognize you. And that's a shame, because there were some faces that begged for crystal-clear pictures. I'm talking, of course, of Michael Chabon, the winner of this year's Nebula for best novel ("The Yiddish Policemen's Union"). I remember when Chabon's wife, Ayelet Waldman, wrote that famous column for New York Times where she said she loved her husband more than her children. She said she could survive a death of any of their 4 kids, as horrible as such event would be, but if anything happened to her husband, she would see no reason to go on. Oh, what a shitstorm this column set off in the blogosphere! How horrified all the sanctimommies were that any woman would admit such feelings! So what I'm saying is, after I laid my eyes on Michael Chabon, I could kind of see how she might feel this way. :-) Even though my taste in men does not run towards delicate Elvish features combined with boyish charm, but... a face like that made me wish I had a good camera to immortalize it. I'm just sayin'. :-)

I'll write more about the highlight of the award ceremony -- Joe Lansdale's speech. I made sure to write down the stories he told before I forgot them. Some were funny; some were way too rambling for my taste. If I post them, I'll make sure to trim down the word fat (fortunately, I already forgot the details I consider irrelevant :-)) ... But what do I know -- maybe the rambliness is why people adore Lansdale?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene": book review

It's an amazing book. It's been long since I've gotten so much enjoyment out of reading a popular science book, even though at the beginning I thought it was a bit too basic for me. At first it seems to be aimed at an audience with a very minimal understanding of science. For example, Dawkins considers it necessary to clarify that a computer model of an object does not mean that a miniature version of the object lives inside the computer. Here is the quote:

"Recently, computers have taken over large parts of the simulation function, not only in military strategy, but in all fields where prediction of the future is necessary, fields like economics, ecology, sociology and many others. The technique works like this. A model of some aspect of the world is set up in the computer. This does not mean that if you unscrewed the lid you would see a little miniature dummy inside with the same shape as the object simulated. In the chess-playing computer there is no 'mental picture' inside the memory banks recognizeable as a chess board with knights and pawns sitting on it. The chess board and its current position would be represented by lists of electronically coded numbers."

You come across something like that, and you go, huh? Should I significantly lower my expectations for this allegedly landmark popular science book? But then I remembered it was written in the 1976, when not that many people had an idea what a computer was, so such an explanation might have been appropriate back then.

So this book, as one might guess, is easily accessible to a non-scientist. And yet it does not dumb things down. Quite the opposite. Perhaps it's a fortunate choice of subject matter, but this book, like few others, can lead a reader to uncover philosophical implications that go beyond the subject matter.

The eternal game of cheaters versus cooperators

The further I read, the more amazed I was at the incredibly complex, sophisticated games that genes play to propagate themselves. As we all know, a gene will become more common in the genome if it enables a body it inhabits to make more descendants. Occasionally a gene predisposes an individual towards cooperative behavior. A bunch of cooperating individuals (for example, hunters hunting a big prey), are more likely to eat better, live longer and reproduce more. So the gene for cooperative behavior gets replicated more, and becomes more frequent in the population. However, cooperation requires each individual to invest something -- time, energy, muscle power. Investing it means depleting their resources, and possibly putting themselves at risk, so they'll reproduce less than they would if they didn't have to expend those resources. If you could get the goods for free while letting your teammates do all the work, you'd be likely to reproduce more. If by an accidental mutation you acquired a gene that allowed you to trick your teammates into thinking you are cooperating while you are really not -- then you would get to reproduce more at their expense, and your "cheat" gene would become more common in the population.

That's a simple concept. What's fascinating is how complex are evolutionary strategies that arise from this simple premise. I won't go into examples now, because the book is so full of fascinating examples it's hard to pick just one. From the loudness of baby birds' cries, to the reason why there are two sexes instead of just one, and why an egg is so much larger than a sperm -- the theory of cheating versus cooperation can explain all that.

According to Dawkins, the extent of cooperation versus the extent of cheating can be predicted by a degree of genetic relatedness between individuals in a population. The amount of genetic material the individuals have in common can be quantified mathematically; based on game theory one can then predict the ratio of cheaters to cooperators. Dawkins manipulates numbers, but he manages to illustrate his point without a single equation. A reader does not need to know more than addition, multiplication and subtraction of fractions to understand his math.

From a simple premise, an intelligent-like behavior

But it wasn't so much the math that made this book fascinating, as all the diverse, sophisticated strategies the genes engage in to propagate. Sometimes you can't help but get a feeling that the "behavior" of the genes is driven by nothing more than keen intelligence. And yet there is no "behavior" and no "strategy" in the real sense; genes, of course, have no minds and can't consciously come up with strategies to reproduce; what appears to be a behavior is merely a consequence of a very simple fact: a gene that encodes a trait or behavior that helps a body to make more descendants will become more populous. To see how intelligent-like behavior of enormous sophistication emerges from this simple logic was to me the most fascinating aspect of the book. While "emergent behavior" has been a popular buzzword for the last few years (or maybe it came on my radar only recently), I haven't read a popular science work that illustrated this concept so well -- and this book was written 3 decades ago! (Admittedly, I haven't read "The New Kind of Science". But it's been on a lot of smart people's quack radar, so I'm not sure I should invest time in it.) Thus, the philosophical impact of "The Selfish Gene" transcends its subject area.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Alfred Bester's "Stars My Destination": FACT reading group discussion

13 people attended the FACT reading group discussion of Alfred Bester's "Stars My Destination" in January of 2008. Almost everyone has read something by Bester before. Most of the group has read this book when it first came out. Almost all of them re-read it anew before the discussion. Only one person did not finish the book.

This novel is set in the 24th century, when most humans have developed an ability to "jaunt", or to teleport. The protagonist, a bad-guy antihero named Gully Foyle, seeks to avenge an injustice done to him in the past. His corporate masters left him for certain death, which he escaped against all odds, and now his mission in life becomes to destroy them. They are hunting him too, since he knows a secret so important they'll stop at nothing to extract it from him. During this wild interplanetary chase, he (supposedly) matures mentally and emotionally, and discovers he has a special ability on which the fate of the world hinges.

Visual impact of Bester's writing

Many people admired the visual impact of Bester's writing. Even if they initially read the book decades ago, the images from the book stayed with them: the burning man, the tattoo, the woman who saw in infrared (Olivia), the prison in France, the colony on Mars. One reader said the very fact that he remembered the events in this book was extraordinary, since he reads hundreds of books a year and can't remember what he read six months ago. The scene that left an unforgettable impression on him was the one where the blind woman Olivia "saw" Gully's face mask, and drew it out for her father. When he re-read the book, he was very surprised the scene was only 2 sentences. It had been etched into his mind as one of the most important scenes of the novel. Several readers noted that Bester uses "the proper words instead of a lot of words" to make a point, and in that "Stars My Destination" differs from many novels of today, that would take many more words to tell the same story.

Since the language of the book itself was highly visual, some people thought the graphical effects at the end were unnecessary. They even felt those effects aged the book a bit. A reader guessed Bester must have thought it was original, but he simply might not have been familiar with non-genre writers who had done it before. Other readers liked the graphical effects, however. One person said it reminded her of the Space Odyssey.

The aging of the book, or lack thereof

The aging of the book, or lack thereof, was an important part of the discussion. Most readers agreed that "Stars My Destination" held up very well over time. "It didn't have computers, so we couldn't make fun of them using slide rules, etc." said a reader. But some others pointed out little details that gave the novel a dated feel in some places. For one thing, the rich people all seem to be heirs of the 20th century mega-corporations, for example Gilette. It is as if new industries did not emerge for the next four hundred years. Second, the cities and the infrastructure looked the same as in the 20th century. Some argued, though, that with the prevalence of jaunting, the cities might have stagnated, because people did not have to live in the cities anymore. They could live anywhere they wanted and jaunt to work, so there was little reason to improve cities.

Another thing people thought was out-of-date was Bester's attitude towards and descriptions of women, especially "the ice princess thing about Olivia" (to quote a reader). No one, however, gave a concrete reason why it felt that way, except for a vague feeling that "the common way you talk about women and spaceships" has changed. I didn't find it believable that in the age of mass teleportation women were kept under lock and key. If they can teleport, how is it possible to keep them from escaping?

The readers noted also that the main theme of psychic power-assisted teleportation was very 50s. Back then there was a widespread belief that ability for teleportation lay buried in the human psyche, waiting for the right circumstances to be brought out. There was even military research done in that direction, or rumors thereof. Unsupported by any evidence, this notion fell out of fashion.

The premise of jaunting seems flawed

Personally I found the premise of jaunting a big flaw of the novel. For millions of years humans didn't have teleportation powers, and then all of a sudden everybody found out they had them? To me this seemed absurd, and it undermined my enjoyment of the book from the very beginning. Another reader countered that it's not impossible for new mental abilities to evolve in a short period of time. He referred me to "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes, who argues that consciousness, or self-awareness, developed in humans in just a few generations around 3000 years ago. I still think that if humans had all of a sudden developed psychic powers, the society would have changed unrecognizably. The social structures would not have remained frozen in the fifties, as they are in "Stars My Destination".

In case this review sounds too negative so far, I must say most people in the group liked the book very much, though I can't say I understood why. I was the only person in the group who didn't like it. They liked Bester's highly visual style, and the story itself; to me, the plot of the book seemed a bit rambling, full of arbitrary digressions, and the style didn't save the book. I still don't understand why they liked it. :-(

A novel choice of a protagonist

One area where Bester was acknowledged to be innovative was the choice of protagonist. From the beginning Gully is described as a person with no redeeming values, and this impression only deepens early into the novel. The scene where Gully rapes a woman gave many female readers a pause. This prompted some debate in the group whether the protagonist's behavior reflected Bester's own attitudes towards women. It probably didn't, concluded the readers: there are indications in the book that the authors was critical of his character's behavior. One person said: "This isn't one of the books where attitude towards women is stark and negative, and the author seems to accept it... The author is very critical here. The ethical question is whether you can accept that this is understandable, although despicable [...] in light of things he's been through, and whether you believe there is redemption in the end. His final scene with scientific people is also a hint at the redemption he was trying to get."

Nonetheless, a few readers had mixed feelings about a novel that featured such an unlikeable protagonist. One person said he used to feel he had better things to do than to read books where protagonists were assholes; however, somebody convinced him to give "Stars My Destination" another chance, and he didn't regret it. Apparently at the time Bester wrote this book, an anti-hero was a novelty in science fiction. It was common for science fiction to portray future in which people got better and better. "Stars My Destination" changed that. To quote a reader, "Bester brought SF out of Campbellian worldview. Campbell would not have touched these stories. They are not as engineered as Campbell liked."

As far as the protagonist's redemption, most readers agreed Gully experienced character growth. After being so obsessed with revenge, he finally starts to mature and realizes that revenge is not really where it's at. One reader speculated, though, that the ending might have been the best kind of revenge Gully could have over the humankind. On the face of it, Gully's final act is supposed to teach the humanity to become better, but its consequences are ambiguous, and it's not clear what his intentions were. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, some readers called the ending "brilliant".