Saving Science Fiction

If you’re a movie-goer rather than a big reader, that title probably looks silly. But for all the success of science fiction in broader media, science fiction publishing–both short fiction and novels–isn’t doing so hot.

Why? Well, everyone has their pet answer. SF Signal, in their Mind Meld feature, asks seventeen authors and editors in the field what one thing they would change about science fiction publishing. Most of the answers are attempts to broaden the appeal of the genre. One (which I read as tongue-in-cheek) is rather the opposite, and Kelly dismembers the notion at Wyrdsmiths.

My take? If I could change one thing about science fiction as a genre, I’d make it get over its obsession with not repeating itself. Science fiction is the only genre I know of where someone will look at a story and say, “Oh. I saw XX do that in a short story in 1977. Never mind.” What?

When was the last time you heard someone say, “Oh, but Shakespeare did that already”? Bzzt. Doesn’t happen. Anywhere but science fiction, repetition is homage or exploration of a theme.

Yes, science fiction the genre of ideas. Got that. But it’s the story that puts the idea across. Without that, well, the idea might as well be a blog post. Telling the same story in multiple ways will get the idea across to different audiences: different generations, different ethnicities, different stylistic preferences, different levels of background reading in the genre. If we’re not willing to occasionally retell a story a bit differently, we run the risk of alienating all these different audiences, and we run the risk of running out of things to say.

And yes, someone already wrote that story. I just don’t remember who.

Update: For anyone who thinks “saving” is over-the-top, Bill runs the numbers on the “big” short story markets at Wyrdsmiths. Ouch.

What Maternal Instinct?

I was over at a friend’s house last night. I held her two-month-old baby for a bit because, you know, it’s polite to express some interest and it had been a while since I’d held a baby. One gets to thinking of them as fragile if one goes too long without touching them. Well, I do.

The baby was well-behaved, past the wrinkly stage, mostly healthy. Everything that is supposed to make babies so adorable was there. Tiny, wee fingernails? Check. Dimpled fingers and wrists and knees? Check. Instant grasp of proferred finger? Check. Deep dent in the upper lip? Check. Overlarge, luminous eyes? Check. Impromptu, trusting nap? Check.

Impulse to talk baby talk? Nope. Desire to have one of my own? Huh uh.

I was perfectly comfortable holding her. There was no fussing or crying. I recognized when she got hungry and gave her back to her mother. No relief. No regrets.

I know people who are kid-phobic. I know people who think children are the most annoying things in the world. I’m not one of those people. Kids are fine and all–for other people.

I just don’t find them interesting, aside from their being examples of human development in action. They stay dull at least until they’re verbal. I did enjoy teaching the two-year-old how to say “preposition.” They don’t get really interesting until they start to separate their identities from their parents’. Then they’re human.

Until then? Yawn. I’m glad they make my friends happy, but I have other things I’d rather do.

RNC Good for St. Paul?

The claims, of course, are that a big convention like this is great for the host city, but there are a few people who aren’t thrilled at the moment.

Hotels aren’t full yet, and prices are dropping. Wonkette thinks the candidates with something to lose are staying home instead of being seen with the big names.

Restaurants aren’t full either, even the ones that signed exclusive contracts with the RNC for the duration. Even businesses that haven’t agreed to exclusivity aren’t altogether optimistic. The convention has a large security perimeter, and some businesses within and just next to the perimeter don’t expect that they’ll be quite the thing the Republicans are looking for. Not fancy enough, especially compared to restaurants in Minneapolis.

But hey, even if the convention isn’t as great for St. Paul businesses as expected, it has to be good for the city’s reputation right? Raise its profile? Well, maybe, except that both Governor Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (both Republicans) have referred to the convention as being in Minneapolis when talking to the press. Oops.

Oh, well. Maybe the bike-sharing program will at least be a success. During the Republican convention. While the bikes can’t be brought inside the security perimeter.

Hoo, boy.

Brace yourself, St. Paul.

Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

I went to a potluck picnic today. Whatever I was going to bring had to be substantial, moderately healthful, tasty, without hidden allergens and not likely to be duplicated. My rules, not theirs. It also had to be safe sitting out in temperatures in the high eighties. That ruled out my chicken salad with the blue cheese dressing.

Or did it? I’ve never been fond of mayonnaise as a dressing base (or anything else), and I thought this would be a great opportunity to eliminate it from this recipe. A couple of tweaks later, I couldn’t be happier with the result.

Ingredients
3 chicken breasts
1 – 1.5 lb seedless red grapes
2 large Granny Smith apples
5 oz. soft blue cheese, crumbled
3 oz. sunflower seeds
salt and fresh pepper

Oil and liberally season the chicken, then grill it. You’re going for good brown grill marks but not char. Once it’s cooked through, let the chicken rest–ideally, overnight in the fridge.

Cube the chicken and the apples. Slice the grapes in half. Add the blue cheese, sunflower seeds and about another teaspoon of pepper. Stir. The juice from the fruit will start to break down the blue cheese and make a dressing, but leave some chunks.

Serve cold, or as cold as your picnic will allow, and enjoy!

Bulwer-Lyttons Are Out!

My favorites:

Winner: Children’s Literature

Joanne watched her fellow passengers – a wizened man reading about alchemy; an oversized bearded man-child; a haunted, bespectacled young man with a scar; and a gaggle of private school children who chatted ceaselessly about Latin and flying around the hockey pitch and the two-faced teacher who they thought was a witch – there was a story here, she decided.

Tim Ellis
Haslemere, U.K.

Winner: Science Fiction

Timothy Hanson, Commander of the 43rd Space Regiment in the 52nd Battalion on board the USAOPAC (United Space Alliance Of Planets Attack Carrier) and second in command to Admiral L. R. Morris of the USAOP Space Command, awoke early for breakfast.

Joe Schulman
Cartersville, GA

Read all the 2008 winners.

Thanks to Ben who makes sure I see them because I can’t keep track of when they come out.

Ooh, Ouch

I need sleep more than I need to blog today, so here are a few people doing it for me (sort of):

Betül is covering a study on stereotypes of scientists that should be seen to be believed.

ERV connects PZ Myers and Terry Pratchet in a way that still has me laughing, days later. Seriously, she wins the internet.

Benjamin Collard, one of the young men at the center of the cracker storm, tells us how the whole thing was blown up by a simple political rivalry. And here we thought it was all about religion.

And Lyda discovers that some editors are taking a prurient attitude toward language in romance novels. Yes, romance novels.

Yeesh. On that note, good night.

More Muslim Censorship? Maybe Not

Yesterday, in a press release, Dr. Max Malik accused the Muslim Writers Awards of censoring his novel by not providing it to the judges, despite it being one of five shortlisted books.

“I’m angry at the treatment I’ve received,” stated Dr. Malik “because my creative effort is being treated as if it’s somehow unclean and unworthy. Clearly, the Muslim Writers Awards has decided that the novel is so unpalatable for them that it needs to be buried.”

Dr. Malik’s unpublished book, The Butterfly Hunter, reportedly contains rape, pedophilia and a cell of suicide bombers. He discovered that the judges hadn’t seen it after asking them for feedback.

The awards coordinators agree that the novel was shortlisted and that the judges didn’t see it. However:

Irfan Akram said that he had personally tried to introduce Malik to publishers and agents on the basis that he felt his writing showed promise. “We are unequivocally, absolutely, not interested in restricting creative talent,” added Akram. “The only thing I will say is that putting someone in front of television cameras and putting them in a magazine would not be the right way to censor them.”

Awards project director Imran Akram said that Malik’s submission was “certainly one of the best” received in 2008, and was shortlisted for the novel award along with four other unpublished novelists. But he admitted that Malik’s work was not submitted to judges as it should have been, and said that the situation was currently being investigated: “The responsibility for ensuring work was submitted to judges was delegated to several individuals within the organisation. We are still in the process of investigating the matter, and will be responding to Dr Malik’s concerns once we have ascertained why his novel was not forwarded to the panel of judges.” A spokesperson for Malik said he had not as yet submitted his work to any publishers.

So we still don’t know. It could have been one individual who didn’t like the book keeping it from being seen. Or they may find a stack of books in a box under someone’s untidy desk. We’ll see.

Four Stone Hearth #47–Unasked Questions Edition

Welcome to the 47th Edition of Four Stone Hearth.

Those of you who read my blog with any regularity are probably asking, “Stephanie, why are you hosting a blog carnival on archaeology and anthropology? Aren’t you a writer who does math for a living?” Well, yeah. I have a degree in psychology, but the closest my blog has ever come to anthropology is a little armchair sociology.

My motivation for hosting this carnival is, for once, pretty simple. I like reading outside my field. Almost invariably, I’m handed the answers to fascinating questions that I, not being part of the field, would never have thought of. So, without further ado, allow me to share with you a whole bunch of questions I had answered before I could ask.

First up, what should I do with my spare time if I think the modern Olympics are all just a bit, well, modern and commercial? Rex at Savage Minds makes the games more interesting by framing them as a window onto Western social thought. Vaughan at Mind Hacks covers a study on whether the expressions of winning and losing competitors are innate or culturally determined. Kris’s Archaeology Blog has a lovely suggestion for getting back to the games’ roots.

In case the Olympics aren’t controversial enough for you: Do recent studies have a hope of settling the boys-are-better-than-girls-at-math, are-not, are-too debate? Greg at Neuroanthropology presents a detailed critique of the critiques, including an excellent analysis of the problems inherent in relying on testing data, particularly No Child Left Behind test data.

Daniel at Neuroanthropology discovered his own unasked question when he took a recent vacation: What was he missing by focusing on biology versus culture in his research? What other parts of the human equation were he (and others in his field) overlooking?

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe asks almost exactly the opposite question: What can a historian learn from talking to an anthropologist? In this case, the answer is why markets exist in areas where everyone is growing a relatively few staple crops.

Back to questions for anthropologists: When might an anthropologist not want to add to the knowledge in the world. Afarensis discusses the reservations he and others have with the Minerva Research Initiative.

More on the responsibilities of nations: How can a country best protect its historical resources? Stone Pages gives examples of a country doing it well (Ireland) and one that is failing (Australia).

Is there any place for treasure hunting in archaeology anymore? Antiquarian’s Attic gives an example to suggest that if the treasure hunter is an honest one, yes.

Aside from their being an excellent brewery there, why do I really need to make a point of getting to Orkney next time I’m in Scotland? Remote Central covers some discoveries and theories to come out of a recent dig at the Ring of Brodgar.

Reaching further back: What does the recent sequencing of Neandertal mitochondrial DNA mean for our understanding of human evolution? John Hawks reports that this lays to rest the idea that some modern humans may be descended from Neandertals, and he’s very excited about the evidence he sees in this study for positive selection on mtDNA in ancient humans. Anne of Writer’s Daily Grind is less convinced about the evidence that Neandertals were a separate species from our ancient ancestors. And Babel’s Dawn uses the information to place a lower limit on how recent the biological support for language is.

What can “fake” languages tell us about how language evolved and continues to evolve? Anthropology.net covers recent research into the transmission of an artificial language through generations of learners.

If fake languages can tell us about us, what can fake organisms tell us? Technovelgy.net has fascinating coverage of a robot that appears to show social behavior, including responding to attention and avoiding apparent threats.

To end on a cheerful note: Why is the electric chair a chair rather than some other shape? Headsman over at ExecutedToday.com answers this question, tell us where the word “electrocution” comes from, explains how the electricity wars played into the development of the electric chair, and provides an eyewitness account of the first execution by the chair.

That’s it for this edition of Four Stone Hearth. I hope you found answers to some questions that had never occurred to you as well. The next edition will be hosted at Tangled Up in Blue Guy on August 27.

Muslim Scholar Says Muslims Can’t Handle Fiction

If you’re moderately literate, you’ve probably heard of The Jewel of Medina, the scandalous book about Aisha, the child bride of Muhammad, which Random House pulled from their publication schedule to avoid the next fatwa. But the more pieces of the story that come out, the more interesting it gets.

A little background: The book had reached the stage of galleys without anyone at Random House batting an eyelash, as far as can be told. The author, Sherry Jones, a journalist, requested that Random House send a review copy to Denise Spellberg, Associate Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies and the author of one of the biographies Jones read in preparation for writing her novel. Spellberg didn’t like it, calling it a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.”

“I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’” the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

Uh, wait. The Last Temptation of Christ is not playing with sacred history, but this book is? The film shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalen. According to the author, The Jewel of Medina has no sex scenes. The excerpt that seems to have the most people upset is four sentences that occur after Muhammad first has sex with his nine-year-old bride:

…the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.

This is pretty tame stuff. Admittedly, Aisha was nine, but that’s part of the historical record. Is the problem that she enjoyed being with him afterward? After reading the prologue to the novel, which a Guardian reporter called “luridly written,” I start to think it is.

“She has been flirting with him for years!”

I snorted, as if his words amused me instead of chilling my blood. He spoke the truth — but who else knew?

Again, yawn. Hardly the stuff of “objectif[ying] the wife of the prophet as a sex object,” as Spellberg claims. [gasp!] Aisha flirts! Wives of prophets can’t be complex beings, certainly not sexual ones! Not violent ones, either. No swords allowed for this woman who raised an army and directed a battle from her camel. Nope, that would be part of “a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith,” according to Spellberg.

And it’s these objections that led Spellberg to make “a frantic call” to a fellow lecturer and editor of a Muslim website, warning him that Jones “made fun of Muslims and their history” and asking him to spread the word about the horrors of a book he hadn’t read. They also led to her to call Random House to say “it is ‘a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.’ Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons.”

Really? A sword, a little off-screen married sex in keeping with the practices of the time, and The Jewel of Medina is going to get people killed where The Last Temptation of Christ didn’t? Would our esteemed Middle Eastern Studies professor care to explain why that would be? The last time I checked, Muslims were handling sacrilege much better than their Christian fellows.

I’m curious why she doesn’t think they’d continue to be just as civil over a piece of fiction.

Updates:

The author has her say, provoking a seriously screwed up comment thread. Also, Shahed Amanullah, who spread the news of the novel at Spellberg’s request, speaks out for free and vigorous speech.

A Partial Reunion

I’m headed to my high school reunion tonight. If you think I could sound a bit more enthusiastic, you’re right.

Not that I don’t want to go. There are a couple of people who will be there who I fell out of touch with for no good reason. I’m very excited to see them again and catch up. No, I’m just thinking of all the people who contributed to the fun parts of high school who won’t be there.

There are all the people from the other classes: Evan, Bill, Anna, Nana, Dan, Chris, Doug, Kevin. Of those, I’m still in touch with only Bill and Anna, and only Anna lives close enough to visit with. They’re not even invited, of course, because what counts for a high school reunion is who got handed a piece of paper the same day you did.

But even among the paper-date sharing crowd, there are plenty of people who won’t be coming to any reunion. We were not a joining bunch. We were the ones who sat in pep rallies (when we didn’t skip them) during the parts where they tried to play the classes against each other and said, “You want me to yell competitively? Right.” Seriously. That was my whole class, the silent ones. My friends were the ones who skipped. They not only had better things to do; they had better places to be.

Stacey, Barb, Erin, Brian, John–the defiant ones. I’d love to know what they’re all doing now, but unless I’m very, very off in my guess, none of them will be there. I’ll hope to be surprised. I’ll raise a glass in their honor if I’m not, but without all these people, tonight just won’t be my high school reunion.