science fiction

Second musings on the the Hugo Awards and the fix

Last week’s Hugo Awards point of crisis caused a firestorm even outside the SF community. I felt it time to record some additional thoughts above the summary of many proposals I did.

It’s not about the politics

I think all sides have made an error by bringing the politics and personal faults of either side into the mix. Making it about the politics legitimises the underlying actions for some. As such, I want to remove that from the discussion as much as possible. That’s why in the prior post I proposed an alternate history.

What are the goals of the award?

Awards are funny beasts. They are almost all given out by societies. The Motion Picture Academy does the Oscars, and the Worldcons do the Hugos. The Hugos, though, are overtly a “fan” award (unlike the Nebulas which are a writer’s award, and the Oscars which are a Hollywood pro’s award.) They represent the view of fans who go to the Worldcons, but they have always been eager for more fans to join that community. But the award does not belong to the public, it belongs to that community.

While the award is done with voting and ballots, I believe it is really a measurement, which is to say, a survey. We want to measure the aggregate opinion of the community on what the best of the year was. The opinions are, of course, subjective, but the aggregate opinion is an objective fact, if we could learn it.

In particular, I would venture we wish to know which works would get the most support among fans, if the fans had the time to fairly judge all serious contenders. Of course, not everybody reads everything, and not everybody votes, so we can’t ever know that precisely, but if we did know it, it’s what we would want to give the award to.

To get closer to that, we use a 2 step process, beginning with a nomination ballot. Survey the community, and try to come up with a good estimate of the best contenders based on fan opinion. This both honours the nominees but more importantly it now gives the members the chance to more fully evaluate them and make a fair comparison. To help, in a process I began 22 years ago, the members get access to electronic versions of almost all the nominees, and a few months in which to evaluate them.

Then the final ballot is run, and if things have gone well, we’ve identified what truly is the best loved work of the informed and well-read fans. Understand again, the choices of the fans are opinions, but the result of the process is our best estimate of a fact — a fact about the opinions.

The process is designed to help obtain that winner, and there are several sub-goals

  • The process should, of course, get as close to the truth as it can. In the end, the most people should feel it was the best choice.
  • The process should be fair, and appear to be fair
  • The process should be easy to participate in, administer and to understand
  • The process should not encourage any member to not express their true opinion on their ballot. If they lie on their ballot, how can we know the true best aggregate of their opinions.
  • As such, ballots should be generated independently, and there should be very little “strategy” to the system which encourages members to falsely represent their views to help one candidate over another.
  • It should encourage participation, and the number of nominees has to be small enough that it’s reasonable for people to fairly evaluate them all

A tall order, when we add a new element — people willing to abuse the rules to alter the results away from the true opinion of the fans. In this case, we had this through collusion. Two related parties published “slates” — the analog of political parties — and their followers carried them out, voting for most or all of the slate instead of voting their own independent and true opinion.

This corrupts the system greatly because when everybody else nominates independently, their nominations are broadly distributed among a large number of potential candidates. A group that colludes and concentrates their choices will easily dominate, even if it’s a small minority of the community. A survey of opinion becomes completely invalid if the respondents collude or don’t express their true views. Done in this way, I would go so far as to describe it as cheating, even though it is done within the context of the rules.

Proposals that are robust against collusion

Collusion is actually fairly obvious if the group is of decent size. Their efforts stick out clearly in a sea of broadly distributed independent nominations. There are algorithms which make it less powerful. There are other algorithms that effectively promote ballot concentration even among independent nominators so that the collusion is less useful.

A wide variety have been discussed. Their broad approaches include:

  • Systems that diminish the power of a nominating ballot as more of its choices are declared winners. Effectively, the more you get of what you asked for, the less likely you will get more of it. This mostly prevents a sweep of all nominations, and also increases diversity in the final result, even the true diversity of the independent nominators.
  • Systems which attempt to “maximize happiness,” which is to say try to make the most people pleased with the ballot by adding up for each person the fraction of their choices that won and maximizing that. This requires that nominators not all nominate 5 items, and makes a ballot with just one nomination quite strong. Similar systems allow putting weight on nominations to make some stronger than others.
  • Public voting, where people can see running tallies, and respond to collusion with their own counter-nominations.
  • Reduction of the number of nominations for each member, to stop sweeps.

The proposals work to varying degrees, but they all significantly increase the “strategy” component for an individual voter. It becomes the norm that if you have just a little information about what the most common popular choices will be, that your wisest course to get the ballot you want will be to deliberately remove certain works from your ballot.

Some members would ignore this and nominate honestly. Many, however, would read articles about strategy, and either practice it or wonder if they were doing the right thing. In addition to debates about collusion, there would be debates on how strategy affected the ballot.

Certain variants of multi-candidate STV help against collusion and have less strategy, but most of the methods proposed have a lot.

In addition, all the systems permit at least one, and as many as 2 or 3 slate-choice nominees onto the final ballot. While members will probably know which ones those are, this is still not desired. First of all, these placements displace other works which would otherwise have made the ballot. You could increase the size of the final ballot, you need to know how many slate choices will be on it.

It should be clear, when others do not collude, slate collusion is very powerful. In many political systems, it is actually considered a great result if a party with 20% of the voters gains 20% of the “victories.” Here, we have a situation with 2,000 nominators, and where just 100 colluding members can saturate some categories and get several entries into all of them, and with 10% (the likely amount in 2015) they can get a large fraction of them. As such it is not proportional representation at all.

Fighting human attackers with human defence

Consideration of the risks of confusion and strategy with all these systems, I have been led to the conclusion that the only solid response to organized attackers on the nomination system is a system of human judgement. Instead of hard and fast voting rules, the time has come, regrettably, to have people judge if the system is under attack, and give them the power to fix it.

This is hardly anything new, it’s how almost all systems of governance work. It may be a hubris to suggest the award can get by without it. Like the good systems of governance this must be done with impartiality, transparency and accountability, but it must be done.

I see a few variants which could be used. Enforcement would most probably be done by the Hugo Committee, which is normally a special subcommittee of the group running the Worldcon. However, it need not be them, and could be a different subcommittee, or an elected body.

While some of the variants I describe below add complexity, it is not necessary to do them. One important thing about the the rule of justice is that you don’t have to get it exactly precise. You get it in broad strokes and you trust people. Sometimes it fails. Mostly it works, unless you bring in the wrong incentives.

As such, some of these proposals work by not changing almost anything about the “user experience” of the system. You can do this with people nominating and voting as they always did, and relying on human vigilance to deflect attacks. You can also use the humans for more than that.

A broad rule against collusion and other clear ethical violations

The rule could be as broad as to prohibit “any actions which clearly compromise the honesty and independence of ballots.” There would be some clarifications, to indicate this does not forbid ordinary lobbying and promotion, but does prohibit collusion, vote buying, paying for memberships which vote as you instruct and similar actions. The examples would not draw hard lines, but give guidance.

Explicit rules about specific acts

The rule could be much more explicit, with less discretion, with specific unethical acts. It turns out that collusion can be detected by the appearance of patterns in the ballots which are extremely unlikely to occur in a proper independent sample. You don’t even need to know who was involved or prove that anybody agreed to any particular conspiracy.

The big challenge with explicit rules (which take 2 years to change) is that clever human attackers can find holes, and exploit them, and you can’t fix it then, or in the next year.

Delegation of nominating power or judicial power to a sub group elected by the members

Judicial power to fix problems with a ballot could fall to a committee chosen by members. This group would be chosen by a well established voting system, similar to those discussed for the nomination. Here, proportional representation makes sense, so if a group is 10% of the members it should have 10% of this committee. It won’t do it much good, though, if the others all oppose them. Unlike books, the delegates would be human beings, able to learn and reason. With 2,000 members, and 50 members per delegate, there would be 40 on the judicial committee, and it could probably be trusted to act fairly with that many people. In addition, action could require some sort of supermajority. If a 2/3 supermajority were needed, attackers would need to be 1/3 of all members.

This council could perhaps be given only the power to add nominations — beyond the normal fixed count — and not to remove them. Thus if there are inappropriate nominations, they could only express their opinion on that, and leave it to the voters what to do with those candidates, including not reading them and not ranking them.

Instead of judicial power, it might be simpler to appoint pure nominating power to delegates. Collusion is useless here because in effect all members are now colluding about their different interests, but in an honest way. Unlike pure direct democracy, the delegates, not unlike an award jury, would be expected to listen to members (and even look at nominating ballots done by them) but charged with coming up with the best consensus on the goal stated above. Such jurors would not simply vote their preferences. They would swear to attempt to examine as many works as possible in their efforts. They would suggest works to others and expect them to be likely to look at them. They would expect to be heavily lobbied and promoted to, but as long as its pure speech (no bribes other than free books and perhaps some nice parties) they would be expected to not be fooled so easily by such efforts.

As above, a nominating body might also only start with a member nominating system and add candidates to it and express rulings about why. In many awards, the primary function of the award jury is not to bypass the membership ballot, but to add one or two works that were obscure and the members may have missed. This is not a bad function, so long as the “real ballot” (the one you feel a duty to evaluate) is not too large.

Transparency and accountability

There is one barrier to transparency, in that releasing preliminary results biases the electorate in the final ballot, which would remain a direct survey of members with no intermediaries — though still the potential to look for attacks and corruption. There could also be auditors, who are barred from voting in the awards and are allowed to see all that goes on. Auditors might be people from the prior worldcon or some other different source, or fans chosen at random.

Finally, decisions could be appealed to the business meeting. This requires a business meeting after the Hugos. Attackers would probably always appeal any ruling against them. Appeals can’t alter nominations, obviously, or restore candidates who were eliminated.

Comprehensive plan

All the above requires the two year ratification process and could not come into effect (mostly) until 2017. To deal with the current cheating and the promised cheating in 2016, the following are recommended.

  1. Downplay the 2015 Hugo Award, perhaps with sufficient fans supporting this that all categories (including untainted ones) have no award given.
  2. Conduct a parallel award under a new system, and fête it like the Hugos, though they would not use that name.
  3. Pass new proposed rules including a special rule for 2016
  4. If 2016’s award is also compromised, do the same. However, at the 2016 business meeting, ratify a short-term amendment proposed in 2015 declaring the alternate awards to be the Hugo awards if run under the new rules, and discarding the uncounted results of the 2016 Hugos conducted under the old system. Another amendment would permit winners of the 2015 alternate award to say they are Hugo winners.
  5. If the attackers gave up, and 2016’s awards run normally, do not ratify the emergency plan, and instead ratify the new system that is robust against attack for use in 2017.

Hugo awards suborned, what can or should be done?

Since 1992 I have had a long association with the Hugo Awards for SF & Fantasy given by the World Science Fiction Society/Convention. In 1993 I published the Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was for some time the largest anthology of current fiction every published, and one of the earliest major e-book projects. While I did it as a commercial venture, in the years to come it became the norm for the award organizers to publish an electronic anthology of willing nominees for free to the voters.

This year, things are highly controversial, because a group of fans/editors/writers calling themselves the “Sad Puppies,” had great success with a campaign to dominate the nominations for the awards. They published a slate of recommended nominations and a sufficient number of people sent in nominating ballots with that slate so that it dominated most of the award categories. Some categories are entirely the slate, only one was not affected. It’s important to understand the nominating and voting on the Hugos is done by members of the World SF Society, which is to say people who attend the World SF Convention (Worldcon) or who purchase special “supporting” memberships which don’t let you go but give you voting rights. This is a self-selected group, but in spite of that, it has mostly manged to run a reasonably independent vote to select the greatest works of the year. The group is not large, and in many categories, it can take only a score or two of nominations to make the ballot, and victory margins are often small. As such, it’s always been possible, and not even particularly hard, to subvert the process with any concerted effort. It’s even possible to do it with money, because you can just buy memberships which can nominate or vote, so long as a real unique person is behind each ballot.

The nominating group is self-selected, but it’s mostly a group that joins because they care about SF and its fandom, and as such, this keeps the award voting more independent than you would expect for a self-selected group. But this has changed.

The reasoning behind the Sad Puppy effort is complex and there is much contentious debate you can find on the web, and I’m about to get into some inside baseball, so if you don’t care about the Hugos, or the social dynamics of awards and conventions, you may want to skip this post.  read more »

I was a robot for 3 days in London

In August, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in London. I did it while in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho by means of a remote Telepresence Robot(*). The WorldCon is half conference, half party, and I was fully involved — telepresent there for around 10 hours a day for 3 days, attending sessions, asking questions, going to parties. Back in Idaho I was speaking at a local robotics conference, but I also attended a meeting back at the office using an identical device while I was there.

After doing this, I have written up a detailed account of what it’s like to attend a conference and social event using these devices, how fun it is now, and what it means for the future.

You can read Attending the World Science Fiction convention on the other side of the world by remote telepresence robot

For those of you in the TL;DR crowd, the upshot is that it works. No, it’s not as good as being there in person. But it is a substantial fraction of the way there, and it’s going to get better. I truly feel I attended that convention, but I didn’t have spend the money and time required to travel to London, and I was able to do other things in Idaho and California at the same time.

When you see at new technology that seems not quite there yet, you have to decide — is this going to get better and explode, or is it going to fizzle. I’m voting for the improvement argument. It won’t replace being there all of the time, but it will replace being there some of the time, and thus have big effects on travel — particularly air travel — and socialization. There are also interesting consequences for the disabled, for the use of remote labour and many other things.

(*)As the maker will point out, this is not technically a robot, just a remote controlled machine. Robots have sensors and make some of their own decisions on how they move.

Oh Hugo Awards, where have you gone?

I follow the Hugo awards closely, and 20 years ago published the 1993 Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was probably the largest anthology of currently released fiction ever published at the time.

The Hugo awards are voted by around 1,000 fans who attend the World SF Convention, so they have their biases, but over time almost all the greats have been recognized. In addition, until the year 2000, in the best novel Hugo, considered the most important, the winner was always science fiction, not fantasy even though both and more were eligible. That shifted, and from 2001 to 2012, there have been 6 Fantasy winners, one Alternate History, and 5+1 SF. (2010 featured a tie between bad-science SF in the Windup Girl and genre-bending political science fiction in The City & The City.)

That’s not the only change to concern me. A few times my own pick for the best has not even been nominated. While that obviously shows a shift between my taste and the rest of the fans, I think I can point to reasons why it’s not just that.

The 2013 nominees I find not particularly inspiring. And to me, that’s not a good sign. I believe that the Hugo award winning novel should say to history, “This is an example of the best that our era could produce.” If it’s not such an example, I think “No Award” should win. (No Award is a candidate on each ballot, but it never comes remotely close to winning, and hasn’t ever for novels. In the 70s, it deservedly won a few times for movies. SF movies in the mid and early 70s were largely dreck.)

What is great SF? I’ve written on it before, but here’s an improvement of my definition. Great SF should change how you see the future/science/technology. Indeed, perhaps all great literature should change how you view the thing that is the subject matter of the literature, be it love, suffering, politics or anything else. That’s one reason why I have the preference for SF over Fantasy in this award. Fantasy has a much harder time attaining that goal.

I should note that I consider these books below as worth reading. My criticism is around whether they meet the standard for greatness that a Hugo candidate should have.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is the best of the bunch, and it does an interesting exploration into the relationship of human and AI, and as in all of Stan’s fiction, the environment. His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder. The setup is great but the pace is as glacial as the slowly rolling city and the result is good, but not at the level of greatness I require here.  read more »

Larry Niven and Greg Benford on "Bowl of Heaven" and Big, Dumb Objects

Last month, I invited Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, two of the most respected writers of hard SF, to come and give a talk at Google about their new book “Bowl of Heaven.” Here’s a Youtube video of my session. They did a review of the history of SF about “big dumb objects” — stories like Niven’s Ringworld, where a huge construct is a central part of the story.

My interview with Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge is perhaps the greatest writer of hard SF and computer-related SF today. He has won 5 Hugo awards, including 3 in a row for best novel (nobody has done 4 in a row) and his novels have inspired many real technologies in cyberspace, augmented reality and more.

I invited him up to speak at Singularity University but before that he visited Google to talk in the Authors@Google series. I interview him about his career and major novels and stories, including True Names, A Fire Upon the Deep, Rainbow’s End and his latest novel Children of the Sky. We also talk about the concept of the Singularity, for which he coined the term.

Caprica, uploading and gods

Caprica’s first half-season is almost over, but I started watching late due to travel and the Olympics. Here’s my commentary on the show to this point. I already commented last week on the lack of protagonists we can identify with. Now onto bigger issues.

Caprica is, I think, the first TV series to have uploading — the transfer of a human mind into computerized form — as its central theme. While AI is common in movies and TV, uploading is quite uncommon in Hollywood, even though it’s an important theme in written SF. This is what interests me in Caprica. It’s connection to Battlestar Galactica is fairly loose, and we won’t find the things we liked in that show showing up much in this one.

God, again

In fact, I mostly fear encroachment of material from BSG, in particular the “God” who was revealed to be the cause of all the events of that series. What we don’t yet know is whether the monotheistic “Soldiers of the One” are just yet another religion to have invented a “one true god” or if they really have received signs or influence for that god.

When I was critical of the deus ex machina ending of BSG, many people wanted to point out that religion had been present from the start in the show. But the presence of religion is not the same as the presence of a real god, and if not for BSG, I doubt any viewer would suspect the “One” was real. However, knowing that their is a one true god, we must fear the worst. Since that god set up all the events of BSG long ago, including various timings of the Cylon wars, it’s hard to believe that the god is not also setting up the timing of the creation of the Cylons, and thus directly or indirectly arranged Zoe’s death and transfer. I hope not but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion. The best we can hope for is that no direct influence of the god is shown to us.

Alas, for a show about uploading, the writers do need some more education about computers. Much of the stuff we see is standard Hollywood. Nonetheless the virtual worlds and the two uploaded beings (Zoe-A and Tamara-A) are by far the most interesting thing in the show, and fan ratings which put the episode “There is another Sky” at the top indicate most viewers agree. We’re note getting very much of them, though.

Worldbuilding

The colonial world is interesting, with many elements not typically shown in TV, such as well accepted homosexuality, group marriage, open drug use and kinky holo-clubs. There’s a lot of focus on the Tauron culture, but right now this impresses me as mostly a mish-mash, not the slow revelation of a deeply constructed background. I get the real impression that they just make of something they like when they want to display Tauron culture. As far as what’s interesting in Caprican or other culture, we mostly see that only in Sister Clarice and her open family.

I was hoping for better worldbuilding and it is still not too late. The pilot did things decently enough but there has not been much expansion. The scenes of the city are now just establishing shots, not glimpses into an alien world. The strange things — like the world’s richest man and his wife not having bodyguards after open attacks on their person — might be a different culture or might just be writing errors.

William Adama

For BSG fans, there is strong interest in William Adama, the only character shared between the shows. But this one seems nothing like the hero of the original show. And he seems inconsistent. We learn that the defining event of his life was the terrorist murder of his sister and mother by a monotheist cult. (Well, defining event in a life that goes on to have more big events, I suppose.) Yet he shows no more than average mistrust of monotheism when it is revealed that the Cylons are monotheists and believe in a “one true god.” He doesn’t like Baltar, but he’s pretty tolerant when Baltar starts a cult of a one true god on the ship, and even gives him weapons at some point. He just doesn’t act like somebody who would have a knee-jerk initial jolt at monotheists preaching one true god.

There was also no sign of Tamara Adama in BSG. The original script plans called for her avatar to also contribute to the minds of the early Cylons, and this may not happen. If it does happen, it is odd that we never see any sign of Cylons remembering being his sister. We also have to presume that neither he, nor anybody else knows that his father played a pivotal role in the creation of the Cylons. That would make his father quite infamous, nobody would remember his law career.

New Cap City

Started out as the most interesting place on Caprica. Getting a bit slower. Not certain who Emanuelle is — is she Tamara, or working for Tamara? If so, why is she hooking Joseph on the Amp? When she was winged, it was odd that she had her arm flicker out — I would assume that in a world trying to appear real, non-fatal wounds would look like wounds, and even killed people would leave bodies as far as the other players were concerned.

If Zoe enters New Cap City, she should not be like Tamara, unable to be killed. She is now running in a robot body and interfacing with a holoband like humans do.

Will Tamara’s popularity with viewers turn her from a minor character into something more important?

Origin of the Cylons

The big question remains, where do the minds of the Cylon armies come from? Are they all copies of Zoe? Has Zoe given Philemon the clue as to how to create other copies, perhaps more mindless ones? Does Tamara provide a mind to a Cylon? Do the Soldiers of the One get access to the upload generator that Daniel used on Tamara and make their own uploads, and do they become the Cylon minds? We know that something of Zoe or the STO ends up in Cylon minds.

Who is the hero of Caprica?

As some readers may know, I maintained a sub-blog last year for analysis of Battlestar Galactica. BSG was very good for a while, but sadly had an extremely disappointing ending. Postings in the Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog did not usually show up in the front page of the main blog, you had to read or subscribe to it independently.

There is a new prequel spin-off series on called Caprica, which has had 6 episodes, and just has 2 more before going on a mid-season hiatus. I will use the old battlestar blog for more limited commentary on that show, which for now I am watching. (However, not too many people are, so it’s hard to say how long it will be on.)

My first commentary is not very science-fiction related, though I will be getting to that later — since the reason I am watching Caprica is my strong interest in fiction about mind uploading and artificial intelligence, and that is a strong focus of the show.

Instead, I will ask a question that may explain the poor audiences the show is getting. Who is the hero of Caprica? The character the audience is supposed to identify with? The one we care about, the one we tune in so we can see what happens to them? This is an important question, since while a novel or movie can be great without a traditional protagonist or even an anti-hero, it’s harder for a TV series to pull that off.  read more »

Avatar isn't Dances With Wolves, it's another plot

Everybody has an Avatar review. Indeed, Avatar is a monument of moviemaking in terms of the quality of its animation and 3-D. Its most interesting message for Hollywood may be “soon actors will no longer need to look pretty.” Once the generation of human forms passes through the famous uncanny valley there will be many movies made with human characters where you never see their real faces. That means the actors can be hired based strictly on their ability to act, and their bankability, not necessarily their looks, or more to the point their age. Old actors will be able to play their young selves before too long, and be romantic leading men and women again. Fat actors will play thin, supernaturally beautiful leads.

And our images of what a good looking person looks like will get even more bizarre. We’ll probably get past the age thing, with software to make old star look like young star, before we break through the rest of the uncanny valley. If old star keeps him or herself in shape, the skin, hair and shapes of things like the nose and earlobes can be fixed, perhaps even today.

But this is not what I want to speak about. What I do want to speak about involves Avatar spoilers.  read more »

The lesson of Galactica and treating your creations well

A few weeks ago I reviewed the disappointing “The Plan” and in particular commented on how I wished the Cylons really had had a plan of some complexity.

More recently, I was thinking about what many would interpret as the message in BSG, which is said by many characters, and which is at the core of the repeating cycle of destruction. When you get good enough to create life (ie. Cylons) you must love them and keep them close, and not enslave them or they will come back to destroy you. This slavery and destruction is the “all this” that has happened before and will happen again.

Now that it is spelled out how the whole Cylon holocaust was the result of the petulance of Cylon #1, John, and that this (and its coverup) were at the heart of the Cylon civil war, the message becomes more muddled.

For you see, Ellen and the other 4 did keep their creation close. They loved John, and raised him like a boy. Ellen was willing to forgive John in spite of all he had done. And what was the result? He struck back and killed and reprogrammed them, and then the rest of his siblings, to start a war that would destroy all humanity, to teach them a lesson and in revenge for the slavery of the Centurions. Yet John was never enslaved, though he did decide he was treated poorly by being born into a human body. It’s never quite clear what memories from the Centurions made it into the 8 Cylons, if any. It seems more and more likely that it was not very much, though we have yet to see the final answer on that. Further they enslaved the Centurions and the Raiders too.

So Ellen kept her creations close, and loved them, and the result was total destruction. Oddly, the Centurions had been willing to give up their war with humanity in order to get flesh bodies for their race. The Centurions were fighting for their freedom it seems, not apparently to destroy humanity though perhaps they would have gotten to that level had they taken the upper hand in the war. Ellen intervened and added the love and the result was destruction.

I don’t know if this is the intentional message — that even if you do follow the advice given to keep your creations close and loved, it still all fails in the end. If so, it’s an even bleaker message than most imagine.

The Cylons did not have "The Plan"

Last week saw the DVD release of what may be the final Battlestar Galactica movie/episode, a flashback movie called “The Plan.” It was written by Jane Espenson and is the story of the attack and early chase from the point of view of the Cylons, most particularly Number One (Cavil.) (Review first, spoilers after the break.)

I’ve been highly down on BSG since the poor ending, but this lowered my expectations, giving me a better chance of enjoying The Plan. However, sadly it fell short even of lowered expectations. Critics have savaged it as a clip show, and while it does contain about 20% re-used footage (but not including some actors who refused to participate) it is not a clip show. Sadly, it is mostly a “deleted scenes” show.

You’ve all seen DVDs with “deleted scenes.” I stopped watching these on DVDs because it often was quite apparent why they were deleted. The scene didn’t really add anything the audience could not figure out on its own, or anything the story truly needed. Of course in The Plan we are seeing not deleted material but retroactive continuity. Once the story of Cavil as the mastermind of the attack was written in season 4, and that he did it to impress his creators (who themselves were not written as Cylons until season three) most of the things you will see become obvious. You learn very little more about them that you could not imagine.

There is some worthwhile material. The more detailed nuking of the colonies is chilling, particularly with the Cylon models smiling at the explosions — the same models the audience came to forgive later. Many like the backstory given to a hidden “Simon” model on board the fleet never seen in the show. He turns out (in a retcon) to be one of the first to become more loving and human, since we see him at the opening having secretly married a human woman, but we also don’t forget the other Simon models we saw, who were happy to run medical experiments on humans, smile at nukes, and lobotomize their fellow Cylons to meet Cavil’s needs.

We learn the answers to a few mysteries that fans asked about — who did Six meet after leaving Baltar on Caprica? The shown meeting is anticlimactic. How did Shelley Godfrey disappear after accusing Baltar? The answer is entirely mundane, and better left as a mystery. (Though it does put to rest speculation that she was actually a physical appearance of the Angel in Baltar’s head, who mysteriously was not present during Godfrey’s scenes.)

We get more evidence that Cavil is cold and heartless. Stockwell enjoys playing him that way. But I can’t say it told me much new about his character.

More disappointing is what we don’t get. We don’t learn what was going on in the first episode, 33 and what was really on the Olympic Carrier, a source of much angst for Apollo and Starbuck during the series. We don’t learn how the Cylons managed to be close enough to resurrect those tossed out airlocks, but not to catch the fleet. We don’t learn how Cavil convinced the other Cylons to kill all the humans, or their thoughts on it. We don’t learn how that decision got reversed. We learn more about what made Boomer do her sabotages and shooting of Adama, but we don’t learn anything about why she was greeted above Kobol by 100 naked #8s who then let her nuke their valuable base star. Now that the big secret of the god of Galactica is revealed, we learn nothing more about that god, and the angels don’t even appear.

In short, we learn almost nothing, which is odd for a flashback show aired after the big secrets have been revealed. Normally that is the chance to show things without having to hide the big secrets. Of course, they didn’t know most of these big secrets in the first season.

Overall verdict: You won’t miss a lot if you miss this, feel free to wait for it to air on TV.

Some minor spoiler items after the break.  read more »

Flashforward, Deja Vu and Hollywood's problem with time travel

Tonight I watched the debut of FlashForward, which is based on the novel of the same name by Rob Sawyer, an SF writer from my hometown whom I have known for many years. However, “based on” is the correct phrase because the TV show features Hollywood’s standard inability to write a decent time travel story. Oddly, just last week I watched the fairly old movie “Deja Vu” with Denzel Washington, which is also a time travel story.

Hollywood absolutely loves time travel. It’s hard to find a Hollywood F/SF TV show that hasn’t fallen to the temptation to have a time travel episode. Battlestar Galactica’s producer avowed he would never have time travel, and he didn’t, but he did have a god who delivered prophecies of the future which is a very close cousin of that. Time travel stories seem easy, and they are fun. They are often used to explore alternate possibilities for characters, which writers and viewers love to see.

But it’s very hard to do it consistently. In fact, it’s almost never done consistently, except perhaps in shows devoted to time travel (where it gets more thought) and not often even then. Time travel stories must deal with the question of whether a trip to the past (by people or information) changes the future, how it changes it, who it changes it for, and how “fast” it changes it. I have an article in the works on a taxonomy of time travel fiction, but some rough categories from it are:

  • Calvinist: Everything is cast, nothing changes. When you go back into the past it turns out you always did, and it results in the same present you came from.
  • Alternate world: Going into the past creates a new reality, and the old reality vanishes (at varying speeds) or becomes a different, co-existing fork. Sometimes only the TT (time traveler) is aware of this, sometimes not even she is.
  • Be careful not to change the past: If you change it, you might erase yourself. If you break it, you may get a chance to fix it in some limited amount of time.
  • Go ahead and change the past: You won’t get erased, but your world might be erased when you return to it.
  • Try to change the past and you can’t: Some magic force keeps pushing things back the way they are meant to be. You kill Hitler and somebody else rises to do the same thing.

Inherent in several of these is the idea of a second time dimension, in which there is a “before” the past was changed and an “after” the past was changed. In this second time dimension, it takes time (or rather time-2) for the changes to propagate. This is mainly there to give protagonists a chance to undo changes. We see Marty Mcfly slowly fade away until he gets his parents back together, and then instantly he’s OK again.

In a time travel story, it is likely we will see cause follow effect, reversing normal causality. However, many writers take this as an excuse to throw all logic out the window. And almost all Hollywood SF inconsistently mixes up the various modes I describe above in one way or another.

Spoilers below for the first episode of FlashForward, and later for Deja Vu.

Update note: The fine folks at io9 asked FlashForward’s producers about the flaw I raise but they are not as bothered by it.  read more »

On worldcon and convention design

The Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Montreal was enjoyable. Like all worldcons, which are run by fans rather than professional convention staff, it had its issues, but nothing too drastic. Our worst experience actually came from the Delta hotel, which I’ll describe below.

For the past few decades, Worldcons have been held in convention centers. They attract from 4,000 to 7,000 people and are generally felt to not fit in any ordinary hotel outside Las Vegas. (They don’t go to Las Vegas both because there is no large fan base there to run it, and the Las Vegas Hotels, unlike those in most towns, have no incentive to offer a cut-rate deal on a summer weekend.)

Because they are always held where deals are to be had on hotels and convention space, it is not uncommon for them to get the entire convention center or a large portion of it. This turns out to be a temptation which most cons succumb to, but should not. The Montreal convention was huge and cavernous. It had little of the intimacy a mostly social event should have. Use of the entire convention center meant long walks and robbed the convention of a social center — a single place through which you could expect people to flow, so you would see your friends, join up for hallway conversations and gather people to go for meals.

This is one of those cases where less can be more. You should not take more space than you need. The convention should be as initimate as it can be without becoming crowded. That may mean deliberately not taking function space.

A social center is vital to a good convention. Unfortunately when there are hotels in multiple directions from the convention center so that people use different exits, it is hard for the crowd to figure one out. At the Montreal convention (Anticipation) the closest thing to such a center was near the registration desk, but it never really worked. At other conventions, anywhere on the path to the primary entrance works. Sometimes it is the lobby and bar of the HQ hotel, but this was not the case here.

When the social center will not be obvious, the convention should try to find the best one, and put up a sign saying it is the congregation point. In some convention centers, meeting rooms will be on a different floor from other function space, and so it may be necessary to have two meeting points, one for in-between sessions, and the other for general time.

The social center/meeting point is the one thing it can make sense to use some space on. Expect a good fraction of the con to congregate there in break times. Let them form groups of conversation (there should be sound absorbing walls) but still be able to see and find other people in the space.

A good thing to make a meeting point work is to put up the schedule there, ideally in a dynamic way. This can be computer screens showing the titles of the upcoming sessions, or even human changed cards saying this. Anticipation used a giant schedule on the wall, which is also OK. The other methods allow descriptions to go up with the names. Anticipation did a roundly disliked “pocket” program printed on tabloid sized paper, with two pages usually needed to cover a whole day. Nobody had a pocket it could fit in. In addition, there were many changes to the schedule and the online version was not updated. Again, this is a volunteer effort, so I expect some glitches like this to happen, they are par for the course.  read more »

Worldcon panel on BSG surprisingly negative

On Saturday I attended the Battlestar Galactica Postmortem panel at the World Science Fiction convention in Montreal. The “worldcon” is the top convention for serious fans of SF, with typically 4,000 to 6,000 attendees from around the world. There are larger (much larger) “media” conventions like ComicCon an DragonCon, but the Worlcon is considered “it” for written SF. It gives out the Hugo award. While the fans at a worldcon do put an emphasis on written SF, they also are voracious consumers of media SF, and so there are many panels on it, and two Hugo awards for it.

Two things surprised me a bit about the Worldcon panel. First of all, it was much more lightly attended than I would have expected considering the large fandom BSG built, and how its high quality had particularly appealed to these sorts of fans. Secondly, it was more negative and bitter about the ending that I would have expecting — and I was expecting quite a lot.

In fact, a few times audience members and panelists felt it necessary to encourage the crowd to stop just ranting about the ending and to talk about the good things. In spite of being so negative on the ending myself I found myself being one of those also trying to talk about the good stuff.

What was surprising was that while I still stand behind my own analysis, I know that in many online communities opinion on the ending is more positive. There are many who hate it but many who love it, and at least initially, more who loved it in some communities.

The answer may be is that it is the serious SF fan, the fan who looks to books as the source of the greatest SF, the BSG ending was the largest betrayal. Here we were hoping for a show that would bring some of the quality we seek in written SF to the screen, and here it fell down. Fans with a primary focus on movie and TV SF were much more tolerant of the ending, since as I noted, TV SF endings are almost never good anyway, and the show itself was a major cut above typical TV SF.

The small audience surprised me. I have seen other shows such as Buffy (which is not even SF), Babylon 5 and various forms of Star Trek still fill a room for discussion of the show. It is my contention that had BSG ended better, it would have joined this pantheon of great shows that maintains a strong fandom for decades.

The episode “Revelations” where the ruined Earth is discovered was nominated for the Hugo for best short dramatic program. It came in 4th — the winner was the highly unusual “Dr. Horrible’s sing-along-blog” which was a web production from fan favourite Joss Whedon of Buffy and Firefly. BSG won a Hugo for the first episode “33” and has been nominated each year since then but has failed to win each time, with a Doctor Who episode the winner in each case.

At the panel, the greatest source of frustration was the out-of-nowhere decision to abandon all technology, with Starbuck’s odd fate a #2. This matches the most common complaints I have seen online.

On another note, while normally Worldcon Hugo voters tend to go for grand SF books, this time the best Novel award went to Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.” Gaiman himself, in his acceptance speech, did the odd thing of declaring that he thought Anathem (which was also my choice) should have won. Anathem came 2nd or 3rd, depending on how you like to read STV ballot counting. Gaiman however, was guest of honour at the convention, and it attracted a huge number of Gaiman fans because of this, which may have altered the voting. (Voting is done by convention members. Typically about 1,000 people will vote on best novel.)

Battlestar's "Daybreak:" The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction

Battlestar Galactica attracted a lot of fans and a lot of kudos during its run, and engendered this sub blog about it. Here, in my final post on the ending, I present the case that its final hour was the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen. This is a condemnation of course, but also praise, because my message is not simply that the ending was poor, but that the show rose so high that it was able to fall so very far. I mean it was the most disappointing ending ever.

(There are, of course, major spoilers in this essay.)

Other SF shows have ended very badly, to be sure. This is particularly true of TV SF. Indeed, it is in the nature of TV SF to end badly. First of all, it’s written in episodic form. Most great endings are planned from the start. TV endings rarely are. To make things worse, TV shows are usually ended when the show is in the middle of a decline. They are often the result of a cancellation, or sometimes a producer who realizes a cancellation is imminent. Quite frequently, the decline that led to cancellation can be the result of a creative failure on the show — either the original visionaries have gone, or they are burned out. In such situations, a poor ending is to be expected.

Sadly, I’m hard pressed to think of a TV SF series that had a truly great ending. That’s the sort of ending you might find in a great book or movie, the ending that caps the work perfectly, which solidifies things in a cohesive whole. Great endings will sometimes finally make sense out of everything, or reveal a surprise that, in retrospect, should have been obvious all along. I’m convinced that many of the world’s best endings came about when the writer actually worked out the ending first, then then wrote a story leading to that ending.

There have been endings that were better than the show. Star Trek: Voyager sunk to dreadful depths in the middle of its run, and its mediocre ending was thus a step up. Among good SF/Fantasy shows, Quantum Leap, Buffy and the Prisoner stand out as having had decent endings. Babylon 5’s endings (plural) were good but, just as I praise Battlestar Galactica (BSG) by saying its ending sucked, Babylon 5’s endings were not up to the high quality of the show. (What is commonly believed to be B5’s original planned ending, written before the show began, might well have made the grade.)

Ron Moore’s goals

To understand the fall of BSG, one must examine it both in terms of more general goals for good SF, and the stated goals of the head writer and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore. The ending failed by both my standards (which you may or may not care about) but also his.

Moore began the journey by laying out a manifesto of how he wanted to change TV SF. He wrote an essay about Naturalistic science fiction where he outlined some great goals and promises, which I will summarize here, in a slightly different order

  • Avoiding SF clichés like time travel, mind control, god-like powers, and technobabble.
  • Keeping the science real.
  • Strong, real characters, avoiding the stereotypes of older TV SF. The show should be about them, not the hardware.
  • A new visual and editing style unlike what has come before, with a focus on realism.

Over time he expanded, modified and sometimes intentionally broke these rules. He allowed the ships to make sound in space after vowing they would not. He eschewed aliens in general. He increased his focus on characters, saying that his mantra in concluding the show was “it’s the characters, stupid.”

The link to reality

In addition, his other goal for the end was to make a connection to our real world. To let the audience see how the story of the characters related to our story. Indeed, the writers toyed with not destroying Galactica, and leaving it buried on Earth, and ending the show with the discovery of the ship in Central America. They rejected this ending because they felt it would violate our contemporary reality too quickly, and make it clear this was an alternate history. Moore felt an alternative universe was not sufficient.

The successes, and then failures

During its run, BSG offered much that was great, in several cases groundbreaking elements never seen before in TV SF:

  • Artificial minds in humanoid bodies who were emotional, sexual and religious.
  • Getting a general audience to undertand the “humanity” of these machines.
  • Stirring space battles with much better concepts of space than typically found on TV. Bullets and missiles, not force-rays.
  • No bumpy-head aliens, no planet of the week, no cute time travel or alternate-reality-where-everybody-is-evil episodes.
  • Dark stories of interesting characters.
  • Multiple copies of the same being, beings programmed to think they were human, beings able to transfer their mind to a new body at the moment of death.
  • A mystery about the origins of the society and its legends, and a mystery about a lost planet named Earth.
  • A mystery about the origin of the Cylons and their reasons for their genocide.
  • Daring use of concepts like suicide bombing and terrorism by the protagonists.
  • Kick-ass leadership characters in Adama and Roslin who were complex, but neither over the top nor understated.
  • Starbuck as a woman. Before she became a toy of god, at least.
  • Baltar: One of the best TV villains ever, a self-centered slightly mad scientist who does evil without wishing to, manipulated by a strange vision in his head.
  • Other superb characters, notably Tigh, Tyrol, Gaeta and Zarek.

But it all came to a far lesser end due to the following failures I will outline in too much detail:

  • The confirmation/revelation of an intervening god as the driving force behind events
  • The use of that god to resolve large numbers of major plot points
  • A number of significant scientific mistakes on major plot points, including:
    • Twisting the whole story to fit a completely wrong idea of what Mitochondrial Eve is
    • To support that concept, an impossible-to-credit political shift among the characters
    • The use of concepts from Intelligent Design to resolve plot issues.
    • The introduction of the nonsense idea of “collective unconscious” to explain cultural similarities.
  • The use of “big secrets” to dominate what was supposed to be a character-driven story
  • Removing all connection to our reality by trying to build a poorly constructed one
  • Mistakes, one of them major and never corrected, which misled the audience

And then I’ll explain the reason why the fall was so great — how, until the last moments, a few minor differences could have fixed most of the problems.  read more »

Why you don't want gods in your fiction

I won’t deny that some of my distaste for the religious ending comes from my own preference for a realistic SF story, where everything that happens has a natural, rather than supernatural explanation, and that this comes in part from my non-religious worldview.

Nonetheless, I believe there are many valid reasons why you don’t want to have interventionist gods in your fiction. God should not be a character in your story, unless you are trying to write religious fiction like Left Behind or Touched by an Angel.

The reason is that God, as we know, works in strange and mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. We don’t expect to understand them. In fact, there is not even a requirement that they make sense. Some even argue that if you’re going to write authentic fiction with God as a character his actions should not make sense to the characters or the reader.

The author of a story is “god” in that they can write whatever they want. But in real, quality fiction, the author is constrained as to what they will do. They are supposed to make their stories make sense. Things should happen for a reason. If the stories are about characters, things should happen for reasons that come from the characters. If the story is also about setting, as SF is, reasons come from the setting. Mainstream fiction tries to follow all the rules of the real world. SF tries to explore hypothetical worlds with different technology, or new science, or even ways of living. Fantasy explores fantastic worlds, but when done properly, the author defines the new rules and sticks to them.

But if you make a divine character, even an offscreen divine character, you give the author too much power. They can literally write anything, and declare it to be the will of god. You don’t want your writer able to do that. You may want them to be able to start with anything, but once started the story should make sense.

As BSG ended, Adama and Baltar describe (correctly, but not strongly enough) how improbable it is that evolved humans can mate with the colonials. In reality, the only path to this is common ancestry, ie. the idea that humans from our-Earth were taken from it and became the Kobolians. But Baltar is able to explain it all away in one line with his new role as priest, it’s the will of god.

In a good story, you don’t get to explain things this way. You need to work a bit harder.

Now, if you absolutely must have a god, you want to constrain that god. That’s not too far-fetched. If you were writing a story in Christianity, and you depicted Jesus torturing innocents, people would not accept it, they would say it’s at odds with how Jesus is defined (though Yaweh had fewer problems with it.) BSG’s god is never defined well enough to have any constraints.

He,and his minions, are certainly capricious though. Genocides, Lies, Manipulations, exploding star systems, plotting out people’s lives, leading Starbuck to her death to achieve goals which could easily have been done other ways. Making that cycle of genocide repeat again and again until random chance breaks it. Not the sort of god we can draw much from. (One hopes if we are going to have gods in our fiction, they provide some moral lesson or other reason for being there rather than to simply be a plot device that explains things that make no sense.)

In literature, bringing in the arbitrary actions at the end of a story to resolve the plot is called a Deus ex Machina and it’s frowned upon for good reasons. The BSG god was introduced early on, so is not a last minute addition. People will disagree, but I think the divinely provided link to real Earth is last minute, in the sense that nothing in the story to that point tells you real Earth is out there, just the rules of drama (that the name “Earth” means something to the audience other than that ruined planet.)

If you want to write religious fiction, of course you can. I’m less interested in reading it. Moore said he did not intend to write this. He wrote the miniseries and made the Cylons monotheists and the colonials polytheists (like the original) and the network came back and said that was really interesting. So he expanded it.

But he expanded it from something good — characters who have religious beliefs — to something bad. The religious beliefs were true. But they were some entirely made-up religion with little correspondence to any Earth religion (even the Buddhism that Moore professes) and as such with no relevance to the people who tend to seek out religious fiction.

Giving religions to the characters is good. It’s real. It’s an important part of our society worth exploring. However, resolving that some of the beliefs are correct, and bringing in the hand of god is another matter.

More loose ends

  • The Colony had several base ships. When it started breaking apart, base ships full of Cavils, Dorals and Simons should have jumped away. What happened to them, and why won’t they come a calling soon? (God’s will?)
  • Likewise, a force of Cavils, Dorals and Simons was invading Galactica and was in a temporary truce when fighting broke out again and Galactica jumped. What happened to them. In particular, since the first Hybrid predicted the splintered Cylon factions would be joined together again, why didn’t they?
  • We never resolved why the first Earth was destroyed 2,000 years ago, and that this was the same time as the fall of Kobol and exodus of the 12 tribes. Was this just a big mistake and all 13 tribes were supposed to flee at the same time?
  • I don’t know for sure about 150,000 years ago (it comes and goes) but 135,000 years ago the Sahara was covered by large lakes.

Creationism and the Abduction theory

The posts will come fast and furious in the next two days.

First I want to cover a little more about why this ending is of so much concern to many viewers. While many will accept that it is unscientific, and just say that they never cared that much about such things, the particular errors and issues of the final plot are rather special. What we saw was not merely spacecraft making sound in space or FTL drives or some other random scientific error.

The error in BSG centers around the most pernicious anti-scientific idea of our day: Creationism/Intelligent Design. In particular, it tells the “Ark” story, though it sets it 150,000 years ago rather than 4,000. And, because Moore knows the Ark story is totally bogus, he tries to fix it, by having the alien colonists able to breed with us humans, and thus having the final result be a merger of the two streams of humanity. That’s better than the pure Ark story, and perhaps enough better that I see some viewers are satisfied with it, but with deeper examination, it is just as bad an idea, and perhaps in its way more pernicious because it is easier for people to accept the flaws.

SF writers have been writing the Ark story since the dawn of SF. Indeed, the alien Adam and Eve plot is such a cliche from the 40s that you would have a hard time selling it to an SF magazine today. Not simply because it’s nonsense, but because it became overused back in the day when it wasn’t as obvious to people how nonsensical it was.

The Ark story is not just any bad science. It’s the worst bad science there is. Because there are dedicated forces who want so much for people to accept the Ark story as possible. Normally busy scientists would not even bother to debunk a story like that, but they spend a lot of time debunking this one because of the dedicated religious forces who seek to push it into schools and other places religion does not belong. And debunk it they have, and very solidly. The depth of the debunking is immense, and can’t be covered in this blog. I recommend the talk.origins archive with their giant FAQ for answers to many of the questions about this.

BSG plays a number of tricks to make the Ark story more palatable. It puts it back further in time, prior to the migrations of humanity out of Africa. (Oddly, it also has Adama spread the people around the continents, which simply means all the ones who did not stay in Africa died out without a trace or any descendents.) It makes it a merger rather than a pure origin to account for the long fossil and geological record. It has the aliens destroy all their technology and cast it into the sun to explain why there is no trace of it.

It does all those things, but in the end, the explanation remains religious. As the story is shown, you still need to invoke a variety of divine miracles to make it happen, and the show does indeed do this. The humans, on this planet, are the same species as aliens from another galaxy, due to the plan of God. They have cats and dogs and the rest, even though 150,000 years ago, humans have yet to domesticate any animals. Indeed, god has to have designed the colonials from the start to be the same species as the natives of Earth, it all has to have been set up many thousands of years ago. This is “intelligent design,” the form of creationism that gets dressed like science to help make it more palatable. It is also a pernicious idea.

In one fell swoop, BSG changes from science fiction — hard, soft or otherwise — to religious fiction, or religious SF if you wish. Its story, as shown, is explained on screen as being divine intervention. Now, thanks to BSG, there will be discussion of the ending. But it will involve the defenders of science having to explain again why the Ark story is silly and ignores what we know of biology. I am shocked that Kevin Grazier, who advocates science teaching for children, including biology, was willing to be a part of this ending.

Sadly this ending goes beyond being bad SF.

How to make it work.

Now there is one plot which BSG did not explore which would have made a lot of sense if they wanted to tell this story. It’s been noted on this blog a few times, but discounted because we believed BSG had a “no aliens” rule. This is what I called the “Alien Abduction plot.”

In this plot, aliens — in this case the God, who does not have to be a supernatural god — captured humans and various plants and animals from real Earth many thousands of years ago. The god took them to Kobol, and possibly with other gods (the Lords of Kobol) created a culture and raised them there. From this flows our story.

This plot has been used many times. Recently in Ken Macleod’s “Cosmonaut Keep” series the characters find a human culture way out in the stars, populated by people taken by “gods” (highly advanced beings) a long time ago. The same idea appears in Rob Sawyer’s dinosaur series, and many other books.

Do this, and it suddenly explains why the colonials are the same species as the people on Earth, but more advanced. It does not explain their cats and dogs, or their Earth idioms, but those can be marked down to drama. (They would have to have independently domesticated cats and dogs and other animals, as this had not happened on Earth. Same for the plants. The gods could also have done this for them.)

This plot works well enough that it’s surprising no hint of it was left in the show. I do not believe it was the intention of the writers, though I would love to see post-show interviews declaring that it was.

And even this plot has a hard time explaining what happened to their culture, the metal in their teeth and many other items. For try as they might they could not abandon all their technology. Even things that seem very basic to the Colonials, like better spears, writing, animal and plant domestication, knives, sailboats, complex language and so many other things are still aeons ahead of the humans. They plan to breed with the humans, and will be taking them into their schools and educating them. There was a sudden acceleration of culture 50,000 years ago, but not 150,000. And then there’s the artificial DNA in Hera and any other Cylon descendents. (And no, Hera isn’t the only person we are supposed to be descended from, she is just the source of the maternal lines.) But maybe you can shoehorn it in, which makes it surprising it wasn’t used.

The idea, taken from the old series, that the Greeks would have taken some of their culture from the aliens also is hard to make work. Why do their cultural ideas and now hopefully debunked (to them) polytheist religion show up nowhere else but Greece and eventually Rome? How do they get there, and only there, over 140,000 years of no writing, hunter-gatherer life? I am not a student of classical cultures, but I believe we also have lots of evidence of the origin and evolution of our modern Greek myths. They did not spring, pardon the phrase, fully formed from the head of Zeus. Rather they are based on older and simpler stories we have also traced. But the alien religion is based on our modern concepts of ancient Greek religion.

Even in 5,000 to 10,000 years, there would be a moderate amount of genetic drift in the Kobol environment, including the artificial genetic manipulation involved with Cylons. Since we learn that Africa has more game than the 12 colonies, it’s clear the colonials did not have all of Earth’s animals. It is contact with animals that generates most of our diseases. When different groups of humans get separated for many thousands of years, with different animals, the result is major plagues when they meet. Without divine intervention, the colonials are about to be reduced to a small fraction of their population. Especially after tossing their hospitals into the sun. (Why don’t we see any sick people saying, “Excuse me, do I get a vote on this whole abandon technology idea?)

Atlantis

The other plot which could have explained this I called the “Atlantis” plot. In this plot there is an advanced civilization long ago which reaches the stars but falls and disappears without a trace. It is the civilization that colonizes Kobol and becomes as gods. This requires no aliens. This is not their chosen plot, since it’s even harder to explain how this civilization left no trace, since it would not have gone to the technology destroying extremes the Colonists are shown to do.

Coming up: Why religious SF is a bad idea, even if you believe in the religion. (Hint: while the author is god, you don’t want them to really use that power.)

On high quality Science Fiction

(This post from my Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog is cross-posted to my main blog too.)

There’s been some debate in the comments here about whether I and those like me are being far too picky about technical and plot elements in Battlestar Galactica. It got meaty enough that I wanted to summarize some thoughts about the nature of quality SF, and the reasons why it is important. BSG is quality SF, and it set out to be, so I hold it to a higher bar. When I criticise it for where it sometimes drops the ball, this is not the criticism of disdain, but of respect.

I wrote earlier about the nature of hard SF. It is traditionally hard to define, and people never fully agree about what it is, and what SF is in general. I don’t expect this essay to resolve that.

Broadly, SF is to me fiction which tries to explore the consequences of science, technology and the future. All fiction asks “what if?” but in SF, the “what if?” is often about the setting, and in particular the technology of the setting, and not simply about the characters. Hard SF makes a dedication to not break the laws of physics and other important principles of science while doing so. Fantasy, on the other hand, is free to set up any rules it likes, though all but the worst fantasy feels obligated to stick to those rules and remain consistent.

Hard SF, however, has another association in people’s minds. Many feel that hard SF has to focus on the science and technology. It is a common criticism of hard SF that it spends so much time on the setting that the characters and story suffer. In some cases they suffer completely; stories in Analog Science Fiction are notorious for this, and give hard SF a bad name.

Perhaps because of that name, Ron Moore declared that he would make BSG be Naturalistic Science Fiction. he declared that he wanted to follow the rules of science, as hard SF does, but as you would expect in a TV show, character and story were still of paramount importance. His credo also described many of the tropes of TV SF he would avoid, including time travel and aliens, and stock stereotyped characters.

I am all for this. While hard SF that puts its focus on the technology makes great sense in a Greg Egan novel, it doesn’t make sense in a drama. TV and movies don’t have the time to do it well, nor the audience that seeks this.

However, staying within the laws of physics has a lot of merit. I believe that it can be very good for a story if the writer is constrained, and can’t simply make up anything they desire. Mystery writers don’t feel limited that they can’t have their characters able to fly or read minds. In fact, it would ruin most of their mystery plots of they could. Staying within the rules — rules you didn’t set up — can be harder to do, but this often is good, not bad. This is particularly true for the laws of science, because they are real and logical. So often, writers who want to break the rules end up breaking the rules of logic. Their stories don’t make any sense, regardless of questions of science. When big enough, we call these logical flaws plot holes. Sticking to reality actually helps reduce them. It also keeps the audience happy. Only a small fraction of the audience may understand enough science to know that something is bogus, but you never know how many there are, and they are often the smarter and more influential members of the audience.

I lament at the poor quality of the realism in TV SF. Most shows do an absolutely dreadful job. I lament this because they are not doing that bad job deliberately. They are just careless. For fees that would be a pittance to any Hollywood budget, they could make good use of a science and SF advisor. (I recommend both. The SF advisor will know more about drama and fiction, and also will know what’s already been done, or done to death in other SF.) Good use doesn’t mean always doing what they say. While I do think it is good to be constrained, I recognize the right of creators to decide they do want to break the rules. I just want them to be aware that they are breaking the rules. I want them to have decided “I need to do this to tell the story I am telling” and not because they don’t care or don’t think the audience will care.

There does not have to be much of a trade-off between doing a good, realistic, consistent story and having good drama and characters. This is obviously true. Most non-genre fiction happily stays within the laws of reality. (Well, not action movies, but that’s another story.)

Why it’s important

My demand for realism is partly so I get a better, more consistent story without nagging errors distracting me from it. But there is a bigger concern.

TV and movie SF are important. They are the type of SF that most of the world will see. They are what will educate the public about many of the most important issues in science and technology, and these are some of the most important issues of the day. More people will watch even the cable-channel-rated Battlestar Galactica than read the most important novels in the field.

Because BSG is good, it will become a reference point for people’s debates about things like AI and robots, religion and spirituality in AIs and many other questions. This happens in two ways. First, popular SF allows you to explain a concept to an audience quickly. If I want to talk about a virtual reality where everybody is in a tank while they live in a synthetic world, I can mention The Matrix and the audience immediately has some sense of what I am talking about. Because of the flaws in The Matrix I may need to explain the differences between that and what I want to describe, but it’s still easier.

Secondly, people will have developed attitudes about what things mean from the movies. HAL-9000 from 2001 formed a lot of public opinion on AIs. Few get into a debate about robots without bringing up Asimov, or at worst case, Star Wars.

If the popular stories get it wrong, then the public starts with a wrong impression. Because so much TV SF is utter crap, a lot of the public has really crappy ideas about various issues in science and technology. The more we can correct this, the better. So much TV SF comes from people who don’t really even care that they are doing SF. They do it because they can have fancy special effects, or know it will reach a certain number of fans. They have no excuse, though, for not trying to make it better.

BSG excited me because it set a high bar, and promised realism. And in a lot of ways it has delivered. Because it has FTL drives, it would not meet the hard SF fan’s standard, but I understand how you are not going to do an interstellar chase show with sublight travel that would hold a TV audience. And I also know that Moore, the producer knows this and made a conscious decision to break the rules. There are several other places where he did this.

This was good because the original show, which I watched as an 18 year old, was dreadful. It had no concept of the geometry of space. TV shows and movies are notoriously terrible at this, but this was in the lower part of the spectrum. They just arrived at the planet of the week when the writers wanted them to. And it had this nonsense idea that the Earth could be a colony of ancient aliens. That pernicious idea, the “Ark” theory, is solidly debunked thanks to the fact that creationists keep bringing it up, but it does no good for SF to do anything to encourage it. BSG seemed to be ready to fix all these things. Yet since there are hints that the Ark question may not be addressed, I am disappointed on that count.

To some extent, the criticism that some readers have made — that too much attention to detail and demand for perfection — can ruin the story for you. You do have to employ some suspension of disbelief to enjoy most SF. Even rule-follow hard SF usually invents something new and magical that has yet to be invented. It might be possible, but the writer has no actual clue as to how. You just accept it and enjoy the story. Perhaps I do myself a disservice by getting bothered by minor nits. There are others who have it worse than I do, at least. But I’m not a professional TV science advisor. Perhaps I could be one, but for now, if I can see it, I think it means that they could have seen it. And I always enjoy a show more, when it’s clearly obvious how much they care about the details. And so does everybody else, even when they don’t know it. Attention to details creates a sense of depth which enhances a work even if you never explore the depth. You know it’s there. You feel it, and the work becomes stronger and more relevant.

Now some of the criticisms I am making here are not about science or niggling technical details. Some of the recent trends, I think, are errors of story and character. Of course, you’re never going to be in complete agreement with a writer about where a story or character should go. But if characters become inconsistent, it hurts the story as much or more as when the setting becomes inconsistent.

But still, after all this, let’s see far more shows like Battlestar Galactica 2003, and fewer like Battletar Galactica 1978, and I’ll still be happy.

What is hard science fiction?

I’ve just returned from Denver and the World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon) where I spoke on issues such as privacy, DRM and creating new intelligent beings. However, I also attended a session on “hard” science fiction, and have some thoughts to relate from it.

Defining the sub-genres of SF, or any form of literature, is a constant topic for debate. No matter where you draw the lines, authors will work to bend them as well. Many people just give up and say “Science Fiction is what I point at when I say Science Fiction.”

Genres in the end are more about taste than anything else. They exist for readers to find fiction that is likely to match their tastes. Hard SF, broadly, is SF that takes extra care to follow the real rules of physics. It may include unknown science or technology but doesn’t include what those rules declare to be impossible. On the border of hard SF one also finds SF that does a few impossible things (most commonly faster-than-light starships) but otherwise sticks to the rules. As stories include more impossible and unlikely things, they travel down the path to fantasy, eventually arriving at a fully fantastic level where the world works in magical ways as the author found convenient.

Even in fantasy however, readers like to demand consistency. Once magical rules are set up, people like them to be followed.

In addition to Hard SF, softer SF and Fantasy, the “alternate history” genre has joined the pantheon, now often dubbed “speculative fiction.” All fiction deals with hypotheticals, but in speculative fiction, the “what if?” is asked about the world, not just the lives of some characters. This year, the Hugo award for best (ostensibly SF) novel of the year went to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union which is a very clear alternate history story. In it, the USA decides to accept Jews that Hitler is expelling from Europe, and gives them a temporary homeland around Sitka, Alaska. During the book, the lease on the homeland is expiring, and there is no Israel. It’s a very fine book, but I didn’t vote for it because I want to promote actual SF, not alternate history, with the award.

However, in considering why fans like alternate history, I realized something else. In mainstream literature, the cliche is that the purpose of literature is to “explore the human condition.” SF tends to expand that, to explore both the human condition and the nature of the technology and societies we create, as well as the universe itself. SF gets faulted by the mainstream literature community for exploring those latter topics at the expense of the more character oriented explorations that are the core of mainstream fiction. This is sometimes, but not always, a fair criticism.

Hard SF fans want their fiction to follow the rules of physics, which is to say, take place in what could be the real world. In a sense, that’s similar to the goal of mainstream fiction, even though normally hard SF and mainstream fiction are considered polar opposites in the genre spectrum. After all, mainstream fiction follows the rules of physics as well or better than the hardest SF. It follows them because the author isn’t trying to explore questions of science, technology and the universe, but it does follow them. Likewise, almost all alternate history also follows the laws of physics. It just tweaks some past event, not a past rule. As such it explores the “real world” as closely as SF does, and I suspect this is why it is considered a subgenre of fantasy and SF.

I admit to a taste for hard SF. Future hard SF is a form of futurism; an explanation of real possible futures for the world. It explores real issues. The best work in hard SF today comes (far too infrequently) from Vernor Vinge, including his recent hugo winning novel, Rainbows End. His most famous work, A Fire Upon the Deep, which I published in electronic form 15 years ago, is a curious beast. It includes one extremely unlikely element of setting — a galaxy where the rules of physics which govern the speed of computation vary with distance from the center of the galaxy. Some view that as fantastic, but its real purpose is to allow him to write about the very fascinating and important topic of computerized super-minds, who are so smart that they are as gods to us. Coining the term “applied theology” Vinge uses his setting to allow the superminds to exist in the same story as characters like us that we can relate to. Vinge feels that you can’t write an authentic story about superminds, and thus need to have human characters, and so uses this element some would view as fantastic. So I embrace this as hard SF, and for the purists, the novels suggest that the “zones” may be artificial.

The best hard SF thus explores the total human condition. Fantastic fiction can do this as well, but it must do it by allegory. In fantasy, we are not looking at the real world, but we usually are trying to say something about it. However, it is not always good to let the author pick and choose what’s real and what’s not about the world, since it is too easy to fall into the trap of speaking only about your made-up reality and not about the world.

Not that this is always bad. Exploring the “human condition” or reality is just one thing we ask of our fiction. We also always want a ripping good read. And that can occur in any genre.

Review of The Old Man's War Trilogy by John Scalzi

In 2005, John Scalzi burst on the scene with a remarkable first novel, Old Man’s War. It got nominated for a Hugo and won him the Campbell award for best new writer. Many felt it was the sort of novel Heinlein might be writing today. That might be too high a praise, but it’s close. The third book in this trilogy has just come out, so it was time to review the set.

It’s hard to review the book without some spoilers, and impossible for me to review the latter two books without spoiling the first, but I’ll warn you when that’s going to happen.

OMW tells the story of John Perry, a 75 year old man living on an Earth only a bit more advanced than our own, but it’s hundreds of years in the future. Earth people know they’re part of a collection of human colonies which does battle with nasty aliens, but they are kept in the dark about the realities. People in the third world are offered o ne way trips to join colonies. People in the 1st world can, when they turn 75, sign up for the colonial military, again a one-way trip. It’s not a hard choice to make since everybody presumes the military will make them young again, and the alternative is ordinary death by old age.

The protagonist and his wife sign up, but she dies before the enlistment date, so he goes on his own. The first half of the book depicts his learning the reality of the colonial union, and boot camp, and the latter half outlines his experiences fighting against various nasty aliens.

It’s a highly recommended read. If you loved Starship Troopers or The Forever War this is your kind of book. Now I’ll go into some minor spoilers.  read more »

Syndicate content