Saturday, November 15, 2008

What happened to Science Fiction?

Mall of America (11)

I spent the afternoon at the Mall of America ahead of my plane back to the Netherlands, buying clothes, a little melatonin, browsing for Christmas presents, getting a haircut, enjoying a plate of beef brisket at Famous Dave’s BBQ restaurant. I browsed the bookstore for some reads for the long-cold Dutch nights to come: Daniel Silva’s Secret Servant, David Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Robyn Meridith’s The Elephant and the Dragon, and Emanuel Derman’s My Life As A Quant.

Once again, I bypassed the science fiction section.

Growing up, science fiction was my genre. I collected the Tom Swift Jr. series, fell in love with the future through Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and Wells, begged to go to the biggest-screen showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey when it opened.

Today, though, I can’t remember the last SciFi novel I read, or the speculative collection of short stories that I tucked into a travel bag. Curious. I wandered back over to survey the current offerings, and quickly uncovered five reasons why I fell out of love with Futureworld.

  1. The intrusion of Fantasy. I read Tolkien, and enjoyed most of Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon series. But two things tarnished the brand for me. Fantasy became lazy: magic was invoked as a simplification, making fantastic things happen without the need to worry about why. Just give the hero a wand , a medieval cloak, and competition (or temptation) from black arts, and the story was finished. Second, the D&D / Warcraft influence became too pervasive: the action overwhelmed the ideas and the plots were dumbed down to computer-game quests.
  2. The emergence of spin-outs. I enjoyed the early Star Wars and Star Trek a lot, but they have now spawned endless derivative products. Today everyone from Dr. Who to Heroes have their own series, metastasizing across colorful columns of shelving. The resulting monoculture is neither interesting nor stimulating.
  3. The challenge of the New Wave. In the late 60’s writers started experimenting with alternative styles of writing science fiction, shunning narrative in favor of nonlinear and artistic techniques that made stories virtually unreadable. Short story collections (e.g.: World’s Best SF) went heavily into New Wave , in particular, and I remember just giving up after struggling through the Dangerous Visions anthology.
  4. The depression of Cyberpunk. I liked the alternative “high tech and low life” feel of the sub-genre. It was refreshingly novel and genuinely stimulating in early versions (Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dick’s short stories) and I was thrilled with Stephensons’s Snow Crash and the Blade Runner movie. But the dystopic visions of drug addicted and mechanized humanity is profoundly depressing in novel-length doses, and my interest waned even before the authors stopped writing.
  5. The lack of speculative ideas. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was a wonderful book, speculative and insightful, an immersive story of people like us confronted with scientifically plausible and completely overwhelming events. Short story collections like Tales of the White Hart combined good humor with unexpected consequences of technology. Authors like Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed) created wholly realized worlds that mortal readers could explore and think about. The books were filled with challenging ideas and provocative visions, yet were wholly realistic. The Lathe of Heaven, for example, extrapolated technologic advance to explore social, ethical, and philosophical implications in a very profound way that I still think about today.

Mall of America (9)

Friday, November 14, 2008

The view from row 73

I arrived at Schiphol early to check in for my flight to the US: it had been a long week leading to a longer flight.  I just wanted a bit of quiet and legroom to catch up with my reading, watch a movie, maybe sleep a bit.  Swipe the passport and touch the screens at the check-in kiosk….answer the questions…US citizen, Dutch resident, no gifts to carry, one bag to check, no gels or liquids… seat 44H?

Yike.  The seating chart shows that I’m all the way at the back of the plane.  Bleagh: seat won’t recline, 20 minutes to exit the plane, bathroom lines coiling past my seat, the person in front of me dropping their seat back flat into my tray table.  More taps: no alternative seats available.

The agent smiled at me apologetically.  “The flight checked in full, there is nothing else available.”  Mental note: drink two little bottles of wine instead of one to help me sleep.

The gate agent checks my passport and ticket.  She begins scribbling on my boarding pass, “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve had to reassign your seat.”  She hands it back with 73B written in.  73B?  Are there 73 rows on this airplane?  “I’m sure that there are, sir.”  Why would they DO that?  “Someone else needed the seat, sir.”  <glare>  <smile> “I hope you have a good flight anyway.”

Now, I’m irritated.  80,000 flight miles this year and I’m bumped 30 rows.  Then I feel guilty and a bit stupid: it’s jut an airplane seat, there’s no entitlement here, ‘get a grip.  It really has been too long a week to let this get under my skin.  I sighed, took my moment of zen, and reconciled instead of charging the ticket desk to get Seat 44 back.

Rows 36 and higher got the first call; I trudged to the back doors.  Can you point me towards row 73?  The cabin attendant pointed the other way: “Left and all the way to the front, sir.”  ummm  “…then up the steps.” ooooo

‘next thing, I’m on the upper deck, first class, champagne in hand, noise cancelling headphones in place.  leg room, expanded movie selection, power for the laptop, (undoubtedly) captains of industry and rock stars all around me.  Stupidly, life now looks so much better.

Trivial lessons learned from my eerste first –class experience:

  • The airlines really can make flights pleasant if they want to.
  • Thank god I didn’t demand my seat back from the gate agent.
  • Captains of industry and rock stars don’t say much or move around at all during a flight.
  • The universe is inherently good and benevolent if I keep things in perspective.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Applying to work with Barak

I’m still rattling my tin cup around various corporate offices, pitching for the potential of global innovation and my qualifications as a driver as the annual budget process builds up steam. Thus, the announcement that the Obama administration is now seeing job applicants caught my attentions. I immediately kicked on over to change.gov to see if there was an opening for Minister of Medical Device Entrepreneurship or perhaps something more Orange and Ambassadorial.

The initial application is straightforward, and I was rewarded with encouragement within the hour:

Thank you for your interest in joining the Obama-Biden Administration. Within a few days, you will receive and email with a link to the more complete on-line application. Please be patient, as we are trying to respond promptly to the large number of people who are interested in working in the Administration.

I can’t wait: I’m already measuring for my new desk and curtains.

Seriously, though, when I look at what people in public service go through when the media and the political opposition start digging into their past, I doubt that any expatriate could stand the scrutiny. ‘Living full time outside of the US, engaging in discussions of political contrasts and cultural differences, scattering photographs of adventures in exotic destinations across social networks, I know I’ve left a rich trail of mis-interpretable dirt behind.

The New York Times has published a link to the questionnaire that applicants for high-level Administration jobs must complete. The 63 questions focus, not surprisingly, on “anything that suggests a conflict of interest or a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect if it were made public”. Most are professional and financial, asking about employment, taxes, memberships, and investments. Question 7, for example, ask for the circumstances under which I lived or worked abroad, while question 6 probes payments that I’ve received from foreign governments (a vaguely sinister charge).

I’m surprised that there isn’t a question about art and literary works: I have some charcoals from Life Drawing class that could be embarrassing on many levels.

Other questions are more personal: 58 wants my social networking information (more URLs than I like to think about), and 59 checks on my gun ownership (none, for the record). 47 asks about violations of government or agency procedures (my adventures bringing absinthe through customs?); 45 wants me to list law enforcement encounters resulting in fines of more than $50 (The Dutch traffic cameras on the A12 at Utrecht will fill this section, and there are the incidents where I was stopped in Lausanne for talking on a cell phone, and in Bratislava for turning into a street reserved for busses (sigh)).

It is illuminating, and a bit sad, that these are the standards that US society now uses to qualify its public servants. In a world where few are without blemish, I do worry a bit about narrowing down to the type of person who’d led their life in a way that passes these 63 questions without qualification or explanation.

I think about the various questions on job applications and yearly evaluations that I’ve answered over the years in the private sector, questions about the significant professional contributions, good social causes, or the broadening experiences that make up a contributing and productive life. I hope that, once the background check is complete, there will be questions (64 to 100?) that ask applicants to describe their vision, values, and competencies. A few of the exercises that Business Consultancies throw at candidates to check their thought processes might also be good.

We’ll see what my questionnaire looks like, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for the call.

And, for the record, I don’t consider my criticism of the Bush Administration a source of potential embarrassment to my, my family, or the President Elect, even it if might cause someone, overtly or covertly, fairly or unfairly, to criticize me (Question 62).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Writing on a schedule

Boulder 5 …really isn’t my style.

One of the fundamental rules of professional writers is that they write regularly. They set aside a time and a place that they retreat to each day, and they devote the time to advancing their thoughts and their works.

I agree that finding rhythm to my writing can be as important as finding voice. Neither, however, can be imposed.

Writing is about content and connection, and that requires inspiration and reflection. I often scribble margin notes during the day, capturing stray thoughts that I want to return to. Sometimes they whither into insignificance as soon as they escape my mind, other times, they trigger a generative stream that demands time at the whiteboard to think things through. If, a day or two later, they feel well formed and potentially interesting (that is, they qualify as ‘cocktail chatter’), then I have the motivation to sit down and organize my thoughts for the blog.

Some people are good at shooting a spontaneous tweet every day, and NaBloPoMo promotes the simple virtue of daily scribbling (National Blog Posting Month: Post every day for a month; that’s all you have to do). But it’s just never going to be that way for me: content trumps schedule.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It’s been a good day

We got my father home from the hospital today,  looking great at 81 and three weeks from 5-artery bypass

 RNH 11-8 1 RNH 11-8 2 RNH 11-8 3

My consultation was a bit more equivocal, but I’ve got time to reflect on my options.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Boulder bits

Boulder 01 ‘beautiful morning here in Colorado: the sun is out, the air is crisp, and the snow is sparking on the mountain peaks to the west.   My father is doing better than I could have hoped: I honestly would not know that he just had surgery by his appearance.  He is up and moving well, and is working hard with his rehabilitation staff.  He’s still a bit superficial conversationally, but has moments discussing economics or politics that reflect his pre-surgical style.  I think it really bodes well for continued improvement when we bring him home tomorrow.

News Conf Podium)The election remains topic #1 among the people I meet.  The overwhelming sentiment is that it’s a good thing: people liked his election night speech (‘hated her dress though), and approved of  his press conference yesterday (although the “Office of the President Elect” podium is a bit pretentious).  His speaking cadence is really a change, a bit choppy, but I generally like the thinking and the decision-making process on display. He’s got to watch out for making small off-the-cuff jokes, though, whether about lipstick on a pig, pound mutts, or Regan séances.

Gratifyingly, his advisors have identified over 200 Bush administration executive orders as candidates for repeal, including climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights, and international family planning restrictions. (and renounce torture, surveillance, Gitmo, and concealed weapons in the national parks, please?).

In contrast, the main conversation topics about President Bush is how the First Dog, Barney) bit a reporter, and how hundreds gathered in the street outside the White House on election night to sing “Hey hey, good bye”, usually reserved for sports victories.

QB Cody Hawkins looks to run around the block by ...

But talk is already moving away from presidential politics.  The local college (American) football team won a come-from-behind victory; the students were out late throughout the pubs and sports bars for a Saturday night celebration.  The stores are decorating for Christmas and seem reasonably full: reports that people are staying home and hoarding cash seems wrong to me.  Gas is now below $2 per gallon, but nobody seems to be taking that for granted.

People still marvel that the price could swing almost 200% and back over a period of months this year; it gives everyone a feeling that forces for market manipulation, rather than of supply and demand, are at work.

My son left a terse “Call me” text on my cell, then a “call back in 10 minutes” hang-up when I dialed him.  This is going to be what it’s like as a military parent, I suppose: he gets his orders and is off.  In this case, he’s doing further training up at Fairchild AFB, and then returns to Oklahoma for specialty training before heading to an AWACS wing in Alaska.

Boulder 11 I’ve got a ‘second opinion’ meeting with a physician here tomorrow to further define my options for addressing the muscle weakness and misalignment in my ankle.  I’m not seeing much good in the consultations, nor can I ignore the issue much longer.  The US term would be Hobson’s Choice: "Take it or leave it."  If they can assure improvement and future mobility, I’ll take the option: I’ve got a lot that I want to stay active in for years to come.

‘just like my father.