Friday, September 26, 2008

The Optimistic SF Debate Goes On...

...through Damien Walter's Guardian blog post, with Kathryn Cramer (comment 74) reacting on the Tor beta website.

If I understand Kathryn's argument correctly, her central argument is:
I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them.
I have heared this argument before, and I think it's a bailout. It's the old chestnut that dystopias show us what's wrong with the world today, and what will happen if this goes on, so that we will not do it. That's one-sided: we tell people what they should not do, but not what they should do. Like saying what is bad without even trying to give a good alternative. While SF can't be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world's problems, it should at least try to look in the right direction. And pointing the other way saying that *that* is the wrong direction is not the way forward.

Now, I fully agree with Kathryn's impression -- namely that the majority of the stories she (and her husband David Hartwell) read for their Year's Best SF anthologies (and for their YBSF 13 particularly) are, indeed, very much 'reflect reality', and are thus downbeat.
While conventional wisdom dictates that readers tend to prefer more up-beat SF and that the Eeyores of the SF field just don’t sell, what I find as an anthologist picking stories during wartime and in the midst of the unfolding of various other dystopian scenarios is that a lot of the best SF and fantasy lately is really dark.
No argument there.

My problem is: must SF *only* reflect the current world? Or might it look beyond our current problems? Kathryn doesn't seem to think so:
I also don’t think that providing rays of sunshine through the storm clouds is really the solution particularly, nor necessarily the most workable aesthetic choice, unless you are in Hollywood.
Here is where I disagree with her. She even ends her post with:

So, to answer his question, Does SF have to be so gloomy? I guess my answer is that for now it does because it is in touch with the world we inhabit right now.

Make no mistake: I regard Kathryn, as an editor, very highly. I greatly disagree with her on this point: what happened to the SF that dared to make audacious predictions? The SF that, for better or worse, dared to go into the great unknown? That dared to lead, and make mistakes?

If I understand her post correctly, 'cultural forces much larger than the SF field' will more or less define SF's agenda. Say again? Since when did that stop Olaf Stapledon? Arthur C. Clarke? Ursula LeGuin? John Brunner? Greg Bear? Bruce Sterling? Greg Egan? Ian McDonald? And more writers I can remember right now who tried to transcend the zeitgeist (cue to Bruce Sterling's eponymous novel, OK, but contrast it with Islands in the Net, Holy Fire and Distraction) and write about what will change?

I disagree with the cliché that SF is the literature of ideas (they help, but they're not the core): to me, SF is the literature of change.

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of change: things change for the worse, or things change for the better (I realise life is much more complex than that: some things improve, other things worsen, and some things don't change very much. I'm looking, admittedly roughly, at the net result here). In SF -- as both Kathryn Cramer and Damien Walter seem to agree, even if not for the rationale, or the necessity behind it -- the utmost majority of stories depict the change for the worse.

My opinion (especially at this point in time, but also in general) is that SF stories where something changes for the better -- and I'm not talking mindless Polyannas here, but stories where progress, even a small amount of it, is achieved against the odds, is hardfought -- are not only in the minority, but in the minority both because convincingly optimistic stories are much more difficult to write (people tend to believe a story where everything goes down the drain much easier than one where things change for the better), and because the majority of the SF community (writers, readers, and editors) seem to be too mired in the current downbeat zeitgeist to rise above it.

Now shoot me, but I like to think SF that's really audacious, gutsy and forward-looking dares to make predictions against the flavour of the month. Dares to make totally unexpected predictions, and -- in the process -- dares to be wrong: but nevertheless inspires others to carry the torch of progress.

Depicting a world like today that's going down the drain is easy: people love to complain, and blame the world's problems on someone else. Depicting -- convincingly -- a world that changes -- even if marginally -- for the better, is much more difficult, for an SF writer.

One cliché has it that writers (and specifically SF writers) like a challenge. I'm not so sure: I think most SF writers like a small challenge, like trying to write an elf story for an editor who doesn't like elves. As readers of this blog know (all five of you...;-), I'm looking for SF writers that like the big challenge: write something that rises above the current problems.

Because if everybody -- like Kathryn Cramer says, remains in touch with the world we inhabit right now -- is gloomy, then *nobody* will invent higher efficiency solar cells, better alternative energy solutions, improved agricultural practices, innovative sustainable living methods, and so on.

Indeed: while we expect companies, inventors and innovators in real life to come up with solutions to the problems we are facing today, why should SF bail out of that discussion? Because it's not popular?

The most popular thing I ever did was post pictures of fake Yu Gi Oh! cards from my son’s collection. Despite being a novelist and all that, the most popular thing John Scalzi ever put out there in the world was a picture of his cat with bacon taped to it.

Please correct me, but I understand that in his time, Galileo's worldview was far from popular (it nearly got him hanged). But it didn't mean he was wrong. OK: this might be overstating the case, but I do remain that most innovators have had to overcome a lot of resistance of their contemporaries, because these contemporaries refused to believe that these unpopular visions could be correct (a boat made of steel could not float; a vessel made of metal could not fly, and there are multitudes of similar examples).

Now I do understand that Kathryn Cramer works for Tor, and that Tor needs to sell books, and presumably books that concur with the currently held consensus sell better than those that go against it. So the Year's Best SF follows the zeitgeist and is filled with downbeat stories (also because daringly upbeat stories are thin on the ground).

Now you can shoot this naive idealist, who prefers to invest his surplus income in sustainable banking, and believes in innovation and progress: but if there are so many -- yes, there have been lots of failures, as well: that hasn't stopped others from trying -- innovators succeeding (for example, on the day job there was a shipping company that were to first to try the sky sail: these people were willing to try this innovation, but were mildly skeptical at the result. What happened: the system performed above expectations) in real life, why is SF lagging behind?

Yes, I will admit to being ashamed: I love SF, and like to think it's forward-looking. But if the things I see at my day job are quite often more innovative, forward-thinking and imaginative than SF, then I feel really, really ashamed. I train young people, from all over the world, at my day job, and let me tell you that they are, almost without exception, upcoming young professionals that believe that they can change their future for the better. They're (mostly) not interested in contemporary SF, because it doesn't speak to them.

I am extremely tired of SF that shows how the world goes to hell: it's the most defining characteristic of modern SF. The real world is developing more initiative than the literature of the future, the literature of change, and this is one of the main reasons why SF is becoming so irrelevant.

SF is reactive, not proactive. SF is following where it should lead. SF is empasizing the gutter, not looking at the stars. No wonder it's becoming obsolete.

Written SF is losing its contact with the (potential) young readers (or whatever was left of that, the cynical part of me adds). While publishers are finally changing the medium (from paper to electronic) in order to reach new audiences, I strongly believe that even with a new medium nobody will be interested if the message doesn't hit home.

So do we win a new, young audience by telling them -- however eloquently -- that their world will go to hell, or by telling them that they can at least change some things for the better? It's even worse: most of the young people -- the professionals of the very near future -- I see aren't waiting for SF: they're already doing it themselves.

In my day job (where I work for a propulsion company), I train both our own technicians and customers to work with our installations. In my experience, most of these people (yes, both our own technicians and customers) are not only focused on troubleshooting -- which is very important -- but also try to find ways to prevent problems. Sharp people that often ask me difficult questions, some of which I can't immediately answer (I need to get more info from engineering). Quite often, these people not only learn things from me, but I learn a lot from them, as well. And always -- without exception -- when we acknowledge a problem, we are then fully focused on a solution.

We may not get that solution, but it's certainly not for lack of trying. Therefore, while SF indeed can't be held responsible for finding the solution to all the world's problems, that doesn't mean it should not try to attack at least a few of them.

Pointing to the problems is not enough (no matter how eloquently done): thinking about the solution is required. If -- at the day job -- I would only point to the problem, and do nothing else, I would get fired. I'm supposed to think about a solution, be helpful towards that.

Therefore, if SF isn't, at least, trying to pave the way towards solutions (and not be afraid to be wrong), then it will become...




(if it isn't already)

Realistically optimistic SF is not a luxury, nor an impossibility. It is essential if SF wants to be relevant. Otherwise SF will become/remain(*) a nostalgic enterprise for baby boomers.

(*) delete as appropriate.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Optimistic SF: An Idea Whose Time Has Come...

Damien G. Walter already thought this on September 4, and repeats this on his Guardian blog.

Futurismic notices.

Gareth Lyn Powell weighs in.

And your humble SF aficionado, who has voiced his opinions on this blog?

Well, for better or worse, and come armageddon or (unexpectedly) high CO2 levels, I'm declaring October the month of hope...




Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ethical Investments, Sustainable Banking and Optimism

On Saturday September 20th, instead of going to the British FantasyCon (which I did want to attend, but after the credit card bills of my Summer trips came in, and the airfare from Amsterdam to East Midlands went above 350 euros and didn't come down, I had to skip it), I went to the customer's day of the Triodos Bank.

Triodos are one of the pioneers in ethical investments, and it's the place where I'm investing my surplus money (with current trends in pension funding in The Netherlands, I'll probably be expected to keep working until my 67th, or -- who knows -- my 70th birthday. I'm putting away money to at least make it possible for me to afford to do 3-day work weeks after my 60th birthday, and I certainly don't like the fact that most big Dutch pension funds invest heavily in hedge funds). Now, while their return on investment may not the best in the business, they performed very well last year. Also, the current credit crisis doesn't affect them at all. As CEO Peter Blom says:

“By sticking firmly to our own approach, the crisis currently impacting on the banking industry is bypassing Triodos Bank. This crisis is the caused by losing touch with the real economy. Triodos Bank makes the conscious choice to remain close to the real economy. We do not get involved in speculative derivatives. Instead the bank invests its savings in concrete sustainable businesses and has direct contact with the entrepreneur. That too is a form of sustainability.”

On the day, there was a speech by their CEO, and -- strongly condensed and highly generalised -- it came down to this:

"The root cause of the current credit crisis is greed. Bank managers have been put under enormous pressure -- through CEOs and shareholders -- to make high profits: 'meet this (unrealistic) mortgage goal every month, and then get your bonus, or otherwise get fired. And that goal was raised every month. Under such tremendous pressure, people will only look at the short term, not at the long term consequences. The mortgage dealers made their goals, not quite checking if the people they sold the mortgages were actually solvent (and indeed people taking on unrealistic mortgages are to blame, as well: must we assume all people are not much more than morons, or assume they have some basic intelligence?). The debts were sold, through increasingly complex and untransparent constructions to other financial institutions: a pyramid scheme of truly unprecedented proportions. Basically, money is the lubrication of the economy: that is the means (by which the economy works). Things went wrong when it became the end in itself. The reason why Triodos Bank is not -- or very minimally -- suffering from the current credit crisis is because it invests in actual, sustainable projects with full transparancy for its customers".

(Note: not the actual words being said, but my recollection and summarisation of them.)

Greed, indeed, and -- check out Glen Greenwald at Salon -- the knowledge that the state would bail them out (another post with some superb observations, like why are Americans so afraid to socialise healthcare, but -- apart from a few shouters in the desert -- seem to think that nationalising failing mortgage and financial institutions is OK?)

Sorry, but I can't help to reproduce this price quote:

Can anyone point to any discussion of what the implications are for having the Federal Government seize control of the largest and most powerful insurance company in the country, as well as virtually the entire mortgage industry and other key swaths of financial services? Haven't we heard all these years that national health care was an extremely risky and dangerous undertaking because of what happens when the Federal Government gets too involved in an industry? What happened in the last month dwarfs all of that by many magnitudes.

It's appalling (and that's a huge understatement) that taxpayers -- the population at large -- must cough up for corporate greed. Yes, I know it's a complicated problem, and that part of the blame goes to hugely overspending citizens, as well. But this way also the actually fiscal conservative Americans (and I don't mean Republicans, or Democrats, or people from whatever party, but people who really took care not to spend more than they earned) get to pay the bill for this recklessness. Not to mention those *outside* the USA: for example, the pension premiums I pay through my day job go into a huge pension fund. The managers of that pension fund (unlike Americans -- and do correct me if I'm wrong here! -- who can decide where their 401 funds go, I as a Dutchman have no influence in to where my pension premiums are invested) have invested heavily in hedge funds, the same ones that are now also suffering heavily under the current credit crisis. As they bloody well should, being the sharks they are, but it just pains me that some of *my* money -- without my consent, through my pension funds -- has gone their way.

It's the reason why I have a savings account outside of the centrally regulated way -- actually the bog Dutch pension funds have had some harsh critiques for investing heavily in weapons industries, indeed investing in land mine manufacturing companies, out of which they retracted only after massive public outcries (they were *lucrative* investments, thanks in no small part to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars).

To put this in my personal perspective: what little hope I had that governments would try to set right all the wrongs in this world has just completely evaporated. I increasingly believe it comes down to actions that bypass governments, where small, forward-thinking (and thus almost by definition -- yeah, kill me now -- ethical and sustainable) initiatives and companies drive progress. Like Triodos bank.

Anyway, it turned out to be a very illuminating day: I ran into quite a few interesting projects I wasn't fully aware about, and which I do gladly support. To wit:

For example, one of the presentations I attended was about microcredit financing. It began by reminding me how well-off we are in the western world:

  1. 80% of the world's wealth belongs to 20% of its people;
  2. Two billion people make less than 1 euro per day;
  3. One billion people live in slums.

To them 'credit crisis' is business as usual.

So what can microcredit financing help this situation?

The way it was explained was like this: the money from my -- and other Triodos Bank customers -- savings account is (partly: obviously they have lots of other projects going on, some of which I will mention) going via Hivos to MFIs (local 'Microfinance Institutions', the Dutch abbreviation is MFI) who then give loans to local entrepreneurs.

As a very important aside: where do the most of these microcredit loans go to (this was actually asked, and answered correctly by almost all attendees), men or women? The utmost majority goes to women (Grameen Bank of Bangladesh reports 97%, Mibanco of Peru reports 86%), because they are much more responsible, reliable and motivated to not only make the project work, and pay that loan back with the -- admittedly very high -- interest. It almost makes me feel ashamed to be a man (because they -- generally, not the good exceptions! -- tend to use the money to buy something relatively useless like a TV, or just get drunk on it).

The point is, though, that these MFIs tend to keep a very close look on the people they invest in. Of course, they have their failures, but the successes more than make up for those. And, on average, they do bring a return on investment, even if this is only some 3 to 4%. More importantly, they raise the local wealth in a sustainable way: people *borrow* money, and know that they must pay it back. Then, when they realise they can do this successfully, they expand their business -- even if it's a microbusiness by western standards -- bringing increased wealth (OK: less poverty is probably the better term) to their immediate surrounds (family and local people).

(As another aside, the interest rates the third world entrepeneurs are paying are something like 30 to 40%. This initially shocked several people -- me included -- until it was told that commercial banks in the third world ask for much higher interest rates, typically well over 100%. I don't know enough about this to give any meaningful comment on these rates, but I do appreciate the openness, the transparancy of both Hivos and Triodos Bank on this: they practice what they preach.)

To keep things in perspective, Hivos handles about a 150 million euros to MFIs in the Third World, and the Triodos Bank Noord-Zuid ('North-South') saving accounts have about the same amount of money. Luckily they're not the only players in this game, and I was given to understand that the largest player in the MFI game -- Grameen Bank -- has about 8 million customers in Bangladesh and India, and had expanded to Tanzania, where they acquired 64,000 customers in the first year. Also, the Mibanco MFI in Peru has acquired enough funds to have become a savings banks (with savings mainly from Peru, not from the western world) in its own right, and become a true player on Peru's financial market, having 94 branches throughout Peru.

These may be (relatively) small progresses, but they are *sustainable*, and -- I suspect -- might be more important in the long run than whatever 'get-rich-quick' or other pyramid scheme western capitalism gone haywire can dazzle investors with.

Other informations stands (among others):

  • Ode Magazine: a magazine for intelligent optimists. Well, the moment I fail to feel attracted by the label 'intelligent optimist' is the moment when I will stop drinking beer. I thought it was the Dutch version of an American magazine, only to find out that it's the other way around: the magazine originates from The Netherlands, but has expanded into the US (an office in San Francisco);
  • Biologica: a Dutch organisation for organic food;
  • Windunie: A Dutch organisation for wind energy production;
  • Humanitas: the biggest Dutch community work organisation;
  • Tuyu (can't get the English part of it to work just yet): a fair trade company specialising in business gifts;
  • Ko-Kalf: an organic, animal-friendly (until they go to the slaughterhouse, as one of my friends has said) meat provider, who sold 'bitterballen' (untranslatable Dutch snacks);
  • Wijngoed Reestlandhoeve: an organic Dutch winery, with wine tastings (I bought a bottle of the 'Reestlander Rood': a red wine with the sublabel barrique, which is the wooden barrel, originally from Bordeaux, in which the wine is aged);

More on some of those (also with a certain future project of mine in mind: yes, I am tickling your interest) later.

As a final aside, Triodos Bank also -- among a lot of other things, all either sustainable, ethical, humanitarian, or all of the above --invests in art & culture. Reasoning: innovative thinking generates new, profit-making projects; innovative thinking needs inspiration; art & culture can provide inspiration; thus some of the money from the innovative projects Triodos Bank finances -- and makes money from -- is invested in art & culture.

Another reason why I invest in this bank.

So this is one of the things I do to try to make a difference.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Pushing Daisies and Pushing Numbers

In which your innocent SF fan is approached by somebody from a marketing agency to take a look at two Pushing Daisies sneak peaks, and blog about it.

Thing is, I don't watch TV (only when I'm in other people's homes, or in airports, or in bars -- normally only in the US, but this big-flatscreens-in-pubs trend is, unfortunately, spreading across the Atlantic, as well), so I'm not really the person to comment on this.

Nevertheless, for those that are interested (like Adam Rakunas, who obviously liked the first season, halfway broken off because of the screenwriters' strike, quite a bit), I'll post these sneak peaks below:

1): Bzzzz!

2): Scream!

Another reason for posting this is that modern marketing techniques greatly interest me. As Centric's overview (warning: 1.21 MB PDF file) notices on it's fifth page:
Today social media drives as much traffic to websites as search engines
And now I feel like a little link in this brave, new, all-electronic promotion network. Jason Stoddard has blogged about (internet) promotion for writers, small and big (SF) publishers with much more knowledge, and I follow that with great interest (and with future projects in mind).

Hopefully more soon...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Random Acts of Cosmic Whimsy

Is now live at Rudy Rucker's webzine FLURB, here.

In order to maintain FLURB's house style, I have to add an image between every paragraph.

At first sight they seem unrelated to the text, but on second look the observant reader begins to distinguish some method to the madness.

Or, possibly, in my story's case, a madness in the method. The very first picture may have something to do with a random whimsy generator, the second one with a cosmic act.And maybe the third relates to random cosmic, and the fourth to cosmic whimsy. And the fifth... Well, let's not go there.

Anyway, it's a Watt & Krikksen story, two characters that also feature in "Cultural Clashes in Cádiz", which is featured in the A Mosque Among the Stars anthology (edited by Ahmed A. Kahn and Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad), available very soon from ZCBooks. See also the Islam and Science Fiction website.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Difficulty of Writing Near-Future SF...

...Has to do with the complexity of the world and the way that things develop in a very unpredictable way: not totally chaotic, but not quite in a straight extrapolative manner, either.

Take for example the way government and politics have developed over the past 25 years or so in Great Britain. Imagine travelling back in time and telling UK citizens of the early Maggie Thatcher years that in 2008 their country would be well underway to having an Orwellian, '1984'-type government: CCTV cameras everywhere, civil liberties greatly reduced, the UK spending more money per capita on safety, security and surveillance than any other western country: they would probably nod in agreement. Then tell them that this was mainly implemented by a long-time Labour government.

It would be interesting to see their reactions. Then tell them that the tories, desperate to come back in power after a long stint in the opposition benches are -- among other things -- selling themselves as a green party ("making Britain safer and greener"). Do I see the sardonic smile of history stretching from the early eighties to the late noughts? Would these early Thatcher-era Britons believe you?

It what makes writing near-future SF such a daunting task, and a kind of catch-22 exercise: if it looks too believable it (most probably) won't happen; if it looks too implausible it might very well happen.

So if you dive into the world of tomorrow, you need to find a balance between not being too conservative in your predicitions, but also not too 'off-the-wall', either. For example, back in 1997 the movie "Wag the Dog" satirised the Clinton/Lewinsky affair by fabricating a war to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Nowadays, one would not only wish it was only a sex scandal they were covering up, but -- much more importantly -- that the war was 'fabricated' instead of real.

Instead, in the extremely important and hotly contested US election of this year the personalities of the candidates and the subsequent smear campaigns are -- or at least seem to be, like in 2000 and 2004 -- more important than the actual *issues*.

A quick reality check: the US government bails out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- which control or own about 50% of *all* American mortgages -- because their losses are so big they both threaten to topple over. It's yet another signpost of how bad the current credit crisis really is, but does it dominate the main American news outlets? One would wish, but it appears that the nomination of a previously quite unknown, but sexy and mediagenic VP candidate completely eclipses this. It's almost as if "Wag the Dog" had it the wrong way around: attractive personality and sex appeal are used to distract from the actual issue: the completely failed economic policies of the past eight years (thanks, Jeremy Lassen). And the fact that it bails out the rich through the US taxpayer's pockets goes unnoticed as the big media focus on polls, more polls (one that seems to support Dutch research that showed that men will indeed become less critical of a purchase when the salesperson is an atractive woman), or fear stories that question science without knowing much about it, and -- against my line of argument, just to show that tracking the present has the same pitfalls -- Fox reporting a near-record deficit.

(Update: as another big US bank reports a record loss, the distraction tactics intensify. "Wag the Pig", anyone?)

Anyway, the main thrust of this post is to show just how difficult it is to extrapolate the near future (and I mean near: even tomorrow is highly unpredictable, especially in socio/political terms).

So what's a poor SF writer to do? Well, dare to make mistakes, try to ride the fine line between extrapolating too straightforwardly or too crazily, and face complexity. More reminisces on that in a following post.

(Yeah: I certainly don't have all the answers. Otherwise I'd be solving all this planet's problems, if I could. But while I'm struggling like a lot of you to make sense of life on this insane, yet also beautiful planet, often putting my thoughts on [electronic] paper helps me move forward.)

Friday, September 5, 2008


My internet provider decided to have a central breakdown in the last couple of days, so while I posted my resignation from Interzone on Tuesday night, I couldn't react to the comments and all the emails I've been getting about it on the two subsequent days (and I'm way too busy on the day job to do it over there: I'm just typing this quickly during my lunch break).

I did see that I had internet connectivity back this morning, promptly filling my mailbox with 250 emails, which I was unable to answer before breakfast. I will do my damnedest to get back to everybody tonight.

UPDATE: It's past o1.00 AM on the Friday night (or Saturday morning) here, and I hope I managed to answer all emails regarding my departure from IZ. Many thanks for all the kind words that I received: they're highly appreciated.

Now I'm just dead tired, and will get back to the comments to the post below, and those on the TTAboards tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Resigning from Interzone

After four-and-a-half years, I am resigning as an Interzone co-editor.

I do not take this decision lightly, but it is what I feel I must do.

The reason is simple: like a rock band where one musician quits because she/he doesn't like the musical direction the band is taking (the well-known 'musical differences'), I am unhappy with the direction and tone the fiction in Interzone will be taking.

Make no mistake, I think that, fiction-wise, Interzone has had a very good year so far. And there are still some very good stories forthcoming (Jason Stoddard's "Monetized", Alaya Dawn Johnson's "Far and Deep", Hannu Rajaniemi's "His Master's Voice", Gord Sellar's "The Country of the Young" and Paul Evanby's "I Love the Smell of the Lotus in the Morning" immediately come to mind).

However, most of the stories the magazine has accepted this year will appear next year. And -- as mentioned above -- the tone and direction of most of those are moving farther and farther away from what I would prefer to publish. So it's time for me to say my thanks and take my leave.

I'd like to thank Andy Cox for having me all this time. I'd like to thank all IZ editors past and present. I'd like to thank everyone who has volunteered for the magazine, or helped out in any way: they've been great years, and would not have been possible without you.

I wish Interzone, and all other TTAPress publications nothing but success and the best of luck in the future. This may sound a bit strange after my statement that I'm unhappy with the direction IZ is taking, but I really do mean it.

May Interzone live long and prosper. It'll just not be my Interzone anymore.

(I wanted to post this yesterday, but was too sick and tired. Now I feel somewhat better.)