A land where the trains always run on subjective time. Stories and reflections by Fred Warren.

The Martian and the Power of a Positive Vision — November 20, 2015

The Martian and the Power of a Positive Vision

I suppose it was more than a little ironic that my rant the other day about apocalyptic pessimism and dead-end visions in science fiction and fantasy was itself rather pessimistic. That’s what happens when you’ve spent too many weeks brooding instead of writing. There are some brighter visions floating around out there. For example, there’s The Martian, Andy Weir’s tale of a marooned astronaut and the people who band together to help him return home.

I admire an author who writes thoroughly researched hard science fiction but remembers a good story must engage both the reader’s mind and heart. Check out this video in which Mr. Weir talks about a key scene where his story had to put the science on the shelf for a few moments in order to come fully to life. Just watch the whole thing—it’s 48 minutes long, but well worth your time. It was a bold risk to take with a fandom dominated by obsessive technical nitpickers, but he scratched their itch in so many other areas, they didn’t seem to mind. This is also one of those rare novels which holds up well in both its literary and cinematic incarnations. That is, most reviews I’ve seen are saying it does. I saw the movie a few weeks ago but haven’t read the book…yet.

the martianScience is key to this story, and The Martian portrays some very strong notions about the nature of science. Science isn’t magic. Science is a tool of enormous power when employed by an agile mind, but it’s not necessarily an elegant precision instrument sculpted from stainless steel. Here, it’s more of a rude bone club for relentlessly pounding obstacles into submission. When Mark Watney assesses his dire situation and concludes he’ll have to “science the #$%& out of this,” I imagine John Henry swinging his hammer at a stubborn railroad spike with precisely the same intonation and intent.

After all is said and done, after the thrilling, miraculous rescue driven by indomitable stubbornness, loyalty, ingenuity, and love, after the mind-boggling expense and foolhardy gambles undertaken to bring one man back from certain death, what comes next?

“Boy, we sure lucked out this time. Best not try that again. Let’s go back to firing robots into the void. It’s a lot safer and cheaper, and besides, there’s nothing a human being can do out there that a machine can’t.”

No. The push to Mars expands and accelerates with another, bigger, manned mission. Meanwhile, we find Mark Watney in a NASA classroom, teaching the next generation of astronauts all the skills he learned the hard way.

That’s a vision with the power to inspire. It tells us that human beings keep exploring even if it’s difficult, risky, scary, expensive, or politically inconvenient. We crave ridiculously audacious expeditions into uncharted territory with no guarantee of success, and we won’t entertain the notion of failing to return home to our friends and loved ones. We aren’t content with robot proxies probing the universe for us. We go to see with our own eyes, and touch with our own hands, and we learn wondrous things we use to pound impossible obstacles into submission. Then we do it again, and again, and yet again. We don’t give up. That’s who we are. That’s how we’re made.

It sure beats shivering in our basements waiting for the zombies to find us.

The Vision Thing — November 18, 2015

The Vision Thing

Two-and-a-half months since my last post?


Frankly, I was burned out. It was so bad, the warning light on my fuel gauge of creativity had burned out, and no amount of tapping on the glass was moving the needle off that big red E. I was out of ideas. Every  scenario that meandered through my brain had all the charm of an old can of beans, expiration date long past, bulging ominously at both ends.

Opening the can did not enhance its appeal.

I’m speaking in past tense here, though I can’t say with any certainty that I have, in fact, recharged my batteries, refilled the tank, and am ready to resume motoring along the sparkling superhighway of imagination toward a rose-streaked horizon radiant with unlimited possibilities. It’s quite likely I’ve not bottomed-out yet. What I could really use is a new vision.

I think writers, particularly those who favor speculative genres, need a distinctive vision. Science fiction is all about evoking an image of what the world might become a thousand years…or a few seconds…down the road. If you can’t see that world, your readers never will. It hasn’t helped that the collective vision of the science fiction and fantasy community has been on a serious downer for a good long while.

oddballIt was a lot like this in the ’70s, and I hated it just as much then. Everybody’s poleaxed by the End of Days. We’ve got nuclear apocalypse, climate apocalypse, terror apocalypse, epidemic apocalypse, cyber apocalypse, zombie apocalypse, and most of it is heavily seasoned with perhaps the ultimate fear, political apocalypse—liberal or conservative, choose your poison, sir or madam, and drink deep of a future in which your bloodsworn enemies are running what’s left of the world, as if zombies weren’t bad enough.

(Update, 22 Nov: If you think “political apocalypse” isn’t a thing, read this.)

Where there is no vision, the people perish,” but it seems lately our dreamers are offering nothing but visions in which everybody perishes, or wishes they had. Even fantasy is dark and gloomy…”winter is coming,” and we’ve all been invited to the Red Wedding. Mark your calendars. Christian writers, I’m talking to you, too. We’ve turned the Blessed Hope into a monster movie because we think we can literally scare the hell out of a lost world. Shame on us.

We’re obsessed with futures nobody would choose to live in. Jeremiads are all good and well, and yes, our smug satisfaction needs the occasional cautionary size-12 brogan to the derrière, but “We’re Doomed” isn’t the message I want to leave my children and grandchildren. It’s a vampire lie that drains the hope and purpose from our souls, leaving behind a withered husk of misery. That’s no vision. It’s a curse.

Anyhow, I’m going to slide back behind the wheel and see if my fuel-starved engine will turn over. If it does, I’ll head for the back roads, the ones that wind through scrubby woodlands, past broken-down barns and loose agglomerations of skinny cattle, swaybacked nags, and gap-toothed kids in patched overalls who wave and whistle as you pass by—roads that play tag with the shadows of little mountains nobody bothered to name, patchy asphalt bordered with rickety stands stocked with faded kitsch and greasy cheeseburgers. Maybe I’ll find the vision thing along the way.

Or maybe I’ll just lean my seat back, crank up the radio, and enjoy the drive.

The Trolliest Trolling Ever Trolled — August 29, 2015

The Trolliest Trolling Ever Trolled

I noted in my last post that what really matters about the Hugo Award controversy is what people decide to do moving forward. The answer came at Worldcon’s final business meeting. Constitutional changes awaiting ratification at the 2016 Worldcon to take effect for 2017 would install an Australian-type preference-weighted system for the nomination ballot (similar to what’s used for the final voting) and also reduce the nomination allowance for each member to something less than the number of nominations that will appear on the final ballot.

The stated intent of these two measures is to dilute what the Worldcon delegates called “disciplined slate voting,” which, frankly, meant “too many people we don’t like, nominating stories we don’t like.” One delegate at the business meeting voiced the specific concern that the new system would lead to unintended eliminations “if we all just happened to really like the same books.”

At the very least, the proposed changes would practically ensure one “puppy-free” finalist in every category and avoid the embarrassing No Award, at the cost of reducing the pool of potential nominees and complicating the nomination process.

The Sad Puppies, meanwhile, have declared their intention to not only continue but expand their fight to make the Hugos more inclusive of the wider SF fandom beyond what they see as Worldcon’s insular clique of social-agenda-driven insiders.

In summary, as Rudyard Kipling once observed, there’s no discharge in the war.

Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s not a war. Maybe it’s…

The Trolliest Trolling Ever Trolled*

Summer, 2012, or thereabouts


Three science fiction writers walk into The Olympia, a scruffy little bar & grill a few blocks away from Globalcon.

Don Halsey (pulls a stool from beneath a convenient table and signals for a round of brew): Can you guys believe how ancient this Globalcon crowd is? In a few more years, everyone’ll be zipping around in little electric carts!

Barry Foreal (settles into his stool with a groan): Yeah, it’s a regular Old Man’s War (fist-bumps Don). Gentlemen, I think we’re witnessing the end of fandom as we know it.

Max Ray (sanitizes cushion with a wet wipe before sliding his stool up to the table): All is proceeding as I have foreseen.

Barry: You feeling okay, Max?

Don: Dude, you sound like you swallowed a tribble.

Max: I am well. This is my inside voice.

A short brunette woman of indeterminate age, sporting Daisy Dukes, Chuck Taylors, and a Seattle Mariners jersey, arrives with a tray bearing three unfiltered wheat microbrews in frosted pint glasses. Her green eyes sparkle with a cynical amusement at odds with her bored demeanor. There is a pencil stuck through her hair, behind her right ear.

Waitress: Here you go, boys. Who’s got the tab?

Don: Barry.

Barry: Max.

Max: Don.

Waitress: You morons are lucky I think you’re cute. Just be sure somebody ponies up before you skedaddle out the back door this time. We got laws against dine ‘n dash in this town.

Max: We require a large receptacle overflowing with fried potato wedges, pinto beans, spiced ground beef, and shredded cheddar.

Waitress: Here on Earth, darlin’, we call those ‘chili cheese fries.’ My personal favorite. It’ll take a few minutes, though. Deep-fryer’s a little cranky tonight (returns to kitchen).

Don (takes a swig of beer and wipes foam from his pencil-thin mustache): I hate to see the con dying of old age like this. So many great memories. The cosplay, the filking, the drunken revelry…

Barry (squeezes a lemon slice and drops it into his glass): Yeah, I hear you. Remember Choo Choo Marvin covered in whipped cream? I nearly busted a gut.

Don: Good ‘ol Choo Choo. We shall not see his like again.

Max: A formidable talent. The body count in his novels is most impressive.

Don: So…the con. We’ve got to get the next generation involved somehow. That’s the key.

Barry: Face it, my friend, your material is dead on arrival for the youth market and almost anybody else who doesn’t qualify for Medicare. They love my stories, but they’re not joiners…not for an old-school con like this. Draco-Con or Chibi-Ket are more their scene. Besides, your fans won’t even get off their rumps to nominate for awards. Terminal lack of enthusiasm. Kids want to be where the action is.

Don: I hate to admit it…boy do I ever hate to admit it…but you’re right. I need a way to get the old guard moving, somehow. I’ve got to help them find their passion again…that fire in the belly they had when they were teenagers threading carnations into rifle barrels.

Max (eyes fixed on the tiny bubbles crawling up the inside of his beer glass): You require an existential threat. Fear is a most powerful motivator.

Barry: I’ve got an idea about that. No…forget it. Too crazy.

Don: I eat crazy for breakfast. Spill.

Barry: Okay, here’s the thing. My fans think your community’s stuff is boring, Don. Too much social engineering, not enough bang-zoom. Blah, blah, blah.

Don: Tell me something I don’t know already. My fans think you guys’ work is the Kung Pao Chicken of science fiction. Five hundred pages of flash and dash, intellectual starvation five minutes later. No depth. No big ideas.

Barry: Hey, Creature Killer Association offered a very detailed analysis of the complex trajectory computations necessary for hypersonic mass drivers to achieve precise kinetic kills versus over-the-horizon targets…but I digress. Listen, what if I convinced my people that your people hatched a conspiracy to push action-adventure stories out of the marketplace…and you’d fixed the Yugo Awards as part of the scheme. They’d be mad as he-burrrp-ell. And then…

Don: They’d put the nomination system under a microscope and find ways to game the system to get more of your sorts of books into competition. They’d start paying for supporting memberships so they could vote. And my readers…

Barry: Would think we’re making a power grab for control of Globalcon, and they’d freak out. They’d burn up Twitter. They’d pull in all the fans who’ve stopped coming over the years, because this unwashed riff raff, these…we need a name…a handle, a label people can wear like a badge of honor and the other side can just as easily use as an insult. That’d stir everybody up. Something like Frogs, or Hogs, or…something.

Max: Dogs. Bad Dogs. Some could even be Mad Dogs.

Barry: That’s genius! I love it! What about your side, Don? What do we call you?

Don: I don’t know…Social Butterflies? Warriors of Righteous Indignation? The Heterodox Hegemony? Redshirts?

Barry: Nah, too frilly. It’s gotta smack people upside the head. It’s gotta galvanize ‘em.

Max: I see it…a mighty League…but only for those pure of heart and mind. (switches to a deeper vocal register with lots of reverb) The Just Us League.

Barry and Don: Yes! Brilliant! Bad Dogs versus the Just Us League! Fight on!

Barry (scribbling frantically on a damp napkin): It almost writes itself.

Don: How long do you think we could play this out?

Barry: Forever. Our fans don’t like each other much to begin with, and if we keep upping the ante, like, we flood the nominations, then you No Award us at the Yugos, and we’re all ‘we meant that to happen,’ and you’re all ‘nanny-nanny-boo-boo,’ and then we hack the scoring computers, and you change the nominating rules…we keep on escalating. People get hotter, they bring in more friends and relations, we turn every Yugo Awards ceremony into the freakin’ Battle of Britain, and the membership money pours in. People will be fired up about Globalcon again. They’ll start looking forward to it.

Don: Mapping out their strategies months in advance! Conspiracy theories! Whisper campaigns!

Barry: Filking!

Don: Cosplay!

Barry: Drunken revelry!

Max: Endless queues for tedious seminars!

Barry: I’m getting all sweaty just thinking about it.

Don: But it’s not enough. We have to make the stakes really high. Dial up the volume. This needs to be a war against Evil Incarnate.

Barry: Right. We’ll need some kind of focal point for the rage, though. An Emperor of Iniquity. A Thoroughbred of Sin. Satan his-self, or close to it.

Don: But who would ever agree to become the most hated figure in the science fiction cosmos?

Max: I’m your huckleberry.

Barry and Don: Whooah. Dude!

Max (striking an heroic pose with a butter knife): It will be epic. I will be epic.

Barry: I’ll drink to that. Gentlemen, raise your glasses. To the trolling!

Don: The trolliest trolling!

Max: It shall be the trolliest trolling ever trolled. So say we all?

All (after downing their beers in a single titanic chug): SO SAY WE ALL!

The trio staggers out of the bar and into the foggy cityscape beyond, arms linked across shoulders.

The waitress returns from the kitchen with a steaming basket of chili cheese fries. She ponders the table and the three empty glasses for a moment. She sighs. “Dipsticks.”

She notices the scribbled-on napkin Barry has forgotten and sits at the table, reading his notes as she nibbles on the chili cheese fries. She snickers and shakes her head, then slips the pencil from behind her ear and adds a few sentences here and there. “That’s better. I guess I should get this back to them. It’d be a crying shame to lose a perfectly good clown show because they lost their master plan.”

She passes her hands over the napkin, muttering in a low voice. The napkin vanishes.

Eris, Goddess of Discord, eats a final forkful of chili cheese fries and wipes the table, humming a little tune to herself. “She’s just a devil woman, with evil on her mind…”

*No, this never really happened. Maybe things would have been better if it had. All names and characters are fictional. Any resemblance to real people, places, Worldcons, and Goddesses of Discord is intentional because that’s how satire works.


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