Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thank you Dr. Vanstone, well said!

Reducing science to sensational headlines too often misses the bigger picture

Leon Vanstone, University of Texas at Austin

We are all being lied to, but it’s okay because we sort of know it. Exaggeration, sensationalism and hype are in the newspaper headlines and on the magazine covers we read and in the films we watch. Even the conversations we have with each other are exaggerated to make things sound that little bit more interesting. But what happens when you try to sensationalise science, and put little lies into something that revolves around truth?

The role of science in society is changing. Science is now in the mainstream, with “science editors” commonplace. But the little lies are creeping into science, designed to sensationalise, to entertain, to generate clicks online, to sell newspapers, and to make science sexy.

Missing the point

The best way to illustrate this problem is with an example. There is an ambitious idea called the Skylon project, essentially a rocket plane. Rocket planes are an excellent way to get to space, but building an engine is difficult. However, Skylon recently achieved this with their SABRE engine. This was widely reported with headlines tending toward the likes of “Now Possible to Get to Australia in Four Hours”.

In order to understand why that is important, a little context: rockets are a terrible way of getting to space. Large rockets weigh close to 1,000 tonnes, yet can only carry around ten tonnes of payload into orbit. Worse, most of that rocket gets crashed into the ocean in the process, and those rockets aren’t cheap.

Imagine if every time you took a flight you had to pay for the entire cost of the aircraft – ticket prices would go up, and the number of aircraft available would go down. The Skylon rocket plane is the first, completely reusable way of getting into space. This means in comparison to non-reusable rockets, rocket planes such as Skylon would hugely increase capacity and availability of flights and lower the cost of flying people and cargo into space. Everyone who could afford to buy a sports car could now afford to go to space.

The Wright Brothers first flight.

Getting lost in the headline

Yet all the reporting of Skylon’s new engine chose to focus on the idea that it would be possible to fly from one side of the world to another in hours. Sure it’s attention grabbing, but it misses the point. It’s like being alive in 1903. At this point in time, the only way to fly was with a balloon or glider. Then the Wright brothers invent powered flight. With the ambitions of many from Icarus to Leonardo da Vinci finally realised and mankind able to take to the skies, it would be absurd to report it with the headline: “Now Possible to Get to the Shops in 30 Seconds”.

We all know that powered flight changed the world. A century after the Wright brothers' breakthrough, two billion people and 40m tonnes of cargo were transported that year alone. Just 110 years later Voyager 1 would become the first man-made object to leave the solar system entirely.

Think about that. Only a century after we worked out how to take off from the ground, we managed to leave the solar system. And you’re telling me that the most interesting part of the SABRE engine is that you can get to Australia in four hours? No. Not even close. We are potentially ushering in a whole new era of human existence.

Yet somehow this message gets lost in the sensationalising of the world around us. Modern society has become obsessed with short-term gains and creating the illusion of progress and achievement. That is why popular media is full of these little lies and it is why we are trying to make science sexy.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson viewing Earth from the ISS Cupola, 2010.

Beauty is in the bigger picture

But when you make science sexy you lose the beauty, and there is tremendous beauty in science. That beauty is hope. Science is the hope of a future. Because if we just sit here on this planet and do the things we already do, getting places just a little bit faster, living just a little bit longer, happy to simply survive as we are then we know how humanity’s journey ends – and it will end, here, on this planet.

But if we do more than survive; if we discover and explore and expand, then our future is uncertain. Science is a demonstration that humanity need not exist only on some tiny rock in the outer spiral arm of a single galaxy. To me, it means that humanity refused to go gently into that good night. Will it make it? Who knows – but it’s important that we try.
The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Help! There is science in my fiction!

On Sunday, February 22nd I will be teaching a Clarion West One-day Workshop. As follows from its title (see above) this workshop is about writing science and scientists in science fiction. I am looking forward to it!
For details and registration follow the link here.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Russian fantastika reading list:Vita Nostra

Vita Nostra is an award-winning fantasy novel by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, first published in 2007. When asked to describe the book, Sergey and Marina say simply: 
As with all our books, it is an investigation of those things called love and meaning of life. “In the beginning was the Word,” that’s John 1:1. But what does it mean? So we just tried to answer that question.”
A visit to the book’s Goodreads reviews page left me stunned
by the outpourings of praise
look it up on Amazon
in at least four languages — Russian, English, Polish, Ukrainian, and others I can’t recognize.
An attempt to draw a comparison revealed that readers have likened Vita Nostra to the titles ranging from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game; with Chuck Palahniuk’s The Fight Club somewhere in the middle.
I turned to Vita Nostra’s English translator, Julia Meitov Hersey, and asked her to tell me more about the book. 

JS: Tell us how you came to translate Vita Nostra.

JMH: Forgive  me an old, but in this case highly appropriate, cliché --sometimes books speak to you, and VITA NOSTRA has been more than eloquent. I came across it by chance – I love books about learning, about colleges or private schools; it is such a rich setting -- an enclosed space, where one is encouraged, or even forced, to grow intellectually, all the while being stuck inside with the same demons, external or internal. VITA NOSTRA is an example of my favorite genre – a slice of reality placed inside a fantasy concept. I eventually brought VITA NOSTRA to the attention of Lev Grossman, the author of THE MAGICIANS trilogy. I found it remarkable how both the Dyachenkos and Grossman had the same technical approach to magic, providing a step-by-step description of each new task their characters had to master. I mentioned the book to Lev at his reading/signing for THE MAGICIANS, he asked me to translate a few pages, and I ended up translating the entire novel mostly for his benefit; my non-Russian-speaking family members could now read it as well. Once the manuscript was completed, I sent a courtesy copy to the Dyachenkos using the contact information listed on their website. Luckily for me, Marina and Sergey actually read their fan mail and even take time to respond!

JS:  Any challenging or rewarding moments that you can share?

JMH:  There were three rather challenging moments. I was deathly afraid of missing certain technical or scientific concepts – such as the “spiral arms” at the very end of the novel, or mental health terms that Sergey (who was a professional psychiatrist before he became a writer) was likely to hide in the text. I still comb through the text every now and then for anything I could have missed. I also had to pay very close attention to the literary quotes and allusions hidden in the text –anything from Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Garshin’s The Scarlet Blossom, to Plato. And another thing that I found extremely difficult was translating those passages when all Sasha’s seemingly pointless labors begin to make sense to her. Those pages are so emotionally charged that I had an actual physical reaction to them. Here is a couple of examples of those passages:

Every second the world around her altered.  Some connections strained and grew, others broke. The process resembled convulsions: every now and then Sasha would stand still, listening to herself: inside, an invisible thread would tauten, cutting and rehashing, weakening and twitching again. Occasionally, she saw herself from the outside: a small lake of melted ice cream, and in the coffee-colored slush swam a tiny acrid nubbin—Sasha’s fear. Sasha disliked looking at her fear. It resembled a half-digested chunk of meat...”  


…staring back into those eyes, Sasha realized with all her core being something that many understood before her. The creature did not care that she was loved by someone. And that she loved someone herself. And that she had a childhood, and she splashed on the sea shore; and that she had an old knit sweater with a reindeer embroidered on the front. There were plenty of people loved by someone, the ones who carried a seashell, a button, or a black and white photograph in their pockets; no one had been saved by memories, no one had been protected by words and pledges, and those loved greatly by others died too.”

There are some really frightening moments when Sasha’s body mimics the transformations that her mind is undergoing. You know how, when you study for too long, your eyes get red and your body feels all achy? Sasha takes it to an entirely different level:

“Her eyes no longer had pupils or irises. Only the whites with red streaks. Sasha threw aside the mirror but continued seeing herself; now she realized that she saw with something other than her eyes. She saw with the skin of her face, her elbows, neck; shaking, she pulled off her tee-shirt and saw the room through the skin of her back. She took off the sweatpants she forgot to take off last night, and with the sweatpants she pulled off her underwear. Now each spot on her body saw the entire picture, and combined, all these pictures constituted the world-without-Sasha. Her body—white, skinny, shaking in the middle of a messy dorm room—was the only entity outside this world.

Sparks ran along her skin. Shy little fires like rolling drops. Tiny flashes of lighting. Underneath the skin membrane, in nearly transparent places, she could see her veins, blood vessels and tendons—a mysterious forest. Her back itched like crazy—something was going on with her spine—it crackled, was nimble, alive, full of its own existence.”

This just makes my heart beat faster, and I wanted to make sure the reader’s heart would do the same. This would be the rewarding part of the process.

JS:  As a translator, how do English and Russian compare as medium of expression? What things are best said in English and what -- in Russian?

JMH: What I find extremely frustrating about English is the word order. In Russian, one can throw things around as one pleases – and the nuances change ever so slightly. I don’t have this luxury in English. English forces me to be far more disciplined. And then there is this painful issue of utter disdain or any other emotion one can express by using a particular form of a person’s name – and in VITA NOSTRA the heroine goes from being called Alexandra by her professors to Sashka by her peers to Sashenka by her mother. I eliminated all those forms of her name from my translation to make it a little easier for the English-speaking readers, but a big part of me hates me for it.

JS:  In your opinion, are there any barriers in understanding that an English reader can experience reading Russian fantastika? 

JMH: The main barrier is that the sci-fi/fantasy market in the U.S. is so incredibly oversaturated! However, Russian literature offers plenty of brilliant examples of one genre that is almost non-existent in the U.S. – a realistic plot prompted or directed by a sci-fi/fantasy premise. VITA NOSTRA is not a book about transformations or wings, it is a book about learning and the power of fear. Another book by the Dyachenkos I translated recently, THE VALLEY OF CONSCIENCE, is not a book about supernatural deaths; it is an extended metaphor of love and the choices we make when we have power over other people. This genre deserves recognition, along with steampunk, apocalypse, space travel, etc. To me, the social fantasy genre is what blends the line between literary and genre fiction.

So what does it mean, “In the beginning was the Word”? I hesitate to interpret this statement as it is sometimes quoted in its partial form, because it is, in fact, followed by “…and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and the agnostic in me has a tough time truncating it. However, the linguist in me rejoices – of course it’s all about language, of course, the world is the ultimate hypertext! The Dyachenkos will tell you all their books are about love – but VITA NOSTRA is also about learning, about the power of information, about constructing a new informational structure. It is the most cerebral Dyachenko novel to date. Its loosely associated sequel, DIGITAL, describes just that -- a society built on the new informational structure, but this is a topic for another interview.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Anything you can do I can do better," says speculative literature to realism

An interview with Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

In this second installment of RUSSIAN FANTASTIKA reading list I am thrilled to present – an interview with Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, the power couple responsible for some of the absolute best writing in Russian-language fantasy literature of the last two decades. As coauthors, Dyachenkos published 26 bestselling novels, dozens of novellas and hundreds of stories, and received numerous prestigious awards. In 2005 they were inducted into the European Science Fiction Society Hall of Fame at the Eurocon in Glasgow.

Born in Kiev (Ukraine), they’d lived in Kiev, Moscow (Russia), and most recently have made their home in California. They write in Ukrainian and Russian. Below, Marina and Sergey give us by turns earnest and whimsical overview of their writing life, their craft, and the place of speculative literature in the Big Scheme of Things.

[The following interview was conducted in Russian and translated into English by me with the help of Dyachenko’s English translator, Julia Meitov Hersey. Julia will join us in the second part of the interview to talk more about Vita Nostra.] 

JS: Which one of your books would you recommend to a first-time reader?

BOTH: Our novels The Scar, Age of Witches, Vita Nostra (as an e-book), and a novella The Burned Tower have been published in the US. We are expecting the release of the novel The Ritual, which is being adapted for the screen by Timur Bekmambetov (JS: known in the US for directing and producing Wanted, as well as his Night Watch and Day Watch franchise).

JS: What subgenre of the fantastika do you identify with?

MARINA: When they talk about subgenres, I always imagine an octopus brandishing its tentacles. And we are caught in those tentacles: we had started out with a child-like fairy tale for adults, then we "villainously" betrayed the genre, and finally "fell" as low as social and philosophical fantasy.

SERGEY: Personally, I christened our method “M-realism.” What is it? Open to interpretation. Maybe meta-realism, maybe magic realism. My definition: Marina’s realism. No, I am not trying to butter up my co-author here, I think she loves me as I am. It’s just that everything that we write is filtered through her heart. That’s where the romanticism comes from, and the stubborn humanism, and the hope for white magic and a better tomorrow. I am just spoiling all that by dragging in my psychology and every once in a while — psychiatry. She lives by her ideals and I — by my scars.

JS: What do your novels originate with — an idea or a character, or else?

BOTH: It depends. It can start with a discussion, or with a tapestry of impressions, fragments of phrases, movies. Quite often parts of narratives come in dreams as startling visual or sensory impressions. And of course life’s experience and memories force us to compare, analyze, project. Ah, if we figured out how narratives get born, we’d get a Nobel Prize in psychology.

JS: How do you manage writing as a family affair? Would you mind sharing some of your approaches?

MARINA: Early on Sergey was more like a teacher and I — more like a student. But by now we have equality. We invent a story together, then I write it down, and then Sergey makes everything come together as a whole. It’s sort of a one-actress play where I am the actress and he is the director.

SERGEY: I’d say I might be more in charge of the dramaturgy and Marina — of the language and style. She’s got a gift, and I still marvel at it: how precise, how fine, how poetic. A woman is wiser this way. She is made of magic.

JS: What inspires your creativity?

BOTH: If we may say so — the creative process itself. It’s our highest reward. It’s somewhat like a Perpetual motion machine. We actually have several projects going at once, one is finishing, another in the middle, a third is just starting. All of them catalyze one another. You know, it’s like in the morning you step on a treadmill, the belt moves, and there is no stopping. And it gives you such a high! If some misfortune happens and the belt stops — this feels like a physical breakage, a disease. Writing, quarreling about writing, lamenting one’s uselessness in finding a solution and then seeing the said solution and rejoicing — all of this is a source of endorphins for us. You know, the happiness hormones of the brain.

We find inspiration in spending time with our daughter Anastasia (she is now a student at the USC SCHOOL of CINEMATIC ARTS), and with our relatives and friends. For twenty years we had a favorite coauthor and a Muse— our black tomcat Duchess. What else? Traveling. We traveled half the world.

JS: Some would say that a writing a novel and a screenplay are different occupations, even different frames of mind. Yet you work in both simultaneously. How do you switch back and forth?

MARINA: But that’s what Sergey is, a screenwriter. He lives and breathes cinema.

SERGEY: And Marina lives and breathes literature. So we are like a DNA double helix, we wind around one another. If needed, we divide by mitosis, and then rebuild our double helix. Except that our bonds are better than chemical.

JS: Tell us how you became writers.

MARINA: I began to make stories in kindergarten, before I learned to write. A thank you goes to my parents – I dictated and they lovingly transcribed it in a quadrille notebook. These notebooks are in the family archive now — A “Tale about a steam locomotive” and “A Thief’s jaunts”.Then I went on writing stuff in high school and in the Theatre school, but didn’t show it to anyone. My entry into real writing happened when I met Sergey. At that time he already was an accomplished writer.

SERGEY: That was 21 years ago. I was wooing Marina. I saw her acting talent, her beauty and intellect, but her literary gift caught me unawares. When I got to read her first novella, I was thrilled. The Burned Tower – it was by no means perfect, but it had the style and the originality, and she nailed the details, and above all it just radiated kindness and harmony. Ever since then fiction and cinema had become part of our lives and I thank my lucky stars for that.

As for me, I too started telling stories as a kid, to my playmates. I spun tales at playgrounds and in back yards, in woodsheds and basements. And preferably at night, so it would be spookier. Once, at a critical moment in a tale, when an evil Martian trained a gun on a brave Earthling, I pulled a trigger on a homemade BB gun, and there was an earsplitting bang. One girl fainted on the spot… Well, later my dad gave me a whipping, but that did not purge a passion for story-telling from me.

I always dreamed about movies but followed in the family steps and went to medical school. I have degrees in psychiatry and genetics. Then as an adult, when I already was a faculty at a research institute in Moscow, I went to study at the National Institute of Cinematography (it was the only such school in the country, and it was well-regarded internationally). I wanted to become a screenwriter. My first book and first films were about the tragic times in the Soviet science when the Stalinist government prohibited teaching and studying genetics. Yes, in the late 1940s – up to the early sixties, genetics in the USSR was branded as a “slave of imperialism,” many geneticists were suppressed and persecuted, even executed by a firing squad, whole research institutes were depopulated. For decades it was Middle Ages in science, barely educated charlatans and swindlers ruled the roost. I brought back from oblivion the name of Nikolai Vavilov, an outstanding plant geneticist who would not forsake his ideas and died of hunger in prison as “an enemy of the people.”

Vavilov had created a unique seedbank, a collection of genetically diverse agricultural species. Twenty tons of grain seed from all five continents. Imagine — Vavilov’s students and colleagues preserved it all through the Second World War during famine in the blockaded city of Leningrad. They had to passage the specimens, plant the seed and grow plants and let them go to seed, hold the grain in their hands — and all the while they were starving away. Many of these scientists perished of famine but the collection was saved, and later it became the basis of the so called Green revolution in agriculture, where they created many new cultivars of wheat and other grains through crossing existing varieties with Vavilov’s seedbank specimens. This feeds millions around the globe now. What Vavilov’s followers did was an act of selflessness and heroism of the highest caliber, I literally do not know any other examples like this in history. So that’s what my diploma project screenplay was about. That was in 1980 — the time when you could not speak out the truth about Stalinism and its crimes, it was an absolute taboo. One popular playwright, a member of my graduation committee accused me of anti-Soviet views and they nearly expelled me. It took years for the screenplay — and the novel about Vavilov to become acceptable and accepted. The novel earned me a membership in the Writers’ Union and the movie based on the screenplay won a State award. So as you can see I used to be a hyper-realist and had a chance to suffer the wonders of censorship and persecution on my own hide. But after I met Marina, I became a fantasy writer.

[JS: want to know more about Vavilov and persecution of science? -----read here]

JS: Why speculative fiction? What role does it play in your books? In the society?

BOTH: Fantastika (i.e speculative fiction) can do everything that a regular literature can do, plus a bit more. It has extra possibilities. They have to do with seeing life in a paradoxical light, juxtaposing the un-juxtaposable. It’s a possibility of the impossible. If literature is — doctor’s offices and hospitals, ambulances and maternity wards – and life without them is impossible, of course —then fantastika is a research lab. Yeah you can do without it, but where will the progress come from?

Fantastika lets us perform experiments with the future, she searches for future even in the past. Fantasika writers can travel through galaxies and through wormholes of the subconscious. Fantastika rules, she has no bounds or boundaries, she is the freest genre. She is the highlight that transforms a drab and dusty house into a magic palace by night. A while ago we came up with this tongue-and-cheek Fantastika Manifesto for our workshop. It goes like this:

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The gentle hopefulness of terrible disasters

 An interview with Seattle author Caren Gussoff

“Avinashi did what she considered her greatest work with the warm weight of her daughter against her back. That series, done while Lily was an infant, was less critically and commercially successful than her first series, ‘Horrible Ways to Die,’ but she herself preferred the gentle hopefulness of ‘Terrible Disasters.’”  

This is one of my favorite passages from The Birthday Problem (Pink Narcissus Press, July 2014), a novel by Caren Gussoff, a Seattle author, a colleague, and a friend (visit Caren's web site to learn more about Caren and her fiction).
Avinashi Gopal was a celebrated artist. Her mother, Malaya, created the nanobots that eradicated human disease. Her daughter Lily opened a bakery. Her granddaughter Chaaya recites Fibonacci numbers when stressed. She is or will have been a mathematician — if not for the nanobot plague.
The Gopal women are a few among many unforgettable characters one meets in The Birthday Problem, the novel that it about… well, very much about this— the gentle hopefulness of terrible disasters, much like Avinashi’s paintings.
I asked Caren a few questions about her novel and herself. Here is what she told me.

JS: You have come into speculative fiction from literary fiction What does spec fic let you do that literary doesn’t, and vice versa?
CG: My first two books, Homecoming and The Wave and Other Stories, were both driven by character and language over plot and idea. Yet I think you can see the seeds of my conversion to spec fic in both books; the settings are hyper-real, the coincidences are near-magical, and, in at least one story from The Wave, features characters of mythical origin.
I’ve always been a sci fi and fantasy fan, and for the first part of my life, was sure I was going to be some sort of scientist. I think of my time in lit fic as my apprenticeship to craft, since it was the genre most embraced in writing programs…and it was easier to get feedback on my work if I wasn’t always having to explain my ray guns and robots.
JS: And I thought you were a literary “plant” in the spec fic world. Turns out you’ve always been a spec fiction plant in the world of the literary!
CG: Yes, ray guns and robots, metaphorically speaking, are my interest, and I love how I can explore really, really divisive and touchy subjects (colonization, gender, race), as well as mushy subjects (memory, identity, redemption) with readers – and eliminate some of the resistance – by setting it on another planet, in alternative history, or played out by non-human beings.
JS: Oh, that’s interesting, about tough subjects. Why do you think this is? Is it like hiding a bitter pill in a cookie? Or is there something else going on, like we always need a mirror of the “other” to see ourselves?   
CG: I think it is exactly like hiding a pill in a cookie – it’s very human to resist change and to feel defensive when presented with data that clashes with what we do and how we live. No one likes being shown that they are a racist, for example, by directly pointing out how their specific actions stem from being raised inside an institutionally racist system. Most folks would immediately jump to wanting to defend their actions, as if their very goodness was what was in question.
I’ve found that using an analogy eases this…it lets readers safely draw the parallels between the fictional world and their own world themselves. It’s both gentler and more effective. It sinks in this way, and encourages dialogue.
JS:  If you were to pigeonhole yourself and your works, which one will you end up in? Do you consider yourself a genre-bender?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Russian Fantastika reading list -- this is where you start

At Readercon, a couple of folks asked me to point them to good books of Russian fantastika available for reading in the original language or in English translation. Here is my very first list item: start with Strugatsky brothers. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is where modern Russian fantastika comes of age -- and into her own --  social sciences fiction somewhere in between science fiction and fantasy, surreal like a spaceship chained to a birch-tree, familiar like a voice that says in your ear, There is something wrong with the world as you know it.
Pick up any of these three novels -- as a matter of fact, new and improved translations into English by Olena Bormashenko are available for two of them:

Hard to be a God

Chicago Review Press (IPG, dist.), ISBN 978-1-61374-828-2
What a cool cover!  The image is from the film a prominent Russian director Alexei German made based on the book.

Roadside Picnic
Chicago Review Press, ISBN-13: 9781613743416

The Ugly Swans
only an older edition available -- 1980, Collier/Macmillan, ISBN13: 9780020072409 

If you'd like to read any of these (and any other works) by the Strugatsky brothers in Russian, they are available here 
and are titled, respectively
Трудно быть богом 
Пикник на обочине 
Гадкие лебеди