Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why We Must Hate Heinlein

This is not a defense of Robert A Heinlein. And it is not an indictment of him, either. To the contrary, he was a thinking, reasonable man who held opinions contrary to my own.

There are stories you read when you're very young and you understand them at one level. Decades later when you have some experience, you see things at a deeper level. Such it is with Heinlein's novella "Logic of Empire."

In this story the protagonist, Humphrey Wingate, a lawyer and his rich friend argue whether the contract labor conditions on the Venus colony constitute slavery or not.

The lawyer defends the system and its legality only to wake up in the second scene shanghaied to Venus. As you expect he experiences conditions first-hand and changes his opinion. He ends up becoming a revolutionary and he pens a manifesto.

Wingate shows an old wise ex-professor called Doc his manifesto. And Doc tells him that he has fallen into the "satan trap." The owners aren't bad people, he explains, it is a bad system.

Months later his rich buddy catches up with him and buys Wingate out of trouble, the hero goes back to Earth to publish his manifesto. It falls flat. And a helpful publisher suggests a ghost writer "sex up" the manuscript transforming it into "I Was a Slave on Venus."

This brings Wingate to say "To make yourself heard you have to be a demagogue, or a rabble-rousing political preacher..." Heinlein wrote this when the world was a lot less noisy. And his words ring truer today than when he wrote them decades ago.

Several elements strike me about this story. First, Heinlein was no ivory tower academic. He'd worked rough jobs to earn a living with his hands. Second, Heinlein knew enough business to understand the struggle make payroll. This results in a sympathetic depiction of both worker and management.

Heinlein does not go all-in with either the workers or the owners. Good agitprop must paint the owners with the blackest of brushes. That's what Heinlein's boss, Upton Sinclair, did in "The Jungle." The Jungle is good agitprop. The workers are all saints and the factories are all run by demons. But life paints in shades of gray and mixes up things that alternately support and undermine the Party Platform (no matter which party).

Heinlein wrote closer to the truth. This makes you think and for that reason he must be hated.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Ukelele and the Guitar

I'm going to talk about Software Engineering for a moment. You may have heard that ObamaCare's website has missed all its deadlines, and is a perilous application to entrust your sensitive personal information. And folks like Bruce Webster can give you chapter and verse as to why.

I just want to show a simple illustrative example.

Consider this musical instrument:

It is a ukelele. It has 4 strings, it has frets, tuning knobs and that wooden box with a hole in the middle. Suppose I were to tell you that I wanted to upgrade this instrument by "just" making it longer, and adding two strings. I'd be asking you for this instrument:

You will recognize this instrument is a guitar.

I had a conversation much closer to home yesterday. Months back someone I know bid on building a system that consisted of database, data collection application, and an analysis module. It was for a lot of money and to save money the buyer opted instead for just the database.

Also, the buyer decided to bring the data collection application in-house.

Trouble was that the buyer's staff proved unable to do it in-house. So they went back to my friend to build them something to show what the data collection application would look like. And as you can probably expect, the buyer is now complaining about the limited functionality of the demo.

"Can't you just build up the demo into a working system?" The answer is yes, but it is also more expensive.

Consider the problem of upgrading a ukelele to a guitar. The stresses on the body are a a LOT greater in the guitar, because you've got half-again more strings, and you've got a much longer span over which those strings must be tensioned. You can't just bolt on two more tuning knobs and patch the neck of the thing to make it longer, and wider. All the strings have to be replaced, because all the old ones are too short. And the box can't just be patched, it has to be replaced.

That's what my friend and his client's software has to deal with. Sure, it looks like all you have to do is fix a few defects, but the problem is deeper. There are software equivalents of loads and stresses that have to be engineered. Little hacks that might look right in a demo to a bunch of managers can't bear an operational load.

One of the central problems of software development is visibility. You can't see what's wrong unless you know what to look for. And the warning signs are easy to ignore.

So, next time you see a pre-launch demo that looks OK, ask yourself, "Is this a ukelele or is it a guitar?" And if you need a ukelele, expect to pay the full price of a new guitar.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

How To Write Non-Binary Gender Characters

It became patently obvious to me that I was taking this business of non-binary gender characters in Science Fiction completely wrong. And I thank the delightful Sarah Hoyt for this insight.

In simple easy to understand terms the answer is: Don't write Cardboard Characters.

Now, if you are unable to understand what it is to be a human being, and what it is to reflect the multiple internal tensions at play in the typical human heart, then you cannot depict the manly man who has a soft spot in his heart for his mother's knitted hat.

If you can't depict a character as humans are in real life, then you have to create some mash-up of all the stereotypes associated with the victim group you're trying to bean count. Oh, i need more gays in my story, so I'll make one of the women a softball player, and make one of the guys a hairdresser. I've railed against this sort of insulting stereotyping earlier.

While writers I follow were having too-much fun writing about non-binary gender characters in Science Fiction, I was writing a story wherein the POV character has to deal with an astrophysicist named A. Dankhopf. As you can probably guess, this sets up the POV character who expects to meet a German man, when the character later proves to be an Indian woman.

The mistaken identity trick has been done by writers since well before Shakespeare, probably the Ancient Greeks.

Then it occurred to me how Schrodinger's cat can help the Science Fiction writer in search of a non-binary gender character.

If you nodded off during Quantum Mechanics class, you may have missed a gedanken experiment wherein a sealed box is populated with a cat, a vial of poison gas, a hammer, and a radioactive source. Then some fiddly bits are added to cause the hammer to break the vial when the radioactive source emits a particle. The magic of Quantum Mechanics is something called "superposition" wherein the cat is both alive and dead until you open the box and look in.

Now, you'd think that, nine-lives notwithstanding, a cat is in a binary state of being either all alive or all dead. But in this experiment the cat is half-living and half-dead until you observe the system. I used this gimmick in my anthology Finding Time.

In this same Quantum Mechanical sense I was writing a non-binary gender character because until the hero observes A. Dankhopf, s/he is half-boy and half-girl. I feel so Politically Correct.

You can, too, just put your manly man in a girly hat, maybe name him Jayne, and until that character is actually observed, you can rely upon quantum superposition to maintain that you have a non-binary gender character.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Yesterday's Feminist

I found a paperback book that I bought when I was in grade school. I couldn't have been older than 5th grade. It was a collection of short stories by Robert Heinlein, The Green Hills of Earth.

The first story is "Delilah and the Space-Rigger." It recounts a conflict between a typical, paternalistic male-chauvinist construction supervisor and a young lady who goes to work on his space station. The story was published in 1949 when societal attitudes toward women in non-traditional vocations were more congruent with a non-ironic interpretation of Women Know Your Limits.

There has been a significant change in social attitudes in the last 65 years. So much so that even Rush Limbaugh would not defend the sexist attitude of the construction supervisor. Nor would any other Conservative I know. But in 1949, Robert Heinlein was "out there" on the cutting edge of societal evolution.

If you know anything about Robert Heinlein, you'll know he was neither a Republican nor a Conservative. He worked for Upton Sinclair and he ran for the California State Assembly as a Democrat. Most people nowadays don't know anything about Robert Heinlein. He was a Liberal in good standing with the Democrat party--in the 1940s.

But to hear some people talk nowadays, he was a Fascist. A lot of reasonable ideas that Liberals used to believe have become reasonable ideas that Conservatives believe. And other Liberals who were once in good standing have grown old and now they face attack and mau mauing by the Liberal tribe who think them not doctrinaly pure enough.

If you talk to a contemporary Liberal science fiction writer, s/he'll quickly point you to Heinlein's later works in which a character takes enjoyment from being raped. This might mean that Heinlein was endorsing rape, or that Heinlein's character who didn't regard herself as fully human, was so because she was female, OR it might mean that she erroneously thought she was not fully human because she was a clone.

Never misunderestimate the ability of people to miss the point. Or obtusely replace the point with something they can turn into a straw man. When Huckleberry Finn uses the n-word and begins his novel as a racist, does this mean that Mark Twain was a racist? If Mark Twain was a racist, then why does he depict Huck Finn growing out of his racism? And then there's A Clockwork Orange wherein the novel's protagonist brutally rapes and murders multiple women. Does this mean that Anthony Burgess endorsed rape and murder?

When I was at MSU there was a Liberal
professor who made some sarcastic remarks attacking racism. But the black community had an irony deficiency and thought he'd made a sincerely racist remark. It was patently obvious that the man had no intent toward racism. For years I thought this was due to stupidity on the part of those complaining.

Now, I think something different: I think it's obtuseness. "Sure, there are multiple interpretations of the other person's words, but I will reject the fair reading and substitute one that I can spin into an attack." Such it is with Robert Heinlein's so-called misogyny.

Monday, February 3, 2014

That's Raaaacist!

I ran an early draft of a story past my friend who told me all my characters were white guys. Since a person's race, or sex is doesn't disqualify one from our shared humanity, I thought, "That's not right."

And then I had a second thought, "How do you know Skip Collins is a white guy? Or Art Donway?"

In a fit of pique I asked, "Should I have one of them start speaking in ebonics?"

If you are a racist and a sexist, it matters whether these characters are white or black, boy or girl. If you're a human, maybe you can relate to the characters' humanity without heavy-handed labels branded on them.

One of the reasons why I like Bollywood movies so much is that all the characters are light enough to be not-black and tan enough to be not-white.

Racism and sexism now mean something different from what I have always thought they meant. What I always thought these terms meant was treating someone badly because they identify with the out group. But once all the laws get passed prohibiting favorable treatment, the people in the racism and sexism industry need to raise the bar. It's not enough to treat everyone equally and relate to them on the basis of their common humanity and respect them on the basis of bearing the image of God.

We somehow have to please self-appointed bean counters: Who complain that there aren't enough blacks in Science Fiction, or enough women, or that there are too many cismale gendernormative fascists.

So, what's a writer to do? Write a scene where the character goes into the girls' bathroom, and laments her boy-parts? Or vice-versa?

Sure, that'll sell a lot of books.

This tendency toward bean counting has engendered push-back. And if a "cismale gendernormative fascist" isn't polite enough when he pushes back, there's someone out there to concern-troll him.

Writing should be able to effectively and richly convey who a character is with just words and no gimmicks. Giving a character an Afro hair-cut or a name like LaFonda is a gimmick.

No, wait, Napoleon Dynamite was a white guy with an Afro. But he could dance, and don't they say that black people have rhythm--Raaaaacist!

So, the bean counters want us to convey the racial and sexual identity of our characters when the easiest ways to do that with the written word include racial and sexual stereotypes. But they have to be the right racial stereotypes or you'll be crucified for being a racist/sexist.

This game is not worth the candle. It doesn't matter whether my characters are black or white, male or female, because their humanity is more important.

(No, I don't think black people have rhythm, Motown records notwithstanding.)

I'm tempted to write a story with characters named Alex and Sidney who are the opposite sex, race, etc. than what everyone expects.

Those more worthy than I: