Author’s Vision of a Future Beijing Looks to China’s Present

30 November 2016

From The New York Times:

Sunlight is so scarce that it is rationed based on economic class. Schools are so packed that the poorest parents must wait in line for days to secure spots for their children.

Those are the grim scenes of Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” a science-fiction novelette that won a Hugo Awardin August, beating out Stephen King. The story is set in a futuristic Beijing, though many of its scenes seem grounded in the problems vexing Chinese society today.

Ms. Hao, 32, is the first Chinese woman to win a Hugo, conferred by the World Science Fiction Society.

. . . .

Science fiction has taken off in China in recent years, and more and more Chinese authors are gaining international recognitionfor their work. What do you think makes Chinese science fiction unique?

Some Chinese science fiction reads like nonfiction with a few sci-fi elements mixed in. Chinese science fiction isn’t necessarily about the universe, the future, artificial intelligence or technology. It might be about the present or even ancient Chinese history.

. . . .

In “Folding Beijing,” you portray a deeply stratified society in which even mingling among economic classes is forbidden. Why focus on inequality?

We see from history that, at the beginning of every new empire, equality was one of people’s aspirations, but as the empire grew older, inequality appeared again, and people had to overthrow the empire and start all over again. It seems even now there isn’t an ideal solution. Inequality will continue to be a challenge for human society in the future.

. . . .

You have a deep interest in Chinese history. What do you think defines the modern era in China?

I think now is a time of free thought if you look across the broader picture of thousands of years of Chinese history. Thirty years ago, culture and tradition were shattered during the Cultural Revolution. Our generation doesn’t have the same connection to past traditions, and we’ve absorbed so much from Western culture, which is popular.

That has advantages and disadvantages. The bad side is that foreign culture doesn’t have its roots in China, so no matter how much we learn about it, it’s not ours. We don’t know much about traditional culture, which means we are lost. The good side is that we don’t have traditional burdens and are eager to learn unfamiliar things. It’s a time full of uncertainty and potential, and nobody knows where we’re heading.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s First Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest

29 November 2016

From Small Wars Journal:

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is pleased to announce its first Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest and will accept submissions between November 22, 2016 and February 15, 2017.

The topic for this competition is “Warfare in 2030 to 2050.”  Writers from all walks of life have the opportunity to contribute ideas that are outside what the Army is already considering about the future.  These stories are being used to explore fresh ideas about the future of warfare and technology. Writers are asked to consider (but not limited to) how trends in science, technology, society, the global economy, and other aspects could change the world in a meaningful way, with implications for how the Army operates in future conflicts.

Link to the rest at Small Wars Journal and thanks to N. for the tip.

Science Fiction, Space Law, and the Regulatory State

25 November 2016

From Space Lawyer Laura Montgomery:

I read John Varley in my teens. I had a subscription to Analog, or, Galaxy, it might have been; and Varley’s short stories showed up there regularly. He was really close to Heinlein in my pantheon of favorite authors. I read The Ophiuchi Hotline when it came out, and waited eagerly for Titan and its sequels.

I grew up, I went to law school, I worked for a law firm.   I changed jobs and became a space lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration and worked on commercial space transportation issues under the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). (Of course, none of the views expressed here represent those of my former employer, especially the stuff about John Varley). So, about a decade ago, when I saw Red Thunder, a really fun book about a group of young people with a secret space engine trying to get to Mars before anyone else, I was very happy to pick it up.

Reading it was just heaven, until it got to a certain point: the point where our heroes agreed amongst themselves they didn’t need much in the way of regulatory approvals, aside from getting clearance from the FAA’s Air Traffic (which, if I recall correctly, everything being secret and all, I don’t think they bothered with, but I may be wrong). But, and here’s the sad part, the characters made no mention of FAA launch licensing.

How could John Varley have let me down like this? He could talk about Air Traffic control, but not about the licensing requirements of the Commercial Space Launch Act? What was wrong with him? Did science fiction writers have no regard for the law? Michael Flynn knew about the CSLA, and its administrators showed up as petty bureaucrats in Firestar. That was cool. He was up to snuff. But John Varley?

Link to the rest at Ground Based Space Matters

Admiral Raddus Has a Grumpy Face Because He’s Star Wars’ Winston Churchill

21 November 2016

From i09:

It’s often considered an honor to have your likeness immortalized, whether it’s on a painting, in the pages of a biography, or even on film. However, I’m not sure how the great Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the UK, would feel about being turned into a Star Wars squid alien. Well, tough luck, he is one now!

The latest Rogue One featurette includes a shot of Diego Luna’s Captain Cassian Andor chilling with a black-hued Mon Calamari named Admiral Raddus. He’s one of several Mon Calamari who shows up in this flick, as their species is a key member of the Alliance to restore the Republic. We had a lot of fun making fun of his hilariously grumpy face when we saw the action figure earlier this year.

. . . .

It turns out his features aren’t just a sign that the admiral’s a not-so-secret curmudgeon. He was designed to look and act like Winston Churchill.

“We always tried to find a real world example of who these creatures may be, and in this case we used Churchill,” Neal Scanlan, creature effects supervisor, told EW. “Admiral Raddus is a very strong figure. We would use [Churchill] not only as visual reference for his physical features, but also when it came to performing him and expressing him through the actor.”

Link to the rest at i09

HBO Is Still Talking to George R.R. Martin About a Game of Thrones Prequel Series

14 November 2016

From i09:

Pretty much since it was seemingly confirmed Game of Thrones would come to a close after its eighth season, there’s been talk of HBO considering a prequel series spinoff for the show. While the idea hasn’t exactly taken a major step forward yet, it is at least still an ongoing concern for HBO—and it looks like it stands a good chance of happening.

. . . .

HBO programming president Casey Bloys confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that talks are currently happening with A Song of Ice and Fire scribe Martin, and while a specific story or time period has yet to be hammered out, it would seem that at least both sides are building towards a spinoff actually happening.

Link to the rest at i09

H.G. Wells Hid a Sick Burn Inside The War of the Worlds

29 October 2016

From Atlas Obscura:

The images of three-legged Martian attack tripods and rivers covered in strange red weeds are now iconic symbols of alien invasion, thanks to H.G. Wells’ influential science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. But when his story was first published, the illustrations were a far cry from the otherworldly imagery described in the text.

. . . .

The War of the Worlds was initially published as a serial in Pearson’s magazine in the U.K. and Cosmopolitan in the U.S. throughout 1897. The story, one of the first to detail a war with another planet, was a popular hit during its initial serial run, at least with readers. Wells himself wasn’t so pleased with everything.

“Wells was unimpressed with the illustrations,” says H.G. Wells expert Michael Sherborne. “He complained about the pictures in a letter to his agent.” Goble, a fledgling artist at the time, who would go on to have a successful career as a children’s illustrator, envisioned the Martian fighting machines as ovular pods that stood on metal beams, which looked like a standard construction support. In some ways they didn’t look very alien at all. Ssee a modern critique of Goble’s art over on Open Culture.) And Wells wasn’t having it.

In 1898, the first collected version of The War of the Worlds was released, and Wells had added a handful of new and previously omitted material to the narrative. Included in the additions was an entire paragraph directly commenting on his disappointment with Goble’s illustrations. Found in Book II, Chapter 2, in the middle of dealing with a planet blasted by alien war, the narrator takes some time to give a sort of bitchy, and suspiciously familiar, critique of a war reporter’s illustrations:

I recall particularly the illustration of one of the first pamphlets to give a consecutive account of the war. The artist had evidently made a hasty study of one of the fighting-machines, and there his knowledge ended. He presented them as tilted, stiff tripods, without either flexibility or subtlety, and with an altogether misleading monotony of effect. The pamphlet containing these renderings had a considerable vogue, and I mention them here simply to warn the reader against the impression they may have created. They were no more like the Martians I saw in action than a Dutch doll is like a human being. To my mind, the pamphlet would have been much better without them.

Of course this in-world account was simply a not-very-veiled reflection of Wells’ reaction to Goble’s work. In his new book The War of the Worlds: From H.G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and Beyond, author Peter Beck describes the reasoning behind Wells’ objections to Goble’s artwork, saying, “Apart from being a very visual writer capable of both conjuring up vivid fantastic images for readers and representing his thoughts through picshuas, Wells had strong feelings about the illustrations employed to support his work, as evidenced by his above-mentioned critique of Goble’s illustrations used for the story’s serialization.”

. . . .

In subsequent years, Wells would loosen up his opinion on Goble’s illustrations, coming to see them as just another vision of his creation. Wells eventually authorized the use of Goble’s illustrations in printings of The War of the Worlds, and as noted in Beck’s book, he seems to recant his negative opinion of Gobles’ work, saying in a 1920 interview in Strand magazine that the art “was done very well by Mr. Warwick Goble, during its first magazine publication.”

But the dismissive critique remains in modern editions of the text to this day. Just like his greatest Martians, H.G. Wells’ greatest troll is now a permanent fixture in the sci-fi canon.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Why You Shouldn’t Swear at Siri

27 October 2016

Not exactly a book thing. Maybe an SF writing prompt.

From The Harvard Business Review:

Stop swearing at Siri. Quit cursing Cortana. As digital devices grow smarter, being beastly toward bots could cost you your job.

As machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities proliferate, digital interface design sensibilities begin to accelerate from skeuomorphic to anthropomorphic. Consider how Slack and Hipchat now use bots that go beyond automating interfaces to facilitate smarter and more engaging user experiences. That’s Chatbot 1.0. Ongoing algorithmic innovation assures that next-generation bots will be far sharper and more empathic.

For Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Tencent, and Facebook, making bots and software assistants more human — and more humane — has become a strategic UX imperative. Being affective matters as much as being effective.

But because humans don’t (yet) attach agency or intelligence to their devices, they’re remarkably uninhibited about abusing them. Both academic research and anecdotal observation on man/machine interfaces suggest raised voices and vulgar comments are more common than not.

. . . .

These behaviors are simply not sustainable. If adaptive bots learn from every meaningful human interaction they have, then mistreatment and abuse become technological toxins. Bad behavior can poison bot behavior. That undermines enterprise efficiency, productivity, and culture.

That’s why being bad to bots will become professionally and socially taboo in tomorrow’s workplace. When “deep learning” devices emotionally resonate with their users, mistreating them feels less like breaking one’s mobile phone than kicking a kitten. The former earns a reprimand; the latter gets you fired.

. . . .

Your rudeness invites their underperformance. Abuse bespeaks a hostile work environment that undermines how bots learn. Microsoft’s Tay offers a painfully superb — and superbly painful — real-world case study of how networked abuse shapes UX. Less than a day after Microsoft research released its unsupervised machine learning twitterbot, Tay became a “chatbot from hell” — tweeting a stream of increasingly nasty, racist, and homophobic comments until Microsoft pulled the plug.

“The problem was Microsoft didn’t leave on any training wheels, and didn’t make the bot self-reflective,” Brandon Wirtz said in a recent LinkedIn article about the situation. “[Tay] didn’t know that she should just ignore the people who act like Nazis, and so she became one herself.”

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Harry Potter and the translator’s nightmare

25 October 2016

6 Different Ways Sci-Fi/Fantasy Characters Avoid Traditional School

16 October 2016


As summer winds down and students troop off to school, we found ourselves thinking about the many different types of learning in SFF. One of the most fun aspects of genre is that writers who choose to tell coming-of-age stories and campus stories have so many more options than writers of realistic fiction—where your litfic author has to choose between, say, high school and college, or public, private, and parochial school, a genre author’s options are a lot cooler. Hey, how about if your teenage protagonist learns how to fly when he becomes a goose? That can totally happen in SFF! Want to send your characters to boarding school? Why not make it a magical boarding school? A summer internship in an office can make for lackluster reading, but what if you up the stakes by apprenticing your character to aliens… who are fighting a battle to save the universe?

. . . .

Learning by some form of transformation goes hand-in-hand with a dearth of genre fiction–and so do disguises! Of course, some transformations are disguises in and of themselves–such as changing your students into animals, as The Once and Future King or The Magicians would have it. Merlin’s more naturalistic brand of teaching imbues a young King Arthur with a great deal of wisdom, while a similar exploration for Quentin Coldwater was decidedly… less useful on that front.

Literal and permanent transformations often lead to an elevation of consciousness, like Binti’s transformative experience in Nnedi Okorafor’s eponymous novella, or David Bowman’s transformation into the Starchild in 2001. And then there are types of transformative learning that involve passing down one person’s experience to another; the Bene Gesserit of the Dune series have Reverend Mothers that are imbued with the knowledge of all women who held the position before them, and the metacrisis of the Doctor-Donna on Doctor Who seemed to give Donna Noble access to all of the Doctor’s knowledge as a Time Lord (though that proved deadly).

. . . .

To some degree, most epic quests have a degree of learning-via-travel: go forth, save the world, pick up a few fighting tips and camping skills on the way! But some feel a bit more like legit gap years than others. Foremost among these? Westley’s transformation into the Dread Pirate Roberts. Our boy had gone into the world to seek his fortune, but what he got was something else: an education. And let’s be honest: his fencing skills (and cool mask) were probably way more interesting to Buttercup than plain ol’ money would’ve been

Then there are the hobbits, who might never left the Shire if not for that pesky ring. They had the whole wide world to learn about, even if it was slightly—ok, more than slightly—traumatic. Arthur Dent learned about towels, flying, and large swaths of the galaxy when Ford Prefect whisked him off-planet. You could make a pretty good argument for Arya Stark’s time at the House of Black and White as her gap year away from Westeros—no longer a child, not a fully fledged assassin quiteyet. And when Syenite, in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, sets out on her mission with Alabaster, she learns just how much she didn’t know about her world. And what was the voyage of the Dawn Treader if not a really excellent semester at sea?

Link to the rest at

Dispelling the Myth of Strong Female Characters

3 October 2016

From SFWA:

When it comes to equal representation in fiction, women have a long way to go. There simply aren’t enough female characters in books and that’s counting those that appear only as romantic interests, victims to be saved, or someone’s mother. Is it really so much to ask for an equal number and variety of well-written, three-dimensional female characters?

What is a ‘strong’ character?

It is important to understand what we mean when talking about strong characters, be they male or female. This isn’t physical strength or the strength of their convictions. A strong character has strong characterisation. They are flawed, complex, varied, fallible, and realistic.

A common issue with novels claiming to have a strong female character is the creation of an arbitrary distinction between strong and weak, useful and ineffectual, passive and active. In such cases, women are often pigeon holed into stereotypes – the weak woman is caring and vulnerable, overly emotional, and concerned with domestic issues, while the strong woman is aggressive, abrasive, violent, and has difficulty connecting emotionally with others.

. . . .

The fallacy of the exceptional case

The chosen one is one of the most common tropes in SFF. The chosen one, by definition, must be exceptional. If the narrative involves a chosen female, many writers – and readers – will, by default, exclaim that they have found an example of a strong female character. But simply being the prophetic wunderkind does not make a character strong by default.

If your story hinges on this particular woman being special, an exceptional member of her gender, it is easy to brush off the majority of women as ‘weak’. While stories involving such characters often involve men slowly realising they shouldn’t be so surprised that a woman can handle herself so well, the very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most women as incapable is an issue unto itself. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and is presented as an exceptional case, gender equality has a long way to go.

Link to the rest at SFWA 

PG says that one of the many benefits of indie publishing is that authors no longer have to please acquiring editors in Manhattan or elsewhere.

Indie authors of any gender can create and self-publish books with exactly the plots and characters they think best, free of any archaic or outmoded tropes that encumber their genre.

Indie authors have already shown that there are markets for all sorts of fiction and many reader interests that were either overlooked or ignored by narrow and tradition-bound publishers.

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