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Quark Watch (2004)
May 26, 2004
It’s time for my annual, inevitably fruitless attempt to influence the Hugo Award balloting. I’ll start with the Best Novella category, which has five strong, though no overwhelming, contenders. Compared to 2002 and 2003, this year’s nominees seem smaller in scope and, despite the deployment of an occasional bizarre concept, more cautious in imagination. In only one of them does the world change in any significant way. In several instances, the reader has the sensation of entering after the beginning and leaving before the end, which ought not to happen in any work of short fiction and particularly not in one as spacious as a novella.
These limitations notwithstanding, all five stories move along briskly and are full of interest and entertainment. Any disappointment comes only upon reflection afterward. Here is my ranking:
1. “The Empress of Mars” (Asimov's, July) by Kage Baker is a rollicking tale of triumph over adversity. Mary Griffith is a voluptuous widow with three nubile daughters, a jerry-rigged tavern, leasehold rights to a tract of worthless Martian terrain and an indomitable spirit, all of which combine to carry her from the not-quite-respectable fringe of society in the neglected Mars colony to the position of foundress of her own domain, free from the shackles of the planet’s state-corporatist proprietors.
The setting has, if not absolute realism, adequate verisimilitude, with settlers living in terraformed specks scattered across a hostile landscape. Unfortunately, it has become evident to the British Arean Company that further investment in the Red Planet won’t give shareholders an attractive return on capital, so the enterprise has fallen into decay, useful chiefly as a dumping ground for misfits who would otherwise fill the mental hospitals on Earth. Mary Griffith’s tavern, “The Empress of Mars”, employs some of them, such as Manco, a crypto-Christian Peruvian artist, and “the Heretic”, a prosthetic-eyed religious outcast with the gift of unintelligible prophecy. She relies on others, including the neo-Celtic Clan Morrigan and an ice hauler known only as “the Brick”, for customers and supplies. When we meet the proprietress, her problems include the unaccommodating attitude of the BAC, which disapproves of beer and other aspects of her trade, an unmarried, pregnant daughter who wants to go back to Earth, and an urgent need to raise a huge sum of cash to fend off a BAC intrusion. Good fortune, in the form of a chance-found rock that turns out to be a rare Martian diamond, delusively solves the last conundrum but leads only to further complications that develop into increasingly inextricable difficulties, climaxing in a properly comedic happy ending.
Told with wit and verve, “The Empress of Mars” is a fine addition to the “Wild West in Space” subgenre and, unlike many similar stories, could not have been set just as readily in Montana.
2. “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” (Asimov's, December) is Connie Willis’ annual Christmas story. Like most of the others, it is clever, slightly weird and sweet without a taste of treacle, perfect for reading in front of a blazing fire while Christmas music – “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, say – plays soothingly in the background.
In the manner of last year’s big Christmas movie, Love Actually, the novella consists of intercut short stories, all set against the most gargantuan snow storm in recorded history. A climate researcher suspects that the weather may be a catastrophic side effect of Global Warming (anticipating, though with a less irrational scientific basis, this year’s big nutcase movie, The Day After Tomorrow). The plots do not revolve around the macro-effects of climate change, however, but on how the storm’s disruption of the day before Christmas affects half a dozen people: a bridesmaid at a Christmas Eve wedding who wishes that she were the bride, a widow whose way of coping with her snow-philic husband’s death is to flee to sunny Santa Fe for the holiday, a faithless husband who rejoices in being stranded out of town with an irrefragible excuse for not making it home, a bachelor who has to cook the Christmas goose for a family gathering with no assistance except a terminally shy aunt, a pair of Darwin Award candidate snowboarders in search of “totally extreme slopes”, and a divorced mother who has been consistently outmaneuvered in child custody battles. In each of these narratives, the hyper-seasonal weather plays a part in bringing about a satisfying ending – for the reader, if not necessarily for the characters.
Of course, a writer of grimmer disposition than Connie Willis could have recounted six weather-created tragedies. In a sense, we are being shown the happy side of what would, in the real world, be an historic disaster, but the cozy illusion is so deftly managed that not even news of the collapse of the roof of the main terminal of the Cincinnati Airport under the weight of 46 inches of snow spoils the mood. The incident simply serves to unravel the web of Warren Nesvick’s infidelities.
One would have to be Scrooge-like indeed to complain that a Christmas story glosses over the dark side of life (or that a Hugo nominee is science fiction by only the most elastic standard, primarily because it carries the Willis byline). Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. . . .
3. “The Green Leopard Plague” (Asimov's, October-November) by Walter Jon Williams ambitiously tackles a trio of subjects: the meaning of murder in a world where death is inconsequential, the way in which an observer’s predispositions affect his conclusions and the role of scarcity when all necessities are available as “free goods”. His reach is slightly beyond his grasp, but, if the story (or, to be exact, pair of side-by-side stories cum economics lecture) were only slightly better, it would be the clear first choice for the Hugo.
Michelle, formerly a great ape and now a mermaid, has lost her lover to a tragic accident. Ordinarily, tragic accidents don’t occur in her world, because the effects of any death can be reversed by downloading the victim’s cached memories into a new physical body. For reasons that are not immediately revealed to the reader, however, Michelle refuses to accept Darton’s resurrection. She has altered her identity and evades his lovelorn search. Her life is that of an isolated researcher, devoting part of her time to a boring government project and part to interesting private commissions. One of the latter comes her way from a famous writer at work on a biography of Jonathan Terzian, the intellectual father of the current world order. There is a three-week gap in Terzian’s life, beginning shortly after his wife died (real, irreversible death, back in the early 21st Century) and ending with his re-emergence to deliver the seminal lecture outlining his “Cornucopia Theory”. Michelle’s assignment is to find out what happened to him during those three weeks by mining the prodigious data stored on the futuristic version of the Internet.
Terzian’s story is told in parallel: what Michelle pieces together contrasted with the actual events told from the subject’s own point of view. It involves risky biotech experiments, political and criminal intrigue in post-Soviet successor states, famine in Africa, and a glamorous humanitarian who lures the depressed widower into a Hitchcock-like chase across France and Italy, culminating in a desperate confrontation in Venice. In the midst of these escapades, Terzian argues with his traveling companion about the consequences of her maguffin (a cure for hunger whose side effect is that it turns people green), and from those debates springs his paradigm-shattering theory. Unfortunately for the cogency of the author’s invention, the theory is crackpot, founded on elementary misunderstanding of the concepts of scarcity and preference. Fortunately for the story, the cogency of the theory is not too important.
There is pleasant irony is how Michelle almost reconstructs an accurate picture of Terzian’s lost weeks, falling short by reason of her lack of experience with genuine love and death. Less pleasant is the reader’s realization that the same lack has turned her into a moral monster, repetitively punishing her lover for a sin that he cannot recall and for which she will accept no atonement. Her conduct is, in fact, though the author may not fully realize it, a strong argument that Terzian’s immediate impulse – to thwart the first steps toward a society of universal abundance – may have been right.
4. I would be willing to bet a moderately large sum that “The Cookie Monster” by Vernor Vinge (Analog, October) will be this year’s winner. It takes a sharp, dystopic look at the concept of transferring human personalities into cybernetic virtual worlds – too often treated as an unreservedly benign idea – and also offers a clever solution to the puzzle of how computer-enclosed intelligences can communicate across a reboot that will terminate their universe. Those qualities will, I suspect, be sufficient for a large proportion of Hugo voters, who will overlook the fact that this pudding has nothing but a theme. There is no real story, only the middle of one. The characters do no more than follow the clues given them by their predecessors. They do not originate the ploy from which the story takes its name, nor do they deal with the bigger puzzle that remains at the end: How can a computer program thwart its ill-intentioned programmer?
Aggravating this flaw is a minor annoyance: The author cannot refrain from pointless references to other “uploaded personalities” stories, including his own. These marks of SF inbreeding do nothing to improve the species.
Having gotten the critical comments out of the way, I must confess that the story’s faults are scarcely noticeable at first reading. The pace is frenetic from the moment that Dixie Mae Leigh, a hot-tempered Georgia cracker determined to turn her life around with her new tech support job at software giant Lotsa-Tech, receives an infuriating e-mail alluding to a childhood secret that she has never revealed to anyone. A clue in the message sets her off on a quest across Lotsa-Tech’s idyllic campus, with the unwelcome assistance of a cynical co-worker. The quest grows stranger as further clues take her further from what she believed was reality. Only at the climax does it become evident that the quest has no real chance of failure and that the previous mystery and suspense were artificial. We are reading the equivalent of a record of how a well-conditioned white mouse found the cheese just where it was supposed to be. Still, that is interesting from the point of view of the mouse.
5. “Walk in Silence” by Catherine Asaro (Analog, April) appeared in Analog but is a story that John W. Campbell, Jr., would never have bought – and not just because its high concept is “Female starship captain pregnant by alien”. More fundamentally non-Campbellian is the absence of speculation about how the biological breakthrough at the center of the plot would affect society. Instead, the characters imagine various horrible potentialities and cooperate in suppressing the discovery. Worse yet, they learn of it only through blind (and quite improbable) happenstance, not through the application of their own intelligence.
If one is less demanding, the tale can be enjoyed for its imaginative background, its believable sketch of life aboard a semi-military space vessel and its exotic love story. (Capulets and Montagues were best buddies compared to humans and Cepheans.) It’s a pity that the author didn’t set her sights higher and do more to join these elements into a greater whole.
Final observation: It’s hard to tell whether this is mere chance or a significant trend, but every one of the nominated stories, including those by male writers, is told wholly or mostly from the point of view of one or more women. We have certainly come a long way from Astounding and Isaac Asimov’s jibe, “It’s enough if he had a mother./ Other females are a bother./ Though all jeweled and glistery,/ They’ll just distract him from his dreaming and his necessary scheming/ With that old psycho-history.”
Update, 6/19/04: Nicholas Whyte, a faster reader than I, has reviews of the nominees in all fiction categories, with links to other fans' opinions. He and I agree, BTW, on Best Novella, but our views diverge sharply in the hotly contested novelette category as will be seen when I get the time to finish and post my own commentary.
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February 23, 2004
Boskone is always an informative convention. This year I learned that astrophysicists are now confident that they know the large-scale structure of the universe (which doesn't quite bring us to the end of cosmology, as one of the things that they know is that nine-tenths of all matter/energy is incomprehensible) and how to get a fair result from a loaded coin (toss it until consecutive results are different, then take the second one). That's more useful information that I've gleaned from many Worldcons. On the other hand, I picked up little in the way of interesting fannish gossip. Rumors of a Denver in '08 Worldcon bid remain rumors, while Baltiwash area fandom shows increasing signs of looking to 2011, which means that there will be, barring a real surprise for '08 or '09 (an upstart Orlando bid? a reprise of Charlotte?) at least a seven year gap between East Coast Worldcons. Meanwhile, the Midwest could, though it probably won't, get three in a row: Columbus in 2007, Chicago in 2008 and Kansas City in 2009. Remember when the center of North America was dubbed "the Wimpy Zone" and when the advocates of abolishing zone rotation pooh-poohed predictions that it would produce odd sequences of locales?
A Boskone feature not imitated elsewhere is the half-hour panel, a slot for outré topics to which the con doesn't want to risk dedicating a room for a full 60 minutes. I was tapped for two of these: one on who really wrote Shakespeare, the other a conversation with Mark Olson on author Greg Egan's criticisms of C. S. Lewis, as set forth in his novella "Oracle".
My attempt to explain anti-Stratfordianism in 30 minutes (actually about 20, as the preceding speaker, whose topic was the superior intellect of birds, ran over) drew about 15 people, to all of whom the subject appeared to be fresh. A show of hands revealed none who would admit to having ever heard of J. Thomas Looney, any Ogburn, Diana Price or Roger Stritmatter, much less Michael Brame and Galina Popova. I'm not sure that I will receive any points in Heaven for making nonsense better known, but it was an enjoyable outing.
The Egan-Lewis "debate" was interesting, though lack of time left it incomplete. Mr. Egan is, I am told, a militant atheist who constructed "Oracle" as an exposé of what he regards as the obscurantism of That Hideous Strength, with a glance at the argument against "naturalism" in Miracles. His critique of the former parallels J. B. S. Haldane's, to which Lewis very effectively responded in an essay that unhappily survives only in part. Egan, like Haldane, interprets That Hideous Strength as an attack on scientific progress, whereas its real target is the belief that certain individuals are exempt from moral law and entitled to control the rest of humanity. (The argument is set forth without fictional covering in The Abolition of Man, which is, IMHO, CSL's most important book.) Lewis' villains are scientists (actually pseudo-scientists; as he noted in his "Reply to Professor Haldane", little real scientific work goes on at N.I.C.E.), because he thought that totalitarianism in the modern world was most likely to assume a scientific guise. A similar story could be written about non-scientists with the same philosophy. In fact, Dostoyevsky did so in The Possessed. The scientist protagonist of "Oracle" has different motives from Lord Feverstone and his cabal. He is not at all interested in dominating others, only in altruistically accelerating the advance of human knowledge. Had he become involved with an organization like N.I.C.E., he would have grown as disillusioned as Lewis' Mark Studdock.
Leaving aside its lack of engagement with Hideous Strength's real argument, "Oracle" does not, I think, offer a convincing rebuttal to the position, now very popular, though not among people who are likely to have been influenced by C. S. Lewis, that scientific advances can only make life worse. The summation of Mr. Egan's counter-argument comes in the story's final scene. Jack Hamilton, the Lewis stand-in, has just lost his wife to cancer, because he stubbornly declined the treatment offered by the hero Stoney (an Alan Turing figure fed future scientific knowledge by time travelers who are plainly intended as a benign version of the "macrobes" that covertly direct N.I.C.E.). Wrapped in despair, Hamilton is visited by his future self and told that Stoney has tweaked the time stream so as to save Joyce Hamilton. Thus a future exists in which both Hamiltons are living happily in youthful old age. The future Hamilton invites the present one to come forward with him and is rebuffed. Hamilton is sure that the offer is a demonic temptation.
The reader is supposed to see Hamilton as a fool who causes his own misery by rejecting the bounty of science. But any reader who doesn't already agree completely with the author may reflect that demonic temptation is quite a bit more plausible than time travel and that Hamilton is simply being rational in preferring that explanation. Mr. Egan's confidence in a beneficent ultra-technological destiny for mankind comes across as simply a matter of faith, for which he has no more solid grounds than the environmentalist dystopians.
Mark and I had no time to discuss the treatment of Miracles, which is subtler than the assault on That Hideous Strength and perhaps more interesting. Like the real Lewis, the fictional Hamilton engaged in a debate with the Heideggerian philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe over the validity of Lewis' argument that naturalism is self-refuting. From A. N. Wilson's malicious biography, Mr. Egan, no doubt innocently, borrows the notion that the Anscombe debate was a key moment in Lewis' intellectual life and that his "failure" haunted him ever afterwards. [1] In "Oracle" he is given a second chance, equipped with an argument drawn from Gödel's Proof. (A mysterious stranger – possibly a malevolent time traveler, possibly an agent of the government operative who wants to punish Stoney for his homosexuality – supplies this theorem to the unmathematical Lewis.) It is not obvious to me that the Gödel-based argument is better than the one presented in Miracles, but Mr. Egan clearly regards it as a substantial line of reasoning in need of refutation. He is also, presumably, content with his protagonist's, which amounts to an assertion that artificial intelligence will shrug off its dependence upon programmed rules once machines are able to experience reality as richly as humans. Reading the words put into Stoney's mouth, one wonders who here is relying on faith and who is following the dictates of reason.
One other noteworthy panel was devoted to “Fermi’s Paradox”, that most delightful of data-insufficient puzzles, over which GoH Stephen Baxter and others cogitated for an hour. From the audience I proffered the less-than-optimistic suggestion that one conceivable resolution is that mankind is nearing the limit of possible technological progress, so that another billion years of development will not bring us (and would not bring any alien civilization) materially nearer to interstellar travel or communication. If our methods of detecting extrasolar planets advance to the point where we can examine the spectra of Earthlike worlds for evidence of industrialization, and we then discover abundant sapient species that are not much further along than ourselves, the blow to SF will be terrible. Stuck in the Solar System for the next million millennia – ugh!
1. The facts are that Miss Anscombe addressed imprecisions in the way that Lewis formulated his argument in the first edition of Miracles and thought that the modifications in the second edition adequately corrected those weaknesses. Whether Lewis was philosophically correct is a difficult question, turning on issues regarding the bases of rational discourse that are at least as perplexing as the strange forms of matter and energy that are now believed to make up most of the cosmos. For a discussion by a professional philosopher, vide "C. S. Lewis's Case Against Naturalism". Lewis may have been wrong, but he was not philosophically trivial. Indeed, for those of us who must make choices about how to live our lives, without the luxury of waiting for epistemological certitude, his case is compelling.
Letter of Comment: Victor Reppert (12/15/04)
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January 5, 2004
Some while ago, I lamented the difficulty of disbursing surplus Worldcon funds, a process so fraught with potential for quarrels among the decisionmakers that I was nearly driven to wish that Chicon 2000 had nothing to disburse. In the end, though, all of the differences of opinion were resolved (and the bloodstains blend nicely with the fabric of my living room carpet). Here is a summary of the results:
The convention took in $853,322 (give or take) and spent $762,856 (more or less), leaving $90,466 in residual funds, which have been or will be allocated as follows:
Millennium Philcon (2001 Worldcon)
ConJosé (2002 Worldcon)
Torcon 3 (2003 Worldcon)
Noreascon Four (2004 Worldcon)
InterAction (2005 Worldcon)
L.A.Con IV (2006 Worldcon)
Student Science Fiction Contest
(sponsored by Worldcon Baltimore 1998)

WSFS Mark Protection Committee [1]
Science Fiction Research Association [2]
Windycon [3]
To Be CONtinued
Future Chicago Worldcon Bid [4]
Voices for Illinois Children
Bid committee dues refunds [5]
1. It is customary for each Worldcon to make a contribution to the WSFS Mark Protection Committee equal to one dollar for each vote cast for site selection in the year in which it was chosen. The Committee is the legal custodian of the various Worldcon-related trademarks and incurs expenses to maintain and protect their status.
2. The SFRA will hold its 2004 annual meeting in Chicago.
3. Windycon, Capricon, DucKon and To Be CONtinued are Chicago area science fiction conventions.
4. These funds will be held by trustees and turned over to the next bona fide Chicago area bid that meets the filing requirements for Worldcon site selection (very likely Chicago in 2008).
5. This amount represents about half of the dues paid by Chicago in 2000 bid committee members and approximates that assets that the bid committee passed on the convention.
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