Genre Matters

Some of the most interesting debates about literary genres arise among so-called “genre fiction” readers and writers. The four writers who host *Writing Excuses*, for example, regularly make very fine distinctions either among the genres which they author (fantasy, horror, etc.) or about tropes within those genres (e.g., a secret history, a quest, etc.). I listen to the podcast through an iTunes subscription, but they also have a [website][]. Similarly, I have previously linked to various discussions on [][], including this [link][] to a post that tries to synthesize a Twitter conversation that then leads into further discussion in the comments, all of which are quite thoughtful.


Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’s discussion of the first Star Wars sequel, [_Splinter of the Mind’s Eye_][], is a case study in how story worlds work in genre fiction. Issues of canonicity abound. Does a story fit within the “known universe” or is it consigned to an “expanded universe”? If it fits, is it made to fit by being *retconned*, which is the act of retroactively fitting a story into the continuity of a universe. Retconning has a slight negative connotation, somewhat akin to “explaining away” something. It’s the *away* that marks the difference.

[_Splinter of the Mind’s Eye_]:

Because, Just Because

Star Wars ATAT

I have always loved cutaway diagrams. (I suppose I was an early enthusiast of visualizations.) As a kid, I would make drawings of both the external appearance of a machine or building as well as the occasional internal plan or profile. Cutaways like this fascinated me. The artists who created them were like magicians to me.

UPDATE: My apologies for the first version of this image not being enlargeable. You can now click on the image to embiggen it.

The Great Economy in Art and Life

A [recent comment][] on Reddit by Fyeo addressed the question within the Star Trek universe “How do the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians match our numbers militarily?” Fyeo’s answer came really down to two things:

> One of the big things to be aware of is one of quality and purpose. Going back to what I said earlier about science ships, that our ships are built for science as well of defence does mean that the vast majority of our fleet units have a disproportionate amount of internal volume committed to non-combat purposes as compared to combatants from other species. Does that mean our ships are inferior in combat? No, it simply means we carry into combat significant flexible capabilities that may not be applicable to all combat scenario.
> The best example of the above is that our ships have sensor and data processing (i.e. fire control) capability that are generally far better than ships of similar size, but those advantages are not always decisive in combat and our ship suffer a mass penalty from carrying that extra capability vis-a-vis more weapons. On the other hand, our focus on exploration also means that even our smaller ships generally have much, much longer endurance, better shielding, redundancy and self-repair capability than their non-Federation peers, which makes our units less logistically dependent.
> The other big thing to consider is that even though we are numerically superior to the other major powers, we are also by far the largest in terms of size of space. To exercise space control over such a large region and to support our scientific and exploration mandate means that even a fleet of our size is very thinly stretched, not to mention the demands diplomatic and crisis response events place upon us.
> The combination of our multi-purpose fleet and quantitative advantage means that we tend to match the larger, combat oriented vessels (so-called warships) of our opponents by bringing more ships to the fight when feasible.

To Fyeo’s comment PubliusPontifex added:

> The overall economic superiority of the Federation due to their larger size is what led to the many indirect Romulan and Cardassian strategies levied against them. In a 1-to-1 fight no other power could match them over the long term

What I was struck by was just how closely this description, of a diverse and large economy that is thus able to overwhelm (eventually) all comers mapped onto Iain Banks’ [Culture][]:

The Culture is characterized by being a post-scarcity society (meaning that its advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comforts for everyone for free, having all but abolished the concept of possessions), by having overcome almost all physical constraints on life (including disease and death) and by being an almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others.

Banks makes this point in the first novel of the series, [_Consider, Phlebas_][], when the Idarans make the mistake of thinking that their early battle successes means they are winning the war when in fact the Culture is simply delaying them while they crank up their war machine. Most readers of Banks will recognize that this historical moment is referenced several times across a number of the Culture novels. It acts as a kind of caveat to those who might mistake the Culture’s openness and *laissez faire* attitude for weakness. It’s a version of “you won’t like me when I’m angry.”

In that regard, it echoes Admiral Yamamoto’s, apocryphal it turns out, observation at Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” (There is no definitive documentation to attribute this quote to him, though there are two bits of evidence that bear this out as an accurate reflection of his thinking: first, that after the successful attack, he was in fact depressed; and, second, after the war he rebuffed those who thought that a military victory “in a protracted war against an opponent with as much of a population and industrial advantage as the United States possessed” meant anything. [See the Wikipedia [entry][] on the quotation for more.])

Both the Star Trek and the Culture series begin with this great economy already in place. We get occasional bits of back story, but there is no real sense of how it formed, and it also seems to be the case that once it reaches a certain size, a certain mass and momentum, it is perpetual. It can be shaken, but in the end it will always right itself, patch its holes, and be stronger and wiser for the experience.

Many of us like our fiction that way. In am uncertain world it’s nice to imagine a place where not only is there certainty, but that certainty is, well, certain. Even permanent in some fashion.

I draw in the analogy to the United States purposefully, and I was tempted to draw in the British Empire as well, but I was not prepared to do the kind of research that that gesture would have required. Instead, I only note that the only things that seems certain, when it comes to time, is change. And that perhaps one reason to like the Star Trek universe and the Culture universe is that they are reflections of us, but the reflections distort in two dimensions: first, they reflect mostly our better qualities, and, second, they make us longer lived than we really have any reason to expect.

This last point makes me wonder about the *other* end of these eras: the end. One of the things to be admired about _Babylon 5_ was that it tried to imagine what the end of an era looked like and how confusing the transition must be.

[recent comment]:
[_Consider, Phlebas_]:

Fandom and Authenticity

There is something to be said about the role of authenticity and how it plays out in fan versions of fictional worlds. [Tested reports on the efforts of fans to replicate Hans Solo’s blaster from the Star Wars series][tested]. Whether as the object of a collector’s desire or as a prop in cosplay, fans seek an authentic version of the DL-44. The term for this is *canonical*. The interesting twist to this particular story is that there were multiple versions of the prop over the three films, and so authenticity and canonicity are kind of up in the air. This does not jive with the innate impulse some humans have for there being only one right answer. The kinds of amazing research that people do in search of that answer is, quite honestly, really really amazing.

Hans Solo's DL-44 Blaster


Up Cinnabar!

It’s good to know that I am not alone in my love of Napoleonic space battles: one fan of [David Drake’s RCN series][1], as it is known, is committed to [building a model][2], from scratch, of the protagonist’s first ship, the *Princess Cecile*.


Science Is Awesome

Who knew there could actually be something interesting on Facebook? A few friends of mine now have linked to a page entitled [“Science Is Awesome”][fb] in its URL, but with something a bit more, hmm emphatic, on the page itself. (Warning to parents, and those with sensitive eyes, the emphasis comes from the “F word” as we say around here, when discussing language choices with our always growing daughter.)

Not very scientific — given all the impossibilities — but very, very funny was this image:


Renovating Luke’s Home

Short version: a serious _Star Wars_ fan came across Luke’s home in the Tunisian desert and decided to bring it back to its cinematic glory.

Thanks, [Inhabitat, for the story](

Here’s one image from the larger slideshow:

A typical dwelling on Tattooine gets refurbished for the upcoming agricultural season -- or, what was Uncle Owen thinking?

> There are tools which serve their users so well that it could be reasonable to feel regret when they break.

— from _Lieutenant Leary, Commanding_ by David Drake (Chapter 33).

The novel is the [second in a series][rcn] he wrote, or perhaps is still writing, that are science fiction versions of Patrick O’Brien’s [Aubrey-Maturin novels][am]. I am now reading the third one and they are a nice mix of action and character-driven narration. I have enjoyed Drake’s work previously in the Honor Harrington books, which were, he notes, science fiction adaptations of the Horatio Hornblower novels.


[The Oneiromantic Mosaic of Harry Potemkin]( is by Mark Teppo, one of the collaborative behind [The Mongoliad]( — others in the mix are Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson.

What Scientists Read

There’s been an interesting series of essays, and now projects, that focus on what scientists read and how it affects their work. While I know it has been an ongoing conversation in various venues for years, to my knowledge, the dialogue took on a new tone, and a new sense of urgency, with Neal Stephenson’s essay for the World Policy Institute in 2011, [“Innovation Starvation”][1]. The story was also published in [Wired](

And now there appears to be [an effort underway by New Scientist][2] to study the phenomena of [what scientists read][3].


Chung Kuo

I came across an entry for “chung kuo” on Wikipedia:

> _Chung Kuo_ is a series of science fiction novels written by David Wingrove. The novels present a future history of an Earth dominated by China.

> _Chung Kuo_ is primarily set 200 years in the future in mile-high, continent-spanning cities made of a super-plastic called ‘ice’. Housing a global population of 40 billion, the cities are divided into 300 levels and success and prestige is measured by how far above the ground one lives. Some – in the Above – live in great comfort. Others – in the Lowers – live in squalor, whilst at the bottom of the pile is ‘Below the Net’, a place where the criminal element is exiled and left to rot. Beneath the cities lie the ruins of old Earth – the Clay – a lightless, stygian hell in which, astonishingly, humans still exist. These divisions are known as ‘the world of levels’.

Fascinating. The idea of buildings that rise up from some sort of post-apocalyptic landscape, and within which one quite literally moves up, is found in Robert Silverberg’s _The World Inside_ (1972). That an undergirding layer is criminal in nature is from Dick’s _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_ (1968). The layering on of a historical dimension, that the American century gives way to a Chinese one, is really interesting.

I am making a note to myself to try the first book in the series at some point in the near future.

[James Wharris has a thoughtful post]( on how the Kindle is changing what science fiction gets read. There’s been a lot of discussion lately — Google it — on the rise of self-published authors, the bundling of public domain works, and how established authors and established publishers are responding to the dynamic publishing landscape. Wharris’ focus on one genre allows him to be a lot less shrill about the whole matter.