Friday, April 27, 2007

The CFI book club meeting

I did not get to work peacefully on my laptop throughout the first meeting of the CFI fiction book club: I was kept from it by the other 4 people who attended! So much for my hope that no one would show up! :-) (Just kidding. Though I was prepared for a possibility that no one would show up.) The experience was a bit unexpected. Not just because I don't often find myself in a position of leadership (or coordinator, which isn't quite the same, of course :-)) but because people's expectations were quite different from mine. Before the meeting, I sent out a notice that pretty much repeated what the director of the CFI Austin told me in the past: his idea was that this should be primarily a science fiction book club, though it does not have to be limited to this genre. Since the theme of the club is "Science and religion in fiction", SF would fit well, but mainstream fiction that ponders questions of science and religion would qualify too. I also asked people to bring their suggestions of books they would like to read and discuss at the club.

Well, one guy brought a list of books that left me a bit stunned. Two of the three books he suggested were "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom. I didn't know what to think. After all he was a member of (or affiliated with) Center for Inquiry, which, according to their mission statement, "encourages evidence-based inquiry into science, pseudoscience, medicine and health, religion, ethics, secularism, and society". Based on that, I thought that exploring the theme of religion in fiction would mean reading books that critically examine religion, not books that affirm / promote religious feelings! :-) Recovering from momentary speechlessness, I stammered: "uh, actually, the <director> thought this should be primarily a science fiction club." The guy said, "oh, never mind then!" Apparently he had not read the announcement I sent out.

But I had more luck with other people's recommendations. There were some books that the majority of the attendees found appealing. We gradually worked out a list that represents a little from genres of hard SF, light SF, fantasy, and satire. (Not that we deliberately tried to cover all subgenres, it just so happened that the favorite books of the attendees covered the whole spectrum.)

To make a long story short, the book slated for discussion at the next meeting is "Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell, and the one after that is "Towing Jehovah" by James Morrow. I've read "Sparrow" before, and liked it very much. It's a great read, a very moving story (even though I disagree with some of its philosophy). The next meeting is Thursday, May 24, at the Barnes & Noble at the Arboretum.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Book club crack

I have a confession to make. I volunteered to be a coordinator of a new book club that's forming in Austin. Because the FACT reading group just isn't cool enough for me anymore! :-) Heh heh, just kidding. No, I got so addicted to the FACT reading group experience that I need more book club crack! If seriously, I'm not sure why I'm doing this -- mostly to expand my social horizons, I guess. This book club will be under the auspices of Center For Inquiry. The theme of the club is "science and religion in fiction". We haven't yet decided which books to discuss. The guy who raised the idea of starting this club, and recruited me into coordinating it, thought it should be primarily a science fiction club, dedicated to that rather small part of the genre that actually has science in it. :-)

Though if I was really a pragmatic person, I would find good reasons why I shouldn't be taking this on. Do I not have enough to read as it is? Of course I do. Is it a good idea, then, to commit to reading any more books, some of which won't be in my taste (just like a lot of FACT group books are not in my taste)? Probably not. Will it meet my socializing goals? I have some nebulous and misguided hopes that maybe it will.

In any case, I plan to be sitting in the cafe area of the Barnes & Noble at the Arboretum, with a CFI sign on my table (if I can find a table, that is :-)) this Thursday the 26th, 7 -- 9 pm. All the people of good will are welcome to join. Actually, if no one shows up, that's OK -- I'll just work on my laptop for those two hours. :-) But I think at least one person has already promised to show up. So I may have no choice but to conduct a meeting. The first meeting will be spent choosing the books we might want to read.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Lady of the Mazes" by Karl Schroeder: FACT group discussion and my opinion

On March 5, 2007 the FACT reading group discussed "Lady of the Mazes" by Karl Schroeder. Everybody who was present at the discussion has read Karl Schroeder before. All but one person had read at least some part of this book. Only 4 people (out of 8) finished it. Most of others were planning to finish. The person who did not even attempt to read this book justified her decision with one word: "Ventus". :-) Despite agreement that "Lady of the Mazes" was better than "Ventus" (Karl Schroeder's first novel), the group's opinions on "Lady of the Mazes" ranged from lukewarm approval to outright disappointment.

Overall, this evaluation can be summed up like this: the concepts may be intriguing, but the storytelling is poor.

Would virtual reality work the way the author thinks it would?

While some people thought Schroeder's world building seemed interesting at first while the story centered on Teven Coronal, later in the book both the world building and the plot faltered. A few people gave the author credit for developing something rarely seen in SF, countless overlapping virtual realities with no "baseline reality", but others thought his descriptive powers were not up to par to this undoubtedly difficult task. One reader found the portrayal of virtual reality unconvincing: "The fundamental idea of multiple overlapping realities was such a cool idea, and yet he didn't entirely convince me that in his version of it it makes sense. There were so many questions about, what if there are physical obstacles from one reality imposing on another reality? And he kind of danced it around it a little bit about having software impose a compatible obstacle, or even suppress your awareness of the motions you made to walk around something, to make you feel that you're walking in a straight line, but he didn't quite convince me that it would work." At the same time he acknowledged that Karl Schroeder's attempt at depicting virtual reality was more ambitious than what most writers had done before.

Can too much reality-editing technology ruin a science fiction story?

Another reader was even less impressed. "I see mundaneness everywhere, and I don't think that's what he intends to describe," he said. He thought Schroeder could have built a much more impressive world given the technology available in this world. He quotes examples of technological blunders in the book that one does not expect from a writer of hard science fiction. Case in point: "[In the scene where they are travelling in space], they spin up to get half the g, and they are looking out with the telescope. What's wrong with that scene?" he asks. "They are spinning like hell! You need to spin really fast to create an artificial gravity of half g." If they tried to look out the window while spinning this fast, they would see nothing but a blur. Another group member countered that the telescope output was edited by the virtual reality software (called inscape in the book) to eliminate the blur, making it look as if there was no spinning.

So there's an interesting dilemma. Too much reality-editing technology can, at best, make the world described in a science fiction book look mundane, and at worst, mistakenly imply that the author doesn't understand science. There's a fine line between giving your characters full control over the reality they experience, and shielding them from experiencing anything unusual, which would defeat the point of writing science fiction in the first place. The group for the large part seemed to think that Schroeder does not walk this line very well. This was the main source of dissatisfaction for some of the readers. When the virtual reality started to fall apart, it promised some interesting developments as the characters are forced to deal with the raw, unedited world. But it didn't happen. A reader said: "It starts out, we are in the virtual reality world and something weird starts happening. From the title "Lady of Mazes" I expected a series of puzzles to unravel. As the virtual reality world kind of fell apart, I thought, this was going to get interesting. And when they say, we're going to reinvent science, I thought, cool! And reinventing science is, you are in a house and put a sign on the house of your destination, and throw yourself of the cliff, that's reinvention of science?"

Karl Schroeder reads from his upcoming work at Readercon 2006, a speculative fiction convention in Boston

He was talking about a scene that exemplifies the low-tech feel of the book, unexpected for a hard science fiction novel. The three main characters launch themselves into space by getting into a house and throwing that house off of a cliff -- or, to be exact, off the edge of their world. The destination sign is the way to communicate their destination to the forces / mechanisms that run the set of artificial habitats floating in space, known as coronals. The forces read the sign and deliver the house to the right habitat. The same reader goes on to say: "They go around the ringworld, and they find nothing? OK, so let's go to Jupiter. And there's more virtual reality people! I wanted not the virtual reality people, I wanted the real world stuff! I was hoping I'll find people dealing with real science, real world stuff, but no."

Personally I have to admit I liked the scene with the house falling off the edge of the world. Given that the three main characters had zero familiarity with spaceflight, I thought it was both a brilliant and quirky way to escape the confines of their world. At that point this novel got me hooked. It was temporary, though. The book went downhill from there.

The group was also unanimous in the opinion that the middle third of the book was poorly plotted; the narrative meandered and snarled. A reader said: "When [the characters] got to the Archipelago, it's like [the author] didn't know what to do. It kind of really slowed down, bogged down the whole thing".

Somebody was also disappointed that the psychological suspense in the book does not get satisfactorily resolved. A reader said: "there was this psychological suspense about why [Livia] reacted in certain ways, and what really happened back at the time of the accident. That scene should have been extremely intense, it should have been the point of the book, and it just didn't have the payoff it should have had."

I found characters motivations and their personal philosophies unconvincing

I wasn't convinced by the characters' personal motivations, or even by the philosophical conclusions they arrive at in the course of the novel. First, there is this intriguing notion of "tech locks", which was one of the concepts that made me want to like this book, even though I was eventually unable to. The idea is that when we are choosing technologies we use, we are choosing our values. "Tech locks" are technological limitations, restrictions that prevent the society from using certain technologies. Those restrictions are self-imposed by the society. One of the main characters thinks society should not censor itself by dismissing entire classes of technologies; he thinks humans can't live authentic lives without complete technological freedom. Then the world they live in comes under attack from a superhuman power that wants to destroy the tech locks. The book does not make it clear why it wanted that -- maybe just for the sake of an experiment? Then it turns out there are not just one, but two superhuman / transcendent entities warring against one another, even though both of them want to destroy the tech locks. The main characters, who started out on a mission together to find help for their homeworld, split up and align themselves with one power or the other for no good reasons. Their choices don't seem to flow from deep inside their personalities. Once they started making arbitrary choices, I stopped caring about what was happening to them.

The book delivers a conservative message

The central message of the book -- the one behind which I think I recognized the author speaking through a minor character's lips -- was even less convincing. If there are no tech locks, the message says -- if you are not restricted by a system of technologies / values -- then your life becomes meaningless, because you become "walpaper". You lose your uniqueness. Your life becomes identical to billions of other lifes. You are bound to do the same things, speak the same words as billions of other people. I did not see how the author arrived at this conclusion. If anything, freedom to choose any technologies one wants should enable each of us to build richer lives. I guess I don't agree with the equation "tech locks = values". Lack of a society-wide veto on certain technologies is not equal to preservation of values. A person's values can, and should, dictate technologies they use on a case-by-case basis. I don't see how it can be useful to exclude entire classes of technologies a priori. So I guess I found the message of the book to be unexpectedly conservative for an author who has a reputation of being on a cutting edge of science fiction.

What did the group like about "Lady of the Mazes"?..

... if anything? The readers gave Karl Schroeder points for trying. Few writers try to create a virtual reality world as complex as this one, or an interesting mix of human and posthuman societies. It was also acknowledged that Schroeder's writing has improved since "Ventus". This was followed by a meta-discussion of why "Lady of the Mazes" got all the rave reviews from a bunch of science fiction luminaries such as Charles Stross and Vernor Vinge. Those reviews were what made some hard SF fans in the group want to read this book in the first place, only to be disappointed. It was suggested that since these authors explore similar topics, such as singularity and post-humanism, and they all write works that are heavy on ideas but a bit weak on characterization, it is conceivable that they overlooked mediocre storytelling in favor of the ideas.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Cordwainer Smith "We The Underpeople": FACT reading group discussion

There were 9 people present at the FACT reading group discussion of We The Underpeople by Cordwainer Smith. Everybody read some portion of the book. A lot of people have read some of the stories that make up "We The Underpeople", and other Cordwainer Smith's stories before, sometimes decades ago. So the discussion revolved not so much around We The Underpeople, as around Cordwainer Smith's writing in general.

Storytelling influenced by Eastern myths

Most people in the group loved it. What they liked about Smith's stories was their political subtext and his manner of storytelling. The latter, everybody agreed, is unusual. It seems as if Smith wasn't so much writing novels and stories in the traditional Western sense, as creating a set of myths. People familiar with Paul Linebarger's (Cordwainer Smith's real name) biography inferred that his storytelling style was inspired by Chinese culture, with which he became very familiar during his stay in China. Several readers remarked that Smith's stories were structured as Chinese parables. They are set in mythical time. Everything in them has happened a long, long time ago, and the heroic feats of the characters have been exaggerated to mythical proportions. And the ostensible purpose of Smith's stories is to enlighten the readers about what really happened. "I'm sure you know the story of C'mell. Everybody knows the story of C'mell. Well, you think you know it, but this is what really happened." (That's not a real quote from the book -- that's how one reader paraphrased Cordwainer Smith's approach.)

Some people compared Cordwainer Smith's storytelling style with that of Stanislav Lem's in Cyberiad. Like Lem, Smith creates fables, myths and legends rather than conventional stories. And like Cyberiad, this story collection does not feel dated despite having been written several decades ago, as it does not have specific technology in it that would date it. "The computers are disembodied voices," said a reader. "There's nothing wrong with that. There's no concept of how big it is. Contemporary authors would throw in tubes and knobs and dials, and it would date it."

Passivity of the characters: a bug or a feature?

Cordwainer Smith's storytelling style did not appeal to everybody in the group. As one person pointed out, "Norstrilia didn't have much of a plot. A stupid boy wanders around and people and animals tell him what to do. He is completely passive. He doesn't have an original thought in his head. He only does what others tells him to do." This lead to a debate whether that was intentional and supposed to be enjoyed, or if it was a critical flaw of Cordwainer Smith's writing.

Reader 1. [The protagonist's passivity] was part of the point. What he was trying to portray, is how easily people fall into doing what they are told, and not questioning.

Reader 2. I can see that, but most people like to read about take-charge individuals.

Reader 3. But he wanted something -- he wanted the stamp! And then the Cat guy tells him what to do, and the next thing he doesn't even want the stamp! The only time he had a definite desire, it got brainwashed out.

Reader 2. The protagonists are really not active or interesting.

Reader 3. Even in one of my favorite stories, Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons, the girl who activates the defense mechanism only sits and does what she's told. She might as well be replaced with a machine.

Reader 4 pointed out that Chinese mythos and Native American mythos are structured the same way. The characters wander here and there until the event happens. That way the characters, and the listener learn about the world they live in. And the world where Cordwainer Smith's stories take place is, by everyone's admission, quite rich and interesting to learn about.

I side myself with those who did not find "Norstrilia" interesting. In fact, I found most stories in "We The Underpeople" to be both unconvincing and dull. There is a lot I could say about each of them, but I'll focus on the novel "Norstrilia". I found it unconvincing because:

The premise of 'Norstrilia' seems bogus to me

The premise of 'Norstrilia' seems bogus to me. I don't believe there can be a society that possesses untold riches, but its inhabitants have voluntarily agreed to give up those riches and instead live an austere, puritanical lifestyle. Suspension of disbelief doesn't work when it's directed against human nature. Overall, I am very skeptical of utopias / dystopias (and I'm not even sure which of these categories the "Underpeople" series falls into -- utopia for the humans and dystopia for the underpeople? :-)) because I think human nature would prevent a society from developing into a utopia or dystopia. Such books usually contain no explanation or even a hint as to how the society came to be this way.

<Somebody>, in anoher blog, has said that "Norstrilia" never gets around to having a plot. That's very true. Not only Norstrilian society itself is based on an unrealistic premise, but the plot-driving mechanism in "Norstrilia" didn't make sense. The protagonist finds out that an old enemy is pursuing him, probably wanting his death. So what does he do? He does not even think of turning to police, or some equivalent thereof, for protection. He fully assumes that he is left to his own devices. This is strange, because Norstrilia appears to be an authoritarian state, and as usual in authoritarian states, police should be a very visible force. "Norstrilia" appears to be an example of what Marion Zimmer Bradley calls a plot that only works because everyone acts like an idiot. Well, not everybody in this case, but the main character's apparent idiocy is what sets the book in motion.

The protagonist psychological transformation, if such occurs, seems baseless

The protagonist's further adventures on Earth in an underperson's / catman's body are interesting in some places, but not consistently. When he meets the Catmaster, his psychological transformation is not convincing. The Catmaster hypnotizes him and shows him something -- I already forgot what it was; the vision Rod saw was somehow supposed to make him super-wise, bring him inner peace, and make him realize that he's happy with his situation in life -- that Norstrilia is where he wants to be. Ostensibly it is some kind of archetypal transformation that is common in myths and fairy tales. A spiritual guide (the Catmaster in this case) is supposed to guide the character to a realization that he already has everything he needs in life, that he is a complete person, etc. However, in Rod's case this seems superfluous, because he wasn't really dissatisfied with his position in the first place! He was forced out of Norstrilia not by his need to rebel against the society, not by a longing for adventure or anything, but against his own will. And he never really had a big ego or lofty aspirations that would need to be tempered. The only thing he was unhappy with in his life was lack of consistent ability to speak and hear telepathically. But even that didn't bother him a whole lot. So it seems like there was no internal driving force to his adventures. Hence, his adventure does not seem to have a point. Not to me, at least.

Regardless, Cordwainer Smith has many fans in this group

Passivity of the characters notwithstanding, at least half of the people who were present at the discussion count Cordwainer Smith among their favorite writers. It is my impression that those were the people who were well educated in political science, and who were familiar with Paul Linebarger's biography and his work in China. Perhaps a good understanding of and interest in political science can really enhance one's enjoyment of Smith's writing, although I personally thought the politics in Smith's novels and stories were quite transparent and did not require a great sophistication to understand. Political figures in all those stories were more like symbols than real people with complex agendas.

It was also acknowledged that he influenced several generations of science fiction writers, such as Ballard and Delaney, all the New Wave people, as well as Charles Stross. One person in the group, who read Charles Stross' Glasshouse clearly felt Cordwainer Smith's influence on "the deep stuff about psychological warfare" in Glasshouse.

Some people got a chuckle out of the humor in Norstrilia. The whole setup with stroon (an immortality drug) being produced by sick sheep was a bit farcical. Especially the part where if you steal a sheep and smuggle it out of Norstrilia, it gets better and stops making stroon. This lead to speculation if Frank Herbert's spice in Dune is re-cast stroon. Norstrilia was written a lot earlier than Dune, so some readers thought it was conceivable that Herbert borrowed the idea of how the spice is made, from Cordwainer's stroon.