Hilbert Schenck’s “Silicon Muse”

Last night, I read Hilbert Schenck’s 1984 story, “Silicon Muse” from The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. The story won the 1985 Hugo for Best Novelette, and deservingly so. It’s about an English literature professor who’s employing the campus main frame to write fiction based on the goings and comings data collected through the “Total Access” network. This story might have been an influence for Richard Powers when he wrote, Galatea 2.2. However, instead of the Power’s A.I. telling humanity, “screw you guys, I’m going home,” Schenck’s computer system works with the professor to gain literary prestige and material wealth. It’s an entertaining story that has a very postmodern construction that definitely adds to the experience of reading the story. Another recommended story!

Eastercon Day Pass (By)

Today, I went on a mighty journey to the distant land of Chester for the final day of Eastercon. Unfortunately, rail work expanded the normally 45 minute travel time to about two hours. My trek began just before 9:00am when I made my way down the hill to Liverpool Central train station. While I was purchasing my ticket, the attendant told me that I’d have to catch a bus from in front of St. George’s Hall to Birkenhead, and then I’d take a train from there to Chester. Okay, so I walk a quarter of a mile to St. George’s Hall and hop on a double decker bus bound for the Queens Way Tunnel. It deposited me at Birkenhead, but I had to walk another ten minutes through Wirral to Birkenhead Central train station. Once I got there, I had to wait about thirty minutes for the next Chester bound train.

Eventually, I made it to Chester, fought off the shopping hordes, and located the Crown Plaza Hotel. I checked in, paid my £10 membership fee, and walked down to the Dealers Room. I didn’t see anything that I couldn’t live without, so I walked back to the Edward Room for the “Politics and Ethics in Battlestar Galactica” panel. It was a lively panel with folks making great observations, and the comments got me thinking about some things that I had not yet considered.

After the BSG panel, I stayed in the Edward room, because there was only a short gap before the next panel began. However, I realized something was up pretty quickly when the panelists were clearly not Farah and several authors included in her anthology, Glorifying Terrorism. I hopped up and went to the conference check-in to ask if the panel had been moved. It had been. Yesterday. So, I completely missed the main panel that I went to Chester to hear. Additionally, everyone that I knew at the convention had already cut out.

However, I determined a solution to my dilemma. I settled in at the bar, ordered an outrageously overpriced White Russian, and looked out the window at the countryside and hills surrounding Chester.

With my drink emptied, I made my way back through Chester to the train station, because I knew that it would be an equally tedious journey getting back to Liverpool as it was getting to Chester. During my protracted rail riding, I was able to edit my Le Guin paper some, and I listened to A LOT of Ween. If you’re not familiar with the musician’s musician that is Ween, you should check out Ween Radio. It’s 24 hour/7 days a week streaming audio of Ween.

A bit of advice for convention planners: update your website if there are changes made at the last minute. I realize this kind of thing might not effect many people, but it’s a really big deal to those folks who go to a lot of trouble to attend the convention on a particular day for a special panel.

Easter Dinner

I’ve found that Easter is a big deal in the United Kingdom. Liverpool essentially shut down on Friday, and it won’t reopen until Tuesday. Sure, many pubs and clubs are open, but even their hours of operation are augmented by the fact that it’s Easter. When I was in Subway on Thursday, the two girls in front of me were talking about what they gave up for Lent. Lent? No one talks about Lent back home, much less giving up something for it.

Today, I’m meeting up with Sunshine, Sunshine’s Mom, and Ardy at Jean’s place. Jean’s fixing a white sauce lasagna for dinner, followed by a chocolate cake explosion for dessert. I’m sure that it’ll be delicious and the company equally entertaining. Also, the only relationship our dinner has with Easter traditions is that a) it’s an excuse for a dinner party and b) bunnies like chocolate.

I didn’t make it to Eastercon on Saturday, but I’ll be going tomorrow to catch the Glorifying Terrorism and BSG panels.  Chester, here I come!

Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm”

I decided to read a story before turning in last night, so I flipped through The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, ed. by Tom Shippey. I settled on Bruce Sterling’s 1982 story, “Swarm” (first published in the April 1982 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction). It’s an interesting story about opportunistic human Shapers, genetically augmented supermen/women, attempting to take advantage of a once space faring insect-like species that inhabits an asteroid near Betelgeuse. Unfortunately for the two Shapers within the hive, the group “organism” responds by producing an embodied intelligence that is periodically useful in eradicating troublesome species that threaten the “swarm.” It’s a fun story, and recommended!

Great Le Guin Story

I found the following story about Le Guin in Joanna Russ’ “Letter to Susan Koppelman” from To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. It’ll make a great opening to my Le Guin Module final paper.

Years ago at an MLA conference I saw a young man, a graduate student, read a paper on one of Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction novels. After he had finished and it was time for discussion, a handsome, middle aged woman at the back of the room rose and said emphatically, “You’re wrong. I didn’t.” It was Le Guin (171).

Le Guin might have a similar problem with my analysis of her novel The Word for World is Forest, but I’m not necessarily making definite claims about her intent. However, I am using textual analysis to find meanings in her choice of character names. I’m eight pages into the paper. Only twelve pages left to go, so I’m going to head back to the library for further work in a moment.

Eastercon Plans

Beginning today, Eastercon 2007: Contemplation opens in Chester and it runs through Monday. Andy and Farah both asked me to come out, and AP will be there too. I’m probably going to take the train there for Saturday and Monday. There is a presentation on Saturday by Dr. Guillaume Thierry titled “The Braintrix.” He’ll be talking about the way our brains construct reality. On Monday, there are two panels that I’d like to go to: Politics and Ethics in Battlestar Galactica and Glorifying Terrorism. Both of these will be useful for my MA thesis.

If you’re in the neighborhood, you should definitely check it out too!

Sunshine Review

Sunshine, my friend in the SF Studies program, won two tickets to see Danny Boyle’s latest effort, Sunshine (yeah, don’t ask). She couldn’t make it, because she was leaving earlier in the day for Dublin with her mom. That being the case, she gave Jean and me the tickets to see the film in her stead.

The film was shown at the FACT, and it was followed by a televised Q&A session with the director, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later). With a pint of beverage in hand, we settled in for the film.

There are some things that the director did remarkably well. And, there are other things that he did so badly that it felt like someone was poking me in the eye to the extent that I walked out of the theater in tears of blood.

First, the things that Boyle did well. Visually, the film is spectacular! He consciously
charges the color capacitor–starving the audience of color–and then unleashes torrents of held back color accompanied by gusts and punches of sound. The visual impact of the sun is part of his scheme, and it doesn’t disappoint. I can’t think of any star in SF that looks as great as the one in Sunshine.

The actors inhabiting the violent and bipolar shifting vacuum between the Earth and the sun are dead-on. Even though we don’t have any backstory on their characters, they all maintain a dynamic sense of self that feels much more real than many cardboard cutouts often found in SF films. If only the story and created world could live up to the performances made by the cast.

The film is weighed down by elements that detract from the overall movie watching experience–at least for those of us with a bit of science background. First, the movie is set 50 years in the future and the claim of the film is that our star is dying out. This is where I started having problems with this being a supposed SF film. This isn’t a logical extrapolation from the world and universe in which we live. The sun will continue burning for billions of years. In the Q&A, Boyle told the audience that there are two tracks for space movies: space fantasy (Star Wars, Star Trek) and NASA films (2001: A Space Odyssey). He also put his film into the NASA film group. For his lack of logical extrapolation in a key plot point among other issues that I’ll go on to detail, I find this film firmly placed in the skivviest section of sci-fi space fantasy and not in the harder SF that Boyle claims to be conjuring.

The next fallacy is humanity’s plan to help out our friendly neighborhood stellar object with a specially constructed bomb constructed bomb made of the total fissile material mined from the Earth’s crust. The bomb appears to be a large cube that’s approximately a few hundred meters across. Their plan is to drop the bomb down a convection ‘tunnel’ on the surface where it’ll make its way down to some depth and go off. This idea is completely bunk. From the simulated images onboard ship, it looks like they plan to drop the bomb down a sunspot. Granted, sunspots and convection points all over the surface of the sun are dark in comparison to the surrounding material. The reason for this is that those areas of material are at a slightly lower temperature than the material around it. It’s actually not black as in an absence of something like a cave, but it’s merely a difference in temperature which is shown as an extreme in comparison to hotter areas. For a description of this with pictures, go here.

Okay, let’s say that their silver bullet will do as it’s intended to do and make its way into the sun. Fusion reactions take place in the core of the sun, which is a long way from the surface. The diameter of the sun is 1.39 x 10^6 km, so the radius is 6.95 x 10^5 km. So, for this long trek, the bomb will have to withstand the heat and pressure of the sun’s interior as well as the increasing acceleration due to gravity. Even in Star Trek: The Next Generation the writers knew this was crazy, so they invented interphasic shielding to circumvent having to deal with the magnitude of those forces.

Assuming that in 50 years the Earth has genius materials scientists and engineers up for this task, then there is the issue with the make-up of the bomb. The bomb is made up of all of the fissile materials that humanity can mine from the crust of the Earth. Now, most of the fissile material in the Earth is down around the core, because those elements are very heavy and were drawn there when the Earth was forming (thankfully, because otherwise we either wouldn’t be here or we’d be a lot different than we are). Now, consider the size of the Earth in relation to the Sun on this site (scroll down a bit). For comparison, you can fit approximately 1.3 million Earths inside the volume of the Sun. Therefore, our entire planet is insignificant in comparison to the sun. And from our planet, we’re going to send out heavy metal fissile material encased in a bomb that will somehow reignite the self-regulating proton-proton chain fusion reactions within the Sun’s core. That bomb would elicit the tiniest of belches within, and there would be no manifestation of its effect on the surface of the Sun.

Finally, the design of the ship was the worst needle in my eye. One, Boyle’s idea of putting rotating antennae along the shaft of the spacecraft does not imply any kind of artificial gravity, unless the people are in pressurized containers at the ends of the rotating arms. Boyle said that he used artificial gravity because of the time and cost constraints of making the film, and he believed the rotating elements on the exterior of the ship would imply artificial gravity. No, they do not. In fact, putting antennae at the ends of the rotating arms makes no sense. Johnnie Cochran’s ‘Chewbacca’ defense makes more sense. He could have used a different ship design to make it more plausable, but his linear design doesn’t plan out. Other problems include no escape pods or shuttles that could have been employed in docking with Icarus I, and a ship that size would need more than one airlock. However, I did think his inversion of the old nuclear bomb propulsion system explored by NASA was inventive.

Other issues with the movie include: Why is it a manned mission (I realize this would obviate the purpose of the movie, so make a better movie that holds together a bit more rationally)? Where are the NASA redundancies and checklists? Why does the ship’s ‘AI’ allow any manual control if at one point it takes control from the crew, because at that point, and no other, it believes the mission in jeapardy? Who picked this crew and the crew of Icarus I, and how did so many nut jobs make it through psychchecks? Is this a horror film or badly made SF? I do think Boyle handles equalizing race very well, but there are only two female characters (three if you count the computer–but what does that say?) and they seem to fall into stereotyped roles. How does this fit into Boyle’s idea that space is equalizing?

My beef with this film is that it tries to be hard SF, but it falls flat. There is too much of the fantastic and lack of respect for the physical universe for it to fully explore just how futile humanity’s place is in the universe. Also, the director hedges his bets by showing the sacrifice of the crew, but having the project actually pay off for those back on Earth.

I do believe that the film will serve as a resource in future SF criticism–gender relations, narrative, personal experience vs. collective experience. Also, I do know at least one person that really enjoyed the film (Jonathan described it as a Jules Verne story, particularly with the gold EVA suits. And I will concede that it is very much a voyages extraordinaire).

If you want hard SF, you won’t find it in Sunshine. However, if you want a romp to the Sun complete with sacrifice and crazies illuminated by amazing visual and sound effects, then go check out Boyle’s latest.

Le Guin and Heinlein in the Sunshine

It’s absolutely gorgeous outside today in Liverpool. Blue skies, sunshine, and it’s not too cool. I’ll be set if the temperature cranks up a few more degrees soon!

I’ve been thinking about writing my Le Guin paper about the relationship between Le Guin and other authors in the Vietnam War era. Since I just wrote a review on Starship Troopers for SFRA Review, I figured that it might be a good piece to use as a contrast with Le Guin. Heinlein’s novel came out between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but I’m sure that it had to figure into the way Le Guin chose to write The Word for World is Forest. Not so much with the technology, but with the way in which the narrative shifts between voices on both side and within sides of the conflict. Heinlein privileges one voice over all others, while Le Guin moves around so that the reader sees more than one biased viewpoint.

As I was reading in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night for material to use in my paper, I ran across a quote that would make a perfect intro to my Steampunk paper that I’m currently adding to in order to get it published. She writes:

I think it’s time SF writers–and their readers!–stopped daydreaming about a return to the age of Queen Victoria, and started thinking about the future (from “American SF and the Other”).

She’s not talking about steampunk, but she’s making the point that a lot of contemporary SF points back to the historical developments of the Victorian era. Steampunk is an overt exposition of this observation. I’ll use this quote to write a new and more involving introduction than my paper currently has.

Tonight, Jean and I are going to see the film, Sunshine. I think the SF quality of the film will be lacking, but it’s directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later), so I think it will at least be entertaining. Our friend, Sunshine, won tickets to the movie, and she gave us the tickets, because she’s on her way to Dublin with her mom in tow. I’ll report back on the film soon.

Foundation Review Writing

Today, I met Andy for coffee, and we went to the Number 5 with Farah Mendlesohn, editor of Foundation: the international review of science fiction. It was the first time that I met Farah. When we got to the coffee bar, AP and Patrick, a PhD student studying 3rd century Roman civilization, were already there. With coffee in hand, we all sat down for a discussion that ran the gambit of autism, corporal punishment, and Eastercon.

After Farah left, Andy talked to AP and me about writing reviews for Foundation. I’m eager to do this, because that would take me up to two different journals that I’ve done reviews for. He said that he would try to find something for us each to work on before Easter.

Also, Andy and Farah suggested that I go to Chester this weekend for Eastercon 2007: Contemplation. It looks like there’s a lot going on, so I think I’ll go check it out.

More SF and BSG

ApolloYou can find two other reports on the SF and the Canon Conference online. One is Professor Sarah Annes Brown’s excellent blog, Ariachne’s Broken Woof. The other is a set of notes from the first couple of sessions by Jon Crowcroft on his blog, A True History of the Internet.

Let me just say that I loved the season finale of Battlestar Galactica. I was honestly as surprised as Apollo (above) to see Starbuck miraculously reappear. I was goofing around yesterday, and I began to annotate the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which is apparently the song of choice for activating four of the final five Cylons. It’s a work in progress, but this is what I have down on paper.

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Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” Annotated in Reference to the Re-imagined Battlestar Galactica
Jason W. Ellis

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.

[These are the lines the apparent four of the final five Cylons repeat throughout the episode–Saul Tigh, Galen Tyrol, Tory Foster, and Samuel T. Anders]

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

[The final five are identified as the joker and the thief. To joke is to subvert that which is serious, or objectively real. Cylons subvert the real by masquerading, as does the Joker, as something that it is not. ]

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,

[The Cylon armada is the wildcat.]

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

[The “two riders” are Apollo and the miraculous reappearance of Starbuck.]
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Back to reading Starship Troopers for a special post-9/11 review of Heinlein’s popular novel, which will appear in the next issue of SFRA Review.