Friday, August 21, 2009
So I thought about other research plans for next year. This is the second project I've had to scrap for lack of time, unfortunately. I thought about doing an author-overview of Greg Egan's short fiction, but I'm afraid that will actually be too hard, given the year I'm looking at. Unfortunately, writing pattern recognition algorithms is much easier for me than thinking deeply and writing coherently about patterns and themes in an author's work. So I had to go with my fall-back plan, which I hope will be entertaining for you all:
Can I write a pattern recognition algorithm that reliably distinguishes between fantasy and science fiction?
I know I'm asking for trouble, but this is one of the easiest research projects I can do. I'll limit the input data to short fiction from the last 5 years, so that I'll be mostly comparing apples to apples (and it will be relatively easy to find 100 stories of each type already online--that's the most important part). My feature set will be related to grammatical usage, to see if there are significant style differences between sf and fantasy. The initial training and testing sets will consist of 'core' sf and fantasy: pieces where no one would reasonably dispute their categorization. If it looks like a doubtful case, I'll save it for later. I may be tapping the hive mind to confirm my suspicions on occassion, also to see if any reasonable dispute arises. 50 stories of each set will be used to do feature selection and initial training, the other 50 will be the initial testing set.
If the results look promising on the testing set, then I'll start throwing boarderline cases at the algorithm, and see how it classifies some of the trickier stories. How will it classify "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," for instance? That should yield some interesting results.
I want to be VERY clear here: if it is in any way successful in classifying the two (and I don't necessarily think it will be, see below), I will NOT be saying that "Thus X is fantasy and Y is science fiction, absolutely and forever, so mote it be!" This will be purely descriptive, not prescriptive, and will simply be another data point to use in the decades-long categorization debate. I'll be doing it because it's fun and relatively easy.
Why do I have any hope of success? Well, one of the last algorithms I wrote was for a grad school project. I asked it to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction using grammatical frequencies as the features. I was very surprised when it was able to correctly classify the two with 92% accuracy based on only 3 features. That's pretty amazing, frankly. Among the things it mis-classified: Ted Chiang's "Exhalation" initially showed up as non-fiction (it didn't in a revised version of the algorithm), a NY Times article on flooding in North Dakota showed up as fiction, as did a Michael Moore essay, and my reviewing manifesto showed up as fiction as well. It's the cases that break the algorithm that are always the most interesting, and I'm hoping that this little science project can contribute a little to the ongoing discussion. However, I'm totally prepared for there to be no significant difference at all; I have a suspicion that adventure writing is adventure writing, whether it uses swords or blasters. But that will be an interesting result all on its own.
I'll keep you posted as I go along. I plan to present the complete results at the 31st International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in March (assuming they approve my abstract--they may laugh it out of the conference). Feel free to throw suggestions (or short stories that have been previously published) my way! I want to make sure I get as diverse a sample set as possible.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
- I was afraid reading this would be a slog, but as with so many classics I've read recently, it's actually a lot of fun. Especially if you can just go with the comedy instead of trying to analyze it for a class.
- Monty Python comes by it honestly (as does Benny Hill). At one point Chaucer gives himself a Tale, and goes off in high-chivalric style about a shiny knight and his shiny armor and shiny horse (all in perfect aab,ccb rhyme scheme) before the Host shuts him up and makes him tell something else--felt a bit like Holy Grail for a second there. Also, lots & lots of sex farce in here. I think Judd Aptow movies must be accepted as a distinguished part of a long-standing tradition in Western culture, honestly.
- Some interesting translations: luxurie = lechery; whileaway = Woe is me!; lust = desire in a general way, not specifically sexual; wood = mad/crazy; nice = foolish (often). Linguistic drift is fun!
- Relationships between the genders have been a matter of cultural negotiation probably as long as there's been culture; here we get every view of women from saints to sluts and everything in between.
- Sometimes you'll really shock the heck out of your audience by having all the characters wrap things up by being kind & intelligent to each other instead of being idiots to the point of tragedy.
- If you're an evil guy wandering about the countryside, and you meet a fellow evil guy, and then you find out he's the Devil, what's the first question you would ask him? Back then, apparently, it's: "Do you always look like that?" (Basically asking if he looks different when he's at home in Hell.) I can just imagine someone today asking "So who does your clothes?"
- The one story that deals with an innocent child is horrifyingly anti-semetic and doesn't fit with any of the other tales here.
- The conflation of Greek myths & fairy that you see in Midsummer Night's Dream also shows up here. Not sure why that is, but it's obviously well established.
- Even back then they talked about the good old days when the people were closer to the fae, before the churchmen came and sort of crowded/shouted them out.
- Televangelists are also part of a long, glorious tradition, represented here by a "Pardoner" who sold indulgences.
- Predictably then, cynicism about religion & religious hucksters is also venerable.
So far one of the most important things I've derived from reading all these classics is this: people should have an opportunity to read these things on their own terms, without having them shoved down their throats at school. That way they can take more time with them, and get different things out of them than the pre-approved interpretations. I'm so glad that I didn't read this in college, and I'm equally glad that I've read it now. It's a great perspective on different traditions of story-telling, which means, as it should, that's it's fun to read.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The biggest game in Anathem is Spot the Smeerp!  Except here instead of alien critters we're looking for Western philosophers. Throughout the background, world-building, dialog, encyclopedia excerpts, and appendices, Stephenson recapitulates for us the whole of Western classical philosophy, at least those bits that also include the natural sciences. But instead of discussing Occam's Razor, the characters here talk about Gardan’s Steelyard--Spot the Smeerp! 
How can he cram all this infodumping into an sf story? It's easy when your characters are (almost) all philosophers, and your hero is a young philosopher learning his way. The basic set-up of the world is that there are many Maths and Concents (cloisters of a sort) set up around the world, each divided into four parts. The fraas and suurs (smeerp versions of friars and nuns) in the Annual section open their doors to outsiders every year. In the Decade section, they only open their doors every ten years. I'm sure you can extrapolate to the Century and Millenium sections. The system (worked out in exquisite detail) has apparently been working pretty well for almost 3000 years now. They're perfectly capable of pulling up the drawbridges at any time and riding out the political and cultural storms outside their walls. They eschew any technology that may break down during Dark Age periods, trusting mostly large machines of stone and metal. They do not meddle in the affairs of others, dedicating themselves to collecting, preserving, and discovering knowledge. Needless to say, it is perfectly natural that 90% of their conversations revolve around science and philosophy. 
However, most stories can't thrive inside walls opened only once every 100 years or so. We need to get our ivory tower theoreticians out into the world. Along comes a handy crisis, upon which the Fate of the World (of course) rests. For some reason the philosophers can't go about openly, so instead we follow our young hero Erasmus as he drives, walks, and sails most of the way around the world, learning as he goes. Obviously he couldn't become the Hero he needs to be if he just caught a plane to the scene of the climactic action. However, rather against my expectations, he doesn't learn about the outside world and its richness and diversity and value--instead he learns more about the importance of abstract philosophy. In fact, it is only those philosophers who can Save the World!
So we have a fun book here (and don't let me fool you -- between the Spot the Smeerp game and the Bildungsroman,  it really is a fun book) that leads you through certain branches of philosophy. It will probably teach many of Stephenson's readers quite a bit about the traditions of Western thought. But why bother? And why do it now?
Well, Stephenson must think this is all very important; so important that only the people who know philosophy and live (mostly) pure lives of the mind will be his Heroes. Probably, like most sf readers, he feels the internal, intellectual life is very important and rewarding. OK, so when was he writing it? It came out in 2008, so he probably turned it in sometime in 2007, and he writes all his books in long hand with fountain pens, and it's well over 900 pages in print, it had to have taken a few years... Bush! It's all Dubya's fault!
Bush ran for office, rather famously, by being a "nice" guy and a "tough" guy instead of a smart guy. In fact, he embodied that strain of American culture that finds something rather suspicious about educated people. He was in favor of jocks with guns solving the world's problems. I think we can all see how well that's worked out. There are few jocks and no guns in Anathem--the closest you get are the coolly intellectual Shaolin (smeerp = Ringing Vale) monks. Frankly, Anathem is a paen to intellectualism and elitism--and I say Hurrah! 
The dark ages of 2001-2009 may explain certain certain resonances between Anathem and Incandescence, Greg Egan's latest novel.  In that book, we play Spot the Smeerp with physics experiments. (What does Foucault's Pendulum look like when conducted with rocks floating at the center of a tumbling asteroid orbiting a black hole?) It's only through sheer brain power (and, like Anathem, without digital computing) that an alien world can be saved. Why no digital computers? Perhaps to prove to ourselves that we don't need any stinkin' shiny AI/Robot/Computer/Logic-Named-Joe to make our science fiction--we can do it with only the power of our brains. 
Sure, these authors seem to say--sure, jocks with guns and SFX are fun to read about in Space Operas and Mil SF, but in the long run it's the smart guys who've learned the patterns of history and the system of the world  that are going to save us all.
 "Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp" being a traditional cheat in sf world-building.
 And if you have to look in the glossary, that's cheating!
 As opposed to say, gossip about the other fraas and suurs.
 No smeerp here, that just means a Coming of Age Story.
 With the caveat that he really should have included some philosophy from outside the Western tradition; as it is the book seems unbalanced due to its single minded focus on the West.
 Egan is Australian, but definitely aware of the political climate. See his story “Lost Continent” in Jonathan Strahan's Starry Rift anthology, which attacks Australia's own anti-immigrant movement.
 And sometimes banging those rocks together. Keep it up guys!
 Coincidentally, System of the World is the title of the 3rd book in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
It wouldn't be a WorldCon without a haul of books! Here's what I've got:
- 2 volumes of Clark Ashton Smith, who Ross Lockhart of Nightshade Press described as "the poet" of the Lovecraft era. Ross is a very good salesman, and also a generally awesome person. The Locus & Nightshade tables adjoined, so we got to talk a bit. Just listening to him made me homesick for California. =)
- Also from Nightshade, The Lees of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. This one Ross sold to Curtis.
- Tachyon press was nice enough to carry a large selection of non-fiction titles, even those they didn't publish. From them I bought Hope-in-the-Mist by Michael Swanwick and Canary Fever by John Clute.
- Direct from the author(s), and thus signed very nicely, I got Farah Mendlesohn's The Inter-Galactic Playground and Farah & Edward James' A Short History of Fantasy.
- NESFA Press was at the Con, so I picked up Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin, an older book and one of the early works of 'serious' sf criticism.
But there another delight was delivered when I got home: an ARC of Daryl Gregory's second novel, The Devil's Alphabet (which I will always think of as Oh You Pretty Things--apparently his favored title). I'm definitely looking forward to diving into that one.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
- Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande (GR)
- A Writer's World: Travels 1950 - 2000 Jan Morris (NH)
- The Lunar Men: Five Men Whose Curiousity Changed the World Jenny Uglow (JC) [About Erasmus Darwin & his circle of friends, seconded by Paul Kincaid]
- Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors Lisa Appignanesi (KS)
- Physics of the Impossible Michio Kaku (Audience)
- Writing the Other Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl (KS)
- The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci Jonathan Spence (JC) [Very early contact between China and the West]
- The Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu (KS) [One of the first ever novels; from Japan]
- The Silent Traveler in London Chiang Yee (KS) [One of several books by a Chinese travel writer; written in Chinese then translated into English]
- Great Mambo Chicken and the Trans-Human Condition Ed Regis (JC) [Also seconded by PK]
- A History of Everyday Life (GR) [Multiple Volumes?]
- Age of the Vikings Peter Sawyer (KS)
- A Life of Picasso John Richardson (GR) [3 volumes]
- Parasite Rex : Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures Carl Zimmer (JC)
- Bad Science Ben Goldacre (VD)
- The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. (NH)
If we don't write about those countries [3rd world, Asian, etc.] we can't be SF writers anymore, because the future is not in the West.
Which I think rather neatly sums up one of the agendas I put forth last year.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Curtis got 4 attendees for his engineering Kaffeeklatch, which was very nice. They had questions about the Space Station, and he got to tell stories (engineering campfire stories, I call them). He definitely enjoyed both that and the panels he was on. We got a very nice crowd for the fencing demonstration, despite it being at 9am on Sat. We gave all comers a chance to wail away at each other with Nerf sabres, which was received enthusiastically. More and more people trickled in as the hour went on, and we must have had more than 40 people by the end. Yay, fencing!
The Blogger Reading with Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Pablo Defendi of Tor also had a good audience, about 12. They had no idea who I was, but On Charm seemed to go over well. Teresa read Slush Killer, which I'd read before, but it was awesome to hear her doing it live. We wrapped up early (even long blog posts tend to be shorter than short stories) and had a nice conversation with the audience. At the very end we could have gotten into a great discussion in response to a question on blogging as performative writing, but then we were out of time. I'm hoping another blog post will come out of that one.
Saturday wrapped up by having dinner with some Locus folks and authors, then fireworks (gorgeous!), repaired to the bar with Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke and Abigail Nussbaum (also got to get all fangirl at Gord Sellar), then waylaid by Locus folks again before actually getting back to my room. A longer night than intended, but lovely whichever way you slice it.
On Sunday I joined the British contingent (Niall, Nic, Abigail & Paul Kincaid) tracking down the elusive "SF Theory Without Tears" panel, which had changed both room and time. I don't think it's quite what we hoped for; the moderator Ann Crimmins focused on pedagogy and using theory in the classroom instead of a discussion of theory & its uses -- a bit unfortunate since I could listen to Dr. Veronica Hollinger go on about the latter all day. Still, the panel was well attended despite the confusion, and a goodly number of folks in the crowd were teachers, so that was probably quite useful.
I ran the Q&A session with David Hartwell, and that went well. I just wish there had been more people. Still, David can be eloquent on just about any topic, as he was here. I led off with a question about his support for sf scholarship (such as IAFA), and he mentioned how much sf happens in places away from the community: stories in local newspapers in the 1830's that have steam-driven mechanical men, that sort of thing -- very interesting. Two other points he made that I'd like to highlight:
- In response to a question about trends in sf, he thinks that sf writers who are dealing with cutting edge research on consciousness (like Peter Watts and a previous con panel) may well radically change the notion of character in literature, and that it is exciting thing to watch.
- In response to a question on what typically goes wrong in written sf even from very good writers, he focused on setting. Too often writers get lazy on setting and end up setting stories in the generic FantasyLand (TM). He says that he often asks writers to go back and make the world come alive and make it their own. Very good advice for aspiring writers!
Monday was also chaotic. Niall Harrison moderated a panel on Non-fiction that might interest SF fans, which inevitably became a bit of a list-making panel, but there were some fine suggestions there (I'll post my jotted list tomorrow). I made a last trip through the dealer's room, then headed up to my last panel, where I had to moderate "Mundane SF vs Science." In the meantime, Geoff Ryman had just lived through what he described as his "worst panel ever" which involved Patrick Nielsen Hayden walking out and also people filking. So I made sure the Mundane SF panel went more smoothly. Luckily the other panelists (Mark Olson and Henry Spencer) were sympathetic to the fact that the panel title was stupid: Mundane SF is an aesthetic movement that is no more in opposition to science than Modernism was. Still, I tried to balance the time for people who wanted to talk about science and those who wanted to talk about writing; I think it went well. Of the panels I was on, it was the best attended. Afterwards I finally got to meet someone I'd been looking for the whole Con: Sissy Pantelis, an editor of the French sf magazine Galaxies and a Mind Meld participant. I'm so glad I didn't miss her altogether; it's important to get faces to go with the names, and so rare that you can meet up with people who live in Greece!
Then there was some chaos as we offered Geoff a lift to the airport; he needed to get there early as he hadn't been able to confirm his flight reservation. After a bit of logistical wrangling, we got him there in (we hope) plenty of time. Then we headed back to the states by way of Vermont, which was perfect and much needed decompression time. Got into Portland ~11:30 pm, then headed off to the airport around 5:30 the next morning, so if this post is less than totally coherent, lack of sleep is my excuse. But we're home now safe & sound - that's the important part. And while I'm processing a whole ton of things that I heard and thought throughout the Con... I'm also already starting to plan for 2010 in Melbourne. Woohoo!
PS: This is my favorite picture from the Con; I've met all the gentleman individually, but seeing them in all their 6' 5"-or-greater stature en masse was quite something. After that photo was taken, they all went zombie-walking off to the post-Hugo party.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Today was largely spent working the Locus table--awesome because of all the interesting people who come by to chat.
I hit a 3:30 panel titled "Are We Conscious and Does it Matter?" with Kathryn Cramer, Peter Watts, Daryl Gregory and James Morrow. They were surprisingly sanguine about the possibility that consciousness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of our complex brain system that doesn't really add much value; the primary identified evolutionary value seemed to be imagination and the ability to model possible futures. I'm still a bit confused: while research shows that your arm is getting nerve impulses to go for a glass of water before you're consciously aware that you're hungry, what about the fact that a lynch mob of people who have already decided to kill someone can be talked out of it? i.e. isn't consciousness more complex than that, and if we only rationalize unconsciously made decisions, why can our minds be changed by argument? However, I didn't get to ask that question, because the audience was quite keen on having its say, whether called upon or not. Kathryn really had her hands full with that crowd. And of course, most of the folks stood up to lecture or ramble on rather than ask specific questions. Times like that make me sympathetic to those who'd like to ban audience participation at panels, but I didn't feel that way by the end of the night (about which more later).
5 pm saw my first panel of the Con, and the only one I felt really qualified for: the Hugo Short fiction handicapping panel. Between Ann VanderMeer, Jonathan Strahan, Niall Harrison, and Bill Fawcett, we talked about all the Hugo short fiction nominees and some that didn't make the ballot. There was quite a bit of unanimity: Ted Chiang for short story, toss up for Novelette but we're rooting for Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler," and while Novella wasn't terribly strong this year, Ian McDonald's "The Tear" is probably a leading contender. However, other factors may influence the "will win" as opposed to "should win," so we'll have to see.
Ran out for Greek food, and made it back in time for a panel on Post-Modernism and Post-Humanism with Geoff Ryman, Daryl Gregory, Nancy Kress and Geza Reilly. The panel was a little fuzzy on post-modernism, but could hold forth on post-humanism--which was fine because that's what the (packed) audience really wanted to hear about.
Then I had to run for my last (9 pm!) panel of the night: Mainstreaming the Geek Dream. It focused on how the Internet has changed things since it became really popularly useful in ~1995. There was a healthy age range on the panel (Duncan McGregor, older comp sci guy; Sandra Manning, older physics/math teacher; myself; and straight from the Chesley awards, Neil Clarke, middle-age online person). However, we weren't exactly sure where to take the panel after some general comments on how we use the Net and how things have changed (and some of the dangers associated with putting yourself out on the Net), but the audience, sparse though it was, led us on a discussion of many and varied topics: the generational divide, search engine algorithms and search engine optimization, the Pirate Parties in Europe and some associated copyright issues, the arms race between students and school admins, mobile phone technology, etc. It turned into a fun discussion, for which I give all credit to an enthusiastic crowd, and made me feel good about audience participation again.
Off to bed now! Tomorrow is my really busy day, so probably not much blogging for me. And I haven't been having much luck with Twitter (I live tweeted the entire Stross/Krugman panel on Thursday night, but even though I used the #worldcon09 hash-tag, I don't think it showed up anywhere), so I may be dark until Sunday.
It's already been a great Con. Dinner with Niall, Nic and Abigail on Wed. was wonderful, and we started but didn't finish a very interesting conversation on voice and style in reviewing. Soundbite from Gary Wolfe: "Voice is attitude and style is the presentation of that attitude." I'm still meditating on that one. Farah Mendlesohn also suggested some good books, including (I think I heard this right) Reading like a Writer. Is stayed up rather too late and drank rather too much, but all my favorite people were right there in one bar room! Such are the trials and tribulations of WorldCon.
Needless to say it was not an early morning on Thursday, but that's OK because the con didn't really start until the early afternoon. I (and most other critics in attendance) went to a panel on "One Genre or Many" featuring Farah, Gary, Ellen Klages, Patrick Rothfuss and Michael Swanwick. It was a very entertaining panel, although it didn't come close to answering the prompt. Highlights:
- There's a spectrum of classification, from calling every aisle in the grocery store "Food" to getting in to sub-sub-sub-sub genres -- probably neither extreme is very useful.
- Michael Swanwick mentioned that he views genre as reading strategies.
- Farah likes thinking of theoretical approaches as filters one lays over a book, some of which may be more or less appropriate to the book at hand.
- Also from Farah, the fact that sf lacks a consistent (?) critical language in which to have these discussions. I thought this was the most interesting point, but it didn't get a lot of follow-up at the time. More things to think about.
After that I headed to the dealer room, which is a bit small. However, it's harder for me to actually get through a dealer room now: instead of making a simple sweep through, I keep running in to people I know and stopping to talk. Takes much longer that way!
I caught part of the "Putting the World in WorldCon" panel, ably (although a bit tyrannically) managed by Jetse de Vries--I appreciated it though, because he kept a laser focus on how the lit of the panel's members differed from US/UK sf/f. The panelists were Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Spain), Tore A. Hoie (Germany and Norway) and Kyoko Ogushi (Japan).
I'm in the dealer room at the Locus table now, and running out of charge on my netbook. More to come later. One last note, though: Anticipation is running Kaffeeklatches for scientists as well as authors. So Curtis will be doing a Kaffeeklatch tomorrow morning at 11 in his role as a Systems Engineer for Boeing and NASA -- spread the word, or come on down yourself! It's experimental, but I think it's an excellent idea.
More to come when I get back online. That's the problem with WorldCon -- so much stuff & so little time!
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Got in to Montreal last night, and we're already having a lovely time. Over the course of the con I'll be twittering more than blogging (I'm Spiralgalaxy on twitter, see link on sidebar), but I figured I'd get a blog post out before things got crazy.
The drive from Maine to Montreal was absolutely gorgeous: straight through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and lovely farmland in Canada. No wait at the border, and the agent there even smiled when we said we worked for NASA. The drive (about 5 1/2 hours) was also a nice transition time between the family-oriented vacation time and the sf-oriented vacation period.
Checked into the hotel with no problems, and we really like our room at the Intercontinental. And the convention center is just across the street. Went down to the bar and met up with editor-folks and Locus folks. Also ran into Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James, and was introduced to Kari Spelling. Thus did WorldCon officially begin as far as I was concerned.
Today we slept in, then followed Farah's directions to a bank to hit an ATM for Canadian dollars. Then an easy walk to a lovely place called Muffins Plus for lunch/brunch. Very nice food and perfect portions--I finished my entire chicken cesar salad wrap, a rarity for me!
We went in and registered for the convention. Good side: great badge holders & no snags at registration. Down side: no programming grid or pocket program. With any luck something of the sort will show up later? Will do my program participant sign in tomorrow.
The afternoon was taken up walking around the city, especially down by the river, where we saw lovely things like the Chapelle-Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours pictured above. The walk down by the river has gardens & museums and is just lovely (although Curtis managed to turn his ankle on the path there early on--but he bravely soldiered on to see more!). We went back via a pedestrian boulevard named Place Jacques-Cartier with tons of cafes, restaurants, street vendors, mimes, etc. Found a good liqour store for some wine and brandy and made our way home for Curtis to put his foot up before heading out for dinner--should be meeting up with Niall Harrison and Abigail Nussbaum soon here.
Programming looks good, as always. Too many good panels; I've already identified at least three time slots with two panels each that I'd like to catch. C'est la vie. And it doesn't look like there will be any drastic changes to the schedule I posted last week.
Off to dinner! Looking forward to seeing many of you soon.