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Author Topic: a challenge to Steve  (Read 10969 times)

chemholio

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on: April 23, 2009, 05:35:06 AM
Steve,

As Escape Pod has enriched my life and as I am truly respectful of the DIY ethic, I was really hesitant to write a bitchy letter. After the recent "26 Monkeys" story, however, I felt a kind of needed to (Hugo not withstanding). Steve, in the last 6 months there have been way too many stories that take place in a setting which is contemporary Earth or nearly so. In most of these stories there is some little twist in reality or circumstances which somehow leaves the reader a bit wistful or pondering some moral or existential issue. These stories (I'll call them "soft SciFi")  tend to be kind of lacking in science. They also tend to lack the "wild imagination" that you find in other sorts of SciFi. Nonetheless, please allow me to plead on behalf of "hard SciFi" which seems to have been underrepresented in (although not absent from) Escape Pod as of late.

When we get away from Earth we get fantastically imaginative. "Exhalation" was fantastically imaginative. "Friction" was wildly imaginative. That story with "December" in the title about Santa Claus  battling an intergalactic entity was wildly imaginative. Steve, when we leave Earth, then we have to create planets, races, societies, and universes. We have to ponder how these new realities dictate how human societies are structured, how humans must adapt, and how the human psyche is changed. The creativity quotient is necessarily higher. Here are some things that IMHO have been underrepresented in Escape Pod as of late. The classic bug hunt. How about a struggle for survival in an unimaginable situation?  How about strange futuristic ecosystems? How about (here it comes...) stories with spacecraft.

Steve, it's your podcast and your vision and I'm forever a fan but let me present my challenge to you. Let's leave Earth for 2 months.



Russell Nash

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Reply #1 on: April 23, 2009, 06:16:17 AM
The hard v. soft SF argument is back.  I was going to link to the twenty other threads (not including story threads) that already cover this, but I'm still a little jetlagged. 

I'll just say, Steve and crew pick the best stories from what is submitted.  If you don't hear what you like, contact authors you do like and tell them about EP.  That is how we have gotten some of our best stories.  Steve and co. like the stories you mentioned.  They just don't get enough good ones submitted.



Heradel

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Reply #2 on: April 23, 2009, 08:52:19 AM
Nash is right in that there are quite a few threads in this general vicinity, including Hard vs Social -- a useful dichotomy?, the What Is Science Fiction Declaration, and Asimov's vs. Analog (the latter of which is from February 2007). But it's an interesting argument to have, and not one that has a right conclusion.

I say the following thinking I'll probably be disproved in short order.

Coming from recently reading 2001, I'd argue that we're not in the right phase of civilization to produce a lot of hard SF. There are exceptions, notably the ones you mentioned and Anathem, but I think the future right now is a lot fuzzier than it's been previously. The Cold War authors had that conflict driving them, and to a certain extent I think the leaps they made from the modern day to the future were smaller than the ones authors these days need to make in order to be covering new ground. Right now science is a bit muddled. Progress is being made incrementally, but there hasn't been an earthshaking scientific insight that could be proven in short order in a while. The big new hard SF concept in the last decade or so has been Kurzweil's Singularity (incidentally, I'll be going to a talk by him this Friday), which by it's very nature is hard to describe or really understand the outcome.

Right now, I don't think there's the beginnings of a clear path into the near future — some things are getting better, some things are getting quite a bit worse. Manned space exploration has basically stalled, and there's no appetite for a bigger investment in it. We've got clones, which turn out to be slightly more susceptible to genetic illness children without much creepiness. The last thing on Wikipedia's <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_artificial_intelligence>timeline of Artificial Intelligence research[/url] is, I kid you not, a 2007 entry that a team at the University of Alberta has solved checkers. Checkers. HAL 9000 this is not. According to Clarke's vision we should be about to launch our second manned mission past the asteroid belt, and in reality we haven't had a man on the moon since 1972. The LHC is a pretty cool piece of tech when it's operational, NIF is finally looking like it might be within a year of real operation, but ITER doesn't expect to have a full-scale nuclear fusion power plant until around 2050.

In retrospect, the 1900s were a golden age for SF. Einstein was turning the way we though about space time around, we found out that very small things have their own set of rules, and we were launching men into space for the first time. Things were occurring then, and these days the big news from space is that the Mars Rovers are still trucking. Not to denigrate the Mars rovers, but they don't inspire the mind like the first Astronauts and the Moonshots.

That said, I think we're also in a phase of civilization that is crying out for some good Hard SF. It tends to be a lot more escapist than soft SF for a lot of reasons, mainly that it usually presents a plausible path out of an uncertain near future. Also it has spaceships, which have escape pods...

I Twitter. I also occasionally blog on the Escape Pod blog, which if you're here you shouldn't have much trouble finding.


eytanz

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Reply #3 on: April 23, 2009, 09:04:25 AM

I'll just say, Steve and crew pick the best stories from what is submitted.  If you don't hear what you like, contact authors you do like and tell them about EP.  That is how we have gotten some of our best stories.  Steve and co. like the stories you mentioned.  They just don't get enough good ones submitted.

I think this is the crucial point. Posts like the "challenge" above seem to assume that Steve and the rest of the EP staff can just pull stories out of thin air. That's not how it works. I have no idea what is being submitted, but the fact that there hasn't been much hard SF probably is an indication that there haven't been many hard SF submissions.



jrderego

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Reply #4 on: April 23, 2009, 11:11:00 AM
EP is primarily a reprint market (hence the "this story first appeared..." on 99% of the stories here, thus, if space opera-type stuff isn't being published out in the print/HTML world, chances are you'll see way less of it here.

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Talia

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Reply #5 on: April 23, 2009, 01:53:44 PM
As I tend to not be a fan of "hard" SF, I have to disagree with your challenge.

That's just me, of course.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2009, 01:56:15 PM by Talia »



Zathras

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Reply #6 on: April 23, 2009, 03:04:49 PM
::standing over Talia's inert form::

Everybody write to David Weber and ask for some submissions.

::Whacks Talia with the chair again, for good measure::



DKT

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Reply #7 on: April 23, 2009, 04:09:49 PM
I'm not completely sure this is Hard SF vs. Soft SF. (Although, the original poster did use the term "Soft SF," he also included Santa Clause in Outer Space (In the Late December) as an ideal, and Hard SF would be about the last category I would place that story.) What's asked for are "wildly imaginative" stories set some other place than earth.

Which sounds good and all, but Steve (and Jeremiah Tolbert) can only run the stories submitted to them, so I echo what Nash said: write to authors who write that kind of thing and ask them to submit to EP, or better yet, take a crack at writing some of those stories yourself. Honestly, writing what you want to read is a great experience.


Russell Nash

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Reply #8 on: April 23, 2009, 04:52:10 PM
That's two points for me.   ;D



deflective

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Reply #9 on: April 23, 2009, 06:02:39 PM
there may be a bit of a self-reinforcing cycle as well.  ep has played a lot of soft sf with themes of oppressive/dehumanizing technology which encourages people with similar stories to submit them which slants the submissions...



DKT

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Reply #10 on: April 23, 2009, 06:31:12 PM
I wonder if that's more of a general trend in the SF genre, not just EP. I've read that Gordon Van Gelder, editor of F&SF, gets lots of fantasy stories but not as many SF.

(I'm trying to give points to Heradel, too.)

To be fair, there are anthologies out there like The New Space Opera and TNSPO2 (which I have not read but have heard good things about). But I think they're just a little bit outgunned at the moment.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2009, 08:20:08 PM by Russell Nash »



Zathras

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Reply #11 on: April 23, 2009, 07:15:53 PM
I think, in general, the "the only SF is Hard Science Fiction" crowd doesn't read or listen to much fantasy.  Now what that means for the markets, I couldn't say.



chemholio

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Reply #12 on: April 24, 2009, 04:02:50 AM
Hey Everyone,

1] First off, I must shamefully admit my breach of forum etiquette. I posted without searching previous threads.

2] You know, Escape Pod has become such a household name to us geeks that I never imagined that it was hurting for submissions.

3] Heradel - thanks for the very thought provoking response.

4] Regarding urging my favorite authors to submit, I already have and plan on continuing.

5] Hard vs. soft is only part of it for me. The real issue is imagination. The imagination and creativity in such stories as "Friction" and "Exhalation"is off the chart and part of the reason is that the authors left Earth. Thus they had to create worlds from scratch. Both stories blew my mind and I will remember them forever.  As much as I can appreciate the literary merit of many of them, the stories I have read that take place on Earth (such as "26 Monkeys) do not score nearly as much in the imagination quotient.



Russell Nash

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Reply #13 on: April 24, 2009, 06:42:32 AM
2] You know, Escape Pod has become such a household name to us geeks that I never imagined that it was hurting for submissions.

It's not that EP is hurting for submissions as much as it is that the stuff you're looking for isn't being written.  Go look at the shelves of your local bookstore and you'll see it just isn't there.  I think Heradel covered the reasons well.



deflective

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Reply #14 on: April 27, 2009, 05:06:41 AM
i'm surprised just how quickly the people here accept the idea that scientific advancement is slowing down.  in a virtual forum that couldn't exist ten years ago, built around a homegrown worldwide audio broadcast that couldn't exist five years ago.

do people really believe that there have been fewer advances in the last twenty years than the twenty before it?  ai is stalled because blue brain is taking more than four years to publish results that a layman can get excited about?  we've been moving so fast that people are jaded.

the major difference i've noticed in sf is a trend towards technological pessimism.  advanced tech (including social structures) is almost always used to oppress & dehumanize in these stories.  as often as not it's the source of antagonism.

google is barely ten years old, wikipedia is even younger.  these are developments that will effect humanity far more than last century's space flight ever will.  within a hundred years there will be an enormous amount of expired copyright media available at the push of a button, after two hundred and fifty years this amount will be overwhelming.  how will this change society?

a current sf story that explores this question would almost certainly be told from the pov of artists, probably musicians, struggling to find a new sound and lamenting the death of creativity.  and they'd be hungry because no one is willing to pay them.  chances are they'd retroactively remember an idealized past that was much more favourable to their craft.

the story would gloss over positive changes and end on a maudlin note, maybe the main character gets motivated to write an impassioned plea to address the issue only to have google link it to a page written 150 years ago with an almost identical message.

contrast this with how hard sf would treat the subject.  there would be an exploration of what copyright is (a legal construct designed to motivate the creation of intellectual property that society deems valuable.  the law protects music to make sure that more music is made), why does it protect some things and not others (words that describe new concepts -internet, cyberspace- are free to use), and what would it mean if our current system changes.  if the writer had a deft hand they could even work all this into a story without relying on exposition.

we could explore a world where songs are dynamic things, varied across hundreds of different covers and remixes of remixes.  like language, different rhythms and cadences would be preferred in different regions.

when sitting down to listen to a story i can understand the appeal of a simple narrative and doesn't require you to explore new ideas or reevaluate your morals but this consistent theme of 'new tech makes things worse' gets tired.

genre reinforcement (this sells well, lets write more) has had something to do with the trend but for the source i'd like to point at the play that science has got in the media for the last eight years.  through the eighties & nineties science often wore the mantle of shrill soothsayer, always going on about global climate change and telling us what to do.  in 2002 the states' government began a systematic attack against critical thinking and tried to marginalize 'science' as an entity; fetus killing, dehumanizing, authoritarian.  even if you didn't buy it, the picture was painted and it was a compelling narrative.

this current sf trend feels like a hangover from that mentality.  the whole genre needs a shower and balanced breakfast.  look!  the sun is shining outside.



eytanz

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Reply #15 on: April 27, 2009, 08:24:27 AM
i'm surprised just how quickly the people here accept the idea that scientific advancement is slowing down.  in a virtual forum that couldn't exist ten years ago, built around a homegrown worldwide audio broadcast that couldn't exist five years ago.

I, for one, certainly do not believe that scientific advancement is slowing down. I think it's faster than ever, and accelerating.

However, I do believe that the trajectory of scientific advancement  is unsuitable for hard SF, especially if hard SF is defined as something that takes us off the earth, to use chemholio's words. As you yourself show in your post, science is taking us many new and exciting places, but space isn't one of them. Space exploration had stalled for years, and now that it is restarting, it had been directed at collecting information from outer space and bringing it back, rather than at sending people out. That's great, but it's not compatible with hard SF.

A second, equally important difference is that now, unlike the 1950s, we have all become highly aware that scientific advancement has a cost - not just a social cost, which was already noticed by some authors then, but a scientific cost. Some people may deny that climate change is caused by human technology - who knows, maybe ultimately they will turn out right. But no-one can deny the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, which are a direct byproduct of medicinal hubris of the early-mid 20th century. Nor can anyone deny the fact that the advances in food production of the 1950s have created a rising obesity problem, and have made us vulnerable to nation-wide health scares (tainted spinach, mad cow diseases, etc.) that would have been local and easily contained a mere century ago. Heck, I recently listened to an interesting Scientific American podcast about how Salmonella was unable to infect eggs until the 1950s, and now eating a raw egg is a major health risk, anywhere in the world.

So I am not pessimistic about scientific progress, and I don't think the zeitgeist is either. But I do think that in general, people no longer see science as a solution to man's problems - it is both a solution and causer of problems. I can imagine a future where technology has transformed the human experience, but I can't imagine a future where it has done so in a purely positive way - science, and technology gives, and it takes away. The future will be very different, but it will not be better, and it will probably not take us off Earth before it makes us something other than what we are now. There is much wonderful SF that can, and is, written from that viewpoint, but it is not the SF that chemholio is after.



Russell Nash

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Reply #16 on: April 27, 2009, 08:50:01 AM
Adding on Eytanz's statement, most of these effects are seen in the people and the interactions of the people.  That brings us back to the social science fiction. 



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Reply #17 on: April 27, 2009, 12:37:11 PM
look!  the sun is shining outside.

Better put on your reflective garments, SPF 1000 sunscreen, and pray that a solar flare does not disrupt your wifi.

I propose a couple of possible reasons that there are not a lot of hard scifi short stories.

One possible reason is that many writers might be wary of writing hard scifi because they fear their audience knows more than they do.  Short story authors might feel they will be ridiculed if their audience find even one fact inplausible.  Novel authors like Greg Bear, Steven Baxter, and Peter F. Hamilton have a longer venue to state their aurguments and support their assumptions, where as short story writers are limited in that capacity.

Another possible reason could be, that it is easier to write  scifi story based on tech and science which have results that are commonly known, rather than unknown.  Stepping out in the void and creating new sciences and their ramifications from scratch is hard intellectual work.  Authors concentrating on volume might find it easier to write about consequences that are expected by the great unwashed, than the consequences of the unproven, and undreamed of.


**Disclaimer** 
These are only my opinions, and not to be construed as rational.

Of course I could just be rambling due to sunstroke.   ;D   




deflective

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Reply #18 on: April 27, 2009, 10:58:35 PM
I do believe that the trajectory of scientific advancement  is unsuitable for hard SF, especially if hard SF is defined as something that takes us off the earth, to use chemholio's words.
Adding on Eytanz's statement, most of these effects are seen in the people and the interactions of the people.  That brings us back to the social science fiction.

lets make sure we all mean the same thing here, hard sf doesn't mean aliens or spaceships.  the last space stories that i remember from ep either just brushed hard sf (beans and marbles) or was completely separate from it (navy brat).  you can also have social hard sf, such as foundation.

chemholio wants more wildly imaginative stories and suggested leaving earth to do it.  i don't really think this is sufficient or necessary but i understand the vague dissatisfaction that comes from too many conforming stories.  ep is mainly soft sf and i'm fine with that, it reaches a wider market and i enjoy most of the episodes as well, it's just that the vast majority of fictional tech & social structures turn out bad.  not mixed consequences or unintended side effects bad; bad for people in general.  you pretty much need to turn to the sub-genre steampunk to find anyone having fun with gadgets anymore.


now, unlike the 1950s, we have all become highly aware that scientific advancement has a cost - not just a social cost, which was already noticed by some authors then, but a scientific cost.

valid point.  my last post gave the impression that our current perception of science is completely the result of the media but it's well grounded in recent developments.

at the beginning of the twentieth century we still lived in an age of arctic explorers and humanity fought to conquer a vast, untamed wilderness.  fifty years later we had atomic weapons and needed to deal with the ability to kill off the majority of the planet, including ourselves.  thirty years after that we discover that we are affecting the environment and need to deal with the possibility that we could unintentionally kill off the majority of the planet, including ourselves.  inside a generation we find ourselves teetering on a tiny blue ball lost in the void.

our species as an entity is growing up, we're living through its adolescence. it means more power, more responsibility.  there have been ugly turns but mostly i'm proud of the way things are developing so far.  we have dark impulses but the species has yet to crank up the mp3 player and dye its hair black.

The future will be very different, but it will not be better

i think it will be.  world hunger is plummeting, fifty years ago it was commonly believed that india would never feed itself, but calling obesity a problem that's different, not better, could only be the opinion of someone who's never faced starvation. antibiotic-resistant diseases are bad only so much as it's a return to how bad things were before.

there's a potential for problems, sure, but with too many cautionary tales and dystopian visions we risk losing sight of why we have this drive for knowledge and technology in the first place. above all, lets have some fun with speculation now and again.


Of course I could just be rambling due to sunstroke.

so say we all =)



JaneE

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Reply #19 on: April 30, 2009, 12:21:44 PM
::standing over Talia's inert form::

Everybody write to David Weber and ask for some submissions.

::Whacks Talia with the chair again, for good measure::

Right on!



deflective

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Reply #20 on: May 15, 2009, 10:09:50 PM
SFEley sounded much more upbeat this week =)
maybe he's slowly unwinding from relieved pressure and enjoying spring?  i like this tone.



deflective

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Reply #21 on: September 11, 2009, 08:57:47 PM
this week's episode was exactly what i was looking for in this thread.
thanks for running it



Praxis

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Reply #22 on: September 11, 2009, 09:19:51 PM
The last thing on Wikipedia's <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_artificial_intelligence>timeline of Artificial Intelligence research[/url] is, I kid you not, a 2007 entry that a team at the University of Alberta has solved checkers. Checkers. HAL 9000 this is not.

I'd say this is because the people, and increasingly the 'machines', who are out there "doing" the artificial intelligence work are too busy working to update wiki pages.   :P

A more real-life example of AI (and one that is both terrifying and terrifyingly overlooked by the media) are the drones and semi-autonomous machines that are right now being used in war and conflict zones.  I'm just waiting for the US military to give in and admit they call their base of operations Skynet.



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Reply #23 on: September 11, 2009, 09:35:15 PM
The last thing on Wikipedia's timeline of Artificial Intelligence research is, I kid you not, a 2007 entry that a team at the University of Alberta has solved checkers. Checkers. HAL 9000 this is not.

I'd say this is because the people, and increasingly the 'machines', who are out there "doing" the artificial intelligence work are too busy working to update wiki pages.   :P

A more real-life example of AI (and one that is both terrifying and terrifyingly overlooked by the media) are the drones and semi-autonomous machines that are right now being used in war and conflict zones.  I'm just waiting for the US military to give in and admit they call their base of operations Skynet.

That's still just an example of a refinement rather than a breakthrough, and they're still only semi-autonomous and usually little more than advanced RC cars.

Saying that the media is overlooking them is false, The Times had a B1 story on it last month (so did the Journal), and published a Mark Mazzetti piece on the issues with them a few months ago. The Guardian pointed out a few weeks ago that we now train more drone drivers than pilots. Time wrote about it in March.
« Last Edit: September 11, 2009, 09:36:53 PM by Heradel »

I Twitter. I also occasionally blog on the Escape Pod blog, which if you're here you shouldn't have much trouble finding.


Russell Nash

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Reply #24 on: September 12, 2009, 01:01:59 PM
Some of the IED removal bots are really quite good.  They aim them at the thing and let them go. 

What about the battlefield robot that can fuel itself with whatever bio material happens to be available.  It's named EATR (eater).  Of course FoxNews started screaming that it would eat dead soldiers.