Science Fiction and Fantasy

Among Others: a fairy tale about science fiction

Book cover: Among Others Today was the official publication date of Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others. It’s a fantastic book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It’s about fairies, and magic — and growing up reading science fiction and fantasy. That sounds like a dissonant combination, but oh does it ever work.

I managed to lay hands on an advance bound manuscript because Jennifer and I actually met Jo Walton at SFContario last November. In the dealers’ room on day one of the convention, Jennifer managed to sing the praises of one of Walton’s earlier novels, Tooth and Claw (which is the kind of novel Anthony Trollope would have written, if Trollope wrote about dragons), without realizing that Jo herself was sitting right in front of her. (That’s got to be a satisfying thing to happen to an author.) By the end of the convention Jo was offering to sell us all her other books for a low price and to sign them all for Jen as well. That included the advance bound manuscript for Among Others. Looking at the cover blurb, I said, “This sounds really neat.”

I had no idea just how good it was going to be.

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Peter Watts on hacking the brain stem

Peter Watts’s 2006 science-fiction novel, Blindsight (previously) was a first-contact novel (with vampires) that had a lot of chewy things to say about neuroscience and consciousness. He says a lot more about the subject in this presentation at last October’s Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, “Gods, Jackboots, and Rule 34: How Pornography Could Save the World.” It’s well worth 44 minutes of your time; I’ve assembled the four parts uploaded to YouTube by ChiZine into a single playlist for convenience’s sake.

This is a brilliant talk, filled with lots of controversial but fun stuff (data clearly showing that the U.S. is not a developed country, for example). It’s about “hard character science fiction” — applying, he says, the latest in neuroscience and evolutionary theory to literature. He makes the rather unsettling argument that much of what we think and believe — religion, political ideology — have much more to do with brain-stem reactions than with rational thought — that the rational mind is sort of a Dilbertian pointy-haired boss that is rather detached from what’s really going on in the organization. Fear and paranoia, bred into the species by millions of years of natural selection, are actively hampering our ability to solve 21st-century problems, Watts says; the results can be seen in the rise of religiosity and authoritarianism when people are under stress. Successfully effecting political change may be more a matter of hacking the human brain — eroticizing the reduction of carbon emissions, for example — than persuading through logical argument.

The Dune sequels explained

In her re-read of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jo Walton emits a devastatingly accurate assessment of the novel’s sequels:

I loved it when I was twelve, and I read the sequels, which are each half as good as the one before, and I didn’t give up until they were homeopathically good.

“Homeopathically good”: that’s a great — if nasty — line. (Think about it.) But her assessment aligns with mine: I still read Dune again every now and then, but got rid of the rest of the series years ago.

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