Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Follycon 4: Endings often whimper

By Monday morning, I was really feeling a bit monged. Spent about half an hour packing and another fifteen neurotically checking that I hadn’t left key items in weird places in the hotel room. Staggered into the Majestic a little late, in time for the ‘Imagining Utopias’ panel. Spent half of this looking at the snow falling outside. This was causing internal hysterics because I was due to catch a train about four and there had been a yellow warning on the met office website.

Mindful that I had the Le Guin panel at two, I trekked back to the hotel to book another night. This involved borrowing an umbrella, as I was in my posh clothes and the sleet was still heavily falling. The checkout person informed me that the rooms weren’t quite ready, so I spent about twenty minutes in the bar eating a veggie burger, anxiously checking the clock and trying not to grind my teeth.

The room was eventually sorted, and I headed back to the Le Guin panel. Edward James, who was chairing the panel, had asked us to pick four ‘favorites’ and I’d made notes abecause I didn’t want to make an idiot on myself on a panel with Nnedi Okorafor!

Other panellists were Ruth Booth and my friend Kari Sperring, a committee member who’d stepped in a little late to replace another panellist. Kari said on the panel that she was a little tired, which was understandable because she’d been working really hard all weekend, running hither and yon like a fast moving thing.

The panel went well and I think people enjoyed it, although I was glad to have taken notes. Le Guin’s essay titles aren’t always very rememberable, as in ‘A non-Euclidean view of California as a cold place to be.’

We’d been asked to name favorites, Kari naming ‘The Tombs of Atuan,’ one of the Earthsea books, Ruth ‘The Word for World is Forest’ and Nnedi the short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’ I was really glad I’d asked them about favorites before the panel, as the last two works were on my list! I ended up talking about ‘Always Coming Home,’ which I read over about six weeks earlier this year.

Stan’s lecture on Galileo and the scientific method was immediately afterwards. This was interesting and included some great slides of Jupiter from the Juno probe, Venice, c16th paintings and illustrations from Galileo’s books. Stan’s claim was that Galileo had basically invented the scientific method in Venice over about twenty years.

This involved rejecting the erroneous theories of Aristotle and concentrating on phenomena that could be easily demonstrated in a practical way. It also involved the invention of physical devices, in a part as a substitute for the complex maths of physics like calculus that wasn’t invented until the subsequent generation.

 I think the case he made is strong, at least for physics, but I’d agree with Paul Feyerabend and others that there’s not really any such thing as the scientific method. What exists is a range of ways of systematising and making sense of the empirical world. Darwin’s method in ‘The Origin of Species’ was also empirical but differed significantly from Galileo’s. It involved reasoning by analogy and example, and stitching together observations into a broad tapestry to present an overall picture that supported natural selection. This is still science, but done differently than Galileo. One has to adapt one’s method to the situation.

Anyway, the account of his trial was interesting. Galileo was argumentative and basically managed to piss off the Pope which, given that you could be burnt for heresy was not a good idea. Stan also mentioned his poor daughters who’d been dispatched to a nunnery that specialised in poverty. One died young and the other stopped talking to him, which was unsurprising given the circumstances....

By the end of Stan’s talk, I was seriously suffering from sleep deprivation. Returned to the hotel and popped into the gym, hoping a run would wake me up but it just made me more tired. Slipped into bed at about half seven and fell fast asleep until morning, so I missed the after party.

Eastercon’s been quite an experience, if rather intensive, and I think I’m still processing it really. Still, the sun is shining in the hotel window, and spring is finally here. Must dash!

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Follycon Live Blog 3: The New Wave and other Cognitive Biases

Was up early again, and after breakfast had another 5k run and weight session in the hotel gym. This has been an important safety valve: stuffy hotel rooms and crowded urban spaces can sometimes feel rather claustrophobic after a day or two. I don’t believe that human beings are built to live in shoeboxes.

Sunday morning was fairly laid back. Kim Stanley Robinson was giving a book signing and he very kindly allowed me to take a selfie in adddition to signing a copy of his novel New York 2140.

Later on in the afternoon I also attended Nnedi Okorafor’s signing session, although that was a little embarrassing as I hadn’t read any of her works. (I’d got hold of Binti just before the conference started but had been too busy with my Ursula Le Guinathon to actually read it).  She very gracefully pointed me in the direction of further works she thought I might like.

After lunch, I attended a lecture entitled ‘Vulcans are from Vulcan, Humans are from Earth: Understanding Climate Science and Why Some People Reject it,’ given by Doctor Kevin Cowtan. Dr. Cowtan’s a physicist who started using simple physical models to make sense of climate change data, which he made public on a website. This meant that he was exposed to climate change deniers, which made him wonder why some people persist in rejecting the evidence.

His explanation was mainly psychological, invoking cognitive and worldview biases that everyone shares.

He suggested ways of distinguishing reasonable scepticism from various forms of denial, citing Boaz Miller’s work on knowledge-based consensus. Boaz Miller said that consensus wasn’t enough to show shared knowledge in a research community, because common views can arise for other reasons, such as vested interests.

In a 2013 paper, Miller suggested that you can distinguish genuine knowledge from agreement by three factors: social calibration, apparent consilience of evidence and social diversity. Social calibration means basically that a claim has been confirmed under rigorous conditions multiple times. Consilience of evidence means that a claim is coherent with a wider body of reliable knowledge. Finally, social diversity means that the knowledge is shared across a wide number of independent bodies across society.

Dr. Cowtan finished by suggesting that while we can’t really escape our cognitive biases, that a true sceptic could often make judgments about scientific controversies using Boaz Miller’s criteria.

 I found this approach interesting, and Boaz Miller’s argument reminded me a lot of John Ziman’s thoughts on the difference between reliable and unreliable knowledge, which I’ve discussed before in the context of controversial areas of science like SETI. As there is currently no consensus over whether we share the galaxy with even one ET intelligence, this would constitute unreliable knowledge. Climate change is different because it’s been checked multiple times by independent bodies who’ve pretty much uniformally come to the same conclusion, so would constitute reliable knowledge.

This is all very well, but in my view you also have to take into account things like economic interests, misinformation campaigns and propaganda. Republican voters tend to doubt climate change not because of some brain bias but because the subject was deliberately politicised by powerful lobbies and interest groups: these independent factors can in my view explain some of the results of cognitive bias experiments better than limitations inherent to our minds. The question is not whether these biases exist but why certain subjects are likely to trigger them, and the explanations tend to be political and social as opposed to neurological.

The evening began with a trialogue  between John Clute, Stan and Christopher Priest on New Wave science fiction. The ‘New Wave’ describes a period roughly between 1965–1975 that began in England when New Worlds magazine came under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. It included writers like Priest but also J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and others.

The New Wave writers were tired of ‘chrome plated spaceship’ futures and wanted instead to concentrate on sex, drugs, ecological decay and the subconscious. They also wanted to raise the literary standards of SF. The consensus seemed to be that we’re still to an extent living in the aftermath of the New Wave.

Sunday closed with a number of conversations that I found personally very helpful. This conference has been great, but I’d been wondering how to maintain the writing enthusiasm once I return to the allegedly ‘real world.’ It’s good to have friends to run thoughts past,and I think I’ve got a strategy for the next few months at least.

It’s also useful talking to established authors in terms of a reality check. I spoke to one gentleman who had recently got a book contract and experienced anxieties about the increased demands that this had brought. I also got the chance to talk further to Stan, who was clear that very few authors were able to support themselves entirely on their writing and that this was a matter of luck as much as talent or drive.

I would like success as a writer, but not at the expense of things like imagination and fun. I get the sense that sometimes success can make people forget those things and focus on productivity, sales and career building at the expense of having a lark and exploring inner worlds. This is understandable in capitalism, but it’s something to be avoided I think. What's the point of external success if you don’t have a meaningful life?

Stan also suggested that writing SF meant you were part of a conversation in a community. This seems to me to be an important motivation for plugging on with publication attempts, besides money. I’d very much like to be a part of that conversation because I think that SF is one place where new possibilities can be explored in exciting ways. New possibilities are I think things that people desperately need right now.

This seems to me an excellent reason to carry on regardless!

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Follycon live Blog 2: Hangovers, Heinlein and Hugos...

Like many a poor fool, I paid for that one. Being horribly unused to alcohol, the rounds on Friday night were enough to finish me off. I was still a little lightheaded at breakfast.

 Discovered the Hotel gym, which was good because I have a 10 k run on the 8th, not to mention a horrible Tough Mudder 10 mile challenge in May and have to train. Heavy exercise also woke me up a bit!

After this I felt slightly better so I went to the first talk of the day, on Farah Mendleson’s new book concerning the Golden Age writer Robert A. Heinlein. She deliberately steered away from Heinlein’s politics to focus on story construction, dialogue, language and sense of the sublime. Heinlein’s often misunderstood in a number of ways, because people only read part of his writing or mistake what a character says in his stories for his opinion. I’m aiming to buy this book!

The hangover set in and I began to feel grouchy, pissed off and remorseful, so I went back to my room to chill out/meditate. Also had an expedition into town for food supplies.

 Felt marginally better on my return, in time for the Nnedi Okorafor interview. Nnedi is a supernova in modern SF. She is a frighteningly talented person who has a deftness with prose that makes the rest of us look like crayon-wielding muppets.

She’s Nigerian-American, and the daughter of two high-achieving parents who was very athletic at school. This was curtailed by a developing scoliosis of the spine that left her temporarily paralysed and in a great deal of pain.

During this period, she was given a copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and began to scribble stories in the margin. Basically, she never stopped, and eventually did a creative writing course, going on to produce large volumes of work. Eight years later, about 2005–6, she begins submitting this work, and soon found an agent and publisher.

Today, she writes novels and is also working with Marvel on their Black Panther series. It turned out that she’s on this year’s Hugo shortlist — twice! This was all interesting/inspiring to hear, if a little intimidating, as I’m on the Le Guin panel with her on Monday!

 The most interesting bit for me was the suggestion that Nnedi’s athletic discipline got transferred to writing, and that this allowed her to produce large volumes of high quality prose over long periods of time. This chimes with my own experience of athletes in my personal training day job: the ‘can do’ attitude and discipline has also helped me with my writing, and I think that writers have a lot to learn from sports psychology in terms of motivation and persistence.

At half four, my friend Tiffany from the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy was co-launching their new web science fiction magazine Electric Athenaeum, so I turned up and got chatting to a very nice person who’d only just accepted one of my short stories! The magazine looks a very worthwhile project, and one of the authors stood up and read a sample of his forthcoming story.

After the Hugo shortlist announcement,  I joined my fellow panellists for the ‘Real Magic’ panel. I’d been asked to be on this because of my interest in consciousness studies/parapsychology/Buddhist practise and it was fun, although very pagan focussed.

We ended the day in the bar, and I had some great discussions with old and new friends. I hope I’m less hung over tomorrow morning!

Friday, 30 March 2018

Eastercon Live Blog Part 1: Dracula, Icons & Transgressions

Well, almost live.

I spent the first part of the week visiting friends near Whitby. This included the obligatory Whitby ‘Dracula’ tour, seeing the Abbey (gothic), the graveyard with Lucy’s seat just above the 199 steps, a pottery, a place where kippers are smoked and a statue of Captain James Cook.

The graveyard where Lucy’s seat is located is on top of the cliff and has a few polite notices warning people to respect hallowed ground. My friend suggested that this was for the goths who visit Whitby in droves and who apparently have a tendency to drape themselves over gravestones. 

After this we ambled down the 199 steps, past a group of schoolchildren who seemed unphased by the climb, arriving at the harbour where the Demeter is wrecked in the novel. My friend informed me that this fictional incident was based on a genuine wreck of the Dimitri.
The next day we visited Ravenscar to see the grey seal colony, which I’d seen on my last visit in 2016. The sea was rougher than on that occasion, but R took me further along the cliff and we found them sunbathing amongst rocks. It’s a real privilege to be so close to wild animals. 

Talking of privileges.... 
I’m writing this in a relatively hungover state on Saturday morning, after an eventful day. Arrived in Harrogate and Follycon without incident, and was immediately caught up in the convention whirl.

Fortunately, after registering ran into some old friends and was able to get a little grounded. This was followed by a long and mostly futile wait for some expensive and very small sandwiches.

Having survived the food, ran into some fellow Milford people, T and V, who were on their way to the opening ceremony. This led to the first panel on The Future of Cities, including some high profile panellists: Renee Sieber, a geographer, Matthew De Abaitua (academic and author), Paul McAuley (SF writer) and one of the guests of honour, Kim Stanley Robinson. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that Kim Stanley Robinson, or ‘Stan,’ is one of my all time writing idols and his work has had a very significant influence on my life and thought. Turns out that both T and V know him, because they were at a Clarion writer’s workshop he taught. I mentioned that I’d rather like a meeting, but had to pop off to a panel on Transgressive sexuality. 

T did say that Stan would be giving a lecture later on that evening....

I’d agreed to do three panels at Eastercon, including one on Transgressive sexuality in science fiction. This was a lot of fun, although I’m always a little self-conscious about this sort of topic, not because I’m embarrassed about talking about sex in public but because of possibly offending someone. 

The discussion was okay, revolving around the inclusion of various LGBTT + identities in fiction, which seemed a little tame. I’d re-read some of the works of William Burroughs for this panel, which deals with wild sex, drugs and mental disintegration.

This work seems a million miles from rather sanitised discussions about sexual politics and identities. Sex isn’t often ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ and I’d have like to have talked about that a bit more but still, the discussion was fun as far as it went.

Eight O’Clock came around, and thanks to T was able to have a brief discussion with Stan before his Muir talk. This was a bit awe inspiring and as usual in these sorts of situations had to watch the self-consciousness. Like many people, I’m prone to make an idiot of myself in these situations, but it was okay if a little surreal. 

The talk, on the man partly responsible for the founding of Yosemite National Park was excellent and Stan had plenty of photos of the High Sierras from various hikes. I visited California in the 1990s, and the images made me ache to return. Muir’s story is also intriguing and I’m going to seek out his works. 

Afterwards, we retired to the bar and it was again awe inspiring to be able to chat with Stan in a small group. 

However, it seemed so unlikely and unexpected a situation that it didn’t seem quite real.

Rounded off the evening with a chat to another Milford alumni, and we reflected somewhat unsoberly on the difficulties of actually getting work published. I think we both found it comforting that these problems are shared by pretty much all aspirant writers....

More soon....

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

On Hope, with a cat picture.

Well, it's the Vernal Equinox, and I woke up feeling more full of hope than has recently seemed possible. The schedule for Follycon was released a couple of days ago, and I'm delighted to have been asked to sit on three panels and to complete in the Follympic games. I'm also looking forward to seeing some good friends and of course the guests of honour Kim Stanley Robinson and Nnedi Okorafor. I'm hoping to be able to live blog, so watch this space!

Now for my topic du jour:

In the UK, there seems to be a lot of despair and resignation about currently.  I think that a lot of this has to do with the considerable economic pressure that most of us are experiencing, along with a loss of faith that the situation will ever improve.

In some ways it seems like a meaningful future has vanished, or been stolen. (Johan Hari has recently suggested, accurately I think, that the loss of a sense of the future is a key component to depression).

Recently, one of my Facebook friends asked whether there was anyone out there who was not depressed because they were out of work or below minimum wage or otherwise massively overworked doing a job that was slowly killing them.

This captures a general mood of apathy and resignation in the UK. To be blunt, it seems at times like Michael Moore was right when he suggested the English, specifically, have 'given up.' And quite honestly if I hear the phrase 'it is what it is' once more I'm really going to get quite cross.

Well, I sympathise with all this. It seems to me that many of these feelings come not from the current situation that people find themselves in but from the belief that it will never change or could never be improved. 'It is what it is' and you just have to accept things, no matter how sh***y they may be.

The problem is that long term fear, stress, anger, exhaustion etc. locks you in 'survival mode.' This is when your focus is narrowed and you only see the crisis in front of you. All sense of the future becomes lost.

Therefore it seems to me crucial to resist (1) resignation (2) hopelessness and most of all (3) the sense that you, an individual are powerless. Looking after yourself and maintaining morale is a political act and an important one. See Hillary Rettig's great post for more on this.

I also recommend Bruce Levine's book on depression. Bruce talks a lot about morale, and thinks that many cases of depression are actually extreme forms of learned helplessness and despair. A necessary first step in alleviating depression is therefore to focus on lifting morale.

I'm going to be blunt here. I'm basically a critical utopian. My agenda, my wish, is for a future that's radically better than the present we find ourselves in. I want a planet that's rewilded and extensively ecologically restored. I want poverty and deprivation to be gone. I want compassion and kindness to become the hallmark of our civilisation instead of venality, exploitation and mendacity. I want a democratic workplace, rebuilt communities and, God damn it, contact with aliens would be pretty fine too.

All this means basically saying screw you to the currently prevailing wisdom/mood in this country. I refuse resignation. I refuse powerlessness. I refuse despair. I especially refuse those who would bully, deceive and coerce whole populations for their own selfish ends. Those people have no right to anyone's attention or respect.

Yesterday, I came across this fabulous Kim Stanley Robinson quote that seems appropriate:

....the optimism that I’m trying to express [in my novel 2140] is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.
Maybe optimism is a kind of moral imperative, you have to stay optimistic because otherwise you’re just a wanker that’s taken off into your own private Idaho of “Oh well, things are bad.” It’s so easy to be cynical; it’s so easy to be pessimistic. I like to beat on to people a little bit about this.
Quote from this interview.

Stan is of course perfectly right. The choice is between (1) cocooning oneself in despair or (2) saying stuff it and getting together with others to build a better world. To finish, here's Stan's Bioneers talk, which seems suitably inspiring for the Vernal Equinox. Enjoy, and I hope to see some of you at Eastercon!

Monday, 19 March 2018

Ursula Le Guin on Technology...and some of my thoughts

Well, the snow has descended again and I've been inside for most of the weekend, with brief forays into the garden. The cat is also rather peeved by the weather and keeps attacking me.

I've been taking the opportunity to continue my Ursula Le Guin-a-thon. This started by accident after I finished her brilliant but difficult masterwork Always Coming Home.

I went onto her Fantastic Fiction page, and started going through the books and short stories that were previously unfamiliar to me. I was surprised at how much I'd missed.

Her essays are also significant, and for me have been a useful source of alternative ways of looking at things.

Technology is one issue that I've been pondering in the wake of my 'Wild Future' posts. Many SF writers still seem to favour a basically linear, progressive approach to technology. Innovation is often welcomed for the sake of it, and I've seen environmental thought pilloried for being 'Luddite' or even reactionary.

In the course of my reading, I've discovered that Le Guin, typically, had a more subtle, complex approach to these issues. For example, she wrote:

The imperialism of high technology equals the old racist imperialism in its arrogance; to the technophile, people who aren’t in the know/in the net, who don’t have the right artefacts, don’t count. They’re proles, faceless nonentities….I have heard a man say perfectly seriously that the Native Americans before the Conquest had no technology.
From the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Gollancz, 1987/2011) .

The first part of this statement flags the ideological component of technology. Neil Postman suggested that we live in a technopoly, in which technology is deified and seen as a solution to all problems. This enables narratives about linear progress and the 'inevitability' of certain forms of development. Anyone who does not participate in such development will often be seen as irrelevant, backwards or even a threat. 

The denial of Native American technology is an example of this, and Le Guin requested that we take a wider perspective. To an anthropologist or archaeologist, 'technology' does not necessarily equal high-technology.  Pretty much every human culture has had a technology of some sort, and it's really simple prejudice not to see this.

Arguments over technology often take a very simplistic line. Quite often, innovations are considered in a sort of vacuum, quite apart from the context in which they’re produced. Technology, like 'Science,' is often presented as monolithic and value-free.

A piece of kit, the argument goes, is 'neutral.' It is the uses to which it is put that determine whether it is 'good' or 'bad.' This presentation tends to exonerate the designers and manufacturers of such devices.

To give a specific example: smartphones. On a very abstract level, would be very difficult to make value judgments over the basic idea of a supercomputer-communicator in someone's pocket. A Turing machine, the conceptual heart of any digital computer, is basically a symbol manipulator that can be programmed for a very wide range of functions. In this sense, then, it is probably 'neutral' -- if we equate value neutrality with a high degree of functional flexibility.

But taken in context, a smartphone is not even remotely a ‘neutral’ device. It is a product of a capitalist, consumer society and it is built to make a profit for large and powerful companies. In judging a smartphone, you have to take into account the human suffering and serious environmental costs of its manufacture. You also need to account for the fact that these machines are designed to be addictive and assess the impacts on the user as well as their longer term social and cultural consequences.

When all this is taken into account, it’s easy to see how threadbare many of the arguments over technology actually are. The assessment of any given machine is always going to be tricky, as multiple costs are weighted against difficult-to-assess benefits. But in the end, we’re going to be a long way from an abstract argument over a supercomputer-communicator in your pocket.

Le Guin also had thoughts on the long-range goals of technological development.  In her discussion of utopias, 'A non-Euclidean view of California as a cold place to be (1985),' she addressed the possibility of the total automation of society.

She pointed out that SF stories where robots do all the work were always intended to be satirical, and that in these stories, this state of perfection never lasted. This is surely a pressing issue for an age where total automation via advanced robotics is once more being contemplated by progressives.

Later in the essay, she acknowledged that 'technology remains...an endless creative source, but that she could not see how

...even the most ethereal technologies promised by electronics and information theory can offer more than the promise of the simple tool: to make life materially easier, to enrich us. That is a great promise and gain! But if the enrichment of one type of civilisation occurs only at the cost of the destruction of all other species and their inorganic matrix of earth, water and air, and at increasingly urgent risk to the existence of all life on the planet, then it seems to me that to count on technological advance for anything but technological advance is mistaken (p. 96).

Here, we're forced to weigh the potential gains of a totally automated society against the costs. One salient question that I have not seen addressed is the sustainability of such a society. No-one, really, knows whether it will be possible. Would a society of total automation really be politically, economically and culturally stable? Would it really solve the problems of poverty and inequality? What hidden costs might exist? And how long might such a society last?

This is actually one of the things that I like most about Le Guin's writings. She does not offer easy answers, but instead prompts more questions and urges deeper understandings. I can only hope that her work remains influential in the years to come. Onto the next book!