Science fiction is really beginning to annoy me…

Dedication: To anyone who may find this interesting, but more-so to the science fiction fans most likely to find it offensive.

Science fiction, probably more than any other genre has the capacity for meaningful speculation. When executed deftly, it’s differentiated from its cousins in the broader fantasy genre in that within science fiction, consequences matter. There is an internal logic, obscured as much of it may be from the reader.

If resurrection violates this internal logic, the dead stay dead. The passing of a loved one of a protagonist, or the protagonist themselves, means something.

The logic, if it violates current scientific understanding, must at least explain the discrepancy. Either it is additive-speculative, or it rests upon the current scientific knowledge being wrong in some respect. The proverbial alien railway station is an (IMHO, much overused and abused) example of the former, Harry Harrison’s To The Stars trilogy, resting upon an assumed error in Einsteinian gravity, is an example of the latter.

X-Men, with its constant magical resurrections, and it’s bastardised contortion of evolutionary theory and genetics, is techno-fantasy. Anything physical can happen and it won’t violate the internal logic. Doctor Who is much the same. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as apparently is any scientific speculation sufficiently beyond an author’s ability or motivation.

The strengths of X-Men and Doctor Who come mostly from their ability to appeal to emotion via allegory and other methods and elements. There are no consequences. X-Men are resurrected with such frequency that nowadays the script writers mock themselves by explicitly giving no explanation at all. And how often do you hear The Doctor say “But that’s impossible!” only to find out that it isn’t, or “but they were wiped out!” and they weren’t?

Anything can happen, anything can be undone, and hence nothing matters nearly as much.

And oh am I sick of prophecy. Someone needs to throw James Gleick’s Chaos, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at these people.

Just mapping the initial conditions is bad enough, without considering the computational power and inherent epistemological barriers placed upon any conscience – i.e. the proverbial Black Swan that everyone thought didn’t exist. Prophecy doesn’t work.

Prophecy is a blight upon humanity, misleading all with overconfident platitudes that at best serve to dupe people into fulfilling the prophesy, possibly causing catastrophe along the way – human history is riven with such misguided disasters.

Why not explore the risks inherent to prophecy? Instead, usually you’ll get some sagely figure smugly nodding after the protagonist has just got the picture.

The Truth of prophecy is confirmed once all the plot elements come together like a broken teacup rising from the floor to assemble itself upon a table, just in time for our hero to take a sip. Usually with no cause or reason at all.

It would be bad enough if it were only this silly. But it’s worse. It’s a wasted opportunity.

Apocalyptic visions have been used to manipulate and to console through the convenient removal of uncomfortable ambiguities, and they still function this way today. Prominently. Having a prophecy with no critical exploration is a waste of a chance for exploration.

Bring back the ambiguity. Make people uncomfortable. Screw comfortable. Get people thinking about the nature of prophecy and questioning the way it informs politics.

Interlude I: Battlestar Galactica is particularly notorious for its light-handed, fawning treatment of prophecy, and deserves to be rebuked on such a basis. No amount of “Oh, maybe the prophecy was wrong”, followed by “Oh wait, no it wasn’t. We should have had faith all along”, in the remake, can save it.

And while we’re on the topic of supposedly inevitable plot developments, I have a suggestion for script writers and authors of anthologies with contrived story arcs.

If your characters evolve in a different direction to that which you had envisaged in your original, convoluted plans, so much so that it makes elements of the plot unlikely – make changes to the plot rather than cripple the development of your characters. Evolution isn’t teleological, nor should it be for our proxies in your story – it cheapens them and reduces them to obviously designed clichés and then how are we supposed to meaningfully relate to them?

So how to treat this kind of thing?

Here’s an idea for a season’s story arc.

  • “The elders have foreseen that you will prosper and lead us to victory over our oppressors”, the wizened ones tell our protagonist.
  • … our hero dies from an unforeseen and mundane accident – something like an undiagnosed food allergy the prophets apparently weren’t aware of – a third of the way through the season.
  • The remainder of the season sees the disillusioned survivors trying to reconcile their ideals with their empirical reality, the very concept of prophecy being deconstructed along the way.

Importantly, by the end of the season, this conflict between ideals, prophesy and evidence would not be resolved. Because if there’s something I loathe in stories passing themselves off as science fiction more than the uncritical acceptance of prophecy, it’s moral didacticism.

I am so sick of having the protagonist give us a contrived lecture. Contrary to what the writer may be thinking, and contrary to what a bunch of old stuffed shirts think about classical literature, moral didacticism isn’t morally engaging. And it’s not particularly convincing in science fiction stories either.

Imagine a 31st century wedding – the best man toasts the groom and the groom. “I’m glad we could have such a loving couple marry, not like back before The Eugenics Warstm!”

The lecture is obviously there for our benefit and thus breaks the fourth wall in a manner that should only be permitted in farce. An individual living in a morally advanced culture where gay marriage is and has been practised for a long time is bound to take the practice for granted – so they would find little need to deliver a polemic on such occasions.

Star Trek is riddled with this kind of moment-breaking, critically un-engaging tripe. Usually fired over some ignorant sod’s shoulder, out of the screen and at the viewer by captains of starships. Firing morals at the audience is a bad, bad way of getting them thinking about morals.

It’s like Gene Roddenberry has descended from his mountain top to deliver the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s edicts to us. “Thou shall not…” Script writers shall not use exposition to opine. Roddenberry can clamber back up his mountain and take the gold-pressed latinum tablets with him.

Give the reader or the audience an opportunity to explore an issue – that’s what you want to do if you want to morally engage with them. Use the speculative powers of science fiction to design a thought experiment – a problem to solve. Have the protagonist attempt to solve it, and if the dilemma is resolved then have it done in a sufficiently morally ambiguous fashion that the reader can’t deduce endorsement from the choice of the protagonist. And have the decision weigh on the characters. Have them doubt themselves.

The problem in The Genesis of The Daleks, that of The Doctor’s choice whether or not to commit genocide against a species far more genocidal, was executed perfectly in this respect. Whatever decision The Doctor made would have weighed on him, and the viewer (unless conceited) wouldn’t be able to arrive at a conclusion as to if the decision was the right one. This indecision leaves the audience thinking about the ethics of the scenario, which is what you really want if you have any artistic or moral integrity.

Although, if you are in it to generate a franchise to merchandise to a cult following, I guess anything that preferentially attracts those who don’t think for themselves is what you’ll want to use. Anyone wanna buy a second-hand tricorder? Star Fleet uniform? Spotted Trill buttplug?


So what am I saying? If only we went back to the Golden Years? Clarke, Asimov and the others?

Hell no. I loves me some Asimov, but no.

I’m not even a genre purist – I love the work of Michael Moorcock for example – psychedelic-techno-high-fantasy-with-optional-scenes-of-incest-and-remorseless-genocide have a place on my shelf. (Although I think Behold The Man belongs strictly within the confines of science fiction and is a decent piece of literature at that.)

I even have room for steampunk (Sean).

What’s more, I think character development has fared better in hands other than those of the classical science fiction authors. Newer protagonists and antagonists are more easy to relate to – more real.

Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is an excellent book. In terms of its imaginative-additive scientific speculation, it is probably one of the best (Hugo and Nebula award-winning) science fiction books ever – possibly the best. The speculative plot device in question being the exchange of elements between two Universes between which the weak nuclear force is different – resulting in the production of energy from the decay of impossible isotopes in both Universes. But with the laws of physics of both bleeding into each other – catastrophe becoming increasingly inevitable. It’s good speculative science fiction.


The characters and dialogue leave a bit to be desired. At least amongst the human characters. The alien characters were oddly interesting and fleshed out in such detail that I found they became easier to relate to. Conversely, I found the interplay between Denison and Selene in the third book to be particularly wooden, which while in itself not necessarily a problem – some people are a bit wooden and this would at least have suited Denison – they were too wooden for their developing relationship.

Specifically, the flirting between Denison and Selene (“did you sell any?” haw haw haw) was like a bad attempt at casual by alienated IRC denizens. As much as Asimov may have tried to make it convincing, you just can’t see Selene leaving her relationship with a flawed, controlling partner, to embrace Denison’s stilted attempts at laid-back charisma, despite his prowess as a scientist. But then, writing about women wasn’t amongst Asimov’s many strong points. Indeed, this was a problem with the golden age of science fiction in general.

I’d like to see Asimov’s rigorous, golden age approach to the science in science fiction repeated. But I’d like newer takes on the characters. Resonance between the audience is at its height when the consequences matter for the characters, and when the characters themselves are plausible and more easily able to draw empathy.

Further to this, I think the whole genre can and should be subverted. Particularly through the adoption of elements of weird fiction – which predate the modern genre-niche both the golden age of science fiction, and the more contemporary, more commercial pap rests within. Or at least a perversion of these weird elements could be used to subvert science fiction. I think this is the key to maximise the resonance of a newer kind of science fiction.

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

(H.P. Lovecraft, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, 1934)

It’s often been pointed out how looking up at the stars can fill you simultaneously with both exultation and existential loneliness. This is more-so the case amongst the godless who don’t have a deity to fill that loneliness – something that should on some level terrorize both the religious and the godless (the former being at risk if their faith fails).

Why then can’t a merely natural, as opposed to a supernatural agency, be responsible for a weird kind of horror? How hard would it be to pervert Lovecraft’s analysis to this end? A perversion with…

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unintuitive forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of a terrible and most alien conception of the human brain — a cruel and uncaring suspension or refutation of our calculated laws of nature which are our only safeguard against the unforgiving vacuum and energies of outer space.”

I think this could both compliment and subvert the current genre, back into a pre-genre state more closely resembling a proper part of literary tradition. What’s more breathless than the vacuum of space? More of an unexplainable dread than a lethal environment our senses haven’t evolved to deal with? What’s more portentous than the sheer scale of The Universe? Who needs demons or Outer Gods?

Combine this abysmal, yawning terror with the awe and majesty of the cosmos, and you’ve got a meaningful backdrop for the conflict that drives your story.

Plunge well crafted characters that ring true into a Universe like this, where consequences matter, and I defy you to show me that it couldn’t move your reader!

Still, nobody seems to be doing anything like this. So until someone does or someone points me toward something different, I’ll have to remain increasingly annoyed with science fiction writing for some time yet. Grrrr.

~ Bruce

* Seriously, the original Battlestar Galactica wasn’t a science fiction series, it was a noisy pinball machine that used clichés in place of steel balls.

Fanning the flames of intolerance…

Back in March of this year, the ABC’s Compass hosted a documentary titled The Atheists. While not agreeing with all the atheists represented (who would? – “herding cats” and all that), I think it was a pretty reasonable job. Given the interviewees.

The point of this post comes from one of the comments made in the documentary by Phillip Adams. In commenting on Dawkins and Hitchens, he claimed that while he didn’t disagree with any of their points, it was their tone that he disagreed with –  a tone that “fanned the flames of intolerance” (I paraphrase).

Well, who could disagree with that? (Shut-up and sit down in the back there. Yes I mean you.)

Much has been made of Dawkins’ “strident” tone, and often in public speaking in response to these claims Dawkins presents  a passage of the best candidate for strident prose from The God Delusion. This best candidate is the opening of the chapter ‘The God Hypothesis’.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

(The God Delusion, ‘The God Hypothesis’, Richard Dawkins, 2006)

The usual retort that Dawkins takes on tour goes that the passage was intended in jest, and that Dawkins thinks it’s actually quite funny. (If you laugh, I have a yard ruler with your backside’s name on it.)

Further to this, Dawkins has claimed that if it is strident, it’s only because of the source material he’s referring to (i.e. The Old Testament). Bah. Pish! Nothing of the sort. He’s just not reading the book right. It’s metaphor.

At any rate, like or hate his work, if there is any one candidate for Dawkins’ most strident, this is quite possibly it.

Now, here in front of me next to The God Delusion I have another candidate for “strident atheist” text. More Unspeakable Adams, by Phillip Adams (1981).

Much like Dawkins above quote, it was written and was intended to be read in good humour. Even if on the back cover, it jests about religious indignation.

“LAST DESPERATE OFFER! A limited edition of the book, soaked in kerosene, is available for outraged religious organisations. Bulk orders only.”

(More Unspeakable Adams, Phillip Adams, 1981)

Because we all know how religious organisations can become incensed at the slightest, fairest criticism. Indignation with wailing and gnashing of teeth and all that. Hardly a strident observation.

Let’s see, as with Dawkins, if we can’t quote mine a most-strident-passage from More Unspeakable Adams. 😉

“Lassie’s saintliness recalls the arguments I’d have with our religious instruction teacher, who regarded my insistence on her having a soul as blasphemy. But I knew she did, that she must, and that if there were a heaven and heavenly justice, she’d have to share in immortality… ‘God is dog backwards,’ offered Graeme Wrigley helpfully, only to earn instant excommunication from the class.”

Aghast! The horror! Aiieee! Strident!

Okay. Most of the book only has material that makes tangential reference to religion, as offensive as some of the content may be to religious prudes. Quote mining a lot of it to make it sound strident would require quite a bit of bad faith. I wouldn’t want you to mistake me for a creationist.

But forget strident anyway. What about fanning those flames of…. Oh wait. What’s this? ‘When God was Irish and Dr Mannix his deputy.’

That’s got to have potential.

“One of the great pleasures of a newspaper column is the mail it provokes. The unsigned obscenities, the death threats…”

Even without the Internet, it seems Adams can whip up the hatred as well as that dastardly PZ Myers!

“Fascinated by this revelation, I wrote back (‘Dear Mr Christ, I was most interested …’) seeking further details. This led to a flood of over 100 letters, each more deranged in its misogyny… Unfortunately Mr Christ also detailed his plans to murder some Sydney matrons, so I was forced to get in touch with a psychiatric service sponsored by the Presbyterian Church.”

Shrill! Intolerant! Flashing lights! Babies in peril!1!!

In the same league as Dawkins’-Most-Strident-Passage, don’t you think? But maybe you aren’t convinced. Yet.

Reading further, Adams provides “a glossary of terms used in convent schools in the 1950s’.”

Body, The: Did not exist except for Breasts (q.v.). A protestant delusion.
Breasts: Sister could not mention them without going red. It was a mortal sin if they showed.”

Intolerant! Flames! Air-raid siren! Gngggggg!!!

God: The senior male Catholic. Of Irish extraction. Definitely not Italian. Ranked above Archbishop Mannix.”

You can’t imply they’re racist! Next you’ll be calling them paedophile-lovers! Intolera-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-RAGE!

Hell: For Jews and other pagans, including most Protestants. Also for Catholic girls who did not believe what the priests told them.”

What would Catholic girl, Madeleine Bunting think? BIGOTRY!

Proddy dogs: State school children of both sexes. God did not love them enough to make them Catholics.”

Well, that’s all I need to see! Case closed! He may talk all tolerant, but never forget; Phillip Adams is a card-carrying, religiously bigoted member of the New Atheist Internationale! (The book has “communism” written in it!)

Disagree with “fanning the flames of intolerance”, indeed!

~ Bruce

DAoS: There are only two kinds of atheist

The truth is not for everyone and the truth can be elusive. If you find this all too stressful, look away now.

Atheist dichotomies. Hard-Soft. Weak-Strong. Militant-Tolerant. Bright-Stupid. Nones-Somes. All complete and utter crap.

There are only two kinds of atheist. Nevers and evers.

Are you an atheist and have you ever been a theist? You’re an Ever.

Are you an atheist and have you never been a theist? You’re a Never.

When will an Ever be as good, smart and virtuous as a Never? Never.

“Whaaaaaa! I came from a harsh fundamentalist background. PITY ME LIKE I PITY ME!”

No. The Universe without God is a harsh place. If you want to get used of it, you have to get used of not having you mother wipe your arse for you. Wipe it yourself milquetoast.

With the publication of The God Delusion, written by Richard Dawkins (an ever himself), closeted Evers have found a modicum of self-respect and thrown of the shackles of servitude to Santa for grown ups. In droves they have joined atheist communities.

I remember godless culture from before all these freaky refugees turned up. Back before all the tents made from tracts and hair-shirt adorned clotheslines, turned up to form a shanty town.

It wasn’t much, but our atheist culture was nice. Thanks Richard. Who were you to invite these basket-cases, anyway? You aren’t the Pope of atheism.

Oh, so they’re atheists now? Look, as any of us with a brain knows, atheism doesn’t grant virtue. Humanism may or may not, depending on the make and model, but atheism doesn’t. So suddenly becoming an atheist earns people precisely zero brownie points.

Look at it this way…

Take the paedophile priest. Suddenly, he’s caught and excommunicated (yeah, yeah I know – but this is a thought experiment) and in the process finds to his delight, that he never had any reason to believe in God to begin with. He just believed because his parents did – it’s always someone else’s fault after all. Especially with paedophiles.

So, the paedophile priest becomes an atheist. My question is, now that he’s an atheist, do you leave your kids alone with him and a jar of petroleum jelly?

If you say no, then you see my point. If you say yes, you’re a fool. A paedophile enabling fool. Maybe you worked for the Rat-Zinger before you became an Ever?

It’s not just run-of-the-mill criminal urges that atheism doesn’t cure of course. How many Evers, before they became Evers, enabled, facilitated or enacted religious brainwashing of the young? Their own young perhaps. This kind of dogmatic epistemology doesn’t just up and leave town just because its fundy host finds a new in-group to extract benefits from.

Religious fundamentalism has given the Godless world an injection of numbers, and an injection of culture. And norms. And values. And morals. And IQ scores.

Disturbingly it’s also given us new leaders. What the hell is an ex-fundy songwriter doing running the Freedom from Religion Foundation? Do atheists want it to be run like a cult? It can happen to atheists – just look at Ayn Rand’s sorry bunch of fawning sycophants. Well, I’m here to tell you that the Nevers don’t like it one bit.

Why are Nevers, Nevers and Evers, Evers? We’re told it’s socio-economics. We’re told it’s educational opportunity. We’re told it’s childhood environment. Crap.

Whatever your walk of life, adults bullshit their kids in various ways and about various things. Nevers choose not to believe. Before they are Evers, Evers do.

It’s not nurture, it’s nature. Nevers are intrinsically better. Don’t get me wrong – environment matters – a Never is more likely to become a Christey if they have a shit life. But all things being equal, potential Evers will never outperform potential Nevers in the Godlessness stakes.

It’s something that echos on through their CV of Godlessness. Which makes me wonder, who was reading these CVs when ex-fundie Shermer was anointed King Skeptic? Why is so much of the work published about atheism, the work of the once-were-woo-addicts? I can understand the whole letting-God-go thing, but what about the getting-on-without-God? Who is best suited to that? Nevers of Evers?

Frankly, as someone who got on as a good kid without God at a younger age than Dawkins, Shermer and the other Evers, ever did, I think I’ve got more to offer in this respect. You guys deal with the trials and tribulations of your fellow refugees, and leave the atheism to people like me. The ones who are good at it.

And for all you Evers out there, could you at least stop taking your hosts for granted, okay? We have different needs and imperatives and much more familiarity with godlessness than you ever will. You can stay if you can stay out-of-the-way.

It’s atheist culture. Not Theoholics Anonymous.

“Ah’ve been without Christ for six months. It’s been hard, but…” But blah blah blah.

You Evers need to know whose house you’re living in now.

~ Bruce

Disclosure: Feeling defensive, frustrated, confused? Read this.

A new kind of blog post – Devil’s Advocate on Steroids

I’ve been known to speak my mind from time to time, and then some. To hyperbolise.

But I don’t hyperbolise like a crazy person. When I exaggerate, I know I’m exaggerating. And I’m not exaggerating with the expectation that you’ll take the exaggeration entirely too seriously.

If I told you I don’t earn a single cent, I wouldn’t expect you to go away with the understanding that I have no money. Just that I’m earning a little less than is conducive to day-to-day life. I’m assuming you aren’t stupid. Be flattered.

Hyperbole has function. It can provide humour. It can be a part of a valid and effective reductio ad absurdum, where the audience gets the point but doesn’t take the proportions too literally. Hyperbole can lead to “what if?” speculation. Hyperbole can point down the direction of the if-not-immediately-possible, at outcomes possible if people aren’t to careful.

Calling Glenn Beck a terrorist, which I haven’t done but have seen others do, is an example of the if-not-immediately-possible. And if you don’t take it too literally, and if this is conveyed in the right way, you’ll get the point. There is risk in Glenn Beck’s conspiracy-minded, revolutionary talk. Can you really exclude the possibility that one of Beck’s cultish followers, driven by Beck’s rhetoric, could do something violently stupid in the name of the revolution?

No. So you get the point. See? I knew I was right not to assume you were stupid.

Thus far though, my hyperbole has been my usual idiosyncratic self, doing what comes naturally. It hasn’t been that deliberate and much less has it been calculated.

With this in mind, I’m considering trying some Devil’s-advocate-on-steroids kind of blogging. Devil’s advocate with a rough pinch of truth, just to make it uncomfortable. Because I don’t think anyone with intellectual aspirations should be too comfortable in their assumptions. Comforting as it may seem, it’s just too careless. If you’re a thinker, you need your cage rattled from time to time. If you don’t like it, step away.

I’m going to say things that will offend some people. But people should keep in mind that I don’t literally mean what I write in these posts. At least not each and every point.

I’ll reserve the right not to disclose what points I do and don’t believe. That’s for you to work out. I’m rattling your cage.

People familiar enough with what I write will probably be able to tell a lot of what I do or don’t really mean. I’d encourage people who aren’t familiar with my line of argument to try and understand, and for those that don’t know me, not to pretend that they do. And please all, keep in mind it’s not my intent to hurt anyone – or have anyone hurt their own feelings by reading these posts wrong.

Again, if it’s too harsh, turn back. Read something else or come back to it later or just avoid my blog altogether if you want to believe that I’m that much of a dickhead. This isn’t intended as an exercise in me judging you, so I won’t be screaming victory if you leave with your tail between your legs.

If you do stay, I’d ask that you direct your questions about these ultra-hyperbolic posts either to yourself, or to other readers. And I’d ask you not to avoid questioning anything that comes to mind if you can – this is the reason I want to shake some cages. I’m not going to make it easy on anyone by removing the ambiguity, so if you ask me, don’t expect that you’ll get a straight answer.

I’ll try not to violate people’s trust in me, or at least the trust that I’ve been given. I’ll try to remember to link to this post as a kind of disclosure, but this is all the warning I’m intending to give.

It’s not an opinion piece, it’s a stimulus for discussion.

~ Bruce

Rob Smith: A Hymn For All Your Neglected Greyhounds

I’m currently plodding around the back-end of my Internet communications, consolidating accounts, redirecting subscriptions and so on in preparation for a better blogging experience. All the while, light shows are popping up in people’s yards around my neighbourhood and I’m too busy to blog about it at the moment. So in the Christmas spirit, Rob Smith makes his fourth guest appearance here at Thinkers’ Podium.

Rob here again folks. Look, I know I run a charity that sings hymns for neglected greyhounds, but this hymn is for the readers. Let’s not take the piss too far, eh?

It’s not like I sing to the greyhounds. I sing for them!

A Hymn For All Your Neglected Greyhoundsrob_smith


Rob Smith
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