Mountebank Blog

"There is nothing so impossible in nature, but mountebanks will undertake; nothing so incredible, but they will affirm."

Which Science Fiction Writer Am I?

I guess it fits–I very much like her stories–but I never thought of myself as being her. These quizzes are fun, anyway.

I am:

James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon)

In the 1970s she was perhaps the most memorable, and one of the most popular, short story writers. Her real life was as fantastic as her fiction.

Which science fiction writer are you?

New Book on American Popular Culture

americanaLast week I got an advance copy of Americana: Readings in Popular Culture, and it’s available on Amazon now. It’s a fun read, with essays on jazz and foreign policy, WWII men’s magazines, video games, Bike Week in Daytona Beach, and plenty of others.

Why am I really recommending it, you might ask? Because on page 212, you’ll also find an essay by….ME! It’s a bit of my work on county fair and carnival pitchmen and their audiences. I like it, and I think it works well in the collection (although, unfortunately, the publisher was unable to include any of my photos. I think they really would have added to the piece).

(And no, I don’t get any royalties–this is academic publishing. That free advance copy is my only payment!)

Darwin Online

Darwin OnlineI love this! The Complete Works of Charles Darwin available online, for free, for you and me. It’s not really complete yet, in fact, but will be by 2009. It’s growing rapidly, and already contains 50,000 searchable text pages and 40,000 images of both publications and handwritten manuscripts, and not only that, but there are newly-transcribed manuscripts, including some of Darwin’s field notebooks, published for the first time ever, anywhere. What a resource!


Awesome Capt. KirkSpockThanks to Captain Xerox at The Website at the End of the Universe for the link to these hilarious Star Trek Inspirational Posters. I wish I could print them out even bigger. There’s a couple I’d like to get framed for my wall! After all, what could be more inspiring than Star Trek. This one of Spock is probably my favorite. I know the feeling, Spock, I really do!

The University of the Future

Red LightningJust finished John Varley’s excellent new novel Red Lightning, and one passage really deserved quoting. The narrator is a seventeen-year-old (maybe eighteen at the point of this passage), just graduating from Burroughs High School on Mars.

His description of his plan for his college education is a near-perfect match to what my favorite art historian has been saying in several posts.

As usual in SF, Varley is commenting more on what’s going on now, then what will be going on then, and the approving nature of that comment made me want to quote the whole passage, even though it’s a long one:

Blame it on the web, like so much else. These days you could attend classes virtually. The universities resisted it, but eventually they were confronted by a de facto situtation, and gave in. You no longer have to go to Boston to attend Harvard. If you know enough to log on to online classes you can become a web freshman. No entrance exam necessary. Hooray for equality!

Of course, there’s equal, and then there’s equal.

And there’s practical, and there’s impractical. There’s nothing to prevent you from attending an advanced seminar at the Sorbonne, everything but some highly select honors courses is webcast these days. That doesn’t mean you will understand what they’re talking about. so all but a few supergeniuses start out in the traditional way, with Physics 101 or Introduction to African History, and work their way up. When you think about it, it’s good for everybody. The geniuses can proceed at their own pace, and they can do it from Manhattan or the rudest sheet-metal hut in Calcutta. People who never had a chance to see so much as a blackboard in the past are now able to get an Ivy League education, if they’re up to it. Excellence can now actually select itself in academia, at least until the point where you actually arrive on campus and are faced with prejudice and politics and academic bullshit. Or so I’ve read, in researching the pluses and minuses of web school. Mostly pluses, to my way of thinking, the big one being that I could stay on Mars for a few more years, at least, just like that boy or girl in Calcutta doesn’t have to figure out how to pay for transportation to and lodging in Paris.

But eventually, the different levels of equality come into play. You can get a degree from Stanford and never leave your igloo in Nome, but it’s not quite the same kind of degree you’d get if you lived in the ivy-covered dorms. The sheepskin itself will look identical, but simply by googling the student you can find out if her or she actually attended in the flesh. So, people being what they are, an Attending Degree, or AD, was more prestigious than a Web Degree, or WD.

But there’s a remedy for that, and so far as I can tell it adds up to what Mom calls “that rarest of human institutions: a meritocracy.”

You can start out as I plan to, attending classes via the web. You get graded like everybody else. Then, if you look like Hah-vahd material–that is, if you are smarter than some of the legacy admissions already there–you will be invited to attend in corpore. Doesn’t matter if you’re our boy from Calcutta, or a girl from Chad, or some poor child who actually lives in Boston but never had a chance to attend a good school.

As for picking a school, there’s another alternative these days, and it’s what I’m leaning toward.

Don’t pick.

If I’m going to be on Mars anyway, what do I care about singing “The Whiffenpoof Song” with a lot of drunken Elis? I’d never make the rowing team to bring glory to dear old Cambridge. I don’t give a hoot about either American football or real football. Other than reasons like that I don’t see the point of identifying myself with any particular school. In this academic strategy, you simply attend the classes that appeal to you. On Monday morning you can be in a class in Johannesburg, follow it up with a seminar in California, and that afternoon attend lectures in Japan and Buenos Aires.

If a certain professor turns out to be boring or incompetent, just stop going. Professors hate this, they call it the Neilsen Rating system of education. It’s mostly the ones whose web attendance is low who complain, though.

You can cobble together your own educational strategy, chart your own path, design your own specialty, if you wish. You may not even want to pursue a degree, you may just want to learn sutff and go from there.

That’s really what we’re seeing the beginning stages of right now. Varley seems to be implying a little more synchronous contact in these classes than I think is going to be ideal or common. But he’s not quite explicit about that, and thinking further, he is talking about distance learning from a pretty huge distance (Mars), and the speed-of-light limitation alone would have to require that the courses be asynchronous. Generally, though, he’s got the right picture, and the plausible extension of it that he provides could be a roadmap, or at least a guidepost, for the directions we’re heading. Not utopian directions (especially not in the novel as a whole), but positive ones, generally, nonetheless.

It’s a very fun book, even beyond this one (sort of a throwaway) prognostication, with some great gadgets, well-developed colonial society, gripping post-tsunami landscapes, evil post-nationalist governments, plenty of 9/11 references, and much more. The fact that it’s narrated by a teenage boy makes comparisons to Heinlein’s juveniles unavoidable. Varley gets compared to Heinlein plenty–he has a similar libertarian strain (some very strong Second Amendment rhetoric in this one), and a similar tendency to sneak in lectures without letting them bog down the plot or detract from the likable and eminently competent characters. Like Heinlein’s juveniles, this one would work very well for teenage readers (and I don’t think the sex and drug use should change that at all–although Heinlein’s editors, but not Heinlein, would probably disagree with me on that). And it also works very well for this adult reader.

Red Lightning is a sequel to Red Thunder, and it really made me want to go back and re-read that one. Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy! Looks like I may be placing another order with the SFBC soon.

Old Man’s War

John Scalzi has a new book out (well, newish…I’m a little behind schedule), The Ghost Brigades. It’s a sequel to Old Man’s War, so before reading the new one, I decided to re-read OMW (I generally do this with sequels and series–as a new one comes out, I start from the beginning and re-read before getting to the new one, although it does get time consuming with some of the multi-volume folks like Peter Hamilton, George RR Martin, and Patrick O’Brian). I also wanted to confirm my response to a discussion about the book that was going on between Scalzi and Nick Whyte.

Most of that discussion centered on one particular character and one specific incident in OMW, but overall Whyte’s contention (somewhat softened after the comments–from other readers and from Scalzi himself) was that the book is militaristic, and portrays pacifism, or even diplomacy, as just for dummies, who get a much-deserved slaughtering, both figurative and literal.

The incident and the character that prompted this criticism from Whyte made me a bit uncomfortable, too–but I did not read it as being nearly so conclusively portrayed. To me, while that particular character was maybe a bit cartoonish, the incident and the response to the incident from the other characters was much more ambiguous (thus much more realistic). These questions (violence, self-defense, cultural sensitivity vs. cultural preservation, and individual judgment vs. following orders or working as a team) are real-life questions, and they’re relevant and important now, and in my reading of Scalzi’s book they’re not really resolved (as they shouldn’t be), but rather depicted with their complexities and ambivalence. The characters were uncomfortable about the incident (well, those who survived were), and I was, too. Maybe Scalzi was, too. That’s the way things should work in a good novel, I think.

Even beyond that, though, the thing that really seemed to be missing from that discussion (and from most of the reviews that I’ve seen) is that Old Man’s War is a love story. Oh, sure, there’s all kinds of technological and military speculation, and some great whiz-bang cultural innovations and commentary on geopolitical topics, and natural extensions of current trends, and odd aliens and FTL travel. That’s all great, and it’s one of the things I want in SF. But the other thing I want in SF (or any literature) is to feel something. Scalzi’s story starts with a man at his wife’s graveside. For me what was strongest in the novel, and the thread that kept it all together, was the main character’s deep connection to a lost love, the little moments and memories that make being married to someone you love and spending your life with her so wonderful. The book had me near tears, several times, because of the strength of that eternal human emotional connection, and because Scalzi captures it so accurately and intimately.

Humor (or tea) is the best weapon

John Scalzi tells the story of a panel at the latest Penguicon, where he was scheduled to present, on the subject of “Warfare in Science Fiction.” In a particularly silly display of political correctness, or squeamishness, or something, the hotel management decided that they couldn’t tolerate a discussion of warfare in the lobby area where the panel was supposed to take place.

I love the solution they came up with (at Dave Klecha’s suggestion)!

When the panel started, I as the moderator noted to the audience that the hotel was uncomfortable with us discussing warfare in an open area, so we were going to discuss tea parties instead — you know, as in those famous science fiction books The Forever Tea Party, and Starship Tea Drinkers, or my own novel, Old Man’s Tea Party. And thus, “war” became “tea party,” soldiers were “tea drinkers,” boot camp was “tea training,” firing on another soldier was “serving tea,” and clearly you wanted to serve tea before tea was served to you. If you were served tea, you didn’t die, you “went to the lavatory.” And off we went, and had a sustantive discussion of the subject, both among the panelists and with the audience.

It sounds brilliant. I only wish I could have been there! Tobias Buckell kindly made the audio file available, though.

Digital Gallery

looking at learningAfter a lot of work (how long? about a year? a year and a half? probably more), my colleague Rachel Theilheimer and I agree that our Digital Gallery, Looking at Learning, Looking Together (I call it “3LT”) is ready for public unveiling. We had plenty of help in the web design and HTML/Flash coding, as well as the thinking and structuring, from our friends at CNDLS and VKP, and we’re very happy with the way the site turned out. The challenge was to represent student work, and our collaborative inquiry into student work. I think the site does that very well, and it makes a good demonstration of how the web can be a medium for publishing scholarship of teaching and learning projects…a better medium than plain old print. One of the key considerations was to display the process, as well as the conclusions, and to keep the student work at the center.

Hoping it gets a lot of attention…and people contact us to talk about it further.

Itzkoff Agreement

It seems I was not at all alone in my condemnation of Dave Itzkoff’s debut at the NY Times. There’s not just Ruru’s comment below, but plenty of others in the online SF world are in total agreement (and with more length, detail, and vitriol than I provided, too).

I wonder how many letters the Times is getting. His “favorites” list is particularly revealing, in the worst way. A list of ten books–from the whole genre. What does he choose? Five books from the 60’s, one from ’59. No women writers at all. Thomas Pynchon. Jonathan Lethem. The Twilight Zone Companion (!!!).

NY Times’ New SF critic

Could the New York Times have possibly found a worse Science Fiction reviewer than Dave Itzkoff? He makes his debut in the role with a review and a list of favorites, and one is worse than the other. He’s got an incredibly limited knowledge of and exposure to the genre, and from that shaky foundation he feels entitled to make pronouncements about what the genre should, but doesn’t, do. Of course, none of these pronouncements are anything new, and all of them are suggestions that the best of the genre (which he seems never to have seen) have been doing for years.

His criticisms are based on the most uninformed of stereotypes, and his list of favorites makes clear that what he’d really rather be reading, for the most part, is not SF at all. His interests (and his history, and his own writing, and his experience as a reviewer, as demonstrated by a quick googling) are completely out of the SF genre, and it shows.

I don’t know what the Times was thinking. Why do we need yet another condescending, uninformed, “literary” poseur to review a genre which (contrary to Itzkoff’s silly claim that it’s “declining in popularity”) is in one of the most productive, exciting, and popular eras in its history.

Irritating! Bring back Gerald Jonas!