Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Doom Patrol

At a panel at Wiscon last weekend, "Making War on 'War'," we had a hearty discussion of my goofy notion that the GWOT would be much more successful if it were being prosecuted as a netwar by a bunch of cyberpunk hacker types, rather than as a war among states run by grizzled cold warriors commanding WWII-style armies and fleets. Now USA Today reports the following of interest. Niven and Pournelle et al. part of a science fictional Homeland Security advisory board, code-name Sigma. Not sure these are the writers I had in mind...

"Sci-fi writers join war on terror

By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

Looking to prevent the next terrorist attack, the Homeland Security Department is tapping into the wild imaginations of a group of self-described "deviant" thinkers: science-fiction writers.

"We spend our entire careers living in the future," says author Arlan Andrews, one of a handful of writers the government brought to Washington this month to attend a Homeland Security conference on science and technology.

Those responsible for keeping the nation safe from devastating attacks realize that in addition to border agents, police and airport screeners, they "need people to think of crazy ideas," Andrews says.

The writers make up a group called Sigma, which Andrews put together 15 years ago to advise government officials. The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller Darwin's Radio.

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government's latest top mission of combating terrorism."


Really Alternative Cinema II

It's been pointed out that I forgot to include the dramatis personae for Alan Smithee's film of Starship Troopers last week, so here it is.

Juan “Johnnie” Rico: Keanu Reeves
Sergeant ‘Jelly’ Jelal: Jaye Davidson
Dizzy Flores: Sean Astin
Carl: Neil Patrick Harris
Rico’s father: George Takei
Rico’s mother: Adrienne Barbeau
Carmencita Ibanez: Angelina Jolie
Col. Dubois: Charlton Heston
Fleet Sergeant Ho: Lee Majors
Sgt Zim: Jean-Claude Van Damme
Corporal-Instructor Bronski: Tim Curry
Ted Hendrik: Mark Wahlberg
Captain Frankel: James Spader

Smithee was reportedly unhappy with some of this casting, though it's unclear which cast members were chosen by the studio in an attempt to make the film more marketable. Rumour has it that Keanu was chosen for the lead because the studio head wanted to see him naked.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Really Alternative Cinema

One of the joys of traveling to parallel worlds is catching up with movies that weren’t greenlighted in your homewhen, or were made by different people. Orson Welles’s Batman and War of the Worlds; Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon Bonaparte; Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen; Ed Wood’s The Ghoul Goes West; Star Wars with Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster; Time After Time with Derek Jacobi and John Hurt; and many others. One of the most interesting in historical terms, though, is Alan Smithee’s 1997 Starship Troopers.

Unlike Paul Verhoeven and Edward Neumeier, writer/director/producer Smithee was not only a huge fan of the novel but a great believer in the idea that films should be as faithful as possible to the source material - as evidenced by his thirteen-hour director’s cut of Atlas Shrugged. It’s clear to see why it appealed to him: to a man who had recorded John Galt’s final speech, Troopers would have seemed so action-packed and non-talky that after he was persuaded to leave out the voice-overs and the introductory quotes at the beginning of each chapter, he reportedly suggested making it a completely silent movie. (Maybe in yet another parallel world, he did exactly that, but I’ve not yet managed to locate a copy.)

Like the book, the film starts with the drop where Dizzy Flores (male, in this version) dies, then flashes back to Johnnie Rico’s school days. It’s rumored that when Smithee came to the line “Carl and I had done everything together in high school”, he began writing scenes which showed exactly that, until the studio warned him that his budget of $95 million would run out long before the boys had finished their freshman year. Somewhat sulkily, he agreed to cut most of this material, except for the classroom scenes, some shots of them in Carl’s lab and Johnnie’s copter, and a sequence where they’re trying on different clip-on earrings before a date.

Only twenty-one minutes later, Johnnie and his fellow MIs are being chewed out by Sergeant Zim at Camp Arthur Currie. A few exciting martial arts sequences follow; then, instead of Verhoeven’s notorious mixed-sex shower scene, we get a scene of a recruit being forcibly scrubbed with floor soap and stiff brushes by his fellow volunteers. Then comes a barracks-room scene of one recruit being branded a liar for having seen a girl, then one of Johnnie sewing his tunic so that it fits more tightly around his, uh, hips. Then the recruits go on a forced march, and are advised to huddle together against the cold. The following scene shows them doing the same, but naked. (Well, not completely. Johnnie kills a rabbit and uses its skin to make moccasins.)

Then it’s back to combat training, where a young man is shot in the ass and becomes the butt of a long string of jokes. This is followed by the first of the floggings, then a scene where Sergeant Zim and the captain wish that they could have been flogged in the former recruit’s place. Then Johnnie himself commits a flogging offence, and Sergeant Zim slips something into his hand and tells him to bite it. More floggings follow.

Perhaps unfortunately, Smithee was never to make the rest of the film, in which Johnnie learns to operate his battlesuit and goes on leave so he can remember what women look like. As the film gone well over budget by this point, the studio ruled that Smithee should follow the example of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and release the first two hours in the hope of recouping enough money to complete Part II.

Unfortunately, right-wing critics slammed the film for what they believed to be its depiction of gays in the military, then a contentious issue in that timeline. The movie failed at the box office, though it attracted a small cult following and eventually broke even thanks to video and DVD sales.

Smithee is said to now be working on a film based on the classic comic-book Toni Gay and Butch Dykeman.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wheels Are Turning, part 2

Last week I discussed the dangerous line of thinking that brought me to this point: Chrysler is seriously considering discontinuing the PT Cruiser model. If what I like most about the PT Cruiser is its retro styling, when it comes time to replace my blue Cruiser (below) why settle for a modern retro-styled vehicle that I'm not crazy about (aka the HHR) when I could buy an original vehicle from the halcyon days automotive yesteryear?


I can do this. I am a grown-up, and as a grown-up I don't have to listen to that little voice that says "You can't do that. It's not responsible." That comes from listening to my parents too much over the years, methinks. I also have a secret weapon in this acute, mad obsession: My brother Chris, who is a Master Mechanic and all-around automotive genius. He inherited our grandfather's 1955 Bel Air, which I remember riding to Dairy Queen for milkshakes back in the early '70s. Grandpa Fritz bought it new in 1955, trading in a 1939 two-door Chevrolet for it (no idea the model). The four-door Bel Air was supposed to be black, but there was a mix-up in the order, and it came painted solid Glacier Blue. Even so, it was a sweet looking car. Sadly, it hasn't been registered since 1979, even though Grandpa cranked it regularly to keep the engine in shape until his death. There is surface rust on it, and the engine needs to be overhauled, but overall it's in great shape. Once Chris has it fully restored, he's promised to help me with my vintage wheels. But what wheels truly appeal to me? Attending a swap meet might offer some hints.


The sky-blue '57 Bel Air caught my attention right away. It's a nice car, no doubt, but while I like a lot of the '50s cars, they don't hold the same resonance as vehicles from the '30s and '40s. That's not to say the Hudson Hornet parked across from the Bel Air didn't stir longings of desire in my heart. I've never been what you'd call a gearhead, but I do appreciate the aesthetics of well-designed cars. And looking at the Hudson, I realized something else: I'm a sucker for the extinct. I have sports pennants hanging in my office, and as many teams as not are defunct and/or have long since changed their names. I like the Hudson in no small part because that carmaker has vanished into the mists of time through buyouts and mergers.


That doesn't mean I turn up my nose at Corvettes. I prefer the early models from the 50s, like the sweet little number above left, but a hot Stingray--especially one with the legendary split back window--slow me down every time. Pretty much any Corvette is out of my price range, unless I want a ragged out recent vintage, so I'll content myself with window-shopping for these.


You'd be amazed at how many older Rolls Royces in decent condition make it to the resale market with semi-affordable prices. The one above isn't one of those. Neither is the MG TC pictured above.


In the other chronal direction, I admired a 1930 Ford fordor sedan. They're a wee bit boxy for my taste, and the spoke wheels are too archaic. With antique cars of this nature, daily driving is pretty much out of the question, as the transmission isn't set up to move the car at highway speeds. And I really question how safe that would be if it was. Parked beside it was another vintage Ford, a 1930 Cabriolet coupe (I think). This one's been significantly modified, and to me that undermines the charm of old cars. It's not a street rod abomination, but it's not something I'd want to be associated with. There were lots of street rods at the show, each one more gaudy and tacky than the next. I didn't waste pixels on those.


Where extinct cars are concerned, Studebaker has to reign as one of the most famous of the failed automakers. I suppose the 1950-51 bullet-nosed Champion is their most famous model (shamelessly ripped off from the Tucker Torpedo of a couple years before) but the '61 Studebaker Hawk, with its aggressive tail fins and chrome is certainly emblematic of the era, a last gasp at respectability before the South Bend company lost its long-running competition with the Big Three in Detroit. Not my cup of tea, but I still admire that vehicle. After the Stude, I'd pretty much run out of car show vehicles to gawk at. It was wet and dreary, but I thought I might make a loop through the car corral and see if any clunkers remained for sale. Short answer: Not many. Most participants had packed up and left earlier in the day, but I did come across this trailered '47 Chevy Fleet Master. It's closer to what I want--I do admire the styling of the 1936-40 Chevy Master line--but it's not there yet. The owner offered it to me for $2,000, which wasn't too bad a deal, actually. It needed some work, but I'm lucky to have Chris on my side.

The more I thought about it, a fixer-upper made more sense. Enthusiasts spend tremendous amounts of money restoring vintage cars back to factory conditions, but I want one for a daily driver, not a show car. Which means I may have to alter the transmission. And install seat belts. I'm in Texas, so an after-market air conditioner is almost a requirement. If I did that to a mint-condition classic, I'd be lynched. Not to mention the fact that a fully restored car costs considerably more than a junker. If I rehabilitated a derelict vehicle--or one that is merely in so-so condition--my conscience would be clear for me to alter it to my needs. I'm still not going the street rod route, but some compromise suddenly looks possible...

Monday, May 21, 2007

SFWA Statement in Support of Authors Guild Position on Simon & Schuster

I was just thinking to myself the other day, "Self, we haven't had a really good Us vs. Them donnybrook in the publishing industry in quite some time." Well, lo and behold, the fine folks over at Simon & Schuster decide to rectify that situation. And SFWA has leapt gamely into the breech, alongside the Author's Guild and other fine writerly institutions:
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Supports Authors' Guild Position on Simon & Schuster's Rights Grab

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., joins with the Authors Guild in decrying Simon & Schuster's recent decision to shift book titles that have reached the end of their shelf-lives into a Print-on-Demand program, instead of reverting rights to those titles to their authors. Simon & Schuster's decision expands upon an already-developing trend to use technologies, not to the benefit of authors, but as a way to seize rights that writers have traditionally taken for granted.

One of the most fundamental rights of book authors is the right to reclaim or "revert" licensed publishing rights when a book is no longer available through normal outlets of distribution or when it is selling only minimal copies. Traditionally, authors have retained their copyrights, licensing only certain specific rights to the publisher. Once the publisher has given up on the book, stopped promoting it, and is no longer able to bring about a minimum number of sales, the author could regain those rights and re-sell them to another publisher, one that might give the work a new chance with new promotion and renewed sales.

Most books sell best during a brief period when their publishers actively market them, but when that promotion stops, the average book's sales rapidly begin to decline. Currently, the author can choose either to let the book languish with its current publisher or revert the rights and try to resell them to another publisher who will actively market it.

Simon & Schuster wants to change the rules with new contract language that would empower them to keep control of a book for the entire length of its copyright, printing individual copies only when order requests are made with no motivation at all to boost sales with further marketing or promotion.

This decision by Simon & Schuster constitutes a massive rights grab and is an attempt to take advantage of authors. The members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. stand with the Author's Guild in this matter. We encourage other writers and artists groups to do so, as well, and we urge Simon & Schuster to rescind this pernicious policy.

Robin Wayne Bailey
SFWA, Inc.

Michael Capobianco
SFWA, Inc.

And Past Presidents of SFWA, including:

Jane Yolen
Joe Haldeman
Norman Spinrad
Catherine Asaro
James Gunn,
Marta Randall
Greg Bear
Jerry Pournelle
Paul Levinson
Sharon Lee
Robert Silverberg

The brou-ha-ha seems to be bearing early fruit: Already Simon & Schuster seem to be backtracking from their initial rights grab.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Broken Glass Cockpits

In September of 2005, Houston had a hell of a hurricane scare, during which I hammered out exactly what to do the next time it happens. This is my plan for In Case of Emergency, ICE, also partly applicable in the event of unnatural disaster such as terrorism. Now I've just had an ICCE drill – in Case of Computer Emergency. It made me think about aviation, distraction, and fear of the future.

What happened:

(a) With no warning and in the middle of a white-hot project, my flat panel monitor went white with faint blue and pink vertical lines.

(b) When I connected it to my laptop, no difference. Meanwhile a little string of diagnostic lights on the back of my desktop PC all glowed healthy green – no problems noted, including no problem with the video card. Web research and phone calls to computer repair places further incriminated the monitor. Off I went to a monitor repair shop with the ailing monitor seat-belted in my Celica's passenger seat.

(c) The white-hot project had to get done, so I raced home and fired up my laptop. Unhappily WordPerfect, running on the laptop, did an imperfect job of opening and reproducing the relatively complex Word documents I had been working on. I gritted my teeth and made a string of edits anyway, tailoring six separate documents and saving each to the laptop's hard drive and to a flash drive. Thank heaven for the good and faithful flash drive with a copy of everything I've worked on since the last time I systematically backed up all of my documents. But:

(d) I could not print to my color printer from the laptop. LaserJet printer – no problem. Deskjet – no go. Something about the printer driver installation needing Java Virtual Machine. Ack! I rebaselined my planning along the lines of getting documents edited and going elsewhere to print them.

(e) Then WordPerfect on my laptop stopped showing my precious documents. There was something there, not empty files, but it was INVISIBLE. Ackackackack!

(f) Whereupon the repair place cheerily informed me that the monitor was running fine. So the original problem must be in my desktop PC.

(g) The desktop PC with my e-mail account and my inbox, complete with some critical mail that wasn't backed up; the computer harmoniously hooked up to three printers of three agreeable and complimentary flavors; the machine with everything just right; my cozy virtual natural habitat…. broken?!

That was what wound me around the axle in the worst way. I flailed at the invisible documents of (e), making things worse instead of better. Finally a friend on the other end of the phone said, "You know that if an airplane is in a spin, you should immediately reduce the power and briefly let go of the control stick?"


"Yes, and that is what you should do right now!"

With that inspiring image, I did manage to let the computer mess go and go do something else for the evening. The next day dawned bright and clear, I went and got the monitor, plugged it in at home, and everything worked fine (!) Then I immediately backed up everything of any use to me on flash drives and CD's and prepared to archive fresh backup CD's off site. The hum of happy technology returned to my house. More or less.

(h) The desktop's CD drive went on the fritz but that was OK because I ran the laptop to make CD backups from data backed up on flash drives.

Now I know my ICCE drill. With that and some canned beans, canned greens, dried fruit and bottled water in the pantry, I'm ready for whatever may happen. Hooray, or something like that.

Item (g) gave me food for thought, though. Interesting how upset I got, not just because a project was in danger of falling into the ditch, but also because my comfy, cozy computer setup fell apart without warning. As my friend on the phone reminded me, electronics failure can be like that. No warning and no apparent logic. It's the stuff of superstition.

Sometimes I suspect that computers as we know and love them are way too absorbing, interesting and appealing for our own good. And too disruptive of our lives and hearts when there's computer trouble. As a species, we started out immersed in vibrant, ever-active, never-predictable nature. We built sterile cityscapes to inhabit. Now we are oh so easily enthralled by the moving lights and many colors in liquid crystal display monitors. I don't know where the fascination will take us in the future. Possibly not to a good place, although I'm not saying Information Technology Will Be the Doom of Us.

At least not usually.

A lot of new, small single-engine, single-pilot airplanes now come equipped with glass cockpits, meaning electronic instrument displays. Information in vivid color, layers of it, just twirl a knob to scroll down and see more, tap a knob to open a spigot of information. But this technology has a jagged down side. Paying too much attention to the pretty electrons means giving too little attention to the situation. Weather trouble is always waiting for an inattentive pilot to stray into its coils. And what if there's a (g) event when the displays malfunction and God only knows why? Without a great deal of good training and self-discipline, a dangerously distracted pilot will fixate the displays trying to make them work right. This could definitely put the "urgency" in "computer emergency." I don't ever want to be flying a sailplane in front of a power pilot who's transfixed by a broken glass cockpit!

Friday, May 18, 2007


I will be in groovy sunny Madison next weekend for Wiscon, reading and pontificating as follows:

Making War on "War" (Politics, Race, Class, and Religion)
Saturday, 9:00-10:15 p.m. Saturday, 9:00-10:15 p.m. Saturday, 9:00-10:15 p.m.
Every time we are faced with a serious situation, we Americans have to make a War of it: (i.e., the Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Obesity, and Terror) despite the fact that "victory" continues to elude us. We even have to "battle" disease with "magic bullets". Why are we so taken with war as our default metaphor for action? How does that limit our problem solving approach? What might we replace it with? What metaphors have other cultures turned to? And how might we popularize a change?
Laurel Winter(, Wendy Alison Walker(, Chris Nakashima-Brown(, M: Jean Mornard(, Paul Kincaid(

Sunday, 10:00-11:15 a.m. Sunday, 10:00-11:15 a.m. Sunday, 10:00-11:15 a.m. in Conference Room 2
Christopher Volan Rowe(, Chris Nakashima-Brown(, Richard Butner(, Gwenda Bond(

Romance of the Revolution (Reading, Viewing, and Critiquing SF&F)
Sunday, 1:00-2:15 p.m. Sunday, 1:00-2:15 p.m. Sunday, 1:00-2:15 p.m.
In authors ranging from Heinlein to Macleod, Spinrad to Cordwainer Smith, the revolution is glorified -- sometimes a violent one, sometimes (but far more rarely) a peaceful one. How do we avoid making the same errors of glorifying violence and hero worship when coming at things from a revolutionary perspective in fiction? (Some people may not find these to be errors -- they're welcome to come discuss that POV too. ;))
Lyn Paleo(, Chris Nakashima-Brown(, Laurie J. Marks(, M: Paul Kincaid(, L. Timmel Duchamp(

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

An Alternate History of Chinese Science Fiction.

The Humble Scrawl of Kuo Pao Kun, Mandarin

The mountains are high, the emperor is far away...but the editor's carnation pencil is everywhere.

The Brief History of the Genre

By Wang An Nuan

As editor of the Science Fiction World Book Club I’m often asked (most recently by Kong Jing Han of the very worthy Electric Velocipede) which books are most representative of the genre and its history. The following are my choices, broken down by decade, and limiting myself to authors from Zhōng Guó. I’m picking the most influential and important books (or magazines) I could think of, rather than the ones I liked best. (Anticipating the inevitable screaming which will arise in some quarters of the blogosphere: Yes, I know that none of the authors I chose are women, or non-Hàn Zú. But if critics and fans worried more about writing criticisms proving their arguments (in this case why female and non-Hàn Zúwriters deserve to be on this list), and less about whether their particular self-identified group is adequately represented in an online discussion of the greats of the genre, then perhaps they would have more luck gaining an audience.)


Xin Ye Sou Pu Yan

Lu Shi’e’s Suchen Bà Wáng (Suchen The Conqueror, 4606) is one of those classics more talked of than read, which is a shame, as it is an exciting read. The movies have grossly altered the original plot, so that the casual fan thinks of Suchen as the suave, trenchcoat-wearing, two-gun-wielding inventor-adventurer played by Zhōu Rùnfā rather than the madman of the original novel. In the original, General Wen Suchen is ordered by the Puyi Emperor to suppress a European rebellion, but takes his massive bao chuan flying warship, the Xìn Tiān Wēng, across the Himalayas and disappears. Years later, a mysterious airship, similar to Suchen’s bao chuan but much more advanced, begins destroying airships around the world, both Hàn Zú and European. World traveler Feng Ping Hui goes in search of this airship and eventually finds it; Feng is in a British aerostat which is rammed by an enormous airship which identifies itself as the Kǒng Bù. Feng is the only survivor, and is taken onboard the airship. He discovers that the ship is captained by Wen Suchen, who has become embittered toward the surface world. Suchen gives vent to comments like “I am not what you call a civilized man! I have broken with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right to assess” and “I wish to live—live in the bosom of the sky! Only there can one have independence! There I recognize no emperor! There I am free!” Suchen brings his ship to Beijing where he announces that “Citizens of the Celestial Empire, the conquest of the air is made; but it shall not be given into your hands until the proper time. I leave, and I carry my secret with me. It will not be lost to humanity, but shall be entrusted to them when they have learned not to abuse it. Until that time, I alone shall be the ruler of the skies, and the master of the world!” Attempts by the imperial air fleet to bring the Kǒng Bù down fail, but Suchen vaingloriously pilots his ship into a thunderstorm, and Feng Ping Hui is the only survivor of the crash.

I don’t have to describe the influence of Lu and Suchen the Conqueror. It began the craze for science fiction, and even today novels are described as “Lunian Science Fiction.” Readers demanded more novels like it, so other writers began writing Lu-esque novels of advanced airships, and these writers formed the first generation of Hàn Zú science fiction writers. But there are a few aspects which are underappreciated.

Even casual readers know about Suchen the Conqueror, but only committed fans of Lu Shi’e are familiar with Lu’s earlier novel, From Hā'ěrbīn To Ātúshí In Eight Days (4594), in which Feng Ping Hui, challenged by the members of his club, proves that he can travel from one end of the Empire to the other in only eight days, using a combination of zeppelins, airships, boats, trains, and landrover omnibuses. (Lu’s claim that this was possible surprised many readers, but Lu had accuracy on his side). By bringing Feng into Suchen The Conqueror, Lu created the concept of the crossover and also the notion of an author tying his various books together into an ongoing “universe.” This idea, so obvious to us now, was almost stunning in its impact on readers and writers of the early 47th century.

What should also be noted was the novel's effect on non-writers. By emphasizing the realistic—and achievable—science of Suchen’s airship, Lu inspired a generation of readers to become engineers and physicists, so that when the Wuchang Uprising took place a few years after the publication of Suchen the Conqueror, and the provinces rebelled, and Sun Yat-sen was chosen president, and the Qing dynasty fell, there was a large population of technophiles present in Zhōng Guó, and willing and capable of beginning the arduous task of leading Zhōng Guó out of the 44th century and into the 47th. 



Bai Ai Tan's A Princess of Mars (4609). As with some of the other picks on this list, A Princess of Mars was published at the end of the previous decade, but it was so hugely influential on the next decade’s science fiction that I couldn’t in good conscience omit it.

I’m continually surprised at how many modern fans have never read A Princess of Mars. The plot, in brief: a Taiping veteran, Kong Jing Hao, is mining for gold in the Taklamakan Desert when he is attacked by Wéiwú'ěrs. Kong hides in a cave, and that night, when he sees Mars shining down on him, he stares at it rapturously, and is somehow transported to it. He discovers that Mars is not only inhabited, but ruled by an advanced civilization of brutal, four-armed green aliens, the "Tharks," who use a warped form of Confucianism to oppress the noble red aliens. Kong rebels against the oppression and the obscene gap between the dynastic Zodangans and the working class Heliums. Kong befriends one of the Tharks, the noble Tars Tarkas, and falls in love with one of the Heliums, Aelita Thoris, the daughter of the Thark Emperor, and the trio flee Zodanga. Kong organizes the red Martians and leads a rebellion which overthrows the Zodangans. Kong becomes President of Helium, and he and Thoris settle down, but a failure at the planet's Atmosphere Plant endangers the planet, and Kong (apparently) sacrifices himself to save Barsoom.

No one will ever call Bai Ai Tan a great writer, and parts of A Princess of Mars have aged badly, though not to the degree of his Tarzan novels. But A Princess of Mars and the other Barsoom stories still carry a certain pulp charge, and in the right frame of mind even a jaded modern reader can enjoy them. Kong Jie Huan wrote, “BAT’s immense popularity has nothing to do with conventional sf virtues, for it depends on storylines and venues as malleable as dreams, exotic and dangerous and unending.” He’s right. Too, Bai essentially created the Planetary Romance subgenre with A Princess of Mars. There were scattered precursors, including Donghai Jeuwo’s A New Tale of Mr. Absurdity (4602), but it was Bai who created and popularized the Planetary Romance as we know it today. And it was Bai, with his energy, invention, and often high standard of storytelling, who so heavily influenced the writers who followed him.


Liu Hui Wen's "The Call of Cthulhu" (4625). Look, you can poke fun at Liu's style all you want. Anyone can imitate him, in mediocre fashion, by tossing around words like "glabrous" and "foetor." You can point at the decades of bad Liu imitations as having had a deleterious effect on horror writing. But what you can't do is say that there wasn't anything to the stories, or that they weren't very good. As Professor Han Kuang Ning has repeatedly pointed out, there's a lot of good writing--not good prose, good writing, which is different--and solid idea-work in Liu's stories.

More to the point, the meme that started me on this calls for the “most representative and influential” of the decade, which Liu’s work is, and the best known, most representative, and most influential of Liu’s oeuvre is “Call of Cthulhu.” Hell, its famous first line, “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to awaken from the sleep of ignorance,” is quoted in the Tsinghua Book of Quotations, and being quoted there means that you've entered the canon. The bad writers who followed Liu were influenced only by the surface elements of his work, and imitated only his style. But the good writers who followed Liu were influenced by the concept of cosmic horror which he (essentially) created. Cosmic horror, the idea that there are beings like Cthulhu and the No-Buddha which so transcend human understanding that to draw too close to them is to be driven insane—the idea that the powers of the universe are uncaring and unaware of puny motes like humanity—is Liu’s real legacy.

You can certainly argue that Liu and the concept of cosmic horror were much more influential on horror writers than on science fiction writers. But cosmic horror is a part of the other cultural and scientific developments, from evolution to quantum theory, which destroyed our traditional understanding of man’s place in the universe and various other long-held certainties, and which killed off the various ideologies of the time: Confucianism, communism, worship of the Emperor, and so on. I would argue that Liu and cosmic horror were influential on the science fiction writers of the time and afterwards. The tradition in science fiction, from the magazines of the Twenties and the pulps of the Thirties up to the books you can find in stores today (I’m thinking of Ma Jin Kun’s mediocre Seeker), was for man to be shown to be Important, whether because the earth was at the center of a spatial nexus or because, in the famous words of Xun Ao Tuo, we are “the race that will rule the sevagram.” On some unacknowledged level these writers are reacting to and against Liu, to and against cosmic horror, and to and against the entire continuum of man's-significance-negating science which Liu drew on and represents. These sf writers shied away from the lesson of Wu Hui Nuan, the art student dreamer whose mind is destroyed by images of the No-Buddha and the Zero Path, and the lesson of Zhou Gong She, the Miaou sailor who has the misfortune to encounter Cthulhu rising from R’lyeh. Later sf writers chose to focus on Magistrate Liang Ren Yan, who succeeds in preventing the Tanka Egg People from completing their summoning of Cthulhu. The argument of Liu and cosmic horror, and what Wu Hui Nuan and Zhou Gong She realize, is that, in the face of the vastness of cosmos and the blithe unawareness of cosmic entities, humanity and its ideas of “good” and “evil” are not just meaningless but irrelevant. SF writers preferred to focus on the momentary triumph of Magistrate Liang and pretended that ignoring Liu’s argument was an adequate riposte to it.

Judge Bao

Most Hàn Zú are familiar with Tang Ke Ning's Judge Bao—if not from the endless pastiches, then from the movies, television shows, and, heaven forbid, slash fiction. But most Hàn Zú readers, though well acquainted with the four novels and fifty-six stories that make up the Canon (as Baosians call it), are unaware of the cover of Bao’s first appearance, or even the name of the magazine in which Bao first appeared—much less that that magazine was a pulp, and one of the despised "spicy scientifiction"  pulps at that. The science fictional elements of the Judge Bao Canon have always been minimal: an unrealistically potent poison in “The Adventure of the Kuei's Foot,” the appearance of a mutated bat in “The Adventure of the Guangdong Hsüeh-Shih Chih Shen," and of course, most memorably, the big-headed yáng guĭzi dwarf Professor Mao Jie Ming in “The Adventure of the Final Problem.” Devoted Baosians prefer to overlook the science fiction in favor of the more celebrated mystery elements, and to point out that after the publication of the first Bao collection, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Bao, Tang made the series mystery-only. But Bao began in our genre, and Tang Ke Ning after all began by writing for the sf magazines, and so we can lay partial claim to him.

The mystery folks will point to the huge influence that Bao had on mysteries, how the Judge Bao/Sergeant Hoong partnership became the archetypal mystery pairing—one smart and acerbic, one dumb but strong and useful as a plot device and sounding board—and how Tang essentially created modern mystery fiction. And it’s true. Judge Bao is the single-most influential mystery character (and in the top three most influential fictional characters), and Tang the single-most influential mystery author, far more than the best of the Beijing Cozies or the Shanghai Hardboileds. But as far as SF is concerned, Judge Bao is the influential character of the Thirties, and his debut, the Qiyue 15, 4631 issue of Spicy Gweilo Stories, is the most influential magazine or book of the decade. While Suchen the Conqueror and A Princess of Mars provided great boosts to genre novel publishing, it was Spicy Gweilo Stories, specifically its huge sales, which essentially created the pulp magazine industry. Throughout the Thirties, when novelists suffered from varying, uncertain sales—the continuous threat of a Japanese invasion made many readers hesitant to spend much money on novels—writers found that they could survive, and in some cases thrive, by publishing in the pulps. The Mukden Incident had a bad effect on the sales of novels, and it wasn’t until after the Battle of Shanghai, with the more definitive defeat of the Japanese invaders, that the book publishing industry recovered. But pulps, much cheaper to buy and easier to print (and remember that paper drives had much more of an effect on novels than on the pulps), always sold well, and provided money and careers for writers. Too, the many concepts created in the pulps had a lingering effect on science fiction in later decades.

Teng Shuang Bai

Teng Shuang Bai’s “Lest Darkness Fall” (4636) is another one of those works which I’m including in the decade after it was published because of the great influence it had over the works of that decade. Counterfactuals and alternate histories have become very popular in the past twenty years, but they first made an impact on writers and publishers in the Forties, and that was entirely due to “Lest Darkness Fall.” The story was inspiring to many writers, and sparked a trend in counterfactuals--no surprise, considering the content of the story. Pan Ming Rui, an archaeologist who is visiting the Forbidden City, is struck by lightning and sent back to the time of the Tàihé emperor. He uses his knowledge of 20th century technology to improve the state of the Jin Dynasty, especially their military technology, so that when the Mongols arrive the Jin armies, with their improved cannon and new muskets, are able to defeat them. Readers were enthusiastic about these new stories, and bought them, and the magazines and novels they appeared in, in droves.

“Lest Darkness Fall” works most obviously as wish-fulfillment and escapism. The Zhōng Guó Teng Shuang Bai and his readers knew was plagued by warlords, suffering through the Japanese invasion, divided socially, at a technological and cultural disadvantage to the leading countries of the world, and striving to overcome centuries of Qing-imposed backwardness. In “Lest Darkness Fall” Zhōng Guó is transformed into a technologically-advanced empire. But the story works on another level as well, as a comment on the war. Despite some of the advances the country had made in areas like aviation, following Hu Zongnan’s motto, “If one has a scientific mind one can use machinery, one can use electrical power to fly into space,” as a whole Zhōng Guó was technologically backward compared to its allies in the war, and compared to Japan. Zhōng Guó defeated Japan because of our huge advantage in manpower, because of General Mao’s superior tactics, and ultimately because of the invasion of Japan, not because of any advantage in military technology we enjoyed. Teng Shuang Bai, like his readers, was well aware of this. “Lest Darkness Fall” presents a similar predicament--Zhōng Guó threatened by an army more powerful than its own—but has the country saved by a time traveler, not ravaged by an invasion. As I said, the story is wish-fulfillment.

Teng was not the first writer of sf to create a counterfactual, but he was the most influential, and the most imitated. There were other subgenres popular in the sf magazines in the 4640s--the many imitations of Judge Bao continued well into the Fifties--but Teng added political consciousness, and lent the field respectability in the eyes of mainstream literary critics.


Stars my Destination

Like many of the other books I’ve listed here, Bei Ao Lan's The Stars My Destination (4653) is more referenced than read by the common fan. Which is a shame, since in addition to its historical importance it’s a cracking good read. As most sf fans know, Stars is a science fiction version of Wú Chéng'ēn’s Journey to the West. Fan Geng Lei, a man without any drive or ambition, is shipwrecked in space. He had been an assistant on a mission to retrieve a set of sacred scriptures from the planet of Gŏu Jiù Chán, but his ship was wrecked, and at the  beginning of the novel he is, in the famous phrase , “one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.” Another ship in the convoy to Gŏu Jiù Chán passes him without picking him up. Fan becomes monomaniacally bent on avenging himself on the other pilgrims who abandoned him by being the person to return from Gŏu Jiù Chán with the sacred scriptures. Fan learns many skills and becomes educated in the ways of Dàshèng Buddhism, but when he finally reaches the planet and receives the scriptures he realizes that he has been far too fixated on matters of the flesh, and so achieves enlightenment.

One can’t point to a specific literary innovation which Bei created, or a particular influence which Bei or Stars had outside of science fiction. Neither he nor Stars were influential in that way. All Bei and Stars did was capture the mood of sf fans impatient to reach the stars before the Americans, and to provide the writers of the Fifties with a model to imitate and an ideal to strive for. Bei was a better stylist than Ai Yao Shu, whose best work, like “Nightfall,” can only be charitably described as “workmanlike.” Bei wrote more humane and compassionate fiction than Hong Ren Biao. (And Stranger in a Strange Land me no Stranger in a Strange Land; a more fraudulent and manipulative attempt to come off as “hip” to a new generation of readers is hard to find. Stranger's falsity oozes through every lying word). Bei has been superseded by better writers, but those of us who were lucky enough to discover The Stars My Destination as teenagers will never forget Fan Geng Lei’s gushi:

The black hole swirls, the engine roars, twinkling starlight fills the vision.
Asteroids, gamma rays, limited oxygen and fuel—many obstacles lie ahead.
Far from Hubei, beyond Zhōng Guó, and outside of Terra this one floats.
Deep space is now my dwelling place, the stars my destination.



Hong Fu Ren’s Dune (4662). This is hardly a controversial choice for a Most Influential Novel: The Sixties selection. It won the Gan Hui Award and the Nebula Award for Best First Novel. It’s one of the (if not the) best-selling science fiction novels of all time. Hong wrote five sequels, and Dune inspired two films, two tv mini-series, computer games, board games, and a series of prequels and sequels written by Hong Biao Rong (Hong Fu Ren's son) and Ao Ken Wang. Its fan base is thriving forty years after its debut. In terms of its influence, Dune’s emphasis on religious themes, and its introduction of ecology into the discourse of science fiction, were a departure from tradition and inspired numerous novelists to incorporate ecology and other hard and soft sciences into their fiction. And Dune remains a good read. But despite being a fan of the novel, I have to agree with the charge most famously made by Pan Kuai Hui at the ’64 WorldCon: Dune is not a religious novel. Dune is a communist novel.

Not to spend too much time on this, but: the backdrop of Dune is the conflict between the Black Yi House and the Zhuang House, with Emperor Bi Jing, who is afraid of the Zhuang, siding with the Black Yi. Zhuang Bin Li is the only survivor of the Black Yi attack (supported by the Emperor’s Lin Kuei shock troops) on the Zhuang compound. The Black Yi take over the planet Qilian while Li flees to the wastes. Li joins up with the native Jafari, and after learning to ride the sandworms discovers that he is the Mahdi, the messianic Twelfth Imam. As the Mahdi Li unites the millions of Jafari and seizes control of Qilian and the production of the spice which makes interstellar travel possible. Li and the Jafari defeat the Lin Kuei and force Bi Jing to abdicate. Li becomes Emperor, abolishes the Dynasty, and declares universal jihad.

There have always been two obvious interpretations of Dune. The first is that it was a response to the atomic age and, like Them!, Gojira Versus Sūn Wùkōng, and the other Giant Monster movies of the Fifties and Sixties, Dune was a way of projecting our fears of the new, atomic reality into a fictional format in which the fears could be safely processed. Similarly, the issue of nuclear bombs in the hands of the Jafaris, and the way in which their atomics cancel out the atomics of Emperor Bi Jing and the Black Yi House, blatantly maps on to the contemporary fears (backed, it must be said, by government propaganda) of the Soviets giving Muslim separatists in Zhōng Guó atomic bombs.

The other obvious interpretation of Dune, and the one most fans continue to hold, is that the novel is a religious one, and is as much about Islam, and the Hui of Xinjiang (the “Jafaris”), as it is about ecology. But even a cursory analysis of Dune shows the communist elements: Li’s title of “Great Leader,” the description of the Jafari jihad as the “Planetary Revolution” and the “Holy Struggle Forward,” the explanation that the Lin Kuei’s viciousness is the result of the “poison of wrong thought,” the repeated emphasis on the Jafari’s fighting strength arising from each Jafari’s “worker’s consciousness,” the Jafari’s communal society, and the allusions to a post-jihad future in which the means of production belong to each planet and each community. The Jafaris are Muslims, but they are communists first. 

The sf readers of the Sixties and Seventies were willing to overlook this distasteful subtext—and Dune is, after all, only fiction—but it is present nonetheless, and new readers who have lived through the Muslim terrorism of the 48th century may find it off-putting. However, the sf writers of the Sixties and Seventies took from Dune its religious and ecological elements as well as its commentary on the political corruption of the era. These themes became the dominant ones in sf of the Sixties. And that is why Dune was the most influential novel of the decade.


Rendezvous With Rama

Kong Ang Rui's Rendezvous with Rama (4669) is the selection here that, while inarguably influential, is the least enjoyable. As a reading experience, it does have some things to be said in its favor. The concept, while not exactly original (the Big Dumb Object was a staple of the sf pulps of the Thirties and Forties), is skillfully played out, so that the arrival in the solar system of a cylindrical object nearly a hundred in length, on some unimaginably long cosmic journey, actually creates the oft-mocked sense of wonder. And what the humans sent from Beijing find--the incredible array of alien races and the bizarrely-structured “cities” which the humans are unable to enter--is inspiring to the imagination, as it was to the imaginations of many writers of the decade. And, most importantly of all, Rendezvous with Rama had a real-life effect from which all science fiction fans have benefited.

But I find the novel's mysticism irritating, and the prose style and characterization are too reminiscent of the sort of fen-a-word hackwork churned out by the thousands in the pulps of the Forties. Rama is a wonderful book to read when you’re between nine and sixteen; it is less wonderful when you are an adult, and if you have read enough of the really good sf of the Nineties and the Aughts, like Bi Yu Ning’s Look to Windward, or Xiang Kong Hui’s Iron Sunrise, you’ll find the stylistic flaws of Rama tiresome.

Nonetheless, the B.D.O. is, as Kong Jie Huan wrote, "a symbol of almost mythic significance, enigmatic, powerful, and fascinating," and it is no coincidence that a scant six years after Rama’s publication the Sun and Stripes was flying on the moon. Lu Shi'e created technophiles; Hong Ren Biao created scientists who were sf fans; but Kong Ang Rui and Rendezvous with Rama created men and women who wanted to go into space, and could make it happen, and did. That we've only returned to the moon once, and only just managed to plant the Sun and Stripes on Mars, says a little about successive sf writers and a lot about the priorites of the Hàn Zú public.



Kong Wang Lian's Neuromancer (4681). A predictable choice, I admit. Every science fiction fan has read it, and every sf fan knows how influential it was. Kong didn't create cyberpunk, or even coin the word, but Kong's enormous success, far more than Xu Bin Rong's, spawned a decade of imitators, and made cyberpunk into both a distinct literary subgenre and a profitable commerical label. And while they're cliched to us now, the concepts of the computer-driven, corporate-dominated near-future; the affectless, rootless protagonist; the sprawling urban environment consisting as much of rust as chrome; an urban populace both streetsmart and slum-dwelling; the kaleidoscope of modern urban life as not just a background but the only background; an exaggerated form of mean streets Beijing acting as a stand-in for every future city--these all came from with Kong Wang Lian and began with Neuromancer. (Yes, yes, Fang Fa Ren and "True Names." It did precede Neuromancer, but Fang's reputation for rudeness to his fellow writers has left him much less influential than he might deserve--in full disclosure, I speak as one of his victims--and it was only in the Nineties and Aughts that he really began to influence other writers).

What's most interesting about Neuromancer and cyberpunk isn't what they got right in their predictions--we all know about those--but what they got wrong. There was a time in the Eighties when a Japan-dominant future rife with yakuza and augmented ninja seemed likely, but the Nineties put paid to that. Kong was perhaps making a point about the brevity of empire and how short any "Zhōng Guó Century" could really be, as well as riffing off the sudden perception that Japan was the cutting edge of technology and culture, but as a prediction it failed miserably. (Of course, given what we've spent on the war, and how far in debt President Bian's economic policies have left us, Zhōng Guó might yet become relegated to a lesser power, and Santiago rather than the Shanghai might become the most powerful city on Earth). The GuangHang sprawl shows no signs of appearing. Corporations are employing mercenaries in Africa, and Zhōng Guó is using them in the war (most infamously the Lú Gài ZG Corporation), but corporate armies remain in the realm of fiction. The world waits in vain for cyberspace, hackers remain a tiny fringe rather than an active subculture, and body modification is decades in the future. (No Mu Li the Razorgirl for us). Not a great record of prediction--but then, science fiction isn't about prediction, as has often been argued, but about commenting on the present.


Voyage of Night Shining White

Ran Shan Hui’s “Mars” trilogy, starting with the The Voyage of Night Shining White, which won the ZGSFA and Nebula Awards. Think about this one for a second before e-mailing me your complaints. What more typifies the decade, and given its critical prominence and general popularity, what was more influential on other authors than Ran Shan “Xie Kang Man” Hui’s The Voyage of Night Shining White? It was both retro and forward-looking, like the rest of the decade; it brought us an alternate history, with an imperial Zhōng Guó, but it sent the Hàn Zú into space, to colonize Mars. It gave us obscure historical research—before Hui, who besides scholars remembered Zheng He?—and scrupulously accurate scientific extrapolations, from terraforming to the space elevator. It combined the inventiveness of the old pulp authors (the “dragon boats” of the Treasure Fleet with their nuclear reactors) with realistic science fiction (a very believable future history of the transformation and settling of Mars, from the arrival of the first colonists to the rise of multinational corporations). It referenced the old (the failure of the reactor coolant system on the Night Shining White was a tip of the hat to “The Cold Equations”) and created new things for other authors to reference (the “Accelerando”). What set the trend of the Nineties more than The Voyage of Night Shining White, The Dragon’s Nine Sons, and Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea? What better captured the optimism of the decade, the energy of the post-Cold War economic boom? What work better reflected our belief that getting to Mars was possible, and anticipated the T'ien-Hou Rover's landing? You can have your Snow Crashs and Fire Upon the Deeps; I'll stick with The Voyage of Night Shining White.


Mengzi Street Station

Fanqi Mieville’s Mengzi Street Station (4698). Mengzi Street Station may be a controversial choice. Mieville seems to have as many detractors, or at least readers who are unable to derive any enjoyment from his work, as devotees. But Mieville is the leading figure in what might be called the New Decadence. It's hardly a movement--there's no agenda or even particular, outspoken proponents ala the New Mundane movement--but there are any number of authors who are working in this mode, from Lu Juan Yu and his City Impenetrable stories, to Wei Shi Tian and her superb "Palimpset,” to Tong Hang Ling and his robbed-of-the-ZGFA Vellum, and they all followed Mieville. Similarly, Mengzi Street Station’s grotesque New Crobuzon began the trend in portraying cities as twisted, nightmarish iterations of Shanghai. (All cyberpunk cities can be said to be copies of Kong Wang Lian’s GuangHuang sprawl or his Beijing; all decadent cities are copies of Mieville’s New Crobuzon). And Mengzi Street Station led the way in showing readers and authors that fantasy could be more than the nth  copy of Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Water Margin.

Of course, Mengzi Street Station represents the Aughts in other, less entirely positive ways. There is still new and impressive hard sf being published--Xiang Kong Hui's Accelerando deserves all the praise it got, as does Wei Pin Tu's Blindsight--but the general trend seems to be for sf to follow Mengzi Street Station's model and verge toward fantasy. I'm not as strident about this as Hong Mu Kuan, but he does have a point regarding the political retrogressiveness of modern fantasy. (This was probably one of the unintended side-effects of Mengzi Street Station, since Mieville is not just politically active and a People's Party follower but also puts his politics into his fiction). This inward turning, away from the future and toward the past, away from what might be and to what never was, is obviously a side effect of Sānyuè 17. Zhōng Guó as a whole turned aggressive and expansionist--hence our current overseas adventure--but the literature in our genre seems to be shrinking from the future, and embracing decadence rather than hope. Everyone watching the jets hit the pavilions and temples of the Gardens of Perfect Brightness knew that our world had changed, but I don't think anyone anticipated that science fiction would react like that. Mengzi Street Station came before the destruction of the Gardens, but many other writers since then followed its model, and that's why Mengzi Street Station is on the list.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wheels Are Turning, part 1

My wife and I have recently spoken about replacing the minivan she currently drives. It's a '98 model that is getting up there in mileage, which means more and more little niggling things are in need of repair more often than not. The plan is, more or less, to use next year's tax return to fund a significant portion of said venture. This is a fairly common domestic discussion--thousands of couples across the U.S. are having this exact same conversation, with the same strategic planning, probably as I type this.

Of course, much to my wife's chagrin, I can't simply stop there and be done with it. My brain doesn't work that way (when it works at all, that is). I currently drive an '02 PT Cruiser, and if the wife's wheels are up for replacement in '08, that means mine will be due for a refresher in '10 or so, since I put a lot more mileage on due to commuting. Only here's the deal: Unless the proposed Cerberus buyout of Chrysler changes things, Chrysler plans to kill off the PT Cruiser before then, replacing it with a "crossover" vehicle with little or no retro styling.
Chrysler Group crossovers coded JC49 (Dodge) and JZ49 (Chrysler) are set to be produced starting in December 2007, with large-scale exports to Europe starting in 2010. The JZ49 might be named PT Cruiser but would not be recognizable to current owners; Chrysler reps have repeatedly said that they cannot evolve the PT’s styling and have no interest in doing so. The Toluca plant is set for a $1 billion upgrade to allow production of the new crossover; it built 177,370 PT Cruisers in 2005, not bad for a “fad car” in its fifth year (2007 will be the seventh year, including 2001).

That Chrysler is looking to kill off the PT is mind-boggling. The model has averaged 120,000 units sold since its inception, making it Chrysler's best-selling small model. That 177,000 spike in 2005 is not insignificant for an American automaker in a market dominated by the Toyota Camry, which sold 432,000 cars in 2006. More importantly for Chrysler, though, is the fact that people who buy the PT Cruiser are people who don't normally drive Chrysler vehicles. Also, for some arcane reason, the Cruiser is classified as a light truck for EPA mileage calculations, which benefits the overall numbers of Chrysler's truck line (on paper, at any rate. My '02 5-speed manual gets 21 mpg in city driving and 29 on the highway. Later year models have improved gas mileage for the automatic transmission vehicles, plus emissions have been improved dramatically across the board). The argument that a retro style can't be redesigned is perhaps the most misguided statement ever--it tells me that the decision has long since been made to stop production, and everything else is just details.

To understand why the PT Cruiser is treated thusly, we need to examine the model's history. Originally intended to be the second vehicle in a revitalized Plymouth line, the Cruiser first saw life as the Plymouth Pronto concept car, sort of a kid brother to the high-end Plymouth Prowler.


After the Daimler-Chrysler merger, the Plymouth line was killed off entirely, with the Prowler and Pronto being the only survivors. The Pronto was redesigned again, and the concept Pronto Cruizer was unveiled in 1999.


In 2001, the PT Cruiser went into production, was a huge hit, and garnered Car of the Year honors so one would think that Chrysler would nurture the model. One would be wrong. Remember, this car was inherited from Plymouth, and never fit in with the design choices the company was pursuing with the 300 sedan series and newer vehicles. Remember, too, that Chrysler and Dodge had committed more and more production toward profitable trucks and SUVs, relegating passenger cars to secondary status. And finally, Brian Nesbitt, the designer who led the team that produced the PT Cruiser left Chrysler for GM, where he spearheaded the development of the Chevy HHR, which went on sale in 2005. The PT Cruiser is an orphan vehicle in pretty much every sense of the word. Had Plymouth survived the Daimler merger, does anyone doubt that the Voyager minivan would've eventually been revamped using PT Cruiser styling? Does anyone wonder why Chrysler didn't pursue this approach using a Caravan chassis? The variations on the PT Cruiser platform have been extremely limited under Chrysler's stewardship: There's a turbo version, a convertable (introduced in 2005), several "Edition" variants and a slightly redesigned version introduced in 2006. That's it. To maximize factory production capacity, Chrysler should have long ago adopted a strategy of introducing variants on the Cruiser platform on a yearly basis. Even if these didn't have large sales volumes, development costs would've been extremely low from using existing Cruiser designs and parts, while keeping the Toluca plant operating at full capacity. It's not like thought wasn't given to this approach--look at some of the concept variants Chrysler's designers came up with:


First, we have a pair of obvious takes on the platform. The first is the wagon variant, which isn't quite a minivan, but is moving that direction. The PT Cruiser is more roomy and versatile than you'd first expect, sure, but space is still limited. Stretching it out a bit would make it more attractive for families. As for the panel truck design, the mind boggles why Chrysler never pulled the trigger on it. It'd give them a vehicle with which to compete in the European market, where small delivery vans are used in jobs where small trucks are preferred in the U.S. And with gas prices so high, a segment of the U.S. market would likely embrace the car as well. Even GM has seen the logic of this, producing a panel truck version of the HHR barely a year after the first HHRs rolled off the assembly lines.


A full wagon and panel truck version are the low-hanging fruit, though. Simple niche vehicles that don't stretch the imagination. Were Chrysler to get aggressive in their design efforts--in short, more like the turning-around GM--they'd make a splash by producing limited numbers of the two models above to draw folks to the showroom. And sell a few vehicles, too, since the price point would be affordable to more people than comparable cars. Firstly, the PT Coupe. In the 30s and 40s, everyone from Chevy to Ford to Studebaker and Nash automatically produced coupe versions of their mainstay sedans. A sportier version to appeal to car enthusiasts that didn't need the conservative four-door sedan, simply repackage the existing turbo version of the Cruiser and you've got something that the MoPar hot rodders would got nuts for, as well as folks who like the concept of the Dodge Charger muscle car renaissance, but want something a little more sleek and stylish. Capture the entry-level muscle car market (yeah, I know that's funny). The PT Pickup, on the other hand, is quite a bit more daring. I mean, it's a miniature pickup with car underpinnings and styling that hardly screams "Heavy duty work load." The upscale Chevy SSR flopped because it was over-priced and under-powered as a performance vehicle, but a PT Pickup wouldn't be competing for that same niche. Instead, it would tap into that segment once attracted to the old El Camino. In its three years of production, the SSR sold only 24,000 vehicles at a list price of $41,000. If a PT Pickup sold 24,000 a year at less than half the sticker price, it'd be a roaring success (again, keeping the factory operating at full capacity).


The Cali Cruiser, above, is what finally convinced me Chrysler had it in for the PT, no matter what. All the disclaimers about not being able to redesign a retro vehicle went out the window with this sweet piece of work. The look remains distinctively that of the PT Cruiser, but it's sharpened up and more muscular, bringing the design closer to that of Chrysler's other auto lines. I particularly like the sun roof/skylight and revamped back hatch which features a window that can be rolled down (a major gripe I have with the current design). The two door approach is nifty as well, and would allow showrooms to stock both two-door and four-door models, which appeal to different crowds. Overall, I really, really like this take on the vehicle, and hope that if Cerberus has any sense, they'll point to the Cali Cruiser and say "That's the second-generation PT. Make it happen."

Unfortunately, I'm not holding my breath for any great change of course from Chrysler until I see it. Which left me with two apparent options: Buy a late-model used PT Cruiser in 2010 or so and do my best to maintain it, or head to a Chevy dealership and settle for a HHR. While I think the HHR is a nifty vehicle, the thought of driving one didn't thrill me. I puzzled over it for a long time--the PT Cruiser and HHR both have retro styling from the 40s, and they're both essentially the same vehicle in concept (if not brand) so why didn't the HHR appeal to me? Then it struck me--the Cruiser is more flowing and streamlined, whereas the HHR is more angular and squared off. Thinking on it further, I realized that of all the old cars produced in the 30s and 40s, the ones I liked the best tended to have smooth curves and a flow to their design, whereas the ones that boasted a more "blunt" look turned me off. Which in turn got me thinking some more...

(to be continued)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The future, no fear

Laura Sterling teaches Jasmina Tesanovic how to set up her new Mac.

Hugo Nakashima-Brown teaches Bruce Sterling how to launch dead cats with virtual artillery freeware.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Feeling very spicy

A couple years back I came across the following call for submissions by editors Jay Lake and Nick Mamatas for their forthcoming anthology, "Spicy Slipstream Stories" --

"Submission Guidelines

From Spicy Detective's (circa 1930s) submission guidelines:

'In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.

If it is necessary to have the girl give herself to a man, or be taken from him, do not go too carefully into details...

Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl; strip to her underwear or transparent negligee or gown, or the thin torn shred of her garments, but while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.

A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.

Also a girl undressing in the privacy of her own room, but when men are in the action try to keep at least a shred of something on the girls.

Do not have men in underwear in scenes with women, and no nude men at all.

The idea is to have a very strong sex element in these stories without anything that might be interpreted as being obscene or vulgar.'

From Bruce Sterling's essay, "Slipstream", from Catscan #5:

'It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a "sense of wonder" or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.

'Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."'

We'd like a bit of both for Wheatland Press's latest anthology, Spicy Slipstream Stories! What we're looking for is work that embraces both the traditions of the old "spicy" pulps (not just adventure, but adventure and bosoms out to here!) and the stylistic innovations and reader affect of that non-genre genre, slipstream. And when we say embrace, we mean embrace, the way a sweaty and bruised naif cut free from a phallic V2 rocket by a square-jawed test pilot will embrace her savior."

What red-blooded American skiffy postmodernist could resist that one? Alas, as happens too often in the world of small press, Wheatland Press proved unable to complete the project. So I was delighted to hear this week that the anthology has found a new home at Lethe Press.

Wondering what spicy slipstream looks like? Here's a tease.

"Wild Tchoupitoulas"
by Chris Nakashima-Brown

“Bob Denver,” said Captain Betty, “is going to be murdered by assassins from FEMA. Deal with it, get your ass over here, and oil my back.”

The fully reclined sun chair rattled slightly as she turned over onto her stomach. I stood. The balcony of her penthouse suite in the abandoned Hotel Le Meridien looked out over the black water of Canal Street and the French Quarter. The silent city mostly only spoke up at night now, with the sounds of gunfire, swamp boats, and helicopters.

“And while you’re at it,” she added, “can you juice my music?”

I picked up her emergency radio/music player and put a dozen hard cranks into it. Moments later, the mellow vibes of remixed white boy bossa nova lounge drifted over the railing.

“Aaahhh,” she sighed with a feline stretch. “That’s more like it.”

Her uniform hung from a chair nearby, blue and gray cotton festooned with insignia representing her status as commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s 3rd Psychological Operations battalion. Nearby, the handcuffs she had allowed me to remove, evidence of her confidence that she had my custody fully secured.

“Come on, already,” she said, reaching down to open her book, a dog-eared copy of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany.

I sat on the edge of her chair and grabbed the Bain de Soleil. The Gulf sun painted a beautiful landscape in miniature across the muscular but feminine V of her back, a palette of Aryan bronzes interrupted only by the flaming reds of her shampooed tresses and the shimmering lines of the bikini that had been revealed when she stepped out of uniform.
She picked up her Cuervo rocks off the concrete floor and took a long sip. I squirted a load of oil onto my palm and warmed it with friction, summoning wafts of coconut, aloe and hot chocolate into the air.

“Don’t forget to unsnap me,” she said, turning the page.

Perched softly on the small of her back, I reached down and slid open the tiny plastic latch of her bikini top. The straps fell to either side, revealing the field of tiny goosebumps along the bronzed marshmallow serrations of her well-formed spine. I ran my oiled hands along the underside of her lats, felt my way over the curves of her marvelous glutes, pushed strong splayed digits up the full expanse of her back. Time stopped as I repeated the process with slight variations in an infinite loop, watching the tones of her flesh darken subtly before my eyes, mirroring the dappled light of the after-storm sky.

In the endless moment, I forgot about Bob Denver and the myriad other unsettling conspiracies and rebellions I’d heard in the preceding hours of this long strange day marooned in the disaster area. Her Bain de Soleil was a narcotic, predatory catalyst of some antediluvian pheromones that summoned the reptile below.

She sighed as the massage released the formalized artifices of military command, my fingertips transmitting a premonition of more intimate interactions to come. Her presence pulled my head closer to hers, and I sucked in a lungful of the fresh radiance of her aromatherapied hair. Dhalgren dropped to the ground and she closed her eyes.

“Stupid fucking book,” she said, squirming anxiously under my hands. “That little fag just wanders around among the looters. Nothing happens. Where are the goddamned cops? You want me to read 900 pages of this?”

I looked at the raging orb of our warmed sun through the haze of a tropical afternoon. The eye of Ra provoked, glaring though the humid haze.

“Grab the handcuffs,” she said, eyelids getting heavy, albeit not in a sleepy way.

In the street below, a pair of guys who looked like refugees from the 1954 L.L. Bean catalog paddled a shallow draft canoe toward the Mississippi River and the West Bank beyond. The guy in the stern even had a rain hat and a pipe. A wounded woman lay propped against the gunwales, wrapped in gauze.

“It’s Mark Trail,” I said, clamping one cuff onto Captain Betty’s right wrist and the other to the railing. “Suppose he’s one of the revolutionaries?”

She rolled over, readiness in her smoky eyes. The shimmering bikini top barely preserved the last touch of her modesty, held in place only by the proud architecture of her ample bosom.

“Come here, prisoner,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said, grabbing her 9mm Beretta, a cold bottle of water, Dhalgren, and a box of ammo. “I need to go find Penelope.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Of Starship Troopers and Marching Morons

Firstly, apologies for my absence. I've been moving house, trying to finish a Ph.D. thesis, teaching Creative Writing to freshmen, and occasionally even writing some fiction. I've approximately finished moving house, though too many of my books are still in cartons, so my plans to continue the "Lost Books" series is hampered by my inability to find those books (though new bookshelves are being put up as I type this). Similarly, my intention to comment on the print and cinema versions of Starship Troopers will have to wait until I've seen 300.

But I was reminded of Starship Troopers this morning while embroiled in a discussion of C. M. Kornbluth's 'The Marching Morons' on another blog, Paul Riddell's The Esoteric Science Resource Center.

In case any of you don't know the story (and The Best of C. M. Kornbluth will have its day in my Lost Books series), it postulates that the tendency of intellectuals to have fewer children than the less educated will result in a world overpopulated by congenital idiots shepherded by an overworked minority with IQs six times as high. Kornbluth also used this idea in 'The Little Black Bag' and his collaboration with Frederick Pohl, Search the Sky... but in 'The Marching Morons', a twentieth century con man comes up with a murderous but sanitized retroactive solution to the problem.

Like so much dystopian sf, these were cautionary tales that started with the premise "If this goes on..." and came up with a worst-case scenario. While Kornbluth was almost certainly wrong about the influence of genetics on intelligence, at least two of these stories stress that the problem is also a cultural dumbing-down, an anti-intellectual streak that is strengthened by the tendency of people who are more inclined towards intellectual pursuits to have fewer children (and from what I've read, as late as the 1960s men were statistically less likely to marry those women who did have the determination to pursue higher education and a career), giving increasing power to an increasingly less educated majority until "wise guy" becomes the greatest insult imaginable (a similar premise to that of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451). Kornbluth raised the possibility of mass sterilization and rejected it on practical grounds; he failed to predict the developments in contraception that could have been used to slow down the population increase (as in Walter Tevis's Mockingbird), but as he was writing in 1950, I'm inclined to forgive him for that. And the end of 'The Marching Morons' shows what Kornbluth thought of the ethics of the solution his racist hustler suggested. (Search the Sky has a more humane answer, but one that depends on a considerably more advanced technology.)

As in dystopias, the setting of these stories may be nightmarish to the writer and most readers (especially as most sf fans are likely to identify with the intellectual elite), but Kornbluth's morons are actually depicted as happy and materially wealthy, albeit doomed to extinction by their over-exploitation of the planet. Dystopia, again, is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, if you see this trend as real and problematic, there are better ways to deal with it problem than bribing the better educated to have more children (as was tried in Singapore), or restricting the number of children that people can have. A more secure and rewarding life for those who do pursue an education. Easier access to childcare (including allowing brain-workers to telecommute while spending more time with their families). Ready access to information for those who do favour intellectual pursuits but are restricted by geography (the web is a good start). And access to education based on intelligence and application rather than wealth.

Which brings me (at last) to Starship Troopers. There is a scene there where Colonel Dubois tells his students that "Nothing of value is free (...) If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier... and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity you the poverty of your wealth."

The novel states that this class, in History and Moral Philosophy, is the only compulsory class for the student body. This does not necessarily prove that education is free in this world (arguably Heinlein's personal utopia); the same teacher repudiates the idea that humans have any rights at all, and his assertion that the incompetent should not be encouraged to waste resources that can be profitably used by the competent might be applied to the material costs of education. However, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and considering the stance another Heinlein father-figure takes in Have Space-Suit, Will Travel in favour of access to education and against anti-intellectualism, I will give Heinlein benefit of the doubt and presume that he would agree with me that even if access to education is not an inalienable right, it is more cost-effective for a society that can afford to educate its people to do so than to turn it into a privilege for the materially wealthy.

It could even be argued that while "Nothing of value is free" might be interpreted as a justification for making education PAYG, taken in full, Dubois's speech makes a case for giving access to education to those who've made the most use of it in the past, rather than those who can afford to pay for it in advance with their parents' money.

Now, as it happens, our conservative Australian government is calling its most recent budget "an education budget" because it's created a trust for universities to pay for new facilities (not including staff), and removed the cap on full up-front fee-paying places. This means that (our currently government-funded) universities will find it more cost-effective to give preference to students who couldn't qualify for entrance to university on academic merit. The Labor opposition, conversely, is promising to phase out full-fee-paying places in favour of those who qualify according to proven ability. As a tutor and postgrad student at one of these universities, you can probably guess who I'm likely to vote for (and against), and why I was sufficiently motivated to rant at this length.

This has been an unpaid political broadcast. We will return you to your regular programming as soon as possible.

Regression (Civilization) -- Fiction

In the realm of libraries, WorldCat is a really cool tool, a self-described "window to the world of libraries." As explained by Wikipedia, it's "the world's largest bibliographic database, built and maintained collectively by libraries that participate in the OCLC global cooperative. Created in 1971, WorldCat catalogs the content of more than 50,000 libraries in more than ninety countries. As of April 2006, it contains more than 63 million records referencing physical and digital items in more than 360 languages."

So I did a WorldCat search for the title of my forthcoming novel, Hurricane Moon (Pyr, July 2007.) And it came up. Oh, this is exceptionally cool. After working in libraries all my life as a student or staff, there's my book and my name:

by Alexis Glynn Latner
Language: English Type: Book : Fiction Internet Resource Internet Resource
Publisher: Amherst, N.Y. : Pyr, 2007.

Happily clicking to the next level of detail, I get this:

Hurricane moon

Hurricane moon

Language: English Type: Book : Fiction Internet Resource Internet Resource
Publisher: Amherst, N.Y. : Pyr, 2007. | Other Editions ...
ISBN: 9781591025450 1591025451 | OCLC: 86038541 | Cite this Item

Oh, joy, it's even cataloged as to subject! Regression (Civilization) -- Fiction isn't a subject heading I would have thought of. That link pulls up 45 titles including books by authors ranging from Philip K. Dick to Pat Murphy to Andre Norton, and Cormac McCarthy to Doris Lessing. Outer Space -- Exploration -- Fiction yields 230 titles of books and movies as well.

I also see Hurricane Moon listed as being in some libraries already. These libraries may have Pyr books ordered "on approval" and routinely get them all. A book like that can show up in the online catalog before it's actually available... or even published quite yet. Right now, a couple of months before its publication, Hurricane Moon is held by nine libraries. Leading the list is the Gwinnett County Library in the greater Atlanta area (735 miles.) WorldCat assumes you might want to go to the nearest library that has the book you want, and so it helpfully notes the distance from wherever you're logged on.

Libraries in Seattle, Pasadena, California, Albuquerque, and Flint, Michigan are also on the list. Then there's the British Library (4700 miles.) And that sounds like a fine reason for me to visit the British Library the next time I'm on that side of the world.