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Gods and genre

I hadn’t intended to start blogging here until next Thursday, when my novel Hild comes out in the UK, but, hey, I saw the news about Marvel’s Thor and couldn’t resist.

So: Thor is now a girl. This changes everything. Sort of.

Let’s ignore the fact that Thor is a god, and mere mortals shouldn’t expect gods to behave like us, because if you take that thought train too far we end up wondering why gods are identified as one sex or another in the first place. And then we have to get into a long and complicated discussion of how religion works and next thing we know the wheels have come off. Today I’d rather stick to the notion of Thor as entertainment. (I can’t speak for tomorrow…)

Entertainment—just like religion—reflects culture rather than leading it. You could make a different argument, perhaps, about Art with a capital A but, again, for today let’s avoid those derailing possibilities and stick to entertainment. And comics, and the films based on them, are first and foremost entertainment.

Traditionally comics were supposed to entertain boys and young men, though girls and women have always also read them. Girls, though, were basically ignored as a demographic by creators and powers-that-be so comics were designed with the sensibilities of boys in mind. At least this is what I used to think until reading Saladin Ahmed's Buried Badasses: The Forgotten Heroines of Pre-Code Comics. Go read it. Women—and people of colour—were catered for, and advertised to, in comics until the fifties and America's moral panic over, well, everything. But in the last sixty years, and now, not so much. (This is currently true in much entertainment media. See, for example, women in film or women in literature stats.)

The results are apparent in the art. The bodies of comic book characters of both sexes are anatomically impossible. And women are ridiculously sexualised. If you have no clue what I’m talking about go read Jim Hines’ Cover Posing posts—be sure to click through to the group pose wherein our own Charlie Stross bares more than most of us would probably like.

So will Thor be drawn differently? The writer of Thor, Jason Aaron says. "This is not She-Thor. This not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe."

The preliminary art isn't terrible: the new Thor shows no cleavage, no bare midriff or thighs. But if her breasts get any bigger they will overbalance her. And I would like to have seen her posed in action mode instead of in a pose that takes up little space. The armour, of course, could be better--but it could be better in almost every comic I've ever read, where improbable isn't a glitch it's a feature.

So what if Marvel really means it? What if the new Thor behaves exactly like the Thor we know?

Call me wary. Old habits are hard to break, and these particular habits run deep in the f/sf genre in every medium. Genre—like gender—is a reflection of culture (and etymologically they come from the same root).

Think for a moment about the terms Hard SF and Soft SF. Or, actually, to save you effort, here’s a short (and deliberately provocative, sorry1) snippet I wrote for Science Fiction Studies five years ago:

Hard Takes Soft, Still

SF as a genre is terrified of the body. As a result, its depictions of physical pleasures are rare. Historically, writers and readers seem to prefer their characters to pop nutrition pills rather than delight in a gourmet meal, dwell 24/7 in sterile environments rather than wander through a wood, and jack into virtual sex rather than touch another human being.

When SF does dare mention sex, the focus is on the intellectual and emotional aspects of the experience. SF still subscribes to Cartesian dualism: the mind is pure, adamantine, and noble, the body bestial, soft, and squicky. (I have talked about this at length elsewhere: see my essay “Writing from the Body.”) Even a hint of body-to-body sex can be enough to earn an sf novel an Approach With Caution warning—that is, categorisation as soft SF.

In this regard, the world-view of the SF Old Guard has a lot in common with that of the cultural guardians of Old Iceland. Embedded in the Icelandic sagas is that society’s tendency to divide the world—politics, intelligence, gender, sexuality, the physical properties of objects—into hvatr (hard) and blauôr (soft). Hard equates to bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive; soft to weak, powerless, dull, moist, and yielding.

Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.

Guess which kind of SF, hard or soft, is privileged critically.

For the Old Guard, a novel’s hardness depends to some degree on the biological sex of bodies entwined. Women are perceived as literally and metaphorically softer than men. If the viewpoint character having sex in an SF novel is a woman, the squick factor is doubled. If she’s having sex with another woman, the Old Guard passes out.

Consider reviews of my second novel, Slow River (1995), in which much real estate was devoted to denouncing (I’m paraphrasing) the “exclusively and explicitly lesbian sex.” The thing is, there’s plenty of heterosex; reviewers just couldn’t see past the (to them) Othersex. Given the way they carried on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was porn. Certainly many dykes read the reviews, thought “Woo-hoo, one-handed reading!” and bought the book. Then they sent me pissed off emails: Where’s all the sex??

Consider, too, a well-known experiment: put ten engineers in a room, three of them women. Ask observers how many are female; they will say “half.” The Other blots out the Norm. (Yes, this experiment is ancient as these things go—dating from the 1960s or 1970s, I think. No doubt observers in today’s brave new world would require as many as, gasp, four women to qualify as “half.”)

This is as true now as it was then. It’s the twenty-first century, yet still I have never seen Slow River—a novel stuffed with shiny hardware, chemistry, and extrapolations about the future—labeled as hard SF. The Old Guard still rules.

Given my brief Hard Takes Soft was a necessarily simplistic argument—in the real world nothing is uniform. But what's interesting to me, five years later, is that it already feels a little out of date. For starters, I’d change "is privileged critically" to "was privileged critically." Now I'd say, on balance, that the automatic privileging of hard sf over soft is no longer something to bet on unthinkingly. The world is changing. Again. A look at history shows many pendulum swings—each accompanied by much agitation from the peanut gallery ranging from complaints of the established citizenry to the destruction of civilisation, never mind all-white, for-boys comics—and I think this is one such. Notions of gender are undergoing a seismic shift—see, for example, my recent post about the word Wife—and the genre is moving with it. The great boulder is rocking in its cradle.

My hope is that soon it’ll be thundering downhill, unstoppable. My hope is that we can look back in five years and see the Thor news as a twitch in the seismograph. But so very much depends on how the artists draw her.

Discuss.

1 It was for the symposium, Sexuality in Science Fiction, a "mosaic of position papers" edited by Rob Latham and the brief was that we be pithy and provocative.

165 Comments

1:

Hi Nicola.

Yeah, this is a case where the art is as important, or more so, than the text of the story in determining how this is going to go.

That well known experiment has been replicated in other environments. Anything more than a third of a minority (especially women) is perceived as a "majority".

2:

>>>Let’s ignore the fact that Thor is a god

Thor is not a god. Just like Superman is not an alien, Batman is not a vigilante billionaire and Doctor Strange is not a sorcerer. Their back-stories don't matter. All of them are super-heroes, operating in a way the super-hero comic genre dictates.

3:

Obscure comic book fan here! About a decade or so ago Marvel published an alternate future series called Earth X, in which Thor was a woman. In this case Thor had been turned into a woman by Odin as yet another punishment for his perceived arrogance. She wore the same costume, except it had to be tied onto her smaller frame apparently (see it here: http://www.zedsjoesite.com/fun/thorline/Thor_Odinson_%28Earth-9997%29_004.jpg ).

The current take hopefully does away with the idea that being a woman is a punishment, which is at least some improvement. As for the design: the figure looks to be comic book standard for women, plus some muscle. The costume throws me - the eyes seem vaguely sinister, also I loved Olivier Coipel's design and I would have preferred a look similar to this Amber Heard 'shop job: http://maxcdn.fooyoh.com/files/attach/images/1068/055/243/008/femalethor1.jpg

4:

I've always thought of "Slow River" as about as hard SF as you can get. The attention to technical detail is consistently high throughout the novel... and not just the biology, the trick they pull to scam donations struck me as about the most realistic description of a computer crime that I'd ever seen in SF. One thing that may have hurt it being seen as "hard SF" is that biology is a "soft science". If only you'd put your characters in a space station instead of Paris, and called the facility a life support system instead of a sewage treatment plant. :)

5:

Of some interest here may be the legend of how Odin's horse Sleipnir came to be. This was effectively a parable of why you don't accept any contract from gods at all, ever; a builder and his horse were contracted to build some defences for Asgard. The contract stated completion inside three seasons, or no pay.

As the builder looked set to complete on time, the trickster god Loki turned himself into an in-season mare, and "distracted" the builder's stallion sufficiently to put the builder over schedule; the fact that the builder himself is a giant winds up with his being killed by Thor (remember, DO NOT contract to work for gods!).

The upshot of this mess is completed defences, dead builder and a grey, eight-legged foal of stupendous abilities. Given that the animal was the offspring of the best stallion that has ever lived, and a trickster god, I would imagine that Odin would have had a quiet word with it (on the lines of Pratchett's Mystic Horseman's Word) on the virtues of not playing silly buggers and throwing its rider; he might even have borrowed Thor's hammer for the purpose.

All of this teaches us a couple of things. Firstly, gods can do pretty much anything they like, and secondly they're a bloody untrustworthy bunch of bastards, especially where paying for contracts is concerned. Oh, and let us not mention the famous linguistic joke concerning Thor, the tone here is low enough as it is.

6:

I've just finished reading the nominees for the 1939 Retro-Hugos and most of them are dripping with sex (with one notable exception). This is 1939, so we're not getting thrust-and-grind, but we're getting a lot of naked women alluring the menfolk. If you look at the pro artist nominees, you would be forgiven if thinking some of them were cover art for that era's Playboy or Penthouse. In short, the "no sex in my SF" seems to have changed after 1939.

The notable exception to this is the Lensman novel, where, a third of the way in, we've yet to even see a female. I detect the beginnings of a trend...

7:

The Defence would like to submit into evidence Clarissa MacDougal (later Kinnison) who was every bit as hard and dangerous as her husband, and the 3 non-Tellurian Second Stage lensmen, all 3 of who's sex and sexuality are ambiguous (Ok, Nadreck of Palain 7's is briefly mentioned as Palainians having more than 2 sexes).

8:

Huh, I've never heard the hard vs soft sci-fi distinction used to refer to anything other than the plausibility of the science used. Maybe the use referred to here is more of British thing? Anybody else from either side of the Atlantic want to weigh in?

9:

Definitely British, and I'd agree with the note that "hard vs soft science" is a very specific reference.

I've occasionally heard "hard vs soft fiction" used to refer to technology/action led as against character led stories.

10:

"Hard" vs. "Soft" covers a lot of territory. I've seen a lot of SF based on biology get labeled "soft" while SF based on physics and engineering gets labeled "hard." Yet both biology and physics are sciences.

11:

Yep. I suspect if SR hadn't been largely about, ah, soft squishy waste, it might have been labelled differently. Biology, though, was never deemed as 'hard' as physics or chemistry. The body seemed to trigger the squick factor.

12:

The difference is that biology is about the body. We're back to Cartesian dualism.

13:

Well, see this entry in the Encyclopedia of SF:

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/hard_sf

Apparently the term was first used in Astounding, a magazine published in the US.

14:

But Clarissa didn't think of herself that way at first. (I loved those books! Read them to pieces. But, oh, don't get me started on the Lyranians...)

15:

Couldn't get that first link to work. But the second--I liked the kit except for three things: should have been more throat protection; the breasts are exaggerated; the legs are bare. But, yep, good beginning.

16:

Marvel Thor and Norse Thor just aren't the same thing. At best, Marvel Thor is a Kryptonian in Viking cosplay.

17:

Interesting juxtaposition between the comics code, Jon Stewart, and the interview he did with Hillary Clinton on Monday.

What's interesting is that Sec. Clinton wanted America to do a better job at communicating all the good things it was doing in the world, as it did between WWII and the 1990s. She said something along the lines of how we used to do a great job at telling the world about all the good things we do and are, and we're not doing that anymore.

The juxtaposition is, of course, with the comment above: "Women—and people of colour—were catered for, and advertised to, in comics until the fifties and America's moral panic over, well, everything. But in the last sixty years, and now, not so much. (This is currently true in much entertainment media. See, for example, women in film or women in literature stats.)"

Yes, I understand that Clinton's speech was political, pushing for a soft-power approach to improving the US standing in the world. On the other hand, since she's definitely pro-feminist, I found it ironic that she's advocating for a 1950s style propaganda blitz, given the era's blatant sexism and what it did to women's roles after the empowerment of WWII.

There's also this interesting bit that America was much more isolationist back in the pre-code days, and as we creep towards becoming more inclusive, we also seem to be getting more isolationist now. Is this just because, as we better understand diversity, we're less apt to mess around with the affairs of others? Or is it that imperialist politics has always been about incorporating populations of different people and making them work together whether they're equal or not, while nationalist politics tends to be about forcing people to be one nation (often under God), and to suppress everything that differentiates them from each other and requires special treatment? I don't know, but it's an interesting juxtaposition.

18:

This country and its actions towards the rest of the world remind me--I've lived here 25 years; I'm now a citizen--reminds me of a jellyfish: it pulses out (free trade! immigrants are welcome!) then in (slap a tariff on everything! close the borders!). Meanwhile it's drifting on a current towards world membership. Drifting very slowly, I think, but being wafted towards it nonetheless.

I'd love to see some deliberate movement, though. But that's just my bias: I grew up reading about intergalactic federations, world governments etc. I can't help but think it would be an interesting experiment...

19:

I note that Loki was a woman in the comics for some time (mostly to screw with people), so this is hardly new.

That said, Loki was known for various gender-based ploys even in the original mythology.

Which brings me to a question, Why do trickster archetypes get a free(er) pass past the old guard? It's much easier to have a rogue or a conman or a spy (female or otherwise) to get past the hard/soft barrier in SF/Fantasy than a hard-bitten action hero or an everyman/woman.

Is it simply because they inherently violate norms? Or do they actually present 'soft' attributes of human relationships within a 'hard' context of winning and generally being more active than their opponents?

20:

I'm British, and I would agree with you about the criterion for distinguishing 'hard' and 'soft'. Furthermore, several of the authors that I think of as definitely 'hard' have an excellent record for gender equality (I haven't counted up Greg Egan's score for male vs female protagonists, but the ratio is definitely of order 1). I do agree that the life sciences are traditionally regarded as 'soft' compared to the physical sciences (among scientists, not just SF writers), so books that are rigorous in their treatment of science are less likely to be thought of as 'hard' SF if the science is biological.

I don't think I buy the argument that hard SF is "privileged critically", unless you're restricting your consideration to the SF community only. The rather few SF authors who get reviews in mainstream lit. crit. don't tend to be hard SF.

21:

Susan, yes, I meant critically within the genre. But this notion of genre and community--who owns SF?--is something I want to talk about next week.

22:

Michael, offhand I'd say that it's because Tricksters aren't heroes. And they aren't heroes because they bend, they sway (such feminine verbs...), they don disguises--convincing ones. Heroes, on the other hand--especially if they're male--almost always play cross-dressing for comic (oh, just ignore the pun) effect. I'd say always but I'm willing to admit exceptions. I just can't come up with any. Anyone?

So, yes, Trickers aren't heroes because they contravene norms/ideals. The norm, the ideal in this instance being straight white and manly. This is all getting terribly recursive...

I hope that as we move into this phase of change we can escape that particular trap.

23:

Also worth noting: the Apollonian/Dyonisian dichotomy, and Camile Paglia's usage thereof.

(I'd dive in and say more but: packing for trip tomorrow.)

24:

> SF as a genre is terrified of the body.

Perhaps the people who write SF are generally more interested in topics that don't fit into mainstream fiction. Or perhaps the gatekeepers who buy from them aren't interested in purchasing that kind of stories.


>Guess which kind of SF, hard or soft, is
>privileged critically.

Literary critics mostly posture to score points with other critics.

The only kind of "critic" to be concerned about is the kind who pays his own money to read your stuff.

I don't know if you're old enough to remember the critical and academic furor over Mickey Spillane's novels, but the kind of people who bought Spillane's novels weren't even vaguely interested in critcal opinions.


> girl

Nobody cares. Gender-bending characters might have been edgy and alarming a decade ago; now it's just a cheap way to try to get a little free press. Another decade, and it won't even be worthy of note.

I expect the industry will try to apply the concept to everything they can, though. We'll probably see The Hardy Boys redone as the Hardy Girls, and a re-release of the "Black Stallion" novels, except they'll make the Stallion female. Probably a chinchilla. And nobody will care.


> engineers

Sales or QC engineers may be female. All real engineers are male, regardless of how their biological equipment is configured. It's part of the "Hold my beer and watch THIS!" genetic grouping.

25:

I've always seen this dichotomy--including Paglia's usage--as a variant of what I think of Cartesian dualism, the mind/body, male/female split in fancy clothes.

I know, I know, the ancient Greeks came before Descartes, but we (that is, I) become attached to the terminology we first encounter.

26:

*sigh*
a) Please define "old guard".
b) There was a lot of nudity and sex, including on covers, in
the sixties and seventies. This was somewhat controversial,
but check the phrase "new wave"
c) a *lot* of the old masters (less so mistresses) of SF had
no problem with nudity, neither personally in RW or in
fiction. I don't even have to go to Heinlein - I can point
to Doc Smith's Skylark series.* And go ahead, read that,
and tell me that Dorothy isn't Dick's equal partner.

* There's a *wonderful* seen in Skylark Duquesne, Doc's last book, shortly before he died. Aliens hiding on the Moon are observing humans, and teleport two up, so they can try to get one question answered. They, of course, wear no clothes at all, and are *very* human, so their social scientists are trying to understand why this woman, taken from a breach, is wearing two tiny strips of cloth, and the man is a small one, while the night before, where he'd been in the audience, she did her job as an exotic dancer (aka high-class stripper with an act), and why the tiny bit of cloth meant something, and why nudity was a big deal....

mark

27:

Well yes, this is clearly a marketing idea first and foremost, but I don't think making a cast more diverse is a bad thing.

The new female Captain Marvel and Pakistani-American Muslim Ms. Marvel have both been wildly successful and it appears that Marvel is following up by making Thor a woman, Captain America a black man, and...doing...something with Iron Man? They haven't cleared that one up just yet.

It's easy to look at this cynically -- yes, eventually Thor and Cap will be "back to normal" -- but on the other hand, Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel have both been critically-acclaimed AND brought new readers (including, yes, new female readers) onboard.

So I think it's fair to say this isn't JUST a marketing stunt, Marvel actually is trying pretty hard to make good comics, too.

28:

I do find myself wondering how much of this is to help the movie arm.

Actors have to be replaced, for a whole bunch of reasons. Being able to have Thor XVII: The Gerrymandering replace the 65 year old Chris Hemsworth with a 24 year old unknown actress has a lot of appeal.

29:

I wonder if one possible reason sex is written in "hard SF" as Griffith describes isn't a function of a writer's experience/interest + self-awareness.
To wit, you're told in classes to 'write what you know', but nobody really 'knows' things like fusion reactors, AI, wormholes, etc. so it's fair game as long as you do a little due diligence in research & fudge the constraints in an interesting manner. Writing about what you know= eluded.

But sex, unlike fusion or strong AI, that actually *exists*. If one's writing doesn't reflect a knowledge of the topic there, it makes them look much worse than not getting some technobabble right.

And finally, while people's reasons for writing and reading fiction are different, some people are in it for the escapism, and maybe sex is just a little too normal (and depressing).

30:

The last time Thor was in drag, it didn't end well.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9Erymskvi%C3%B0a

31:

I've generally not found sex depressing. But I acknowledge mileage may vary.

I hear you on writing what you know, though. I've had some eye-rolling and occasionally hilarious reading experiences with some writers' notions of how sex works, especially (but not limited to) straight men writing about women and straight women writing about gay men.

32:

Old Guard here means the conservatives fighting a rear guard defence against change to *their* tradition. These are mostly (but by no means limited to) men of a certain age. The key is conservative: they don't want anyone messing with the core of what makes them feel connected to a tradition.

Even when irritated, I feel for them extremely. Change truly can be challenging.

33:

Sorry, but I think you mistake the nature of gods. The Marvel Thor *is* a god. Not a very powerful one, because nobody really believes in him/her. And the Asa Thor was a god. Once a quite powerful one, who has gone into serious decline, partially because of monopolistic competition, and partially because of lightning rods.

Gods are belief constructs within the human mind, as are all other things that we are aware of. When they are successful, gods act as intermediaries between the conscious mind and then non-conscious mind that it rests alongside of. (I don't say "sits on top of", because the conscious mind is not dominant over the non-conscious mind. The two have trouble even communicating, but when conflict arises it is the non-conscious mind that is dominant.)

Once a god has arrisen, i.e. been given a name and some means of recognition, it has several possible fates. Often it identifies with some natural phenomenon, in which case when people learn conscious ways of dealing with that phenomenon the god declines in importance. The importance of a god within is totally within the minds of the believers in that god. This is not to say that the gods are not real, they are, but the KIND of reality that they have isn't the common kind. Because they tie into common mental processes they have a distributed reality across a population that recognizes them. And in each instantiation they have a potency that varies with the belief that is invested in them. But if a potential god doesn't have a good match to human mental structures, it will never be more than potential (among people).

Now I have trouble with the idea of the Marvel Thor as female. This is largely because of the chosen name, as it conflicts with the Asa Thor who is, to me, a much stronger god. OTOH, Storm caused no problems at all.

FWIW, I haven't read Marvel comics, or, pretty much, even seen them, in decades. I don't know their rationaile for this transformation. I do, however, think it's stupid. They are trying to capitalize on a harmonization of names, where the name is a truly trivial component of the god. And by doing so they create a strong cognitive dissonance among their previous readership.

34:

I'm not sure when Second Stage Lensman was originally published, but Children of the Lens was about 1947, and First Lensman was in the 1950's. Clarissa doesn't appear until Second Stage Lensman in the series internal chronology, though Mentor does make a mention of her to Virgilia Samms in First Lensman. And Virgilia, though not totally weak, is certainly a relatively weak character.

For that matter, when Clarissa *is* being a strong character the "justification" is given "she was nor more gentle than the abysmally cold Nadreck himself when carrying lensman's load". (Well, that's not quite a quote, because I didn't go look it up.)

For that matter, even when E. E. Smith introduces lots of sex, e.g., Galaxy Primes, the female characters are portrayed as relatively weak (and the strong ones as being animus driven).

35:

The meaning I've alway heard is ostensibly plausibility of the science. This works for "Mission of Gravity". It doesn't work so well for the works that oscillate between the descriptions of "hard science fiction" and "space opera". For that matter, most of the "hard science fiction" isn't really all that hard in that sense. Only the ones that are essentially set in present time with one, or at most two, innovations. (E.g.,Christopher Anvil's "Gadget vs. Trend".)

If you are in the far future and you *don't* posit a lot of technicnological change, you aren't being accurate, but trying to get the changes right is a recipie that just will not work.

36:

"Entertainment—just like religion—reflects culture rather than leading it."

I'd rather say that all entertainment is culture, and always pushes it in some direction (be it strengthening common values, promoting the values one should strive for, challenging values and more, or something else.

You can pretty much always find entertaiment that challenges the prevailing mores, but I doubt that's the real goal here. But I think Marvel is, at least at times, ready to push on the borders of normality in order to reach new people. How it goes will very much depend on how well they can execute things.

37:

The boulder may not be rolling down the hill yet, but my teenage daughter sees the gender swapping of characters as just a normal part of the genre. I think that's a good thing.

And thanks for mentioning UCR's Rob Latham.

38:

Galactic Patrol was the first and Second Stage Lensman the third, in 1941. It's a fairly narrow window with the USA still not quite at war even as military production was increased.

There are some obvious problems, right from the first chapter of Galactic Patrol. which has descriptions that could be right out of Triumph of the Will

Triplanetary and First Lensman are questionable as a guide to what Smith thought of the Lensman Universe in the early 1940s.

39:

Elf Sternberg has been recently suggesting that men don't really like sex.

Not all men, surely, but I have an inkling of why he thinks that.

40:

I sincerely hope that those who are a bit older will also soon find it no big deal.

41:

So hard SF includes Terry Pratchett (Discworld has lots of the consequences of sex, but relatively little bumping and grinding), but not Peter Watts (who talks a lot about how personal issues and biology intersect).

Yeah. Right.

Let's turn this on it's head: if mainstream literature sees hard SF as uptight about sex, I'd suggest that mainstream literature is trained to be terrified and envious of science at universities, where (very unfortunately), the humanities are funded in some large part by grant overheads from the biomedical and engineering schools. Note that I think the lack of funding for the humanities sucks dead rat, but that's where the US is at the moment. I suspect this endemic funding inequality fosters an atmosphere where any further encroachment by scientists who (shock, horror) are actually artistic is swatted down with a contempt that sometimes verges on bigotry. Some women may think this opinion is harsh, but at least they occasionally get portrayed realistically in films. When scientists are realistically portrayed (let alone female scientists) it's so unusual that it's all over the news and the web--and often the film is panned by the movie critics for reasons that make little sense.

Yes, I absolutely agree that some SF authors are sexist pigs and bigots who need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the norms of the late 20th century (on the assumption that their heads would explode if they were exposed to 21st Century civilized norms). Still, SF is a writing ghetto, and it's always worth turning a jaundiced eye on anyone who starts stereotyping the behaviors of people stuck there by the opinions of their peers in the broader world of letters.

Here's another suggestion for why some stories don't have a lot of sex: word count, as enforced by publishers. Except for GRRM, writers mostly don't have unlimited word counts with which to finish their stories. Those words have to be allocated among essential story functions such as character development, plot, character interactions (which include everything from fighting to sex), and setting. In a story that's heavy on setting, such as a hard SF story or something like a Discworld novel, the space used for setting the story takes away from other functions, and one of the things that can be cut is sex. After all, it's perfectly possible to have a memorable character who doesn't have sex (C.F. Pratchett's DEATH), but the undeveloped, two-dimensional sex maniac who bangs everything that protrudes is eminently forgettable and potentially extremely offensive. At the end of the day, sexual activity may be something that can be lopped to make a particular story work, and that says less about writers' personal inhibitions than it does about creating stories that sell within publishers' constraints.

42:

I agree that there are many reasons to not include sex in a story. The privileging of mind over body is one of them.

43:

Excuse me? Second Stage Lensman *starts out* with Kim and Clarrissa on their way out to get married, and Mentor of Arisia breaking in telepathically to tell them that if they do they'll wreck everything, and they have to collect another novel's plot coupons first. That is, they have already gotten to know each other well enough to agree to marry *before* SSL starts. In fact we meet Clarrissa somewhere in the middle of Galactic Patrol, when Kim is in hospital for the first time.

Clarrissa fits the pattern of a mixed lot of other female characters from approximately that era: Patricia Savage and Wonder Woman are both also marked as not quite official team members (Wonder Woman was the Justice Society's secretary at a time when she could have kicked the butts of half the male members!), and there's only one of them per team. Looked at from a certain slant Mothra even fits the same pattern. . . .

44:

I think Marvel is, at least at times, ready to push on the borders of normality ...

Thor is a megabucks tentpole movie franchise for Marvel/Disney. People who spend hundreds of millions on a movie do not push the borders of normality, they focus group and screen test. When Disney subsidiaries are genderbending, it's pretty clear that they're here, they're queer, and we're used to it.

Loki did it a earlier, but then Loki is supposed to be confusing, untrustworthy, and disreputable.

45:

The problem I have with ‘Thor is a woman now’, and more specifically stating the new character is ‘Thor’ as opposed to a woman worthy to wield the power of Mjolnir, is that it is highly unlikely to last.

There have been female versions of originally male characters for decades in comics. Ones that come to mind are: The Question, Wildcat, Doctor Light, and Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau and Carol Danvers). Some of them have been retconned away by various universe reboots. Others are too minor for anyone but fairly hardcore comic book fans to have heard of. Marvel is making a big push with Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel. I hope it succeeds wildly, and even if it doesn’t, I think it will be permanent because there is almost no interest in bringing back Captain Mar-Vell.

Thor, by contrast, is vastly different. I cannot see what Marvel is doing here as anything beyond a short term change, measured in months to a few years, or until Thor 3 comes out. Even if the female Thor comic becomes the #1 best seller, it’s still a tiny revenue stream compared to the movies.

I would much rather see Marvel put the kind of development and marketing budget they’re putting out here into promoting female characters that are more likely to endure. But I won’t complain if I’m wrong, and come pre-production time for Thor 4 (and the end of Chris Hemsworth’s contract) Marvel is busily trying to cast a female successor to the role.

46:

I write a lot of amateur fiction, most of it using the Spontoon Islands setting. Many of the characters, from all the authors, are women, doing stuff that, in a more conventional setting, would be the exclusive preserve of the men. They fly and fix planes, they do science. They organize.

It may be an imperfect feminism, and I sometimes wonder if my writing is little more than a pronoun change, but I don't think it's a bad thing if Lady Helen is more like Marlowe than like Vivian Regan in the way she reacts to trouble.

(The Bogart/Bacall movie is an influence.)

There's a streak of the American Frontier Myth is much of that. Before the Colt. somebody had to be able to reload, at least. But when that got picked up by Hollywood they had to add the feeble-woman overlay.

There's a lot of other stuff in the setting, and every author does things slightly differently. But, because the Spontoon Islands are something of a special place, perhaps they attract a certain sort of people. You're not in the local newspaper because you're a plucky girl: you're there because you're a damn good pilot.

But not all my characters are women, and some of their adventures are very conventional. The incident on the Boat Train from Harwich could be out of Buchan or Charteris. Or maybe Talbot Mundy.

47:

What's happened to the commentariat in this thread?
Have you all sent your brains out to lunch?

No mention of U K le Guin, who deals with sex, inside hard SF a lot, nor Joanna Russ (Who doesn't seem to be writing now) or the other female authors ( McIntyre, J Vinge, etc ) all of whom deal in both "hard" SF & sex ....
Oe wasn't that convenient for the current purposes?

Oh, & in memoriam for the world of Darkover, too.

48:

Thor is a megabucks tentpole movie franchise for Marvel/Disney. People who spend hundreds of millions on a movie do not push the borders of normality, they focus group and screen test. When Disney subsidiaries are genderbending, it's pretty clear that they're here, they're queer, and we're used to it.

Nah. This is comics Thor and Marvel/Disney isn't risking it's movie cash cow yet... This comics-move is IMHO one of those "focus groups" and "screen tests" whether the idea will fly: If fanbase is seriously against, it will be dropped like a hot potato and old Thor will pick up the hammer again.

I do however think that this is a misguided, ideologically driven maneuver. Old Thor is historically an old-school testosterone-driven prettyboy jock with bit of an ego problem. Like with new Captain America, Marvel's hard-liberal management apparently wants to transform their product line into more ideologically acceptable form while maintaining their cash cow. The Final result will probably be non-offensive pap that sells just enough to cover the management's asses while the whole franchise goes into slow decline.

IMHO, if Marvel wants to re-engineer their product line, they should create new heroes (or heroines) or dust off older characters (eg. Sif or Valkyrie) and simply de-emphasize Thor for a while.

49:

I can imagine a scenario in which, if the new-Thor gets an OK reaction, the character turns out to be really Somebody Else, with a connection to Thor. There are Plot Devices possible. But they can go back to the old-Thor without throwing away the new character.

A long-lost daughter is a bit of a cliche, but "worthy" doesn't need him to be a Galahad. And now he has to try and treat her right, because that is the proper thing to do.

There are several possible stories to explain the situation, and they don't have to prevent old-Thor from returning. But what happens to new-Thor to allow that return, that's the test for Marvel.

50:

When Disney subsidiaries are genderbending, it's pretty clear that they're here, they're queer, and we're used to it.

Sigh.

Look, one of the reasons that comic books aren't taken seriously is that it collectively jumped the shark many decades ago. Since then it's been cartwheeling over the shark in the search of even more extreme and headline-worthy stories - all to get a few readers to buy the latest issue.

"Kill them, ........ again"

This is just another headline seeking double salko over an increasingly bored shark. It means nothing, and it *should* mean nothing - because it's bloody stupid.

Here's some diversity they should try - a hero that doesn't look like an explosion in a steroid factory, that doesn't think a solution comes from hitting things, and where a good story trumps everything else. Now THAT would be a real change for a predominately infantile industry.

51:

I think what Elf Sternberg may be getting at is that men don't actually have a huge amount of choice over sex. Huge testosterone levels mean that sex is fairly instinct-driven for us blokes; we don't have much actual say in the matter.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame reports that an anti-asthma drug he is on has the interesting effect of dropping libido to almost nothing, and he says the effect is truly liberating; no more intrusive thoughts about sex all the time, no more eyeing up every female who passes as a prospective mate and above all, an ability to concentrate on whatever one wants to concentrate on without being interrupted.

From this I can see what Elf's point is: men are compelled, driven to sex and sexual interaction and a lot of the time aren't actually very good at it, or particularly good at deep emotional interaction either. Being driven to what you're not actually much good at isn't really all that nice.

52:

Look, one of the reasons that comic books aren't taken seriously

Aren't taken seriously by who?

Strong suggestion: go and get your hands on the first collected volume of "Transmetropolitan" by Warren Ellis. (Yes, there are ten volumes. Yes, it's a big goddamn graphic novel. Yes, there's a story arc with a point to it.) Hint: you're presumably here because among other things you like my fiction -- so there's a very high probability that Transmet will get your attention. If it doesn't? Try "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" by Alan Moore (hint: ignore the execrable movie spin-off; hint 2: read it for the historic in-jokes). Or "V for Vendetta" (Alan Moore) or "We3" (Grant Morrison). Finally -- because it's still in progress -- try "Saga" by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples. (Mining the same fantasy/SF crossover territory as Star Wars, from a completely different and repeatedly mind-blowing angle that somehow turns all the cliches into entrypoints for philosophical conundra.)

You'll note that none of these items are products of the DC or Marvel factories. That's because DC and Marvel are to comics as Harlequin (or Mills and Boon) are to novels: they've got a formula (or rather, a group of related formulae) and they're milking it commercially. But if you venture away from the formula factories, there's some wildly creative stuff going on (some of it is commercially successful enough to be spawning movie franchises on the side).

53:

From this I can see what Elf's point is: men are compelled, driven to sex and sexual interaction and a lot of the time aren't actually very good at it, or particularly good at deep emotional interaction either. Being driven to what you're not actually much good at isn't really all that nice.

Which may or may not be true, but if it is ... why aren't they good at it?

Hint: humans are a weird mix of nature/nurture, and in this area I think male humans in most human societies are socialized in a manner that leaves them emotionally stunted. They can mature out of it -- if they realize (or are allowed to realize) that's an option.

(The reasons for this are many and complex and unless Nicola wants to go that way I don't think it's appropriate to hijack this thread for a discussion of patriarchy, intersectionality, and kyriarchy. But I felt it worth noting that this mal-socialization, which leads into the expectations and mind-set of many male comics consumers, is not inevitable but is a symptom of a deeper cultural malaise.)

54:

I agree wholeheartedly (introductory note since we don't know each other, I'm male, straight, and about the same age as you).

55:

I expect the industry will try to apply the concept to everything they can, though. We'll probably see The Hardy Boys redone as the Hardy Girls
Arguably that's already been done; Look for/at the "Nancy Drew mysteries".

56:

Also ref #38 (well this message +4 anyway).

Triplanetary, and hence First Lensman must have been too, were originally written pre-WW2, and heavily revised post. I can't check publication histories because my Mother has binned my entire set.

57:

You're kind of making my point. There are interesting things happening in comics (let's see: Mind Management, Sex Crimes, and Ten Grand for starters), but none of that is Marvel/Disney or DC/Time Warner. The media conglomerates are all about formula entertainment and brand management. If they expected that femThor would actually upset anyone, they'd run from the idea like it had radioactive Islamic cancer of the ebola virus.

58:

Joanna Russ (Who doesn't seem to be writing now)

Unfortunately, that's because she died in 2011, though she apparently hadn't been writing much in the years before.
Otherwise I think your point stands. I've never gotten around to 'Doc' Smith, so don't know how he fits in to this conversation (too much Golden Age writing makes me cringe.) Now to go back and finish reading the comments.

59:

Assuming that Thor's gender shift isn't a short-lived phenomenon, am now wondering about the second-order effects which might ensue – i.e., which other perceptions or works of art might undergo changes in response to (or consequence of) such a redefinition. Examples:

Very improbable — "If I Had A Hammer" re-released with new lyrics.
Rather unlikely — Thor Meets Captain America (ten quatloos wagered, any takers?)
Totally certain — ???

[Yes, I consider some comics to be works of art. Sue me.]

60:

Here's some diversity they should try - a hero that doesn't look like an explosion in a steroid factory, that doesn't think a solution comes from hitting things, and where a good story trumps everything else. Now THAT would be a real change for a predominately infantile industry.

I take it you missed the first of the recent Thor movies, in which the Big Hollywood Lesson our hero learns is that he shouldn't be trying to solve things by hitting them?

61:

The "big lesson" I got from that was that they'd got Christianity all over my Norse paganism!

62:

re: #47: Russ, Le Guin, McIntyre et al, no matter what they were writing, were often labelled soft sf, or social sf rather than hard sf. I don't have a list of examples, but a cursory search brought this at the top:

http://www.vice.com/read/ursula-k-le-guin-440-v15n12

63:

Our Host has already posted about how the primary creativity in the comics medium is outside of the Big Two, and I fully agree with him on that. However, the Big Two still have the most market share, and they have the biggest media spin-offs, so they're worth keeping an eye on, if only for what their effect on ‘geek culture’ is, for better or for worse.

As far as success with a hero that doesn’t do steroids, I’ve been fascinated by the very swift, very positive reaction to the new Batgirl revamp. The plan is to take her from a fairly standard (if well written) grim’n’gritty Batbook to a less grim environment where she can be a person as well as a superhero. The reaction to the costume design has been especially positive, and it underlines that not everyone reacts to comics in the same way. It is now apparently impossible to find Yellow Doc Martins ‘Drench’ boots, because they’re perfect for cosplaying the new costume. This shows how the creators seem to be successfully targeting non-traditional comic book fans. (I write seem, since there are no guarantees that the revamp will improve sales, but even if sales don’t go up, if the redesign is popular and their tie-in revenues go up, it would be seen as a success.)

64:

@53:
hijack this thread
---
I thought you were the one who started the threads?

It's a subject that has come up peripherally in other threads, maybe it's time to get a thread of its own.

65:

I think the problem with assuming that Marvel and DC affect, and particularly that they lead 'geek culture' is that the people who say 'this is how X culture is' are often crazily out of touch.

The clearest example out there at the moment? The people with the money tell you that chasing the YA male dollar is the way to make your movie a success. Hence we have the classic tent-pole movies that cater to that demographic and leave a lot of others cold. Biggest grossing movie of last year? The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Movie summation actual audience? Teen females. (Like all movie summaries that's a gross oversimplification, but they were, apparently the biggest single group and thus, according to movie audience rules, the *only* group that counts.)

And if you look at another representation of comic-book culture when it's publicly expressed, namely cosplay, even if the industry reckons it's dealing with men there's a heck of a lot of women in those costumes even when you rule out the movie-related and TV-related ones.

As the satirical piece about why it's ok to not have women in Assassin's Creed pointed out, the facts are 47% of video gamers are women. I don't know what the numbers of comic book readers are (I could lurk outside my local comic book shop I guess and do a survey) but even though it's believed to be a male preserve I bet it's a lot closer to equality than is generally thought.

I'd also expect that although it does have an influence it's got a lot more counter-inflences than we perhaps acknowledge. I wonder just how many people that regard their main cultural influences as comics only buy from DC and Marvel for example.

66:

It is now apparently impossible to find Yellow Doc Martins ‘Drench’ boots, because they’re perfect for cosplaying the new costume.

That's not a coincidence. Unlike many superhero costumes that feature arbitrary, imaginary, or obviously fanciful footwear, the new Batgirl costume explicitly includes perfectly practical Doc Martin boots.

67:

I think the problem with assuming that Marvel and DC affect, and particularly that they lead 'geek culture' is that the people who say 'this is how X culture is' are often crazily out of touch.

I was specifically stating that Marvel and DC have a greater effect on 'geek culture' than the rest of the comic book industry. This isn't just the books themselves, but other merchandising and media tie-ins: movies, live-action television, cartoons, non-graphical books, all of the various superhero swag, and of course the occasional broadway show. This means that public moves by Marvel and DC to widen their consumer base to a 'non-traditional' comics fandom (read: more than white males in the 18-35 bracket) is going to have more of an effect than Image or Dark Horse doing the same.

I'm not going to count media tie-in comics such as the My Little Pony books because that's taking an already-existing property, the television show and toy line, and expanding it into comics to attempt to sell to MLP fans, as opposed to taking a comic book based on female characters, like Rat Queens or Lumberjanes, and trying to turn it into a major media property.

That's not a coincidence. Unlike many superhero costumes that feature arbitrary, imaginary, or obviously fanciful footwear, the new Batgirl costume explicitly includes perfectly practical Doc Martin boots.

The point isn't that the new Batgirl outfit includes sensible footwear. Or that it's closer to motorcycle armor than spandex. The point is that just the release of pictures of the outfit itself was enough to cause the boots to sell-out nationwide. I don't know how popular the 'Drench' line was to start with—stocks might have been quite low already—but there is enough of an aware and interested cosplayer population to shift market demographics in a significant way.

68:

Well, Nicola ... that says an awful lot about the braindeads handing out the labelling of said extremely talented (Genius in the case of UKleG) writers ... doesn't it?
She still has a way with words, I'm glad to see:
Among male sf writers there was considerable chest beating and territorial spraying, of course, Priceless!

69:

I've always admired Le Guin :)

70:

Actually, no. Triplanetary was an older story that was published in 1934, but was revised (awkwardly) into a prequel in 1948. But First Lensman was published in 1950 without previous magazine serialization. It was actually the last written of the core Lensman novels.

And in any case Clarrissa was there in Galactic Patrol, which was serialized in Astounding in 1937; she wasn't an afterthought dragged in in Second Stage Lensman, though that's where she got promoted to Lensman (she made second stage in Children of the Lens, later than the other four). You can charge Smith with tokenism, but the token was part of the original concept of the series.

71:

While checking out that link you gave--and after hearing a "spung-spung" noise under my shirt--I've decided I want to see a sci-fi story set in a universe where Mary's Angels is a real thing. Bravo, I was thinking I didn't want to see that, and now I'm pretty sure I don't... but it's too late for that now. :D

Soooo, as for hard SF and interesting presentations of women, I admit I'm biased due to being super-spergy, but I love Baxter and his universes.

The Destiny's Children series, the chunks of the Xeelee stories which amount to Luru Parz puppetmastering everything, or Malenfant playing the damsel-in-distress as often as not through the Manifold books. Not to mention the Doggerland novels!

As for the Asgardians being gods, pretty sure they were advanced enough aliens that technology=magic had been reached, and sufficiently advanced aliens are indistinguishable from what gods are often thought of as being. In the Marvel setting at least they were canonically the beings responsible for the various regional myths, and to some extent or another powered or shaped or at least strengthened by said myths.

72:

Oh! Speaking of long running/in-progress series which are often brought up in the same breath as Saga, let me add Fables, which a friend of mine recommended a couple of years ago but I never got around to, and then promptly punched myself in the brain for not listening to him.

Mostly Marvel/DC is something you read because you're bored or just have fond memories of reading them long ago and now and then want to catch up with some old familiar characters to see what new thing they are doing with them.

Which is the problem I think, Marvel/DC run off of nostalgia powered by more nostalgia.

73:

My first thought after hearing Thor was going to be a woman now was: "That's the worst character to turn into a woman - he's way too masculine for this to work", and my second thought was "this is exactly the reason why it is a good idea after all - it would open up new possibilities for the character". My third thought was, "Wait a moment - I don't read Marvel / DC comics. I don't CARE about any of this".

Now, about that hard SF's and the Old Guard's avoidance of sex and the body in general: Stranger is a Strange Land was published 53 years ago. After that, every SF author rushed to their typewriters and started adding sex scenes to their stories. There have been more decades of sex-filled SF than decades of no-sex SF. Most of it was bad sex (Looking at you, Niven!) but it was there, and some of it was gay sex (Delany, Varley, Melissa Scott) and I don't remember much uproar about it at the time.

As for Hard Vs. Soft it was my understanding that the soft sciences were psychology and sociology. Biology was somewhere in between hard and soft. But the real definition of Hard SF is usually a story in which the science is the focus of the story, not just a background detail. Even the paragon of Hard SF, Stapeldon's Last and First Men, was mostly about evolution, genetic manipulation and sociology.

Lastly, as for which is better critically accepted - hard Vs. Soft - my impression is soft SF has been better critically reviewed for the last 50 years or so.

74:

Charlie,

You are assuming that I haven't already read them, or indeed, that I don't already have at least some of them taking up space on my tablet at this moment (along with Sandman, which you didn't mention).

None of which makes a blind bit of difference. Sure there are examples of people doing interesting things in comic books - same as there are probably particular authors doing interesting things in Mills & Boon books. As the whole, however, they are geeky, not taken seriously, and are overly interested in stunts in lieu of actually having a story to tell.

It's no surprise they get turned into hollywood popcorn fare - for all people try to say 'Thor' goes in for a cerebral approach in the movies; the reality is there will always be something t' 'it wiv 'tammer every 10-20 mins.

Comics have a habit, particularly with Marvel and DC, of stunts - get these two characters together, kill this character (temporarily), have this big dust up over here. Throwing in a gender switch is in the same mold - going right back to 'Supergirl' et al.

It's not created out of some PC vision of diversity or even some attempt to appeal to 'the other 50%' demographic - it's just another cartwheel over the shark; another two-bit stunt writing exercise designed to get headlines.

75:

Back when I used to read a *LOT* of SF I read it for the novel ideas. Everything else was window dressing and word padding. But then, I was a lot more Aspergers back then. LSD helped a lot, as well as decades of me trying to appear marginally Human by "faking it". I don't read SF much any more.

And on a totally different note, congratulations to Charles on not being as ugly as I feared he might be.

76:

I've read some LeGuin, but she didn't do much for me. I understand that the genderbending was supposed to blow my mind, but it didn't. There's nothing as boring as a sexual kink the reader isn't into.

77:

It would be interesting to look at what the numbers are. If anyone's done a survey on this I don't know about it. But I suspect (I'm guessing; I have zero data) that this might be another case of the Other looking bigger than the Norm. That is, stories with sex in them were actually a rather small percentage of the whole.

The more I think about it, the more *interesting* such a survey would be. Real numbers, over time. We could have some serious fun with that--and learn a great deal.

78:

People like me would have skewed the stats. I just used to skip over the tedious stuff about sex, relationships, angst etc. Off hand, I must have read stories with sex in them but just can't recall it. And I have read thousands of SF books.

79:

As for the Asgardians being gods, pretty sure they were advanced enough aliens that technology=magic had been reached, and sufficiently advanced aliens are indistinguishable from what gods are often thought of as being.

Heh. Cynical me would modify that with a further observation that (most) gods have no idea how their technology operates; while they may know abstractly that their abilities are the product of (extremely) advanced science, they still treat the end result as if it were magic-based.[1] Isn't that how many people already treat their fancy consumer electronics? Which leads me to wonder just how many of those incidents of ill-advised magical interventions with unintended -- and usually bad -- consequences recounted so frequently in the literature are the result of Not Reading the Fucking Manual?


[1]The Lords in Farmer's World of Tiers certainly had no problems with passing themselves off as gods to the locals despite knowing zip about the operating principles behind their high-tech mojo. Ignorance didn't cripple their self-esteem in the slightest. I'm guessing that the gods of old were all too human with regards to morals and appetites precisely because they were human, albeit with outsized power and the ego that goes with it.

80:

Most people (>95%?) could not explain how a simple radio works. Even Ohms Law is beyond most people.

81:

Hint: humans are a weird mix of nature/nurture, and in this area I think male humans in most human societies are socialized in a manner that leaves them emotionally stunted. They can mature out of it -- if they realize (or are allowed to realize) that's an option.

(The reasons for this are many and complex and unless Nicola wants to go that way I don't think it's appropriate to hijack this thread for a discussion of patriarchy . . .

May I humbly suggest the reasons for this are relevant to the thread precisely because male humans in a lot of societies tend to get their notions of how to behave from what are essentially comic books?[1] My dad -- like, apparently, many men of his generation -- took his cues on how to behave like a man from the popular comic book character John Wayne (the on-screen version), to name one common example. I'm spit-balling here, but maybe this is because fathers historically didn't tend to offer the practical instruction on proper behaviour to their sons that mothers do to their daughters. This might also explain the popularity those incredibly hokey sex manuals of yesteryear the, er, 'advice' I got on how to comport myself with the opposite gender ;-)


[1]Since Dad wasn't big on the subject, I got my early notions of what a scientist was from Tom Swift, 'Doc' Smith, and Campell's Arcot, Wade, and Morey adventures in superscience.

82:

I suppose my masculine role models came from Heinlein books.

83:

I'm perfectly fine with following the conversation where it wants to go. I can't speak with much authority on how men learn masculine behaviour. But, okay, here we go with some womansplaining...

It's hard to tell with certainty which is the chicken and which the egg, but in general I tend towards the notion that entertainment follows cultural trends. A trend--gendered behaviour in this case--won't start a fire until and unless the forest is dry enough. People have to be primed.

My guess (again, let me emphasise it's a guess) is that there are many, many sparks that gutter out, until one day *voomph* it catches.

84:

Even so. 'Magic' seems to devolve down to taking the ad hoc approach (with sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic consequences) to gadgetry. The lazy way out, IOW. Yeah, I can see the gods being lazy. They can manufacture a Pegasus just by printing to the right device after selecting a horsey skin and doing a drag-and-drop on the eagle pinions they've clicked on in the wings menu. But since this is science, not really magic, that horse won't fly. Not no way, not no how. And, being the intellectually incurious beings they are, it simply will not occur to the gods beforehand that their hybrid might not work as well as those centaurs they printed off a while back. Hmmm, come to think of it, there are many centaurs mentioned in the literature, but only one Pegasus . . .

85:

This is a problem we are going to have to face sooner rather than later. AI and "Invention Machines" will produce working designs of such convoluted complexity nobody will be able to understand them.

You might argue that situation already exists with most complex machines eg cars, MS Windows etc. However "we" do understand such tech on a collective level. MS as a corporation understands Windows even if no single individual does. However, the inventions mentioned above would be beyond the ability of Humanity as a collective to understand. They might as well be magic, complete with unknowable (in advance) side effects.

86:

Well, sure, the whole black-and-white manly virtues thing as exemplified by John Wayne has a certain cultural appeal. I got no problem with that. But in real life John Waynes tend to either get their asses badly kicked multiple times or end up being completely marginalized characters eking out a low-status subsistence on the fringes. That is most definitely not what is (was) typically depicted on the silver screen, which may have led to some unreasonable expectations as to the consequences of following said manly code of conduct.

Note that a lot of the guys who tried to adhere to the code and failed have been told that if it didn't work out for them, it's not because the code isn't a model of good behaviour, or indeed even workable in real life. Oh no. It's probably because they didn't apply enough Will (another manly virtue), i.e., the code didn't fail them, they failed the code. Either that, or the system has been corrupted over the last century by Those People and is now stacked against good and true manly men like themselves ;-)

87:

And what is this "code"? Honesty? Bravery? Compassion? Strength? Integrity? Selflessness? Honour? [Most especially that one]

88:
People like me would have skewed the stats. I just used to skip over the tedious stuff about sex, relationships, angst etc

Amen to that. It's not SF per se, but my only criticism of Clarke's Glide Path is the presence of angst, character development, and in general any time the plot stops being about aviation.

On top of that, I'm not reading SF for people to do all that stuff. If I wanted it, I could read a story set here and now. Heaven knows there's enough of those. Aliens, monsters, non-evil AIs, giant mysterious artifacts, epic quests that decide the fate of civilisations, highly analysed magic, those are more like it.

89:

When you understand that John Wayne and Ronald Reagan spent WWII in Hollywood, but that Mel Brooks was an actual war hero, you understand something important about masculinity.

As Texans say, the bigger the hat, the fewer the cattle.

90:

Yes! The epic quest, without the almost obligatory government/corporate conspiracy and mysterious religious nuts trying to undermine it. I can't tell you the number of times I have put down a book because the cover blurb includes one or both of those elements. I HATE conspiracy nuts and having an SF book pandering to the concept is more than I will buy.

I also suspect that part of the attraction of Star Trek is well balanced intelligent people working together in a rational unselfish manner to solve big problems without Starfleet stabbing them in the back every other episode. you know, like real life scientists and engineers!

91:

"But in real life John Waynes tend to either get their asses badly kicked multiple times or end up being completely marginalized characters eking out a low-status subsistence on the fringes. "

Pretty bold statement. The public facing personas of most hyper successful people are constructs, the type of construct is driven to a great degree by the environment they are in. So in reality, someone pretending to be John Wayne in the 50's probably would have done quite well

92:

John Wayne was actually very successful. Not as successful as Ronnie or Arnie though.

93:

I don't think there really is a rigorous definition of Hard SF, much less Soft SF? I've usually heard of Hard SF as being SF that both (1) is scrupulous about sticking to what is known about the actual natural world, and (2) largely revolves around the scientific ideas.

"Hard SF" doesn't have to be about the "hard sciences", but it's difficult to have a rigorous science-driven story based on sociology or economics. (Although one might argue that Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is largely a sort of economics-driven techno-SF, if one were inclined to be provocative.)

Hard to see "Hard SF" as being critically privileged - it has its fans, sure, and it's a signature sub-genre for science fiction, but it's just one niche. Banks, Stephenson, Bujold, Scalzi mostly aren't "Hard SF", and it doesn't seem to hurt them with the critics. We sure don't see much "Hard SF" picking up TV or movie franchises, with "Contact" maybe as a big exception.

94:

Ah, it's good to see I'm not the only one who was underwhelmed by the supposedly daring gender definitions.

Couldn't see what the big deal was, it just seemed like an un-story. Maybe it was because I read it in the 90s (in California no less), rather than the 60s/70s.

Did enjoy the "Wizard of Earthsea" stuff, though, earlier in life.

95:

@93:On top of that, I'd say hardness is a continuum. On the one end you have things that run on Rule Of Cool/Funny/Symbolism/Artyness, on the other, well, at the limit I think it stops being SF altogether—make the tolkienesque fantasy setting sufficiently hard and it turns into a period piece.

There's an element of seriousness involved, too: the more seriously you take the elements you introduce, the harder you are, even if they don't line up with real science.

@94:

Maybe it was because I read it in the 90s (in California no less), rather than the 60s/70s.

This is an interesting data point. I'm tempted to say it's the social equivalent of zeerust, but I'm not actually sure.

96:
But since this is science, not really magic, that horse won't fly.

It can fly if it doesn't have to be made of meat. Imagine an articulated object made mostly of aerogel, colored and shaped to look like a winged horse. Human-powered ornithopters have been made, so it's not implausible for a human to be able to ride the horse-shaped object.

97:

I've got to point out that, by historical standards (read the last 80,000 years of modern human history), we're pretty WEIRD (both the word and the acronym). We live(d) in a time that was fairly climatically stable, but socially and technologically, it was changing rapidly. For most of human history, it's been the reverse: unstable climate, stable society, where the society was the counterbalance to the apparent chaos of nature, helping convey the things people needed to know to survive.

The problem I think most fathers face is that what they learned growing up isn't thought to be relevant anymore. It's been superseded by the Next Big Thing In Education, or whatever, and the popular culture that's so hyper-focused on locking kids in as loyal consumers doesn't want the parents interfering anyway. And that doesn't even begin to mention those who children learn the most from: other children.

So if you don't get much say in your child's education, since that's been subverted by a combination of schools trying to produce valuable citizens, corporations trying to create addicts (excuse me, trying to obtain loyal customers) and other children (teaching, as they always have, through peer-to-peer interaction) what's a father to do? What's a mother to do, for that matter? Back in them good old days, the family worked together as peasants on a farm or whatever. Now, we're all alienated from each other: parents working, kids in school or day care, and so forth. Parents are frighteningly impotent, just as they're portrayed in the movies.

So a lot of behavioral models come from pop culture. It take real work to teach a child much of anything that's useful now.

While I think Nicola's partly right in #82, I don't think that entertainment precisely follows cultural trends. For example, Star Wars wasn't a monster hit because everybody was slavishly reading Joseph Campbell before George Lucas grabbed his ideas. I'd even note that most movies that try to bank on cultural trends are seen as trite and derivative, not bold and original.

Instead, I'd suggest that entertainment is about stories, and stories are what humans use make sense of their world. We may privilege science, but we don't read scientific papers to understand complex models from pages of raw data. Rather, we read them to learn a new story about how something works, backed up by highly processed data that can (in theory at least) be independently tested.

Considering how much of the modern world doesn't make sense, the stories we find in films and books are at best partial tools for helping us figure out our place in the maelstrom. Sometimes the stories are driven by the world (as with the zombie/vampire plague of recent years), sometimes (as with Star Wars), they're enabled by the world's technical advances but don't have a lot to do with the zeitgeist of a particular time. And sometimes, as with Harry Potter, they don't have much to do with a particular moment in time at all: they just fit, probably due to random chance and good storytelling. That last point is critical: there's always a large element of randomness in which stories become blockbusters and which do not. There's no reason not to model your life after that of Harry Potter, but I'd equally point out that there's no reason to think that Harry Potter will help you understand the 21st Century any better than John Wayne or Luke Skywalker would.

98:

"Hard SF" doesn't have to be about the "hard sciences", but it's difficult to have a rigorous science-driven story based on sociology or economics.

—I find that statement a little ironic in the comments on this particular blog. One of the best examples I can think of of economic hard sf is the Family Trade novels!

99:

Returning from Edge-Lit 3 ...

"Fables" is very well executed, but the implicit political agenda underlying it does not, shall we say, enchant me. Worth studying, but gets increasingly heavy on the Christian eschatology -- especially visible in "The Good Prince" (and let me just note that "Arabian Nights" is also pretty guilty of orientalism, and not in a good way).

It's not quite a descent into icky lunancy on the level of David Sims' Cerebus, but I'm not comfortable with it, either. Mind you, I'm not comfortable with the Lensmen, either ...

100:

Human-powered ornithopters have been made

And one appears to have managed to fly for oh, a couple of dozen heartbeats after being towed into the air and while still in ground effect, in perfectly still air.

It's deeply impressive from an engineering perspective, and also from the combination of athleticism and control required from the pilot, but it's so incredibly marginal that you'd be better off with a jetpack.

Extrapolating to a horse-with-wings-shaped mount would require some pretty extreme engineering. Your better option might be to have rocket nozzles under the hooves.

101:

Yes, story makes the world go round. That, in my opinion, is why Star Wars was a monster hit--it was an old, old story in new clothes. Even the clothes weren't that new. In that sense it was most definitely following culture.

I'm not sure I agree with you on "For most of human history, it's been the reverse: unstable climate, stable society, where the society was the counterbalance to the apparent chaos of nature, helping convey the things people needed to know to survive." First of all I'm not convinced society was or is ever stable. Secondly, some eras--many, I think--were times of vast change. Early seventh-century Britain, for example. In one person's lifetime (Hild, the person I just happen to have written a book about...) the isles (a chunk of them, anyway) went from petty fiefdoms captained by pagan, illiterate warlords to literate proto-states with a Christian bureaucracy. And I'm guessing the climate was probably more reliable than today. It's just that today, in the UK, one bad summer doesn't mean starvation for huge chunks of the population.

102:
None of which makes a blind bit of difference. Sure there are examples of people doing interesting things in comic books - same as there are probably particular authors doing interesting things in Mills & Boon books.

Isn't that more of a case of Sturgeon's law in effect? (most movies are mindless blockbusters, most SF is aliens and ray guns, most fantasy is teen wish fulfilment, etc.)

To be honest if I pick up a random SF book I probably won't like it. It's a method of book selection I've tried in the past! It'll likely have a huge number of those terrible cliches that non-SF readers think all SF is like. Despite that my list of decent SF books to read is always getting longer (as is my list of decent comics. For example, I've just finished working through Darwin Cooke's totally excellent interpretations of Richard Stark's Parker books after discovering them last month.)

Even in the Marvel/DC stables there have been some lovely bits of work. Great chunks of the Hellblazer run, Moore's run on Swamp Thing, Sandman, Batman Year 1, Dark Knight Returns, All Star Superman, DMZ, Y The Last Man, Invisibles, Preacher, Marvels, Warren Ellis's recent run on Moon Night, … and so on — and I'm not even a particular Marvel/DC fan.

Yes DC & Marvel are relentlessly commercial. They have they're formulas and run with 'em. They have their continuity resets and ways of on boarding new readers without forcing them to absorb decades of continuity (I find it fascinating that Marvel now have three separate continuity streams — two in comics, one for film & tv).

So for me saying:

As the whole, however, they are geeky, not taken seriously, and are overly interested in stunts in lieu of actually having a story to tell.

is like saying nobody takes film seriously because of Michael Bay… oh… actually that may be a valid point ;-)

103:

And what is this "code"? Honesty? Bravery? Compassion? Strength? Integrity? Selflessness? Honour? [Most especially that one]

Well, the code of the Manly Man is hardly the exclusive promoter of your first seven virtues! (though possibly it's not unlike libertarians claiming to be the only rational people in the room.) But that last . . . yeah, IMHO, most honor codes are just a little artificial and more than a little pernicious. Stuff like never backing down, never giving an inch, backing up your words with your fists, that sort of thing. But while it might be fun to watch those prescriptives played out on the silver screen (often in exotic locales) or read about them in the comics, they don't tend to work very well in real life. IMHO, of course.

A specific example: do I really need to point out how Manly Men have historically treated the 'weaker' sex? A woman who flies into hysterics (as they so often do in the movies) gets a slap across the chops to calm her down. For her own good, of course. And when the little lady doesn't know what's good for her (as they so often don't in the movies), you've got to step in and act on her behalf by overriding her poor decisions. What if she objects to what she calls high-handedness? Well, it's distasteful, but you've got to be 'firm' with her and make it clear that she's gong to do things your way. It goes without saying that Manly Men are only doing this because they cherish and respect their womenfolk . . . so if another guy makes a derogatory comment about your wife, you have to punch him in the kisser, amiright?

Another specific example: if your son is bullied by a bigger boy at school, well, you can hardly fight his battles for him when he grows up, can you? It follows that 'interfering' now comes at the expense of making him a weaker man later. So of course you don't report the bullying to school officials; it's obvious that what your boy really needs is boxing lessons.

Anybody besides me recognize this behaviour in the older male members of their family?

104:

Parents are frighteningly impotent, just as they're portrayed in the movies.

As the parent of a young adult and whose home was often the center of kid activities, I beg to differ. It was sometimes painfully obvious which children were going to do all right, which were going to do badly, and which were going to be, shall we say, 'directionless' . . . solely on the strength of knowing their parents and parenting style.

You're right parents often can't control the environment their kids inhabit . . . but that complaint goes back several millennia. If you want a metaphor, a story, what have you, think of life as being a vast ocean. Your job as a parent isn't to make sure your children only swim in what you think are the safe areas; your job is to make your kids develop into strong swimmers, as strong as you can make possible.

105:
My hope is that soon it’ll be thundering downhill, unstoppable. My hope is that we can look back in five years and see the Thor news as a twitch in the seismograph. But so very much depends on how the artists draw her.

And how the writers write her.

While much blame is, rightly, applied to the way women are presented visually in a bunch of superhero comics the writing is often as bad — sometimes worse.

Actually, I wonder whether the most subversive thing they could do would be to write a really good character and keep the traditional male-gaze, biology-defying art. The dissonance might be fun to play with (and do entertaining things to some readers heads.)

Many seem to think that it'll be very temporary switch. I wouldn't be so sure. Peter Parker (in the Ultimate universe) has been dead-dead since 2011 despite everybody saying he'd be back. Steve Rogers hasn't been Captain America in the mainline continuity since 2007. I can imagine a long-term switch in the way the style of the Rogers/Barnes Cap America switch.

106:

Honor is valued wherever the law is unwilling or too weak to defend people. At its heart, honor is about being a valuable ally and a fearsome enemy, so that you will always have more allies than enemies. It basically worked the same way in medieval Europe, in Sengoku Japan, in 1980s Compton, and in the lousier parts of the world today.

107:

" Mind you, I'm not comfortable with the Lensmen, either ... "


Me neither, and since I'm 65 I read the series way back in the 1950s when there really wasn't that much Science Fiction type stuff available in the public libraries.

So, latter-day unease?


Along these lines perhaps?

" In the end, the heroic Kimball Kinnison marries the ultimate product of the Arisians' billion-year breeding program, Clarissa MacDougall. She's the first female to receive the coveted Lens. Their genetically perfect offspring have amazing powers and become the Children of the Lens."


http://io9.com/343668/new-movie-celebrates-galactic-in-breeding

From a swift web search - but not a ' Tom Swift' search, "Several prominent figures, including Steve Wozniak and Isaac Asimov, have cited "Tom Swift" as an inspiration. Several inventions, including the taser, have been directly inspired by the fictional inventions. "TASER" is an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle."[1]"


Ho Hum...lots of "Doc" Smith influences in the laterday of Galactic Space Empire type Stuff. Indeed so much influence it’s a bit embarrassing...Star Wars?

It is quite hard for modern Science Fiction /Fantasy aficionados to believe that SF/Fantasy was a bit of a rarity way back then in the not so very long ago when the genre was quite hard to find once you had exhausted the local libraries supply of your literary drug of choice ...well this wasn't so long ago but it was Pre Star Trek! Hells Fangs... it was pre colour TV.

So most of the literature of Science/Fantasy that was available in the centre of the last century was heavily influenced by the society of the time and in the U.K it wasnt so very far away from the time in which, well...

" In 1945 the British public sector abandoned the marriage bar, which had required female teachers and civil servants to stay single or resign in favour of male breadwinners. In the 60 years since, women’s lives have been transformed, and, with them, family and community.

You might not think it—given the media focus on pay gaps and glass ceilings, and the Women and Work commission’s recent finding that women in full-time work earn on average 17 per cent less than men—but for the first time, women, at least in developed societies, have virtually no career or occupation barred to them. The people most affected by this change, and the main subject of this essay, are professional and elite women. Women used to enter the elite as daughters, mothers and wives. Now they do so as individuals."

Actually my recollection from my time of having become a Junior Scientific Officer - a sort of up market apprenticeship - in 1965 is that there was still a huge pressure of expectation upon Women in the U.K. and that was that women would resign their post in Civil Service/Local Government and concentrate on supporting their husband and having babies upon the happy event of them having acquired a husband.

In the very large Technical College in which I worked in 1965 my department was based in a Large pre-war building in which therein in the physics dept there were 3 female technicians and no female academics. In that department one woman resigned her post on marriage in the first year of my having joined and another left to become a nursery nurse...and then there was one, and she was alone until you hopted across the road to the the School of Pharmacy where there were several female techs and even one or two academics. Mind you I never met any of the rumoured female Pharmacy Academics but they were rumoured to exist on the basis ' is their Life on Mars? '

Of course there was Life on Mars! Just web search images, “a princess of mars cover”

And then look for the famous Cinema posters for the first' Star Wars ' movies as compared with all those pulp SF 'Princes of Mars ' covers.


108:

" Extrapolating to a horse-with-wings-shaped mount would require some pretty extreme engineering."

Yes, but ..but hows about a Winged Horse shaped Hang Glider? Perhaps with rocket assisted take off? Say from the Trireme eqivilent of a modern aircraft carrier ?

Fire would be a bit of a problem from the rocket assist but then problems are made to be overcome eh wot?

I'm very limited on knowledge of Comics, but ...

A Girl Genius could do it!

http://girlgenius.wikia.com/wiki/Forum:Girl_Genius_Military_vs_Modern_RL_US_Military._Do_or_Die:_Who_Wins%3F

" Order Of Battle Edit

Wulfenbach's forces include battle clanks, the Dreen, Death Rays, Zeppelins (which I suspect have Kevlar-type armoring), and Og-knows-what-else.

The US Military? Everything that modern tech & a bloated & out-of-control Defense Budget can provide, and a bag of chips. Plus nukes. "

109:

Fables is DC, though in the Vertigo imprint like Sandman, Lucifer, Y, and others.

110:

SoV
I recently saw a (newspaper?) piece on J Wayne.
The man admitted that his cinema persona was a construct, whom he knew well, & on whom he depended for an income.
Apparently he was an enthusiastic chess-player, read quite a bit of history &, by the standards of those times, really didn't care who screwed which sex.
NOT the screen-image at all.

111:

That's because Glide Path isn't a novel.
It's a very-thinly veiled autobiographical description of the development of GCA & working behind he scenes in WWII

112:

OTOH
David Niven?
Dirk Bogarde?
Alec Guiness?
James Doohan? ( "Scotty" )
Played screen heroes & officers & gentlemen - and they already know the script, having been there & seen horrible things.

113:

SoV
if your son is bullied by a bigger boy at school, well, you can hardly fight his battles for him when he grows up, can you? It follows that 'interfering' now comes at the expense of making him a weaker man later. So of course you don't report the bullying to school officials; it's obvious that what your boy really needs is boxing lessons.
There are other ways around this one, & not involving "The authorities" fawning over the bully, because he's SO misunderstood ....
I've "seen" this happen twice ...
In one case the victim took time out, OUT of school to lean simple Karate/Judo. About 6 months later, the bully got a very nasty surprise, how sad.
In the other, the victim waited, until one day the bully, having finished his tormenting, turned away, confident in his arrogance & power - & got a school-chair broken over his head.
There was a big stink, but, I'm glad to say, in the end, nothing was done, because of witness testimony.

114:

Very slight correction.
As you say, the Marriage Bar was formally, permanently dropped on civil servants in Britain in 1945, but there was, IIRC a "for the duration" dropping of said bar sometime 1939-41, as they REALLY NEEDED morried women in Civil Srevice posts.
The formal, oermanent recognition of this staus in 1945 was a recognition that the status quo ante could not be resumed, under any practical circumstances.

"Trireme equivalent of a modern Aircraft carrier"
Well, you did know that the late-classical greeks had automatic, rapid-firing Palintonon/Ballistae don't you?
And that some were fitted to warships?
Therw was a V-shaped feed hopper, into which the bolts were dropped, a slot at the bottom to feed the bolts through & a metal-&-wood chain drive, to operate the winding/cocking mechanism. This last was operated by several mnen, working really hard.
The Romans took these up as artillery pieces, & substituting stone balls for bolts for use in sieges.
Such were use to sweep the walls of Carthage bare in the final siege of 149BCE
[ Source for the latter, J E Gordon's masterly: STRUCTURES Or why things Don't Fall Down ]

115:

In the beginning I was indifferent to the Thor gender-bender thing. However, on further reflection the message I'm getting is,

"Hey, we want to add a strong female character to our lineup, but we think so little of her we can't be bothered to, like, actually create a new female character, so we'll just change a male one."

116:

When I see people who talk about Le Guin and 'genderbending' in the same sentence, I see someone whose only exposure to Le Guin (whose name they cannot spell) is _The Left Hand of Darkness_. As far as I am aware genderbending features in nothing else in her SF ouevre (though the people of O have unusual reproductive structures by Western standards, with prohibitions of sexual intercourse not following gender but moiety lines: but that's not genderbending, just an unusual social structure).

I also see someone who didn't get far enough into _The Left Hand of Darkness_ to read chapter 7, obscurely and cunningly titled _The Question of Sex_ (who could imagine that it would discuss this subject with a title as misleading as that?), which ends:

"In the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself."

TLHoD is not a genderbending book. If it has to be restricted to one single thing -- which is wrong for any novel but most especially this one -- it's a survival-in-extreme-circumstances story. The genderbending is just worldbuilding around that (serving to up the emotional stakes at key points).

117:

Para 1 - Ok, with the note that Triplanetary actually contains some of Smith's most accurate writing, notably the WW2 chapter, where the explosives line is recognisable to anyone (such as Greg and myself) who ever had a relative in line commissioning and/or QA.

Para 2 - I don't think we claim otherwise, and in any event Galactic Patrol actually supports our arguments about how brave and tough Clarissa actually is.

118:

Para 1 - For me the biggest issue now with recommending Fables to anyone is that the main sequence is at least at volume 20, plus at least 2 Cinderella missons and 3 Fairest off-shoot stories.

119:

"But in real life John Waynes tend to either get their asses badly kicked
<cough> Audie Murphie.

120:

I can't think of any human-power aircraft that's made it more than about 50 feet up or covered more than 4 or 5km. Based on checking the Kramer prizes.

121:

Absolutely - In fact that's why I bought a copy.

122:

"Hey, we want to add a strong female character to our lineup, but we think so little of her we can't be bothered to, like, actually create a new female character, so we'll just change a male one."

Or, bending over backwards to put the most charitable interpretation on the situation:

"Hey, we're a big multinational and we have a gender problem -- nobody for half our potential audience to identify with. But if we add a strong female character to the core line-up it'll take decades to build her marketing pull and you just know that somewhere down the line an idiot bro-manager who didn't get the memo will fridge her before she's a fully mature product We're going to have to pull a fast one to make it stick."

123:

You missed the Gossamer Albatross crossing the English Channel in 1979?

Really, the limits to human-powered flight are now down to human physiology. You need a huge, very light lift surface (because the propulsion device has a low power output) so it's slow and draggy, so you naturally try to keep it in ground effect. And then your range is limited by the endurance of your motor -- a really fit competition-grade cyclist, the sort of person who'd otherwise be competing in the Tour de France. And who will be turning into a mass of jelly after 1-2 hours of peak output.

One may speculate about low-drag human-powered planes flying out of ground effect if someone gives them a boost at launch -- like a kite, maybe -- and which then need less energy input and can glide for a bit or use thermals -- but that's really a human-assisted powered glider, and doesn't fit with the Kremer prize rules.

124:

Sort of, at least for values of "missed" that appear identical to "forgot about".

125:

I also read some Earthsea, but you're about right. And all of it was 25 years ago, so I don't recall if I made it to chapter 7 or not. But if a book doesn't hook me and I put it down mostly unread, I consider that a negative result.

126:

I was responding to Charles H, who said in 34 that

Clarissa doesn't appear until Second Stage Lensman in the series internal chronology, though Mentor does make a mention of her to Virgilia Samms in First Lensman. That does seem to be "claiming otherwise."

Forties adventure fiction ran to female characters who were (a) impressively capable, (b) unique in their settings, and (c) oddly undervalued, even by themselves, as Clarrissa was in her insistence on not being a "real" Lensman. Wonder Woman could have kicked the butts of Hawkman, the Atom, the Sandman, and Hourman, singly or all together, but she was the Justice Society's secretary.

To my mind the better Marvel venture into "strong female characters" is Peggy Carter, at least in the Cinematic Universe continuity—who's also a conscious look back at those original forties tropes. I'm hoping they do a good job with the tv series next season. This thing with Thor just looks like marketing. "Oh, we want to have characters who aren't straight white men; which of our established characters can we do a makeover on?"

127:

Tracey Rihll's The Catapult (which I learned of from Ken MacLeod's blog a few years back) has some history of that sort of device too.

128:

A list of those I consider to be pure "hard sf" writers:

Hal Clement.

129:

To me, human history is about 80,000 years long (that's very approximately the time modern Homo sapiens sapiens). During most of that time, climate was unstable, and you can see a simple illustration of that in this graph from Wikipedia if you look at the Qday graph, the fifth graph down. We're in a period of unusual climatic stability at the moment. I suspect that this has fundamentally enabled large states and empires to exist, primarily because the climate was predictable enough that leaders could get away with taxing their peasants without risking a famine-inspired rebellion in most years.

So far as the dark ages go, it's not clear whether they were more stable than the current time or not. There's some suggestion that they weren't (possibly due to a large volcanic eruption), but that's more in the 6th Century.

Since you have no clue about my background, I'll point out that I'm not a strict environmental determinist, but I'm working on a book on climate change at the moment. Most environmental catastrophes seem to be enabled in large part by lack of adequate planning prior to the catastrophe and triggered by inadequate leadership during and especially after the catastrophe. Still, if rains are unpredictable and so are temperatures, it's hard for farmers to produce much of a surplus beyond what they need to feed their family (this is an increasing problem in places like Africa, due to climate change). Without that surplus, it's difficult to support much of a state structure above them, and that means that their societies are generally constrained to be smaller and simpler, for good and for bad. Some states (notably in the Andes) have temporarily figured out ways around these problems (generally in better environmental times). More generally though, complex polities seem to depend on having a productive system under their control.

So far as I can tell, we're currently working very hard to destabilize our global climate and keep it unstable for tens of thousands of years. That's why I'm more than a little interested in how an unstable, and more importantly, unpredictable climate shapes human societies.

130:
"Hey, we want to add a strong female character to our lineup, but we think so little of her we can't be bothered to, like, actually create a new female character, so we'll just change a male one."

What I find really weird about that is that "female Asgardian warrior" already exists in the person of Sif. Then again, making more of her probably doesn't grab headlines as much as making Thor a girl does.

131:

I dunno. I'd think a new, purpose-created character would go over better than retreading one from their grandparents' generation. At least, if they looked like they were going to make a reasonable commitment instead of flipping the character out there and then yanking it immediately if they don't get the results they expect.

Some marketing is based on observation and statistics, but this still smells like minimum commitment to me.

132:

They're not "making Thor a girl."

They're making some woman be the Thor. (As in, "the captain.")

There is a large difference between those two statements.

133:

You don't include Greg Egan?

Oh dear.

134:

"Anybody besides me recognize this behaviour in the older male members of their family?"

No - not in my family.

135:

You need a physics degree to read something like Diaspora

136:

"Another specific example: if your son is bullied by a bigger boy at school, well, you can hardly fight his battles for him when he grows up, can you? "

Real life example. My nephew was being bullied at primary school and the teachers did nothing to stop it. So his father send him to my martial arts class. A few months later he had developed a punch that was strong enough to turn another 16 year old student of mine white when he was hit in the chest.

There then followed some suitable advice. Namely, do not play "push turns to shove". Just hit the kid in the face as hard as possible. He did it, the bully hit the floor in a bloody mess, the teacher told him he was a bad boy and he never had any more trouble.

137:

What I find really weird about that is that "female Asgardian warrior" already exists in the person of Sif. Then again, making more of her probably doesn't grab headlines as much as making Thor a girl does.

They tried this with the Sif-oriented storyline in 'Journey Into Mystery'. Despite being a lot of fun, the sales response was so good that they canceled the title. The same thing happened with the all-female 'Fearless Defenders' title, which included Valkyrie as one of the lead characters.

I dunno. I'd think a new, purpose-created character would go over better than retreading one from their grandparents' generation. At least, if they looked like they were going to make a reasonable commitment instead of flipping the character out there and then yanking it immediately if they don't get the results they expect.

Comics with solo female characters or with teams composed primarily or entirely of female characters tend to do poorly. This isn't to say that they cannot do well. At the moment the new Harley Quinn book is doing well, and Batgirl sold well through most of its new-52 run, but historically they suffer dropping sales and cancellation.

But if we add a strong female character to the core line-up it'll take decades to build her marketing pull and you just know that somewhere down the line an idiot bro-manager who didn't get the memo will fridge her before she's a fully mature product.

I agree with Charlie here. The big two have a tendency to operate by crisis, the crisis being 'whatever big event bumps sales next quarter/year', since the tendency for long running comics is for subscriptions to drop as current readers eventually fall away, and new readers are added at a slower rate than current readers attrit. To date, it's been a better bet in the short term to create a stunt event which will (the editors and publisher hope) boost sales across the line by creating line-wide excitement or on a single title by radically changing the character for a short time.

Eventually everything is reverted to the status-quo, with very few exceptions. This tends to devastate any sort of character-driven development in superhero comics, and which makes it hard to develop newer characters (which are more likely to be female, ethnic minorities, or both) over older characters. It also means that when things don't work to increase sales long-term, they panic and hit the reset button to bring back the 'old reliable' (white, male) characters.

Maybe Marvel is serious this time. The new Ms. Marvel series written by G. Willow Wilson just went back for its sixth printing of #1. Since multiple printings aren't usually worth anything on the speculator market, it's being reprinted because of reader demand for physical issues. That's a good sign. Unfortunately I don't think 'Thor is now female' is another good sign, and I don't think it will last. (See stunt event, as above.)

138:

Well, first-off, if you read my other comments on the subject, and some of Nicola's, I think you'll find that you were sort of re-running an existing argument. OK?

I'm not that into comic book characters, so the only one I can really comment on Clarissa.
Virgil Samms was impressed by her toughness, professionalism and bravery, for example when she and doctor have to be cocoon inerted after retrieving a greviously injured Kinnison for low orbit in Grey Lensman, or some of the hinted at treatment she received on Lyra. That is the standard I'm judging her by, rather than her own false modesty about her abilities.

So TL;DR version - I think we're actually in agreement.

139:

I think it was more that Smith's Fascist superheros needed super-mates. Note the lack of other strong female characters in the Lensman universe. (though admittedly there were some in the Skylark universe)

140:

Er, did we read the same series?

Smith's "Civilisation" strikes me as being a working libertarian culture (sample quote - "If this war hadn't broken out, we would have had to cut the tax rate again due to too much money being tied up inte Galactic Patrol's coffers" and "Boskone" as totalitarian, but more D&D "Lawfull Evil" than fascist.

141:

That's almost certainly more or less the correct answer, rather than the charitable one.

Marvel and DC as comic publishers need to make a profit as publishing entities in and of themselves (and Marvel in particular has cost slashing Perlmutter as their god of finance).

But comics in the US and UK is a fairly tiny market, and the superhero/Big Two chunk is verrrrrry adverse to change. You couldn't count the number of genuinely new (as in not a variation on an established character) characters that have been successful in the last twenty five years on one....finger.

It's Deadpool.

Which is maybe most of the problem. The other bit is the 'female characters don't sell' idea which is in superhero comics at least partly a self fulfilling prophecy.

Not superhero comics don't have most of these problems, beyond trying to sell them to super hero comic fans.

(And fairly specifically, the super hero fans aren't even fans, by and large, of the genre. They are fans of those specific universes and characters)

142:

The Galactic Patrol has a lot of libertarian aspects, but then there's its drug war policy, which is about as antilibertarian as you can get.

143:

I don't think it can actually have been Virgil Samms. He never met Clarrissa; she was his N times great-granddaughter, presumably through Virgilia and Mason Northrop. Perhaps you had Port Admiral Haynes in mind? I think I remember his being impressed by Clarrissa's physical courage and dedication to duty in that scene involved high-g intership transfer.

144:

American Libertarianism seems freaky as it now exists. What sticks in my mind from Galactic Patrol is the imagery of the opening. If that wasn't influenced by Triumph of the Will I will eat my deLameter.

I'd agree with the description of Boskone as "Lawful Evil". It falls short on the trappings of Fascism, perhaps being a little more like the pre-WW1 authoritarian European Empires. And that could put Gharlane of Eddore in the position of a Bethmann-Hollweg or Zimmerman, rather than as an analogue to the Kaiser.

145:

At this point, I think I'm happy to acknowledge that I've never read E E Smith.
I'd heard descriptions & it always struck me as another dose of "Yet again the blasters spat ravening fire" school of entertainment/bad writing .....[ delete as approriate ]
It doesn't appear that I've missed much.

146:

#142 - True, but try finding USian Republicans who object to the "War on Drugs" on any grounds, never mind libertarian ones. Also, taking an anti-drugs stance seems highly necessary when your enemy is trying to use drugs as a main weapon to destroy your culture.

#143 - Memory is a bit hazy; you're probably right on the name and certainly on the scene. Which is actually how I'm judging her: by how others see her rather than be how she sees herself.

#144 - Reads this and notes that you appear to agree about the schitzophrenia (sp) of USian libertarianism.
Actually, I'm not going to modigy my view of Boskone slightly towards classical despotism, with the note that if you assassinated your boss it was you rather than his kid who inherited his assets.

147:

I wouldn't mormally offer this as an excuse, much less a reason, but I was abut 10 when I first read Galactic Patrol. Such being the case, I think I should at least be allowed to perceive the series as "rattling good yarns", as long as I don't claim them to be "great writing".

148:

Smith's "good guys" ruled by, essentially, divine right. They were the strongest, thus the most fit to rule, Q.E.D. From Seaton to the subspace explorers, their inherent superiority put them above all law, ethics, or morality. Fuhrerprinzip on steroids.

I found it interesting that most of Smith's "bad guy" societies were extreme forms of meritocracy.


Come to think of it, the Lensmen were an extreme example of aristocracy... the Lensman civilization was essentially divided into "Lensmen" and "serfs." Fine if you're a Lensman, not so hot if you get crushed underfoot.

[note: I'm referring primarily to the Gray Lensmen, though the regular Lensmen were pretty creepy themselves.]

149:

I suggest you go and read the Lensman series again then. It explicitly states that the Lensmen were actually selected, not by the training academies which were set up for the benefits they conferred on everyone else, but for being genuinely morally incorruptable.

150:

And Smith came from a time and culture where the idea that somebody could be guaranteed "morally incorruptable" seemed as plausible as lie detectors that worked 100% of the time on 100% of the populace tested ... and the idea that rule by morally incorruptable overlords with the power of judge, jury and executioner was a good basis for human society.

Shudder.

151:

Traditional notions of divine right included a moral element. If God chose the king, he must be the best man (or at least the best man for the job).

152:

And in the Lensman series, God - or a reasonable substitute - did choose the (Lens)man. Not a gimmick that I'd use today, but it worked for Doc Smith. Of course, few people talk about the job interview process wherein Mentor rootkits the candidate's brain and goes through it checking for crimethink. Many of the prospects come out as incorruptible guardians of civilization, and nobody thinks to ask if the telepath finds or creates what he's looking for.

And for anyone worried about telepathic Lensmen invading privacy, the Arisians are worse. They know what you're going to do out on your little podunk planet at the edge of the galaxy centuries before you actually do it, if they care to. That ship has quite thoroughly sailed.

153:

Well, more like "selected to be agreeable to the Arisian expectations of what they should be."

Remember, the Arisians had their agenda just like the Eddorians.

154:

Meanwhile, back in what we laughingly call reality ...
A very interesting lady has just died, aged 99.
Lettice Curtis, one of the Sptifire women
Though she flew a lot more than "mere" Spitfires, as you will see if you read her obit.

Thing is, back in the 50's as a child, I knew these women existed, at the same time that there was much (to quote le Guin) breast-beating & territory-spraying about how women could not possibly be commercial airline pilots (or anything alse, much, actually.
And wondering... "you what, uh? but didn't ... " etc

155:

Hanna Reitsch
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanna_Reitsch

"Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was a German aviator, Nazi test pilot, and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot/Observer Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II. She set over forty aviation altitude and endurance records during her career, both before and after World War II, and several of her international gliding records still stand in 2012. In the 1960s she founded a gliding school in Ghana, where she worked for Kwame Nkrumah."

156:

Given the Nazis' Kinder, Kirche, Küche attitudes, as officially sanctioned, that is even mor remarkable - I still wonder about her, actually.
I mean a registered (ex) Nazi working for Nkrumah.
You what?

157:

Or Leni Riefenstahl working with the Nuba?

158:

Leni Riefenstahl was always ambiguous - I think she just wanted to make good cinema & the guvmint had the money to support her.
People like her had a difficult time, because you could not easily work (unless you fled - & a lot of people had no idea at all how bad the Nazis were going to get) without some state monies.
Think about Richard Strauss, never seen to give the Nazi salute, never a member of the party, helped several jewish musicians to escape - & still given a hard time in 1945.
Unlike crawling slime like H v. Karajan, who should have been sent to the fields, after doing jail-time, the bastard.

159:

And went virtually unreported due to the latest round of bread and circusses...

160:

Just noticed something a long way back, from heteromeles, which is so spot on traget:
>i> I'd suggest that mainstream literature is trained to be terrified and envious of science at universities, where (very unfortunately), the humanities are funded in some large part by grant overheads from the biomedical and engineering schools.
Usually referred to as; "Physics Envy"

And so, so true.
Even more visible in governments & civil services everywhere.

Just to prove that the loonies are running the asylum ....
F'rinstance we now have a minister of science & technology who is professionally incompetent to the point of criminal negligence & irresponsibility.
I.E. He is unfit to hold office - ANY office.

Look up: Greg Clark, Minister of State for Science.
And call for his removal from Parliament, on the grounds of insanity
RIGHT NOW - please?

161:

humanities are funded in some large part by grant overheads from the biomedical and engineering schools

Humanities classes are actually much cheaper than science or engineering classes, usually. It's just a teacher, some desks, and some books. There's no need for hands-on experience with a million-dollar infinitive splitter, and literature Ph.D.s work cheaply. Heating in the chemistry labs probably costs more than the entire English department at most universities (it's the fume hoods).

Grant overheads don't go to humanities classes, they go to university administrators. Naturally, this leaves humanities departments without a lot of support in higher management.

162:

I believe you, but Google is surprisingly unhelpful about producing a pie chart showing examples of institutional spending broken down by department. For some reason it's hard to find sample breakdowns of college and university budgets: Administration 4%, Building Maintenance 8%, Popular Sports 21%, Unpopular Sports 0.02%, Eccentric Faculty 1.4%...

163:

... Hipster Faculty Desperately Feigning Eccentricity 46%, ...

If the numbers are hard to find, they look bad. If they looked good, they'd be in every press release. That's a fairly good rule about organizational statistics.

164:

Err, don't get me started on Libertarian Republicans and the War on certain Drugs...

But then, with Lensmen it might be a question of historical context; the 30s is not that lon after the establishment of modern international drug legislation, and if you look up some of the surroundings of the first Opium Conference and like,

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Opium_Convention

quite some impetus came from the US, explained as the first decolonized nation helping the other colonies against the exploiting imperial powers. Of course, this also meant the USA was forced to intervent, e.g. in the Philipines, and create its own kinda empire, but I digress.

If we view it that way, the Galactic Patrol becomes some kind of League of Nations (one could argue somewhat perverted), and the leader of Boskone having a German name in the 30s, well...

On another note, sitting in Italy with a laptop with a broken keyboard and a 7 inch tablet, it hurts, so I guess it'll be some time till I join in the party again. It's not to bad, though, but I still wish I had made some remark to the guy reading "Atlas Shrugged" in the ER waiting room of the local hospital:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Healthcare_in_Italy

But then, Ayn Rand wasn't that consistent, either...

165:

And... the future has just run over your fake video narrative. Your protagonists wouldn't have had nearly as hard a time tweaking the video with this kind of software: http://reframe.gizmodo.com/free-photo-editing-software-lets-you-manipulate-almost-1616879310/+barrett

That _proves_ it's hard SF!

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