Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has an interesting article out: "Moondoogle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program." In it he points out that support for the Apollo mission never approached 50% while it was active. As one historian put it:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space...
In 1979, only 47% of Americans thought it had been worth it; that raised up to 77% in 1989. he also points out some major cultural trends that opposed it: activists in the civil rights movement pointed out that the government was ignoring poor minorities while spending unprecedented amounts of money to send some white guys to the Moon; even a significant block of scientists argued that the manned space exploration was a sub-optimal way to get real science done.

 I think this is really important to remember when we're bemoaning the state of the space program today. I had long believed in a narrative that said: "Once upon a time, after WWII, everyone was super optimistic about the American future in space. It was the Golden Age of science fiction, and everyone agreed that heading into space was the right next step--especially since it meant we would beat the Commies!" So it was really a bit stunning to me to realize that the Apollo programs suffered any number of hostile OpEd pieces, angry Letters to the Editor, and accusations from scientists and pundits alike that it was a waste of resources.

 However, those facts make what's happened since make a lot more sense. How did we get from 'everyone loves space' to Skylab falling out of the sky in just a decade? Well, it's because most people didn't love space, and they still don't now. There was never a grassroots space movement. Certainly there were lots of folks who were rooting for NASA (and there still are!), but there were more who saw it as a big waste. We didn't get to the Moon via an up-swelling of popular support--we got there by the top-down fiat of a President and his successor (JFK and LBJ) who saw it as a combined PR victory over the Soviets and peace-time jobs program for the nation's best and brightest technical talent (who, Madrigal's article points out, probably didn't need the help). There's quite a bit more on the PR image issue in Nicholas de Monchaux' fascinating Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. My review of it should be in the next issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Rosten Woo wrote a great review of it in the LA Review of Books last year.

So perhaps it would be OK to spend less time worrying about the lack of popular support for the space program today. It might make more sense to focus on targeted lobbying efforts at the highest levels of government. It's actually a little bit heartening to me to learn that the Apollo mission succeeded in the face of fairly robust public opposition. That means that we don't need to get 200 million Americans on our side to make any progress. What we do need are effective leaders who can communicate clearly with folks who hold the purse strings.

 The future's not what it used to be, and it turns out that it never was.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Changing Up Spiral Galaxy

You may have noticed that the name of the blog has changed above: from "Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory" to "Spiral Galaxy Musings." It's no surprise that I've barely been blogging here for the last year. I realized that one reason for that is that almost any review I write goes to venues like SFSignal, Strange Horizons, Locus Magazine, or Cascadia Subduction Zone--so as long as I thought of my blog as a place for reviews, I didn't have much content to put here.

However, I have a lot of thoughts that aren't necessarily reviews, but that don't fit on Twitter (too long) or Facebook (all baby, all the time). So I think it's time to shift Spiral Galaxy's purpose, and make it more of a "Karen's Thoughts" blog than a strictly reviewing blog. I may still post reviews here, especially whenever I can get back into my Golden Age/New Wave/Non-Fiction Criticism reading lists. But I'd also like to post things like the following:

If any of you follow the Roundtable section of the Locus Magazine website, you might have seen Vandana Singh's post on early Indian SF that she'd love to see translated. She talks about Niruddesher Kahini a story written in 1896 by Jagadish Chandra (J. C.) Bose. She points out that he was a polymath: "His contributions to the science of radio waves predate Marconi, and he also pioneered research in biophysics through his study of electrical impulses in plants." I learned today that the IEEE agrees: they honored him and contemporary C. V. Raman in ceremonies in Kolkata, West Bengal this past weekend. The article describes Bose's work in physics, biology, botany, and archeology. Here's an interesting bit:
After graduating in 1884 with a natural science tripos (an honors baccalaureate), Bose returned to India. A year later, a recommendation from Rayleigh got him the post of professor at Presidency College, in Calcutta, the first Indian to hold that title there. The college’s British administrators offered him only one-third the salary of its European professors. Bose protested by taking no salary at all for several years until the college recognized his value and raised his salary to match his European peers, retroactive to the start of his professorship.
C.V. Raman did groundbreaking work in acoustics and optics, all while working as a civil servant in the Indian Finance Department. He won the Nobel Prize in 1930.

I love reading about the scientists who contributed so much since Newton's day and who aren't as well known as Einstein and Maxwell et. al. It's great that the IEEE is working to bring them some additional recognition. It'd have been even cooler if the article had mentioned Bose's role as an early science fiction writer!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Avengers: Comics and Fandom

I finally got out to see The Avengers movie, courtesy of a wonderful babysitter. I really enjoyed it, and I'm especially glad I got to see it on the big screen. I had fun, and it was everything I expected from a huge Joss Whedon superhero movie. What I'm about to note isn't a criticism, it's an observation, and it's VERY SPOILER-Y, so DON'T READ IT if you don't want the movie spoiled.

I want to talk about the character of Agent Coulson. In the movies that led up to the Avengers mega-movie, he'd become something of a favorite for me and many other fans. He appeared to be an every-man who knew a bit more than everyone else about what was going on. He was cool in a very MIB kind of way.

In the Avengers, he's established even more strongly as a fan-identification character. Pepper Potts knows his first name (Phil) and relationship status (strained, with a cellist in Portland). All the superhero characters respect him. And it turns out that he's a stone-cold Captain American fanboy, with a set of vintage trading cards, who goes all squee-ing on Cap during a plane flight.

So, having established Coulson as an avatar of fandom, Whedon kills him off halfway through the movie. Here's what happens: Coulson has a BFG aimed at Loki during Loki's escape, but starts to monologue. Loki stabs him. Coulson still gets to shoot the BFG, and hangs on long enough to have one last conversation with Nick Fury. Coulson tells Fury that the whole Avengers thing was never going to work, since they needed something... (to believe in, we're meant to fill in).

So, Fury uses Coulson's death as the thing that gets the Avengers to cohere as a team. Coulson (the fans) are the motivating force, the thing that they (the superheroes) want to do proud. I read this as Whedon pointing out the fact that superheroes and superhero comics are, fundamentally, by and for the fans.

But there's one extra bit--and Whedon hits it twice to (I think) make sure the point gets across. Fury tells Cap and Iron Man (the two egos most likely to clash) that Coulson died believing in them, in the concept of the Avengers. That's obviously a lie, since Coulson explicitly says that "it was never going to work." Fury also throws out Coulson's trading cards, now soaked in blood. Later, Agent Hill points out that the trading cards were in Coulson's locker, not in his pocket, and wouldn't have been blood soaked. Fury admits that he added a bit of dramatic flourish to motivate the team.

OK, so having set up this representative of fandom, Whedon kills him and uses him to motivate the superheroes. And Fury misrepresents him to motivate the superheroes even more. To me, this read like a very clear statement: We (the superhero comics industry) are doing this all for you (fandom), and we are also totally manipulating you to get the audience (and dollars) that we want. All this in a movie by fans, for fans, filled with fan service. That's not a surprise, and all art wants to work the most money possible out of its audience. I'd just never seen a piece of pop culture make the statement as explicitly as I saw here, and frankly I rather appreciated it.

So none of this detracted from my enjoyment of the movie, but it was a moment where my critic brain leapt up and said I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE! I'm surprised that more reviews haven't commented on the Agent Coulson character and how he evolved through the films--I assume that it is generally too spoiler-y to talk about so soon. Although maybe I'm reading too much into it? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow must be the single most tragic science fiction story I’ve ever read. It compares to the most tragic stories I’ve ever read, full stop, except that non-fiction must trump fiction when it comes to tragedy. The Sparrow won the Clarke award back in 1998, so I feel like sufficient time has passed when it comes to spoilers. However, if needed: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

This tale hit me on emotional, intellectual, and visceral levels. As I was reading it my critic brain ran a constant parallel track, noting “I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE,” observing structure, and cataloging flaws in the world-building. But you know what? None of that mattered. In the end, it all paid off. The result was awful, and tragic, and moving, and worth overlooking any flaws that came before. 

The narrative unfolds in two parallel tracks, one starting at the beginning and building to the climax, and one starting at the end, detailing the aftermath and slowly building to the point where you find out what the climax was. There’s a hole in the story, and everything works up to filling it. I wondered if the climax could possibly be worth the build-up, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it was.

The beginning thread tells how a group of friends come to be the core of a Jesuit mission to a new planet. The main character is Father Emilio Sandoz. He convinces two retired folks he’s good friends with to join him working in the slums of Puerto Rico. They befriend a young astronomer at Aricebo telescope and also a young woman who writes AI expert systems to replace human workers--she worked on modeling Sandoz’s linguistic skills, and was in the process of modeling the astronomer. The story spends a lot of time on backstory and character development before we get to the actual space mission, and that’s important. I’ll have more to say about how the characterization works in this book in another essay. 

Eventually the astronomer discovers a SETI signal that can’t be denied, and from the Jesuit point of view it seems that God has arranged things very neatly in terms of the friends and their skill sets and what they can bring to a mission. The Society throws together a mission very quickly made up of four Jesuits (Sandoz as the linguist), and the four non-Jesuits (the retired couple, the astronomer and the AI specialist). A lot about the design of this mission strains credulity. There is an unfortunate resonance with Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast wherein a similarly composite family group starts exploring the universe with a minimum of preparation. Basically, everything happens much too easily to get the group where they’re going--but that actually reinforces the theme. At its core this book is about religion and perceptions of God. The Jesuits firmly believe that they are doing God’s work, and the fact that everything lines up so neatly over and over reinforces this viewpoint. 

Once they make planetfall things go slowly and irrevocably wrong. And we’ve known that since the beginning of the book, because we are first introduced to Father Sandoz as the sole survivor of this mission. He is horribly mutilated in mind, body, and spirit. He was tortured, found in a brothel, and he killed a child who sought to rescue him. He spent four months alone in a ship on the way back, and is being cared for by a Society of Jesuits that has been decimated in the aftermath of the revelations about the mission. The entire book is colored by the knowledge that all the central characters will die, except Sandoz who will be shattered. It’s like watching a closed room murder mystery unfold, except that instead of finding the killer you’re waiting to find out how they die. The build-up of suspense is slow and terrible. 

Ultimately many things happen, both good and bad. The mission makes a lot of mistakes that could have been minor but end up being major because there’s so much they don’t understand. It’s easy to condemn them for being idiots, although at every step they make decisions that make sense on certain levels. (Let me reiterate that the mission design is by far the weakest part of this story.) Some people die randomly, some for specific reasons. At the very end, alone and wounded, Sandoz is despairing, but has a moment of pure transcendence where it appears that it was all worth it, that he will be able to enact and communicate God’s will--and at that moment he is violated horribly, then repeatedly, and left with nothing. It’s in the aftermath of that horrible climax that we meet him. 

Never has a book that so entirely bound up with religion spoken to me so eloquently of the benefits of atheism. If not for his transcendent experience of the godhood, Sandoz’s fate would have been merely awful, instead of gut-wrenchingly tragic. I feel like the repetition of ‘Deus vult’ made the mission more complacent than they should have been, and that it made their fate much more horrific. Perhaps this is merely another dramatization of the ‘why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ question, but it is one of the most moving meditations on the question that I have ever read. 

I especially appreciate the fact that some of the characters die for no perceptible reason. It’s a criticism that I’ve often harbored about novels--in real life people just die. There’s no reason, there’s nothing they could have done about it, there’s no heroism or failing. ::rant:: I’ve sometimes felt that the over-the-top heroics of adventure protagonists serve as an implicit condemnation of people who die because of circumstances outside of their control. How many burning, exploding, collapsing buildings have action heroes escaped from, carrying their love interest in tow? It almost seems to say that if you were a real hero in your own life, you could have escaped from (say) the burning towers of the World Trade Center. But 2,000 people just died, horribly, trapped, because most of the time in real life, it doesn’t matter what you do, there are some situations you just can’t escape.::end rant:: 

And that brings us back to God--are the people who die senselessly disfavored by God? Are their deaths part of a larger narrative, and if so, is the result worth it? Do their deaths have more or less meaning if the result is triumph or tragedy? Again, atheism seems almost comforting, in that we have no one to blame or plead with--things happen, and all we can control is ourselves.

The Sparrow is harrowing, all the more so because of the contrast between the tragedy and the liveliness of the characters. In the early days of the story they are a fun bunch of people to get to know--witty, charming, and generally interesting. There are jokes and anecdotes--even in the aftermath a dark sense of humor helps Sandoz and his caretakers. Humor is one of the best buffers we have between ourselves and tragedy, and having that buffer yanked entirely away at the climax is yet another completely effective stab to the gut. Nonetheless, of all the books I’ve read this year, this was the hardest to put down. It is lovely to read, and the characters are easy to like, which makes reading about their dooms all the worse. By the end you’re so wound up for the blow that it takes only the lightest touch to make the tragedy come crashing down on you, and Russell delivers that touch elegantly, never belaboring the scenes. 

Obviously I was enormously impressed by this book. You’ll note that I haven’t spoken much about the aliens with whom the mission makes contact. That’s partly for reasons of length, and partly because they are much more in the background compared to the human characters. They have their reasons for acting, and we get some passages from their POV--but we mostly see the author’s hand guiding everything to set up the tragedy to come. For me the story is worth it, but I suspect that people from cultures that have been on the receiving end of colonization may not be so sanguine about the balance. The Jesuit mission is explicitly non-missionary; they want to avoid the pitfalls of colonialism, and want to learn more than convert. No one in the piece is an easy Bad Guy--no evil aliens, no Spanish Inquisition. But people with a different narrative of history than my own may have a much different perception of the book.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Evaporating Genres for Best Related Book

I don't want to bury the lede here: Gary K. Wolfe has never won a Hugo (???), and I believe that he should win one for his most recent essay collection, Evaporating Genres (!!!).

I didn't review Evaporating Genres when I read it, because I read it while on maternity leave and finding time to write, much less write coherently, wasn't really my strong suit. However it has stuck with me due to its strengths, mostly in terms of its breadth and depth in what it has to say about the field. Wolfe is amazingly well read, both in genre literature new and old and in works of literary criticism. (There are twelve pages of Works Cited at the end of Evaporating Genres.) As a professor with a PhD in Literature who has read, taught, and reviewed for over thirty years, he brings a depth of knowledge to the field that few others can match. All that is on display in this volume, in essays that delve deeper into his subject matter than the monthly reviews he has done for twenty years at Locus Magazine.

There are any number of approaches that critics can take in examining a field, and Wolfe opts for a wonderfully inclusive and accessible style. Far from policing the boundaries of genre and attempting to cram every work into a neat little taxonomy, he celebrates those works that stretch boundaries--that take whatever they need from wherever they find it to make something perhaps more beautiful and almost certainly more interesting than what came before. Hence his focus in these essays on writers like Peter Straub, the horror writer who won the World Fantasy Award for a book with no fantasy in it, and Elizabeth Hand, whose work moves from fantasy to science fiction to mainstream without ever losing the core style and concerns that make it special.

Unlike most academics, Wolfe stays up to date with what the genre is doing now, due to his monthly reviewing for Locus. While certain scholarly communities have only recently woken up and discovered that Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is pretty spiffy, Wolfe also looks at "The Word For World is Forest" and her more recent work of criticism. M. Rickert, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Rudy Rucker are as likely to get mentions as Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

Wolfe also extends some of the work that he did in his groundbreaking book from 1979, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. There he examined several well-known tropes of science fiction through the history of the field, looking at how each in their turn have represented different things: the Barrier, the Spaceship, the City, the Wasteland, the Robot, and the Monster. All of these have in time been established, subverted, and subverted again. In Evaporating Genres he extends that approach to the Artifact, the Post-Apocalyptic World, and the Frontier, again examining how each has shifted and morphed over a century of genre literature. Reading Wolfe (in this book, in reviews, and listening to him in person, on panels, and on his podcast with Jonathan Strahan) gives one tools to help you get more out of your own reading and it suggests titles and connections you may never have encountered otherwise. Combine this all with a straightforward, accessible, personable style, and I'd say that you can't go wrong. This is exactly the sort of exemplary work that I think should be rewarded with a Best Related Book Hugo award.

A few other notes, which don't reflect on the current book but I think are important: The Known and the Unknown was eligible the very first year that the Hugo included a non-fiction category. It wasn't even nominated. Here's the list: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls (Winner); Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, Wayne Douglas Barlowe & Ian Summers; In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov; The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan Wood; Wonderworks, Michael Whelan. The usual collage that makes up this sort of all-the-stuff-that-isn't-the-stories category. Now, on the strength of The Known and The Unknown and his other early critical writings, Wolfe won the Eaton award (1979), the Pilgrim (lifetime achievement) award (1987), and the IAFA Distinguished Scholarship (also a lifetime achievement) award (1998). Two of his review collections, Soundings and Bearings, have been Hugo nominated in 2006 and 2011. However, I think that Evaporating Genres is a much better entry to the category, containing in-depth essays that shed more illumination on the subject than collected reviews can, being constrained by the randomness of publishing schedules.

Looking at some other works that came out in 2011: the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a perennial favorite of the Hugos, the first edition of which won the very first year of the category. But the current online version of the Encyclopedia is only half done; the remainder of the entries will be updated later this year. I personally would prefer to have it considered as a whole next year. John Clute, another scholar of amazing depth and breadth, has a collection of reviews and essays out, Pardon This Intrusion. I'll note that I think it suffers some of the same lack of focus as Clute and Wolfe's previous review collections and for the same reasons, and that Clute has won three Hugos previously for his various encyclopedic endeavors.

I think everyone reading this blog knows that I consider Gary Wolfe a mentor and a personal friend--heck, my copy of Evaporating Genres is signed to me, my husband, and my then-unborn, -unnamed, and -ungendered baby. Not to mention that I'm on the same masthead as he is at Locus Magazine. However, I truly feel that Evaporating Genres is probably the best book about the science fiction field published in 2011, and that it deserves the Hugo entirely on its own merits. The fact that giving it the award would also serve to balance some historical scales that I feel are a bit out of whack is merely icing on the cake.