Back to: Science & Technology, Working Together | Forward to: Haunted

Always Look on the Bright Side of... SF

And now that I've infected you all with a Monty Python tune that isn't likely to go away without assistance... you're welcome. Did I mention I might be a tiny bit... evil? Mwhahahahaha. [cough]

Today, I thought we'd talk a bit about SF's current love affair with all things dark. Is it really all that current? Does it spell the end of the genre as some folks seem to believe? Does dark SF corrupt the young? And why are they so obsessed with it? Whatever happened to the happy days of happy SF? Really? All these questions have been discussed before, I'm sure, but a comment about the age of SF as a genre made an interesting connection for me.[1] Not long ago I read a BBC article about how happiness changes with age. According to the article, when we're children we tend to be happier, and we tend to see the world more positively. As we reach middle age we tend to view life through a darker lens. However, if we manage to survive into old age our perceptions tend to return to positivity. The whole thing maps out in a giant U shape. Which brings me to the question I had: what if SF's attraction to the darker subjects is a sign of the genre's maturity as a whole? Or might it be only a symptom of fandom's aging? Should any of this be considered alarming?

Mind you, I don't believe in the idea that SF had a purely happy period. Any time I have this discussion, I've been able to point to popular, darker works written during the same era. Speaking for myself, I've always been attracted to the darker stuff. My reasons are many, not the least of which is that staring my fears in the face makes them less scary. I think it's important. One cannot resolve problems that one doesn't admit exist. If anything, for me, SF is a genre that is all about asking questions--even hard questions. So, in my opinion, this focus on the dark side of things is a positive thing. However, I understand that images sketched in monochrome are tedious. In art class, I learned that it takes at least three tones to make an image pop: dark, middle, and highlights. Thus, if you ask me, we need all three.

I don't believe that SF is dying out either. SF gets new readers all the time. Having worked in the teen fiction section at BookPeople for six years I've seen them. I can't help thinking of younger readers. I believe that the availability of dark fiction to younger readers--particularly teens--is a healthy thing. Teens are practicing adults, after all. What better way for them to explore dangerous subjects[2] than in books?

I suspect that the ability to discount the relevance of undesirable information to the self in younger and older audiences is a factor in the complaints about SF being too dark. (Again, I don't believe that SF was ever 100% optimistic.) Consider the age of the person complaining. Might that not be the case? And before someone launches off on another round of how delusional optimistic people are I'd like to state that studies indicate that people with positive outlooks tend to live longer and fuller lives.

---------------------------

[1] I like that y'all's responses inspire posts like this. It makes my job a lot easier. Unfortunately, that means it takes me a while to get to the guest post part. But hey, it's a system that works. I'm going with it.

[2] And let's face it, they're going to explore dangerous subjects.

139 Comments

1:

I blame it on the (somewhat) popularity of Cyberpunk when doing futuristic stories, what with its giant skyscrapers and noir-ish setting.

There's also a lot of SF that is really Fantasy out there today. Meaning that instead of the usual SF "how would X affect society?" themes, they're fantasy themes in a SF-ish setting.

2:

"I blame it on the (somewhat) popularity of Cyberpunk when doing futuristic stories, what with its giant skyscrapers and noir-ish setting.

Ah, but I liked that about Cyberpunk. Clearly.

There's also a lot of SF that is really Fantasy out there today. Meaning that instead of the usual SF "how would X affect society?" themes, they're fantasy themes in a SF-ish setting."

I don't think that the question "How would X affect society?" is an exclusively SF theme. That said, what is an exclusively Fantasy theme?

3:

I lived through the "New Wave" SF and hated a lot of it for it's dystopian view back then. I've not changed my mind since. But then, I read very little SF these days and what I do read is for escapism and new ideas - not the latest Club of Rome Mk 2 Mayan Prophecies update.

4:

How much is a reaction to the last 10-15 years too?

Cyberpunk tended to give us a noir spin on genetic engineering. The "War on Terror" gave us a land war in Asia against an opponent that can't surrender. The Patriot Act in the US gave USian instant paranoia. Over here in the UK the names are different - but there's a huge political storm about a law to enable the government to spy on all our online activity at the moment. And that's another huge political storm about it really, every few years we get something like this.

Extraordinary rendition, waterboarding and the like have entered the public consciousness. Embedded journalists showed us just how true "War is Hell" is, from sitting in our comfy chairs.

More recently we've had a first world economic collapse in case you've missed it.

MRSA has gone, in the UK, from being a potential scare to a common nosocomial infection. Even more worryingly in the US in several states its become a common community-acquired infection. This is the bug that's so resistant there's only one antibiotic you can treat it with. How nasty is the end of the antibiotic era as a story theme? Even though I've yet to see anyone pick it up and run with it.

If you take the truism that Science Fiction holds the times up in a big mirror is it any surprise that SF is currently pretty dark?

If you go back to the 80's - yes, OK, I was younger and possibly more optimistic - but, with the exception of AIDS, society was in a pretty positive place. There were times and places of course - living in the North of England during the miner's strike was a barrel of laughs - and so certainly some chances for dark mirroring, but generally people were getting richer, getting more things, pretending they were making themselves happier that way, if not actually making themselves happier. And although there was dark SF in the mix, there was quite a lot of positive stuff too.

5:

I don't think it's alarming at all. I'd be more concerned if it hadn't changed over the years. The plots charted by SF&F give us insight into ourselves, and if there's any tool that's more widely available for being a palliative to potential future shock (that's also generally legal), I'm not sure what it is.

If there is a dramatic shift to a darker tone, I think it might be in part due to the problems that currently face humanity are rather daunting. You can critical path out a moon landing, and you have the exciting 'achievement unlocked' at the end. It seems more difficult to do the same with staving off and reversing global environmental concerns, biological concerns. Those very large problems would probably require some very large novels. The alternative perhaps being skipping ahead a bit and dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe. Situations that are only dealt with rather than standing aside and letting science fix it. The 'fix' might yield other problems...

I have a friend who proclaims his favorite activity is to see how deep a hole he can dig himself because he loves the scramble back up out of the hole. He then goes on to say he'll know when he can relax because he won't be about to get out of the hole anymore. There's a dark sort of thrill for him. I find dark SF to be a bit safer, and the world doesn't look like such a grim place when I'm finished with the story, either, because I hold in my hands evidence of something larger than myself at work, and that with luck will go on working for someone else in time.

6:

Grim dystopias are lazy SF. It's easy to imagine a future that's gone to shit because it's "now" with all the nasty bits accentuated. A truly different future is hard to imagine and hard to make people imagine.

7:

A lot of the Cyber-Punk elements feel stale to me, particularly in the setting. Why the Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers and flashy everything? It's starting to feel like the Zeerust Future - and probably will be in 20 years.

8:

I forgot to add the sense of "anomie", or isolation. That obviously hasn't gone away in real life, but when I've read it in fiction it always feels like a hold-out from fears of isolation Robert Putnam-style in the Industrial Age.

9:

I just skimmed the Wikipedia article, to refresh my memory on dates. Blade Runner was released mid-1982, and Ridley has said in interviews that the visual style of the cityscape was inspired by a 1981 flight into Narita (Tokyo) during a nighttime rainstorm. The film is set in 202, which is just round the corner now!

10:

Embedded journalists showed us just how true "War is Hell" is, from sitting in our comfy chairs.

In the 1970s (in the US), I grew up with war being actually shown on the evening news. They didn't show it from a distance, btw. Not like now. That affected me so deeply that I couldn't watch any film depicting the Vietnam War until a few years ago. It freaked me out too much. This is not new.

More recently we've had a first world economic collapse in case you've missed it.

The reason I'm a full time writer isn't because I've made enough money as a writer to do so. I was laid off my job and haven't been able to get work consistantly since. So, no. I didn't miss it.

I believe this isn't the first time we've had a world-wide economic depression either.

How nasty is the end of the antibiotic era as a story theme?

Ohhhh, that's a good one. Although, if you look into the polio epidemic you'd discover that it was caused by wide-spread use of sanitation. Not new either.

If you take the truism that Science Fiction holds the times up in a big mirror is it any surprise that SF is currently pretty dark?

Nope. I personally believe it always has been dark.

If you go back to the 80's - yes, OK, I was younger and possibly more optimistic - but, with the exception of AIDS, society was in a pretty positive place.

Unless you lived in a war-torn area and there were quite a few of those back then, I seem to recall. Yes, I believe it's due to you being younger. I was younger then too. So, my memory of the bad stuff is kind of thin then, but there was the hostage crisis (refering to USians being held in the middle east for lengthy periods of time) in the early 80s. The job market in the 70s was also particularly depressed.

You might want to rethink the position that all of this is more dire than it's ever been. At least, allow for the possibility that it isn't. IMHO, it's always been this scary, but we seem to work it out, and as long as we keep trying I'm good with that.

11:

"I don't think it's alarming at all."

I think we see things in similar ways, Stephen.

12:

Point 1 - I can't remember who said it, but ISTR the US war in Vietnam (sorry, but I'd consider the earlier war in "French Indo-China" as being a Vietnam war too) being described as "the first war on television".

Point 2 - The previous one was in the 1920s and 30s. {Insert rant about the repeal of Glass-Steagle etc here}

13:

"Grim dystopias are lazy SF."

As a writer, I would disagree with you. Dystopian stories are about the threat of too much control. Apocalyptic fiction is about the threat of too much chaos. Both are good things to remember because we need (as humans) to strike a balance between the two.

V for Vendetta is a dystopian graphic novel, and I don't think there was anything lazy about it. When it was written (during the Thatcher era) it was actually very brave. I can't imagine it was comfortable writing that during that time. I know that writing what I wrote wasn't the least bit comfortable while George W. Bush was president--and I wasn't directly writing about my government.

14:

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be scary, but not that scary. The reason why we don't see them exploding all over the world is because that antibiotic resistance comes with a steep biological cost, and the vulnerable bacteria out-breed them quickly once the environmental pressure (AKA heavy, careless antibiotic usage) is gone.

And the Panic of 1893 and Great Depression make the current economic problems look like a stiff breeze.

15:

"Point 1 - I can't remember who said it, but ISTR the US war in Vietnam (sorry, but I'd consider the earlier war in "French Indo-China" as being a Vietnam war too) being described as "the first war on television"."

Exactly. And thanks for the French Indo-China reminder. It's been a long time since I had world history and I'm not confident that my education in that arena is the best.

"Point 2 - The previous one was in the 1920s and 30s. {Insert rant about the repeal of Glass-Steagle etc here}"

Yes. That's the one to which I was referring. (And I totally agree with you on Glass-Steagle.)

16:

"And the Panic of 1893 and Great Depression make the current economic problems look like a stiff breeze."

1893! Thanks! I was trying to remember the other economic disaster and couldn't recall the exact year.

17:

Grim SF?
I mentioned "Last & First Men" a thread or two back.
Look at the fricking TITLE?
We (first men) are self-exterminated through atomic holocaus caused by political stupidity, quite early on in the book.
The Last Men (18th man) of the title are living on Neptune, sevseral million/billion years in the future, & they are/will be extinguished.

18:

Embedded journalists really show us that war is hell? I was under the distinct impression that they are coopted by the propaganda arm of the military to run the usual lies and cover ups or not report ugly stuff because it might annoy people. Meanwhile, independent journalists mysteriously get shelled or bombed to death on a regular basis.
One version I've read is that the US saw how well the British kept control of their journalists in the Falklands and copied the idea.

However, back in WW2, the war correspondents basically roamed wherever they liked, all over the front line, regularly getting shot at, and witnessing all the cruelty of war. Some of which definitely got into their reporting. By comparison, the modern embedded journalist is a total sellout.

19:

Fantasy and Science Fiction are defined by the setting including some element that is a power beyond what we know in our contemporary world, such as magic or a new technology. It's faux F or SF if the element is just there to qualify for the genre, not to play an important role. A western or detective story with ray guns thrown in for example.

In science fiction, the powers are considered to be merely something we don't know about here and now, but they are consistent with our world. In fantasy, the powers are not consistent with the world as we know it, unless it is very different from what we know it to be.

But what is a Fantasy THEME versus a Science Fiction THEME? Here's my guess:

Fantasy starts with the desired setting and then invents the power beyond our ken that lead to it.
What kinds of powers does it take to make Westeros?

Science fiction starts with the powers beyond our ken and then investigates what world they make. A Biofeedback machine has invented that lets you change your form to anything biologically viable. What does that lead to?

By these definitions, Cyberpunk would be fantasy, I think. The setting is the main idea, and the gizmos are just a way to get there. Whereas the Amber series is thematically Science Fiction. Given the idea of a family with the power to walk between possible alternate variants on one true world, what kind of world would that lead to?

As for darkness, what exactly is that? Is it merely a world full of evil, yet with a mostly admirable protagonist ("Les Miserables", "Rule 34", "The Big Sleep")or does it have to be a world with only shades of black, where there are no heros and no solutions, just savagery ("1984", the "Altered Carbon" sequels). Or must it be an utterly greased pit into despair (like Disch's "The Genocides") so that the real world seems unaturally bright as you set the book down, gulp, and sigh?

I like to mix a variety into my reading, and dark stuff has a place just as pepper has a place in a stew. Some people only eat one kind of food and they are missing out.

The old future has already been addressed, but science fiction is not dead because the future keeps moving. Also there will always be rewriting old stories with new costumes.

20:

Check your politics at the door and watch "The Green Berets" (1968); one place where that film is highly realistic is in just how embedded and uncensored George Beckworth (David Janssen) is.

21:

"...in 2020, which..."

22:

"A western or detective story with ray guns thrown in for example."

Did you see Outland? It was a SF remake of the western High Noon and was really well done. Would you still count it as a Western? I don't think I would. Then there's the film Moon. What would you call it?

23:

In defense of cyberpunk: we are living in a very cyberpunk world right now, and only the flashy surface elements are obviously different. Bad/lazy cyberpunk duplicates only the flashy surface elements (and under this heading, I will -- somewhat controversially -- include The Matrix and A Song Called Youth). I consider the core of cyberpunk to be the obvious presence of moral grey areas, insomuch as a capital-G GOOD cyberpunk story will not have any characters who are absolutely good or absolutely evil. (This is arguably a factor in any kind of writing: a story that has moral strawmen does not imagine the world complexly. However, much speculative fiction -- even otherwise good or great stuff -- has characters with unambiguous moral alignments. A Song Called Youth bothered me primarily because while our heroes are morally ambiguous, the antagonists are literally Nazis, and most of them have less depth than Baron Harkonnen. The series pulled a few twists late in the game to produce a more nuanced view, but a cyberpunk novel should not merely lack morally unambiguous characters but also morally ambiguous social institutions, because moral ambiguity is a clear and important constituent of reality that is under-represented in the kind of narratives people build their umwelts around.) Moral ambiguity is not darkness per-se. Darker-and-edgier is the lazy way out of proper moral ambiguity.

Is SF darker? Maybe stylistically. Not a lot of things are darker than A Boy and His Dog, and while the violence in that was copious and sometimes ridiculous, it was a key part of the story. But, Cat's Cradle had a much higher body count while maintaining a lighter style. Which one made its case better? Which one is more fun to read? Which one better represents an effective lens through which to view the world?

There are plenty of legitimate uses of dark material, and plenty of complete subversions of such legitimate uses. For every A Boy and His Dog, we also have a Cat's Cradle (and probably a Santa Claus Versus S.P.I.D.E.R.). But, for each of those we also have twenty or thirty SAWs and MASTERMINDs. (Or, to get out of SF entirely, we have the lauded-but-not-laudable miseryporn-oscarbait material like The Kite Runner, wherein stories we've heard before are told in much more gruesome detail than anyone asked for, without the humour or style or grace of a Palahniuk.) Darker and Edgier has become trendy, and whenever things become trendy, poor imitations flood the market. In order to effectively enjoy dark stuff again, we may need to wait until the tides turn and the poseurs (or, to be more charitable, the only-vaguely-interested easily-swayed people with questionable taste and a lot of interest in other people's business) leave.

But, SF has for a long time been considered a bottom tier of literature (even if it produces a lot of really excellent stuff), and sturgeon's law certainly applies here: 90% of everything is shit. It applies doubly if you are of discerning tastes and a lot of people with less discerning tastes are providing positive feedback to the shit-production machines (in which case 90% of the remaining 10% is shit too).

That said, dealing seriously and realistically with dark subject matter may well be a loser's game. With the exception of teenage Evanescence fans, most of us have graduated away from an addiction to depression, and would prefer to be happy. Some writers (Pratchett, Adams, Vonnegut) manage to cover dark subject matter and deliver scathing satire without feeling like vitrol, and produce laughter that in no way feels like ridicule. This seems to be a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off: apparently Matt Inman of The Oatmeal can't do it reliably (someone put out a libelous and enraging article about him, and he provided a long, enraged, and vitrolic response which, while justified, wasn't actually particularly amusing, and probably didn't do much for his core audience).

Maybe I'm proposing some kind of hierarchy of pomposity-justification. Or, some kind of impromptu is-it-fine-art-really hierarchy. We have at the bottom the stuff that isn't even good enough for escapism (poorly-spelled fanfiction about dragons having sex with cars, or something). Next we have mindless but entertaining potboilers and formula works (James Bond movies, the plot of final-fantasy ripoffs for the SNES, space operas with an exacting focus on battle formations but no interest in the reasons behind the battles, techno-thrillers wherein thinly veiled author surrogates massacre hoards of clearly-evil mooks). Then, we have "serious works" where realistic characters in complex worlds engage in realistic and complex ways with other realistic characters as mediated by second and third order effects of the minor elements of the world (The Bridge Trilogy, Snow Crash, Halting State). At the top, we have genuinely funny books that deftly handle serious subjects without becoming balls of rage or weeping (several of the better Discworld books, Slaughterhouse 5, Cat's Cradle, the Baroque Cycle, many of the asides in The Hitchhiker's Guide).

Or, I could be full of crap.

24:

Outland - yes, seconded and neither would I.

Moon - 2009 film? If so, then no.

25:

A specific comment: cyberpunk feels so dated become modern-day computers are so flimsy. Back in the 80s, sticking hardware in your body didn't seem so stupid, because computers were built to last for years. Now they're built like crap, last two years, and who wants to undergo brain surgery to get the latest CyberIPhone installed? It's a silly way to run the system.

That said, I agree that a lot of dark fiction is simply lazy. It's a cheap way to generate drama. Thing is, being good is pretty hard (or as HL Mencken said, Christianity was not tried and found wanting, it was found hard and not tried), and I'll submit that writing a genuinely good character is also pretty hard to do, especially if you don't have a lot of real models for them and are not sure where you're selling it.

To me, that makes it a challenge, but for someone who's trying to live on a writer's intermittent paychecks, it may not be worth the trouble. Shit does sell, and if one can produce it cost effectively enough, one can make a living. Making a living producing "hard" stories, whether they're contain realistic, good characters or decent worldbuilding, aren't all that cost effective, particularly if they are one offs.

26:

Para 1 - Did I read Cyberpunk differently to most people? I always thought that you had the ports installed rather than the processor and RAM.

27:

Yes. Moon (2009). It was really good. I liked it, anyway.

28:

"Para 1 - Did I read Cyberpunk differently to most people? I always thought that you had the ports installed rather than the processor and RAM."

No. That's how I read it too, but then, it's been a while.

29:

I'm sure you have noticed this before, but YA SF and SF written by authors who are not genre SF authors tend to be much darker, termed "dystopian" by easily impressed non-SF reviewers. Think Margaret Atwood (or, a generation ago, Doris Lessing). I suspect the dystopian nature of much YA SF, as in The Hunger Games and Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, appeals to teenagers who feel that they're trapped in a real dystopia...high school and the world run by adults.

In genre SF, however terrible and dystopian the setting seems in comparison with the present, the characters take it (or some aspects) for granted, at least at first; it's their home (unless they enter it from outside, the portal scenario). This is a basic narrative principle: you may bring on a tiger in the first act, but it does not start to eat people in the first act (unless you have Godzilla in the wings for the fifth).

30:

I have seen Moon. Had to look it up. Oh, that. Saw it on a plane or something. It's science fiction, but only by derivation. Its a story in a science fiction setting, not a story that creates a science fiction setting. Like if you wrote a story set in Middle Earth, that had to be set in Middle Earth because it couldn't work anywhere else. It would be fantasy, but only because LOTR was fantasy.

In "Moon" there's this power beyond our ken, this adult human cloning. Also an AI like HAL. Why are these elements there? They are there to make a movie out of pieces of several movies the movie maker had seen. Those movies were science fiction: they created a world from a premise. Moon just created a setting from a bunch of premises. It didn't create a setting and go looking for elements that would make it happen, it just took a bunch of elements and made a setting out of them.

The Wikipedia article says
"The film pays homage to the films of Jones' youth, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), THX 1138 (1971), Silent Running (1972), Solaris (1972), Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), and Outland (1981).[10] Jones described the intent: '[We] wanted to create something which felt comfortable within that canon of those science fiction films from the sort of late seventies to early eighties.'"

The story that could authentically be told only using Science Fiction tropes, but it was science fiction by derivation only. Further, issues of identity from "cloning" had already been explored. I know I read a story by Varley that went into that a while back. So, while it was a nice movie to watch on the plane, it wasn't really necessary. Didn't add anything new, other than how it was done. All style.

Haven't seen Outland. Westerns are a peculiar genre defined by a pretty narrow setting, though the borders are slightly fuzzy. There are westerns set in modern times and there are westerns set in Australia. Is "Gangs of New York" a western? Has to be out west? OK, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothes"? It's like you've got your core westerns that really define the genre, the American West in the latter half of the nineteenth century, like Gunsmoke, then you have stuff that has some of the characteristics of the core western, but not all.

So, from this exercise in trying to figure out if there's a way Fantasy and Science fiction could have definitive themes, I have learned that F and SF are defined by setting not theme, and there's no way to say one is the other. Except in that theme is what the story is trying to talk about and that is intimately connected to how and why the exceptionality got into the story that had to have it

31:

Well, aside from the interesting idea that you can wire direct to a brain without any interface circuitry, some authors did in fact put computers directly into brains. Walter Jon Williams, Daniel Keys Moran, and Dan Simmons did so.

It's actually interesting to see what the cyberpunks missed. They got the idea of cyberspace as a place, but they didn't foresee the real value of aggregating information, and they assumed people would be interested in a three-dimensional data space, something we've generally avoided for doing programming. The other thing that's interesting is that Second Life and its brethren are reasonably large industries, but they haven't taken over the world the way the cyberpunks assumed they would.

Other things they missed (generally?): spam.

32:

Other things they missed (generally?): spam.

True, but in the typical Cyberpunk world anyone with a moderately sized bag of cash can arrange for spammers to be visited by mercenaries in armored hovercraft mounting belt-fed autocannons. The lack of spam may be consistent with the rest of the world.

33:

Not sure why 3D data spaces never took off, at least when it comes to shopping. It may well be easier to do food shopping by wandering a virtual supermarket and picking stuff off the shelves rather than have to enter a pre-determined shopping list of items.

34:

Not sure why 3D data spaces never took off, at least when it comes to shopping. It may well be easier to do food shopping by wandering a virtual supermarket and picking stuff off the shelves rather than have to enter a pre-determined shopping list of items.

If I had to guess, I'd say that it's easier to type in a query on a search line than to run a high bandwidth supermarket that shows all the stuff in 3 dimensions relative to the viewer, and that makes the person search visually.

35:
True, but in the typical Cyberpunk world anyone with a moderately sized bag of cash can arrange for spammers to be visited by mercenaries in armored hovercraft mounting belt-fed autocannons. The lack of spam may be consistent with the rest of the world.

I've noticed the whole "rule by super-corporations" thing in Cyber-Punk as well. It honestly feels dated, too - can you imagine any of the existing ones in the US pulling off crap like what United Fruit did in Guatemala 60 years ago? That actually might be more appropriate for a Cyber-Punk story set in China, considering the incestuous mix of local officials, state-owned enterprises, and authoritarian government.

@Heteromeles

Well, aside from the interesting idea that you can wire direct to a brain without any interface circuitry, some authors did in fact put computers directly into brains. Walter Jon Williams, Daniel Keys Moran, and Dan Simmons did so.

Warning! Your device does not support this program! Please contact your cyber-retinal surgeon to upgrade your implanted device!

Seriously, though, that's why I think attachable devices will remain more popular than non-medical implants for a while, if they can do similar work (albeit not quite as well for cheaper). It's easier to take off your Augmented Reality glasses than to get surgery done on your eyes.

36:

Not sure why 3D data spaces never took off, at least when it comes to shopping.

3 reasons

1- Most human beings are only good with 2.5D, not 3D. We're not birds or fish! Too many lab projects are aiming for 3D when they should be aiming for 2.5D.

2- Useful 3D data spaces take too much power. Even 2.5D requires too much. We have to wait still a bit for Moore's law to do its magic here.

3- Programmers still have the final say when it comes to making credible prototypes in the labs for those 3D (or 2.5D) spaces, and most programmers are still clueless in visual areas. They're too comfortable with text to understand normal persons. They just can't get the fact that using your eyes and manipulation instead of a keyboard doesn't mean you need a dumbed down interface. They're not willing to let specialists in ergonomics (formerly known as human factors) and physiology have the final say. I used to be a witness to this at ACM conferences 10 years ago and it still has not changed.

37:

"Today, I thought we'd talk a bit about SF's current love affair with all things dark."

There was some reaction to darkness in SF earlier this year in discussions of something called "Human Wave" SF.
http://amandasgreen.wordpress.com/tag/human-wave-science-fiction/
Don't know that Human Wave is going anywhere, at least in any organized fashion, but the blog posts are entertaining and I did find some new writers that I like. (Sarah A. Hoyt, Sabrina Chase, Kristine Kathryn Rusch ... Hum ... All lady writers, go figure.)

And, speaking of dark, I am now well into Of Blood and Honey. I am enjoying it immensely, but seriously Stina, there is a bit of darkness in that tale! I keep wondering when you are going to cut Liam a break.

38:

What is dark SF anyway, I find it hard to quantify it. Grim dystopia is easier to identify, but I think they're a minority (or may be I have been avoiding them?). The only ones I remember reading in the last two years are Oryx and Crake, The Windup Girl, Ready Player One and Flashback. Of course here I'm assuming books like Charlie's Glasshouse, Rule 34 and Laundry series are not dystopias or particularly dark per se.

39:

[...] and Laundry series are not dystopias

A world in which the protagonist and his wife won't have children because they do not want to condemn anyone else to this world? Not a dystopia?

Granted, for most people it's fine. They think it's all going OK. But for the ones that know, it's not a nice situation at all. It's a dark series, and gets darker still.

It does raise a point though. Most dictatorships are maintained by the implicit consent of the majority of the dictated, and it's only when that consent breaks down that you get an Arab Spring. How many dystopias are maintained by the majority not actually perceiving how awful it all is? (Whether by not suffering the awful bits, or by not knowing it could have been better.)

40:

Based on what you and Wikipedia have just said, I'd suggest adding the earlier parts of "The Island" (before it degenerates into a typical Michael Bay mess of snap cuts, chases and really big explosions) where it looks like it's about to examine the morality of cloning for transplant surgery.

41:

All good stories require conflict, that's an unarguable fact. The darker the setting, the easier it is to provide that conflict (it's baked into a dystopia, after all); the more utopian the setting the harder it is to see the conflict. We've often discussed here how SF can be light on the character-building and focus heavily on world-building; if your world is utopian, the basis of the conflict for an interesting story must be character driven. This logic explains to me why SF does tend to veer to darker settings.


Of course, there is a way make a sort-of end run around the above logic: have your utopia threatened by an external force. However, this still often ends up exposing the dark underbelly and cracks in the utopian facade, or how fragile a utopia really is. I would say that Peter F Hamiliton's "Night's Dawn" and "Commonwealth" series are good examples of this. The "Culture" novels also take this kind of route, but the stronger theme there is looking at what dirty work needs to be done to keep a utopia on the rails in a hostile universe.

I don't want to set aside the ideas that others have brought up regarding cyclic fashions in SF and other cultural zeitgeist-y factors that play into peoples preferences, but I think the need for conflict to tell an interesting (if not good) story is a bigger driver, when coupled with less focus on character.

(I would also mention a factor in hard SF, of which one of the defining features is taking a coldly logical look at the universe and our place in it, and how that then leads us to the obvious conclusion that 99.99(and many more 9's)% of the universe will coldly and implacably kill us. It's hard tell a sunny story with that underlying current, particularly when looking at far-future settings. The first examples of this that spring to my mind are Stephen Baxter's "Xeelee" and "Manifold" series.)

42:

That and (borrowing from William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) anyone with sufficient tech-savvy in a Cyberpunk world will have the equivalent of Black ICE set up to go and attack the Spammers, at least in a DOS attack.

43:

I would say in defense of "Moon", that it remains a decent story well told. If you approach it expecting proper hard SF (meaning here that a story is interested in and driven by technology that can be extrapolated from current theory) then you will probably be disappointed.

I think you are correct that most SF is defined by it's setting, but it is not uncommon for SF (written and filmed) to deal with well known themes in a novel setting, and often using an unexplained technology to allow the story to happen (as distinct from driving the story, very different things). I would also agree that if you're widely read in SF, "Moon" is neither an truly original theme or setting, or story -- this is true of most SF: there is little out there that finds something really original to say about anything. Often we take pleasure from the telling of the tale and rarely (once we reach a certain level of awareness of a genre or theme) are our minds blown by the actual development of a particular theme.

Or to look at it from another angle: In terms of the SF output from Hollywood, "Moon" is probably closer on the scale to hard SF than it is to "Transformers"-y pap.

44:

Well, I dont think SF has ever been 100% optimistic - if we date its birth by either Frankenstein or by H.G Wells works the optimism is... lacking), but at the same time, well, it is not surprising current SF is mostly "dark".

We have lost the faith in progress by technology that was the cornerstone of much of the genre during the 50's and informed a lot of what came later. We also lost most of that worldview of optimism, in general.

Currently people dont think that is evident and clear that next year will bring a better standard of life via new technology. On the contrary, we are almost sure we will get another awful year of decline due to many many things, including some technology-born problems, while science and technology role in our lives seems to become reduced in public perception to "have a new gadget".

People in the 50s could see the future with hope. If the transformations, many in technology, they were seeing kept up, imagine the year 2000! Or 2100! We see the future with fear. If the transformations we keep seeing keep up, we imagine ourselves out of a job and without any safety net in 2013, forget 2100 :-/

45:

"99.99(and many more 9's)% of the universe will coldly and implacably kill us. It's hard tell a sunny story with that underlying current"

I'm reading a non-fiction book "The Beginning of Infinity" that makes a good case for optimism. It's a book about the philosophy of science, not science fiction, but it can inform. Re the particular topic of a hostile world, it says we are not on some Spaceship Earth that just needs us to live in harmony with it. Earth would kill us if we didn't have culture to keep us alive. We are special because we learn to cope, and that process will ensure infinite progress.

That kind of global abstraction is great for non fiction to talk about, but science fiction is at a lower level about exactly how specific characters do the coping when things locally go wrong. You have to have problems to cope with. Good characters give well developed examples of various coping strategies. The darker the background the more the good strategies stand out. There can still be optimism, the way through all this.

Also re Baxter, don't forget the Destiny's Children series. While not "character driven" the way mainstream is supposed to be, I think it is the closest Baxter comes to making characters to care about. Though they stay implausibly very human far into the future beyond the point where you would think they might have transcended. So it's really very optimistic about the endurance of humanity. Even though they lose in the end, the main idea as how incredible it is that they lasted as long as they did.

46:

@23:
A Song Called Youth bothered me primarily because while our heroes are morally ambiguous, the antagonists are literally Nazis
---
I had the same problem with EE Smith's books. First with the Skylark novels, when I realized that the "hero" Dick Seaton was not only a much nastier character than the "bad guy" Marc DuQuesne, but he seemed to be totally unaware of it. DuQuesne simply wanted to be Emperor of the Universe. Seaton actually *was*, near enough, and used mind control, mass murder, social subversion, and other things to take power to further his aims. After all, it was all for their own good.

Later I realized my discomfort with the Lensman books was due to a similar problem. Though the Boskonians were supposed to be the bad guys, they were basically just a meritocracy/caste culture. The Lensmen, on the other hand, were literally beyond the law; they used mind control, murder, and other tools to further their goals, which mainly seemed to be opposing the Boskonians. But it was okay, because the Lensmen were the "good guys".

The message in both series was, "it's okay to to reprehensible things if you're the good guys." But the way I see it, you're judged for what you do, not what you think. No matter how positively they were presented, Seaton and the Lensmen had crossed the line.

47:

I date the birth of "prehistoric" science fiction with Jules Verne and not Shelley. I date the birth of "modern" science fiction with the editorial work of Campbell at Astounding.

These two are close to 100% positive, triumphalist, progressive.

Note however that my favorite SF starts with the current of humorous SF at Galaxy. It was dark humor sometimes.

48:

Para 3 - SO you're saying "it's ok for a standard method of advancement in your job to be murdering your boss without getting caught"? That happens several times in the Boskonian culture within Smith's stories. Do you still think Boskone has any claim on being the good guys?

Is Judge Dredd a hero within the Megacity culture? Lensmen in Smith's Lensman series have the same powers of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, with the additional note that their telepathic abilities mean that they actually, positively know that $individual has committed the crimes which they are being executed for.

Equally, the Arisians set out to destroy the Eddorians not because the Arisians want power over others, but because the Eddorians would destroy the Arisians in order to gain power for themselves. If your only two alternatives are kill or be killed, sometimes the ends do justify the means.

Also note to self - re-read the Skylark series.

49:

There's also a big difference between a dark or dystopian setting and a lack of optimism in a story. For example, compare and contrast Charlie's "Laundry" novels and stories with his "A Colder War" short story: Both are set in Lovecraftian universes which are pretty dark and disturbing, but in the "Laundry" stories there is a thread of optimism; "A Colder War" is midnight-black through and through, there is no victory or anything even approaching a happy ending.

There is nothing wrong with optimism in a story (and certainly nothing wrong with an optimistic character), so long as it is tempered with realism (or the character is well drawn).

50:

I tried rereading the skylark series a while ago and had much the same problem. Seaton and Cranes solution to practically everything is genocide.

Any* species who disagrees with them or messes with humans and isn't immediately won over is irredeemable and has to go.

*IIRC there was one exception but they don't turn up until the last book, which contains a spectacularly large "justified" genocide.

51:

I agree as Iain Banks says not much interesting happenes in a Utopia - in the early golden age you had had stories like Ralph 124C 41+ which is just about the tech.

And a lot of proto SF is v dark take gulivers travels and the Strudelbugs for example.

And the laudryverse is a disutopia ok not as dark as clasic lovecraft where it was untrained civilians against unimaginable horrors vs much better trained operators who have had 50 years of planning a tech rnd plus the resources of a major state.

One woudl have to assume that behined the sceens the UK's milatry spend goes in quite diferent direction and would be higher.

52:

I'm not defending anyone in the Skylark series, because I don't remember it well enough. Hence the "note to self".

53:

That's fine. If you make it all the way through could you remind me what the final body count looks like? '-)

54:

I took a look at a couple of the links for this Human Wave SF business. Oh, no.
I like to read upbeat SF. I like to read with my rosy tinted spectacles on. I like the heroes to win or at least escape with smoochies at the end.
But the idea of SF writers deliberately pandering to this taste makes my flesh creep.
I dislike the deliberately dark for no apparent purpose but to be dark. But I dislike facile optimism too.

55:

Given what I've read on the subject, I'd describe "Human Wave" as being more "character led" and relying on people who want to make stuff better, or at least stop it getting worse.

Actually, from that point of view, the Laundryverse is pretty grim if you actually work for the Laundry, but it's not that bad of a place for the other 69_900_000 UKians. (numbers are my guess and may be inaccurate; I think the point stands though)

56:

There's been a cheerfully grim thread running through much of the SF I read as a child and young adult- from the very British "cosy catastrophe" novels and tv series (where half the world's in ruins and the oh-so capable middle class survivors are making jam) to cyberpunk - which to me was never about the technology but about being lonely and poor in the middle of economic collapse.

While someone growing up on SF might know they'd be okay as long as they had a slide rule and somebody to salute, I left college with the belief that I wouldn't be okay but I'd probably survive if I had a warm coat, somewhere dry to sleep, and someone who'd buy something I could get elsewhere on credit.

This has largely turned out to be true.

"Heinleinian virtues" are a toolkit for a Wagon Train To The Stars. I don't think I'll be on that train. I fear I'll end up on The Road.

57:

Fantasy abides, SF is more ephemeral a genre, I think.

And this reminds me of an SF story I can't remember the title or author of, where SF has a resurgence, of sorts, because the world has collapsed.

58:

"Fantasy abides, SF is more ephemeral a genre, I think."

I'm curious what you base that proposition on? Or is that a purely subjective opinion?

59:

Para 1 - Yes and no. The oldest SF stories I can name off-hand are Frankenstein (science is actually wrong, but works for what was known at the time), various works of Jules Verne and HG Wells, and possibly Flatland (but a case can be made for it as either F or SF).

Conan Doyle (for Challenger rather than Holmes) I'm going to describe as "Science Fantasy" because there is science in there, a distinct lack of magic and unknown kings, gods messing with human destiny and the like, but most of the science didn't even fully hold together when it was written.

The oldest (certainly high) fantasy I can think of that's still widely read is very definitely LOTR.

So I'd say that the best examples of both genres endure, but the dross in both vanishes.

60:

I think it's safe to say that good stories endure, regardless of genre.

Although the F and SF genres are somewhat packed at the moment, I would be surprised if more than a couple of F and SF books from the last 10 years are still being read regularly 100 years from now. This is pretty much the pattern with all of literature (although it remains to be seen how much eBooks will disrupt this historic model, as the cost of maintaining an available back catalog drops towards zero).

61:

"These have something going for them, because they're still in print 100 years later"; I've used that argument before.

I see what you mean about eBooks, and am now wondering if there's much "lesser known" stuff at Project Guttenborg as well as the "usual suspects".

62:

I've never really looked, but since we can trace fantasy back to the enponymous "Utopia" (1516, thank you Mr Wikipedia) at least, I would guess there must be a lot of works that have used fantastical settings in the intervening years -- even if we might not immediately recognise them as fantasy now.

The thought about how eBooks could change the cyclic fashions in publishing and reading just dropped into my head one day, and I find it a fascinating and slightly scary idea. What happens if every book ever written (or even, just every book written from now on) is available to purchase and read in a few clicks (blinks, whatever)? How long before publishers (on whatever scale) cease to be interested in aquiring new work? Could there come a time when self-publishing becomes the only option for an untried writer? Seems a bit weird on first examination, but I'm not sure it's outside the bounds of possibility.

63:

I knew I'd forgotten earlier fantastical fiction, all the way back to "Republic" by Plato, of course.

64:

"Does dark SF corrupt the young? And why are they so obsessed with it?"

I can only speak for myself, but when I was a horny teenager I looked for anything to take my mind off it. The uglier and more miserable the better.
I fantasized about being a trench soldier in WWI. Not a dashing flying ace, I wanted to slog through mud. Testosterone poisoning can be a terrible thing, its like this mandatory drug, but I wonder if there's more to it. Perhaps evolution programmed the young to be ready to take up the dirty jobs, to spend some time in apprentice hell and like it.

If so, it's natural as a phase, and it corrupts only if it becomes permanent. It should lead to a way through not to setting itself up as a way of life.
Of course traces will always be there, like residual flavors from the last dish left on the pan getting into the next.

65:

I think that teenagers go for either dark and dystopian or escapist fantasy, and both for the same reasons. As teenagers we usually feel like misfits, we're transitioning -- physically and emotionally -- from children to adults, and we're confused. We either want to escape from this, or want something that reinforces that idea that someone else is worse off or that we're not alone.

Your specific experience gives an example of wanting to find out that no matter how crappy your life might feel now, someone is worse off. There are many other "horny teenagers" who obsess on porn as a way of telling themselves that the red-hot thoughts in their brains are completely normal. There are others who flee into escapist fantasy of the "misunderstood hero" type -- whether it's the long-lost heir to the far off kingdom, or the misunderstood loner hooking up with the hot (for teenage values of "hot") vampire. And so on.

I often think that teenagers are already pretty screwed up by their hormones, so worrying about "corrupting influences" is probably pointless (I'll get back to you in a few years on this theory when my own kids hit teenagerdom -- it might change my opinion drastically!)

66:

I'd forgotten both of your cites, but I'd suggest the argument about "great works being the outliers in both genres" probably still applies.

Who wrote them, or what they were called, is completely eluding me but the tales about (1) someone flying to the Moon in a sailing ship by means of being caught in a waterspout (2) someone...Moon in a chariot pulled by a number of swans both probably qualify as SF by my "do they work as science by the science of their day?" test.

67:

Plato's Republic? Not even the right millennium according to some people: try the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the third millennium BC rather than the first.

68:

I will put my hand up and plead an abyssmal ignorance of classical literature (drowning, not waving, at this depth). But I was only trying to illustrate that fantastical settings in literture have been around a long long time (probably as long as the written word), so there's bound to be at least some "forgotten" fantastical fiction hoovered up by Project Guttenberg.

69:

That's OK. It's just that the Epic is pretty much one of the oldest works of literature of all (or at least, of those that survive at all), and it can be considered fantasy. So there's an argument that fantasy not only endures, but is the oldest form of fiction of all.

70:

Drowning? I suspect more like crushed by the overpressure before we get a chance to drown!

71:

"I suspect the dystopian nature of much YA SF, as in The Hunger Games and Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, appeals to teenagers who feel that they're trapped in a real dystopia...high school and the world run by adults."

Also, I pointed this out some time ago, statistically, youth are more likely to be unemployed and underpaid--at least in the US. I suspect that they relate to characters that the world is "out to get" because they are transitioning from a place of support (their families) into a place where the world couldn't give a shit less (the adult world.) That transition is really, really difficult and scary. I'll dig up the discussion on my blog if you want. Otherwise, I won't bore you with it here.

72:

"Haven't seen Outland."

I'd recommend seeing it. I think it was very smart and well done. Although, if you didn't like Moon, I'm not sure you'll care for it. Nonetheless, I think it's a good film to have in your vocabulary as it were.

For me, SF is both a setting and deals in science-specific themes. [shrug] I have a more inclusive definition than you do, clearly, but this is not a bad thing.

73:

"Other things they missed (generally?): spam."

i highly, highly recommend the book Feed by M.T. Anderson if you haven't read it already. It's teen fic, sure, but it's very, very smart teen fic. I think you'd enjoy it.

74:

Whether or not you'd like Outland, just because you disliked Moon, could go either way.

I've never seen Moon at least in part because Sam Rockwell doesn't open a film for me. With one or 2 exceptions (Zardos anyone? Thought not! ;-) ;-) ) Sean Connery does though.

75:

The one thing that you can say about Zardoz is that you'll never see anything else like it! (And those orange loin clothes, phwoar!)

76:

"They just can't get the fact that using your eyes and manipulation instead of a keyboard doesn't mean you need a dumbed down interface. They're not willing to let specialists in ergonomics (formerly known as human factors) and physiology have the final say. I used to be a witness to this at ACM conferences 10 years ago and it still has not changed."

Having worked in the computer tech industry as an interface designer, I have to agree. I've worked with engineers and programmers and most of the time it's really difficult to get them to accept the concept that others do not think exactly as they do. If you can get them past that issue, it's even more difficult to make them see that such things do not make people less intelligent than they are. Also? It's been my experience that programmers tend to believe that One Size Fits All--that is, one tool is suitable for everything. "I have a hammer to use to fix things. I can bend that hammer in 87 different angles. I don't care that a screw driver may be more efficient. I have a hammer. The fact that I can make it twist this way makes me smarter than someone who uses a screw driver." That shit makes me a bit crazy--and it's a big part of why I don't work in that field any more, but we're all human beings. We all have our flaws. I'm certainly flawed.

77:
Grim dystopias are lazy SF. It's easy to imagine a future that's gone to shit because it's "now" with all the nasty bits accentuated. A truly different future is hard to imagine and hard to make people imagine.

Glorious utopias are lazy SF. It's easy to imagine a future that's become fantastic because it's "now" with all the nice bits accentuated. A truly different future is hard to imagine and hard to make people imagine.

Actually - is the current crop of SF remarkably more dystopian than the SF of any other era?

Bradbury, Wells, Ballard, Wyndham, Ellison, Brunner, etc. all painted some pretty dark views of humanity's future on many occasions.

78:

(3) Em, ergonomicists or whatever you want to call them are the people who came up with Mickeyshaft's "ribbon" interface, which doesn't really do anything that dropdown menus didn't, except for hiding hot keys and eating about a 10th of your vertical real estate, which became more valuable than ever with the rush from 4x3 to 16x9 form factor monitors.

79:

Well, there's dark and there's dark-for-the-sake-of-dark. I have little use for the latter.

I'm a superhero fan, and THERE'S a genre dominated by dark-for-the-sake-of-dark. 25 years ago people read Watchmen and decided that rape and murder and sexual dysfunction were the way to go, rather than notice the other elements that made the work brilliant and unique (Alan Moore has said that what Watchmen is really about is that life is governed by millions of tiny coincidences). The American comics market is dominated too heavily by superheroes, and the superhero genre is dominated too heavily by violent grimdark.

I think there are, ultimately, two questions: does the darkness serve the story, and are there too many people telling the same kind of story?

I'm not sure I've kept a close enough eye on the past few years' SF to answer either one definitively. Charlie's work's certainly gone to some darker and more uncomfortable places, both in Fuller Memorandum and in Rule 34 (haven't gotten to Apocalypse Codex yet) -- but I'd certainly say that in both cases the nasty stuff needs to be there, it's essential for the story he's telling. Laundry is, after all, a series about otherworldly horrors (and had some pretty horrific events even in Atrocity Archives), while Rule 34 is speculative fiction with a focus on organized crime and sexual kinks. Pulling punches in that kind of story would have defeated its purpose.

On the other hand, aspirational/utopian SF serves its purpose too, and as you say, we shouldn't have too much of one kind of story.

While I think you're right that things were rough in the 1980's, too, I think there's something to be said for the notion that the general public opinion wasn't as bleak back then. I think Reagan was an awful President, but there's no denying he was a popular one.

Course, when cynics are in the minority, that probably makes them even more cynical.

Don't know, hard to say -- at a guess I'd say there's probably a stronger sense of malaise, generally, in science fiction now than there was in the 1950's, though that certainly doesn't mean things are actually WORSE now than they were in the '50's. (Maybe they are for straight, middle-class white males; there's certainly panic in some quarters on THAT score.)

Hell, I don't know; rambling again. Lots of observations but little unifying theme or conclusion. I can sure talk about what stinks about superhero comics, though.

...ah hell, the conversation's moved into UI design now? Best not get me started on that. (I'm a KDE user. It's got its flaws but it hasn't run headlong into "let's make a 24" monitor with a keyboard and mouse behave the same as a 4" touchscreen phone" syndrome like GNOME, Canonical, MS, and Apple have. ...yet.)

80:

"Don't know that Human Wave is going anywhere, at least in any organized fashion, but the blog posts are entertaining and I did find some new writers that I like. (Sarah A. Hoyt, Sabrina Chase, Kristine Kathryn Rusch ... Hum ... All lady writers, go figure.)"

Interesting. I didn't read the article all the way through--I won't have time until later tonight. I've revisions on a SF short story due, and well, I've not yet written today's guest post. :) But... what I did read makes me a bit.. itchy.

"And, speaking of dark, I am now well into Of Blood and Honey. I am enjoying it immensely, but seriously Stina, there is a bit of darkness in that tale! I keep wondering when you are going to cut Liam a break."

Just to give you a hint as to what's ahead... Scott Lynch hollered at me for being too mean to my characters. Scott "stuff 'em in a barrel of horse piss and roll them down hill" Lynch. Yeah. I'm kind of proud of that one. That said, I wouldn't expect too much of a break until And Blue Skies from Pain. Those books are heavily influenced by NI crime writers.

81:

For the record, the books you name are all pretty dark. But you're comfortable with that, clearly. I wouldn't worry over it.

82:

"How many dystopias are maintained by the majority not actually perceiving how awful it all is? (Whether by not suffering the awful bits, or by not knowing it could have been better.)"

I like that question.

83:

*It may well be easier to do food shopping by wandering a virtual supermarket and picking stuff off the shelves rather than have to enter a pre-determined shopping list of items.*

It almost always isn't ;-)

I have fond memories of turning a complex 3D VR experience into a single web page and see usage metrics rocket through the roof.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for 3D interfaces. Some of the AR stuff is rather interesting - but the classic "virtual shop/mall/factory/whatever" being "better" than other kinds of interface a nearly always wrong.

We optimise "real world" experiences to the constraints of physical matter. Removing those constraints lets us do things more effectively.

3D is also surprisingly hard to get working well. Most VR stuff just focuses on stereopsis. There are many other visual cues that give us 3D vision (parallax, focus cues, texture gradients, etc.) And that's just he visual aspect. Gluing that together with sensors for head motion, eye fixation, etc. + figuring out how to get a "natural" movement in the world. Stupidly tricky.

84:

"ergonomicists or whatever you want to call them are the people who came up with Mickeyshaft's "ribbon" interface"

The concept of the ribbon was developped by specialists in ergonomics and/or human factors and/or interaction design (the name changes but the degrees in psychology and human physiology and related experience stay the same) but its final, faulty implementation was due to the decisions of top managers who happen to be programmers, by experience and training.

I happen to be a victim of the ribbon, at several levels. I've had years to explore its faults. Right at the core it violates a basic human factors law by not giving you a simple clear option to remove it. There are other problems with the ribbon and they are all things that a human factors person with a sane mind would never, ever do.

85:

Para 10 - I'd forgotten about things like Windoze8 always starting up like it's on a "smart"phone. Er, I have 20 year old Unix workstations that can use different user interface X layers based on a log-in time user selection, so why is the mainstream so far behind (or arguably regressing)?

86:

"This logic explains to me why SF does tend to veer to darker settings."

Yes. This.

87:

If you want to defend the concept fine, but don't expect "it was a good idea once, then a big boy broke it and ran away" to be an acceptable defence against specific criticisms.

88:

You've made many good points here.

"If the transformations we keep seeing keep up, we imagine ourselves out of a job and without any safety net in 2013, forget 2100 :-/"

Exactly. Which is why the little SF I've written has been super grim (so far.) But then, I'm not so sure I'm a happy-go-lucky kind of author anyway--even if I'm more optimistic as a person. I suspect that because I'm more optimistic I can write so much less so.

89:

"You have to have problems to cope with. Good characters give well developed examples of various coping strategies. The darker the background the more the good strategies stand out. There can still be optimism, the way through all this."

And that's why I like dark fiction. I enjoy seeing characters do amazing things to cope with really bad situations. It makes me feel hopeful. As bad as things get in Apollo 13 for example, it's really heart-warming seeing those engineers come up with a solution using tissue paper and spit.

90:

"The message in both series was, "it's okay to to reprehensible things if you're the good guys." But the way I see it, you're judged for what you do, not what you think. No matter how positively they were presented, Seaton and the Lensmen had crossed the line."

Those are exactly the sorts of themes I like reading about and playing with. It's not comfortable. It's not supposed to be. I feel that kind of story keeps us sharp and ready for when that kind of dilemma pops up. Life is like that.

91:

"But the idea of SF writers deliberately pandering to this taste makes my flesh creep."

I had the same reaction. That's just funny.

"I dislike the deliberately dark for no apparent purpose but to be dark. But I dislike facile optimism too."

Ditto. I also don't like fiction that's deliberately gross just to be gross. (And that's why I stopped reading Poppy Z. Bright.) These things need a purpose to the story. Punching the reader in the face isn't something I look for in a book. [shrug] Of course, some people think I'm too violent. To each their own. :)

92:

"Actually - is the current crop of SF remarkably more dystopian than the SF of any other era?"

No - IMHO somewhat less so than the 60s/70s

93:

Any well thought of interface concept can be good as long as you give any user (including persons who do not find alt-cntrl-shift-xyz thingies or text command lines easy) the option to turn it off and on easily. Because programmers hold the top jobs at MS any interface concept (not just the ribbon) is likely to be trampled before it is fully implemented.

94:

an external force... often ends up exposing the dark underbelly and cracks in the utopian facade, or how fragile a utopia really is. I would say that Peter F Hamiliton's "Night's Dawn" and "Commonwealth" series are good examples of this.

Who ever said Commonwealth is a utopia? To me, it is actually a pretty good example of SF which is neither utopian nor dystopian -- that being the best kind, IMO. Most people will agree that a world without permanent sickness and where anyone with some decent planning ability can live forever, is an improvement on the present. If such world has crime, terrorism, inequality, kooky cults and airheaded heiresses, nobody would call it a utopia but it is still an improvement on the present. Even without external threat of Primes, Commonwealth has plenty of room for stories -- an in fact there are several subplots which have nothing to do with Primes. But I never consdered it a utopia, fragile or otherwise.

95:

I'm well aware that different interface paradigms have their virtues, like command line for creating a directory tree with week01, week02...week52 subdirectories will beat any graphical file manager I've ever used, but a graphical manager is better for handling, say, picture formats.

My issues with the ribbon, as implemented, include the sheer amount of vertical space it hogs (don't say it can be minimised; that just plays into one of its other problems, coming up next), the number of things I do fairly regularly that take more mouse moves and clicks (since like most people I've not memorised every single ctrl code and alt code MS use), and the fact that the ctrl codes which still work have been completely hidden from the user.

96:

For those interested in the whys and wherefores of the ribbon UI I recommend giving

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/jensenh/archive/2008/03/12/the-story-of-the-ribbon.aspx

a look over.

There are a bunch of people who don't like the ribbon. I'm not particularly keen on it myself. I already know how to use Office vaguely well - and it just got in my way and made me relearn some things I knew how to do already.

The thing is. It wasn't aimed at me. It was aimed at the vast majority of people using Office (and the countless users of Office to come) who don't understand or know how to access the hundreds of features.

And for those users all the stats I've seen (and my experiences observing folk using Office in the wild) show the Ribbon is a great success.

Post Ribbon - in Office 2007 - Word & Excel users used started using four times as many features as they used in previous versions. If Powerpoint it was five times.

It's pretty much *impossible* to please everybody. Especially when you change the guts of a well established UI that people have gone to a lot of time and trouble to learn.

97:

I think your comment is a bit flawed, because of simplistic thinking. Not that I think that Smith's work was wonderfully representative or anything, rather that your critiscisms are seriously one sided.

For starters, Seaton and the lensmen are not the ones initiating the aggressions. And what mass murder did any of them participate in? Sure, in the lensman series, some planets got squished, but they were generally military bases. It isn't as if the Lensmen went out taking hostages and saying 'do as we say or we'll kill the hostages' as was done once or twice by Boskonian forces. (And of course, in the type of story they are, things are usually set up so that violence is necessary to solve some of the problems, which is itself a meta-criticism of the entire sub-genre I suppose)

You are correct that the lensmen were beyond the law: that's the subtly dangerous point which you touch on but don't explore enough. They were beyond the law, but also apparently infallible, and beyond the law because of that, so they could be trusted with mind control and the like and they wouldn't misuse it. And of course they didn't. Maybe you are taking an absolutist stance that using such tools to further justice is a bad thing? It is understandable that you began to dislike them because of it, but I don't think that {insert intelligent point here because my virus riddled brain+body is refusing to think any more}

On the other hand the obvious dangers in real life of such an approach to law enforcement are clear.

As for the Boskonians being 'just' a meritocracy/ caste culture, that overlooks the expansionary desire to rule all and the lethal penalties within the culture for stepping out of line. Of course now the more enlightened of us see similarities between capitalist 'free' market culture and Boskonian culture, but obviously Smith wasn't trying to write anything like that. (see Charlie's "Saturn's Children" for more of a mickey take). But anyway, I think it clear that even by modern standards, the two cultures and setups are not directly comparable, unless you're one of those extremists who thinks that all political parties are the same and there's no difference between them.

98:

I'm still going to call it a utopia as I think the majority of the Commonwealth citizens would see it that way (and I would suspect that the vast majority of the current world's population would agree) -- my point about external conflict being used to show the cracks in an at-first-glance utopia is still correct, even if the example is subjective.

99:

I did write a reply, but my cookie expired while I was doing it, and if I try to repeat it I'll just get severely steamed about how their survey clearly only visited people who've been drinking the Koolaid.

100:

The info came from the automatically submitted usage data from people who opt into the "improve office with anonymous data blah blah" settings - not from surveys.

My Google-foo is failing me with digging out the original stats but it's mentioned in http://download.microsoft.com/download/E/D/A/EDAE500D-75C8-406F-B1B4-A9FDEF477281/ebook_Microsoft_Office_2010.pdf (warning - PDF download)

"Customer research had shown that most users worked with specific tools in the applications they were familiar with, but a larger percentage of users weren’t getting the full benefit from the programs they might have if they had been aware of the wider range of features and possibili- ties. Data is showing that the redesign of Office really did reach this goal—Word 2007 and Excel 2007 users are now using four times as many features as they used in previous versions, and for PowerPoint, the increase in feature use is a factor of five.

Don't get me wrong - I loath the vast majority of MS products rather a lot. The only MS software we have in the building is a couple of VMs for testing web sites with.

However a chunk of my job is doing user research and user testing. Because of that I've seen a lot of "normal" people in work environments over the years. They seem to get a hack of a lot more out of office post-ribbon.

101:

I can't subscribe to that improvement programme (company policy), but my admittedly small sample says that no-one I know except one guy who's just been on an advanced Excel course is using more features, and I regularly hear/read cries for help from people who've had a feature they used to use well and truly hidden, or spread out from one menu across 3 or 4 ribbons.

102:

@53 Seaton/Crane actually kill a galaxy of chlorans, but can't kill the planet of Fenachrone, someone else has to do it for them.

@97 The Lensmen are something that has proven to not exist in the real world, the lensmen were perfectly trustworthy, having been selected as literally less than one person in a million.

@99 The commonwealth isn't really a utopia, it's just quite a good outcome of development from our present world, at least for humans.

103:

When I grew up (I'm 45) we had the imminent threat of nuclear death and economic collapse. Public services were being slashed at an unprecedented rate, whole industries were disappearing and terrorists were blowing up bandsmen, cadets, horses, and high-end supermarkets. Small mobile nuclear units were being stationed in my country by a foreign power (*) and the environment was being progressively destroyed by those industries that remained.

Gigantic armies of mobilised infantry and tanks were just waiting to sweep into Europe and were only deterred by the threat of nuclear war (or so we were told) and the Western powers were losing economic clout to countries in the Far East.

Against that backdrop, even Jack Womack's Dryco series seems like a cheery future.

Reading SF in the early to mid 80's wasn't escapism as far as I'm concerned.

Just because we ended up in this present doesn't mean we were aimed there - "is bloody argument" - I'm delighted and amazed that we got through the 90's relatively unscathed as a planet.

(*)A very friendly and benign one, at least to my country

104:

Ref #53, and others of and relating to my posts this thread. An EE Smith galaxy, likely to contain ~200 million stars, approximately half with an inhabited planet housing some 6E9 sentients. OTOH as other posts on this subject, the Chlorans attacked first, and it was them or us in the final analysis.

105:

It's funny that post #51 mentions Iain Banks saying something to the effect that nothing interesting happens in Utopia. Because I think his Culture novels are set in what seems like a fairly Utopian vision of the future. I was going to cite Banks Culture as the SF that looks on the very Bright Side of Life.

106:

I like that question.

Thank you. I wouldn't have thought of it it without the rest of this thread, so thank you for providing the potting compost that allowed its seed to germinate.

107:

Read deeper; the Culture novels are sort of set in the Culture, but pretty much all the characters except for the ships are members of Contact or Special Circumstances, which divisions deal with the bits of the Culture that are not Utopian.

108:

The principal characters in Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games are not part of Contact or Special Circumstances.

Contact and SC do not deal with the portions of the Culture that are not Utopian; by definition, they deal with other civilizations.

109:

"It's a dark series, and gets darker still."

You're right, it is dark. I was speaking my subjective view, the Laundry universe is pretty implausible for me, so when I read it my subconscious is telling me "This is not real, this won't happen to you, just relax and enjoy the ride.". The other books portrait a dystopia future that has some possibility of becoming real, for me at least that's a different reading experience.

110:

Ah, yes, I understand. Believability is necessary for true horror to clamp itself round your soul (or immaterial equivalent, but 'soul' is a convenient shorthand).

For me though, particularly on the later ones, I've been sinking further into the story, to the point that though my rational mind is a long long way from believing in the scenario, while I'm reading that disbelief seems to disappear.

111:

Any well thought of interface concept can be good as long as you give any user (including persons who do not find alt-cntrl-shift-xyz thingies or text command lines easy) the option to turn it off and on easily."

I wouldn't say any interface concept can be good. I would say that any interface concept can be worked around. I give you The Design of Everyday Things: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Design_of_Everyday_Things It's a great book on the subject.

112:

All these types of "Love Affairs" are temporary and will pass, the thing is to enjoy the ones you like when they come around, I think Dark is coming around agin and maybe true horror will emerge again, having almost been taken out of Bookshops in favour of Dark Romance or Paranormal Romance.
(I like to think Joe Hill will rescue horror back into popularit just because of my own introduction to Horror.)
Horror cinema needs new improved writing and a move away form it's obsession with "slasher/porn

113:

Removing the leavening humour also has a horror-promoting effect. These in tandem are probably why "A Colder War" is so utterly chilling...

114:

If you go back to the 80's - yes, OK, I was younger and possibly more optimistic - but, with the exception of AIDS, society was in a pretty positive place.

Well, ignoring the whole nuclear arms race. I paid enough attention to it that I never really expected to reach 30, somehow. I remember how when the Berlin Wall came down that I suddenly realized that I might actually have a future.

115:

I would say that many, if not most, folks aged over 45 and under 70 who live in the UK were somewhat traumatized by the nuclear arms race.

We all lived with the subliminal awareness that we could, at any moment, be snuffed out by the cold strategic game-play of foreign war planners thousands of miles away, and that the living (around 5-10% by 6 months after a "limited thermonuclear exchange") would envy the dead.

Seriously: the UK is small in nuclear terms, very densely populated, and within range of most of the battlefield and tactical weapons that both sides had stationed in Europe, never mind the big strategic stuff. And a side-effect of that compact/dense population was that nobody lived very far from a target -- be it a port, transport hub, army/air force/navy base, or anything else. There are individual training grounds in both the USA and former USSR that are larger than the British Isles. From 1965 or thereabouts onwards, we were expecting something between 100 and 2000 nukes to land on a land mass only 50% larger than Greater Los Angeles. And because the UK was a satellite state but a pivotal logistics hub within NATO, we could expect to be fried well before things escalated to the big USA/USSR exchange of ICBMs.

No, seriously: there was a reason CND could regularly muster demonstrations with six or even seven digits of attendees.

And the psychological impact of growing up under that storm-cloud shouldn't be underestimated.

116:

Very true this; I am posting this message from a location that was fully expected to be within 15 miles of ground zero for 5, repeat five, separate air bursts, the pressure waves etc from which would strike from 3 separate directions.

117:

I have a direct line of sight from my bedroom window on the Grangemouth oil refinery, which is less than 5km away, on the other side of the Firth of Forth. I live less than 10km from Edinburgh Airport, which started life as an RAF base in the 1930s. Strategic Targets R'Us ...

118:

And the realisation, very shortly after it happened, how close we came during the Cuban missile crisis. [ note ]
Come on, some of us got very jumpy in 1967, until the Israeli's stuffed the Egyptians completely, because, poist-Cuba, we were expecting escalation form ahem "other" states.

[note] One of my father's students lived close to RAF Scampton, then hosting Vulcans.
There was always one on immediate standby, coupled to generators, crewed, with a live, but un-primed nuke on board. Could take off within 120 seconds of a warning.
During "Cuba", this was incread to 6 Vulcans, & then an almost-full squadron.
One day, half of them TOOK OFF, but then started to circle ....
After about half an hour, they landed again.
I believe fresh underwear was required in Lincolnshire!

119:

I think you missed a 1 - not that I know exactly where you live, but you likely mean Mosmorran, which is visible from Edinburgh and about 15 to 20km from where you live.
Grangemouth is up the Forth and about 35km from where you live.

In the good old days, other local strategic targets included Rosyth naval base, which is nearish to Mosmorran.

120:
"I would say that many, if not most, folks aged over 45 and under 70 who live in the UK were somewhat traumatized by the nuclear arms race."

I'd say you could broaden that to 35-75 at least. I'm 42 and I knew a stack of kids younger than I was at school in the eighties who had nightmares about this sort of stuff. Had 'em myself.

(This may have been helped by our local library shelving "When the Wind Blows" in with the Tin Tin and Asterix books ;-)

121:

Strange thing is, it did not bother me at the time. Since then however, I have literally had nightmares about nuclear war in that period.

122:

"(I like to think Joe Hill will rescue horror back into popularit just because of my own introduction to Horror.)"

If not him, someone.

"Horror cinema needs new improved writing and a move away form it's obsession with "slasher/porn"

Agreed.

123:

"I remember how when the Berlin Wall came down that I suddenly realized that I might actually have a future."

You and me both.

124:

"I'd say you could broaden that to 35-75 at least. I'm 42 and I knew a stack of kids younger than I was at school in the eighties who had nightmares about this sort of stuff. Had 'em myself."

Ahhh, in the US, we have The Day After (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085404/) to blame. And I'm sure The Road will have done the same. ;) That said, I believe such things are useful for a good cautionary tale... just not useful in regard to a constant worry--if that makes sense.

125:

Regarding the nonexistent VR future, why would anybody want to walk around a virtual supermarket? A supermarket is already a virtual reality environment designed to let you pick goods out of a list, and optimised to make you pick more of them.

Usually, you go there with a shopping list. A text-based, or minimally graphical, API is a much better way to submit a shopping list than driving miles to a big shed and walking around it and then queueing and then driving back with your stuff.

You go to a supermarket to fill a list; you go shopping for unexpected discoveries. As a result, you might as well go to town, literally. I think one thing going on here is that VR was the future of suburbia, and society started to value urbanity again.

(Also, my favourite V-force nuke story is the V-squadron leader who taxied his Vulcan out to the runway during an exercise, and then the word came to stand down. But they'd just been given a Security Lecture about the enemy's disinformation. So he refused to shut down until the Staish, the Station Commander, typically a much older, senior, and very dignified/pompous officer, walked out onto the runway, stripped naked, and gave him a direct order...)

126:

"Usually, you go there with a shopping list. "

I don't. I walk around all the isles and pick off what I want. I automatically see anything new, which I would not do if I shopped online with a list.

127:

IMO, you are an exception. At least as far as food shopping goes.

128:

I would say that many, if not most, folks aged over 45 and under 70 who live in the UK were somewhat traumatized by the nuclear arms race.

Not just in the UK (although it's certainly true that the US is geographically larger). Shortly after 9-11 some excited people were whining in public that "Everything has changed, nobody is safe!" No, it wasn't a change; that was how we grew up. I'm about Charlie's age and it was how I grew up, and what my parents lived with, and something my grandparents had to watch settle in around them. We weren't looking at the occasional nut with a bomb or gun, we were looking at the end of everything. Younger folks who came to adulthood after the end of the Cold War, by the way, completely get a pass on this.

Knowing that guys you've never met, who care nothing about you, and who you can influence very little are sitting around with the ability to kill everyone is something that must influence people and the zeitgeist of the society they live in.

129:

Yeah, me too.

And I'll often check out what's reduced to clear. As the cook, sometimes I'll have no clue what we're going to eat that evening. Then I'll wander past the fresh ingredients, see that (for example) some smoked haddock is going cheap, and hey presto, it's fish pie tonight.

(I can quite easily spend much more on the stuff to go with the reduced item than the item was reduced by, but that's not a problem for me.)

The supermarket is quite happy to sell to me online, and quite happy to deliver or for me to collect an online-ordered list. But it's not going to work for me. And there's no way I trust anyone else to pick out the loose fruit and vegetables.

I'm sure there are people who do have a clear agenda before they enter — sometimes I do — but I value the pure serendipity of browsing. I think it may address that deep hunter-gatherer legacy.

130:

I don't know Charlie's street address, but I know close enough to say that the one he can see is indeed Mosmorran, which was actually still fields until the 1970s. All of which is a bit academic because Edinburgh was almost certainly directly targetted, and then as you say Grangemouth and Rosyth...

131:

Also likewise, although supermarkets are almost invariably laid out wrong for me.

My usual plan is that I'm looking for X portions of protein, and then I'll sort out what I want in fruit, veg and complex carbs to make main meals from them.

As Bellinghman says, no way am I trusting anyone else to select fruit, veg, or even use by dates for me. Of course, this is slightly academic in that no-one offers on-line shopping plus home delivery for normal groceries around where I live.

132:

Paws
Why would Edinburgh be targeted?
Surely a nuke on Rosyth & the local RAF bases would be sufficient? ( & possibly Grangemouth )
Though the object is usually to stop your opponents ability to wage war - so military targets fist, then critical infrastructure,
The NATO trick of carbon-black air-burst bombs over power-stations & HE otn the switch-stations in Serbia was very, very effective, for minimal civilian casualties.
Same idea as the Dam-Busters raids in fact.

133:

I do that too, although that makes only 3 things I have in common with him.
(The other 2 being commenting on this blog and reading SF)

134:

Greg, the USSR had lots of warheads. My reference to my own situation wrt 5 (should actually have been 6) Ground Zero points was Glasgow, CSB Faslane, RNADs Coulport and Glen Douglas, the USN sub base at Holy Loch, and one on the convoy assembly point at the Tail o' the Bank.

Directly targetting Edinburgh and Glasgow would have killed about 40% of Scotland's population, including most of the civilian workforce for Faslane and Coulport, and most of the actual or potential civil government, destroyed at least 3 Army barracks, a similar number of main TA muster points... We had lots of time to think about these things.

135:

What online supermarket shopping is really good for is the home delivery of large numbers of heavy items eg 100 tins catfood, 48 bottles beer etc - the stables.

136:

Dirk @ 135
No
That's what the Land-Rover is for!

137:

Why would Edinburgh be targeted?

I live about a mile away from Leith -- a ferry port (hint: reinforcements). Edinburgh also has a couple of major railway stations (hint: logistics) and an airport (hint: combat aircraft), not to mention the Forth bridges (hint: access to Fife is bottlenecked through two bridges a quarter of a mile apart), the M8 corridor to Glasgow, and the head end of the A1.

In other words, if you are a Soviet commander, worried about the UK as a resupply/logistics hub for funneling reinforcements from the USA into a European theatre, then Edinburgh offers several obvious targets: at the very least, the port, the bridges, the airport, and the oil terminal were going to get whacked. And for 200Kt air bursts, pretty much the entire city would be within the 5psi overpressure zone, which would be no fun at all even if you don't have windows directly facing most of the targets ...

138:

#132 and #134 also relate:-

In period, the Edinburgh and Glasgow air bursts disconnect rail North of the Forth-Clyde valley from South of it, which also affects (even if not directly targetted) RAF Kinloss, Leuchars and Lossiemouth, several more army barracks and TA musters...

Aside from a couple of not that great double-track roads, it also cuts all N-S road communications.

139:

We (NATO) were planning on using around 200 tactical nukes per day once it properly kicked off. Most of them in East Germany and Poland aimed at forming up areas and logistical infrastructure. Which is quite a conservative estimate given we had some 7000 available at the time to choose from.

Specials

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Stina Leicht published on December 11, 2012 8:04 PM.

Science & Technology, Working Together was the previous entry in this blog.

Haunted is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog

Propaganda