Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fustest With the Mostest

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, apparently, US Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest never really said that (and also was never involved with the Ku Klux Klan). He did say, "git thar fust with the most men," which is close enough.

I bring this up because of Doug's comment on an earlier post that the Lanchester equations are so abstract that they merely say the obvious - if you're gonna hava a fight, it's good to have more guys. Those are the odds. Tactics are how you beat the odds. Yet one of those standard military sayings that gets bandied around is amateurs study tactics, professonals study logistics. The mark of a great general is not so much beating the odds as loading the dice.

In his next comment, however, Doug lets the cat out of the bag - confessing that the real problem with the Lanchesterian logic of deep-space combat is that it rules out cool stuff like space pirates. (Off-topic? Not in the least! This blog is fundamentally about Romance, which emphatically includes Pirates in SPAAACE!)

Logistics. The very word, like "economics," kills Romance and buries her in a shallow grave. It has a certain geek appeal to people like me - if you are inventing an imaginary trolley line, you need to know how many trolleys it runs, and how many nickels will rattle into the farebox every day. (Back in the Electric Age, when a trolley ride cost a nickel!) Logistics and economics are both crucial to realistic worldbuilding - if you want a realistic flavor - because of the same principle: If you are a pirate, raiding galleons / starliners on their voyage each year to Cockaigne, you need to know how many galleons there are to raid.

This, however, is all in the background. The reader doesn't expect to see a table of Cockaigne's imports and exports - only to see a few of the choicest samples, when the rogueish heroes break open a chest or unseal a cargo pod. Even less do we expect to see the logistic underpinnings of warfare. We only hear about the Seabees when someone attacks them and they have to shoot back.

Yet logistics includes the time dimension - the fustest, as well as the mostest - and that is where Romance and logistics meet. Every time the cavalry pennons appear over the brow of the pass just as the fort is about to fall, it means that someone got them mounted up and on the road with the sun. That trumpet blast you hear is the triumph of logistics.

Worlds, by the Double Handful

Like an adventurer spilling a silk bag full of doubloons across a table, the California planet search team has revealed 28 new extrasolar planets, the largest haul of them yet. I saw this in the LA Times a few days ago, but only got the confirmation from the team's website. They still aren't up on the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, so I can't say much about them beyond what is in the news release. (The Encyclopaedia is run by the Paris Observatory - a whiff of rivalry in their not rushing to post?)

Three of them orbit stars considerably larger and brighter than the Sun - combined with six planets orbiting other such stars, discovered earlier, they hint at distinct patterns in what sorts of planets form around what what kinds of stars. In short, bigger stars may tend to have bigger planets, orbiting farther away. Which is about what we'd expect, but with exoplanets, even finding the expected is a surprise, because so often we find the unexpected.

The news release also had new information on a planet previously discovered orbiting the star Gleise 436.* Already detected by gravitational wobble, it now has also been (indirectly) seen in transit, passing directly in front of the star, allowing the astronomers to pin down its size and mass. (Previously they had only an estimate of its mass, and only the sheerest guess as to its size.) It is four times the size of the Earth and 22 times as massive - about the same size as Neptune, and slightly heavier. However, it orbits its parent star at 0.03 AU, about a thousand times closer than Neptune orbits the Sun. Though Gleise 436 is a dim lamp among stars, a planet that close in the planet must be hot.

We can also guess, or the astronomers can, that it has a similar composition to Neptune - about half of it being ice, or whatever form good old H2O takes when it is subjected to enormous heat and pressure thousands of kilometers deep inside a planet.

I like this planet, because it brings us even closer to the notion of a "water giant," even if this one is more like a permanent boiler explosion, held down by its own sheer weight.

* Gleise 581 already figured in this blog, as putative home star of a "super Earth." Apparently someone named Gleise once catalogued a whole bunch of mostly unspectacular stars, which turned out to be just the sort planet hunters like. Henry Draper catalogued even more of them, which is why so many planets orbit stars named HD followed by a number.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Rarely will I make political posts on this blog, but this day is an exception.*

A soldier's sacrifice is not lessened because the commanding officer screwed up. That is all I have to say.

* For non-US readers, this is Memorial Day - analogous to Remembrance Day elsewhere in the Anglosphere.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


A subject that regularly arises to bedevil space warfare discussion at sfconsim-l is the Lanchester equations. These are a set of differential equations, worked out appropriately enough in the middle of World War One, that quantify a basic military truth: Fortune favors the big battalions.

In fact she favors the big battalions even more than we think. In the movie the bad guys always attack the hero one at a time; even samurai heroes get to finish off six enemy ninja at once before the next six step up to fill a hole. In a real fight, when one battleship has sunk its opponent it simply shifts its fire to the next enemy ship; if the battle is uneven to start with it quickly gets more and more uneven.

The rallying cry at the Battle of Maldon in 991,

Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less

Is all bleakly to the point in the face of the Lanchester equations: You can fight bravely, but you are going down anyway.

All of which leads, via comments by Doug on my last post, to determinism in history and fiction. Do individuals and their actions count for much, or do the big battalions of historical forces carry the day? In fiction the plucky heroes may not always win but they always matter.

Even in Romance, however, Lanchester has his say, by setting the limits of the plausible. Our hero swordsman may be able to vanquish half a dozen foes because his blade is swift and his heart pure, but we don't push his luck and have two dozen guardsmen descend on him all at once. Or if we do, we let discretion be the better part of valor, and the hero decamps quickly across the rooftops.

Otherwise, the reader begins to suspect that the author is tipping the balance. Of course the reader knows that the author is tipping the balance ... but if the story can't make them ignore it, then the story is in trouble.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Science fiction and fantasy writers are in the business of creating worlds. In fact there is a whole village industry of world-building advice - don't have your garden planet orbiting a red giant, do remember that about 90 percent of the people in your medieval kingdom are peasants. (Whether a world in fantasy has to follow the economic logic of the historical past is a question of its own.)

However, world building on some scale is inherent to all fiction, or nearly all. Set a story in San Francisco; the fog and the L Taraval streetcar line are indistinguishable from the real ones, but it is full of imaginary people, visiting each other's imaginary houses, even if the addresses correspond to real ones. Some authors, not ones identified with SF or fantasy, have gone further. Faulkner famously invented Yoknapatawpha County (I've seen alien races with easier names to pronounce), while Sinclair Lewis did him one better and made up the entire state of Winnemac, "bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana." Since both places were intended to evoke real settings familiar to the author, presumably neither of them had to consult world-building guides.

A kind of alternate history also slips into fiction not regarded as fantastic. This is most common in political thrillers and the like, where the world is generally indistinguishable from our own, but there's a different president - a familiar example is The West Wing, treating its viewers for an hour each week to the president they wish they had.

All of these covertly imaginary worlds raise a subtle question: How different can a world and its history be before it strains our willing suspension of disbelief to regard it as our own, and we must accept it as imaginary in order to believe in it? Subgenres have their own conventions. President Bartlett is a big change, especially in a story line that is all about the White House, but the conventions of political drama accept it; the viewer's reaction is if only, not as if.

Historical fiction faces its own variation of this challenge. The Tudor era is well-documented; we know the names of at least hundreds of people in or around the Tudor royal courts, and considerable detail about dozens of them. You can pretty easily slip an imaginary lady-in-waiting into or gentleman-usher Henry VIII's court, but the reader probably wouldn't buy giving him an imaginary seventh queen, or a made-up Lord Chancellor. Nor could you wrap a few historical specifics around a created character and call him Thomas Wolsey. Readers will expect an interpretation of the real one, about whom quite a bit is known.

So, when I wanted to write about a redheaded Tudoresque ruling queen, I had no choice but to make up her entire world - in the real world, that job has already been taken.

Move back another thousand years, however, and you not only can play fairly fast and loose with historical fact, you essentially have to. Carla Nayland writes about Anglo-Saxon England, and its early period to boot, the seventh century. Our entire knowledge of a kingdom, so far as primary sources go, may be a couple of paragraphs in the Venerable Bede - who wrote them a century later, already out of living memory - together with a sentence in the Annales Cambriae that may well contradict what little Bede told us.

For an author, reconstructing a background from such fragmentary history has its own formidable challenges, but it brings a good deal of freedom in some respects. We know there was a King Aethelferth of Bernicia, about AD 600, who evidently threw his weight around. He had a queen named Acha, but we don't know much more than that. (Read Carla's historical notes on Paths of Exile to get an idea of what a novelist of this era has to work with.)

Go back another hundred years and the well of history runs drier than the Los Angeles River. A rather annoying monk named Gildas (who probably had much to be annoyed about) says a little about Ambrosius Aurelianus - a Briton in spite of his imposingly Roman name - but not a word about his putative successor, reported about 300 years later to have had the title Commander in Chief (dux bellorum), now known to everyone as King Arthur.

Whether there even was a historical Arthur is a matter of endless debate, but there's little debate about one point: He is pretty nearly unavoidable in fiction set in late 5th or early 6th century Britain. He may never have existed (or may not have been named Arthur, etc.), but he looms over the landscape in a way that the real but shadowy Ambrosius does not. In writing a book set in this era you essentially have to create everyone out of whole cloth - even Ambrosius - but if Arthur never shows up, the reader will wonder why not.

Much the same is true of the late Mycenaean world and the Trojan War. We do not have a reliably attested name for a single historical personage in Mycenaean Greece. The Linear B scribes dutifully recorded the names of a few hundred slaves (including, among many properly Homeric-sounding ones, a Theodora who sounds 1700 years out of place), but never got around to mentioning the name of the king. The reader, however, will damn well expect Menelaus, Helen, Agamemnon, and the rest of the gang to make their appearance.

When the legend becomes the story, as the newspaper saying goes, print the legend.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Convertible for the Imagination

One item I left out of the eight things about myself is that my brother-in-law is a serious amateur astronomer, the sort with a backyard observatory holding a 14-inch telescope, and shelves of treatises on astrophysics and cosmology. A couple of nights ago I spent the night at his place to see his new CCD hookup, which produces - displayed incongruously on an old-fashioned looking TV monitor - shockingly detailed images of deep-sky objects.

An evening tour of spring galaxies was followed by a few hours' sleep, then a predawn tour of the summer Milky Way. I won't give a travelogue; there's no substitute for seeing them, and as with a road trip the particular sights count for less than the overall impact of landscape, or in this case of skyscape. Which leads me to the one great discovery I've made at Ron's observatory, which has to do not with the sky itself but with observatories.

A major design choice in building a backyard observatory is whether to have a slide-off roof or a dome. The slide-off is simpler, cheaper, and eminently practical for observatories on this scale. A dome, on the other hand, has sheer style and evocative power. No other science has such quiet drama to its daily practice as astronomy does: the dome's observing slot sliding open as twilight falls, revealing the first evening stars to the waiting telescope. We've seen it in a hundred documentaries; it never ceases to thrill. (In real life I imagine the dome only opens after dark, but compared to Hollywood spaceships this is the least of dramatic license.)

A dome, however, brings additional costs and complications: The whole dome has to revolve, and the observing slot has to open and close. With some regret Ron chose a slide-off roof. This turned out to be fortunate, because the slide-off roof turned out to have a vast unanticipate advantage - the starry sky itself.

A classical domed observatory actually gives only a quite restricted view of the sky, the gap left by the open slot; and much of that is filled by the bulk of the telescope. So long as you're looking through the telescope (or at an image produced by a CCD mounted on the telescope) it doesn't matter. When you look around, however, you're largely confined, with only a teasing glipse of the sky. A slide-off roof, however, reveals the whole dome of the heavens, while the walls block out local lights and conceal your mundane terrestrial surroundings.

The first time Ron slid back the roof on his observatory it was stunning, like being aboard a spaceship with panoramic viewports - or riding in a convertible with the top down, out for a spin on the celestial highway.

This experience also taught me a historical lesson. Observatories and telescopes are nearly synonymous to us, but people built astronomical observatories, sometimes quite imposing ones, long before the invention of the telescope. Other large instruments, such as Tycho Brahe's quadrants, also required a mounting and platform. Yet even though Catherine of Lyonesse has a scene at an observatory inspired by Tycho's, the logic of pre-telescopic observatories still slightly eluded me. It seemed a bit like building a freeway when you don't have a car.

Now I understand: The simple act of providing yourself with an observating platform, separated from its surroundings but open to the sky, has a powerful mental focusing effect. It is just you, face to face with the visible heavens, that cathedral immeasurably vaster and more mysterious than any wrought by men.

Because we all need a little vastness now and then.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

You Know You're a Real Blogger When ...

You've been tagged. I will take my revenge on Gabriele at a time and place of my choosing, but tribal custom requires participating in the ritual, so eight facts about me - if they're pretty boring, that's because I am.

Since I'm still a noob I'll refrain from tagging five other people - so count your small blessings, Bernita and Carla.

1 - I'm a major traction fan, traction being the somewhat archaic term for urban electric rail transit. When I visit a city with a rail transit system, I always make time to ride it, and I've invented the city of Santa Teresa, California, as a sort of virtual trainset.*

2 - In spite of the above, I haven't lived in a city with rail transit since I was eight. I was born in Cleveland, which has both heavy and light rail (don't ask, or I'll explain at length) - even though we left when I was six, I immediately recognized the system when I saw pictures of it. I mostly grew up in San Diego, but left before the San Diego Trolley was put in.

3 - I was named, in part, for Rick Blaine of "Casablanca." No great distinction - Rick became the usual shortening of Richard at just about that time - but here's looking at you, kid.

4 - My mother bought me A Child's History of the World when I was about seven, and I've been a history junkie ever since.

5 - I am also a political junkie. I was a paid county coordinator for Dukakis in '88 and - with far more gratifying results - for Clinton in '92. However, I intend to keep my politics (mostly) out of this blog, because it annoys me when other blogs get taken over by politics, even when I agree with the blogger's opinions.

6 - As a kid in the early 60s I wanted to be an astronaut. (Big surprise!) I knew I wouldn't be in time for the Moon, but intended to lead the first Mars expedition, which I decided would be in 1989.

7 - I've been fascinated by Henry VIII's ship Mary Rose since I first read about her loss, years before the wreck was found and recovered. Alas, I haven't had a chance to cross the pond to pay her a visit.

8 - My novel-being-hustled, Catherine of Lyonesse, originated as background for a naval wargame - a pseudo 16th c. England just had to have a redheaded Queen. The novel ended up being about a teenaged princess in exile, and both sea battles in the original draft ended up on the cutting-room floor.

(I guess that's cheating: more about my book than me. But the book is more interesting.)

* At least two mystery writers have used a Santa Teresa; Ross Macdonald has frequent references to it, and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone lives there. Their version is a near-exact doppelganger of Santa Barbara. Mine is another hundred miles up the coast, and considerably larger, in order to plausibly justify its having surviving rail transit lines.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Literature of Ideas?

A long-standing theme in SF criticism is that science fiction is a literature of ideas, meaning that an SF story should have some speculative concept in it that is so integral to the story that you could not tell the story without it. This is in contrast to the imagined exemplar of bad SF, "Bat Durston" - a Western with the barest trappings of SF, the hero relying on his quick blaster and trusty spaceship instead of his Colt and trusty horse.

I have always rather wondered about this argument, and a counterexample is at hand. Bat Durston never existed even fictionally, but Firefly came pretty damn close - including an unabashed, overtly Western flavor, even with actual six-guns, blasters evidently being hard to come by in the outer reaches of the 'Verse where the good ship Serenity plies the spaceways. Moreover, in spite of the bold move of having someone fire a gun in vacuum without a bang on the soundtrack, the scientific background of Firefly is dicey even by the modest standards of Hollywood sci-fi.

Yet I was a major fan of Firefly, and so were a lot of other SF people. The reason, I would argue, has far less to do with any "idea" than with the show's very powerful flavor. The setting of Firefly is not - as I've heard of the new Battlestar Galactica - essentially the contemporary US Navy with fancier tech. In Firefly we are palpably in a different time. People don't quite speak the way we do, or dress as we do, or think as we do. Few of the specific details would stand up to critical examination, but the overall weight transcends the specifics. This, we sense, is what the era of interstellar expansion might feel like to the people living through it.

You could fairly argue that this is the "speculative idea," elevating Firefly above Bat Durston status in spite of the fair number of horses to be seen. Certainly anyone who's read classic Heinlein has encountered the retro flavor of colony worlds, and the argument behind it: Horses can burn unprocessed biofuel, and if you have a stallion and mare they'll manufacture more horses for you. (Whether this really holds up is uncertain, but it is a well-established SF trope.)

Certainly the world in which a story takes place shapes what happens in it. This is a characteristic that SF - at least the kind set significantly into the future - share with historical fiction as well as most fantasy. A lady-in-waiting in a Tudor-era court is not like a modern-day professional woman, just all dressed up for a RenFaire. Her life is different, her concerns and goals are different, and if the king crooks a beckoning finger her way she cannot file a workplace sexual-harassment grievance. (I owe to Karen Lindsey the insight that for a lady-in-waiting this wasn't merely an awkward social situation: in some sense her position at court was her job.)

The lamer grade of historical romances regularly gets slammed for ignoring any sort of historical authenticity. Even historical fiction with far more pretention to seriousness is full of heroines who evidently misread the calendar, and go around spouting feminist rhetoric that sounds a lot more like Germaine Greer than Christine de Pisan. SF has it tougher, because at least you can research the past; when you're writing about the future you just plain have to fake it. But while good world-building takes a great deal of thought, I'm not sure that even the best world-building qualifies as an "idea." Indeed, a world built around an idea is likely to be one-dimensional, much like traditional utopian fiction.

The "literature of ideas" notion works far better for short stories than for novels. Short stories (which I can't write for beans; my attempts all read like Readers Digested novels) are structured more or less like a joke, leading up to a punch line at the end. This lends itself to working out the implications of some specific speculative assumption. A classic example is one of the most controversial of all SF stories, "The Cold Equations." Arguments over this story would fill a book longer than Lord of the Rings, but it certainly works at the most basic level: It kicks you in the guts.

This sort of idea-based - or, to put it another way, gimmick-based - plot works well in a short story. It is not an accident that SF (at least in the US) developed largely as a short-story medium; some critics say that it is inherently a short-story medium. However, plots of this type rarely sustain a novel - which may be why it's also been said that SF novels tend to fall apart in the last third. ("It's been said," because I am far too lazy to try and find where I read this some years ago.) A long story cannot depend for its resolution on the spaceship only having oxygen enough for one person, or rapid tech progress in wartime backfiring on the side that achieves it.

Long stories are built by complex human interactions, and their resolutions have to flow from those interactions. (I don't say "novels," because of a real question whether there is any such a thing as a science fiction novel - but that's a topic for another post.) The Iliad is not about the Trojan Horse; it is about the (pretty childish) wrath of Achilles. The Odyssey is not about cyclopses or other monsters; it is about a man trying to make his way home, and a woman fighting to hold that home. Though afterwards Penelope may have had a word or two about Odysseus' ten-year "wandering" - seven of which were spent cozily shacked up with Calypso.

The point is that long stories are necessarily centered on people, in a way that short stories don't have to be, and to a degree cannot be. (There's only so much characterization you can do in a 5000-word story.) Yet people have not fundamentally changed since Homer's time, and if they fundamentally change in the future we probably wouldn't be able to write about them anyway, because they wouldn't quite be human. So stories about people will be fundamentally the same, no matter what the setting or era.

Firefly, in its essentials, could be set in the Wild West. You'd have to change details - 19th century ships performed poorly in New Mexico, and even the highest-class hooker wouldn't bring the added respectability that Inara does. The essentials, however, would be the same. In long fiction, we are all Bat Durston.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

So What Is Fantasy, Anyway?

Back to science fiction tomorrow - but for now I'm on a fantasy riff and have to stay with it.

The subtext to discussing the problems with magic and elves is, do we really need them? (Since I don't particularly want them.) The answer has little to do with genre literary theory, because it is essentially a marketing question - "fantasy," like SF, mysteries, and "romance" in the modern sense, is a marketing construct, carved out of the great old super-genre of Romance by publishers and bookstores.

Elements we associate with fantasy, such as elves, dragons, and magic in general - though none of them in quite the forms we know now - were part of Romance from its birth, but they are not necessary to it. D'Artagnan and his gallant companions had no more need for a spell than they did for a starship, and got good use of their swords without slaying a single dragon. So did Robin Hood, and every freebooter who ever swashed a buckle, while in a later age a revolver was sufficient for Sam Spade.

When Romance was broken up like the good ship Argo, however, the publishing industry was more careless than the astronomers, who saw to it that every star got a new home. Bittersweet love stories - which were most of the early ones - have no place to speak of on the romance shelves today, and tales of imaginary kingdoms, sans magical special effects, were not within the ambit of fantasy as people understood it after discovering Tolkien - even though there's actually very little magic of the spell-casting sort in LOTR.

Thank God for Guy Gavriel Kay, especially, and some other writers such as Ellen Kushner (thinking especially of Swordspoint). They have proved that it is commercially possible to sell books classed as fantasy that have little or none of the standard D&D-esque elements.

So there's hope for me yet.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Worse than Leprechauns

The ever-instructive Bernita inspires me to examine another dimension of fantasy annoyance, with a post whose title is very hard to resist, Little Green Men. The LGMs in question here are not aliens but leprechauns. These of course have fallen on hard times in our commercial age, largely relegated to showing up at bars on St. Paddy's Day to encourage more drinking - a needless task if ever there was one.

Traditional leprechauns were obnoxious little devils, unlike their Disneyfied modern descendents. This is useful to learn, because in the taxonomy of improbable or at any rate speculative races, they are surely in some broad sense cousins of Elves.

I detest Elves. The fault is squarely Tolkien's, not his commercial successors'; they merely adopted his creation, though with far too much enthusiasm. No doubt the good don thought he was doing the Elves a favor. Before Tolkien, they had fallen even further in the popular reception than leprechauns, known mainly as the labor force in Santa's workshop. (By now, surely, they have been outsourced.) Tolkien wanted to restore them to something of their rightful traditional standing - to make them awful, in the original sense of the word.

Unfortunately he want too far, and made them awful in the modern sense. Elves are supposed to be rather dark and dangerous, like practically everything encountered in the forest before park rangers were invented. Tolkien actually did a decent job of this with the forest elves in The Hobbit - while no friends of Smaug or the Dark Lord, they did not exactly roll out the welcome mat for Bilbo and his (admittedly dwarven) companions. By the time Tolkien got to Lord of the Rings, however, he had graduated to High Elves, which he proceeded to make Impossibly, Disgustingly Noble.

More broadly, races in fantasy are a curious thing. They obviously have a good deal in common with aliens in SF, as a projection of or commentary on human traits - and more purely so, since SF aliens retain the speculative element of "what would they be like?" Fantasy races are unburdened with that, free to be pure projection. There's nothing wrong with projection; all imaginative literature, even mainstream, is an exercise in projection, inviting the reader to identify with made-up characters. Projection needs some discipline, however - otherwise it becomes one-dimensional, Noble Elves and Nasty Orcs.

If I were to deal with Elves, I would start from a historical and anthropological perspective. Elves are the Old Race. They must have their origin partly in general human experience - the gremlins who steal one sock out of half your pairs, and arrange for the trunk of your car ("boot," to some of you) to not quite close, so the light stays on and the car battery runs down. Yet they must also provide some far glimpse, refracted through however many mirrors, of prehistoric Europe - successive waves of invaders semi-submerging previous populations, whose last independent remnants long held out in remote regions, the hills and forests.

It is odd that we associate them with Celts, because the Celts were themselves later arrivals, in the last millennium BC - just as it is odd that High Elves have become blond, since the Old Race was perhaps somewhat darker than the average mix of later arrivals; at least there is some folklore to this effect. If you want to picture an elven queen, think Catherine Zeta Jones, not Cate Blanchett. Yet the association of the Old Race and Celts is natural enough. It must have been Celts who encountered holdouts of the Old Race, and told stories about them, before they themselves were pushed into the hinterlands or submerged by the next wave.

The Old Race is no more inherently Noble than the rest of us, though indeed a bit of tragic nobility clings to them, as on this side of the pond it does to the First Nations, and for the same reason: We took their land and left them only memories. Likewise for the same reason they have no particular reason to like us, and even less to trust us. Countless Celtic and Germanic chieftains doubtless played Great White Father, signing treaties (or whatever you did in preliterate times) with no intention of honoring the terms. The last thing the Old Race is out to do is save us from our own misdeeds and blunders.

Give me Elves like that and I'd be happy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

More Bad Magic

My last post brought several provocative comments, all the excuse I need to continue on the subject of magic ...

Two themes that emerge from comments are the psychological component and the moral component. Nyrath observes that theories of magic in fantasy are legion, but notes Isaac Bonewit's take: Magic draws from the subconscious, meaning a) if you don't have the native capacity, you can't get it from a manual, and b) even if you do have it, magic is tricky and hard to manage because the subconscious is "nonverbal" and just plain not very bright.

Cambias notes that traditionally white magic and black magic are inherently different, not simply put to different uses, the way you can use U-235 to make either a bomb or a power reactor. Dabble in black magic - even if your immediate purpose is benign - and it will pull you over to the Dark Side. The implicit corollary is that using white magic even for a morally neutral purpose draws you toward the light.

The further implicit corollary is that white magic is harder to use, or lends itself to fewer obvious and convenient uses - for good plot reasons, we probably don't want characters to become nobler every time they call up some magelight. (Though it might explain why Elves, who presumably have been using it for centuries, have become so damn Noble that they make you barf.)

Gabriele notices a further property of magic - it costs. So does technology (global warming, anyone?), but the costs of magic are much more direct and personal. Take a hike in 7-league boots and you'll arrive tired, in a way that you wouldn't if you drove a car the same distance. She felt much the same dissatisfaction with magic as I have, till her focus shifted from the magic items themselves to power and temptation ... which leads us back toward the moral dimension.

As Kedamodo notes, there's also an element of negotiation in magic - you are dealing with entities (perhaps including your own subconscious) that have persuaded, or offered a deal. Anonymous looks at another aspect of the problem, the mage, perhaps more akin to a commercial artist than to an engineer.

Science and engineering are rooted in predictability, and that seems to be what most sets them off from magic, which is never quite predictable, because it deals not in "forces" but in beings, that have some mind or at any rate purposes of its own, whether the daemons that inhabit or infuse rocks and trees, or a moral polarity that infuses the whole world, or even our own subconscious impulses.

Although Kedamodo notes that magic pervades its worlds, in other respects there can't be all that much of it, at least not handy for use. In most fantasy settings people still live largely in a retro-historical world; e.g., they fight with swords, and plow with Percherons or oxen. Historically we know that once firearms were cheap and plentiful, swords first became largely ceremonial, then all but vanished. If people are using swords, then, magical fireballs can't really be the equivalent of an arquebus - even if they have similar effects (flash, bang, dead person). If magical fireballs and arquebuses were really equivalent, battles would be fought between well-ordered ranks of magic-fireball-hurlers, and only the commanders might still wear small-swords.

Nyrath also touches on the role of synchronicity - which opens up a whole new can of worms in its own right, because fiction of all sorts is filled with synchronicity, random coincidences that at some level of deep structure are not random at all.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bad Magic

I do not much like magic. This, perhaps, is a somewhat awkward position to be in if you are trying to sell a fantasy novel, which I am. It's a bit like trying to do science fiction when you don't think that spaceships are either very believable or very interesting. You might even wonder why I like fantasy in the first place. The short answer is that the main appeal for me has always been the imaginary worlds, cities, and so forth. Pretty much the same appeal as SF, in fact; the difference is that I also like spaceships.

The subject of magic came up almost tangentially in today's post by Bernita Harris on her blog An Innocent A-Blog. Attaching a picture of her herb garden, she commented on the literary uses of an herb with a pungent name, then remarked on the "many books I've read which include spells, charms and potions as an important plot point are irritatingly vague regarding specifics."

I plead guilty. Not that Catherine de Guienne or her ladies in waiting deal much with applied herblore - beyond brewing some maiden's prayer as a sensible precaution - but I had never given much thought to the little practical details that bring life to a scene of, say, someone mixing a potion.

Even more to the point, I'd never thought before of just how much continuity there is between kitchen craft and witchcraft, which is doubtless one reason why witchcraft has female associations. Consistant with this continuity, male wizards are like guys who are into cooking writ big - they never just cook something; it's always a dramatic production, demons of flame that scare the bejeezus out of the guests while putting just the right touch of searing on the roast of lamb.

What does this have to do with my magic problem? I have always tended to view magic as a somewhat gaudy substitute for technology. In which case, why not just have the real thing, which is after all inherently cool? Say that you have a dragon spell that can make ships go regardless of the wind. On the one hand that sort of devalues plain old seamanship. On the other hand, why not just change the mumbo-jumbo and call it a triple-expansion steam engine? Find yourself some armor plate, mount 12-inch breechloaders in barbettes forward and aft, and you're set to scoff at evil wizards and civilize the natives in style.

Magic treated as pseudo technology (which is too often how it is treated) may work fine for some people, but it just doesn't appeal to me, which is why I've never been happy with the notion of magic in a world. If you want flying fireballs, just give me missiles.

The insight I got from Bernita's observation is that magic, treated properly, has one fundamental difference from engineering technology: it is an art. There is an art to great engineering - that is what makes for classic designs like the DC-3 - but the DC-3 itself is a pretty standardized, predictable industrial product.

Magic, like kitchen craft, is inherently chancy. Good cooks can cook consistantly good meals, but it's never a done deal, never an automated process, nor one that can be handled mostly by people with a few weeks' or months' training - which is more or less the military standard for operating equipment up to and including ballistic missiles, and broadly the standard that industrial civilization depends on.

(Chain restaurants do exactly this, of course, but they have nothing to do with kitchen craft, and not much more to do with good food.)

So the craft element is what keeps magic from being just technology with different special effects. It also keeps magic inherently rare, which keeps it from overwhelming its world ("dragon flights on a half-hour schedule till 6 PM, then hourly till ten"). Even plain old hedge witches have to learn their craft, and master mages are as inherently rare as truly brilliant second basemen or rock guitarists.

If you had this insight when you were fifteen, feel free to sneer, but after 40 years of struggling with the problem, I feel liberated. Thanks, Bernita!

Close Encounters II

I opened a can of worms by posting on aliens, as I probably should have known. Worms with starships, too, leaving their slimy trails on worlds all along the Orion Arm. Only a can of stupendous dimensions will hold them now.

"Dominant narrative" has now entered the discourse of this blog. Doug cracks open a dangerous door, a wormhole to literary theory. I won't go there without a fully equipped three-ship survey expedition, because when you blow away the enveloping nebula of BS there really is something to all that po-mo French crap, no matter what Camille Paglia thinks: As writers we dump a hundred hidden assumptions into our books; as readers we read them though a hundred different hidden assumptions. Even Heinlein (maybe especially Heinlein) isn't giving us the transparent prose we think he is, or that he pretends to be.

There is a resistance narrative almost a old as the dominant narrative, Robin Hood as durable as King Arthur, complete with ongoing debate about a historical Robin Hood.) I haven't yet brought myself to watch the new Battlestar Galactica - the original was too memorably bad ("range thirty microns and closing ...") - but I gather it plays the resistance theme as the original did, humans more or less on the run from the Cylons. The late lamented Firefly had a variant on the theme, the hero a former Confederate rebellion soldier, a Robin Hood in the making.

Resistance really is futile, however, if the odds are too great - the Native Americans never had a chance, at least not till Indian gaming caught on, a hundred years too late for Sitting Bull. "Angels" don't provide a story, because even if their kids don't accidentally step on Earth and wipe it out while shagging a ball, we can't have much of a conversation with them. (How do you convincingly portray an entity vastly more intelligent than you are?)

Nyrath suggests one alternative - we might encounter a race seemingly intelligent and comparable to us, but in fact some hyper-entity's immune system. We'd be picking on someone our own size, then, just as the cold virus does. Yet this raises the next question: could we be some hyper-entity's immune system? Which has interesting theological implications ...

Kedamono offers another alternative. A race that accepts physics instead of changing it to suit the plot might spread slowly among the stars, never becoming a hyper-entity. Or, as he hints, just how unlikely is unlikely? Races at more or less our level may be rare, but they are the ones we'd most readily notice - the apes are indistinguishable from hundreds of other clever scavenger species, and the angels are beyond our perception. In contrast, races that blunder around in starships maximize their chances of encountering other races that blunder around in starships.

Variations in tech level could still be considerable - by rough analogy, one race exploring with double canoes, another with caravels, a third with auxiliary-steam barks. These differences are manageable. If we humans are the ones with double canoes we may have to do the resistance narrative for a while till we pick up the tech, but we can handle it.

This lets plausible (and writeable) aliens back into our stories if we want them, but leaves a couple of questions. One is real-world, the other literary, but as so often with SF they are linked. On the one hand, what might starfaring aliens be like? On the other hand, what should they be like, from a story point of view? If they are pretty much like humans except for cultural differences, why not just have humans of another culture?

The literary question appears in fantasy as well ( though the real-world one does not - some people have speculated about the evolutionary back-story of elves, but not in expectation of possibly finding some). "But it's fantasy - it's supposed to have elves" is not a satisfactory answer.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Close Encounters

As I noted here, aliens are somewhat out of fashion in science fiction, for several reasons. One is that they are inherently hard to write convincingly - they're supposed to be alien, after all. On the one hand their behavior should display a different ecological and cultural heritage; on the other they have to be human enough in some sense to identify with as characters.

Another reason for fewer aliens is discomfort with the closest historical analogy to alien contact, the encounter of New World and Old World peoples starting in 1492. As sobsister and cambias hint in their replies to my last post, we all know how well that worked out. For the peoples of the New World it didn't go so great at all, nor for some people in the Old World either, such as the ones who became colonists in chains.

In the Golden Age of SF people were not much troubled by all this - Indians back then were still mostly "hostiles," who showed up to shoot a few settlers before getting shot themselves in satisfying large numbers. Only occasionally did one get to say something vaguely profound and (in those pre-Earth Day times) even more vaguely ecological before being dispatched to the Great Spirit.

Heinlein was at heart an enlightened contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt. In Between Planets, Venus has been colonized under agreement with the native dragons; Cyrus Buchanan is a model of enlightened imperialism. To a human born on Venus there was never any doubt that there existed another race - dragons - as intelligent, as wealthy, and as civilized as their own. British India never had it so good, but what would have happened if the dragons had not been so accommodating?

To his credit Heinlein touches on that too, taking out for a test drive what in 1951 was still a recent grim addition to the English language: "Mars and Venus have their own intelligent races; we can't crowd them much more without genocide - and it's not dead certain which way genocide would work, even with the Martians."

Which way genocide would work? You don't have to be overwrought about the West's misdeeds in its age of imperialism to recognize that for a good question, and Clarke made even a better one of it. In the Golden Age, and still in Hollywood SF today, powerful, hostile aliens have just about the tech level that we do, so that Zorgon star destroyers and Earth battlecruisers can zap it out on more or less equal terms. Given, however, that the Universe is some 13 billion years old, Clarke argued that not only would we not run into another race just now building interstellar pre-dreadnoughts, we'd encounter "apes or angels."

If the angels aren't nice - as we define nice; who knows how angels do? - we could find ourselves in a real jam.

Monday, May 7, 2007

These Are The Voyages ...

A discussion at sfconsim-l leads - not for the first time, not for the last - to general thoughts about space travel, in this case about interstellar survey ships.

Suppose, ladies and gentlemen, that you have been tasked to plan one - not design what it looks like or how its gizmos work (mumbo jumbo wormholes, mumbo jumbo fusion torch ...), but how it functions as a social institution, seeking out new worlds and civilizations without the crew going completely batty and believing they've gone back to 1930s Chicago, or met the Greek gods, or whatever.

In 1950s SF, the crews of exploration ships tended to be pretty small. A three-man crew was popular for moonships long before Apollo. The ship in "Forbidden Planet" seems to have a crew of a dozen or so, more or less the traditional war-movie bomber crew, with a mix of submarine (it has a cook after all).

For a prolonged mission, however, it makes more sense to have a fairly large crew, up to a few hundred. This serves partly to provide you with plenty of skilled specialists, as well as expendable redshirts for each episode trained replacements for crewmembers who become incapacitated in the course of a long voyage. Most of all, however, it provides a richer social organism - more possible friends, more ways to avoid people you just can't get along with. It provides more checks and balances: there's a doctor who could pronounce the captain incapacitated, and an assistant in case a deranged captain shoots the doctor.

This is one of the things that original Trek got right - we can scoff at the plot-killing transporter, or the senior command staff beaming down onto every maximum-risk planet, but taken as a whole the Enterprise is a believable interstellar survey ship. It is well-armed, and has a quasi-military organization, but it is not quite a warship. It has a large enough crew to work as a social institution during its years-long voyages. The mission itself is broadly plausible - it might be more realistic to send out unmanned probes, but that would not make for very exciting episodes.

I first encountered the advantages of a starship having a large crew not in Trek but - as so often, in Heinlein. In Time for the Stars, the starship Lewis and Clark has a crew of about 200, specifically "because even with only two hundred people there are exactly nineteen thousand nine hundred ways to pair them off, either as friends or enemies" (p. 71 of my old Ace p-back). Since this was a YA book in the 1950s, Heinlein didn't quite mention the other way people can pair off - perhaps just as well, considering the results in later books when he could.

I would go Trek and Heinlein both one better, however, and not send out my survey ships alone, but in expeditions of perhaps three ships each. The ships can be somewhat smaller because the total expedition team is divided three ways - though each ship should be able to carry all three crews in a pinch (see under Titanic, lifeboats, capacity of). The survey ships would have some specialization, e.g., one ship to carry planetary landing shuttles, another fitted with onboard labs, conference rooms, and so forth. (All of this might be modules that can easily be unclamped from one ship and clamped onto another.)

In normal safe operation a mission will be scrubbed if one ship is disabled or seriously damaged - they'll bring it back if they can, abandon it otherwise. Yet with three-ship expeditions you can push on with two in an emergency, or send one ship back to report while the other two press on.

Three-ship exploratory expeditions even have a familiar and evocative precedent: the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. For some reason, however, the idea hasn't much caught on in SF. Roddenberry might have thought twice about asking for not one but three model spaceships for exterior shots, but this constraint hardly applies to books. Perhaps the sheer psychological draw of the lone ship and captain in the vastness of space is just too strong to resist.

Friday, May 4, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake V

In our last episode, a European Universal State is founded sometime around the first quarter of the 21st century: a momentous event that we pass over in discreet silence, so that our future history won't become outdated soon enough to embarrass us.

Toynbee thought that all the world's other civilizations were already dead in the ditch; thus the West's universal state would be truly universal (at least if your Universe is Earth). Other civilizations have since given hints that he held the coroner's inquest prematurely. Europe as merely one contending Earth-based power sounds more like the 19th century colonial scramble than the grandeur that was Rome, but if Toynbee could be stretchy with his history so can we. We'll let the full-blown Terran Empire - or should it be l'empire terrestrienne? - emerge in its full glory only gradually.

According to Toynbee our Western universal state should last 400 years, give or take, to sometime around 2420. That's not such a bad date for the Fall of the Terran Empire, is it? Worth scrambling back to the 17th century for an anchor point. Four hundred years seems like just about time enough to invent starships, find planets, colonize them, and create an interstellar empire. Then to party so hearty in celebration that when you come to on the floor the Empire has collapsed and space vikings are running around getting their horned space helmets stuck in airlocks.*

Toynbee also helps us fill in our chronology. The empire will hit a rough patch about 200 years before the end, long around 2218 or so. We can shoehorn in the American Revolution in Space here; why not? It must sort of fizzle out, though - Old Europe failing to learn from the Noble Colonists - since the empire picks itself back up and keeps going till it falls for good in the 25th century.

Other stuff will happen as well, according to Toynbee. One or more new great world religions will be founded (we may hope this was not a prediction of Scientology). As to why the empire will fall, considering that he wrote ten volumes on the subject, Toynbee is surprisingly hazy. It isn't just the old standby, becoming decadent and hedonistic - Toynbee knew perfectly well that the really wild parties, Petronius the Arbiter and all that, came in the early days of Roman Empire, not its last days. The whole thing just sort of runs down.

Its' easier to imagine why the Terran Empire would fall: by tripping over its own enormous scale. A truly cosmic real estate boom - sunny quarter-acres on Gleise 581c! - would naturally produce an equally cosmic bubble and bust.

Once I built a world, now it's done;
brother, can you spare a dime?

A civilization that needs an FDR gets some well-meanng bureaucrats in Brussels - if that isn't enough to bring down the Terran Empire, what is?

Toynbee schedules some aftermath, too. A proper Interregnum lasts some 300 years - which gets us up to 2720 or thereabouts - and may feature one last college try at restoring the empire, sort of like Justinian and Belisarius, maybe around the late 2500s. It goes flat, but by 2720 the worlds are stirring, trade is growing - all that stuff that calls out to true geeks to find their RPG rules and 20-sided dice. It's Civilization Time!

In the end, as it turns out, we haven't gotten all that much from Toynbee, which probably explains why he has fallen down the memory hole. He never does quite tell us why our Terran Empire falls; we had to conjure up that for ourselves. Hari Seldon he wasn't. All we got was a bare timetable, but for the creator of a long-scale future history it's something - "2421: date traditionally given for the fall of the Terran Empire ..."

* Yes, I know - the original Vikings didn't run around wearing horned helmets, either. They did have cool dragon ships, though.

History: Past, Future, and Fake IV

As Bernita noted in reply to my last post, pronosticating the Fall of the West is dicey, since it involves us so directly. In the perversity of human nature, we find it easy to believe that the godawful stuff in the news is the worst ever, and that future historians will date the West's going to hell in a handbasket from roughly last week.

Toynbee, as I recall, originally thought that the "breakdown" of the West - the beginning of its long, 800-1100 year slide to fall and dissolution - came in 1914. As Decline & Fall years go, that one has shown some lasting power; it still evokes "colossal blunder" nearly a hundred years later. Later on, though, Toynbee decided that the West was nearer the climax than the beginning of its Time of Troubles. He was enough of a late-Victorian liberal optimist never to hit on 1789, but eventually he pushed the Breakdown clear back to the wars of religion.

I forget what particular benchmark event or events he suggested, but let's go with 1618, the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. It has generally gone down as combining everything awful about the World Wars, within the limits of the available technology, with none of the cool stuff like battleships and fighter planes. By the time it was over everyone had learned to be jaded and cynical, and the last dwindling sense of "Western Christendom" as a unity was gone - this is what Toynbee gets most worked up about.

As history this is a stretch - the Thirty Years' War was fun for no one, but where was the unity of Western Christendom during the Hundred Years' War? What good did it do anyone during the Crusades?

As future history, though, it will do fine; it gives a starting point for an 1100-year cycle, carrying us from 1618 to sometime around 2700 - and how cool is this, that our history of the future has its roots in a social disaster already centuries past? The West is toast, but it has been toast for centuries, for reasons that have nothing to do with any recent US election.

Growing civilizations, said Toynbee, are unpredictable, but broken-down ones follow a regular timetable. About 200 years after a civilization blows a Seldon Crisis and goes into breakdown, it experiences a "rally" - a serious but unsuccessful effort to put together the pieces. 200 years from 1618 takes us within orbit-matching distance of the Congress of Vienna in 1815: Metternich, the Concert of Europe, and all of that. In fact, Europe went almost a hundred years without a full-on, take-it-to-the-mat coalition war.

So far, pretty good; using Toynbee's theory for our future history we've managed to predict a few hundred years of the past. Not a bad way to bench-test your history.

But the next big benchmark - the establishment of a Universal State, the West's answer to the Roman Empire - is now looming us in the face, somewhere around 2018, just eleven years from now. Well, maybe the EU hits the big time, or the UN turns real. Even US hegemony could make a comeback, as unlikely as it seems at the moment. I'll go with the EU to avoid parochialism and for sheer coolness, because there's something about a European Union that has just the faintest whiff of Rome.

So, sometime in the next couple of decades, we will say, is the the point that future eras will point to as the foundation of the West's Universal State. It may not be obvious at first, in fact may be disguised, the same way that Augustus was merely, ahem, first citizen. Anyway, we won't say anything more about it, because we don't want our future history to be overtaken by events too quickly.

We thus discreetly lower the curtain on the 21st century, at least its first half, to rejoin our adventure in progress sometime past 2050 ...

Thursday, May 3, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake III

Gibbon begat Spengler, who begat Toynbee, who begat Hari Seldon - or so it seemed to me in high school. Arnold Toynbee has pretty much fallen down the memory hole, but in the mid-20th century his reputation was considerable. I'm sure I learned his name from Clarke, who mentions him fairly often, in one story even naming a spaceship Arnold Toynbee. Oddly, Clarke never much worked the future-history street corner. I don't know if Asimov ever mentions Toynbee, but A Study of History is the perfect companion piece for the Foundation Trilogy.*

Like Spengler, Toynbee was big on the grand cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations. Unlike Spingler, however, Toynbee does not fall back on semi-mystical mumbo jumbo about civilizations being organic entities with a fixed lifespan. (Later he fell back on a different semi-mystical mumbo jumbo.) Although most past civilizations have declined and fallen, this is not inevitable; a flexible enough society might keep winning the game of Civilization indefinitely.

You win, says Toynbee, by growing through a cycle of challenge and response. Challenge usually means something like "Vikings show up," to which the response may be organizing the fyrd, or simply giving them Normandy provided that they ask for it in French. Each response, if successful, usually ends up planting the germ of the next challenge. The Vikings learn French and become Normans, for which the response is to ship them off to conquer England and Sicily.

Or, suppose an academic enclave on the fringes of a declining empire faces the challenge of petty kingdoms that have broken away from imperial control. It responds by repackaging its learning as religious magic to awe the natives. This works, but the religious establishment gets out of hand, only to be muscled aside by trading interests ... each Seldon Crisis leading logically to the next.

If a civilization fails to handle a Seldon Crisis it "breaks down," and spends the rest of its history - some 800-1100 years, depending on how you measure - trying and failing to patch things up. The civilization first enters into a Time of Troubles, persisting and destructive internal warfare, that last about 400 years. The Time of Troubles ends with the last guy standing, who founds a Universal State that will in turn last about 400 years.

Toynbee's prototype for this grand cycle is classical civilization. The Greeks were going along fine, he says, till the Pelopponesian War (431-404 BC) screwed it all up for them. The Time of Troubles, with Greek and then semi-Greek states bashing endlessly and pointlessly away at each other, lasts a nice exact 400 years till the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, after which Cleopatra 's asp leaves Augustus the last guy standing. Another 409 years - close enough! - takes you to the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378, when the Goths wiped out a full Roman army, for Toynbee the effective end of the Empire. (Apparently Theodosius the Great doesn't count, let alone Justinian.)

After the fall comes a 300-year fallow period, an interregnum, at the end of which one or more new civilizations will rise out of the ashes of the old one to embark on their own Seldonian adventures. Just 309 years from Adrianople takes you to the battle of Tertry in 687 - not exactly household-name stuff, but the winner was a guy named Pepin of Heristal, majordomo to a Merovingian king whose name no one then or since has bothered with (Theuderic III). Majordomo sounds cooler when you translate it as Mayor of the Palace. Pepin's son was Charles Martel, the Hammer, his grandson was Charlemagne, and we are off to the races with the Rise of the West.

It turns out that nearly all other fallen civilizations have followed this same trajectory on the way down - admittedly Toynbee was not above a little hammering to help things fit. Within the 400-year primary wavelength he identifies a 200-year harmonic - federal ideas were in vogue for a while in post-Alexandrine Greece, to Toynbee a "rally" amid the Time of Troubles, while the Roman rough patch between Marcus Antonius and Diocletian is a "rout" foreshadowing the eventual fall. Even Justinian can be seen as a final "rally," even though Rome had already fallen. Toynbee notes some multi-generation social rhythms that are fairly well-established, such as the cultural naturalization of immigrant populations, to suggest that these long cycles have some natural basis.

All of this is enormously persuasive when you are a geeky teenager, and Toynbee seemed like the Newton or Darwin of history. I was actually motivated to do some critical research - and learned to my dismay that professional historians regarded it all as sophisticated BS. The rap on him, in a nutshell, is that he did a lot of hammering to make other civilizations fit the schedule, in fact beating world history pretty much out of recognition.

Still, Toynbee's scheme is inherently cool, and it just asks to be used as a framework for a future history. Bound up in this is the interesting little question of what his model says about the West. Are we still growing, successfully handling each Seldon Crisis as it comes along, or did we already "break down" at some point in the past? More on that next time!

* Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, all published as books in the early 1950s. Accept no substitutes! Asimov's other much later "Foundation" books are generally lame, and don't count.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake II

Appropriately enough for Romance, it all comes down to Rome.

Nyrath the Nearly Wise, author of the invaluable Atomic Rockets website, noted in a comment on my last post, Ken McLeod called history "the trade secret of science fiction." As a heavy consumer of fake history, SF has developed an efficient manufacturing process for churning the stuff out. This takes the form of a broad consensus version of the future, first identified as such by SF critic Donald Wollheim. You can read my own sketch of it in the Future History entry of my "Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy" (title and concept stolen, of course, from Diana Wynne Jones).

In a nutshell, humans go into space in a big way, and sometime in the next few centuries (usually) they spread out to the stars. The new worlds they settle are presently united in an Empire - but sooner or later the Empire falls, plunging the worlds into a new Dark Ages of backwards, impoverished isolation.

In the future, it seems, time on some scales runs backwards. The first few centuries of this future history are cribbed from the colonial history of North America: Columbus and the Pilgrims and the Wild West all jumbled together, but culminating - at least in US science fiction - in a new Revolution, the free and noble colonists throwing off the heavy hand of King Geo of Earth. At a later period, however, Rome becomes the governing theme: grandeur and decadence, the fall, and the Interregnum. (Science fiction has its own technical term for a Dark Age; how cool is that?)

As a dramatic stage this future works pretty well, which is why it has become the standard - an author can allude to it in a few words, and experienced SF readers will recognize the framework. It has the further benefit of being rather plausible, so long as you grant its pretty dubious premises, such as cheap and convenient interstellar travel. Some nice tensions are built into it as well. We cheer the freedom-loving colonists (don't we?), yet the fall of the Empire is grand tragedy.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

This theme came into SF with Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, a book that had enormous influence on me when I read it in junior high. (This is possibly not a good sign; it is one of the very few things I have in common with Newt Gingrich, and a persisting buzz surrounds the fact that the Arabic word for "Foundation" is al-Qaeda.)

Asimov got it of course from Edward Gibbon, who not only wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but largely created it. That the Western Empire broke up into fragments was not exactly news, but Gibbon taught us to see it the way we still do, rude barbarian encampments under the broken aqueducts.

Gibbon had not a good word to say about the Eastern Roman Empire, even though it outlasted the western half by a thousand years. Later historians improved on him by renaming it Byzantine, lest the Roman name be sullied by contact with the effete eunuchs of Constantinople. What a contemptable people those Byzantines were, arguing abstruse theology in taverns when they weren't smashing statues or blinding each other, or even negotiating with Muslims; achieving nothing for a thousand years but staving off Visigoths, Avars, Slavs, Persians, Arabs, more Arabs, Bulgars, Vikings, more Vikings, Turks, Normans, more Turks, and still more Turks. They failed to stave off the Fourth Crusade, and finally there came more Turks than they could handle.

Byzantium is nowhere in science fiction (anyway, most of us 'Murricans never heard of the place), but it shines glorious in fantasy, disguised as Gondor. This is Byzantium roughly as seen by a tenth-century Englishman, who has not yet learned to sneer at it - "English and Danes" were still among the stoutest defenders of Constantinople in 1204, when the Fourth Crusade showed up.

Rome, too, shines in fantasy, though refracted almost out of recognition. The whole broad genre of Romance begins with Arthur. Whatever the obscurities of the "historical Arthur" - where the claim can be made with a straight face (I'm rather sympathetic to it) that there really was an Arthur, but he had a different name - the original one brief shining moment came in Britain, sometime around AD 500, when for a little while it seemed that that a people who still sensed their romanitas might hold their own against the tide.