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Why I barely read SF these days

Being a guy who writes science fiction, people expect me to be well-informed about the current state of the field—as if I'm a book reviewer who reads everything published in my own approximate area.

(This is a little like expecting a bus driver to have an informed opinion on every other form of four-wheeled road-going transport.)

Similarly, marketing folks keep sending me SF novels in the hope I'll read them and volunteer a cover quote. But over the past decade I've found myself increasingly reluctant to read the stuff they send me: I have a vague sense of dyspepsia, as if I've just eaten a seven course banquet and the waiter is approaching me with a wafer-thin mint.

This isn't to say that I haven't read a lot of SF over the past several decades. While I'm an autodidact—there are holes in my background—I've read most of the classics of the field, at least prior to the 1990s. But about a decade ago I stopped reading SF short stories, and this past decade I've found very few SF novels that I didn't feel the urge to bail on within pages (or a chapter or two at most). Including works that I knew were going to be huge runaway successes, both popular and commercially successful—but that I simply couldn't stomach.

It's not you, science fiction, it's me.

Like everyone else, I'm a work in progress. I've changed over the years as I've lived through changing times, and what I focus on in a work of fiction has gradually shifted. Meanwhile, the world in which I interpret a work of fiction has changed. And in the here and now, I find it really difficult to suspend my disbelief in the sorts of worlds other science fiction writers are depicting.

About a decade ago, M. John Harrison (whose stories and novels you should totally read, if you haven't already) wrote on his blog:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader's ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn't there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

I recognize the point he's putting in play here: but I (conditionally) disagree. The implicit construction of an artificial but plausible world is what distinguishes a work of science fiction from any other form of literature. It's an alternative type of underpinning to actually-existing reality, which is generally more substantial (and less plausible—reality is under no compulsion to make sense). Note the emphasis on implicit, though. Worldbuilding is like underwear: it needs to be there, but it shouldn't be on display, unless you're performing burlesque. Worldbuilding is the scaffolding that supports the costume to which our attention is directed. Without worldbuilding, the galactic emperor has no underpants to wear with his new suit, and runs the risk of leaving skidmarks on his story.

Storytelling is about humanity and its endless introspective quest to understand its own existence and meaning. But humans are social animals. We exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we're going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists' social context—otherwise, we're looking at perspective-free cardboard cut-outs. And technology and environment inextricably dictate large parts of that context.

You can't write a novel of contemporary life in the UK today without acknowledging that almost everybody is clutching a softly-glowing fondleslab that grants instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, provides an easy avenue for school bullies to get at their victims out-of-hours, tracks and quantifies their relationships (badly), and taunts them constantly with the prospect of the abolition of privacy in return for endless emotionally inappropriate cat videos. We're living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic. We live with constant low-level anxiety and trauma induced by our current media climate, tracking bizarre manufactured crises that distract and dismay us and keep us constantly emotionally off-balance. These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don't have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren't lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note, alienated from the very society they are supposed to illuminate.

Now for a personal perspective. I don't find other peoples' motivations intuitively obvious: I have to apply conscious reasoning to put myself in a different head-space. I am quite frequently alienated by my fellow humans' attitudes and outlook. (I strongly suspect I have mild ASD.) For me, world-building provides a set of behavioural constraints that make it easier to understand the character of my fictional protagonists. (For example, if writing a 2018 story: new media channels lead to a constant barrage of false news generated by state actors trying to produce political change, delivered via advertising networks? And this is why my characters constantly feel uneasy and defensive, dominated by a low-level sense of alienation and angst.) The purpose of world-building is to provide the social context within which our characters feel, think, and act. I don't think you can write fiction without it.

Now, what's my problem with contemporary science fiction?

Simply put, plausible world-building in the twenty-first century is incredibly hard work. (One synonym for "plausible" in this sense is "internally consistent".) A lot of authors seem to have responded to this by jetisoning consistency and abandoning any pretense at plausibility: it's just too hard, and they want to focus on the characters or the exciting plot elements and get to the explosions without bothering to nerdishly wonder if the explosives are survivable by their protagonists at this particular range. To a generation raised on movie and TV special effects, plausible internal consistency is generally less of a priority than spectacle.

When George Lucas was choreographing the dogfights in "Star Wars", he took his visual references from film of first world war dogfights over the trenches in western Europe. With aircraft flying at 100-200 km/h in large formations, the cinema screen could frame multiple aircraft maneuvering in proximity, close enough to be visually distinguishable. The second world war wasn't cinematic: with aircraft engaging at speeds of 400-800 km/h, the cinematographer would have had a choice between framing dots dancing in the distance, or zooming in on one or two aircraft. (While some movies depict second world war air engagements, they're not visually captivating: either you see multiple aircraft cruising in close formation, or a sudden flash of disruptive motion—see for example the bomber formation in Memphis Belle, or the final attack on the U-boat pen in Das Boot.) Trying to accurately depict an engagement between modern jet fighters, with missiles launched from beyond visual range and a knife-fight with guns takes place in a fraction of a second at a range of multiple kilometres, is cinematically futile: the required visual context of a battle between massed forces evaporates in front of the camera ... which is why in Independence Day we see vast formations of F/A-18s (a supersonic jet) maneuvering as if they're Sopwith Camels. (You can take that movie as a perfect example of the triumph of spectacle over plausibility at just about every level.)

... So for a couple of generations now, the generic vision of a space battle is modelled on an air battle, and not just any air battle, but one plucked from a very specific period that was compatible with a film director's desire to show massed fighter-on-fighter action at close enough range that the audience could identify the good guys and bad guys by eye.

Let me have another go at George Lucas (I'm sure if he feels picked on he can sob himself to sleep on a mattress stuffed with $500 bills). Take the asteroid field scene from The Empire Strikes Back: here in the real world, we know that the average distance between asteroids over 1km in diameter in the asteroid belt is on the order of 3 million kilometers, or about eight times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This is of course utterly useless to a storyteller who wants an exciting game of hide-and-seek: so Lucas ignored it to give us an exciting game of ...

Unfortunately, we get this regurgitated in one goddamned space opera after another: spectacle in place of insight, decolorized and pixellated by authors who haven't bothered to re-think their assumptions and instead simply cut and paste Lucas's cinematic vision. Let me say it here: when you fuck with the underlying consistency of your universe, you are cheating your readers. You may think that this isn't actually central to your work: you're trying to tell a story about human relationships, why get worked up about the average spacing of asteroids when the real purpose of the asteroid belt is to give your protagonists a tense situation to survive and a shared experience to bond over? But the effects of internal inconsistency are insidious. If you play fast and loose with distance and time scale factors, then you undermine travel times. If your travel times are rubberized, you implicitly kneecapped the economics of trade in your futurescape. Which in turn affects your protagonist's lifestyle, caste, trade, job, and social context. And, thereby, their human, emotional relationships. The people you're writing the story of live in a (metaphorical) house the size of a galaxy. Undermine part of the foundations and the rest of the house of cards is liable to crumble, crushing your characters under a burden of inconsistencies. (And if you wanted that goddamn Lucasian asteroid belt experience why not set your story aboard a sailing ship trying to avoid running aground in a storm? Where the scale factor fits.)

Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they're really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn't exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygeine: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and horrible social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren't.

Similarly, if I was to choose a candidate for the great clomping foot of nerdism afflicting fiction today, I'd pick late-period capitalism, the piss-polluted sea we fish are doomed to swim in. It seems inevitable but it's a relatively recent development in historic terms, and it's clearly not sustainable in the long term. However, trying to visualize a world without it is surprisingly difficult. Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: "advertising", "trophy wife", "health insurance", "jaywalking", "passport", "police", "teen-ager", "television".

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local acquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead. In pathological cases it settles for gazing into the depths of a brightly coloured computer-generated fishtank screensaver. If you're writing a story that posits giant all-embracing interstellar space corporations, or a space mafia, or space battleships, never mind universalizing contemporary norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies, let alone fashions in clothing as social class signifiers, or religions ... then you need to think long and hard about whether you've mistaken your screensaver for the ocean.

And I'm sick and tired of watching the goldfish.

1406 Comments

1:

I think you have a point here that SF has difficulty reaching its ultimate potential, falling short in the execution by lack of vision, by its difficulty, and just being satisfied with "Enough".

And we've always been missing stuff, but in an interconnected world with so much knowledge at our fingertips, its more evident what we are missing. 1960's readers picking up a PKD story wouldn't question the basic assumptions of Martian Time Slip, but they stand out like a sore thumb to me, as a reader, now. But now today, contemporary science fiction is in real time similarly seen to be a not very good trumpe o'leil. It's harder to get that illusion and make it immersive. I still think its possible, and I try to find the SF that does it.

2:

You should read Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota books if you want that kind of worldbuilding

3:

"when you fuck with the underlying consistency of your universe, you are cheating your readers."

Where does this leave writers like Dick or Vonnegut or Burroughs or Bester who could hardly have cared less about this stuff, and who will endure on our shelves far longer than any of their more meticulous peers?

4:

Some of this stuff is why I rather bounced off the Expanse books. Sheer momentum kept me going to the end of volume 6, but I don't think I'll persist. There's a veneer of scale, but the writers mess about with it however they please (worst in "Abaddon's Gate" but true in all of them). The societies are not all the same, but the differences seem rather thin. And all the characters are very 21st century (complete with "hand terminals" which strongly resemble iPhone circa 2010).

5:
Where does this leave writers like Dick or Vonnegut or Burroughs or Bester ...

For my money, I'd say worldbuilding is a bit like jazz. You need to understand and honor the rules, and be really good at the story in question, before fucking with them is a good idea.

6:

I'm going to advise against ever watching Star Trek: Discovery then. The world-building makes no twatting sense whatsoever.

Starbase One is 100AUs from Earth but appears to be orbiting a planet that is presumably Earth, Starbase One is apparently a light-year from your current position but it'll take a day or so to get there at high warp yet you're able to quickly get to Q'onos all whilst taking a detour to a distant moon that you can insta-terrafom? That's just some of the idiocy from the latest episode to drop on Netflix...

The only way I can tolerate ST:D is by assuming it's a phantastical grim-dark pastiche on Star Trek.

7:

A minor nitpick:

When George Lucas was choreographing the dogfights in "Star Wars", he took his visual references from film of first world war dogfights over the trenches in western Europe.

Lucas and the other people involved in the original Star Wars have been very clear that the inspiration was dogfighting and aerial warfare as depicted in World War Two movies, not First World War dogfighting. E.g. from this bit of reminiscing:

“I loved Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers serials when I was a kid, but I thought I could create an experience closer to watching a dogfight in a World War II film — with incredible ships diving and banking in a realistic [sic] manner.”
“Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), I would watch it — and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.”

There are some good quotes in that piece from other people who worked on the film that illustrate the overwhelming WW2 inspiration. (E.g. "Joe would show me a shot of a Japanese Zero flying left to right in front of a conning tower of an aircraft carrier and say, ‘The aircraft carrier is the Death Star, the Zero is an X-wing. Do a board like that.”". And: "At the time, very few optical shots were completed from the end battle, but they had a work print based on old World War II movies. So I cut the spaceship sounds and lasers to that. We had Spitfires going by that sounded like spaceships; we had lasers being fired from Messerschmitts. It was relatively insane.")

(Note, by the way, that The Bridges at Toko-Ri was actually a Korean War movie featuring early jet fighters!)


Your general point is a good one, of course, though I will point out that Independence Day is hardly the only example of late-20th-Century supersonic jet fighters in action movies. An obvious counterexample is Top Gun, which isn't about vast formation flying at all.

8:

Apropos of the last point I remember an author (spoiler: it was probably Lawrence Miles) opining about how modern animation movies take things that should be magical and make them into jobs: toys, monsters, superheroes, even emotions, all structured like a workplace. It may be a symptom of late-stage capitalism that I'm unsure about how sinister this is. (Of course, there was that later story that had this as a type of culture hacking by a time-travelling empire to remove any creative, outward-looking impulses from media-dependent cultures.)

9:

I feel much the same way, but it's not [S]F that induces the feeling, it's the real world. Which is more difficult to avoid. Fiction, even if dystopic in theme and crappy in execution, with jungly asteroid belts and travel at the speed of plot and all, at least has the saving grace of being not real, and so still works as a place to go and hide.

10:

I disagree with the idea that PKD, Vonnegut, and particularly Bester "didn't care" about internal consistency. Their divergences from internal consistency seemed largely intentional.

Also, this doesn't merely manifest in hard SF in the sense of doing the physics. Those three authors were writing speculative sociology and speculative economics, with speculative physics taking an extremely small role. With the exception of the problem of distances within the solar system being pretty large (something that everybody in the 60s hand-waved away because you couldn't call it SF if it didn't have a rocket ship on the cover), I feel like the worlds they constructed were done pretty well -- and, of course, the interplanetary distances and other occasional poorly-considered assumptions (like, in The Stars My Destination, the language of the lower classes being a poor Humphrey Bogart impression) stick out like a sore thumb for present-day readers and must be pointedly ignored the same way people must pointedly ignore the stylistic conceits used in Frankenstein to get much enjoyment out of it.

The Stars My Destination is actually a pretty good example of well-constructed SF: take something very much like our world, inject a seemingly straightforward change (teleportation, with a very specific set of rules), add a time delay for consequences to unfold, and watch how everything from economics to social hierarchy to public services change to support the new element. It's very traditional in that way: it begins in a world changed by a particular technology (the cognitive technology of jaunting) and chronicles the events leading up to the development of a second (time-jaunting).

Dick's books don't really correspond to this pattern. They take place in worlds unlike our own, and those worlds are sometimes very vividly drawn (consider the social, political, and religious situation in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep vs that in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich), but very often that's not really the draw. (Consider Ubik, which has a vividly drawn future society, totally abandoned after a single chapter, to focus on the idea of the subjective experience of the near-dead, or We Can Build You, which aside from nobody really caring about whether or not robots are conscious is set in basically 1960s America.) Dick clearly could consider economic, policial, and social ramifications of tech, and when he didn't make those his focus, it was clearly because they were better left vague as he focused on something else.

(Of Vonnegut, I've only read Cat's Cradle & Slaughterhouse Five, so I can't spend a lot of time defending Sirens of Titan or any of the other works that are potentially subject to the concerns of this essay. After all, Slaughterhouse Five can easily be interpreted as having no science fiction elements at all, and Cat's Cradle kills off almost everybody in the world fairly quickly and sets its sights on an isolated society on a small island with customs that aren't fundamentally less coherent than those of many isolated communities.)

11:

Tried; bounced very hard a few chapters into TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING because it blew all my world-building fuses. Seriously, one form of default social organization across cultures? One corporation behind flying cars as a universal form of transportation? Global consensus on gender and religious belief? Next you'll be trying to sell me on a planet with one ecosystem and one crop and one predatory species.

Maybe I should have given it more of a chance, but really? Didn't work for me, even though the up-front promise of a philosophical exploration was really good.

12:

Star Trek ended for me when they began making movies, never mind the horrifying travesty that was "The Next Generation" (I bailed halfway through the pilot ep; everything I've picked up through skin contact since then tells me that was a good decision to make.)

13:

I am willing to overlook inconsistencies.

I don't want to let "actually, I think you'll find" stop my enjoyment of a story. For me, a big part of SF is the "what if" aspect - what if you could travel faster than light? What if the moon explodes? What if global warming turns New York into a replica of Venice? I want the consequences of that "what if" to be interesting and entertaining, and I want the story to flow.

This means if an author decides that we still have "jobs" in this FTL future, it's okay with me if it's an incidental aspect of the story - I don't want to read 3 pages of economic theory explaining why mining is still a thing when our hero meets someone identified as a "miner". Unless the economic model is a big part of the story line, I am happy to assume we're all being paid "credits" or whatever in this FTL society - I really want to read about how our hero defeats the baddies, or saves the universe or whatever, not a Marxist analysis of the role of money.

I also don't mind if the basic "what if" doesn't fit with reality as we know it - that's the point of "speculative".

But there is a limit to this. At some point, the story isn't believable anymore - I guess my willingness to suspend my disbelief is greater than OGH.

I stopped reading a space opera that was just a classic war story with lasers and rockets. I stopped reading a cyberpunk book where "the computer" magically knew everything (but not the central plot question).

14:

It may be a symptom of late-stage capitalism that I'm unsure about how sinister this is.

Yep.

As an aside: a couple of weeks ago my wife and I were in a local department store and found ourselves making our way through the toy section.

There were three striking things about the toy department:

1. The incredibly regimented binary gendering (boys: black and purple warbots on aisle A; girls: pink fluffy princesses and unicorns on aisle B)

2. 80% of the toys were media tie-ins (superheroes and Disney princesses, plus MLP)

3. The 20% of the toys that weren't media tie-ins were either educational/classics (Lego, for example), or the low-cost (under £5) tchotchkes by the cash desk where toddlers can grab them.

Okay, this wasn't a full-on toy store, just a corner of the floor in a small department store — but what it says about the way we're raising children these days is nothing good.

15:

If I understand correctly, you are put off by run-of-the-mill SF because it does not put any effort into worldbuilding, relying instead on echoing current pop-culture to build a picture with a few strokes as possible...

but the hardcore worldbuilders lack writing skills in the first place, but are so full of themselves and their work that they'd make a mess of things even if they committed pen to paper?

16:

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTICE

It's with deep sadness that I learned today that Hugh Hancock, a close friend and regular guest blogger here, died yesterday. (This was completely unexpected.)

I probably won't be replying to questions/comments for the rest of the day.

17:

Lucas and the other people involved in the original Star Wars have been very clear that the inspiration was dogfighting and aerial warfare as depicted in World War Two movies

But were WWII movies based on WWII combat, or did they have distances etc altered to fit the screen?

An old military acquaintance bitches a lot about infantry movies, because they almost invariably get distances wrong. Even WWII movies will have him screaming "spread out!" at the screen…

18:

I think I should invoke Sturgeon's Law, here. (90% of everything is crud.)

Capitalism, in its current state is hobbled by some bad economic theory (the efficient market hypothesis which, as it turns out, is provably false). And we need to recover from that wound.

That said, we're going to have systems of exchange, no matter what. You can't have civilization without it. And, ok, sure, the Code of Hammurabi is a relatively recent thing - if you're thinking in terms of the age of the sun - but that does not mean that you get billions of people able to be alive without some sorts of systems of exchange (along with other mechanisms to help us cope with each other's miseries and other flaws).

Which leads to this whole "post scarcity" thing - post scarcity of *what*? Some things require lots of miserable work to maintain an adequate supply of good quality of that thing. We have used concepts like "entropy" to describe this state of affairs. And some of those thing (food comes to mind) are the sort of thing where if people do badly enough at it, lots of us die. Plumbing is another thing that I think a lot of us might be rather more dependent on than we really think about. I'm sure you can think of other issues with similar character.

Anyways, you have to have at least some specialization for this many people to stay alive, and that, in turn, requires systems of exchange. Which, in turn, leads us to specializations like economics [which still has some validity even though the efficient market hypothesis cannot hold for the general case].

Whether you call the result "capitalism" or not isn't something I really have any good ideas about. You obviously can't rely entirely on any systems of exchange, but at the same time you need to prepare for the inevitable (but only vaguely predictable) failure modes, and that's going to mean jobs for at least some people - and everyone else's lives are going to depend on those people which in turn is going to lead into status issues.

So if you want to also cope with our social nature, and if you want a robust system, you're also going to want redundant jobs and multiple fallbacks and you're going to want some stresses on your system so that at least the more glaring problems have some visibility.

Or... that is how I see it.

And then we get into habits and history and hostilities and all that fun stuff...

19:

I think the reason those movies feature fantastical creatures with jobs is an attempt to give something for the adults in the theater to relate to. It strikes me as being something that goes back at least to the Flintstones and it's prime time cartoon programming- arguably The Muppets as well, depending on if you think running a theater is sufficiently grounded to count.

20:

Ah, crap... I'm sorry about Hugh... (and I wish I could have edited my post rather than having to make a new one to even mention that. Any chance you could find a blog mechanism which leaves the original post editable during at least a part of the period between when it goes up and when a new post is allowed? ... maybe I need to build that myself ... :/ )

21:

Shit. Really quite shocked to hear that. And sorry.

22:

It's neither the worldbuilding inconsistencies (which are, indeed, a serious problem... and not just with archly speculative fiction, they're endemic in politically oriented books and even in many "hard core" mysteries, and the less said about worldbuilding problems in litfic the better) nor what Mr Harrison calls "the triumph of writing over worldbuilding" that is at issue. It's the (lack of) integration of the two into anything coherent.

Our Gracious Host's disdain expressed for ST:TNG — especially based on its initial episode(s) — is a good example. And it wasn't just putting a Frenchman in command of the Enterprise. Bluntly, the writers had no bloody concept of how any of the science or technology would change writing or characters, let alone plot. Obvious example: If you're going to demonstrate the separability of the so-called "engineering section" from the rest of your vessel in the bloody pilot, why isn't that both a routine discussion issue in the rest of the episodes and something that potential adversaries will take into account? Instead, it's reduced to a kewl quasiisolation thingy to make it easier for lazy scriptwriters and directors to substitute kewl special effects for, I don't know, characters demonstrating everyday competence, and the confidence of their cohorts, at their assigned jobs or something. (And the first three seasons went downhill from there.)

The real problem is that a work of fiction is not an easy high-school algebra problem in which one can still be successful by isolating and solving for one variable at a time. That way lies the worst excesses of the "nothing happening here" litfic short story/novel — and of the neofascist space opera. The writing and the worldbuilding have to work together, and too often (epitomized by, but far from unique to or necessarily mandated in, media properties and long-running series) are at best in isolation and more frequently antagonistic.

23:

"...the hardcore worldbuilders lack writing skills in the first place... they'd make a mess of things even if they committed pen to paper?"

Do I dare, this early in the thread, mention the Big T? Good enough at putting pen to paper (we can overlook the occasional lapse into Vogon poetry) to achieve a thoroughly legendary appeal; even more legendary at worldbuilding such that while millions of people pick nits (which is inevitable anyway), nobody has torn holes. Certainly you can be good at both; and I would contend that since both are exercises in coherent imagination, having a good imagination for one means you have at least a good head start in the other.

24:

Do I dare, this early in the thread, mention the Big T?

Big T? Cryptic too much.

Really sorry about Hugh. Nice guy.

25:

This is a bit like "why I've stopped reading high fantasy"; because it started feeling like I could change one series into another given plain text of the first novel and a suitable vi script.

26:

“Okay, this wasn't a full-on toy store, just a corner of the floor in a small department store — but what it says about the way we're raising children these days is nothing good.”

Thanks to the commercialization of Christmas by Coca-Cola through Santa Clause in 1931, with gender specific toys based on traditional Christian values.

Disney not only owns the princesses, it also owns half the superheroes (Marvel and Star Wars). In fact Disney owns nearly half the media world, they own ABC Studios, and have recently acquired 21st Century Fox from Rupert Murdoch.

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/12/14/16764472/disney-fox-deal-merger

27:

I am sorry to hear of your loss. Best wishes to you & his friends and family.

28:

Disney not only owns the princesses... and have recently acquired 21st Century Fox from Rupert Murdoch.

Someone suggested this this made the Alien Queen a Disney Princess.

29:

You are certainly right that most authors fail in creating consistent and believable worlds that can survive closer introspection and that there is a close relationship between the environment and behavior/mental state/actions of characters. But the question is: how important it really is?

I think that most books have few, maybe ~3-5 key themes, things the author wanted to express and pass to the reader, usually some sort of philosophy, patterns of human behavior, experience, emotions and of course some ideas about what future technologies could be like etc (simply because one cannot do something perfectly in every single dimension, mostly because he is not even aware of all the dimensions + it would take ages to write a single book + this issue is fractal in its nature). And if the author really succeeded and managed to write a good book about these 3-5 (or maybe just 2, or even 1) things and avoided some real nonsense and mistakes that ruin the reading experience, then the result can be an enjoyable book. And my guess would be that you just count world-related stuff as important (maybe because of your Aspergers - less empathy, more focus on order of things etc.), but I am quite sure that other authors would feel the same about other aspects and they would find your books lacking in them (and consider it much more important then world-related stuff). For example I always had an issue with character development and my interest in your characters in your books - which could again relate to Aspergers and lower insight into human emotions and mental states).

Also most people probably cannot realize many of those issues, because of lack of education in science, economy, history + lack of imagination, which is why these books can have success. But honestly even if I see it clearly, its easier to say ignore something like 'what the hell is democracy doing in 23th century???', I literally told myself many times 'well, I guess he focused on other things and just re-used current state of this matter', but it is REALLY hard to ignore bad characters, boring story, dumb plot, lack of interesting ideas etc.

30:

Nick, it's interesting that you bounced of The Expanse novels, because I was going to mention The Expanse TV series as an example that got some sense of scale, even within our own solar system. It's true that people still have jobs, but that makes sense because it's not a post-scarcity future.

31:

The thing is, good world building has always been extremely rare. One of the classic examples, Hal Clement's "Mission of Gravity" has lots of ways in which it doesn't really work.

That said, Science Fiction, properly, is the exploration of how people might reasonably react in a given situation. The given situation is not required to be the one that the names applied fit. It's often a disguise so that unpalatable things can be said while pretending that it's unrelated to anything that's really happening.

OTOH, consistency is necessary for this to work...but it's not a surface level consistency, it the consistency of human reactions. it's nice, and it improves the work when it can be managed (rarely!) that the described situation fits known reality without disrupting the story. A good example of this is Jack Williamson's "Humanoids", and John W. Campbell's reaction. The "humanoids" were essentially perfect robots that were given a slightly imperfect motivation, so they were constrained to protect people whether or not the people wanted to be protected. Whoops! But Williamson couldn't come up with any good resolution. When Campbell demanded that he do so, Williamson wrote a sequel where he was forced to resort to magic. Neither story actually fit the known facts of science. (FTL drives, etc., without any plausible explanation.) Both were very good stories. (I'm not sure whether they were combined in the published book, but originally they were two separate serials.) The people acted in ways that were believable given the stated situation, even though the situation wasn't believable.

FWIW, human reactions in modern science fiction seem to me to average more believable than they did in the early 1950's. And in neither do I often find the stated situation believable. When I do it's in a story making an off-beat point, like ... I think it was called "Masters of the Metropolis" (I forget the author). This was a sort of an abridged retelling of "Ralph 124C41+" set in late 20th century New York (i.e. the present at the time of writing). (And I've probably got the title wrong, because Google can't find it.)

32:

Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: [...] "trophy wife",

That one is fairly easy actually. Plenty of status marriages before capitalism

"She has HUGE... tracks of land" and all.

33:

It's true that people still have jobs, but that makes sense because it's not a post-scarcity future.

Well, in the Expanse universe, at least in the beginning of the story, most people on Earth don't have jobs, and that's kind of a sore point for them. They seem to have constructed quite a dystopian basic income scheme, and many of them seem to be wanting to have a job, but most of them don't.

The other planets don't have that, but they seem to have much less people and much more work to do.

34:

I love/hate the first book, and thats the reason I have not been buying the rest ... yet. Not sure if I'm going to move into love/love or hate/hate them.

The worldbuilding is a times incredibly interesting and at times incredibly frustrating, and there are things that I may be wrong, but doesnt make sense at all. I may be dumb and not seeing something, but to this date I have no idea how that world can have Catholics unless you redefine the word to mean something else completly.

35:

It's not so bad - I think I have another Neal Book that I haven't read yet, and that might just be long enough to bridge the time until Ghost Engine comes out... and since the Merchant Princes series is technically also SciFi now, there's also Dark State on the list :) (although I'm really torn if I should start that now, or wait until next year - I finished the second one of the first trilogy at 3am, went "whaaaat???", woke up my girlfriend, and ended up buying the third one on Kindle immediately. Not a cliff hanger I took lightly, and I hear the 2nd in the new trilogy repeats this trick...)

More seriously, I read a lot of scifi when I was at high school, and pretty much stopped for many years. It was actually discovering the existence of OGH, and also Stephenson, that got me back into it, and I wish there were more of it. What I found interesting while reading some "further out there" scifi how some work and some don't - no problem with sentient potplants, gods and multi-dog beings in "Fire upon the deep", enjoyed it a lot, while I had some trouble with the Three body problem trilogy (particularly the physics of it), and Permutation City (Egan) that's supposed to be hard scifi. Sometimes it's just small things or omissions I guess, that you can either buy and get along with, or not (results may vary, I guess).

36:

Try Greg Egan's books. It's about as hard SF as you can get, which is really refreshing.

37:

I actually did, recently (permutation city), but it didn't work for me at all. I didn't get/buy how the virtual world keeps going after being shut down. What is it supposed to be running on? I was holding out to the end for some sort of hint or explanation which never came. Maybe it's for mathematicians who don't need real-world embodiment :)
Can you recommend another of his books? You are not the first one recommending it to me, so I'm willing to give it another shot. Can't be too choosy, the selection is getting quite slim when looking for meticulously researched, but still entertaining books...
Actually, a German author I enjoyed who does pretty well with accuracy is Frank Schaetzing (The Swarm). I think there are english translations. And also, Peter Watts (although some parts of his books are a bit disturbing...)

38:

This is a good rant. Thank you.

I feel like I want to spend a half a day writing a complex response on my own blog. But right now I am sitting with my phone waiting for breakfast. Not the place for that.

I’ve been spending the past year or two doing world building for a series that was originally an animated show pitch and is now a comics thing. There’s an inherent tension between “making exciting visuals” and “even vaguely sensible worldbuilding” that I’m definitely aware of; I grew up on Star Wars and damnit I want the occasional cool space battle with lasers and explosions!!!1!

And holy fuck trying to come up with not one but TWO postscarcity cultures sure is work. Why am I doing this to myself and my writing partner.

Anyway. This is mostly just to say, good rant, I’ll have to think about it a while.

39:

Where it leaves PKD is as someone writing about the 1960s, not about a hypothetical future. The quality of the art is indisputable, of course, but the content is pure 1960s. Putting rocket fins on a Cadillac didn't turn it into a spaceship, and nor did putting rockets in his stories make PKD's work any less about his present-day environment.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to write an allegory, you're there. Where HG Wells aims for the future (e.g. "The sleeper awakes") it's consciously as a warning about present-day conditions, in the same way as Orwell with "1984" or Huxley with "Brave new world".

But if you want to get all the way away from current rules, you need to figure out what the new rules are. Bester was brilliant at this; I haven't read enough Vonnegut to generalise there. For Burroughs though - which one? If you mean Edgar Rice, his world-building left skidmarks like an incontinent bull hippopotamus.

40:

C and I had a rather different experience of changing cultural assumptions the other day. We're watching original Star Trek, in the original sequence (she never saw all the episodes, as her parents didn't care for SF in any form), and we just saw "Miri." I can remember finding Kirk's interactions with threshold-of-puberty Miri charming, long ago; now C and I kept looking at each other and saying, "Wow, that sounds really inappropriate!" We've been sensitized to issues of sexual exploitation over the intervening decades in ways we weren't consciously aware of.

41:

I've read the first two volumes. But I'm afraid that in the first volume, when I came on the figures on how fast their vehicles travelled, and how much time the average human being spent travelling, and did the arithmetic, my suspension of disbelief just catastrophically failed. Palmer does an interesting job of evoking the culture of the French Enlightenment in a future milieu, but I want SF writers to work out the implications of their quantitative statements.

42:

Please pass on my deepest condolences to the family of your friend and guest blogger Hugh Hancock of Strange Company (machinima pioneer and guest blogger).

Grim times.

I found his contributions here fascinating.

43:

I'm sorry to hear about Hugh, condolences to all who knew him.

I recall William Gibson saying in an interview that he didn'T do much world building - meaning he did not have worked out idea how the sprawl works. Instead of a clock work like model of the world his characters inhabit, he described his style as adding lots of details - granularity was the word - until it feels coherent.

I think with all writing rules, the question is how many sins & inconsistencies you can make up for with great writing, and what the reader expects.

What do people make of Kim Stanly Robinsons worldbuilding? I dtrugglerd to understand the economy in 2312, allthough it is explained somewhat - I got the feeling KSR himself was fuzzy on that: It's described as mostly planned economies off earth, with capitalism a somewhat marginal, dangerous hobby for some. Ok, how exactly is that meant to work? With no separation of producer and means of producion, what is this capitalism? etc. Novel still mostly worked for me though!

Personally, I can often live with worldbuilding that's kinda unbelievabke - I have to because I find faults with most fictional societies - as long as it the right questions are asked, and answered in a consistent manner.

I'll later comb this thread for recommendations, I think ... been a while since I read SF and it is an itch right now. Though next thing I'll catch up on more Ursula K. LeGuin. (Whose relationship to worldbuilding would be worthy of investigating)

44:

Big T?

Please?

I have no idea what the reference is.

45:

I suspect they mean Professor Tolkien, the patron saint of worldbuilding.

46:

I assume Charlie's seen this: "Halting State" China style

Nothing at the moment to add to the current discussion.
Much sympathy to Hugh's family and friends. Been there, grateful for the Falcon Heavy distraction.

47:

Very sad to hear about the death of Hugh. His posts (and threads) here were provocative; did not agree much of the time but he was fun.

But about a decade ago I stopped reading SF short stories,...
This, I do not understand (relative to novels). Care to explain?
I finish 70-90% of SF (or any genre, really) short story collections more often than finishing novels. (Bailing on the remainder in a page or three.)
(In the last two decades,and excepting your novels and INB's novels.)

E.g. this list looks like a candy store to me: (Goodreads) Science Fiction Short Story Collections, or at least those I haven't already read and enjoyed.

48:


Sorry to hear about the death of Hugh. Damn.

49:

I signed in to say THANK YOU CHARLIE for the rant in favor of coherent worldbuilding. And then, dammit, the news of Hugh Hancock's passing.

We're losing, untimely, too many worthy people these days.

50:

I really like the type of sci-fi Charlie describes and I think it’s among some of the best fiction, however it’s not the only type I enjoy

I think there are also types they are more fantasy-in-sci-fi clothing and some are more society-builders then world builders

And then you have Greg Egan who builds physics systems the same way normal sci-fi writers build worlds

@sfx the reason the virtual world “kept going” is essentially the premise of the book. The concept is called “dust theory”

http://sciencefiction.com/2011/05/23/science-feature-dust-theory/

51:

For me, the biggest thing is that there's relatively little science fiction compared to fantasy these days when it used to be the reverse. That's probably a subject for another rant, though.

Both require world-building of some sort.

I'm not as sensitive as Charlie is to defective world-building, but I think a huge advantage of world-building for the author is (one hopes) pushing the author away from cliches.

I hated Toy Story-- the toys love the child, and the child can never know.

52:

The concept is called “dust theory”

Which suffers from the boundary problem, only more so. When you simulate a system you need to define where the system ends, and how it communicates with things outside the simulation. For simple things like coin flips that's easy, there's one input "flip now", and one output "coin state". But for a person we come back to previous discussions here about what you simulate, to what detail, and the question if interaction becomes acute.

In many ways it's "mommy has died and gone to heaven"... sure she has, but since I can't interact with her the statement would be better "mommy has died" because that way I wouldn't think the speaker is deluded or lying (or both).

And as with the Christian defense "I didn't kill her, she lives with God now", no court should ever be willing to accept "dust theory" as evidence of anything except insanity.

53:

The definition of science fiction is debatable but certainly it's a broad field. A few science fiction stories are about what it might be like to live in a world with extrapolated technological advances. I suspect there's as many stories like that now as there ever were, but they may be harder to find because of the vast numbers of space operas etc.

Is it possible to tell an interesting story in a setting with implausible elements? I think so, and sub-genres like steampunk glory in the assumption. Yes, they're lacking something that coherent world building gives us, but every story is lacking something that's common elsewhere.

The kind of world building you're talking about has a high price tag in effort to understand the setting. Lots of potential readers may not be able to understand it. There's a reason Egan was never very popular. If we insist on plausible extrapolation world building we reduce the genre's accessibility and that's unfortunate.

I think we should see world building as a positive that adds value, not as a requirement with which we need to comply.

Minor points:

* "... this is why my characters constantly feel uneasy and defensive, dominated by a low-level sense of alienation and angst." Damn, that's horrible. I don't feel that way. Go bury your head in a flower bed and sniff, or whatever makes you feel better.

* I'm surprised you'd think it was hard to imagine e.g. passports without capitalism. Plenty of command economies have existed and used passports, they're pretty much orthogonal concepts. Same applies to several of your examples. It might make more sense to ask what passports would be like in a world with greatly reduced xenophobia.

* I think one reason capitalism tends to be ubiquitous in stories is that it's a natural consequence of economic freedom. Some people will want to start a business, deferring consumption in order to derive greater profit down the line, and that's capitalism. There are ways to prevent it: the Soviet method of making it illegal; the Somali method of stealing whatever they make; the Google/Star Trek method of providing for free everything you would like to charge for; the Culture method of requiring anything scarce to be given sapience and self-determination; maybe others. But they're all active social features. Any story with these features in it is likely to be interpreted as a polemic for or against capitalism.

* So far there's not much evidence of a post-scarcity regime. Instead, at the bottom people are working almost as hard and getting paid no more because they're staring down the barrel of economic irrelevance, and at the top people are working just as hard and using the extra income by redefining luxuries as essentials and inventing new luxuries. To get to a real post-scarcity world we might have to get a *lot* richer.

* The Death Star attack was also inspired by The Dambusters: bigger, slower planes.

54:

Charlie,
Jeez, I'm sorry. My sympathies to you and all of Hugh's friends. I know I'll miss him and I always enjoyed when he posted here.

55:

Joe Crow @44: The problem is, Tolkien wasn't a brilliant world-builder. He pretty much pioneered the multi-volume fantasy epic with the map in the front showing where everything was and so on, but he didn't build a flawless world. There are a lot of gaps in the world-building for Middle Earth, and they show more and more as you dig further and further into it. Heck, the flaws in Tolkien's world-building (and the subsequent meticulous re-creation of these same flaws by subsequent fantasy epic authors) are what gave us "The Rough Guide to Fantasy-Land" in the first place.

Once you start digging into Middle Earth, you notice that firstly, it's heavily under-populated for the sort of social and cultural infrastructure levels being posited. Secondly, the economy doesn't really work - it's a bunch of small, centralised locations which are apparently largely self-sufficient, with occasional trade between one area and another (which apparently happens via magic, since we never encounter a roaming band of traders, and there's no mention of them at any time). Heck, the only merchant you encounter in the whole three books of "The Lord of the Rings" is Barliman Butterburr, the innkeeper in Bree. So where does he get his supplies from, and how does he pay for them? We don't know. How does his one little capitalist oasis survive in the middle of an economic landscape which is so wholly feudal as to barely require currency? Thirdly, the political structures only start to make sense when you start reading through the lore (or writer's notes) his son started publishing - prior to that, you're just expected to accept that for some reason, Aragorn can reveal himself as the long-lost One True Heir to the kingdom of Gondor, and everyone will just accept that and fall into line without a blink (and if they don't, it's proof they're Evil and can therefore be eradicated without a blink. I'll grant you, it's a proper mediaeval attitude, but it still doesn't make much sense). But even there, you have the problem of fairly solid areas of territory which are apparently "unclaimed" (or where a previous claim might have existed, but it's lapsed for whatever reason) - such as the stretch from Bree on downward toward Isengard - who was the feudal overlord for that area? And so on, and so on.

Tolkien's world-building was epic in scale. But it wasn't flawless. As you start zooming in closer, you start seeing more and more of the areas where it's held together by the power of authorial handwaving and "ignore the man behind the curtain" and such.

56:

I rather enjoyed the Star Carrier series. It was an intriguing world building using various races whom had drastically different mindsets and approaches, though the underlying emphasis of dispelling away magic as nothing more then advanced techno woo woo was a bit overly emphasised to the point of being overtly inserted.
Other then that it was a great series.
I really rather enjoy the Rifts Rpg series in terms of overall world building as it combines high technology with high magic high psychic etc etc offering an entire megaverse/multiverse of
Interaction exploration and so that "work" as a definition applies to how an individual or a society approaches it.
To the point where if magic where an individuals choice they would engage and find magic people and visa versa to the point where collaboration was in itself a highly intriguing new avenue.

Yada yada. I honestly wish it was as popular as DND was and considering how scarily accurate it is to reality as a whole would be most likely the reason why it never became mainstream. Conceptually it was well ahead of its time.

57:

Some of this is legit criticism but some isn’t

It’s prettu clear that middle earth is very much a world in decline, populations falling, vast swathes abandoned. Much of the social, cultural and even physical infrastructure is left over from previous eras of higher prosperity

The Shire (which Bree is pretty much part of ) is very much not feudal. It’s a clan based society that’s almost an anarchy

Aragorn cannot just reveal himself. If you read very carefully you will see Gandalf very carefully placing him on that throne, and showing a lot of political acumen in so doing

The trade and economy points are solid though it’s pretty unclear how the economy actually could function

58:

I am very sorry to hear it, Charlie.

59:

Interestingly, I was reading mostly fantasy for a long time because so much of the lauded science fiction just had horrible horrible characters.

My main gripe with world-building (and Charlie's certainly heard me kvetch often enough) is internal inconsistency. This is a bigger problem for series, because there is so much time spent in a world that it's hard to not trip over something stated or implied in an earlier book.

(The book I loved the most because of its world was Sunshine, by Robin McKinley.)

60:

Probably not news—on that pink/blue gendering nonsense:
When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?

61:

I think world building is overrated. Most people care more about story building. Science fiction isn't really about the future. It's about the present. I think Joseph Fink at The Bargain Bin nailed this. It's about our society's current hopes and stresses and anxieties and obsessions. It's also about telling good old fashioned adventure stories, romances, mysteries, tales of revelation and so on. I don't know if it is possible to write science fiction without mixing in some other genre, and I include literature and poetry as genres.

The problem is that stories require some kind of conflict or challenge that needs resolution. There have to be triumphs and setbacks, change and learning. If you build a world where everyone knows everything and never makes a mistake, you have cut yourself off from a lot of story structure and most likely any audience. That might serve for a few setup chapters, but then you have to get the story rolling.

One of the nice things about Star Wars was that there was no know-it-all pointing out that X-wing fighters have wings for stability in gravitational fields. Instead, X-wing fighters were just there, and they were Spitfires. The movie stuffed in dozens of great World War II air combat cliches including the final destruction of the Death Star which was cribbed verbatim from The Dam Busters.

It pays to look at stories that have worked for thousands of years and assume that they will work a few thousand years mmore. Are we really at the threshold of a post-political future? Will humans forgo status relations? Will we give up sex and love? Will all our human comedy, tragedy and foibles be genetically neutered? Even without capitalism, people are still going to be status conscious, require medical care, seek entertainment and attention, mature as human beings and be required to deal with some level of societal organization and confront its rules. They were before capitalism, and will be after capitalism.

Science fiction is about today. I think the current emphasis on world building is like the late 19th century focus on utopias. Our productive capacity and scientific knowledge have soared past our political and economic institutions. Authors are trying to imagine a world in which everyone has a decent place to live, a chance to be part of society, enough to eat, medical care when they need it and so on. We have made immense strides since the late 19th century, even if it doesn't seem like it lately. A new world definitely needs to be built, but please don't give me another Looking Backward.

World building can be fun, but it leads to problems. We can imagine that everyone has a decent place to live or gets to fly to other planets for a vacation, but that doesn't mean we have to be able to design the home of the future, the star ship engine, or the extra-solar resort. It's too easy for a writer to get stuck in the weeds if he or she is worried about the details of star ship maintenance or post-monetary bookkeeping. Some detail may be needed for the plot, and some additional detail can lend depth to the depiction, but at some point it becomes ponderous. (Tolkien, anyone?)

Mathematicians proved that you can't prove everything, at least not if you want things to be consistent. Pick your story's geometry and ride with it. Build the world you need to make the story work. If you actually can solve the world's problems or build a working star ship, great, but then don't waste your time writing silly stories. You have more important work to do.

62:

Tastes differ. Tolkien wrote my single favorite of all the novels I've read. My favorite science fiction novel is Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, set on a really exotic world with an elaborately worked out culture. I do want a good story and characters I feel involved with, but it's even better if they emerge from a world that's richly detailed and interestingly different.

I'll note that I don't consider this sort of worldbuilding to be a basis for solving the world's problems. Auguste Comte did that in some of his sociological writings nearly 200 years ago, but I don't think his solutions were especially desirable ones, and they certainly didn't give rise to fiction. What I want in a created world is that it confronts its people with interesting problems and conflicts to struggle with.

63:

Back to the original post: well said. I'd phrase it as the victory of tropes over process.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading tvtropes, because it lets me understand where people's heads are.

However, too many writers (I think for good reason) use tropes as the building blocks for their stories. This isn't a new process: the stories of the old Celtic Bards learning a few new themes each year is an analogous process. It's a good way to make stories, but not a good way to write even semi-original fiction based on ideas. In any genre.

The problem is that the world doesn't run on tropes, it's a horribly complex, writhing bundle of hagfish-like processes feeding on each other. Gender can be shallowly taken to be a family of tropes, or it can be seen as the result of historical processes around things like (as noted above) women's health care, contraception, and so on. Reinventing these processes to see how they influence gender concepts is hard. Playing with tropes so that your story passes the Bechdel Test and hopefully finds a bigger audience is cheaper.

Anyway, too many writers manipulate standard tropes to create stories. They're derivative, but if they let the writer make a living, is that a bad thing? (well, yes, but I'm like Charlie. I rarely read stories any more). Doing the process work of working from ideas to construct a society is hard, and it's disparaged by too many people who couldn't do it if they tried. Worse, writing fiction based on ideas leads to odd stories that might be difficult to pigeonhole and therefore sell. Worst of all, it takes more and broader knowledge than a MFA in trope manipulation and workshop survivalism would give the average fledgling novelist. Is it any wonder so few of them want to try? After all, if they got scared out of the sciences by basic biology, why shouldn't we expect their SF planets to be molded from dust from the back shelves of ILM storerooms?

64:

Putting rocket fins on a Cadillac didn't turn it into a spaceship, and nor did putting rockets in his stories make PKD's work any less about his present-day environment.

Alas, I am finding this about a lot of SF I loved in my younger days. From Asimov to Zelazney, the character all seem a bit - well - "mid-20th-century". Whether it's small things like attitudes to smoking or guns, or big things like gender-roles, their works have gone from being "a bit old-fashioned" to "historic period piece". And maybe 2117 is as likely to be like 1967 as like 2017 in those things - but I still find they take me out of the story and hard not to notice that this SF for my grand-dad's generation.

65:

Regards SF and world-building:

This is where I'm enjoying modern SF more than I was ten years ago.

I'm find the world-building seen via characters in books like "A Closed and Common Orbit", "NineFox Gambit" and "Ancillary Justice" extremely good.

Those are 3 very different examples of ways to approach world-building, without forsaking characters or plot. All very successful, I think.

66:

My condolences on Hugh's passing, he always seemed to me to be hard at work living in the future; bittersweet thoughts on Starman starting his long trip.

Regarding world-building, I feel a strong disconnect from most SF given the current state of events. Perhaps the two that more strongly feel like they belong on today's world are Gibson's The Peripheral, and Stephenson's Anathem (internet being infested by state-level trolls...)

67:

Wow. On one hand I think you're absolutely right, at least in spirit, if not in details. (One could easily substitute "religion", "marriage", "family", etc. for
"advertising", "trophy wife", and "health insurance" without violating the spirit of what you wrote.) Worldbuilding is the element which cannot be avoided in science fiction and fantasy, and if the author doesn't get it right the rest of the story; plot, characterization, atmosphere, etc., all fall apart. Without world building, it's just not science-fiction.

On the other hand my parenthesis above discussing "religion", "marriage", "family" are exactly the changes being rung for the worldbuilding of Grayson in David Weber's Honor of the Queen, which you may not regard as something to read for pleasure... except that there's something else that needs to be discussed here, which is "How do I write fiction that doesn't suck?" and the formula I'd chose is "at least one quality of the story needs to be excellent, and the rest needs to be at least average; good enough to allow the reader to suspend disbelief."

David Weber writes (wrote?) brilliant fight scenes. That the part he does excellently. On the other hand, Weber's world-building isn't really that great. Grayson is passable as science fiction world-building - there's certainly nothing about it which makes me want to throw the book across the room - but compared to Ringworld or Middle Earth... Grayson is a minor league effort which exists mainly to support three amazing fights.

The point here is that both Honor of the Queen and Accelerando reward multiple readings. But Accelerando is science fiction, while Honor of the Queen seems more science-fictional... it doesn't trigger that "gosh-wow-future!" response for me. (On the other hand, how often do we see a big freighter on Star Trek? In Gene Roddenberry's future, nobody ships anything from one place to another. How does that work? Weber fills space with freighters, which is actually a lot more believable, at least until the replicator systems are up and running in Next Generation. There's also a place for expertise, and it's obvious that no Star Trek writer ever wondered, "How did my oven get here from China?" Weber at least thinks about shipping and economics.)

Meanwhile, neither Bujold's world building nor her fight scenes are very exciting, but her characterization and prose are superb, so good, in fact, that you don't notice that her world building is kind of weak until you really think about it - and she does sometimes give me that "gosh-wow-future" feeling.

On the gripping hand, I'm not sure that world building is the real problem here. There are a lot of new authors (and older authors, for that matter) being published who have some quality - world building, plot, characterization, not making basic writing errors... whatever it might be, that are far enough below average that I get thrown out of the story. Maybe it's simply a more mature perspective on fiction, but it seems like editors are much more tolerant of mistakes than they used to be. Or maybe the book production process makes it harder to get rid of mistakes than it once did. (I'm going to commit fan-fiction-as-criticism on this issue soon.)

68:

You have a point about capitalism, but none of your examples have anything to do with capitalism

"advertising", "trophy wife", "health insurance", "jaywalking", "passport", "police", "teen-ager", "television".

Advertising: Have you been to Pompeii or any well-preserved Roman ruin? Most of the decorations on places of businesses were actually advertising. Unless you're willing to claim that the Roman Empire was capitalist, this is ahistorical.
https://www.purplemotes.net/2009/09/20/mass-media-in-ancient-rome/

I wouldn't be surprised if Ancient Egypt, Greece, or Assyria didn't have some forms of advertisement which hasn't survived?

Trophy wife: I'm assuming you mean a lower class woman attracted to an upper class man for his money and him for her looks? I believe mistresses and concubines have been a feature of human civilization since before Mesopotamia

Passport: Ignoring the fact that several ancient civilizations had a similar document that functions as a passport, a passport is a sign of industrialization and a powerful centralized state. In the US, a passport was introduced to keep the "undesirables" out (back then, that meant Chinese, Catholics, and Eastern Europeans). Do you think a feudal US that had industrialized would not issue a similar document once the state could reasonably control its borders?

Television: See how the Roman gladiatorial games were paid for if you want a non-capitalistic example.

Police: A sign of the centralization of power within the state; it has little to do with capitalism.

Teenager: That's also a product of industrialization. Namely, the need for increased education after hitting puberty. I think that an industrialized civilization would have a similar concept?

Jaywalking: If Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Rome, or feudal Europe somehow industrialized AND urbanized enough to develop a car, they would have laws giving drivers advantage over pedestrians. That is because the higher social strata would own cars.

Health insurance: Did feudal societies not have insurance? Can a society even industrialize without some form of insurance?

69:

I should probably add one more thing. Charlie, obviously you react to world building errors. I tend to react to issues of plot and plot-logic. But I suspect that the weaknesses we're both detecting are something which is symptomatic of the writing/publishing process, because most of what I react to is of the "Why didn't the editor notice that issue" class of problems.

70:

Sorry to hear about Hugh. Please accept my condolences.

71:

The point that I'm trying to make above Charlie is that many of the ills blamed on capitalism can be divided into two parts

1. Things which have held constant across several economic systems (unless you're willing to argue that Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Feudal Europe basically held the same economic systems)? If economic systems keep changing while these characteristics remain mostly constant, is it not a reasonable conclusion that they are tied to human nature and not economic system? In other words, it is safe to assume that these won't change much regardless of the world they're in

2. Things which are a product of industrialization. Here I'm at a disadvantage. We only have one example of industrialization to go by. However, it is questionable whether an industrial revolution would have happened without the following characteristics: a method to spread risk for high capital projects and a high population growth due to demographic transitions (the root of the modern police and passport)? Likewise, I don't know if a society could advance beyond an industrial revolution if it didn't extend education beyond puberty?

72:

Middle Earth is depopulated because it has existed in a state of ugly military crisis for centuries. (Why isn't this obvious?)

73:

Okay, because I am a huge fan of Tolkien lore, I have to get into this in a deeply nerdy way.

You are correct that he didn't build a flawless world. However, the flaws you point out are either not actually existent, or they are much smaller than you're making them out to be.

Once you start digging into Middle Earth, you notice that firstly, it's heavily under-populated for the sort of social and cultural infrastructure levels being posited.

This is because Middle-Earth at the time we're seeing it is coming off of 1500 years or so of multiple gigantic calamities. We're talking massive climate disasters, a Black Death equivalent, many wars conducted with genocidal intent and thoroughness, the invasion of foreign peoples looking to either conquer the Numenorean successor states or get revenge for Numenorean colonialism, and a couple attacks from bioengineered WMDs (Smaug) and literal, actual-factual murder gods (the Balrog.)

This world would be underpopulated as well if subjected to all that.

Secondly, the economy doesn't really work - it's a bunch of small, centralised locations which are apparently largely self-sufficient, with occasional trade between one area and another (which apparently happens via magic, since we never encounter a roaming band of traders, and there's no mention of them at any time).

This isn't quite true.

The Shire and Bree-land are located very near to the dwarf-holds of the Blue Mountains, which provide a convenient source of materiel and industry they might not have themselves. The Shire itself is very large and immensely productive; it cannot practice autarky but it can do pretty well for itself. We meet dwarf-merchants traveling through the Shire in Fellowship of the Ring, although they're not onscreen too long.

In the east, the Wood-Elves, the Wood-Men, and the Men of Dale and Esgaroth, combined with the Dwarves of the Iron Hills and Erebor and their access by river to Rhun, form another entirely plausible economic trading community.

And in the south you have the actual recognizable nation-states of Gondor and Rohan, both of which are enormous and productive and presumably have perfectly functional feudal economies even after the devastation that's been inflicted upon them.

You are right that the economies don't quite make sense. But they don't make sense in other ways than the ones you've explicated.

Thirdly, the political structures only start to make sense when you start reading through the lore (or writer's notes) his son started publishing

That's not true. The Silmarillion actually explains fuck-all about the modern political structures of Middle-Earth. The Tale of Years in the back of Return of the King is where all that juicy lore is.

- prior to that, you're just expected to accept that for some reason, Aragorn can reveal himself as the long-lost One True Heir to the kingdom of Gondor,

Aragorn's ability to do this is explained with crystal clarity in the text; he is a legitimate descendant of the founder of the kingdom. All other lines of descent from Isildur have failed, are untraceable, or cannot build a political consensus sufficient to get the Gondorian political establishment to recognize them. This gives him a solid claim to the throne of Gondor; it has to be accepted by the person who holds that throne in stewardship and other important Gondorian lords, but its a solid claim.

and everyone will just accept that and fall into line without a blink (and if they don't, it's proof they're Evil and can therefore be eradicated without a blink. I'll grant you, it's a proper mediaeval attitude, but it still doesn't make much sense).

... huh? When do Aragorn or his allies propose murdering anyone who doesn't accept his claim, using the fact that they don't accept his claim as proof that they're evil?

I mean, it never comes up, because the prevailing authorities in Gondor accept his claim pretty readily. But they do that because Aragorn literally showed up with an army and saved the kingdom. That's a good reason to recognize a claim! If Aragorn had tried to press a claim without doing that (and he served, incognito, as a Gondorian soldier for decades; he and Denethor knew each other intimately, in fact, and worked closely) it would have been rejected. That happened to one of Aragorn's ancestors.

But even there, you have the problem of fairly solid areas of territory which are apparently "unclaimed" (or where a previous claim might have existed, but it's lapsed for whatever reason) - such as the stretch from Bree on downward toward Isengard - who was the feudal overlord for that area?

The Greenway was built and maintained by the Kingdom of Arnor. That kingdom was obliterated in a genocidal war of extermination nearly a millennium ago, and it was kept obliterated by repeated climatological catastrophe and repeated orc menaces. The last remnant of it was the city-state of Tharbad, which itself was obliterated in a flood about fifty years before the events of The Hobbit.

If you really want to talk about ways Middle-Earth doesn't make sense?

Dwarven reproduction is janked. Women only make up one-third of the population at any given time, which means they're only one-third of all births. And it is explicitly stated that not all dwarf-women marry, and that dwarven relationships are expected to be monogamous.

Try and make that work in your head. Your brain will break.

The climate doesn't make a ton of sense. The Misty Mountains should have an enormous rain shadow; instead the leeward side of them is some of the wettest country in the world and home to Middle-Earths longest, deepest, widest river and enormous swathes of primeval forest. The windward side of them is much harsher scrubland.

There shouldn't be a Common Speech. There should not be. What the fuck, Tolkien?

74:

From any rational standpoint, the world building in Ninefox Gambit is completely unbelievable. It's also utterly amazing and wonderful! It's like a bizarre blend of magic and science, combined with the stylings of nightmare. I love it.

Even though, from any rational POV on what world building should be be, it sucks... (And I am so glad I don't live in that world!)

75:

Something like under a dozen people together have as much wealth as the poorest ½ of the entire Earth. I am too tired of looking up the current exact number but Oxfam would have the latest number. In the United States luxuries include housing, health care, and food. The reason unemployment, President Trump, and even crappy toys, and maybe partly for bad world building is the extreme concentration of wealth sucking up all the available resources and of financialized Free Market Capitalism being turned into a religion that contradicts any major religion, philosophy, or ethical system that I know of. Unless you count some form of Social Darwinism.

So just like the Democrats’ screaming about Russia is used to obfuscate their and system’s failings, the current massive corruption/concentration makes it harder to understand what our world could or should be like. Even the current automation craze seems more of a fad and effort to accumulate wealth by getting rid of paid workers with poorly performing, or at least more vulnerable, but unpaid machines. Poor quality that does just well enough.

Hopefully I made some sense. :-)

76:

Star Wars might not have wage labor as we know it, at least in the films. Do we ever see anyone who could be described as an employee who wasn't a soldier or bureaucrat (or one of Jabba's thugs)? Most non-government folks seem to be self-employed (Luke's uncle is a farmer who owns droids, the cafe owner in Attack of the Clones, Watto's junk shop, etc). Maybe it's implying that most such labor is done by droids.

But in general, Star Wars is like Dune, where the creator and later Lucasbooks contrived a bunch of in-universe reasons for why everything is the way it is. The dogfighting is all close up because the ships are capable of traveling at a significant fraction of light speed even while going faster than light, and shooting from a distance means you'd never. The Death Star's huge tunnels make more sense - imagine how much easier they make moving big machinery around for repairs and parts replacement.

@72 Murchushio

Dwarven reproduction works for me. It's explicitly said that they breed slowly as a result of it, but it's compensated for in part because they also live longer than Men (implied 200-300 years). All the wars and dislocations have seriously reduced their numbers by the Third Age.

I agree on the climate problems. The Blue Mountains should be casting a rain shadow as well over Eriador, meaning most of Eriador should be drier than it is now (unless they're getting a lot of winter storms off of the Bay of Forochel), and the area east of the Misty Mountains should be steppe or desert (Rhun is implied to be steppe). Maybe Tolkien was going off of Eurasia as a model, which has steppe turning to temperate forest turning to taiga the further you go north.

@Charlie Stross

No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future?

Given how often SF and Space Fantasy loves its Space Aristocrats, you'd think they'd be more inclined to look at the behavior of aristocrats as a model for luxury robot socialism societies where nobody has to work. That's how I've always assumed we'd behave in such a situation, assuming we're still Human As We Them (meaning no extensive augmentation or transhumanism). We'd spend our days enjoying luxury and entertainment, getting in petty squabbles, and competing in all kinds of games and status stuff in a hierarchy.

77:

Actually I'm willing to give Independence Day some slack when it comes to the battles. The thing is, we don't actually know how air battles between equivalent air forces would occur in the modern era? The US hasn't had any since the Vietnam War (I would discount the Gulf War since I think the Iraqi military performed far more poorly than their equipment would have allowed them to). To me, saying that close-in air fights have become obsolete is similar to how military theorists were saying that tanks and automatic weapons had made trench warfare obsolete. Needless to say, the Iran-Iraq War proved them wrong.

The battles in Independence Day were battles where long-distance weapons couldn't be used. I could argue during the first battle that the aliens were so arrogant and assured of victory that they purposefully avoided using long range weapons for fun. The human side did use long-range weapons, but they were quickly depleted or proved useless. Afterwards, the aliens maintained close combat for their own reasons. Under those conditions, the supersonic capabilities of the F/A-18 were irrelevant. Human planes were dropping like flies.

In the second battle, the aliens utterly ignored the humans until the humans demonstrated that they could "penetrate" the shields. Only then did the aliens respond. At that point, both sides had to remain close to the city ship, for various reasons. That meant that both sides "had to fight like Sopwith Camels". The humans remained close to the city destroyers to

1. Search for weak spots in the structure they could exploit
2. Restrain the aliens from fully using their firepower out of fear of hitting their own ship
3. and because President Whitmore had a criminally-negligent aversion to using nuclear weapons.

By the time the aliens realized that humans could "penetrate" their shields, it
was too late for them to fully use long range weapons. At that point,

1. To use long range weapons, the aliens would have had to surrender the immediate airspace around their ships to human fighters
2. Their pilots were probably better trained for close-quarter combat
3. The hive-mind nature of the aliens probably gave them the advantage in close quarter combat?

In a lot of ways, the battle of Endor was similar to the second battle.

78:

I found N.K Jemisin's Stone Sky trilogy one of the best SF/fantasy book series ever written, in terms of worldbuilding, writing and story itself. I can't recommend them enough.
I think writing this kind of books was never easy, but it's not harder now. I was a bit jaded before I read this just last month, but it gave me new hope.

79:

Toys, children etc.
I always wondered about "small people" in the Culture novels, because the "Normal" social structures of even one section of the Culture's many societies was ever looked at, even in momentary passing.
One presumes that the "humans are breeding & living - it's even very broefly described a couple of times - but it seems horribly EMPTY, you know?
P.S. Just saw the piece about H H - oh dear - sudden heart attack or similar? He wasn't that old, IIRC

80:

U K le G did exactly that to a "deryni" story, changing, I think 6 or 8 words & turning it into a contemporary US-political novel.
It's in her series of essays: "The Language of the Night"
A superb piece of skewering!

81:

Ah, a backwards version of: L'enfant et les sortilèges

82:

Actually the Death Star attack was inspired by the run-up-the-fjord in 633 Squadron - the latter has even been re-spooled with the Star Wars script & it fits almost perfectly.
TRY THIS (!)

83:

And ... the really screaming mis-fit is that as to which segment of Middle-Earth at the opening of LoTR has the highest technology?
NOT Gondor - which certainly had 1950's-60's technology at the fall of Numenor & is supposed to have retained some of that ... but:
The Shire, which is operating at a compfortable late 18th C level of reformed English Agriculture, with all the semi-industrial technology underlying that ...
Um, err .....

84:

Putting rocket fins on a Cadillac didn't turn it into a spaceship
But apparently putting rockets on a roadster did... Not a very practical one though. (Sorry, got distracted by that whole
"billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars" thing...)

@unholyguy:
Re. Permutation City/Dust Theory:
the reason the virtual world “kept going” is essentially the premise of the book. The concept is called “dust theory”

Yeah, I got that it's the central premise, and that's where he lost me completely.
(caution, spoilers follow)
I followed throughout all the experiments and that makes sense, but the jump to "why do we need computers at all?" was in my reading of it not explained or justified at all. I was waiting for at least a paragraph that would have gone into some faux quantum physics, or that the universe is also a simulation already and what happened was essentially a breach of the security layer like what happened later in the virtual world, etc. but it didn't come (or I missed it). To me it was just a "and then magic happens", but without pointing to a nearby known compliant witch, or otherwise postulating that magic is a branch of computer science now.

I think it could have been explained in some ways, like that all matter performs computation already, but there still would have to be some more detail for the core premise of the book, and if we stay in a physical universe (not a simulation), things like speed of light and uneven distribution of matter are a thing (see the end of Accelerando - bandwidth and light cones matter). Or just make it the big reveal that we were living in a simulation all along, and it's simulations all the way down (or up).

Anyway, maybe it was just this one Egan book that wasn't for me, so if anyone wants to give a recommendation I'm willing to give him another shot (and I won't be upset at you if I also don't like that one, tastes differ after all).

85:

I now have to reconsider my position on "my favourite Disney Princess": Is it still Merida, or is it now the Alien Queen? ;-)

86:

Contrarywise- The Prancing Pony appears as the location of an important scene in the story. BB is a supporting character in that scene.

"Bree Stores" doesn't appear because we don't need to read a 15 page discussion of how much bacon, flour, oats... they bought there.

87:

Well, IMO David Weber is best known for "military SF". For that to be "internally consistent" I'll normally ask that the speculative physics of FTL and weaponry in that universe are internally self-consistent, that "military discipline" is consistent, and that I find the PoV character(s) engaging. Things like the "economics of interstellar warfare" not so much.

88:

As long as we define merchantilism and feudalism as subsets of capitalism, I'd say that the Roman Empire was capitalist.

89:

An additional thought regarding world building in general: I think to build up the "grit" that makes the world look real requires that the author has a very good understanding of how this fictional world works on all levels, but it doesn't have to make it into the book if it gets in the way of story. And this requires understanding the real world first, which is why I get a lot of my news analysis from twitter feeds of scifi writers, and why WorldCon is really interesting to go to.

I was reminded of Adam Savage (ex Mythbuster, but used to work at Industrial Light and Magic as a model builder) talks about "weathering" in his videos on Tested. Weathering is essentially scratching, sanding, chipping a prop, and then just slathering on layers and layers of dark paints, dust, dirt, coffee grounds, etc. and wiping it off again repeatedly to build up the grime and dirt in the cracks that you'd expect from anything that isn't brand new. However, he stated many times that there's a lot more to it - for all the chips and scratches and pieces of grime, he imagines a story how that got there - we never find out, but that's what sells it in the end. It might be a simple "story" like "dirt tends to accumulate in small cracks and corners where it can't be cleaned away easily" or "each dent in this piece of armour is from the battles this character had, and here is where a sword hit it" to "there's massive scorching on this spaceship around the left engine due to the plot line in the beginning of the movie". It needs to be consistent with expectations, and viewers notice subconsciously when things don't make sense. In one of his videos he toured the set of the last Alien movie, and pulled out some scrolls of paper from a shelf in the background to show that they all had different drawings on them (they are never shown in the movie, but the detail is there, and maybe some camera angles will show fragments of it).

So in books, I think it doesn't need "info dumps" every second page (maybe they are sometimes needed for major plot points that rely on full understanding, but it's probably always better if it can be smoothly woven into the story). But it's things like what people pointed out above - why do we never encounter any traders? How do people eat, travel, communicate, use technology?
If done well in plausible and consistent ways, this is what I really enjoy while reading scifi, particularly if the insights are non-obvious first, but actually totally obvious and mind-blowing once you read it, in the "ah yeah, did not expect this but I could totally see that" sense. I sometimes call it "idea density" for lack of a better word. But it needs to work, and needs to be done well, not just a heap of ideas thrown around with hand-wavy "wow this is so mind-blowing" (my thoughts on some of the particle physics in three body problem - didn't work for me). This is what draws me to Charlie's, Neal's and Vernor Vinge's books. For example, as a small detail, I liked the idea that if wormhole technology is about as common as smart phones now, people would totally use it as wardrobes without even thinking about it. Or the dystopian way buses work in future Scotland - I hope tech companies don't use this as inspiration (but they probably will...)

90:

Where does the extended LotR mention a prevailing wind from West to East, as your wind shadow argument requires?

91:

Oh yes; that's been well documented from back in 1978/9, including accounts by George Lucas himself.

92:

As long as we define merchantilism and feudalism as subsets of capitalism, I'd say that the Roman Empire was capitalist.

That an impressively high density of wrongness packed into a single sentence.

(I don't know if you're trolling us, but if so: well done!)

93:

Please accept my condolences on the death of your friend, Hugh Hancock.
I would agree that bumping up against world building has knocked me out of many sci-fi in the last number of years. A reason that I turned to fantasy but that runs in to the problem of the same old sameo.

I am aware of the flaws of Tolkien but usually can ignore it. The story sweeps you along.

Like some others I do not agree that the concepts thrown out need the concept of capitalism to have meaning.
That said I think I have a greater tolerance for world building flaws than OGH.

So "advertising" - I suspect that there will always be services or something that some can offer that has value and the purveyor will need to advertise the fact. On the other hand the aggressive marketing of tat you do not really need may not exist in all possible future societies.

Trophy Wife - pretty much always there. Though status may not be defined in material wealth in the future. I am pretty much sure there will be a hierarchy of some kind and the "wife" may not always be a woman.

"health insurance" I will grant is pretty capitalistic but I could imagine a society that had pretty generous universal healthcare but a strong Nannying bent refusing to treat disorders deemed to come from risky behaviour. Like smoking, drinking, sub-orbital sky diving.

"Jaywalking" has nothing to do with capitalism and everything to do with motorcars and is not universal. In Ireland a pedestrian has every right to cross the road and the motorist is expected not to hit them. Ok, I just checked that and in Ireland, it is against the law to cross the road within 50 feet of a designated crossing. However, as a motorist I suspect that if I hit someone in that area crossing the road I would still be partly liable.

"Passports" in some form will likely be required by any polity that wants to control whoever crosses their borders and even in the case of polities that don't care the use of diplomatic passports may continue to indicate that the bearers are legitimate representatives of the polity in question.

"Television" ???? do streaming services count? YouTube? I know some young people that watch no actual TV broadcasts but watch some of the content on streaming services and a lot of content on YouTube and similar services. As much and more that the amount of TV I consumed at their age.


94:

I like world building, I like plot, character development, and all the rest of the stuff that goes to make up good old fashioned storytelling. If either is done well enough it’ll probably draw me in sufficiently that I’ll happily accept/overlook/forgive quite large issues in the other one.

What I don’t like (and can seldom read past) is internal inconsistency. I’ll buy into all sorts of bonkers physics, biology, geology, geography, magic, economics, etc, etc as long as a writer can hang a good story and likeable (or at least interesting characters) onto it, but it had damn well better hang together internally...

95:

"Did feudal societies not have insurance?"

The term "feudal" is so broadly used that it probably doesn't admit of a siingle answer. But if the intent is "medieval," then at least in the post-1000 medieval ages, guilds provided that function, among others, for a minority of comparatively well off town dwellers. You joined a guild, and paid dues, and one thing they did was to help you out if you got sick, or help your widow and orphans out if you died, at least with funeral expenses. That was still around at the end of the 19th century; one of Kipling's earlier poems has the line "till the 'sociation has footed my buryin' bill."

In villages, I think the "insurance" function was mainly performed by siblings and in-laws. A pool of half a dozen femilies had less statistical variance in its fortunes than a single family. This was supplemented by godparents, who tended to be of slightly higher standing.

Of course, hardly any of it was handled through commercial contracts. But such societies didn't run on commercial contracts anyway. There isn't technically "insurance" in a socialist setup either; having the state guarantee you a pension in old age, or health care, or the like doesn't work by actuarial logic or rates of return on investments or anything of the sort. But there are other ways of reducing variance in people's outcomes.

96:

Just as a footnote, when I ran my alternate Middle-Earth campaign, about the resistance movement in a world where Sauron won, I thought of Tolkien's line about the "great slave-worked fields" in southern Mordor (all that soil enriched by volcanic ash!), and figured that the Shire would be the Ukraine of the northern lands, with rich soil and a dense population of skilled workers to cultivate it. Really there was no place else that couild support large armies, and he could hardly have shipped food north.

I've read Bujold's Sharing Knife two or three times, and I'm repeatedly struck by the idea that her Lakewalkers are an anthropologically and economically more realistic look at the Dunedain as a people, living outside the communities of "farmers" who might as well be hobbits. There's some serious thinking going on behind the romance novel surface of the narrative. Though to be sure Tolkien would have blanched at some of the Lakewalker customs.

97:

The thing is, we don't actually know how air battles between equivalent air forces would occur in the modern era?

The air forces do, pretty much - see Exercises RED FLAG and what used to be COPE THUNDER.

Here's an example from a professional participant... (he spends most of his time on the Army Rumour Service explaining air realities to a largely-ignorant ground audience)

98:

never mind universalizing contemporary norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies

Personally, I find that a focus on subverting norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies is the surest sign that a fictional work is thoroughly suffused with contemporary Western culture.

Part of it is that I read a lot of Korean and Japanese stuff. Their fiction, and their societies, are generally a lot less concerned with such things. Sometimes horribly so, to be honest (some Japanese fantasy works have a disturbing fascination with slavery).

Why is gender?

Because single humans want to signal their quality to potential mates, and mated humans have common conflicts of interest which their cultures give them templates for resolving.

what is this thing called a job

A culture is people who cooperate. Your role in it is your job. You might be an employee, but you could be a vassal, a slave, an elected official, or something else.

99:

It is true that David Weber is mostly concerned at the start of the series with concocting a reason to have Napoleonic naval battles in space (and then later carrier battles).

However, he did carefully construct his setup of the initial antagonists, Haven, to support his opinion that the dole is Evil and leads to the ruin of any society that pays it. It helps to be god when you want to make points like that.

What I find amusing is his portrayal of the Manticorean monarchy is a good argument as to why monarchs with actual political power are a very bad idea. I suspect this was not the intent.

I also am amused by the way that Manticorean R&D projects seem to work right first time as a rule, and the opposition's stuff works, sometimes. Also, he is the only write I know of to have managed to write missile barrage statistics porn.

100:

I find this highly amusing - but I know some people won't .....

101:

I'm sorry about Hugh.

102:

Manty R&D works first time every time (or at least only gets written about when it works). IRL I have a job that means I know that at least some stuff does actually work first time when trialed.

OTOH DW is not the only writer to have done "Death by PowerPoint" scenes.

103:

Yes. What a lot of people miss is that most science fiction has always been like that - even in the 1920s, most educated people knew enough physics to pick vast holes in even the hardest of SF - and let's not get on to pre-1900 SF! It's reasonable, provided that either (a) the discrepancy is coherent and the basis for the story or (b) the discrepancies are sufficiently peripheral to be glossed over.

My objection is that far too many authors just mix up multiple existing tropes, including implausibly speculative physics, often taking them to extremes. And, as some people have said, being completely insane about things like economics, pollution and the consequences of accidents. And, as you implied and has been said many times before, you do NOT get good SF by taking real-world based stories and putting them into space.

I find modern fantasy is generally better constructed.

104:

Oops. I see that Heteromeles said my second paragraph earlier - I missed that.

105:

missile barrage statistics porn.

A close acquaintance of David Weber described it as "spreadsheet carnography" -- David at one time used Excel to calculate a lot of stuff about missile barrages and their statistical effects on the various fleets involved.

106:

Ahem: capitalism — in its modern sense — is a creature of the Enlightenment, and coevolved with the industrial revolution (as did Marxist economic analysis and socialism).

You're missing the point where, earlier, you pointed to earlier cultural precursors of stuff like advertising and television: these industries in their modern form can barely exist without capitalism. Writing a shop's name on the storefront in a Roman town is not Saatchi & Saatchi. A state-run broadcaster's single channel news and education programming is not Netflix or the intermission advertising at the Superbowl.Modern police are a classic example of guard labour deployed in the protection of property (see also: capital accumulation); passports are a component of the gatekeeper mechanism that prevents free migration of labour to higher-wage territories, in turn an essential precondition for economic imperialism (in the Marxian analysis — capital can migrate to where production costs less, and export goods for sale to locales where prices are highest, deriving profit from arbitrage). And so on.

Yes, passports and advertising and mass entertainment pre-existed capitalism. Just as rockets pre-existed the space program. This is irrelevant to the point I'm making, which is that these things would not exist in their current form without capitalism.

107:

David Weber is best known for "military SF".

Or, less charitably, Napoleonic Navies in Spaaaaaace.

(See "Singularity Sky" for my take on that subgenre: it's all fun and games until Admiral Hornblower runs into a cold-war hunter-killer SSN ...)

108:

Well, sort-of. Yes, THOSE aspects of modern capitalism are new, but lots of other aspects of it are ancient. Banks, insurance, loan sharks, commercial lawyers, gilts, formal exchange rates, taxes on value, etc. etc.

109:

(See "Singularity Sky" for my take on that subgenre: it's all fun and games until Admiral Hornblower runs into a cold-war hunter-killer SSN ...)
oooh, loved that bit - although once looked at this way, ruined most space battles for me after reading this (but was never really into trope-y space operas anyway). The Expanse TV series at least did a somewhat better job than most I thought (haven't read the books) - encounters generally last seconds, and they put on space suits and have vacuum inside the ship, as it's going to get perforated anyway - no point losing precious oxygen over it.

110:

Alas, I am finding this about a lot of SF I loved in my younger days. From Asimov to Zelazney, the character all seem a bit - well - "mid-20th-century".

At least they mostly tried though. Of course their cultural values were marooned in their origins (gratuitous sexism, and good luck finding anyone non-het), but their adjacent-possible didn't go that far towards equality. There are also lovely details in there which bake in obsolete technologies - everything uses valves, for instance.

There are oddities though. Why do Asimov's characters type, or print out text on paper tape, when they've got ubiquitous robots capable of remembering everything? This is something the otherwise-iffy "Caliban" trilogy (Roger Macbride Allen guest-writing in the Robots-verse) got right, which is to present people in a society of ubiquitous robots actually using robots ubiquitously without thinking about their presence, and how that affects the people and the robots.

But then Asimov's robots were generally not about robots. They were about racism, or sexism, or what defining characteristics make a human being, which were (and are) issues relevant to the present day. Robots were simply the context for the thought experiments. It didn't matter that the details fell apart on closer inspection, because we were expected to be left thinking about the philosophical questions, not wondering "why are they still using screwdrivers?"

111:

I agree your point, with the note that they've gone from ~Trafalgar to ~Midway in 30 years or so (book time).

112:

"...military theorists were saying that tanks and automatic weapons had made trench warfare obsolete.

**Grumps** That was disproved in World War I.

113:

Yeah, pretty much agreed. On the other hand, the tech works consistently from book-to-book and there's very little "teching the tech."

The big problem here is that he became too big a name to be edited. One of the reasons Honor of the Queen works so well is because the book is very tightly written (and probably very tightly edited as well.) Later Weber books don't have that laser-sharp focus and careful removal of extraneous elements. (Or careful never-putting-in of extraneous elements.) It's not even a matter of the books being too long... there are entire unnecessary books in the series!

I didn't bother with most of his recent books for the above reasons, plus his characterization issues are either getting worse, or my eye for character is getting better.

114:

Meanwhile, Mr Musk's launch seems to have worked, though putting a car into semi-orbit, somewhere beyond Mars ( apparently there was an extra thrust somewhere .... ) is so reminiscent of the Banks' story ( "State of the Art" ? ) that I wonder if fiction is imitating life, or what ....
[ Yes, I know about the Culture names for Musk's vehicles ]

115:

Actually I thi k they were both riffing on the “Soft Landing” sequence at the beginning of the Heavy Metal animated movie, which featured a space-suited astronaut exiting a space shuttle in a 1959 Corvette, re-entering the atmosphere, landing on a desert road, and roaring off into the distance... :-)

116:

One of the failure states of military (science)fiction is that winning a war ultimately comes down to logistics and statistics. Given enough time (like a whole series) an average general with better logistics will beat the brilliant general with lesser logistics.

The corollary is that if you set out to write military fiction you must set things up so that the end game happens early enough that an average general with great logistics can't run away with your story.

117:

Up at #101 I talk about "Death by PowerPoint" scenes; these are one of the aspects of what you're referring to yes?

118:

"Singularity Sky" was the first novel of yours which I read, and I definitely picked up that you were having some fun with Weber! Well played, if I haven't said so before.

I should also note that the timing on publishing Singularity Sky was perfect - it came out just as Weber was entering the "overly-large bestseller, complete with gigantic infodumps" phase of his Honorverse books.

119:

Yeah. See my comments on the failure modes of military fiction at 115 - obviously big fleet actions are all about statistics, right? But how do you make that interesting for the reader? Compressing your spreadsheet results into a couple paragraphs.... no. Just no.

120:

The big problem here is that he became too big a name to be edited

My understanding is that he was facing a tight deadline when he took a header off his back porch and broke both wrists. His last minute deadline save was a copy of Dragon Dictate, but it did weird things to his style (notably, that's roughly when his books all hulked out by 50% and acquired extra infodumpiness).

121:

Permutation City's "dust theory" is not really compelling, and Egan doesn't really take it seriously, but something similar falls out of the infinite universe multiverse theory the same way Boltzmann Brains do. If something can exist then it must exist somewhere in the universe. Sean Carrol seems to take that kind of thing seriously and he's a real physicist.

The boundary condition problem doesn't exist because we never see Permutation City from the outside, it's only perceptible to its inhabitants and their reality is the one that matters to them.

122:

Check Greg Egan's web page for some shorter works.

For novels I would recommend Diaspora and Schild's Ladder.

123:

Re: "We'd spend our days enjoying luxury and entertainment, getting in petty squabbles, and competing in all kinds of games and status stuff in a hierarchy."

Like Iain Banks' Culture? Particularly visible in Player of Games.

124:

I recently heard a lecture by Kim Stanley Robinson, about the future of capitalism and what it would need to turn into for civilization to survive. He admits he doesn't know, and his talk made that fairly clear too.

This doesn't mean he's stupid, nor well read, nor suffering from a cognitive decline. The problem is (and I agree with him on this) that if you're an old-line progressive and you want technological progress to save the day, and for people to get into space without FTL/magic, then economics has to do some deeply weird stuff.

For one thing, you've got to take a system that puts value on stuff that's extracted from its natural context and brought into civilization, and totally reverse that so that there's value put on shoring up the biosphere, which generally means taking stuff out of civilization (such as money and resources) and putting them where humans can't use them (such as growing forests that aren't tree farms, putting trillions into sequestering carbon deep underground, and so forth). Note that this is my take, not KSRs, but he was trying to find a different way to say this without invoking things like massive deflation.

More generally (and this is my ideas, not those of KSR), making an independent colony on another planet (much less another star) is analogous to an economy having a child. The point of the child is that you spend a huge amount of resources, and then the kid becomes independent. With luck and care, the child remains close and helps you when you're in trouble. But then, look at modern capitalism, where that function is regarded as primitive, and people are supposed to care for themselves while their children make their own lives. Making independent daughter economies is not something that improves the bottom line. Indeed, it's a massive waste of resources, especially if we're talking about an extrasolar economy that takes thousands of years to reach.

I know OGH wrote a book on this, but it gives you an idea of the problem economics might have with things like a space-faring culture. Under modern economic theories, there's no way to represent an extrasolar colony as anything other than a massive waste, and that's probably true of even a colony on another planet.

Closer to home, most of the damage we've done to our biosphere has been externalized (a fancy way of saying it's ignored on balance sheets). While there are balance sheet estimates for the benefits the biosphere gives to the economy, they get fairly silly, along the lines of using the cost of oxygen in a tank to estimate how the value plants contribute to maintaining a breathable atmosphere through photosynthesis. Economics tends to ignore both the benefits brought in by everything from non-paid labor to the biosphere maintaining itself to the damage pollution causes to all of the above. Forcing economics to incorporate the entire biosphere can suddenly start popping up infinities everywhere, making the known economy seem incredibly damaging, arbitrary, even silly (the reason for infinities is that without air, water, gravity, radiation shielding, food, medicines, recycling, ad infinitum, no economy would exist. What's the value of all these essentials, each of which individually keeps the economy from disappearing, perhaps instantaneously?). The inevitable way around that is that subjective valuations are created for natural resources until "the economics feel right," as KSR noted, but that subjective valuation causes its own huge problems, making it hard to see how to fix them.

Maybe, if the cosmology crew ever comes up with a theory of quantum gravity that doesn't explode infinities everywhere, they can tell the economists how to do it, so that the economists, frustrated physicists that they are, can figure out how to make the biosphere matter enough on their spreadsheets that the civilization they model doesn't shatter. I'm dubious either is possible, but that shouldn't surprise anyone.


125:

Charlie, I agree with you.

There's a lot of books out there that I ought to like according to Amazon's algorithms, but find I don't because, well, they're boring. Stack that with the eight deadly words, and it's not worth the time.

Why are they boring? Poor worldbuilding, characters that are shallower than cardboard (and uniformly WEIRD), a longing for authoritarianism and overuse of existing tropes others have done first and better.

Interesting, well thought out worldbuilding is a huge plus. I'll even forgive bad worldbuilding if the concept is interesting (hint: most aren't) and characters I care about. The problem is, most worldbuilding defaults to WEIRD (Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic) with an odd longing for an authoritarianism. Been there, seen that, enjoyed it in my 20's and not so much now (and Allen Cole and Chris Bunch at least did it in an entertaining way and then ripped the shit out of it). There are also many, many blind spots on how technology impacts society - the goal seems to be something that looks like late 20th century America with nifty technology and allowing the author to grind an axe. And maybe those different irritating people edited out for whatever apocalyptic reason or poor editorial advice.

The concepts also usually aren't that interesting - many of them seem to directly regurgitate alien invasions/conspiracies by the nobility/military actions ripped off from history/latest block buster/post-apocalyptic/zombie plots - mixed and matched to suit the author's wants or easy marketing categories. Tropes are there to be aware of them - not slavishly imitate. I swear someone here introduced me to the idea of a first mover effect in writing - one author does it first and after success, a 2nd generation imitates with some exposure to what inspired the first author, then a third or greater one comes along and just does it because it's the accepted thing without ever wondering why the first one did this. I see this so much in SF and fantasy it hurts. And it's boring.

The characters are also a problem - not only is the worldbuilding WEIRD, so are the characters. And heterosexual male. A few years back I began to realize I liked fiction with characters that are like the people I work and live with - not always white, or male, or straight or abled. And most of the stuff that get's flung at me assumes I only want to read about people like me. Or women like me.

My solution?
Lately it's been to re-read stuff I loved. It's also to go out of the way to look for authors similar to Charlie - ones that love something, but aren't afraid to rip it up one side and down the other - or willing to do something new. Gladstone, Rajaniemi, Bear, WJW (when he's in the mood) are all examples that I can think of.

126:

I'm very sorry to hear. He had a lot of interest to contribute and (... selfishly-speaking...) I looked forward to reading more.

127:

Charlie,

Three of your words I can see in the future: passport, police, and teenager. The latter... it takes longer and longer to learn enough to effectively and safely navigate life (and there's too damn many who don't achieve that, which is why Trump and Brexit).

Police, sorry, but I want someone trained with authority to deal with the violent drunk, or the guys attacking the woman.

And passport... I have trouble seeing, in the 100-200 year timeframe, the US, Europe, Russia and China allowing citizens to enter without....

Careful, though, about what you want to read - I'm still trying to find an agent to handle a novel set on an interstellar colony 300-400 years from now, fighting an invasion (which was partly broken, so it's years long) and the hero is not, in fact, a warewolf (and yes, there are very unpleasant reasons that happens). No one who's read it has complained about plot holes, or lack of consistancy, or even bad writing... but it's a first novel, and you know how *that* goes.

128:

Oh, and cheap worldbuilding: I tried two or three times to watch the new Cattlecar Galaxative, um, nope. It's another civilization, far across the galaxy, and they're wearing glasses, and skirts, and jackets and ties? The suspenders of disbelief snapped, painfully. And what I heard/read later, what's the *point* of the war, if you need exotics methods of identifying a robot, er, Cylon? And why on (or off) Earth would a spacefaring group of robots bother with humans, and their nasty oxidizing gravity wells?

129:

Thanks for your comments and recommendations re. Egan. I heard his name pop up a lot when asking about hard sci-fi, and this was the first I read, so I was a bit disappointed - it just seemed to leave out a few steps right in the middle of the main plot point. I was actually going through options in my head while reading it how it could be explained, but unless I missed it the book doesn't really go there. Maybe its unobservable by the characters, but they don't even speculate about it much and just accept it (unless I missed something).
I guess the "if it can exist it must exist" is in my view difficult to turn into good stories, at least if consistency and internal logic are a concern - even fantasy with magic usually has strict implicit rules what magic can and cannot do.

I was just wondering now, given that OGH has mentioned flaws in the Singularity Sky universe in the past, if the existence of post-singularity tech like cornucopia machines is one of them? I personally didn't really notice major issues and enjoyed the books. But I could imagine that if "anything can happen"-machines exist, the story very quickly becomes unpredictable and absurd. Of course one can have fun with that for a while, but it probably gets out of hand fairly quickly. My guess is that the existence of the Eschaton to deal with the problems around causality violation is to establish some rules again to avoid the "anything is possible any time" conundrum.

130:

The Culture is definitely a model for that, although perhaps more benign (admittedly I've only read Consider Phlebas). Human beings that don't have to work for a living are very good at filling the time with stuff, especially competitive status-seeking stuff and performative behavior.


RE: Heteromeles

I really liked how KSR had the economic system in 2312 be a messy melange of things reflecting political and cultural evolution. There's elements of capitalism, elements of a market economy that's in the "gray market" area, and a cooperative par-econ set-up with advanced computers. Barring violent revolution, that's how I'd expect an evolution away from capitalism to kind of look like.

SF and Space Fantasy tend to have too "neat", uniform political systems that don't reflect a complicated history of political evolution. I wouldn't expect stuff like that unless there's been a sweeping revolution or several that broadly carved out lots of older rules and homogenized the new ones.

131:

The point I was making is "which is that these things would not exist in their current form without capitalism." is incorrect. These things would not exist in their current form without technology, but would exist in something close current form without capitalism. Without capitalism, they would exist in a form that is 99 percent similar to what we have now. How do I know that? It's because they existed in 90 percent similar to their current form during the Roman Empire. The ten percent difference is solely due to technology and not economic system.

132:

Heh. I'd love to see more like this - taking a prevalent trope and then either turning it on it's head, or having it run straight into the band saw.

133:

I haven't read 2312, so I can't comment. In general, though, the problem with any future economic model in SF is that if it was easy for a writer to describe it in a 30 minute lecture, or even a novel, we most likely wouldn't be faced with all the economic problems we're facing now.

This is just another version of the wicked problems issue that makes it hard for any one person to figure out how we get through the 21st Century without global civilization shattering and the global human population falling by >>90%. There are a lot of possible solutions out there, but there is no simple, global solution that everyone could buy into.

This isn't to say that these problems are insoluble: rather, it's that they're bigger than one brain can hold.

Oddly, this is one underappreciated reason that it's easier to write fantasy. Get rid of technological progress and focus on much smaller populations, rather than billions of people, and the issues are much more comprehensible, even if they still are wicked.

134:

I'll take the cheap shot, at the concept of trophy wife - The wife is a trophy because the prevailing assumption in modern western societies is that marraige is entered freely, out of love and not material concerns. Not that anyone buys this entirely, but it is the myth. Because of this, the modern trophy wife signals that the husband is a charming, good looking, virile fellow, no woman is "out of his leak" - this is different from a society that basically allows one to buy a concubine like on would a donkey, or where marriages are universally understood to reflect dynastic or economic neccessities. Don't look at ancient Rome, read Pride and Prejudice! The difference in attitudes even to today is stark enough!

135:

As I tried to say above, KSR told about the messy economy in 2312, he didn't show it. Maybe I shouldn't be harsh on him, it is a wicked problem and exploring this in detail would have told another story. Also, the one time KSR spent more ink on explaining his economy (the nitrogen potlatch thing in the Mars trilogy), I didn't understand it and read right past it, story somehow still worked.

136:

SHIT.

I've exchanged posts here in the past with him, and I'm sorry we've lost him. Condolences, Charlie, and please pass same on to his family.

137:

Capitalism is a creature of the last few hundred years... and corporations, explicitly, came in during the mid-to-late 1800's, at least in the US.

Capitalism is *inherently* a greedy algorithm. I mean, unless you want to argue with the Gilded Age, and right now. It inherently aims for monopoly, and then, mmmm, can't eat just one.

Without *serious* social control of capital, you, I, and all the rest of us here are screwed, and I, for one, do not intend to die in my vehicle under a bridge.

138:

Gift economics is one of those fun areas where KSR read a book (likely Lewis Hyde's The Gift) and decided to throw gift economics into his Martian mix. This all sounds fun and frivolous, until you realize how much of the unpaid economy runs on gifts, and how much gifts are under attack by a market economics that wants to analyze them in a crude profit-loss calculus that is actually too simple to capture what's going on (if you believe Hyde).

Anyway, it's always fun to take books and ask what-ifs about how they could be used to build a SF world. For example, if I get a chance to start writing again (after the current unpleasantness is over, so perhaps 2019 or after the next big recession hits), I'll almost certainly try to scale up permaculture on the silly thought that perhaps you could run civilization off of it. In actuality, permaculture books* explicitly only scale up to community size. The originators of permaculture see civilization as evil and back-to-the-land villages as good, so scaling permaculture beyond community level, if it could even work to run countries, is an exercise akin to creating a just-war theory based on Christ's or Buddha's teachings on non-violence.

But it might sell in an SF book or even a series. After all, KSR's Mars books ran partially on gift economics. One could argue that he's correct, in that planets can only be colonized by gift, rather than market, economies.


*I've got a shelf of the damned things because they're fun to read, and I'd like to monetize that shelf by using permaculture to build a world I could sell)

139:

As I've said here before, I have a hard time finding sf anymore, and I really want my fix.

I'm sure I've said this here before: through the 20th Century, there were 10 yr cycles: for 10 years, more sf, then the next 10, more fantasy was published. That seems to have broken around 2001. Now, my personal take is that had a lot to do with Columbia, and the Shrub and his wars, and people just wanted a good escape.

Too much of everything has become far too formulaic. It's the rare urban fantasy that even attracts me anymore.

140:

The Humanoids - that was taking Asimov's Laws, and carrying them far out there....

141:

Capitalism as a ... hobby.

Well, consider this: we have our *genuinely* unthinking robot slaves, and a negative income tax, aka basic income. For some, that's enough; for others, build a business to add more, if you can't find a job.

142:

The funny thing about Ancient Rome is that culturally it's probably a lot closer to today than any of the periods since then. The Medieval world had some very odd (by our standards) ideas about things like business and moneylending, tied in with a theological state that makes modern Iran look tame (yes I know, Venice!=Constantinople!=London, I'm simplifying huge period and part of the world, and completely ignoring China, India, etc) and the knowledge that of course the end of the world was happening any time soon; Ancient Rome at it's height had things that look like modern banking, corporations, monetary policy, etc if you squint at them. Heck, the Romans even had fast food. Not totally related, but for those who haven't read Tony Perrottet's "Pagan Holiday" (or "Route 66 Ad" depending on which part of the English-speaking world you live), it's awesome. It looks at ancient Roman tourism through our modern lens and is awesome.

143:

Disclaimer: I have not seen Battlestar Galactica (in either TV incarnation) — read a spinoff novelization once, is all.

My understanding is that, much as Lord of the Rings was Tolkien creating a myth around the Matter of England, BSG is myth-making around the origin story of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; that is, it takes a distinctively Mormon view of the universe and its protagonists' embattled place in it.

(Is this correct? Correct-ish?)

144:

That's you. In this case, *my* favorite Disney princess is Ripley....

145:

Sung and Ming China are even better analogies to the modern world.

The thing to remember is that stuff changes when you go from millions of people to billions. The Roman empire got up to, what 50 million across Europe? And the barbarian hordes were in the hundreds of thousands. There are issues with population density and communication speed that probably don't scale as well as one might hope. Despite everybody wanting to turn Earth into their private Imperium where they can play Caesar, I doubt it's possible to run even the US the way the Roman empire was run. At best it's an analogy, and an imperfect one.

Worse, we don't really understand why the Roman Empire shrunk and mutated (it didn't collapse until Byzantium fell over 1000 years later), so if we're experiencing the same problems, we don't necessarily know how to identify or deal with them.

146:

"Police, sorry, but I want someone trained with authority to deal with the violent drunk, or the guys attacking the woman."

I agree - I see all kinds of people expressing some variant on "let's get rid of the police" and it always comes over as hopelessly naive. However utopian and lacking in motives for crime your society may be, there will still be a few people who are just plain cunts, because that's how humans are. So there is still a need for police to defend people against them. And the reasons why people want to get rid of the police very often turn out to be akin to "shooting the messenger", in that the problems they are trying to solve arise from the way the police are overseen or the laws they have to enforce, not the existence of the police themselves.

I have difficulty with many of the other words too. "Trophy wife" in particular is as old as humanity, for much the same reasons as rape is, since it's basically the same thing but less violent. Adolescence is simply part of life, and the phenomenon of the teenage knobhead is not limited to the human species. Passports, AIUI, didn't become important until WW1 left everyone feeling a bit paranoid; certainly they existed before then, but no-one really bothered and Schengen would have been seen as restrictive rather than liberating.

"Jaywalking" - I have no idea why that's in the list. Anywhere you have humans mingling with mobile entities with different speed/acceleration/braking/manoeuvrability/mass/impact response characteristics you're going to have some kind of convention to reduce the likelihood of collisions. How the US deals with the case where the mobile entities are cars is deeply weird from a British perspective, but so is how some South East Asian countries deal with the case where the mobile entity is a train. The difference isn't whether or not they're capitalist, but what their cultural attitudes normalise where that kind of risk is concerned.

"Television" gave me a similar reaction - "wtf?" and the urge to post a picture of a Soviet TV set - until Charlie explained that he didn't actually mean "television", but "commercial broadcasting", at which point it became more of a "well, duh".

Only "advertising" and "health insurance" were "well, duh" from the moment of reading. But then I understand "advertising" to mean "broadcast psychological manipulation" of the kind which (AIUI) first really took off in 19th-century America and then spread, while others who understand it to include putting your name over your shop disagreed. I wonder how much of the disagreement both I and others have expressed over that list arises from similar differences in interpretation.

147:

The original series was, the remake took the genocide premise and went in a very different direction.

It was a bit weird, in that the "aircraft carrier in space" ane "enemy within" elements were mostly played straight early on but there was an element of woo that got completely out of hand toward the end and the whole thing went off the rails.

I agree with the point about the suits and ties but can't get worked up about moderately more advanced humans wearing glasses. They are cheap and they work.

148:

You think Hollywood's the only one who does that? I see several articles a year on that in Model Railroader, and have done it myself for my layout. (Did he mention an alcohol/India ink wash?)

149:

You forgot other things that don't appear on the bottom line: whether the employees can afford a roof over their heads, or whether they need three jobs just to afford to live in something other than their cars. Wage slavery is still that, but *cheaper*, since you don't have to worry about housing, clothing or feeding, and depreciation of your slave property, since there's always more of that rabble out there....

150:

It's not you, Charlie, it is modern SF that is at fault.

From about 1880 to about 1940 all the great, creative, imaginative, never before told stories were written. Even HG Wells wrote stories that were creative, imaginative, and have never been matched since. Kids like Asimov and Heinlein grew up reading those stories and riffing off them. The writers that followed them, riffed off of those riffs, until everything collapsed in the 90s.

In the 90s, I would go every Saturday to the local Indy bookstore. I would buy six books each week. Every quarter there would be enough to fill a hand basket right there(20 or 30 books). The books would fly off the shelves into my hands, not a dud among them. Then about 1998 everything collapsed and the books on the shelf were rind. (I look at it as sweet watermelon, with only the rind left after 98.)

For ten years I would only find three or four books every quarter, and they were all British reprints. American authors worth reading vanished from the shelves. It wasn't until 2005 that American books started to appear again that were worth reading. I went from buying over 400 books a year to maybe a dozen a year, since 2005 climbing slowly to numbers now below thirty a year.

Because of Amazon, I spent the past ten years finding all of the books that were pre-1998 that I had missed. I've bought the complete work of authors that were not on the local shelves at the time. I've filled whole storage boxes with mass market paperbacks by single authors.

I still love the books I own, pre-98. I read the stuff that I read as a kid and they still rip me to shreds, the new stuff that I've sampled is all rind, no sweet meat.

The industry today is held hostage by shrill Fandom and clueless Space Cadets. Authors are writing based on the blog postings of those Space Cadets knowing that it will sell. All feeding back in a toxic feedback loop -- bad feeding back into bad.

Only David Brin has been able to take the incoherent babbling of Space Cadets and turn it into coherent narrative. Each of his books are astonishing. I will read a book like Existence and say, "You can't do that", yet he does!

What we have to work with now is a vast language of Imagination from a century ago to build stories from. There is nothing new. People don't want to read new. They want their beloved stories retold again and again, with different players telling the old familiar tales.

We saw what happened in the New Wave SF when writers tried for "new and unique" only to produce incoherent babble, in some language that we still do not understand.

So it's not you, Charlie, it is modern SF -- authors trapped in the echo chamber of babbling Space Cadets that is at fault.

Take the language of Imagination, and run. Don't stop, run.

151:

Gift economics .. under attack by a market economics

Once you see that it's quite scary. There's so much outright "but that's stupid, they're not giving you anything back (right now)" and similar propaganda. To many of the speakers it's just "stating the obvious" or a genuine expression of incomprehension, but there's always a judgement involved as well. Class empire stuff "I don't understand this, therefore it is stupid and not worth understanding".

Jacinta Arden just spent five days at Waitangi, partly to demonstrate that she does understand the importance of the gift economy. Some people are objecting that the other party paid more money in reparations and that's more important.

But... we can have both. Which is another thing that's over-emphasised in our current social system: ranking, and specifically the whole "winning is everything, second might as well not exist". I wonder why monopolists might want to convince us that that is true?

152:

Several more things, from multiple threads.

Tolkien: there was trade. Remember Sauruman importing pipeweed?

And, actually, I think a more perfect analogy of The Shire is the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose farms I've read are amazingly productive.

Also, Tolkien built his world straight from not just medieval, but dark age myth. And, since you're mostly hearing from nobility, you barely notice the serfs, and they're not important, so why write much about them? (Damn right us peasants are revolting!)

Cardboard characters, yeah. Too many. My late wife and I *really* disliked them. Hell, in one novel we were working on, we had developed most of the life story of a minor character, who only appears in a couple of scenes. The result is that's it's a world lived in by *real* people, not straw puppets.

Weber: by the sixth book in the Honorverse, she, and all the follow-on characters, were Mary Sues. And I got *really* annoyed at his anti-French Revolution hobbyhorse, and they were all Bad Guys (see above, about cardboard characters). And, as an heir of the first completely successful democratic revolutions, I do not see a stellar empire based on feudal nobility....

Finally, what my late wife and were working on, and I am now working on, was NOT MILITARY SF. Dammit, I want sensawonda, not stupid Battles In Spaaaaaace.

153:

I agree - I see all kinds of people expressing some variant on "let's get rid of the police" and it always comes over as hopelessly naive. However utopian and lacking in motives for crime your society may be, there will still be a few people who are just plain cunts, because that's how humans are. So there is still a need for police to defend people against them. And the reasons why people want to get rid of the police very often turn out to be akin to "shooting the messenger", in that the problems they are trying to solve arise from the way the police are overseen or the laws they have to enforce, not the existence of the police themselves.


yeah, I don't think you are really getting what activists are asking for when they say "abolish the police"

It isn't some utopian/Demolition Man fantasy where no one harms anyone.

It is wanting a radical restructuring of society to the point of the role of police as presently utilized is erased. For most of it, it is realizing the roots of crime and addressing those, so that you don't need someone to police anything because it doesn't happen in the first place, changing the way the remainder is viewed (rehabilitation, rather than punishment), and completely jettisoning the actual existing police's #1 job of "enforce the existing hierarchy"


154:
The industry today is held hostage by shrill Fandom and clueless Space Cadets. Authors are writing based on the blog postings of those Space Cadets knowing that it will sell. All feeding back in a toxic feedback loop -- bad feeding back into bad.

Only David Brin has been able to take the incoherent babbling of Space Cadets and turn it into coherent narrative. Each of his books are astonishing. I will read a book like Existence and say, "You can't do that", yet he does!

What we have to work with now is a vast language of Imagination from a century ago to build stories from. There is nothing new. People don't want to read new. They want their beloved stories retold again and again, with different players telling the old familiar tales.

This.

Much more eloquently expressed than I'd have put it, but this. The publishers publish what sells, and readers want the same old, same old, but different!

155:

I also find I read less SF these days, but not because of problems of worldbuilding.

Douglas Adams once said that he had given up litfic because there was nothing new to read about.

I read SF mostly to be immersed in a "sense of wonder". I prefer "hard-SF" as I don't like things that happen without reasons. A fully fractal complete world isn't necessary, but a good story that requires the technology/world is, so no westerns with space costumes.

But the rapid pace of science and technology development, better access to journal papers and a flowering of books on scitech means that I can get my fix of "sense of wonder" without the attached story. Follow a technology like CRISPR over a few years and you get a lot of "what if situations?" that lead the imagination.

Which means for me that SF stories need to be better written from a story POV, and that story had better be worth my time if the world wrapped around it is barely keeping up with real-world scitech developments.

156:

People don't want to read new.
People are... funny. (Tim Minchin)

But are the complaints about scifi in this post really about scifi these days, or just plainly about bad books? Lazy worldbuilding and unrealistic tropes also exist in other genres that play in the real world, where there is really no excuse (police procedurals, action, romance, ...)
I'd say there are certainly still very good scifi books being published, just not very many. And maybe it's because the sort of world-building and level of detail that makes what we think of as a great book is probably a lot of very hard work, that not all authors are prepared to do. Unfortunately I'm almost through the entire back catalog of the few authors that I consistently like, so I need to start finding new stuff...
It's not just about books though - the same could be said about music (I mostly listen to stuff that was recorded before I was born, and maybe 2-3 "new" artists that are still recording), and movies. Some part of this feeling that the new stuff all sucks is also due to survivor bias - for every great classic there is metric tons of forgotten crap. But maybe times have changed, and great new stuff is much rarer these days. If that is so, I would to some extent blame the herd mentality and risk aversity of investors (publishers/studios/...) - money is thrown at things that appear similar enough to things that have recently worked well, be it the 10th sequel of superhero movie, the 1000th autotuned variety of pop, or whatever teen-angsty dystopia that hits the mood of the year. Or in tech, any startup that claims to Deep-Learn the Blockchain of Social IoT...
What is strange though is that novel concepts and stories often tend to do quite well (maybe not quite as well as the big hits, but certainly profitable), and yet investors are still often hesitant to back new, creative things off the mainstream (see the botched release of the Annihilation movie recently, despite the success of Arrival and Ex Machina). At least with books, authors without backers have options these days to get their book out anyway, and some have success via this route (like Howie and Weir).

157:

I also like good worldbuilding, but it's risky. I get the impression that 90% of most audiences just doesn't care, and the remaining 10% is very hard to please.

GRRM is generally considered to be very good at worldbuilding. Even so, I find it hard to read his stuff without asking questions like "Why doesn't the king (pick one) just rob the Iron Bank" and "Why don't they seem to be concerned that they aren't going to have another harvest for years? They're all going to starve, aren't they?"

Re: Whitroth@136 - Capitalism is *inherently* a greedy algorithm. It's way worse than you think. Evolution is inherently a greedy algorithm. We've been very lucky to live at a time when the carrying capacity of this planet was expanding (mostly due to fossil-fuel based technology), but we're reaching the limit of available resources. This golden age will soon end, and will not come again.

158:

As someone who used to read his work fairly carefully, I have my doubts, both due to content issues, and because he's had a long time to regain control of his authorial "voice," and that hasn't happened. (I also suspect he's tired of the Honorverse, and that clearly shows.*)

I suspect that Dragon has added to his difficulties, but not created them - I know I would have tremendous troubles going to a dictation model for everything I write!

* There is something to be said for setting up your series with a clearly defined set of bail-out points, which you can use as needed! (This ignores certain commercial realities, of course, but take two "It's fine to bail after Bob kills Azathoths" and call me in the morning.)

159:

BTW, I'm still having fun with the series, but if you feel like you're chained to the oar I'm sure I'll enjoy whatever you write instead!

160:

"realizing the roots of crime and addressing those, so that you don't need someone to police anything because it doesn't happen in the first place"

Re-read the bit you quoted. It is exactly that which I consider to be hopelessly naive.

161:

Weber: by the sixth book in the Honorverse, she, and all the follow-on characters, were Mary Sues. And I got *really* annoyed at his anti-French Revolution hobbyhorse, and they were all Bad Guys (see above, about cardboard characters). And, as an heir of the first completely successful democratic revolutions, I do not see a stellar empire based on feudal nobility....

I brought Weber up (specifically Honor of the Queen) because it's a great book with average world-building... I don't think he's really "blaming the French" as much as using Haven as a metaphor for what he doesn't like about the "damn American Liberals." I brought it up because it ties strongly into the question of "What makes a readable book?" An author who's excellent at one thing, and at least average in all the rest. And is modern publishing letting more crap get into the bookstores - someone who got a D- in "plot" - than it used to? Didn't really want (Weber) to have the (Weber) rest of the conversation (Weber.)

Finally, what my late wife and were working on, and I am now working on, was NOT MILITARY SF. Dammit, I want sensawonda, not stupid Battles In Spaaaaaace.

The annoying thing about the Baen model's current pre-eminence is that you can actually have both. Forty years later the best science-fiction battle scene ever is still Brennan vs. the Protectors toward the end of Niven's original Protector. Lots of sensawunda, lots of fight. (He's also one of two authors I can think of who's really gotten "smarter than a human" right. The other is OGH.)

162:

From what you write I suspect you’d enjoy the work of (sometime contributed here) Joan Slonczewski. I’d recommend starting with “Door Into Ocean.”

163:

Bad books. Yeah. What's going on in the publishing houses? I keep seeing stuff that any good editor should have noticed, even in the books of high-midlist authors from better houses... throw the book across the room stuff! I happen to notice plot inconsistencies, OGH notices worldbuilding issues, someone above complained about Mary Sues; both of these should be non-starters!

164:

“taking a prevalent trope and then either turning it on it's head, or having it run straight into the band saw.”
Didn’t someone do that with “Orphan girl discovers she’s a princess?”

165:

"I read the stuff that I read as a kid and they still rip me to shreds, the new stuff that I've sampled is all rind, no sweet meat."

But how much of that is just the childhood-experience thing? I enjoyed HG Wells as a kid; the internet has enabled me to read a lot more of his stuff that I never saw as a kid, but it's still the ones that I did read as a kid that I have the most vivid and moving memories of. Same with much of Kipling (except Jungle Book and Just So which I never liked much). I find that I feel the same about books in general, but the point about these instances is that the comparison is between books by the same author, which tends to indicate that it's me rather than the books.

166:

It could be argued that the TV Tropes website ought to have a "Revert mind state" function for use after you've been reading it. It starts off with an addictive repetition of "yeah, I've noticed that... yeah, funny that, isn't it... gah, I hate the way they always do that..." etc. which draws you ever deeper into it, until before you realise it you're not empathising over things you've noticed so much as learning about new things that you hadn't noticed, and squirrelling them away in the back of your mind to return to your consciousness in the form of nit-picking the next time you read something. Or if you're a writer, to tempt you into producing something that reads like the Exim configuration language. Such knowledge certainly has its uses, but it's dangerous and it's difficult to switch it off.

167:

squirrelling them away in the back of your mind to return to your consciousness in the form of nit-picking the next time you read something

Part of doing anything well, though, is learning to turn off the critical function. Perhaps more obvious in theatre, where people regularly go from shredding and being shredded in rehearsal to watching a performance for pleasure later in the day.

It took me a wee while to be able to watch really amateur stuff again, because almost by definition they do everything badly. The switch from spending most of a day trying to get the darn lighting perfectly even across the stage to "ooh, look, some lights are pointing at the stage" is a bit of a jump.

168:

What do you -- everyone here, not just allynh, -- think about Alastair Reynolds' worldbuilding? Particularly his "Inhibitors" series?

169:

I threw his last book across the room. The climactic scene was based on "there's no way our super-duper high-powered starship can contrive to miss that planet even though we're a million miles away."

His world-building is OK, but his characters aren't very good (he is slowly getting better.) I've never reread any of his books, which speaks for itself.

170:

Which book is that?

171:

Also, I read your quotes phrase several times, and I have no idea what it means.

172:

"Tolkien: there was trade. Remember Sauruman importing pipeweed?"

I think Tolkien's fame/popularity has caused some people to become overcritical and lose their datum, and this has spread to become something of a genre-specific hazard.

There are innumerable stories with English pre-mechanisation agricultural settings of the kind the Shire is based on, some written at the time and some as historical fiction. Social stratification in the case of the contemporary ones, and simple passage of time for the modern ones, means there is very little effective difference between how unfamiliar actually living in that kind of society would be for the reader and how unfamiliar living in the Shire would be. But you do not find treatises on 19th-century agricultural economics and trade inserted into the narrative to tell the reader how it all works. You just get occasional offhand mentions of the farmers going to market or good vs. bad crop years or how you can't get good baccy these days because that rich ponce in Birmingham is buying it all, as part of the background colour, while the main information content is all about what's actually happening in the story, ie. the important stuff. The author concentrates on the foreground, and paints the background of the story in kind of the same way as Turner does a painting, in a kind of psychedelic blur with just a few hard details scattered around, leaving it up to the reader to fill in as much of the background detail as they feel like based on the expectations raised by the broad picture they are given.

This is what Tolkien has done - he paints a picture sufficiently suggestive of bucolic England/Saxon England/Egypt that the reader whose mind wanders to "well how did they do X then?" is naturally inclined to answer it by reference to how they did X in those real societies, and arrive at a reasonable answer. At least, that's the idea. Some people don't get it. He didn't have Charlie's advantage of being able to remind people that the New American Commonwealth is based on the Iranian revolution and not the Soviet (which I didn't get).

The importance of worldbuilding is not to make your story all about how you worked it out, but to make the above process work without inadvertently leaving punji traps for the reader all over the place. It takes the same place as historical research for a story with a real-world setting. But it is a stronger test of the writer's gumption because it's a lot more straightforward to look stuff up in the library than it is to make the whole caboodle up yourself and keep it consistent.

173:

I think it was called Posidon's Wake.

My phrase in quotes has to do with a plot point. The characters are driving around in a really special, amazingly high-powered space ship. And they somehow can't avoid going into orbit around this planet, which they are a million miles away from, because of reasons, all of which come down to "the author wanted it this way," and none of which relate to the actual physics of a spacecraft which can travel at 3 Gs more-or-less continuously, and thrust at much higher velocities when it is required. The ship only has to deviate from it's course by perhaps 10,000 miles over the course of a million miles, but it can't. Because the characters need to be on the planet. And stuff.

Hours become parsecs. Hard SF becomes twaddle. Brain stops. Book gets launched.

174:
“taking a prevalent trope and then either turning it on it's head, or having it run straight into the band saw.” Didn’t someone do that with “Orphan girl discovers she’s a princess?”

Touché! That reminds me, I've got a book or two I should be reading.

175:

Thanks Robert! And with that I'm off to the library website to place a hold.

I read the summary now and it sounds interesting. I also know though I read the backmatter in my teens/early 20's and was totally unimpressed. Amazing how 30 odd years of life experience changes a person...

176:

I see. I never read "Poseidon's Wake" because I was not terribly impressed by the previous book, "On the Steel Breeze".

That's part of the reason I asked specifically about the Inhibitors universe, which is much more developed than "Poseidon's Children" universe.

177:
What do you -- everyone here, not just allynh, -- think about Alastair Reynolds' worldbuilding? Particularly his "Inhibitors" series?

I liked Revelation Space, Chasm City, The Prefect and the short fiction set in that universe. Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap left me cold. Why? In the ones I liked, he had interesting concepts and presented them well enough to make me overlook the space magic. He also builds interesting societies. And he does it just well enough that it's best done in small doses.

The ones I didn't like, well, he began to get boring.

Among the others I liked: Pushing Ice (mad brilliant ideas, decent characterization). Anything involving the Merlin setting.

Ones I didn't: Terminal World, Blue Remembered Earth, Revenger, The Medusa Chronicles.

Don't get me wrong - I'll at least try anything Reynolds writes, but I'm kind of choosy about what of his stuff I'll buy.

178:

The conceit behind Lord of the Rings is that it is the secret, lost history of our own world and actually takes place in the distant past of Earth. Therefore one would expect Middle-Earth's northern hemisphere, OUR northern hemisphere, to have the same prevailing winds once the world was englobed at the end of the Second Age.

179:

ilya187 @167 said: What do you -- everyone here, not just allynh, -- think about Alastair Reynolds' worldbuilding? Particularly his "Inhibitors" series?

I agree with Bravo Lima Poppa 3 @176. Reynolds is a mix of readable and writing to the echo chamber, yet I will buy all his stuff.

I love the concept of the Inhibitors. They are completely twisted entities, not realizing that they are solving the wrong problem. His story 'Diamond Dogs' is archetypal, and deeply disturbing.

I haven't finished the trilogy starting with 'Blue Remembered Earth' and 'On the Steel Breeze'. I have 'Poseidon's Wake', but haven't read it since it came out. That trilogy is an example of writing to the echo chamber.

180:

Rome was around 250 million at its height

Some of the barbarism migrations were in the millions more then likely

181:

Sorry I remembered that wrong , was more likely between 70-100 million

182:

Charlie, I was thinking about your original post today, and it occurred to me that the issues of world-building were very deeply tied to the issue of what kind of narrative conflict someone is writing about. Just to refresh:

Man/Woman vs. Self
Man/Woman vs. Man/Woman
Man/Woman vs. Society
Man/Woman vs. Nature
Man/Woman vs. Fate/Good
Man/Woman vs. The Supernatural
Man/Woman vs. Technology

Each one demands a different kind of worldbuilding, and each one demands a different level of worldbuilding. Honor of the Queen survives as a readable book because the main narrative conflict is Man/Woman vs. Man/Woman, which does not require intricate worldbuilding. If Honor of the Queen was a book about vs. Nature or vs. Society the level of worldbuilding wouldn't be sufficient to make the book readable.

Accelerando was narrative of Man. vs. Technology, and the worldbuilding (or maybe the machine-building) had to be very, very tight for the story to succeed. If Manfred didn't have a believable technology to react to, the story would have died very quickly.

On the gripping hand... Man/Woman vs. Self? vs. God/Fate? How much worldbuilding do you need? Or can you do without worldbuilding entirely and construct a symbol system which the protagonist must navigate to win through in the end. (Some of Zelazny's books work this way, particularly Creatures of Light and Darkness and The Chronicles of Amber.)

And for really, really brilliant worldbuilding... Varley anyone? The sequel to Golden Globe is coming out this year!

183:

You should explain the difference between "Science Fiction" that you write, and "Alternate History" that Harry Turtledove writes. They are both World Building, I can tell the difference, but I cannot quantize it. All I really know is that I no longer read Turtledove, I am tired of stories of endless variations on WWII.

184:

I tend to be bothered by linguistic slips.

In S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, there's a scene where an engineer is building a trebuchet to repel the attack of the bad guys. He discusses it with his helpers, and one of them asks, "Tree bucket?" Now, that might make sense if the word were written down, say on a blueprint, but there's no suggestion of this; the engineer is giving spoken orders. It would have made more sense if the aide had asked, "Tray booshay?" and the engineer had spelled it out.

It seems to me that Stirling wanted to be able to hint to the reader how to pronounce the word, looked at the sentence on his computer, and imagined someone trying to sound it out (without knowing its French origin)—and didn't think of what had gone before as spoken dialogue. And then the copy editor didn't catch the slip! That sort of thing bothers me. I still can read Stirling with pleasure, but slips like that hold me up.

185:

Ageing and appearance of materials in a movie or TV show is different to ageing and weathering in models that are seen in reality and in different lighting circumstances. Movies and TV shows cheat a lot. One example I've actually seen being done is wood panelling and carving -- a lot of the stuff on TV is made from balsa wood and then it's stained to look like oak or whatever, aged the same way but it's a lot easier to carve balsa wood than it is to carve oak.

186:

I think the spaceship dogfight is usually done far closer to naval-in-the-water battles, than even WW1 fighter planes...

You can get kinematic action even with WW2 speeds, as all the aiming is done manually and planes have to be identified by sight, but it would require a certain level of restraint - the plane is flying high up in the air, spots an enemy below, manoeuvrers to intercept, rolls upside down and pitches around, speeding up to nearly twice the normal flying speed... and all that leading up to a second or two of firing, all while in the movies the shooting lasts for minutes.

187:

Maybe he was trying to hint to the reader how the engineer pronounced the word. He might have learnt the word from books and never used it in conversation, or he might have been taught it wrong (I'm pretty sure "racemic" isn't pronounced "race mick" but that's what we were taught), or he might just have a Colonesque approach to pronouncing foreign words. Or he might have a fixation that the word really is that (I know someone who thinks a vehicle for transporting occupied coffins is a "hurst", and if you say "hearse" to him he looks puzzled for a bit and then says "...do you mean a hurst?"). Maybe there's some other pronunciation-related morsel elsewhere in the book that you won't get unless you realise the engineer mispronounces foreign words, or it's a clue as to some aspect of his background or habits.

Or maybe any of the above possibilities apply to Stirling himself :)

188:

Model railways use just the same kind of cheating. Almost nothing is the material it "should" be, both for balsa-vs-oak-type practicality reasons and because the "right" material often looks wrong in a scale model because it still has its unscaled texture. You just use whatever's easiest to make look right; and you have some additional freedoms, such as structural strength often being something you just don't need to think about whatever material you use.

189:

"and all that leading up to a second or two of firing, all while in the movies the shooting lasts for minutes."

I consider that a good example of learnable sources of dissatisfaction. It used to make perfect sense - if aiming is difficult but you've got a machine gun, then just keep on squirting until you get the aim right. Then I learned that they carried bugger all ammo and had guns that would jam if you used them longer than not very long, and now it makes me grind my teeth.

190:

In S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, there's a scene where an engineer is building a trebuchet to repel the attack of the bad guys. He discusses it with his helpers, and one of them asks, "Tree bucket?" Now, that might make sense if the word were written down, say on a blueprint, but there's no suggestion of this; the engineer is giving spoken orders. It would have made more sense if the aide had asked, "Tray booshay?" and the engineer had spelled it out.

I get annoyed by this, sometimes, but not always.

I learned English mostly by reading, not listening to it. I still find it easier to write than speak. This has the effect of being able to spell many words correctly, but not pronounce them correctly. In many cases I have read a word many, many times, but never heard it spoken, so it's difficult to know the sounds for it. I still think there could be a culture which had encountered a trebuchet only in writing and pronounced it "wrong".

We get less of this in Finnish, because our writing is closer to the spoken language. This prohibits some forms of puns, though.

I think the schools in the English-speaking world could do well by teaching the international phonetic alphabet. It'd make easier to communicate how to pronounce the words - though I have understood that how you speak is somewhat of a bigger matter in Britain than in for example Finland.

191:

There's ana awful lot of *strong hints* concerning climate change & possibly-associated disease spreads doing it in. [ And, very likely also being a driving force for those "barbarian Hordes" - who were themseleves refugees of a sort. ]
- "two years of dry fog" comes to mind from somewhere ... but it's all very poorly documented.
Back to Brian Fagan & The Long Summer & similar works.
More information welcomed on this sub-thread, please?

192:

U K le G
She didn't call her masterly collection of SF criticism "The Language of the Night" for nothing.
AIUI, there was a very recent collection of hers out in the past year, that I must get, if only for completion ....
Come to that, sit down & re-read much of the older stuff .....

193:

Is this: "Getting rid of the police" meme a particularly US thing?
Given what we all know (NOW) about the local-politicisation of US policing, their absurd & scary powers & the complete lack of what we call "Peelian Principles" ... as opposed to what we are supposed to have "over here".
Please note the "supposed" - plenty of police here overstep the mark, & sometimes get away with it, but at least our supposed guidelines are different to those pertaining in the US, where the "cops" are much more a para-military organisation.
[ We tried that once, & it was an utter disaster - police/milita is a REALLY BAD idea ]

194:

Is this: "Getting rid of the police" meme a particularly US thing?

Not really, it's an anarchist and utopian thing, see for example many of Ursala Le Guin's works. The libertarians kind of kept it, kind of worship the police, but it's in some ways one of the tensions between the utopian libertarians "every man a strong and manly man who stands alone" and the slightly saner libertarians "a police force to enforce property rights" (because they know deep down that feudalism involves a certain amount of risk for the propertied class).

195:

English-speaking world could do well by teaching the international phonetic alphabet.

IIRC significant parts of the spelling difference between English and American result from an attempt at spelling reform. Given how well that went you might have more luck suggesting Esperanto. That would solve a whole bunch of problems, at the cost of reducing the opportunities for translators to smooth over difficulties.

196:

I don't think the spelling differences are the biggest problem.

Now that I think of that IPA idea, it still would have problems generally: English is not a language with a unified pronunciation. While this is probably obvious to native speakers, Finnish is a much smaller language (with its variation) and mostly everybody agrees on the "common Finnish language". We have dialects and accents, yes, but the "official Finnish" is pretty much the same everywhere. Especially pronunciation varies little.

This is why I think I have trouble remembering that English has a lot more variation on even pronunciation in addition to spelling, and not one of these could be considered the correct one.

197:

Police, sorry, but I want someone trained with authority to deal with the violent drunk, or the guys attacking the woman.

There are, and have been, many societies without a police force. Police are a thing of our time in history. Fairly recent history, at that.

To give some trivial examples:

The Culture doesn't have a police force.

The Shire doesn't have a police force.

It's pretty trivial to imagine a panopticon technological state in which violent crime is always caught and therapy imposed upon the aggressor. With guaranteed post-facto approval of the therapy by the aggressor, and minimal recidivism (though mental acuity may decline post-therapy). I really don't think Bujold's Beta Colony has much of a police force, though they probably have mental health nurses with stunners.
(Beta Colony: so utopian, except when it isn't)

198:

Didn't the Shire have the "Shirriffs" ...
Who were very much a low-level Dixon of Dock Green care in the community loose organisation ...
Until Saruman arrived & promptly turned them into a militia ......

[ To the point where already existing Shirriff's who wanted nothing to do with the new organisation were "Not allowed" to resign - discussion in "The Scouring of the Shire", IIRC.
It's been pointed out that Saruman's putsch in The Shire was a classic fascist take-over, with what little governmental forms existed hugely amplified & mass threats instituted, a bit at a time. ]

199:

Well, at that rate I'm fairly certain that you've just said "The North American Great Lakes and Mississippi-Missouri river complex can't exist because Rocky Mountains" not once but twice.

200:

There is something to be said for setting up your series with a clearly defined set of bail-out points, which you can use as needed!

It's really hard to kill off a series that covers your day-to-day living expenses and has stealthily rendered you unemployable in any conventional job.

Having said that, it's a bad idea to force a series to continue past its natural lifespan.

But there are a couple of options for both beginnings and ends. Beginnings: one option is to include new entrypoints every few books, so that new readers can start with book n without having to read books 1 .. n-1 first. (The Laundry Files does this in "The Rhesus Chart" and "The Nightmare Stacks" — and maybe will again in book 10, when it comes to me. The Merchant Princes does this in "Empire Games" — same universe, many retained protagonists, new series.)

Endings: you can bring the series to a natural climax. This happens just about every time in book 3 of a trilogy — it's a lot harder to handle story arcs that cover more and more books, though, because the pay-off for a million word build-up has got to be big. "Empire Games" can get away with a regular trilogy-sized payoff in book 3, as long as I don't plan to totally destroy the universe. But the Laundry Files is going to be a lot harder to pull off, because the build-up is so much bigger (and readers will murder me if I don't give them some sort of closure flourish for all the viewpoint characters but especially Bob). The natural climax for the Laundry Files is probably going to be a 2-3 book story arc at the end of which the universe is no longer the same. But there's no prospect of the Laundry Files continuing much beyond 11-12 books unless I start writing standalone side-quest novels (e.g. same universe but set during the second world war, or the late Victorian period, or ...).

As an alternative, you can close off existing plot threads but not nuke the entire setting: instead leave just enough intact to write subsequent stand-alone novels or follow-on series. That's likely the fate of the Merchant Princes setting. "Invisible Sun" is the end of the "Empire Games" trilogy and there are no definite follow-on plans ... but there could easily be a stand-alone near-future SF novel in that setting, say circa 2040-2060. I just don't know yet.

What I think is generally a mistake is the Jim Butcher/Dresden Files error of allowing plot strands to recomplicate for ten books or so, then announcing you've designed a giant 17-18 book story arc that resolves everything ... and getting distracted by other projects, thereby annoying the core readers by denying them closure. Much better to periodically massacre a bunch of characters and trash secondary plot threads to keep things from getting too complicated. (Anyone notice me doing that, in "The Rhesus Chart", "The Delirium Brief", and "The Trade of Queens"? No? Heh.)

201:

The sequel to Golden Globe is coming out this year!

Thank you for reminding me! I don't preorder many books six months out at full price, but this one's been on my buy-on-sight list since roughly 2005.

In fact, the reason Glasshouse got written was that I was bored waiting for Irontown Blues and Varley seemed to have abandoned his eight worlds setting in favour of Mammoths in Spaaace or (worse, from my point of view) sub-Heinleinian Libertarians on Mars.

202:

I learned English mostly by reading, not listening to it. I still find it easier to write than speak. This has the effect of being able to spell many words correctly, but not pronounce them correctly. In many cases I have read a word many, many times, but never heard it spoken, so it's difficult to know the sounds for it. I still think there could be a culture which had encountered a trebuchet only in writing and pronounced it "wrong".

That would apply to many or most native English speakers; trebuchet is not commonly used in speech. I commonly mispronounce some of the less common or more specialised words because I learnt them entirely from reading. Also, many French words have Anglicised pronounciation, not always in ways you might expect. The main implausibility with 'tree-bucket' is that prefixes like 'tre' (and 'tre' itself) normally have a short 'e'. And, according to the OED, trebuchet can be pronounced trebushet (with a short 'u') as well as the way described above.

203:

That would apply to many or most native English speakers; trebuchet is not commonly used in speech.

Well, yeah, my English-speaking friends are probably quite biased and many of them probably have used the word 'trebuchet' in speech. It's probably not that common a word on average...

204:

Yes. It's a rare author that can keep a theme going for more than a trilogy of standard-level novels, and most can't do even that. As you know, it's possible to go on longer with different themes in a common 'world', but even that has its limits. I generally give up on long series, even when I am very fond of the first books - though you have kept me on board the Laundry so far :-) But, the world being what it is, there are enough people who will buy the next in a series, regardless, to make indefinite perpetuation profitable. It's not exactly a new dilemma :-)

205:

unless I start writing standalone side-quest novels (e.g. same universe but set during the second world war, or the late Victorian period, or ...
Which is, apparently exactly what J K Rowling has just done with the "Potterverse" isn't it?

206:

As a non-native English speaker, I fully agree - pronouncing english words is mostly a guessing game. There's a nice poem summarising it perfectly, which you might already know:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead, is said like bed, not bead -
for goodness' sake don't call it 'deed'!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, or broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's doze and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, I've hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!
I learned to speak it when I was five!
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I'll not learn how 'til the day I die.

207:

Which is, apparently exactly what J K Rowling has just done with the "Potterverse" isn't it?

I wouldn't know: I took a dislike to the whole Harry Potter thing midway through book 3 and stuck my fingers in my ears thereafter. (It reminded me too much of everything I hated about school.)

208:

Police, sorry, but I want someone trained with authority to deal with the violent drunk, or the guys attacking the woman.

There are, and have been, many societies without a police force. Police are a thing of our time in history. Fairly recent history, at that.

Yes - policing requires an awful lot of assumptions.

In traditional societies, everyone was responsible for their friend who got drunk. If it came to arbitration, the village elders would decide what happened. This doesn't necessarily lead to good decisions, of course - think of the many cases of revenge rape, torture or murder ordered by village elders in the more distant corners of India, some of which make it to the news.

It became more complicated in feudal societies, when we needed constables/sheriffs to administer a country-wide system of laws to some degree. Essentially though they just replaced or added to the village-elder system, except that now there was a political element in decisions as well.

And as towns got bigger, it became impractical to leave this to enthusiastic amateurs. The profession of thief-taker came about, except that again this was politicised, in the same way as the profession of executioner. The thief-taker didn't care whether the person they were sent to catch was guilty or not, only that they got the reward for catching them. The watchman as well was responsible for making sure the streets were quiet - which (as Pratchett has frequently pointed out) is not the same as enforcing laws.

It wasn't until much later that the idea of an independent police force to impartially uphold the law really took hold, with Robert Peel. It needed the traction of a formalised system of laws, little enough power from an entrenched hierarchy used to absolute power, and a powerful, vocal and well-educated middle class.

209:

Much better to periodically massacre a bunch of characters and trash secondary plot threads to keep things from getting too complicated.

I thought doing that in "Rhesus Chart" was your "Spooks" moment - the point where the audience realises the characters they've invested in are actually mortal and can die, perhaps for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. ("Spooks" is probably the TV series which most famously did this, but Tad Williams made a habit of it in his books too.)

210:

I think you're not actually responding to the point I was making. It's not that I'm suggesting that an English speaker, encountering the written word "trebuchet," could not make the mistake of pronouncing it as "tree bucket"; I've mispronounced words myself, especially words of foreign etymology, and there are still words I've read many times but not actually looked up the pronunciation of. What I'm saying is that it's not plausible that an English speaker, HEARING the word "trebuchet" pronounced by someone familiar with the concept, would misinterpret the pronunciation (whether authentically French, with a uvular r and a rounded front vowel and so on, or the typical American English pronunciation) as "tree bucket." And Stirling seems to have mentally framed the situation as "person reading the word and mispronouncing it" even though his own narrative indicated that it was "person hearing the word for the first time and trying to repeat it."

I could give other examples of linguistic infelicities; that's just one that comes to mind readily.

211:

One of the little details in the "fan-fic as criticism" I discussed above is that there is a party called the "Libertarian Realists.

212:

"Trebushet" sounds like a plausible UK pronunciation. But I don't think it's a likely US one. A comparable case would be "valet," which can have a t at the end in UK English, but is "vallay" in US English. And all the characters in that scene are Americans.

213:

The concept of the teenager and adolescence, and with it commodifiable youth culture and sub-culture didn't emerge until the 19th century.

Prior to that, in most(?) cultures, there was just a transition from childhood, best seen and not heard, to adulthood, and the rights and responsibilities which come with it. It was assumed that a young adult would want to dress, act, speak etc. as any adult would. Of course there were rites of passage, paens to youth and an understanding that wildness, impulsiveness, etc needed to be managed, especially for young unmarried women, but the teenager wasn't a category of interest to marketers, or a source of identity as it is in late capitalism.

See eg. Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945 by Jon Savage

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/apr/14/society

214:

Not only Arthur Conan Doyle, but L. Frank Baum (in The Emerald City of Oz) and Hugh Lofting (in Dr. Doolittle in the Moon) tried to escape from popular series and were dragged back to them by reader and publisher demand.

215:

I don't suppose you know why he decided to go the "Mammoths in Space" and "Libertarians in Space" route. That's a big change for the guy who invented the Eight Worlds and the Gaia trilogy.

Speaking of John Varley, someone made this amazing, 30-second flythrough of Titan, which is worth a look.

216:

A 'coupe' in America contains chickens and there is no "t" sound in the British English pronunciation of 'niche', and don't get me started on 'solder'.

217:

Winds can come from any direction. Winds from dry land are dry. Most of the moisture comes on winds from bodies of water. Therefore when a mountain range parallels a sea, it has a rain shadow.

The Rockies do not parallel a sea. They are in the center of the continent, with the Great Plains to the east and the Great Basin to the west. The Great Plains are flat with Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. There is nothing to stop an arctic blizzard from blowing down to Texas, or a tropical thunderstorm rolling up from the Gulf to Tornado Alley. This is where the water comes from for the rivers and the Great Lakes.

The Great Basin is in the rain shadow of both the Sierras and the Rockies. It's very dry. Weather-wise it is the American equivalent of Mordor.

218:

Whitroth: Police, sorry, but I want someone trained with authority to deal with the violent drunk, or the guys attacking the woman.

Icehawk: There are, and have been, many societies without a police force. Police are a thing of our time in history. Fairly recent history, at that.

I don't see these as contradictory statements. There

The key issue is whether you would want to live in them. And I tend to agree with whitroth here — I'd rather have police than not. And I'd rather have them follow Greg's Peelian Principles, which our's are supposed to do but unfortunately they are steadily getting more Americanized.

219:

I too learnt much of my vocabulary from books as a kid, and mispronounced much of it, but I was also pretty lazy about looking up the definitions. Most of the time I'd get it from context, but occasionally I'd be very wrong.

I alarmed and amused my parents when, aged 9, after a long day, I announced I was "completely emasculated."

220:

I don't suppose you know why he decided to go the "Mammoths in Space" and "Libertarians in Space" route. That's a big change for the guy who invented the Eight Worlds and the Gaia trilogy.

That's easy!

He wrote the first iteration of Eight Worlds stories from roughly 1972-1979. Then re-jigged his universe and wrote more from roughly 1980-1995, with a decade out for screenwriting (the film of "Air Raid" that surfaced as Millennium) and a totes different trilogy (the Gaea trilogy) on the side, heavily infused with his Hollywood cynicism.

But after 25 years he just wasn't the same guy and he wanted to do different things. Much the same reason why GRRM isn't writing more sequels to "Dying of the Light" and "Tuf Voyaging" these days. Or why I'm not writing more Eschaton novels or continuing Accelerando — except I'm a lot younger/have only a 15-20 year career and some of my hobby horses remain fresh enough I can continue to work with them.

221:

Sorry, I disagree. I *really* like most of the New Wave. Gee, I think that even includes Zelazny (and I'm not thinking that much of Amber, other than the first three books, I'm thinking of Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness).

Gibson, and WJW's worlds are certainly new, if dystopian.

And "shrill fandom"? Gee, I guess you mean me, personally. I'm an active fan, in two clubs, do most US Worldcons and a three or four others every year. And I'm opinionated (oh, that's right, *ALL* fen are).

And I'm *certainly* not calling for the 14th book of someone's trilogy. In fact, where's my 10 years of SF that's *NOT* specifically military sf? Here, I'm yelling, shrilly: MORE SF!!!!!

Goddess, the Launch. I *will* be there, on US 1 in FL, when the US returns to flying humans again, instead of begging Russia to do it.

222:

Winds can come from any direction.

Technically correct but actually misleading: look at the direction of the Earth's rotation and consider the effect of Coriolis effect and differential insolation on prevailing air circulation. Bear in mind that at the equator the Earth's surface (and the troposphere) are moving with an angular velocity of 1000 nautical miles/hour, and more or less stationary at the poles; and similarly at the equator you've got more solar radiation hitting the ground (and less being absorbed/scattered in the upper atmosphere) than at the poles.

Upshot: there's a reason cyclones and hurricanes tend to track in one general direction, or why trade winds and jet streams blow ...

223:

I will note that the late David Hartwell, my previous editor at Tor in the US, once struck terror into my heart by musing that he wanted to see if he could make the Merchant Princes break his then-current record for the longest series he'd edited—the Recluse series by Lee Modesitt (then at 14 books). This was around the time I was burned out as fuck and struggling with book 5.

224:

It's not exactly greedy. It's more like work - y'know, it expands to fill all *available* time. Going over, for any period other than short, tends to fail, sometimes catastrophically. Example: the buffalo on the Great Plains, before white men with guns came: they'd been there for thousands of years, but hadn't expanded such that they turned the Great Plains to a desert, not did the Native Americans kill all of them, either.

When I took a course in Fortran, lo, in the youth of the world, my instructor always had the class do one problem (which I know, since I worked there, also): simulate fleas on a dog. At what point do the fleas scratch the dog, at what point does the dog scratch the fleas, and at what point do they come to an uncomfortable equilibrium.

On the other hand, I've mentioned before that by my estimate, the Earth has about seven times too many humans just now, based on early human and proto-human bands, and psychological space.

On the other hand, capitalism: the thing I *seriously* hate the ultra-wealthy, and the GOP (their paid-for tools) is that they're trying to make people internalize the concept that if you can't monetize it, and it doesn't make you money, it's not worth wanting. So, friendship, and love, and community, and dreams, aren't worth anything, and you should give them up and buy my crap.

Def: consumer: someone who doesn't work, is a huge mouth, with a wallet directly connected to someone's payment system.

225:

Rationalizing English, um, yeah... https://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/humor/spelling-in-the-english-language/

Which I find odd, esp. since there seems to be debate over whether Twain actually wrote it, or whether it's incorrectly attributed to him....

226:

I just would have expected something from Varley that was on a similar level of creativity and brilliance as "Gaia" or "Eight Worlds," and the Mammoths and Space Libertarians felt like he was "writing down" if that makes any sense. (I won't mention the book where "all the ____ _______ due to a genetically altered bacteria down in the _____" - there's no need to utterly humiliate the poor man!)

What do ya do when the well runs dry? Or maybe he needed to pay some bills?

227:

I've mentioned my (and my late wife's) answer: do your trilogy, then jump to elsewhere in your universe - the original characters don't have to even be mentioned, but it's obvious that it's the same universe... and explore other parts of it with other people.

Let's see, instantiate another instance of MyUniverse....

228:

Just out of curiosity, which set of books pays better, Laundry Files or Merchant Princes? (No pressure to answer if you'd prefer to keep the details private, it's very much a matter of trivial curiosity.)

229:

Sorry, Nojay, it's also for a car. I suggest you listen to the ancient Chuck Berry singing Coupe de Ville.

230:

friendship, and love, and community, and dreams, aren't worth anything

Back in the 80s, at a party, I really pissed off a young MBA who was asserting that things were worth precisely what someone was willing to pay for them (with the corollary that if no one was willing to pay, they were worthless)*. Asked him how much he paid his wife for sex.

Not very polite, and I didn't even have his excuse of too much alcohol, but I like to think I had a valid point :-)


*Applied to protecting the commons (like clean air and water), this approach has a lot in common with the chap in a sharp suit who mutters "nice shop, pity if something were to 'happen to it").

231:

What do ya do when the well runs dry? Or maybe he needed to pay some bills?

I read somewhere that Turtledove kept on with the endless WWII rewrites because he had daughters to put through college, and they were fast to write and reliable earners.

232:

I suppose he could have said "I buy my wife lots of things". To which you could have replied: "But how did you determine the price for each thing she does for you, besides the sex?".

MBAs with brains understand that you don't apply business/economic logic to everything. The useful domain is limited.

233:

Winds can come from any direction.

Of questionable relevance, but pretty neat, see

https://earth.nullschool.net/#current/wind/surface/level/

You can zoom and rotate the view to check out any location on the globe.

234:

I have some speculation about middle-aged male SF authors and side-effects of common medication for a common condition, but I'm going to keep it to myself. Let's just say: I have strong suspicions about Larry Niven and John Varley, know for a fact about John Brunner, and if I'm correct I dodged the bullet simply by knowing what the heck was happening to me and how to argue prescribing policies with doctors.

235:

That question is unanswerable (because reasons too long and tedious to get into, but including: one series jumped publisher, one series failed to launch in a major market until a reboot happened, one got translated into French but not German, one got translated into German but not French, and so on).

236:

"Why don't they seem to be concerned that they aren't going to have another harvest for years? They're all going to starve, aren't they?"

My understanding is that in Westeros storing excess food for the Long Winter is such standard practice, it is rarely mentioned. An example where it is mentioned:

Littlefinger: We have enough grain to feed the peasants for five years. If the winter lasts longer than that... we'll have fewer peasants.

237:

I have a very similar reaction, but mine is less "Why capitalism?" than "Why the Enlightenment". The Enlightenment was a very specific intellectual movement among particular cliques of Philadelphian and Parisian wig-wearers who were reasoning from premises that were specifically Christian and substantially Deist. I find it very odd to see their idea of human rights based in natural ethical law show up in culturally-remote contexts. If your characters don't believe that mankind was created but do believe that mankind was created equal, I tend to boggle (except in modern-day settings where it's a known historical legacy).

That's not to say that characters should be baby-eating savages, just that culturally foreign characters should have foreign values that relate to their own setting. The Star Trek "blue states in space" approach doesn't work for me.

The recent fantasy novel "The City and the Dungeon" did a pretty good job of worldbuilding by my lights; the culture felt like the creation of wildly unequal superhumans oriented toward a common cause (but don't get me started on the exchange rates).

238:
Even so, I find it hard to read his stuff without asking questions like "Why doesn't the king (pick one) just rob the Iron Bank"

Same reason the Nazis never conquered Switzerland I should think.

239:

Grain doesn't store very well, it's not just vermin like weevils and mice but also fungus, sprouting and general rot from dampness. Turn it into alcohol and it'll last a lot longer of course (properly aged in sherry casks or the like...)

Most food preservation techniques in the past before canning and freezing involved turning temporary surpluses into body fat. Westeros, at least the northern latitudes has the capability to freeze animal carcasses naturally for long-term storage but given the environment there's not a lot of (animal) carcasses to be had that far north considering the poor grazing.

240:

Regarding kings trying to rob Iron Bank: Think of the other unique institution in City of Braavos. No doubt Iron Bank has some special arrangement with the Faceless Men, for just such eventuality.

241:

Regarding kings trying to rob Iron Bank: Think of the other unique institution in City of Braavos. No doubt Iron Bank has some special arrangement with the Faceless Men, for just such eventuality.

Well, also there was a real life organization that ran a multinational bank in analogous medieval Europe - the Knights Templar. That one king finally did basically rob the bank was so outside the norm and culturally shocking that "Friday the 13th" is still a cultural touchpoint for misfortune and horror 710 years later

242:

Or alcohol.

It's also worth looking at what non-European groups did. My personal favorite is the Andes, where high, often dry mountains combined with a LOT of storehouses meant that they could store freeze-dried potatoes and llama jerky for years (I believe jerky was originally the Quechua charqui). This was a good thing, because localized crop failures were and are normal in the Andes, as is the necessity for long fallows between crops in many fields. The Inkan empire and their predecessors ran on a combination of good storage and good logistics: moving resources to people, people to resources, and storing any surplus they could get their hands on. Mind you, they were rapacious conquerors who were roundly hated by other groups (the real reason they fell: their rivals united with Pizarro, then got offed by the Spanish). However, the Inkans were pretty amazing at the logistics of keeping lots of people alive in a pretty unforgiving environment.

That's something that should be used in fantasy more than it is. Obviously there's a white ethnocentric bias in SFF, but still: you can plunk down a huge mountain range in a Europoid fantasy setting and use the Inkan solution, with hard tack or bulgur instead of potatoes.

Or you could follow the medieval Japanese model, and have the owners of the sake warehouses being the de facto banks, because that's how the rice surplus got stored...

243:

And at the time we get to see the Misty Mountains/Anduin/Mirkwood, the planet has been refreaked into more or less the standard-physics sphere plus distant sun configuration (the energy source for the sun isn't standard physics, but that's a minor detail), so weather patterns of the kind consequent upon that arrangement are what one would expect.

It's also pretty clear that the original configuration was pretty much Discworld - definitely not standard physics, but magically curated in such a way that it behaves as if it was.

I'm pretty sure it was one of your links that took me to an article making the point "Tolkien's geography is completely bent", with accompanying comment thread in which people pointed out that (a) his maps are not the Ordnance Survey, they're a pictorial equivalent of saying "North America goes Sea - Mountains - Desert - More mountains - Big river - Easily colonised bit - Sea"; and (b) for every feature selected by the article author as being something that can't possibly happen, you can point to an ordinary world map and say "oh yes it can". North-south mountain ranges with big rivers on the east side fed by tributaries rising on the mountains certainly do exist: Rockies/Mississippi for an instance where the sea is a long way away, Andes/Amazon for an instance where it's right there (and there's a great big forest, too).

As for the climate of the Shire, it is spot on. A low-lying, undulating region of natural farming country, with a mountainous region to the west between it and the sea - that's Worcestershire and Wales, and it's really no surprise that it's a perfect fit.

244:

Techniques based on denying decay organisms an adequate supply of water are also important. As Heteromeles points out, up the Andes freeze-drying stuff works really well and AFAIK they're still doing it. Then there are the osmotic death techniques: adding craploads of salt (or sugar, if you can get it) to make it too concentrated for anything to survive. Alternative solutes include acetic acid or ethanol... or even caustic soda, if you're Scandinavian (blech). Hard tack is essentially the same principle but with no liquid at all.

Another method is to keep decay organisms at bay by means of a functioning immune system fuelled by grass or other substance inedible to humans.

Any society that has managed to get into blue water navigation has to know about these tricks - and stuff can go manky really fast at sea, especially in the tropics.

245:

In Britain that car is a koo-pay.

246:

whitroth @227 said: Let's see, instantiate another instance of MyUniverse....

I've seen too many authors get trapped in linear thinking. They write a series that gets taller and taller, before it collapses under its own weight. Then they abandon a perfectly good universe that they think has been mined out, yet only a few stories have been told.

That's like writing Gone With The Wind and thinking "that's it" for Civil War fiction. There are huge numbers of books set in and around the Civil War, and they will keep coming.

- Think of all those books plotted out using timelines on a physical world-map, and you would see a vast mesh of Storylines crisscrossing the globe.

What I've done is take the London Underground Map and use it as inspiration, a visual guide.

- You have 270 stations and 11 lines. Think of that as 270 episodes/chapters and 11 Storylines.

- Say you use ten episodes/chapters per book, that can generate 27 books for that Verse.

By seeing that there is a continuum, not a single linear path, I know that there are more future stories to write. I am free to develop a Storyline, then go back and write those stories that intersect, to basically fill in that LU Map.

- Each Verse, with its own set of physical rules and laws, has its own LU Map.

I took the "continuum" concept even further by taking a line and using every "even" station for one Storyline, then every "odd" station for another Storyline, thus creating different Series that were overlapping parallel Storylines, with different characters.

Then to further break linear thinking, those episodes/chapters may not represent linear time. I have jumped back in the timeline as I move down the Storyline.

Then the LU Map cries out to have some Storylines have the "end" connect back to the "beginning" of the same line. (Think Paul J. McAuley's Confluence series.)

It was a trivial matter to take a 3-by-2 foot jpg of the LU Map, set it up in Draw(LibreOffice) put a 50% white rectangle over the LU Map -- so the LU Map is a ghost below the work layer -- then start drawing Storylines and episodes/chapter text-boxes to lay everything out.

Wiki - London Underground

Wiki - Tube map

Whoa! I need to go lie down now and take a nap for a bit. HA!

247:

Something for the Laundry's faculty break room (if they have one*):
FAQ: Your New Cursed Instant Pot

*if so, I really don't want to know what's in the fridge.

248:

Using IPA (no, not that stuff) (nor that stuff) to teach reading in schools did get tried, a bit. It got canned because it is too confusing to learn that and then have to re-learn everything in the standard alphabet, standard spelling, standard capitalisation etc. ("rug is a bær" -> "Rug is a bear".)

IPA is confusing from an English point of view. If you don't know it, you'll get things more wrong than right, because the sounds you'd naturally guess the characters are supposed to represent are very different from the sounds they actually do represent.

249:

"Then the LU Map cries out to have some Storylines have the "end" connect back to the "beginning" of the same line."

Have you come up with a storyline that connects the GN/GE Moorgate line with the W&C? :D

250:

BTW, unused stations are a "feature" not a "flaw".

Look at Accelerando. It is nine episodes that would be scattered through those unused stations, making it a story-arc running through the main Storylines. Think about that. Accelerando is clearly not the main and only Storyline when seen in that context. HA!

251:

When I met Larry Niven in the early eighties he was obviously over fifty, by now he must be in his eighties (at least.) As for the others, I don't know what to say, except that you might send out a private letter. (If you do, make sure to include David Gerrold; we might finally see the end of the Chtorr novels!)

The question of Niven's age brings forth some quite cynical speculation. "Nuf said, I think.

252:

Pigeon @249 said: Have you come up with a storyline that connects the GN/GE Moorgate line with the W&C?

W&C seems to be Waterloo & City, which is a light green solid line, that only seems to connect two stations, Waterloo and Bank.

GN/GE Moorgate line seems to be Great Northern.

Wiki - Moorgate station

I can't find Moorgate on the map I have, so I'm stumped.

I definitely need that nap. HA!

253:

There is no more overt example of that than Cjerryh's Alliance Union universe. Most of the fundamemtal presimes are based on 'what if Edgware Road isn't needed between Paddington and Baker Street anymore'.

254:

"It's pretty trivial to imagine a panopticon technological state in which violent crime is always caught and therapy imposed upon the aggressor."

You seem to be implying that that would be an alternative to having police. But it isn't at all - who does the catching and the imposing? The police. Because that's what people (or robots, or...) who do those things are. Certainly police in their present form are a fairly recent innovation. But police in the sense of "those who enforce the law" are a concept as old as that of law itself - of necessity, because law without enforcement is meaningless. It doesn't matter if they're not called "police", or if they perform other functions as well, or even if we're in a situation so sub-Dunbar that everyone participates in the function.

When I say that I would prefer to live in a society that has police over one that does not, I am expressing essentially the same sentiment as "I want the teachers to stop the big boys hitting me". The alternative is a society where the thugs end up running the show, and I don't suppose anyone here wants that.

Corrupt government transforming the police-called-police into thugs to help them run the show is a different problem. Responding to that with "get rid of the police" is attacking the symptoms rather than the cause; even if it somehow succeeded, you'd just end up with a set of thugs called something different. What you really need to get rid of is the corruption.

255:

The Enlightenment was a very specific intellectual movement among particular cliques of Philadelphian and Parisian wig-wearers

You totally missed the Scottish enlightenment. Equally (if not more) important insofar as it's where we got thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, James Boswell, and numerous others. (As of 1707, Scotland had five universities to England's two, despite having a fraction the wealth and population of the bigger nation.) Also brought us a whole bunch of medical and scientific insights along the way. Can't really be considered part of the same religious culture as Philadelphia and Paris, however.

256:

Fair enough. I'll also give a pass to any setting culturally adjacent to 18th century Scotland.

257:

The Littlefinger quote specifically says "grain". Even baking it into hardtack will only get it to last a couple of years before bug infestation gets to it (see weevils) and quality hardtack is expensive to make -- it's a biscotti, baked twice preferably using charcoal. Baking it and then freezing it near the Wall's perpetual cold might work but that puts your food store at risk of the White Walkers and other beyond-the-Wall threats plus requiring something like a freight train line to move hundreds or even thousands of tonnes of food each day down to the more populous regions during a winter that lasts several years our time.

Potatoes and other root vegetables might work as a preservable food source but the cold-store system would still need the transportation system I described above. Frankly they'd be better setting up big greenhouses heated by balefire to grow food during the wintertime.

I don't recall GRRM making any mention of sea fishing, the usual fallback for high-latitude food sources including sea mammals like seals and whales. This sort of harvesting can be carried out during an extended winter in lower latitudes too. There might also be edible seaweeds and the like.

258:

What happens when you get past Barking?

259:

Sorry, that was not quite fair of me :) See this map - which includes the proposed but never built Lothbury extension:

http://filehost.serveftp.net/things/gnwc.png

It looks like one of these really obvious good ideas to revive the proposal in an extended form to meet the W&C at Bank, and run through services between Waterloo and the northern suburbs. In reality the tunnels are of different sizes, at different levels, and separated underground by the whole of Bank station, the vaults of the Bank of England, and the newly-constructed Crossrail tunnels (not on the map). So far from the mere few hundred feet of tunnelling it appears to be, you'd have to reconstruct the whole of one line and half the other and it'd be a lot easier just to build a whole new line for the whole distance. Which would be an effort totally disproportionate to any benefit gained.

The joke is that the disparity between the apparent triviality and actual utter impracticality of the idea means that people keep suggesting it and other people get fed up with explaining to them why it won't work, so even mentioning it is a bit of a red rag in certain quarters.

260:

A LiveJournal group I belong to had a proposal to revise English spelling to be phonetic. Unfortunately, from my viewpoint, the proposal came from someone who had been taught UK English. I speak California English, which is a form of General American, and is rhotic. Phonetic spellings for standard UK English leave out the distinction between rhotic and nonrhotic vowels and therefore completely fail to represent "English" for me.

Raise that to the Nth power and you have "phonetic spelling."

261:

Niven was born in 1938; he is not quite 80 yet.

262:

I recall only one mention of whaling in all of Song of Ice and Fire books, and the whaler was from Ibben -- an island north of Essos. But they cannot be all that rare because Tyrion mentions "an Ibbenese whaler" without confusing anybody.

263:

Pigeon @259, said: See this map - which includes the proposed but never built Lothbury extension:

Huh, the map I'm looking at has different zigs and zags. Nice to see variations. Thanks...

It is so easy to get wrapped up in all of the fun station names. The thing that I always have to remember, is that I'm repurposing the LU Map to use it for stories. Simply covering the existing stations with text-boxes and writing in episode names, so I don't see the names anymore.

What made me think of using the LU Map was Roger von Oech, his book "A Whack on the Side of the Head". He talks about a medicine man creating hunting maps for his tribe. He would take a piece of leather, crumple it up, then spread it flat. He would tell the hunters to follow the lines looking for game. Since each map made that way was different, it encouraged them to look in places they had not gone before, thus find game in the unhunted areas.

The nice thing about Draw, is that I can create a different layer for each Series, making them visible/invisible as needed. Thus I can look at one Storyline, or all of them together. I need to see if I can animate that view, so that I can see the stories evolve and change.

264:

Interesting thread and initial thesis by Charlie.
I read a lot less these days, I am 51 and while I can’t claim to have read everything pre 90’s SFF, I certainly read a shedload. There was a time when I would search out books to infill my gaps, that time has passed. I can’t think of a classic SFF novel I missed that searching down and reading now that wouldn’t feel like an exercise in English literature.
There is definitely a disconnect (unevenly distributed of course) within the genre, you can date it to the new wave, which is so charmingly dated now (the roof garden at the former Derry and Toms is finally shut down) or to Gibson and Sterling, in my opinion.
There are contemporary novels written or nearly so when Neuromancer came out (revisit Circus World by Barry Longyear in 1981 that is basically set in the fifties).
Nonetheless, I am reading less because the internet, but also because it is as our host notes unbelievably difficult to write SFF nowadays.

Egan, first person who explored what it would be like to be a copy, and I like all his early stuff (he may not be the first person to explore any of the ideas in his early books but he does do if this then rather well, not a prose stylist sadly)

Jim Butcher, yes I am little pissed off with the lack of a new book too.

As far as our host goes, I will keep reading the laundryverse, too committed, but if Charlie follows through with the logical conclusions (can’t believe he won’t at this point) it will not be the most cheerful read, though sometimes hope comes in the most impossible situations
The Miriam universe, need to purchase the redo of the original series, and then read the new ones, only going to happen when I next get laid off
One knows bills must be paid, but hoping to see some one off novels at some point

265:

Yes! Usually we get prevailing winds. It's great! They bring moisture from the ocean and cool us off. But there are exceptions. When a high pressure zone develops in the hot, dry interior and turns a canyon into a flamethrower shooting a jet of fire at sixty miles an hour, burning everything in its path for over a mile, you tend to notice it.

266:

Sometimes context is the only guide to pronunciation - how about "wind" - as in "wind a clock" vs "the north wind".

267:

But police in the sense of "those who enforce the law" are a concept as old as that of law itself

I won't bite. Because that definition's of "police" is just wrong.

We have an arm of the govt that consists of professionals devoted to investigation of crimes, and apprehension of those who break the law and gathering of evidence so that they can be brought to trial.

Many societies in history didn't really have that.

"Enforcing the law" was mostly something neighbours did for each other, and nobles had the military to help them with it. Or do you think there were police in the Athenian democracy? And in medieval Iceland? If so, who do you think these "police" were?

Oh, and don't confuse a judiciary with a police force. Though both are "those who enforce the law".


I'm not arguing we should get rid of the police force. Our society implies - requires - a police force. My point is that some societies don't require such - which gets back to Charlie's point about SF world-building.

268:

UPNEY ( One stop past Barking )
If you go far enough - Upminster - or worse, the carriage sidings!
In between you will pass through Upminster Bridge station, with its giant Swastika set into the floor-tiling [ Yes, really ]

269:

I wish GRRM WOULD write more "Tuf Voyagaing" stories.
Complete with MORE CATS

270:

MBAs with brains
THESE EXIST?

271:

Ah the "vanishing lines" problem, to do with ticketing, revenue abstraction & TfL/the TOC's being childish & greedy.
Finsbury Park - Moorgate, formerly the "Great Northern & City Railway" was re-taken over by National Rail services a few years back & doesn't appear on the tube map, even though it's a deep-level main-line loading gauge line.
Ditto the Thameslink line, runnning ( for central-London purposes ) between W Hampstead & Elephant & castle, via Kentish Town, Kings Cross St Pancras, Farringdon & Blackfriars ) - also doesn't show ....
You need the "London Connections map, actually:
HERE
Now that shows everything

272:

Or completely irreligious culture, especially when one comes to David Hume, skeptic, agnostic if not atheist & all-round "Good Guy"
One wonders how much of that was delayed reaction to the religious "fervour" & fanaticism that had bloodily swept Scotland only 50 years earlier ... (?)

273:

It's a permanently banned subject over at "London Reconnections" for instance ......
Apart from the annual Yule/Christmas quiz, where there's usually a question on either/or/both the W&C & the Post Office Railway!

274:

It'd be really interesting to get OGH, Ken MacLeod, and Elon Musk together for a discussion about Banks and The Culture.

275:

Para 1 - "Rug is a beer"? ;-) Oh, we're back to IPA again, aren't we?

Para 2 - Very true indeed. Several year 1s at my school (self included) taught ourselves to read pre-school, then had to learn IPA, then had to learn to read properly again. (comment on inflexibility of teaching staff more than anything else)

276:

No, you can't do that. It definitely puts you in Knip, and I think leaves you Tunnelled as well, at least if you're North-bound.

277:

make sure to include David Gerrold; we might finally see the end of the Chtorr novels!

Ahem: as of two years ago he'd written them and they were in the process of being edited. They'd expanded somewhat with time and depth, so there are quite a lot of words to come ...

278:

One wonders how much of that was delayed reaction to the religious "fervour" & fanaticism that had bloodily swept Scotland only 50 years earlier ... (?)

Not even much of a delay — the last execution for the crime of atheism happened in 1704, if I remember correctly — and yes, it was a huge backlash against the theocracy, aspects of which persist to this day (Scotland is now majority atheist/no religion) despite the god-botherers fighting back (we still have restrictions on Sunday trading).

279:

It'd be really interesting to get OGH, Ken MacLeod, and Elon Musk together for a discussion about Banks and The Culture.

Disagree. I think Musk is probably an SF fan, in that part of his time that isn't eaten up by live action Tony Stark roleplay. I suspect (based on a whole bunch of anecdotes about his business culture) that he's an obsessive, driven asshole with some damaging, unexamined political beliefs he mistakes for rules of nature. On the plus side, he's an asshole who worries about humanity's future: from where he was in 2001 when he exited Paypal, it'd have been utterly unexceptional for him to have turned into another boring silicon valley VC, investing in more addictive smartphone games instead of building electric vehicle infrastructure and rooftop solar panels and reuseable rockets.

But I wouldn't expect any deep insights about what happens after capitalism from guy who sincerely believes in private enterprise colonizing Mars.

280:

Not only an SF fan, but a Banks Culture fan, as evidenced in the naming of the Space-X drone ships.

(I now really appreciate why they are drone ships, having seen YouTube film of the two boosters doing synchronised landings this week. The twin sonic booms as they arrived was something I hadn't expected, assuming they were descending at a more leisurely rate.)

281:

The concept of 'police' is also not as definite originally as people think it was. There was a societal / cultural difference between England and Scotland, the latter seeing the job of the police as not just catching people accused of crimes but also concerned with the social good such as functioning lampposts, street cleaning and suchlike. Over time the functions of the police became more limited, but in the early 19th century they were much broader.

282:

We have an arm of the govt that consists of professionals devoted to investigation of crimes, and apprehension of those who break the law and gathering of evidence so that they can be brought to trial.

I suspect the concept of "government" here is related to the reason why the world that libertarians live in is smaller than the one the rest of us live in, and why we generally look down at libertarians and libertarianism.

283:

Thomas Aikenhead was murdered in 1697 - at the insistence of the church - the politicians wanted to let him go, after giving him a suitably good scare ......
Last murder of a woman for witchcraft was 1727 - Janet Horne - admittedly in remote Dornoch - burnt alive.

284:

I think, Greg, that you have a slightly overly specific idea of what murder for even just these specific concepts would look like.

285:

Societies are always reacting to the excesses of their recent pasts. The Victorian obsession with respectability was a reaction to the French Revolution; the Victorians were very well aware of what happens when the upper classes lose the respect of the lower classes. Eventually we had a reaction to that reaction, and a reaction to the one after.

Much of our current culture is a reaction to the Holocaust, but we're already starting to see reactions to those reactions. Time marches on. The past is a foreign country, and the present becomes foreign to the future. I find it difficult to believe in a setting where umpteen years have passed and the material circumstances of life have changed, but culture and values stay constant.

Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is another sort of example of the sort of worldbuilding that resonates with me. His Qeng Ho and Emergent cultures were foreign to us and to each other, but each had a point of view that made sense within its own history and circumstances.

286:

How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster has a few more examples of why it's a good idea not to be too close when the rocket is landing.

288:

King Philip IV of France ran up big debts with the Templars, then connived to have the order disbanded as a means of getting away with default. It wasn't a robbery as such (I don't know whether he seized significant Templar assets in France. Most of the Templar's stuff wound up being taken over by the Hospitallers.)

But this raises an interesting point. For a bank operating on a fractional reserve model, it's possible to borrow more from the bank than it has in reserves (gold in a vault, or electronic funds on deposit with a central bank). All the very best crooks know this, and grab their loot in the form of a letter of credit, rather than a sack full of cash and exploding dye packs.

A bank would have to be wildly reckless to lend more than its sum of reserves to a single borrower, but it does happen. Tricontinental in Australia did so several times over to most of the country's biggest corporate crooks of the 1980s. Those crooks each stole more from the bank than the bank was ever worth.

289:

"fondleslab." -- Thank you for this awesome coinage.

290:

Sorry to be late for the discussion (created an account just for this post), but is OGH familiar with the work of Mr. Cixin Liu?
His stories seen to be centered exactly around the societal changes brought about by SF happenings.
If you aren't willing to commit time to a trilogy (The three body problem), you can do worse than reading a few of his short tales, maybe "The wandering Earth".
Apologies if it's bad form to reccomend a translation or it's a too-beaten horse, but I haven't seen any mention of his name around here.

291:

If a bank is highly illiquid, the sovereign won't rob the bank; he'll steal/conquer/tax the assets. If a bank is sufficiently liquid to be of interest to the sovereign, he can simply take the liquid assets. There may be some nod to the idea that the sovereign intends to repay (he doesn't).

Absent secure property rights (a historical rarity), power seizes wealth far more easily than wealth buys power.

292:

I think you mean "Chicken coop". My parents kept chickens as a hobby and I spent entirely too much time in it feeding, cleaning up after and gathering eggs. BTW, when chickens get to supplement their diet with grass and small creatures, the eggs taste better.

293:

I meant, what happens in story terms when the map goes past "Barking." And I'd totally buy more "Tuf Voyaging" books! The first one was awesome!

294:

"Philip le Bel" grabbed as much as he could within his own dominions - & he tried, without success to get others to hand over loot to him, but was unsuccessful
Outside France, very few Templars were even arrested & most either "retired" into the Hospitallers or became "ordinary" knights etc.
Of course there's a huge post-Templar fantasy literature ( Ignoring Dan Browne ) & a strong connection with one of the wierdest pieces of architecture in Scotland - Roslin Chapel. And the Saint-Clair or Sinclair family.

295:

I've been following the Chtorr novels very carefully for many, many years, and even made a charitable contribution (to an AIDS charity? It was a long time ago) so Gerrold would tuckerize my wife. The new books have been "real soon now" since the late nineties, so "...as of two years ago he'd written them" does not fill me with faith! (You're probably tied in enough to know for sure what's happening, but the rest of us have to deal with twenty years of broken promises. GRUMP!)

On the other hand, at the time they were some of the very best science fiction I'd ever read - no problems with world building there - and they are very likely to be serious, major classics when he's done with them. So I'm willing to be patient, but I'd like to finish the series before I become senile!

296:
Well, at that rate I'm fairly certain that you've just said "The North American Great Lakes and Mississippi-Missouri river complex can't exist because Rocky Mountains" not once but twice.

Both of those things are located well outside of the Rocky Mountains rain shadow, which does exist and has a major impact on the climate of the areas to its immediate east. It's why those parts of North America are actually pretty dry, comparatively.

Mirkwood and the Anduin, on the other hand, are located within about 300 miles or so of the Misty Mountains leeward side. And it's even worse when you consider that there's another mountain range to their immediate north, the Grey Mountains, which run directly into the Misty Mountains and form a kind of triangle, which means weather systems that move down from the north should also be dumping their moisture there too. So they're actually in TWO rain shadows.

That whole area should be really, really dry, not super lush and wet.

297:
MBAs with brains
THESE EXIST?
Hey! I resemble one of those!

I'm also realize I was given a toolset by that program, not a way of life or philosophy. I also grew up twisting a wrench, threading pipe and toting tool boxes under houses, into attics or up ladders onto roofs, so my mindset was significantly different from many of my fellow students. They wondered why I sympathized with unions.

And why I tormented one of my professors by routinely asking for documented historical actions against labor be included as options in simulations. With consequences.

I also thought Ropes to Skip and Ropes to Know was the best management book ever.

298:

Apart from the natural issue of becoming jaded through exposure, SF is a genre in a conversation with itself, working variations on the good ideas and discarding the bad ones. The first time a reader encounters a particular sf notion it will have the full sensawunda which is never repeated on subsequent encounters. Since the number and rate of invention of really original sf ideas is low compared to the amount of sf produced a reader will soon find themselves reading more variations on things already read than new things. Sometimes a writer takes an idea out for a real workout that renders all previous versions obsolete. Robert Heinlein's All you Zombies and By His Bootstraps did it for time travel stories until David Gerrold did it again with The Man Who Folded Himself. The Groundhog Day idea of reliving a life repeatedly reached apotheosis in Ken Grimwood's Replay until that was finally topped by Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

My (mostly sf) library has an average publication date of 1988 and a mode of decade 1970-1979 according to LibraryThing.

299:

If I understand what you're saying, I agree. You're not calling for spending a lot of time _in the prose_ world building. Just that the author should have a framework that they adhere to. And when opportunity presents itself, provide some insight into that framework.

300:

About the Maya... my late friend Sue Blom wrote Inka, an alternate history, which was *really* good. Friends tell me her sequel will get published one of these days (the original wasn't a "big enough" seller).

301:

Oh, come on, would you believe them? I mean, necromancers don't deal with deities, if they were for real, they'd mention sorcerers.

*humph*

And I like my pressure cookers very much, thank you.

302:

Well, that was ridiculous of him. He clearly didn't learn anything from his fellow monarchs, who borrowed from the Jews, and when the debt got to be too much, they expelled them from the country and seized what they couldn't carry away....

Oh, and while we're at it, screw Isabella and Ferdinand, and their Spanish Inquisition....

303:

So, what was your undergrad degree? I esp. do not believe in MBAs with a business degree having brains.

Lessee, Bro. Guy used to teach at various Catholic colleges around the US, and one of the courses he taught was "science for non-science majors". About 10-12 years ago, he rand down the food chain of the majors that took that course. The next to the bottom were the business majors, who "didn't get it, but didn't let that worry them". (The bottom of the food chain, those that didn't get it, and didn't *know* that they didn't get it, were the communications majors, y'know, folks who go into "journalism", and PR, and HR... and explains an awful lot.)

Meanwhile, our pro-business folks in the US Congress and Senate, and the WH.....

304:

I'm not getting anything in the first few pages of search results for that book. Do you have a link?

305:

I assume you mean the ropes book. Just put the title into bookfinder.com and up it comes. By a Richard Ritti.

306:

Heh. Tell the Polynesians. The best they could do was drying pandanus, and they still managed to conquer a good chunk of the tropical Pacific.

Of course alcohol may be important for other reasons.

307:

Roslin isn't weird; the weird thing is that it managed to survive whilst so much else was lost. It's definitely unusual, basically a rich mans piece of fantastic architecture.

308:

Whitroth

So, what was your undergrad degree? I esp. do not believe in MBAs with a business degree having brains.

Chemistry. Minor in bio. No, I didn't want to be a doctor - I wanted out with a degree after I discovered I hated dissection courses.

I currently work in IT and used to be a data/reporting analyst in telecommunications.

309:

Oh, yes, I *knew* there was something I wanted to say: of course all educated people in Middle Earth spoke Latin, er, the "common tongue".

310:

Robert Prior and Guthrie,

It is the Ritti book - The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know.

https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Ropes_to_Skip_and_the_Ropes_to_Know.html?id=RtchtJWOAjIC

311:

Charlie, a minor quibble in Deep State: the evening after Rita's first dinner, Ras is there with his fortified wine, and Miriam comes in. It *says* "with an empty tumbler", I think, but a page or two later (ebook) she takes a drink from it, then goes for some wine.

312:

No, the Inka book by Sue Bloom that whitroth mentioned. Getting lots of hits for Sue Blooms, and books about history, but nothing about the novel (even when I added "novel" to the google search term).

DuckDuckGo also had no luck finding it.

313:

Blom, Suzanne Alles


Inca - the Scarlet Fringe

Frank.

314:

Isabella - & even there, she had to be thoroughly blackmailed by the church heirachy ...
Quoting dfrom wiki:
" In 1499, the Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros began a campaign in the city of Granada to force religious compliance with Christianity with torture and imprisonment; this triggered a Muslim rebellion. "
Said cardinal, apprently threw a public hissy-fit, throwing down a crucifix before Isabella, with a crowd present - in other words a deliberate set-up.
Aragon ( ferdinand's territory ) - was the last to go, because the catholic heirachy had been steadily biting bits off the cherry until there was none else left.

315:

I prefer "Up the Organisation" & "Further Up the Organisation"
As to how MBA's etc are royally good for screwing-over companies - by Robert Townsend
LINKIE

316:

Greg,

Dead link. I did find Townsend's books.

And another trip to the library will be in order. You know, it's because of this site, File770 and James Davis Nicoll that I'm becoming the Houston ILL department's most regular customer.

And I agree most of the expensive MBAs are WOMBATs. You know - Harvard, Wharton, Stanford.

317:

Star Trek ended for me when they began making movies, never mind the horrifying travesty that was "The Next Generation" (I bailed halfway through the pilot ep; everything I've picked up through skin contact since then tells me that was a good decision to make.)

I didn't even make it through the original series.

The captain of a capital ship doesn't put himself in personal danger the way Kirk did every week. When he does that he fails his responsibility to the ship & the crew.

There's a reason warships carry Marine detachments.

318:

Greg Tingey @271 said: You need the "London Connections map, actually

Wow! That adds more lines to play with. I need to load that into Draw and expand what I have. Thanks...

319:

But were WWII movies based on WWII combat, or did they have distances etc altered to fit the screen?

With the exception of adding a bit of gun camera footage from WW2 dogfights, I'm pretty sure almost all arial combat in films is just a reimagining of the arial scenes from William Wellman's 1927 film Wings and Howard Hughs 1930 film Hell's Angels.

An old military acquaintance bitches a lot about infantry movies, because they almost invariably get distances wrong. Even WWII movies will have him screaming "spread out!" at the screen…

It's hard to make a realistic war movie from the infantry man's POV with the camera never getting more than 3 inches off the ground.

320:

A close acquaintance of David Weber described it as "spreadsheet carnography" -- David at one time used Excel to calculate a lot of stuff about missile barrages and their statistical effects on the various fleets involved.

Didn't a lot of that also come from Role Playing Games where they roll various dice to determine how effective an attack/defense is? The spread sheets helped keep track of the results from rolling for multiple variables.

321:

Given the number of people he lost, I decided, long ago, that no navy in their right minds would give him a multigigabuck starship and 300 lives. Hell, we never saw a fraction of that number. I figure he was actually the captain of a spacefaring PT boat....

And, of course, "Quick, Scotty, Spock! It's 20 min. of the hour, and i haven't gotten laid, or violated the Prime Directive yet!"

On the other hand, as someone who saw it on first run, it was fabulous.

322:

"Trebushet" sounds like a plausible UK pronunciation. But I don't think it's a likely US one. A comparable case would be "valet," which can have a t at the end in UK English, but is "vallay" in US English. And all the characters in that scene are Americans.

It's been mentioned in a half-dozen or more replies already, and it just now occurred to me that if they're pronouncing it the way it's being spelled, it's still wrong. I think.

Isn't it properly pronounced Trey-boo-shay?

323:

I have some speculation about middle-aged male SF authors and side-effects of common medication for a common condition, but I'm going to keep it to myself. Let's just say: I have strong suspicions about Larry Niven and John Varley, know for a fact about John Brunner, and if I'm correct I dodged the bullet simply by knowing what the heck was happening to me and how to argue prescribing policies with doctors.

I've speculated for a number of years that the lack of those same medications explains a lot about how obsessed Heinlein became with certain ideas in his later writings.

324:
Didn't a lot of that also come from Role Playing Games where they roll various dice to determine how effective an attack/defense is? The spread sheets helped keep track of the results from rolling for multiple variables.

Dunno, but I've used a similar technique to point out assumptions in playtests have problems. Particularly how long it would take for a PC to get to a certain set of abilities assuming the standard amount of XP at one session a week. And when advancement involves a certain amount of risk, what the odds are that the PC will die or go insane before reaching that ability.

It was illuminating.

325:

rhotic

That's a new word for me. So I looked it up. Now I know what it means, but I'm still not sure I understand it. Something to do with the way you pronounce the letter 'r'?

There are too many gaps in my education because I read too much science fiction.

326:

Sometimes context is the only guide to pronunciation - how about "wind" - as in "wind a clock" vs "the north wind".

What about "wend" as in "wend your way"?

327:

King Philip IV of France ran up big debts with the Templars, then connived to have the order disbanded as a means of getting away with default. It wasn't a robbery as such (I don't know whether he seized significant Templar assets in France. Most of the Templar's stuff wound up being taken over by the Hospitallers.)

So, more Goldman Sachs and AIG than John Dillinger?

Woody Guthrie said it best.

“When a man robs a bank they get all excited, but when a bank robs a man, they don't do nothin'.”
328:

I've enjoyed the non-WEIRD characters in Becky Chambers' 2 books, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and the sequel. Third one coming mid 2018...

329:

Yes, and that was what I suggested in my original post: That if Stirling wanted to sneak in a hint as to the pronunciation for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the word, he could have had the engineer talk about the "trebuchet," had the assistant ask, "Tray booshay?" (or maybe "treb-oo-shay?" though I think that's a less likely pronunciation for an American to guess at), and then maybe had the engineer spell it. That would make sense as "the engineer just said the word aloud, and someone who wasn't familiar with it tried to repeat it," which is what happened; Stirling's sequence would make sense as "the other person read the word off a page and didn't know how to pronounce it," and that was not what happened at all.

I suppose you could propose that the engineer didn't know how to pronounce it either, but Stirling was making him out to be a history of technology geek, so that didn't even occur to me. I think it's more likely that neither Stirling nor his copy editor thought about the words on the page as actual spoken dialogue than that Stirling came up with that arcane a bit of characterization.

330:

That's a new word for me. So I looked it up. Now I know what it means, but I'm still not sure I understand it. Something to do with the way you pronounce the letter 'r'?

Back in the sixties, I read a humorous book by a woman named Leslie Conger about her undertaking to read some of the classics. At one point she cited a footnote in a British translation of an Indian work that explained that the first "a" in Rama was fully pronounced and the second was not, so it rhymed with "farmer." She thought that was funny and joked about "the fama in the dell" (a song that was taught to schoolchildren back then).

In General American, you see, the R's in "far" and "mer" are both pronounced, or in linguistic terms, they change the pronunciation of the preceding vowels to a form that's called "rhotic": the tongue is moved close to the alveolus (the ridge behind the upper teeth) at the end of each syllable, producing a consonantal effect (an "approximant"). In the English that Conger was encountering, the distinction between rhotic and nonrhotic vowels is much less or entirely absent, and to an American it sounds like "faahma" (where the final a represents a schwa). New England English also does this to some degree, which is why John Kennedy's pronunciation of the college's name was often represented as "Hahvuhd"; on the other hand, New Englandish sometimes rhoticizes the ends of words, so Kennedy was also shown as saying "Cuber" and "Africker," and I don't think standard UK English does that.

331:

More non-WEIRD tales in Nnedi Okorafor's wonderful Binti stories, and N K Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy which starts with The Fifth Season (a fairly brutal first volume, but a really good read.).

332:

From any rational standpoint, the world building in Ninefox Gambit is completely unbelievable.

It requires that calendrical science works.

Aside from that... what makes it workable is that the vast majority of people aren't in one of the factions - the hexarchy is really an unnecessary thing that sits on top of a bunch of otherwise reasonable and normal societies.

But, okay, maybe the Shuos are unbelievable.

333:

Didn't a lot of that also come from Role Playing Games where they roll various dice to determine how effective an attack/defense is? The spread sheets helped keep track of the results from rolling for multiple variables.

I'd assumed it was from table-top war gaming. Some of his stuff reads to me like they've started with a space battle game, used it to build a scenario where the plucky little fleet that could wins, and then put that into a novel.

But I've not seen evidence that David Weber was a table-top wargamer, just that the books feel that way.

334:

Re passports:

From what I've read, passports were a necessity for travellers in feudal Japan. I could be wrong though.

335:

Something to do with the way you pronounce the letter 'r'?

Being rhotic is main feature of the American accent, and it's a feature of the accents from Ireland, Scotland and some bits of England* and India. It isn't so much how you pronounce 'r' as the fact you always pronounce it. In most other spoken English, the 'r' before a consonant and at the end of the word is silent.

Apparently historically all English was rhotic, and the the mainstream of English becoming non-rhotic appears to have coincided with the Great Vowel Shift and the emergence of the "trap-bath" split (see Wikipedia articles on these). These things all seem to have happened by the end of the 18th century, with the American accent remaining truer to the older pronunciations. Which means that much as it might grate to our** ears, performances of Shakespeare with American accents probably sound closer to the way the audiences of the late 16th century spoke than productions by the RSC.

I've noted someone as smart as Amanda Palmer getting solidly frustrated on Australian television over the "trap-bath" split (add laconic Australian vowels to make it even more confusing).

* I think you do need a rhotic accent to carry off a line like "Around here, if you accept a girl's cake, that means you're engaged", even though all the 'r's would be pronounced in a non-rhotic accent too.

** That's a sweeping "our" and my apologies to those excluded.

336:

It means Americans don't get it when I joke about the greatest hero of British myth being only half a king.

337:

Most British con-going and Great-British-Beer-Festival-going fans here will know someone called 1/2r (pronounced "Arfa").

338:

My personal theory is that Star Trek (in all its forms and variants) is actually a role playing game devised to provide an outlet for atavistic individuals who have problems with life in a genuinely advanced society.

Original series is the first edition of the rule books, The Motionless Picture, TNG, et-al are revisions and spin-offs... :-)

339:

IN Medieval Europe & even later, "Passports" used to be for diplomats & senior representatives, to ease any passage with minor officialdom & also to act as "letters of introduction" for when the traveller finally arrived at his destination.
Generally speaking, for ordinary people, including merchants, they just "went" & dealt with problems along the way as they went.
Remember that there were both far fewer people travelling & a minimal civil service.

Shogunate Japan was, of course, very different - the centralised control exercised was very tight for such a non-mechanised system. One wonders how much it cost in terms of time & effort ( The Stasi problem, in effect )

#337 ( Cruttenden )

340:

"Our society implies - requires - a police force. My point is that some societies don't require such - which gets back to Charlie's point about SF world-building."

I think what we have here is a confusion between a police force and the police function. The concept of a dedicated force to carry out the function in a manner appropriate to an evidence-based legal system is comparatively recent, but the function itself is a standard feature of human societies, because human nature is such as to require it.

I'm not trying to argue that eg. ancient Athens had actual evenin'-all 'ello-'ello-'ello-what's-all-this-then coppers, but you still couldn't just go around murdering anyone you didn't like the look of and get away with it. The physical force to make you stop doing it and impose consequences upon you would still be deployed somehow: the policing function would still be performed.

To build a world with a human society that has no policing and paint it as a utopia is a step too far for the ol' suspension of disbelief. It would be a dystopia - either you'd have thug rule, or the humans would be around as small, scattered bands existing in such marginal conditions that finding food and dodging the weather/hungry dinosaurs would preoccupy them above all other considerations.

The Culture doesn't have a police force nor even a really noticeable amount of the function, but it is not a human society. The biological members of it who are most prominent in the stories are painted as humans, but according to Banks they are not humans - in the planet-specific sense of "most prolific Earth ape" - because said apes have not attained a level of mental development that would make their participation in the Culture feasible. (Presumably this would manifest itself as an increase of Dunbar's number by several orders of magnitude.) The Culture had come into being long before Earth even began to think about industrialising. The Culture knows about Earth, and is definite that Earth is not part of the Culture and won't be for a very long time yet.

I find it a little odd that the stories themselves don't really make that very clear, and the definitive statement is from an interview with Banks rather than from the books. Until I read that interview I always had this background dissatisfaction with the Culture - it's full of humans, but where are all the twats and arseholes? But the simple point "they're not Earth humans, they just look like them" resolves that difficulty.

Of course, there is still some giant biological handwave required to explain how it is that the same physical form as pertains to Earth humans has evolved all over the galaxy. I guess that doesn't bother me so much because it or something like it is practically universal in SF - even more so than the standard FTL handwave, since extraterrestrial humans show up in SF that well pre-dates SF that makes a big thing out of how people get around the place.

341:

"Particularly how long it would take for a PC to get to a certain set of abilities assuming the standard amount of XP at one session a week. And when advancement involves a certain amount of risk, what the odds are that the PC will die or go insane before reaching that ability."

Insert joke about Microsoft operating systems here...

342:

We could do this for ages, but...

The Misty Mountains are both less high and less wide than the Rockies, going by the descriptions of crossing them in both LOTR and The Hobbit. There is snow on the tops but the passes are below the snowline (the pass in The Hobbit is not snowbound; the pass in LOTR is not expected to be, and the storm is suggested to be something more than just a natural weather phenomenon). The pass in The Hobbit they seem to have got most of the way over by the time they are captured - they escape from the goblins' caves right onto the eastern side of the mountains; the journey through Moria takes only a few days, in the dark and at a point where the range is quite a bit wider than most of it.

The land on the eastern side of the Rockies is still at a very high elevation; the land on the east of the Misty Mountains is no more than a few hundred feet above sea level - the Anduin is a sufficiently old river to be navigable most of the way up, so the elevation difference is limited to the small run-of-the-river drop of an old river, plus one waterfall.

The area is a lot further north than the US Rockies. The Fellowship's journey down the west side of the Misty Mountains begins around 52 degrees North in an England-style climate, and ends somewhere equivalent to the northern half of France latitude-wise. And the sea is not all that far away; we just get the impression that it is because you have to walk there, whereas we are used to the travelling speed of a car or train that would cover the distance in a day. Yes, there are the Ered Luin, but Wales doesn't stop it raining in England. (Come to that it tends to remain pretty manky and wet at this latitude however far east you go. From where I am there is no higher ground until you get to the Urals, and we're not short of big rivers to the east of them.)

Most of the Anduin's flow is drainage from the Misty Mountains themselves, not the land to the east. It has very few tributaries on the east side, but it has tributaries on the west side all the way up. (The drainage from the other side of the mountains is by a bunch of separate rivers, so they don't attain such a size.) Further to the east, beyond Mirkwood, we do seem to have a pretty dry area - there is an endorheic lake fed by one river originating in the Grey Mountains, and that's about it. (IIRC.) Presumably what population that area supports is concentrated close to the river.

So it seems to me that it's just as easy to argue that it does work as that it doesn't, given the nature of the information we have to work on.

343:

So, more Goldman Sachs and AIG than John Dillinger?

Not quite. Philip the King/state owed the bank money, and used his influence over his relative the Pope/regulator to wriggle out of it.

GS used AIG as a bookie, to take big bets that sub-prime mortgage backed bonds would fail. Those bets were partly to hedge/eliminate its own huge sub-prime liabilities, and partly GS standing as a middleman, offering similar bets to hedge funds, then laying them off at lower cost with the idiots at AIG, taking the difference as a profit. That was only zero risk arbitrage to the extent that AIG's huge, AAA rated balance sheet ensured it could pay up. Otherwise, GS was on the hook for enormous losses.

When AIG's losses were indeed so vast that it couldn't pay, Goldman used its influence with all the former Golmanites at the various regulators to bail out AIG, making AIG just a conduit for the state's taxpayer dollars to cover Goldman's losses. This was ugly, cynical, and undeserved. GS had failed to properly consider counterparty risk (the risk that your bookie will go broke), but AIG did genuinely owe GS the money.

In medieval terms, it was an imprudent bank using it's influence over the corrupt Pope to force the imprudent King to cover the debts of an imprudent insurer, ultimately at the expense of the peasants.

The problem, and opportunity the Kings of Westeros have is that they have no control over the Iron Bank in Bravos, not part of their Kingdom, but their debt is so vast that it should start behaving more like equity. The bank should have a strong interest in seeing the King succeed, and repay his debts. (I have no idea if this actually happens in GRRM's books, which I haven't read.) In worldbuilding terms, it's far from clear from the TV series how the Iron Bank operates.

As Keynes put it, owe a bank $100, and you have a problem. Owe it a million, and the bank has a problem.

Don il Dotard's bankers' found this out the hard way when they realized that the Trump brand was key to the value of their collateral, and were forced to keep him afloat, impersonating a successful billionaire.

344:

And I agree most of the expensive MBAs are WOMBATs. You know - Harvard, Wharton, Stanford.

Expensive MBAs aren't so much about the course content as they are about making contacts with classmates who will end up in C-suite territory throughout corporate America, by virtue of having contacts with (repeat recursively). In other words, it's a class signifier.

(This per a friend of mine who isn't an idiot, who acquired an MBA along the way — and is now an automotive journalist and enjoying his life a whole lot more than he enjoyed management.)

345:

From the OP: [Modern technologies] are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don't have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren't lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note, alienated from the very society they are supposed to illuminate.

David Foster Wallace recounted a disagreement he had with one of his creative writing professors, who argued (c.1980s) that literary fiction should eschew all mention of technology and pop culture as a faddish distraction from a proper focus on human nature. Wallace argued that ignoring the telephone was to ignore a fundamental aspect of modern human social life. Similarly, Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were critiqued around the same time as shallow for their use of brand names as shorthand for character, missing the point that they were describing stunted characters in a consumerist society. (In fairness I stopped reading a couple of recent novels by Ellis and McInerney which seemed like lazy parodies aimed at proving their critics right.)

Now, the pace of change and the centrality of tech to human social interaction and atomisation, not to mention the increasingly baroque, weird, toxic intrusions of social media, consumer culture and neoliberalism seem like inescapable concerns for fiction. Pre-21st century period pieces are the only escape. If you want to write contemporary fiction, I suspect that you don't just need to acknowledge that, but you need something akin to worldbuilding skills to figure out how all of that affects your characters in a way which won't seem dated or unobservant in a few years time.

Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy was supposedly mainstream, but it was the observant, SFnal eye which made it interesting. Gibson always said all of his novels were really about the present, that he wasn't really worldbuilding so much as depicting the unevenly distributed future visible today. Neuromancer was famously lacking mobile phones, and unconcerned with technical detail, which doesn't spoil it for me, but it is insightful regarding the nature of our deep interelationship with our machines.

BTW, I'd be very interested in a post by OGH re. mainstream-ish, non-SFF contemporary novels he likes, and why. I get that you're busy, though, Charlie.

346:

The sequel to Inca is really going to be published? That sounds great - Inca was one of my favourite AH novels. When I heard that Ms. Blom had died, I thought that the sequel died with her.

347:

Somewhat OT, but the US National Transportation Safety Board has published Sinking of US Cargo Vessel SS El Faro, a lengthy and detailed accident report that includes discussion of the mostly human factors that led to the loss of the ship. Bridge conversations found on the voyage data recorder and emails played a large part in the investigation.

IMO, it provides, among other things, useful background material for authors writing scenarios in which Things Go Wrong.

https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/MAR1701.pdf

348:

That whole area should be really, really dry, not super lush and wet.

For what it's worth, a few years ago a climate scientist at the University of Bristol (writing as "Radagast the Brown") ran a climate simulation for Middle Earth, using a standard General Circulation Model. The paper mentions the rain shadow effect for the Misty Mountains, but based on the annual precipitation map (Figure 3f in the paper) it doesn't seem to be very strong, and in fact the estimated vegetation coverage map shows broadleaf forest on both sides of the Misty Mountains (Figure 4).

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/jun/17/video-scientists-simulate-the-climate-of-the-hobbits-middle-earth


At the risk of going off into the hand-waving weeds, there is the possibility that the climate east of the Misty Mountains is partly affected by magical influences -- specifically, those of the Elves in Lothlorien (and perhaps Mirkwood as well). A weakening of the rain-shadow effect would help keep Lothlorien well-forested, which is certainly something the Elves want.

349:

The Tokugawa Shogunate required its vassals to attend the capital half of each year, and kept their wives and children in the capital full time as hostages against rebellion. They knew that any rebellion would be preceded by guns going in and women going out, so they had rigorous system of internal passports. Women's passports included particularly detailed descriptions. The system lasted 250 years, until the Americans came.

350:

With the exception of adding a bit of gun camera footage from WW2 dogfights, I'm pretty sure almost all arial combat in films is just a reimagining of the arial scenes from William Wellman's 1927 film Wings and Howard Hughs 1930 film Hell's Angels.

Nope. As I pointed out in my comment (#7) above, it's very clear that the aerial combat was specifically inspired by WW2 films, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s (or Korean War films, in the case of The Bridges at Toko-Ri). No one involved in the production of Star Wars mentions Wings or Hell's Angels; Wings has the additional problem of being a silent film, which makes it less likely people like Lucas would have seen it on TV when they were growing up (or in the 1970s, which is when Lucas was doing things like videotaping war movies from TV, then transferring them to 16mm film for editing).

351:

I have read that ancient Athens did have a police force. But it wasn't considered fitting work for free men, so it was made up entirely of slaves. I wonder how that actually worked. . . .

352:

What's your criterion for "the mainstream of English [becoming] non-rhotic"? In terms of numbers, I believe more people speak General American than the Queen's English. Is "mainstream" defined by something other than number of speakers?

(In terms of the proposal to spell English phonetically based on UK English, I think there's a different argument: It's more helpful to put all the R's in and let the UK speakers treat them as silent than to leave them out and make the US speakers guess which words have them. Of course it's not "phonetic" either way, but that's why phonetic spelling is a problematic idea, right?)

353:

It's worth a bit of a shrug, really. There are forests on both sides of New Zealand, Japan, Korea, the Appalachians...

Oceanic currents make up for a lot of the precipitation shortfall. Where you get deserts is when the currents are moving along the coasts towards the equator, as in the west coasts of the Americas and southern Africa. If warm currents are coming off the equator, there's a lot of warm water ready to evaporate and put moisture into the air.

Anyway, there's a big fudge factor in this system, because Middle Earth was warped from flat to globular (I think there's an XKCD What-if question there: how much energy did magic move in the system to keep the whole surface of Middle Earth from going molten, and to allow life to survive the transition?). I don't think GCMs model thaumatoclimatology all that well.

So far as Lothlorien goes, I'm interested in Lembas. It's an old forest. What are they growing for grain to make those cakes? It's not like most grasses like trees after all, and acorn meal doesn't have gluten. Inquiring minds want to know (but not much, actually).

354:

I'm genuinely saddened to hear of Hugh's death. He was always generous and affable in these threads, and made me rethink quite a lot of my approach storytelling. And he produced some great work in his own right.

355:

I'm interested in Lembas. It's an old forest. What are they growing for grain to make those cakes? It's not like most grasses like trees after all, and acorn meal doesn't have gluten. Inquiring minds want to know (but not much, actually).

Weirdly, I happen to be looking through The Peoples of Middle-Earth, which has a brief note in it about lembas ("Chapter XV: Of Lembas"). Apparently it's made from a special grain (or "corn", Tolkien being British enough not to assume that means maize) given by the Vala Yavanna to some of the Elves back in the First Age. It grows rapidly in almost any season, with only a little (direct) sunlight. Since Lembas was only used by travelers and would keep practically forever, they probably didn't need to grow lots of the grain, and you can plausibly assume that there were a few "isolated glades" in Lorien where they grew what little they needed.

356:

... performances of Shakespeare with American accents probably sound closer to the way the audiences of the late 16th century spoke than productions by the RSC.

Are you familiar with the attempts to perform Shakespeare using a reconstruction of "Original Pronunciation"?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s

357:

Of course, there is still some giant biological handwave required to explain how it is that the same physical form as pertains to Earth humans has evolved all over the galaxy.

Banks answered this question, indirectly. The actual question he was asked was "Why does Culture have biological sentients at all? Logically they should all have uploaded and been done with it." Banks responded that all Culture novels (which if you recall, are separated by thousands of years) take place in time periods when biological bodies are in fashion. Most of the time almost all Culture citizens exist as simulations.

This answers your question too: Fashion

358:

Avoided everything to do with Star Trek after the original series. Avoided everything to do with Harry Potter after the third book. Hmm...
At terminal risk of sounding cheeky, this gives the impression of not finding SF to one's liking because one doesn't cast one's net wide enough, though I'm probably dead wrong there.

359:

Are you familiar with the attempts to perform Shakespeare using a reconstruction of "Original Pronunciation"?

I have heard of projects like that and I think they are worthwhile. That isn't what the RSC does, though, and I think what the RSC and other companies like it do is worthwhile too.

360:

But I've not seen evidence that David Weber was a table-top wargamer, just that the books feel that way.

I think table-top gaming is a subset of Role Playing Games. Anyway, table-top war-gaming is what I meant.

Weber has a group of gamers (BuNine) that help him with ship designs & those battle scenarios. They have something to do with Ad Astra Games, who publish the "Saganami Island Tactical Simulator" game.

361:
“With the exception of adding a bit of gun camera footage from WW2 dogfights, I'm pretty sure almost all arial combat in films is just a reimagining of the arial scenes from William Wellman's 1927 film Wings and Howard Hughs 1930 film Hell's Angels.”

Nope. As I pointed out in my comment (#7) above, it's very clear that the aerial combat was specifically inspired by WW2 films, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s (or Korean War films, in the case of The Bridges at Toko-Ri). No one involved in the production of Star Wars mentions Wings or Hell's Angels; Wings has the additional problem of being a silent film, which makes it less likely people like Lucas would have seen it on TV when they were growing up (or in the 1970s, which is when Lucas was doing things like videotaping war movies from TV, then transferring them to 16mm film for editing).

Lucas didn't need to watch Wings or Hell's Angels. The film makers who created the WW2 and Korean War movies Lucas did watch had already done so. The film makers of the 40s, 50s & 60s used ideas of what aerial combat should look like developed for those earlier films when they made their later films.

Just as Lucas derived his ideas of space combat from WW2/Korean War films, those WW2/Korean War films ideas of aerial combat were in turn derived from Wellman's and Hughes's earlier films.

362:

Are you familiar with the attempts to perform Shakespeare using a reconstruction of "Original Pronunciation"?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s

Sounds like some of my relatives down in Eastern North Carolina.

363:

What's your criterion

Well, I'm Australian. It makes superficial sense to talk about how the Australian accent is different to the American accent, but you can't sensibly talk about how it diverges from it - you have to consider how both diverge from British English and how Australian English diverged later than American English. Even if a branch has grown to considerable size, perhaps dwarfing the original tree, the trunk is still a trunk, and other branches that grow from it are related to the hypertrophied branch only via the trunk.

Is "mainstream" defined by something other than number of speakers?

I would like to think that the Royal Shakespeare Company is always "mainstream" no matter what. But I think there's a general concept that "English is the language they speak in England" and you risk drifting into absurdity when arguing the contrary. You could describe a mainstream of "American English", and describe how Bostonians and Californians diverge from that and why. But you can't engage in a descriptive exercise seriously without something like the trunk and branch metaphor above.

As an exercise, you could compare Cajun with Quebecois French. The latter appears to have retained contact with French spoken in France, while the former is a relic stuck in the 17th century. You could say that Australian English is more like Quebecois, and American English more like Cajun, in the sense of diverging later versus earlier, but that's probably stretching things a little far.

This "number of speakers" argument is not straightforward, either. I think the majority of English speakers live in India and Pakistan. For many, English might not be their first language and the other language influences their accent. In many cases that accent is rhotic* but still observes the "trap-bath" split and, allowing for the other language's influence, the Great Vowel Shift. For many, of course, English is their first and possibly only language anyway. India and Pakistan certainly produce highly-regarded literature in English in significant volume. Again, this is divergent from British English and while it might make sense to talk about differences with American English, it makes no sense to talk about it being a variation of American English rather than British English.

* I have a colleague from Kerala, his first language is Malayalam and the way he pronounces 'r' is entirely different again.

364:

It's a chilling example of "contemporary norms of power hierarchies" steering directly into an easily avoidable disaster. How many SF novels have I read where a spaceship has an autocratic captain? Way too many. You can't run a spaceship that way and have a reasonable chance of the captain and crew surviving. They're all dead.

365:

They warp entire planets and you are concerned that acorns don't have gluten? ;)
It's a while since I last read lotr so I can't recall whether any other nut or such came up. Was any fruit or seed of the Lembas tree mentioned?

366:

US National Transportation Safety Board has published Sinking of US Cargo Vessel SS El Faro.

That's a really fascinating document and thank you for posting the link.

367:

Answer at #355. Actually, it sounds a little like what The Land Institute is trying to do with creating a perennial wheat, but mostly it sounds like Tolkien, good Brit that he was, had the gardening answers more sorted out than he did the planetology.

(h/t to Peter Erwin for that truly, erm, thorough answer).

368:

Both of those things are located well outside of the Rocky Mountains rain shadow...

I'm always curious that so few writers include anything like the North American Monsoon (NAM), which from time to time, dumps 25 cm or more of rainfall in a few hours smack in that rain shadow. On average, in July and August, Phoenix has more rainfall than either Portland or Seattle. Granted, the monsoon only runs for about eight weeks in most years. Nor is it particularly consistent from year to year. But I've always been a bit puzzled why worlds that have Big Magic don't also have big dams capturing snow melt and monsoon moisture.

369:

I think your final point is relevant, but I'm afraid that the answer is that most writers are English majors. Most of them (with some really good exceptions) aren't looking out their windows when they write, they're just cribbing off whatever they read. You'll find, I think, that most fantasy deserts look like the Sahara too, most northern areas have fjords in them, and so forth. This is the same culture that has the star fighters roaring through the vacuum at 0.8C while shooting bullets at each other.

370:

Sinking of US Cargo Vessel SS El Faro, a lengthy and detailed accident report that includes discussion of the mostly human factors that led to the loss of the ship.

Ditto the thanks for that fascinating link.

It's worth noting that a lot of the CRM/BRM stuff is handy in general life as well. Especially if you're managing anything, the "take a moment to think about whether the people around you are paying attention, and whether they might have anything useful to say"... even in an emergency. Especially in an emergency. Do it. DO IT NOW.

I like to summarise CRM as "I'm in charge of making sure you tell me what to do". Viz, the captains job is to make sure that the crew deliver all critical information and suggestions promptly and accurately.

Just the generic "is anyone in charge of monitoring the supply of dishwashing liquid" stuff makes life flow more smoothly.

371:

I'm afraid that the answer is that most writers are English majors

Hey - I resemble that remark!

Well not quite... I'm not really a writer.

372:

Just the generic "is anyone in charge of monitoring the supply of dishwashing liquid" stuff makes life flow more smoothly.

It's Zigzag Street by Nick Earls where a character's partner takes him to task for purchasing 6* jars of Tikka Masala curry paste, but no toilet paper. Competence in leadership means making sure that whoever's job it was to order toilet paper has got it right.

*The number might not be 6, I'm making it up because I can hardly remember and I don't think I have a copy of the book right now to check.

373:

That pronunciation can (almost) be heard in rural Somerset/Dorset

374:

Speaking of Banks/Culture, after making my way through most of the books I kept hearing about the short story involving Earth, so I tracked it down.

And I hated it. Mostly because it turns out that 1960s Europe is more alien of a place to me than a galaxy-spanning alien civilization. Actual 1960s events were almost too bizzarre to be true if you did't live through them (I ended up doing a lot of interesting reading up on the East/West Berlin madness as it all sounded completely rediculous).

375:

Mostly because it turns out that 1960s Europe is more alien of a place to me than a galaxy-spanning alien civilization.

And now you know how many Brits feel about parts of the USA! (The cultural disconnect is only made worse by the superficial similarities, like the mostly-shared language.)

376:

I'm always curious that so few writers include anything like the North American Monsoon

Oddly it's something I only learned of through fiction; Katie O'Rourke's Monsoon Season.

377:

"...star fighters roaring through the vacuum at 0.8C while shooting bullets at each other."

That's only half a bad idea, of course. If your opponent is moving at 0.8C, inducing him/her to collide with a small, cheap piece of metal is probably good strategy. (Maybe 2/3 of a bad idea, because the star fighters wouldn't actually roar.)

The really stupid part of all this is the question of how anyone fights at more than 0.5C, which would be when radar/lidar stopped being useful, though the highest speed practical for fighting would probably be considerably slower; I can't imagine a successful exchange of beams or missiles at anything higher than 0.1C.* (At such high speeds your best weapon is probably a missile which contains some very dusty compressed air - you trigger it slightly ahead of your opponent and he/she ablates to death.**)

And did I mention the part where you can't fight anywhere near a planet, because if your missile accidentally hits a settled planet's atmosphere at 0.5C you've probably eradicated all human life on that planet? (This makes building the Death Star into a rather ridiculous proposition.)***

* At 0.1C, slight randomizations of speed and vector will make it impossible to hit the opponent with a beam, except by coincidence. You might have more luck with a missile, simply because it would have some terminal guidance, but it would still be very easy to miss. Probably the big thing in interstellar warfare would be to deduce the seed for the enemy's random number generator. (Rhetorical question: how many different methods are there for generating random numbers?)

** Did someone mention shields? Don't be silly. When your fighter runs into the small cloud of dusty compressed air at any significant fraction of C your shield generator will probably melt down into a small pile of superheated, radioactive goo. The pilot will shriek in agony while being boiled alive, assuming that the deceleration of hitting a dust cloud doesn't kill them instantly. (I don't know the math for striking a dust cloud at > 0.1C, but I suspect there are lots of exponents involved, and they're multiplied together rather vigorously. Something the size of a TIE fighter probably needs a forward-facing shield with a diameter of around ten meters...) You could probably tow your shield generator behind you... maybe multiple shield generators and when they've all melted you have to somehow escape the fight? (Your shield generator starts to vaporize and you throw it at the enemy?)

*** Damn, I've just written the theoretical basis for a Baen book!

378:

"the star fighters wouldn't actually roar."

Allow me to pick a nit...

They probably would if you were inside one. Even if it was running without atmosphere and the crew in suits, you'd still get transmission of sound vibrations by contact between solids.

And vibrations there certainly would be, because there are always some, even if you normally don't notice them; anything you think of as completely quiet begins to make a noise if you scale up its power handling enough. Any engine capable of accelerating a ship to 0.8c in a usefully short time is going to be handling elephant shitloads of energy, and it only takes a very tiny percentage of that to go into vibration for things to get very noisy indeed.

Which basically means that relativistic space fighters are in practical terms impossible simply because they would shake themselves to pieces.

379:

...relativistic space fighters are in practical terms impossible simply because they would shake themselves to pieces.

Oooh! Nice catch. I didn't notice that one.

Of course, if we're assuming a small-craft drive which could propel something up to 0.8C, an anti-vibration system is just one more impossibility. (In the Starfire books they end up having to downgrade the use of fighters because they are too small to handle "modern" drives which can move a warship at 0.5C)

380:

They probably would if you were inside one.

Neat detail about "The Expanse":

At the first glance it looks like yet another "space battle with sound" bad design -- explosions in vacuum which go bang, and spaceships which roar. But if you pay attention, you realize that every sound you hear is a sound which somebody in the show would hear. A missile impacting a spacecraft will be certainly heard by the people in that spacecraft -- and the viewer hears it too, although camera viewpoint might be in open space. Whereas things which no one can hear, like a missile hitting a rock, or a drone missile firing up, are silent.

381:

1960s Europe is more alien ...
Yes, well ... Cuban Missile Crisis, when I was in VIth-form, the beginnings of anti-apartheid in England ( Our school had someone from the SA embassy/high comission down & we eviscerated him ) The very first beginnings of proper self-control of reproduction for women & the utter christian screaming "moral panic" about it ...
Going to Germany with my father, and walking right up, as close as I dared, to the Zonengrenze - which colours, shall we say, my attitude to "momentum" today & any fuckwit who thinks marxism is a good idea, at the same time realising, personally ( as my father had done since June 1945 ) that Germany was simply horribly unlucky & that Nazis can happen anywhere.
The deaths & injuries in "normal" working & factory conditions that would now be regarded as completely unnaceptable - someone here referenced Aberfan, which happened when I was at Uni in Manchester - and, what is not recognised now - that similar deaths/injuries & simple wastage of people was even worse on the other side of that Iron Curtain.
The only saving graces were a certain innocence of the young, a lot more available railway &, of course lots of now long-destroyed breweries .....
[ And, very breifly, a strain of popular music that was actually, quite good - because, lets face it between 1920 (ish) & about 1959 was shit & at least 99.9% of everything since approx 1980 is also shit - & only about - see Sturgeon - 10% in that intervenbing period was any good at all ... ]

382:

Actually, several SPACE OPERA novels & sets of them accept this, wrt using "Space" weapons on Planets as being "Non-Geneva" so to speak.
Doesn't Weber have some such prohibition - I think he does?

383:

Greg, my point isn't that someone would do a C-fractional strike on a planet on purpose, but that under the conditions of battle in any number of fictional universes, it could easily happen by accident.

And Weber does have a prohibition.

384:

Any engine capable of accelerating a ship to 0.8c in a usefully short time is going to be handling elephant shitloads of energy, and it only takes a very tiny percentage of that to go into vibration for things to get very noisy indeed.

ITYM heat. (Noise = vibrations, of course.)

Put it another way: at roughly 87% of c, the vehicle's kinetic energy is approximately half its rest mass, which works out at 10-11 megatons of explosive juice per kilogram. If your space drive is 99.9% thermally efficient (way better than any energy efficiency we've managed to date), then to get to 87% of c you just had to deal with a Hiroshima-sized nuke's worth of energy for every kilogram of your ship.

As for dust or gas ... an alpha particle is a stripped helium nucleus traveling typically at 0.01-0.05 c. If you manage to make it up to 1% of c, the interstellar medium (roughly one atom per cubic metre) can be approximated to a radiation bath, where you're hitting one heavy ionizing particle per square metre of frontal area 3,000,000 times per second. Speed up to 10% of c and that 3 MBq of heavy particles just leveled up to 30MBq.

This is not a radiation environment conducive to the pilot's well-being, to put it mildly.

385:

This is not a radiation environment conducive to the pilot's well-being

Which is where the shields come in, and those are already dealing with so much crud that a few bits of extra dust probably aren't going to make any difference. Of course, jettisoning a lump of anything then swerving at that speed is going to make whoever catches it very excited.

It doesn't really matter whether they've cast "Aurass Invinciblus" or "enabling posiquark shields, captain", they've traveled beyond physics as we know it.

386:

"BSG is myth-making around the origin story of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; that is, it takes a distinctively Mormon view of the universe and its protagonists' embattled place in it."

The original 1970's Galactica had a lot of Mormon themes written into the worldbuilding of the series, and there were a couple of explicitly religious episodes (with space angels and a space devil) that took those Mormon themes and ran with them. However, the production design, and the opening credits voiceover, went all in on the "ancient astronauts" theme that was trendy at the time. Everything from the card game played by the human characters to the architecture of the planet the humans originally came from to the space helmets worn by the fighter pilots were very, very heavily Egyptian-themed. The ball game played by the humans was, OTOH, Mayan-themed, which fits with the whole "all those ancient civilizations were so advanced because they had aliens helping them out" BS baked into the ancient astronaut concept.

AFAICT, the 2000's remake ditched all the Mormonism and all the ancient astronauts stuff. It's theme, which maddened a lot of nerds who couldn't handle religious peanut butter getting into their SF chocolate, was Cyclic History meets Divine Providence in Space, with angels nudging both the polytheist humans and the monotheist cylons along towards their mutually shared destiny as the progenitors of modern humanity on Earth, with lots of side comments about how "this has all happened before, and it will all happen again."

387:

And now you know how many Brits feel about parts of the USA!

There are many Americans that feel that way too. I'm tempted to think that it's a rural/urban, provincial/cosmopolitan or South/not-South thing, but what in what parts of the US do you furriners feel uncomfortable or comfortable?

388:

Most countries have a split between a cosmopolitan subculture that interfaces with the rest of the world (usually concentrated in the cities and the coasts) and at least one core subculture that's more parochial and only indirectly interfaces with the rest of the world. The interface subculture almost always considers the parochial subculture to be backward and unsophisticated; the core subcultures generally consider the interface subculture to be greedy and decadent.

The only exceptions that I'm aware of are tiny places like Luxembourg that are basically pure interface.

389:

In case it wasn't clear, the interface subcultures are by definition more welcoming to foreigners than the core subcultures.

390:

Speaking of integrating technology into near-future stories, people will now have to integrate this into it:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/05/the-guardian-view-on-google-and-toronto-smart-city-dumb-deal

392:

Oops, I meant this story

Both work :) Decaying, privatised infrastructure is likely to be even more problematic than public stuff - at least your local government can't relocate to a tax haven then vanish into bankruptcy, only to have lawyers for the new owners appear from the other side of the world reappear a decade later to claim ownership and compensation for any damage done.

For that matter, the great thing about "smart infrastructure" is that if it's not continuously maintained and updated it will be hacked and whatever you thought it was keeping private won't be. Which should provide great datasets to researchers... let's call them that. (even if it is maintained it is still likely to get hacked).

Flying cars are awesome. A flying quadcopter with heaving things in it not so much. I wanna see their goose strike tests.

393:

At sealevel on Earth there are 10^25 molecules of air per cubic meter (as opposed to OGH's statistic of 1 molecule per cubic meter in interstellar space.) Dropping a cubic meter of air, (which I just googled at 1.2 kilograms of mass) in front of a one-person fighter moving at 0.1C would probably be catastrophic.

A shotgun would be overkill.

394:

That reminds me of one of the first "first contact" short storys I read many, many years ago. I don't remember the author or the title

Two starships, one from earth and one from some unknown alien civilization detect each other while surveying a new planatary system. They immediately attack each other while simultaneously launching drones to carry the news back to alert their home systems.

Their methods of navigation appear to be based on some principle that allows them to "jump" out of and into real space, and the battle apparently has two purposes, cripple the opponent & destroy the opponents drone. The earth ship's weapon is a 5 pound steel slug and the alien ship's weapon is a couple pounds of gravel.

The two ships manage to cripple each other, but both drones escape. The survivors from both ships manage to crash land on a planet with an earth like atmosphere. The earth crew has barely salvaged enough equipment to survive. The story ends with the survivors from the earth crew waiting to see whose drone makes it home first.

395:

Greg, my point isn't that someone would do a C-fractional strike on a planet on purpose, but that under the conditions of battle in any number of fictional universes, it could easily happen by accident.

And Weber does have a prohibition.

In Weber's "Honorverse" the prohibition is mainly against nuclear strikes launched from orbit. Accidental strikes are treated as negligence, and whoever launched the attack is just as guilty as if it was intentional.

Kinetic weapons launched from orbit are still permitted.

396:

Anyone watch the Netflix series "Altered Carbon"? Any opinions on the world building in the series or the original novel the series is based on?

397:

At sealevel on Earth there are 10^25 molecules of air per cubic meter (as opposed to OGH's statistic of 1 molecule per cubic meter in interstellar space.) Dropping a cubic meter of air, (which I just googled at 1.2 kilograms of mass) in front of a one-person fighter moving at 0.1C would probably be catastrophic.

Hmm. So we don't even need foo-fighters. Fart fighting would be sufficient, if the enemy ran into the cloud of flatus at sufficient delta V. Good way to weaponize the sanitation system on a ship. Or something. Gives the aiming issue a whole new...never mind. This is clearly a fertile metaphor.

398:

I don't want to get too far into it, but the Eridani Edict (in the Honorverse) says that you can perform kinetic strikes against a target if you control the space around the planet and there is no reasonable chance that the government of that planet can expect a relief force. At that point you are allowed to perform kinetic strikes against legitimate military targets.

You're still not allowed to fire a missile into the planet's atmosphere at 0.5C - that would involve the mass slaughter of civilians.

But the big point here is that many, many authors have not carefully considered the consequences of how their weapons systems behave in the real world. How many science fiction stories involve space navies which which routinely employ various forms of c-fractional missiles? What happens if you're fighting a Klingon fleet near Pluto and their c-fractional missiles hit Earth, even accidentally? Or a damaged TIE fighter collides with the inhabited planet it is defending at 0.51C (moving just fast enough that radar can't track it.)

These are military versions of the poor world-building OGH is complaining about in his top post... what military would voluntarily use a weapon in their own solar system which, if it misfired, could potentially reduce the population of an inhabited world by a third merely because a six-ounce piece of one missile, moving at 0.8C, grazed the atmosphere.

399:

Exactly. I'm beginning to think that if the Zarkoids show up for battle moving at 0.3C the Katnids look at them and laugh, because the Zarkoids have done nothing more than make sure the Katnid kinetic strikes will be a thousand times as effective.

On the other hand, how do you get that cubic meter of air to be right in front of the TIE fighter?

Maybe our ideas of space war are "flatulence" from top to (pardon me) "bottom."

400:

Or we could just say that the space war is, ultimately, a pissing match, where the best-aimed plumbing wins. THere's something satisfyingly simian about that whole concept--that space war is ultimately about pissing accurately while on the high C's.

401:

I would suggest that maybe the multitudes (and their authors) have a good understanding of probability and a hardwired limiter that would stop direct targeting.

If you are around the orbit of Pluto expecting the Earth to be hit is probably about as likely as someone getting hit by a bullet fired straight up in the air.

Most militaries would have done their calculus beforehand.

402:

Dark State spoiler-ish.

Also wrong thread but does the Clan/NAC realise how provactive JUGGERNAUT is?

Something that could cause a Kessler Cascade just by lighting off its main drive in orbit above the US - yikes!

I'm reminded of the propulsion system in OGH's A Tall Tail for some reason.

403:

I haven't watched the Netflix series and might not for a while. I did start re-reading the novels, back about when I mentioned here that I'd seen Richard Morgan tweet about a trailer. I'm only about halfway though Broken Angels and I'm sort of remembering that while I'm much more a fan of Chandler and Hammet and general noirish hard-boiled stuff, and much more than I'd usually be a fan of milfic, nonetheless I liked Broken Angels, which is heavily in the milfic zone, better than Altered Carbon, which is very much noirish hard-boiled. I liked Woken Furies (just as milfic) better again, but haven't got to it yet in my re-reading.

I think the reason is the world-building. A lot of it is already there in Altered Carbon, but it is indirect because the immediate setting is a recognisable future Earth - to the point of almost being transplanted Chandler. I can sort of imagine a TV series of Woken Furies being made in the 70s in the style of Blake's 7 more so than now.

404:

Really the only thing that arguments about fractional c space battles convinces me of is that it’s a really bad idea. Ditto for manouevering fractional c in system. Double ditto for doing near c near a planet. A lot of this sounds like early 18th century admiralty predictions of naval technology a hundred years ahead e.g. sail power and the tyranny of distance whereas it ended up coal/oil fired ships taking shortcuts through canals (wormholes) and using telegraph (sub space radio) to get the strategic drop. Which strangely sounds a lot like a lot of modern mil.SF. :)

BTW you’ve got a space going civilization capable of fractional c travel, tell me again why are they fighting?

405:

tell me again why are they fighting?
Because (some) humans are stupid & often, religious believers ( "Kill the infidels!" )

406:

If you are around the orbit of Pluto expecting the Earth to be hit is...

... about as unlikely as none of the fragments from a c-speed impact on a large thing leaving the scene at anything like c. Thus isn't about "unlikely" this is about the average cost of a space battle. A kilogram at c/2 hitting a planet with a population of even 10 billion is very likely to kill someone, even if it's just a round-the-world sailor in the sub-antarctic ocean. If it's a tonne of metal it doesn't really matter where it hits, or if it's 100B people the planet is likely so heavily populated that either any impact will kill, or unlucky hits will kill billions.

Given the scale of some of the battles the problem is not "gas molecule hits shield" it's "debris field at near-c hits debris field coming the other way at near-c" which should provide enough fragments and energy to make the solar system fun to navigate for a while. Call it a million tonnes at roughly c/2, and the requirement is that none of it hits the earth, not now not ever. The good news is that none of it will end up in orbit, unless it hits a planet and ends up embedded.

But then, we're talking about people who will turn millions of tons of matter into kinetic energy, something we can't even begin to imagine mechanisms for, so maybe they do have some kind of magic wand to stop that happening.

407:

Fanboi-ish side note: I'd find a side novel of Victorian Laundry fascinating, bringing us back to Lovecraft's era...

408:

Also wrong thread but does the Clan/NAC realise how provactive JUGGERNAUT is?

Do you really think I'd have put that gun on the mantlepiece in book 1 and polished it lovingly in book 2 only to refrain from pulling the trigger repeatedly in book 3?

409:

Yes, but it's very much an existing sub-genre (serious steampunk, with Lovecraftian overtones).

410:

No-one else has responded to this by mentioning Jack Campbell's "Lost Fleet" series, where there actually is a "speed limit" on fleet engagements of 0.2c (relative) caused by targeting difficulties even using computerised gunnery systems.

411:

It's be an interesting way to keep your readers in suspense. After all, everyone knows that all mantlepiece guns eventually get fired in a Stross series…

412:

Regarding Athenian police, it's important that pretty much our only contemporary sources are some remarks in Aristophanes comedies... but according to them they were indeed public slaves, called or perhaps nicknamed "Scythian archers" and obviously many if not all were foreigners, since several jokes emphatize their awful Greek. They were in charge of keeping order in public places, like markets and the Agora, could expel or arrest citizens, and the only weapons mentioned are whips...

413:

Yes, of course. But the radiation problem has been covered at great length and the heat problem also, so I thought I'd point out another, different, problem, that does not get mentioned much :)

414:

I re-read all three books in preparation for the series. And wish I hadn't.

Don't get me wrong; it's not bad, just different enough to be irritating when certain things have been turned on their heads for no apparent reason, and - it seems, from the first few episodes - a fair chunk of sequel potential has been burned up.

By episode seven or eight, though, I weas thinking that I do need to re-watch it, having got the brain-itch and second-guessing out of the way.

And yes, they do point at a sequel, at the end.

Just a word of warning, though - there is quite a bit of (even male) full-frontal nudity on show. Plus blood and gore. Just in case that's a no-go for anyone.

415:

Almost re-read “Altered Carbon” before watching the Netflix series, but decided I didn’t want to do that checklist thing of comparing the book to the dramatization. I read all three of Richard Morgan’s books once when each came out. I highly recommend the books, they’re great fun.

Enough time had gone by since reading the books that I was able to come into the Netflix series with fresh eyes and thought it was well done. Really deals with the fucked up reality of sleeving.

Currently reading “Dark State”. It think the Merchant Princes books would translate well for dramatization.

416:

Returning to the dismal topic of English spelling, Jungian synchronicity just caused this to drop into my inbox:

https://www.thoughtco.com/teddy-roosevelt-simplifies-spelling-1779197

"In 1906, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt tried to get the government to simplify the spelling of 300 common English words. However, this didn't go over well with Congress or the public."

My aunt Laura, born in the early 19-teens, was caught up in that and was given to writing "tho", "thru" etc., so I guess the movement lasted a decade or two.

417:

As for dust or gas ... an alpha particle is a stripped helium nucleus traveling typically at 0.01-0.05 c. If you manage to make it up to 1% of c, the interstellar medium (roughly one atom per cubic metre) can be approximated to a radiation bath, where you're hitting one heavy ionizing particle per square metre of frontal area 3,000,000 times per second. Speed up to 10% of c and that 3 MBq of heavy particles just leveled up to 30MBq.


Hydrogen, not helium.

418:

I've always blamed it on the tumor.

And, now that I'm a lot older, the loss of Ginny.

419:

Should I take it that you refer to the Hero in the Matter of Britain?

(Me? Into Arthuriana? You mean, like reading *all* the then-50 yr old journals in Temple U's library in the late 60s, when I was working there? Then making a stab at learning Cymraeg?)

420:

Why so many humanoids? I blame the Arisian galaxy-seeding program.

421:

Back when my late wife was in a fiction APA, using that to work on her/our novels, she had one scene where our protagonists and friends were ambushed on a dark street. I pulled out my God Kit, and ran the whole confrontation as straight, original D&D melee rounds. People we didn't expect to get hurt, did. And when it was published, the unanimous reaction was "how realistic/believable it was".

So, there are uses....

Oh, and if anyone ever wants to know, I can tell you far more about the results of needler guns than you might like.

422:

Um, yes. And, speaking as an American, I can assure you that a lot of those in the South, and Trumpland, and I do *not* live in the same bloody universe, and few of them are taking calls.

423:

I know of one shield that would work. My own, personal, idea is that, like cloaks of invisibility (techno), the force should be bent around the shielded object, to continue on.

The one that would... a "complete stasis in the ether". And then you wait for the Bad Guys to close up, and head towards shift change, or whatever, and assume that they're not going to keep attacking for 10 or so hours... then open it up, see where they are, move and resheiled, repeat as necessary... then project the shield much larger, and chop them up.

Thanks, Doc Smith. (Skylark Three).

424:

I prefer the one where they each take all their nav data, and pics, of course, clean the ship... and trade ships.

425:

And now, Dark State,


spoiler

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!
CHARLIE! You bum! I haven't been this aggravated since, well, I finished Name of the Wind, and before that, when Carolyn's publisher took an axe to a Chanur novel....

426:

I can't remember the author for that, but it was two research, not military ships, both exploring the Crab Nebula.

427:

Yes, there is more hydrogen than helium in the interstellar medium, but an alpha particle is very definitely a 4He nucleus. A 1H nucleus is a proton.

Not that it makes a whole lot of difference when you're crashing into them at a significant fraction of c. Whichever it is, the original particle is charged and massive, so it will itself be stopped after penetrating only a very tiny distance into the spaceship's hull. But the collision will be energetic enough to produce a whole shower of neutrons, gammas, and other more exotic particles, which will penetrate the hull just fine and proceed to wreak havoc upon the low-level constitution of the pilot.

428:

419: yes :)
420: yes, it could be that; but I think it is because human(oid)s have such a tendency to provide extensive resources of habitat and food supply for pigeons as a side effect of their normal activities. So the seeding programme of the intergalactic space pigeons often seeds humans at the same time so as to help give the planet a more suitable environment for pigeons.
423: I did like that technique, but it has to be said it only worked because the Fenachrone were really not all that bright. If they had set up an automatic monitor that would, say, initiate total mass-energy conversion of a nice big chunk of copper stuffed inside a handy space rock strapped to the outside of the shield as soon as it detected the shield going down, the result of that encounter would have been rather different.

429:

At c-fractional speeds, your hardwired limiter only has to fail once, maybe due to battle damage. You're correct, of course, that a hit on Earth is highly unlikely, but are you willing to bet the future of Humanity* on "highly unlikely?"

* Or the future of a planet it hits 200 years in the future?

430:

Without FTL the concept of space battles doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Genocidal bushwhacking with dense, black projectiles and mutually assured destruction seem more likely.

They could be on their way already for all we know. It's not as though planets are maneuverable.

Upgrade to Nicoll-Dyson beams if you want to present yourself as a more resilient civilisation who likes to show off.

431:

For world-builders, where the worlds are a bit farther out than ours, this just showed up:

https://www.lpi.usra.edu/opag/goals-02-12-18.pdf

which is

Scientific Goals for Exploration of the Outer Solar System

It contains a nice survey of what questions currently exist concerning Jupiter through Neptune and the associated satellites.

432:

Says the author with the unfired cat sitting on a mantelpiece in another series :)

More seriously - looking forward to Jan 2019 even more now.

433:

Or the future of a planet it hits 200 years in the future?

I call on the engineers to establish experimentally just how far c/2 debris can travel before ablating from "cataclysmic" to merely "very, very dangerous" status. Preferably using someone else's solar system as an experimental facility (the great filter version #6524: I wonder what happens when...).

There will be a difference between deliberately hard to detect projectiles (which should be banned unconditionally) and wreckage. But one problem with wreckage is that it's an annoying combination of hard stuff that will likely penetrate atmospheres and poor structural integrity, making the "blow up a comet" problem even worse than usual.

With that much KE involved the "cohesive chunk of wreckage" problem is that pieces don't dissipate the way a cloud of gas does, or sublimate the way a stream of pee does.

434:

"Redemption Ark" by Alastair Reynolds has a good example of a long slow battle between two starships. Both are moving at relativistic speed but are almost motionless with respect to each other, and are several light-hours apart. Both can see each other clearly, but since the image is hours out of date, the battle amounts to tossing missiles, zig-zagging, and guessing which way the other will zag. No kinetic energy projectiles because there is no way to actually hit your target at that distance. Just really bog nukes, and hope that enemy happens to be in the blast radius.

435:

In contrast, Banks' Matter (I think that's the one) has a lovingly-narrated battle (ex post facto) that takes pages... and then the ship says it actually only took a few microseconds. It made me laugh.

436:

Genocidal bushwhacking with dense, black projectiles and mutually assured destruction seem more likely.

Yeah. They could be on the way... I think both Greg Bear and Charles Pellegrino wrote about that one. But yes, it's definitely a nightmare worth considering.

I once considered a science fiction universe where nobody was considered civilized unless they at least had a ringworld...

437:

Oops, I meant this story about a Chinese "flying car"

https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/05/watch-ehangs-passenger-drone-take-flight/

That's cool as shit! I want one, although I know it's never going to be something I can afford in my lifetime.

Sigh! Born too soon.

The one thing I did think of right away is they're going to have to install some kind of blade guards to keep idiots from walking into the rotors.

438:

You're still not allowed to fire a missile into the planet's atmosphere at 0.5C - that would involve the mass slaughter of civilians.

As I understand Weber's rules, that would be considered the same as using nuclear weapon against civilian targets. It doesn't matter if it's done on purpose or by accident.

The definition of legitimate military targets against which the smaller kinetic weapons are permitted to be used does seem to be a bit flexible depending on who's doing it.

These are military versions of the poor world-building OGH is complaining about in his top post... what military would voluntarily use a weapon in their own solar system which, if it misfired, could potentially reduce the population of an inhabited world by a third merely because a six-ounce piece of one missile, moving at 0.8C, grazed the atmosphere.

Here I think you're overestimating the ability of governments and military organizations to think consequences through all the way to their logical conclusions.

439:

Don't get me wrong; it's not bad, just different enough to be irritating when certain things have been turned on their heads for no apparent reason, and - it seems, from the first few episodes - a fair chunk of sequel potential has been burned up.

I haven't read the books, but I'm thinking about reading them now ... at least reading the first one now. I think maybe comeing at it backwards like that I won't be nitpicking the series to death.

Just a word of warning, though - there is quite a bit of (even male) full-frontal nudity on show. Plus blood and gore. Just in case that's a no-go for anyone.

It did get a bit intense.

440:

And/ or in "Excession" as well ....

441:

ITYM Surface Detail.

The ship's avatar later casually remarks to a player involved with the small fleet that the ship had destroyed in microseconds that they'd jumped it and it had to "off them".

442:

'First Contact' by Murray Leinster. I did read it many years ago, liked it a lot, but have always thought there was a far more complex, amusing and interesting novel awaiting for someone to write it developing that idea... if only because it's highly unlikely aliens are exactly the same size as humans and share Earthian privacy concerns so that their ships include Earthian-compatible doors, stairs, bedrooms, kitchens and toilets (would that be 'heads' in navy slang?)

443:

> Asked him how much he paid his wife for sex.

Fun as it is to mock MBAs, especially ones with such a sophomoric view of economics, your young MBA was pretty dopey if he couldn't handle that riposte. The obvious answer is surely that he doesn't pay his wife for sex. They are bartering goods of equivalent value (unless she is not a willing participant!)

His mistake, I think, is in using "pay" in this context, and assuming the exchange of money. In context, goods and services are not worth what _money_ someone will pay for them, goods are worth _whatever_ they can be exchanged for. Money, other goods, favours, political influence... And a more, ahem, fluid view of such exchanges of value is not uncommon in sci-fi.

444:

They are bartering goods of equivalent value (unless she is not a willing participant!)

I think you're positing that either she is willing, in which case the transaction must be fair, or she is not in which case it's not a transaction. I think the situation doesn't fall into such a dichotomy. Certainly there's no reason to expect goods are of equal value - they might just be the best one party feels they can expect. There are more aspects to coercion than a binary lack of "willingness". The same is true for all transactions: power is far more important that anything else in most situations.

445:

He was drunk.

It's been a few decades, but I also recall him saying things like clean air isn't valuable because no one pays for it and people don't really value the wilderness because they don't pay to see it. Apparently having a wilderness outfitter added value to a canoe trip because then it generated economic activity (while merely heading out on your own didn't, as you didn't spend any money).

Externalities and intangibles didn't seem to be part of his mindset.

(Again, from what I remember, but it was three decades ago so my memory is rather fuzzy.)

One of my nieces (who has an MBA) left a consulting job because she realized that her firm were never hired to find solutions, but rather to justify the decision the manager who hired them had already made. It gave her an new view of "independent outside consultant" (and confirmed what I had cynically already surmised, having lived through a bit more economic turmoil than she had). I suspect that the drunken MBA at that 80s party was one who revelled in the role of hired gun, 'proving' what his masters wanted proved without actually trying to get at the truth.

446:

In Spanish we have a saying 'Sólo el necio confunde valor y precio' (Only the fool mixes value and price); air can be literally priceless while diamonds are quite pricey, but it takes air to live which makes it far more valuable.

Actually, it's basic Economics that market price is not determined by value but marginal value/marginal utility. This in plain language means that you would pay anything for a water jerrycan in the desert, but you would pay very little for a second one, and pretty much nothing for a third, fourth, etc. because increasing amounts of water have almost no value for you (i.e. its marginal utility is very low) Each diamond, in contrast, is worth the same because all of them have almost the same value/utility even if after the first hundred you are a bit satiated (or so I've heard... )

447:

There's the old English joke about a highwayman demanding "your money or your life" and the rich man needing time to think it over…

448:

Re yct about the Fenachrone: yes, but... they're Old, and Powerful, and have Begun the Conquest of the Galaxy, and these two tiny ships don't even have the space drive, and they just blasted the first, and what can the second one possibly do? IIRC, they expect it to run out of fuel, and then the stasis fails, and they've got it.

Seaton, on the other hand, was thinking outside their box, as it were.

Btw, when *I* grow up, forget trivial things like President or Pope... I want to be Dick Seaton (and will be, as soon as I finish my Famous Secret Theory).

449:

That actually does not make sense. You're not a Ship of the Line, shooting artillery, or dropping bombs, you're shooting rockets with warheads, and you'd expect them to do course corrections as they get closer.

450:

"Independent outside consultant", depends on what they're doing. A good friend is just that... but he's a computer consultant, keeping a good number of small organizations going.

The others, they old joke about lawyers, when asked "how much is 2+2", is lock the doors, pull down the blinds, and ask "How much do you want it to be".

Which goes *really* well for top management (with MBAs), brought in to "fix" a company. Undersize ("downsize), screw everyone over, then sell the company, and walk with a large profit.

Note that if I sound a) cynical, and b) pissed off, I am. My company got bought ("merged", though they ewre 2/3rds the total employees and 80% of the money), it's taken two bloody years to consolidate the financials, time reporting, email, and everything else, and that was *just* complete last month.

And benefits are less; my medical, for example, is more than last year's, and the co-pays more that 1.5 times the previous....)

Yesterday, we learned that the company's just been b sold. My take is that this was the plan all along, and upper mgmt will walk with $$$$$$$$

451:

Ah yes, thank you. I've only got one of the Culture books in ebook form, I should start to correct that.

As I said, it made me laugh. Still does, when I think about it.

452:

I didn't know if I could RC either, so I decided to check. Turns out I can't find the copy I thought I had, but it's on Project Gutenberg, and that version has a preface which I don't recall having seen before. In it Smith talks about how he deals with potential conflicts between scientific knowledge and the requirements of storytelling, so it's quite relevant to this thread.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21051/21051-h/21051-h.htm

Of course, I can't just check the one point; I have to read it, so I haven't got to that bit yet...

I was never as ambitious as you; I just wanted to be Michael Faraday. Or at one point Marie Curie, but her life outside the lab seems to have been quite shit.

453:

Since we're deep in the weeds, I'd like to ask a silly off-topic question that popped up in a conversation yesterday.

This goes to the idea of our universe being inside a black hole formed by another universe. I realize this isn't a new idea, and apparently there are some predictions made based on one version of this idea that might not have panned out.

My weird idea is whether the problem that dark energy is supposed to solve, that the universe is not just expanding but accelerating, might instead be due in to our black hole continuing to take in stuff (I hesitate to call it matter or mass-energy) from the parent universe.

The question is, how might one go about testing and disproving this idea? Obviously there are the microwave background measurements that reportedly did not support the notion. But naive non-physicist that I am, I wonder, if stuff (let's call it handwavium for now) is coming into our universe via a black hole infall from a different universe, and stuff is leaving our universe via all the black holes that our universe has spawned, whether there might be some way to check relative flow rates "in" and "out" relative to the presumed effect of dark energy as a way to test the hypothesis.

Physicists? It's up the flag pole. Fire at will.

454:

idea of our universe being inside a black hole formed by another universe

Last weeks New Scientist has yet another round of theorists trying to resolve the firewall problem, which may be relevant to your suppositioning.

My understanding is that dark energy appears in the gaps between galaxies, not at the edge of the universe. So your black hole idea would require some kind of mapping of boundaries to gaps that I'm not sure would help plausibility.

MOND seems quite benign by comparison, as explanations for dark energy go :)

This seems closest but it's 2013 and I can't find the news snippet from last week online. As usual... NS website is awful.

Wow, they have a whole section on black holes:
https://www.newscientist.com/article-topic/black-holes/

455:

There are some issues there too:

--Is "edge" the relevant place to look for black hole infall? The only way that infall would conflate with dark energy effects is if the stuff appears everywhere.
--Can we even see the edge, or has inflation already pushed that boundary expansion to superluminal speeds? (just heard that theory on the radio a few days ago).

While we focus on the stuff the falls into a singularity, the part I don't understand is whether spacetime somehow gets taken in as well. Spacetime coming into a singularity is where I kind of think of stuff like dark energy, but again, I know nothing.

Whatever. One could imagine a multiverse that's "black holes all the way down," where universes spawn as the result of black holes inside each other in an (infinite?) regressinon series. Although if those theorists were onto something with their theory that our 3D universe is the result of a singularity in a 4D universe, there may be some sort of hierarchy of descending dimensions among universes, where our black holes lead to flatlands, whose singularities lead to linelands, whose singularities lead to pointlands, so that all of the multiverse ultimately ends up inhabiting an infinity zero-dimensional singularities, at which point...what, thepoints blow up and it all starts all over again? Too bad I do not partake. I suspect it would help me imagine this like, totally tripped-out concept.

456:

My niece thought she'd be the first type, realized she was supposed to be the second, and followed her conscience by resigning.

457:

"Dark State spoiler-ish.

Also wrong thread but does the Clan/NAC realise how provactive JUGGERNAUT is?

Something that could cause a Kessler Cascade just by lighting off its main drive in orbit above the US - yikes!

I'm reminded of the propulsion system in OGH's A Tall Tail for some reason."

Pop that into timeline 2 for an hour where every government on Earth would see it.............

458:

"Do you really think I'd have put that gun on the mantlepiece in book 1 and polished it lovingly in book 2 only to refrain from pulling the trigger repeatedly in book 3?"

ISTR a 20 megaton bomb missing from US stockpiles for decades, and *set to go off* in a US city.

459:

At the risk of derailing, Charlie - has the Clan done an diplomatic efforts with other countries in Timeline 2?

Every government (and large organization) would dearly love access to paratime.

460:

Sorry, 'done any'

461:

Concerning fondleslabs, weirdness, and OGH's original post: XKCD has a cartoon about how the world became weird for the Unicode people.

462:

My understanding is that dark energy appears in the gaps between galaxies, not at the edge of the universe. So your black hole idea would require some kind of mapping of boundaries to gaps that I'm not sure would help plausibility.

MOND seems quite benign by comparison, as explanations for dark energy go :)

You're confusing dark energy with dark matter. (E.g., MOND is an attempt to remove the need for dark matter in galaxies, though it fails when you get to groups and clusters of galaxies, which need extra dark matter.) Also, dark matter isn't just in "gaps in between galaxies" -- it's inside galaxies, too, and is in fact denser there (that's why the galaxies formed where they did, according to the standard Lambda Cold Dark Matter theory).

463:

Physicists? It's up the flag pole. Fire at will.

O-kay... (technically, I'm an astronomer, but since I study supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies, I'll assume I'm somewhat qualified...)

"Dark energy" is something that has positive mass-energy but negative pressure. Ordinary matter (and light) has positive pressure, so "stuff" falling into black holes can never behave like dark energy, unless you start postulating really weird properties for this supposed "parent universe".

As far as we can tell, dark energy is evenly distributed (the idea that it's some kind of vacuum energy means that it's naturally the same everywhere). So, as you pointed out, it has to appear everywhere, not just at some hypothesized "edge". To be a bit more specific, the accelerating cosmic expansion thought to be due to dark energy is happening all over the place -- that is, in between all the groups and clusters of galaxies. It's an expansion of spacetime, not an expansions of some "boundary" of an otherwise static universe.

Also, at the moment we have a minor problem with explaining how supermassive black holes got so massive so quickly in the early universe. (There are quasars at high redshift -- when they were less than a billion years old -- with plausible black hole masses of more than a billion solar masses. It's not clear there's enough time for the first stars to form, create standard black holes, and then accrete enough gas from their surroundings to increase in mass that rapidly.) Allowing black holes to lose mass to some hypothetical child universe makes this even more of a problem. (Along with violating conservation of mass-energy...)

464:

ISTR a 20 megaton bomb missing from US stockpiles for decades, and *set to go off* in a US city.

That's not a Chekhov's Gun; that's a deliberate blank round. (Purpose in narrative: to demonstrate that there are some really dark, brutal secrets in the background, including elements of the US government going back decades who are ruthless enough to pull something like Operation Northwoods (the most extreme variant of which, circa early Nixon era, called for nuking a US city as a false flag pretext for a strategic attack on China).

See also the Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group, aka P2OG, (which I wasn't aware of at the time but which fits perfectly with the narrative in this series). (Note: P2OG is contemporary and sufficiently secret that it's fertile territory for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, so be very wary about what you read about them on the internet.)

465:

At the risk of derailing, Charlie - has the Clan done an diplomatic efforts with other countries in Timeline 2?

At 485 comments in we're way past the point of derailment, so here goes:

The USA has ARMBAND and also DRAGON'S TEETH (the products of the Clan fertility clinic/breeding program), who can be activated using the technique trialed on Rita. The Commonwealth established a similar program using sperm donors and, much later, donated eggs (to maximize the available gene pool) but the oldest children were born no earlier than 2004, so at the dateline of EMPIRE GAMES they're just barely old enough to start training. The Clan, as existing in exile in TL3, has maybe a thousand currently available active world-walkers. Some are aging out of the useful cohort, while some children are entering, but even with a significantly higher-than-replacement TFR they haven't been in the Commonwealth long enough to expand their active world-walking force significantly.

World-walkers can't sustain more than 2 transfers per day without meds; even with meds, trying to make 4-6 jaunts for more than a couple of weeks will have potentially damaging medical consequences (from adverse drug side effects such as cognitive impairment, through to aneurisms and stroke). Also, medical issues can render world-walkers unavailable—either through illness, or because you don't want to risk your world walkers betraying their presence by starting a local epidemic of an alien zoonosis (like a hitherto unknown strain of flu). Finally, if you're trying to breed more world walkers you probably don't want to use pregnant women as beasts of burden: drugs contraindicated in pregnancy are a no-no, and that includes some antihypertensives.

Even with better drugs, there's a tight limit on the Commonwealth's available world-walking bandwidth. Their top priority is securing the Commonwealth, which implicitly means maximizing the take from the industrial espionage/catch-up program run by MITI. A second priority is military security and threat detection, hence the exploration program and JUGGERNAUT.

Remember that bomb wing of B-36 analogues? They need at least two world walkers for each aircrew if they are to pose a credible deterrent to the USA. So that's maybe 10-15% of their available adult world walkers sleeping on cots in bomber base ready rooms at any time, just to retain the capability to ferry 70 airframes carrying 1-4 H-bombs each to major US targets. Which realistically means more like 25% of their active world walkers, once you take into account illness, morbidity, and pregnancy.

My BOTE assumption is that in 2020 the Commonwealth has 500 world walkers available for general purposes, another 250 pregnant or unavailable for medical reasons, and 250 assigned to the military on hot standby. They can generate roughly 1000 jaunts per day, but because the USA's time line is two jaunts away that means maybe 250 round trips/day, max, if they drop everything else (e.g. the supply runs to JUGGERNAUT and other paratime-remote installations, the exploration program, and so on) and rope in retirees and late teen-agers at maximum operational tempo.

In fact, the picture is even worse. If you spotted the references to conscription/a corvee/obligation? Most world walkers don't do it full-time — they're on active duty maybe 25% of their time. They have jobs, spend time training (for the undercover missions), and so on. It's not as bad as being an astronaut (where they fly aboard ISS for maybe 1-3 years out of a 30 year career, if they're lucky), but it's the same principle at work — world walkers are a scarce resource and valuable, so a lot of time and thought goes into ensuring that their jaunts are productive, which in turn makes them scarce and expensive.

(If the novel was set in 2030, not 2020, then with a TFR around 6 — think Iran in the 1980s — the Clan exiles might have increased by 3000 new adults (6 kids each for 500 women) and another 3-5000 children on the way but too young for service. The second generation of the First Man's breeding program would also be coming along by now, adding thousands to tens of thousands more active world-walkers, the oldest in their mid-teens.

So the Commonwealth by 2030 will have the paratime bandwidth to support diplomatic missions to other countries ... but as of 2020, it's straining the limits of their capability.

If this sounds bonkers, consider a metaphor: the USAF has a couple of thousand fighter aircraft of all types, and numerous bases in the continental USA—but only 3-4 of those bases are able to generate a quick-reaction flight; there are usually a couple of F-16s or F-15s in the air near DC, and they can scramble a couple more within a quarter of an hour, but the idea that the USAF can get a thousand fighters in the air simultaneously (without a multi-month-long readiness campaign first) is moonshine.

The devil is in the detail of logistics support, in other words.

466:

Interesting. So amateurs talk tactics, pros talk logistics. And the second order (and beyond) effect of those logistics.

467:

XKCD has a cartoon about how the world became weird for the Unicode people.

You know there are people who want to use emoji in URLs. *shudder*

468:

Talking of which [ XKCD ] one of Charlie ( & everybody else's ) pet hates is featured recently ....

469:

"Using emoji" in a URL is something that trivially falls out of "Use Unicode in URL". That is something people are kinda keen on, to have URLs (and domain names) that support whatever language they happen to speak, that isn't English (NB, there MAY be languages that are distinct from English that don't need anything outside ASCII, but the only ones that I can think of is Esperanto, and maybe Klingon).

I think it would be sillier to explicitly forbid using emoji, but allowing the rest of Unicode, YMMV.

470:

Learning from their masters at Gleiwitz, were they?
I note that JFK refused to touch it with someone else's - good for him.
Some of the othe details - a false-flag attack on Commonwealth territory are especially ... nice (not).
What bothers me, is that when T Donald Rump is replaced by Pence (shudder) this WILL be tried out, because "Jesus wants us to do it against the godless Insert_$NAME_here"

471:

the standard Lambda Cold Dark Matter theory

As a loyal Materialistic Reductionist, I find it embarrassing that the current "concordance cosmology", ΛCDM, has reality consisting overwhelmingly of Λ and CDM, neither of which we have much of a clue about.

http://www.astro.caltech.edu/~george/ay1/lec_pdf/Ay1_Lec20.pdf

472:

Actaully, it's got to the stage of multiple Epicycles, hasn't it?
[ Or the "ultraviolet Ctatstrophe", even ]
The "answer" is probably blindingly simple - once it's been seen at all ....

473:

There seems to me to be a bit of a wobble here...

Originally the Clan had the one big advantage over the US that they could world-walk and the US couldn't. But then the US not only levelled the advantage out of existence, but turned it the other way round, first by creating a mechanical implementation of world-walking that could be produced and used in bulk, thus escaping the limits on its use, and later on top of that debugging the biological implementation so that too was free from the limits.

The Commonwealth's security is now protected by nothing more than how little the US knows about them, and the US is busily driving at tearing that barrier down. The big lever the Commonwealth has over the US is the ability to carry out a nuclear first strike, but that ability is limited by their world-walking capacity, and the US is already able to do the same to them only better; they're just not yet sufficiently well-informed about the Commonwealth's capabilities to figure out if they can get away with it. But they are closing that gap fast and the Commonwealth now knows enough to realise it.

Now if I was in Commonwealth security I would be VERY interested in counter-espionage against the US, and also rather unhappy that the Commonwealth's abilities in that line are so crap - a handful of world-walking agents who can barely be used because they're too easily blown. I'd be trying to get some decent assets, both human and technological, inside the US apparatus. So a handful of starting thoughts on that theme, in no particular order, might include these:

Seeking US youths in a kind of similar position to Rita - having by chance a background with nothing to alarm the positive vetting crew, with the kind of social position that is broadly contented and pro-government, but who aren't comfortable with the US's endemic surveillance (and racism), and are at the stage of life when they are susceptible to the influence of political alternatives to the mainstream; then applying such influences to them. Similar to the KGB's doings at Cambridge. I'd probably consider roping in some ex-KGB people (cf. our own TL featuring a certain ex-KGB chap who's rather good at cyber-subversion of the US) and also using the British security establishment as a vector into the US one (also known to work in their TL). Of course, if Rita let slip about her grandad I'd probably think it was Christmas, but that sort of thing doesn't happen for planning for it.

Seeing what happens if you take a biopsy sample of a world-walker's cellular machinery and insert it into a Columba livia zygote. They have enough payload capacity to carry a miniature recording device and enough "hidden volume" between the outline of the feathers and the outline of the body underneath to conceal it, and they naturally sit on window ledges. If people leave windows open they could also leave things behind inside. And things to breach air-gaps.

Looking to China as a source of technology rather than the US. After all, that's where it's all made. The Chinese branch of the world-walkers would probably be useful here if any of them are still around.

Attempting to replicate the mechanisation/debugging of the world-walking mechanism, using a combination of research and espionage.

Attempting to get photons to world-walk. Especially if you can implement COME FROM. Nobody is ever going to notice if 1 in 106 photons hitting a fly-sized bit of wall disappear into another universe, but the eye on the other side still gets a great view.

Such research efforts shouldn't harm the main catch-up programme any more than what they're doing already does. The prime requirement is top scientific brains, which catch-up doesn't need much of. The establishment might be something on the periphery of a small town with a population of a few tens of K where it gets overlooked because all anyone cares about is the scenery.

I do get the feeling that in Invisible Sun we're going to find all such concerns becoming irrelevant as everyone is eaten by an enormous mutant star goat. I do hope that doesn't happen in such a way as to shut down any possibility of future novels in this universe (I know you've said you have no plans, but I can always hope you'll be struck by some random but irresistible inspiration) as there seems to be so much potential left in the setting.

474:

stage of multiple Epicycles

I prefer cherubim and seraphim myself, though they're also a little hard to accomodate in materialistic reductionism. But whatevs.

475:

INTERESTING
Someone been reading Vernor Vinge, I wonder?

476:

Dark matter takes the form of enormous giant space pigeons, hundreds of light-years across. They act as kind of "galactic shepherds", curating the universe for the benefit of all the various pigeon species on different planets.

Nobody can find it mainly because nobody thinks of looking for enormous pigeons in space. But you know how at one stage the people who found the cosmic microwave background thought it might be pigeon shit? Well, it is, just not on the antenna.

477:

Or Greg Bear, or Neal Stephenson :)

478:

> There MAY be languages that are distinct from English that don't need anything outside ASCII, but the only ones that I can think of is Esperanto, and maybe Klingon).

Hmm, Swahili?

Neither Esperanto nor Klingon - Esperanto has (famously) diacritics (Ido hasn't), and Klingon does not even use Latin script :-) (there is an ASCII only transliteration/transcription, but then, there is one also for Russian or Chinese). Anyway, it's naïve to think that English needs only ASCII (though it can “get along” quite well).