27 November 2015

Celebrating Thanksgiving through Statistical Analysis

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving yesterday, if you're American. As you may have noticed, I took the day off blogging. (Well, sort of, as I write these things anywhere between a day and six months in advance! Today's is being written on Tuesday, for your information. The picture below I edited in on Thursday night, though.)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and members of my family celebrate Thanksgiving not by eating turkey, but through three-way Cincinnati chili, a dish of mystical significance for people from my city-- though I'm not aware of anyone from my city who goes this far in their devotion to the dish.

This is actually a four-way, though: note the onions.

My love of Thanksgiving and my amateur interest in statistics meant that I was of course positioned to be deeply enthusiastic about a recent article on Nate Silver's website FiveThirtyEight, "Here's What Your Part Of America Eats On Thanksgiving." I was sorry to have missed the original poll where they collected the data, however, as none of the survey's 1,058 respondents reported eating chili, as I discovered when I downloaded the source data from GitHub: I was surprised that only 82% of respondents reported eating turkey, but most of the non-turkeyers do stuff like ham (though some eat lasagna, and many are vegetarians, hence, no turkey).

The real interesting discovery is the proliferation of side dishes; despite living in New England for seven years now, I've never eaten Thanksgiving here, and thus had no idea that 56% of New Englanders have squash as a side dish (compared to the natural average of 18%). The Middle Atlantic (my home region) disproportionately prefers biscuits and rolls; it's never occurred to me that you wouldn't have biscuits and rolls with a traditional American-style Thanksgiving dinner.

The other thing I read recently was this analysis of U.S. holiday travel, from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, prompted by my wife and I wondering if it really was true that the day before Thanksgiving was the busiest travel day of the year. It turns out that the answer is no; this is only true for air travel: "Thanksgiving Day is a more heavily traveled day then [sic] Wednesday. Among those traveling more than 100 miles, travel is evenly spread throughout the Wednesday-Sunday period, with no statistically significant difference among the traffic flows during those five days."

There's lot of other fascinating data in there about Thanksgiving travel. This year we're travelling around 700 miles, well above the national average of 214! So I guess I am 3¼ times as devoted to Thanksgiving as the rest of you. (My kid sister, however, is 3¼ times as devoted to Thanksgiving as I am!)

Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving; even though I am writing this on Tuesday, I know I did!

25 November 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XVII: Absolute Batman: Dark Victory

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2012 (contents: 1999-2000)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2015
Absolute Batman: Dark Victory

Storytellers: Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale
Colorists: Gregory Wright
Letterers: Richard Starkings

Year Two, December - Year Three, March
As good as The Long Halloween is, Dark Victory is disappointing. Did you like the idea of holiday-themed murders that it takes Batman a year to solve? Well, here it is again. This feels like warmed-over leftovers, except for the addition of Robin; the part of this about how Batman realizes he needs Robin is well done, I'll admit.

Next Week: Find out what Catwoman was up to during this very story in When in Rome!

24 November 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Three: Invasion!: Time's Enemy by L. A. Graf

Reread May 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #16: Invasion!, Book Three: Time's Enemy
by L. A. Graf

Of the three books I've read so far, this one-- for obvious reasons-- fits the series the best. While my books for S1 and S2 were set early in their respective seasons, Time's Enemy actually takes place in the S3/4 gap; Sisko is a captain, but he still has his hair. The book has a strong grasp on all the characters. Sisko, Dax, Bashir, and Kira are the focuses, but just like in the show at this point, Odo, Quark, and O'Brien shine even though they just have brief appearances. I especially liked the protracted sections told from Kira's perspective; Graf really gets Kira's mix of hot-headedness, persistence, and professionalism, and balances her terrorist past with her administrator present very well. I'd have liked to have seen her tackle a Kira-focused novel.

The book really captures the nuances of the DS9 world better than preceding ones, with references small and big; it's definitely the most interested in Bajor of the ones I've read so far. Kai Winn is in it (not quite her first prose appearance; Memory Beta tells me she appeared in Objective: Bajor first), and her schmarmiess is perfect. Though to be honest, her role really should have been taken by Shakaar (who is mentioned as Kira's former Resistance leader, but not in the context of being First Minister). The only thing that feels off is that there's very little worry about the Dominion; no one suggests that they might be responsible for an attack on the wormhole, or the destroyed ships they find. They are used well as an ancillary threat, though.

In terms of plot, this is also a good book. There's a real sense of desperation, both from the time paradox that begins the whole thing, and from the unclean/viroids themselves, who are really creepy enemies-- not really sentient, but very determined space locusts. They're very effective, especially in the early sections of the book, where our protagonists keep on coming across ships with their crew and power sources missing. The book stands alone from the rest of Invasion! easily; I haven't read that for over a decade, but all you really need to know is that the Furies used to control local space and are trying to take it back, and the unclean kicked them out.

Graf is surprisingly deft with the science stuff, which actually feels "real" for the most part-- too much Star Trek science comes across as substanceless babble. There's some neat stuff with the wormhole, especially; I really liked it when they realized the wormhole was opening and closing, but they couldn't see it because its light had moved out of the visible spectrum.

Continuity Points:
  • Earth is supposedly eleven hours from Bajor at maximum warp. In "Emissary," the Enterprise was the closest ship, and two days away, so this seems unlikely. Even in the context of how quick the journey is in S4 and beyond, this makes little sense.
  • Rom says he makes extra money on the side (doing repairs) to send to Nog: "He likes going out with his hu-man friends when he isn't in engineering classes." At first, I thought this was a prochronistic reference to Nog being at the Academy, but on reflection, it's probably the Academy preparatory program Nog was trying to get into in "Facets"; it seems plausible that that would be off the station, and there's no references to (present day) Nog from "The Adversary" to "Hippocratic Oath," so he could very well be off the station for an extended period.
  • There's a group of former Bajoran resistance fighters who oppose Bajor's alliance with the Federation who play a key role in the novel; I'd assume they were affiliated with the Circle, but one ever says that. Their leader gets away to fight another day, but Graf never brought her back.
  • Sisko talks to the Prophets here, which is his first time doing so since "Emissary." Nothing in the later "Accession," however, contradicts this. No one seems to know that Quark talked to them in the interim, though.
  • Something my wife and I noted was that in S3, Eddington only turns up to do something suspicious or shady (in "The Search," "The Die Is Cast," and "The Adversary"). In S4, he starts to get used much more often, and much more nicely, usually when the plot needs an extra Starfleet character, or O'Brien is away ("Rejoined" and "Our Man Bashir" spring to mind). Time's Enemy is actually the beginning of this trend, it turns out; he fights the Bajoran paramilitary group on the station, and is part of the Defiant's skeleton crew for its desperate Gamma Quadrant mission.
  • I really like what we learn about Jem'Hadar self-destruct codes: all you have to do is say "self-destruct," because no Jem'Hadar would wrongly engage self-destruct (so no need for multiple authorizations), and there's no time for codes in the kind of situations where you need to self-destruct. The catch is that no one ever hears the Jem'Hadar speak their own language (they always speak the language of their opponents), so the code is virtually impossible to come by. I wonder if the show ever does anything to contradict this; I hope not, because it's a great idea.*
  • We're also told Jem'Hadar have no junk DNA (actually, the book uses the nonsense term "junk genome," but whatever). Also a cool idea. "Junk DNA" is more properly non-coding DNA, and it does serve some purposes, but many of them would not apply to a species that doesn't reproduce, so that makes sense.

Other Notes:
  • Odo flying himself through the wormhole with the Dax symbiont inside himself is pretty badass. Odo has got awesome things to do in every novel so far, none of which could have been afforded by the series's effects budget!
  • Graf does a good job of populating with minor-but-distinctive characters; I liked Admiral Hayman and Cadet Petersen.
  • Has anyone ever expanded on what castes mean in Andorian culture? An Andorian disease is mentioned that only affects members of the "shesh caste."
  • Dax being an ansible is also a cool idea.
  • As an academic, I appreciate the references Bashir, Dax, and Petersen all make to journal publishing. (Bashir seems surprised that no one else reads his articles. Of course. This tracks pretty well with Bashir's enthusiasm about conferences in S5's "Nor the Battle to the Strong," so good on Graf.)

In Two Weeks: Quark steps into the spotlight with The 34th Rule!

* Note from Season 5: When we watched "Statistical Probabilities," where the Jack Pack replay some of Weyoun's recorded dialogue untranslated from the Dominionese, I was a little sad to hear this, as it kind of contradicts this point. Maybe if you squint you could imagine that the Vorta do speak their own language, while the Jem'Hadar do not, but I'd think that the Vorta would have even more incentive to speak foreign languages for diplomatic reasons. And you'd have to assume that the Vorta and the Jem'Hadar speak different languages to stop the self-destruct codes from getting out.

23 November 2015

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

My reviews of Series Four of the Fourth Doctor Adventures come to an end over at Unreality SF with Jonathan Morris's The Cloisters of Terror, and I go off on a bit of a tangent about the writers lineup.

Comic hardcover, 238 pages
Published 2015 (contents: 2014)
Borrowed from my wife
Read May 2015
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift

Script: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Gurihiru
Lettering: Michael Heisler

Like the first Avatar graphic novel, The Promise, The Rift deals with weighty stuff but still somehow feels light. Yang does a good job of capturing the characters' voices, but doesn't always peg their essences, I think. Part of the problem is that these stories meander a little bit too much (aside from The Search), diluting their potential emotional heft. I feel like the television story could have done this in 25 minutes, and yet The Rift is 238 pages long. It's not terrible by any means, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it ought to be better than it is. Still, time spent with these characters is always well spent, and I look forward to spending more of it with them in future volumes.

20 November 2015

Kate Stewart's Choice: Doctor Who and the Crisis of the Refugees

I'm sure others have commented on it already, but Doctor Who's recent story ("The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion") about terrorists hiding in a group of refugees has turned out to be eerily timely.

(If you don't watch much Doctor Who, the 50th anniversary special saw an invasion of Earth by the shape-shifting Zygons thwarted through peace negotiations; these stories reveal that the deal was that Zygons would take human form and be redistributed in secret to various locations around the globe, including Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, of crossword puzzle fame. Some of the Zygons, however, resent the deal their leadership struck, and demand to be able to live in their true forms.)

I was surpsised by how brazen an ISIS analogy it all was, even before the tragic Paris attacks. Televised Doctor Who occasionally does political commentary, but it rarely goes this relevant and this controversial; usually we get nothing more than "Paying taxes is a bit annoying," or "Dictatorships are evil." But "The Zygon Invasion" opens with a hostage video that ends in an on-screen execution, talks about young folk being "radicalized," and even engages with the ethics of drone strikes. At the beginning of it, I was a little skeptical, but once I realized that writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat were just going for it all the way, I decided I liked it more than I didn't. And then I decided I loved it: it's big and brave and kind of mad and the analogy doesn't always make sense, but it has so much to say and gives the Doctor and Clara and the recurring characters so much to do.

A lot of the post-Paris attention to ISIS has been on whether or not we should continue to accept refugees. It's not a big part of the episode (more of the focus is on how do you convince someone to de-radicalize, and what are legitimate uses of violence in carrying out social change), but Doctor Who does engage with this question: near the end, Kate Stewart (head of UNIT and thus representative of humanity) has the option of pressing a button that will do one of two things: set of a nuclear bomb in the heart of London, or release a toxic gas that will kill every Zygon on Earth. The Doctor explains the meaning of the choice (in a tour de force performance from Peter Capaldi):
This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought, right there in front of you. Because it's always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who's going to die! You don't know whose children are going to scream and burn! How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does until what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning. Sit down and talk! Listen to me. Listen, I just, I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It's just a fancy word for changing your mind.
The situation we've gotten in real life isn't exactly like this-- refusing refugees isn't going to start a war-- but as states weigh in on whether or not to allow the resettlement of Syrian refugees (my state is thankfully among those that have said "yes"), Kate Stewart's choice is our choice: we can get rid of all refugees out of a selfish and misguided desire to promote our own safety above all else. We won't be killing anyone in the sense of pressing a button that causes death... but how many lives that are already shattered will remain so if we don't help these people?


Kate Stewart chooses not to press the button, but not out of principle: rather out of fear of the consequences for her own side (i.e., humanity, and especially Britain). She doesn't decide that violence is not the answer in general, but rather that this particular instance of violence is too risky.

...or consequences.
Those aren't quite the consequences of our choice. There's no chance that not admitting refugees will have a negative impact on our own safety. But, out of principle, we shouldn't press that button anyway. We should stop the children from screaming and burning, the hearts from being broken, the lives from being shattered, the blood from being spilled. Hopefully, unlike Kate Stewart, we can make the right choice out of principle and not fear.

19 November 2015

Review: Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre by Darko Suvin

Trade paperback, 317 pages
Published 1980 (originally 1979)
Borrowed from my advisor
Read December 2012
Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre
by Darko Suvin

This is a book I've long made good use of, even prior to actually reading the whole thing all the way through, I would often lean on Suvin's definition of science fiction, a definition that (like the best ones surely) is more about what science fiction does than what it looks like.

According to Suvin, “SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (7-8). Key to this idea is the novum, the “strange newness.” What makes science fiction different from fantasy is that the novum is based on “primarily the political, psychological, and anthropological use and effect of knowledge, of philosophy of science, and the becoming of new realities as a result of it” (15). This is, essentially, what Suvin means when he refers to “cognition”: something that includes science, but also encapsulates “rationality” more broadly, I think. Though of course there are different levels of “science.” There are probably clearer ways to put this; no one would ever read Metamorphoses and then accuse Suvin of overwhelming clarity. When I taught this definition to one of my classes, they reformulated it and threw it back at me, which I appreciated, but did not think to write down!

Suvin's concept is maybe best explain through contrast: “…[L]ess congenial to SF is the fantasy (ghost, horror, Gothic, weird) tale, a genre committed to the interpretation of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment. …[T]he fantasy is inimical to the empirical world and its laws” (8). Or, he has a summation of a formula coined by Robert Philmus, which also does a nice job: “naturalistic fiction does not require scientific explanation, fantasy does not allow it, and SF both requires and allows it” (65). What I would add here (and maybe Suvin says this somewhere, I don't remember), is that the explanation often does not actually appear; science fiction just implies that it could offer you an explanation if it wanted to, but it's holding back. Star Trek is perhaps a good example of this; really, its science is meaningless on most counts, but everyone conspires to act as though it is science, and so the novum is maintained.

Despite the subtitle giving them equal weight, and despite the pages giving “history” more weight (it receives about 200 pages, whereas “poetics” gets only 85 or so), I would say that Suvin's discussion of history is not as interesting. It's a little idiosyncratic, and not quite as insightful. Suvin's one of those writers who works a little too hard to claim sf predecessors as actual sf, which I think obscures what those texts are actually doing, and the history only goes up to Wells, with the only 20th-century discussions being of Russian sf and of Karl Čapek. I mean, sure they're important, but why discuss the 20th century at all if you're going to ignore everything else significant that happened in it? As far as histories went, I preferred Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree, though Aldiss's discussion of the poetics is much weaker. Which is why if you want a feeling for the foundation of sf criticism as it existed in the 1980s, you read both.

18 November 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XVI: Batman: Year Two: Fear the Reaper

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2002 (contents: 1987-91)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2015
Batman: Year Two: Fear the Reaper

Writer: Mike Barr
Pencillers: Alan Davis, Todd McFarlane
Inkers: Paul Neary, Mark Farmer, Alfredo Alcala, Pablo Marcos
Letterers: Richard Starkings, Todd Klein, Agustin Mas
Colorists: Steven Oliff, Gloria Vasquez, Tom Ziuko

Year Two, November - Year Three, August
The first of many overt attempts to "cash in" on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, this would be followed by Batman: Year Three, JLA: Year One, Batgirl: Year One, Robin: Year One, Nightwing: Year One, Huntress: Year One, and even Metamorpho: Year One and the (tragically uncollected, I'm sure) Guy Gardner: Year One. There's nothing to really distinguish Year Two from the slew of tales of Batman's early years that followed it in publication order, many of which I've already read. Basically Batman discovers that the Reaper, a vigilante who operated in Gotham after the Alan Scott Green Lantern and before himself is back, and things get weird as he decides this is the time he'll use a gun... and not just any gun, but literally the same gun that killed his parents. And, get this, thanks to contrivance, he has to team up with the guy who killed his parents to do it. Even for superhero comics, this is a bit goofy/implausible, but I think that in principle it could be made to work. Well, unfortunately Mike Barr and a cohort of artists don't succeed, but man, Alan Davis draws nice pictures.

Next Week: If you thought one year-long holiday-themed murder mystery was good, why not a second, in Dark Victory!?

17 November 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Two: Fallen Heroes by Dafydd ab Hugh

Previously read July 2005
Reread January 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #5: Fallen Heroes
by Dafydd ab Hugh

This is an odd one-- I can see why people like it (it's one of the few pre-Avatar DS9 novels to ever get praised), but it's slightly off; characters sometimes feel like caricatures of themselves. Odo is more overtly mean to Quark than he usually is, and at one point we learn that Bashir persuaded Odo to bug Quark's holosuites so that he can spy on Dax and Kira. Like, really, either of them would do that???

But on the whole, I think ab Hugh has good command of the characters. Obviously this is a "reset button" story, but you can write a good one of those if it gives insight into characters, and this one does. If the station were overrun and everyone was killed, this is exactly how it would happen, I think. There's a lot of good stuff here: Keiko's death was actually quite sad, O'Brien's soldier/engineer balance (so rarely addressed in the series) is well handled, the way that Jadzia dies but Dax lives on for a few moments is creepy but effective, Bashir is actually quite brilliant as he goes out. Maybe the only character whose death is a little too perfunctory is Kira's. (She's written a little dumbly at times, actually; I don't think ab Hugh has a great handle on her. Oh those pesky angry women!)

Best of all is Sisko and Jake and Molly. Sisko is a great Starfleet commander here, balancing the immediate needs of his people with that of the Federation/Bajor and even his son. His death is amazingly badass. And poor Jake and Molly's survival narrative is harrowing but really quite great. I don't think we ever even see Sisko and Jake in the same scene, but their bond is ever-present and strong.

Quark and Odo form the core of this novel, which makes this the second Odo-centric novel I've read in a row. Watching the show, it's easy to see why: though early S2 is where the other characters begin to pop much more ("The Circle" is where I finally felt the writers had a handle on all seven), throughout S1 Odo is consistently the strongest character, with Kira just behind him. If you asked me to pitch a DS9 novel in 1993, I'd pick Odo as protagonist too. I think this is the first story to pair the two off, something the show wouldn't do until "The Ascent" in S5. It's handled pretty well (except for Odo's occasional unnecessary meanness): I liked Odo's callback to "Babel," where he revises his statement that being trapped on DS9 with Quark would be the worst torment he could imagine, to that being trapped with a repentant Quark is even worse. I also liked some of the touches ab Hugh gives Ferengi culture, such as that there is an enormous set of ritual cringes, from the "relative's cringe" to "okay, you caught me with my hand in the cookie jar, but society's to blame." Someone needs to enter these on Memory Beta.

The heroic triumph of both characters is great: Odo's journey into the still-hot fusion core of the station is truly gripping, and I like that Quark gets to actually save the day. Though everyone is a jerk to him about it, poor guy. (Does Quark ever do anything as bad as people act like he does?)

Continuity Points:
  • Not a lot here, but explicit references are made to a number of S1 episodes up to "In the Hands of the Prophets." Since that episode, Bajoran "Sunday schools" have sprung up on the station, and Sisko has been sending Jake to them. Through this, we learn some about ancient, pre-Prophet Bajoran gods, no longer worshiped except by radicals. Again, an area the show never touches on-- and given the first Orbs came to Bajor 10,000 years, and that the ur-B'hala was built 25,000 years ago, those must be some very old gods!
  • There are also references to other DS9 novels, which is neat. O'Brien thinks of himself as an "amateur magician," a reference to his attempts to learn magic tricks to amuse Molly in The Siege, and there's also a couple references to the poker game in The Big Game (which I last read many, many years ago). If there were any references to Bloodletter, I missed them.
  • O'Brien says he worked on the Enterprise when it was under construction at Starbase 13, which is why he transferred aboard the ship five years later. Given it's canonical that the ship was constructed at and launched from Utopia Planitia, do we take this to mean that perhaps some components were built at SB 13 in 2359 and sent on to Mars?
  • The enemy race is this novel is known to the Cardassians as bogeymen called the "Bekkir." A hundred years ago, the Cardassians tried to recruit their help in attacking the Klingons. The Bekkir declined and attacked the Cardassians, who couldn't launch a punitive expedition because the Bekkir reside in the Gamma Quadrant. Pretty much nothing about this makes sense.

Other Notes:
  • I liked the rhyming aliens.
  • Welshman ab Hugh populates his novel with a number of UK sorts: a Scot, a Welshman, and a second Irishman are all on the DS9 crew. Also Odo calls a flashlight a torch!
  • How generic is that cover?

Next Week: I know you've been anticipating it as much as I have... Eddington makes his Treklit debut in Time's Enemy!

16 November 2015

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Lost Adventures edited by Samantha Robertson

Nothing lasts forever, and neither did the run of quality Fourth Doctor Adventures. Still, watch as I try to explain why despite doing something new, Suburban Hell was still disappointing at Unreality SF...

Comic trade paperback, 256 pages
Published 2011 (originally: 2006-09)
Borrowed from my wife
Read May 2015
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Lost Adventures
edited by Samantha Robertson

Before the pretty enjoyable continuation comics, during its television run, Avatar: The Last Airbender spawned a set of short comics in various venues, Nickelodeon Magazine and the like. They're short stories, ranging from two to fifteen pages in length, set between episodes of the show (five during Season One, nine during Season Two, twelve during Season Three, and two out of continuity), and as lends itself to their length, they're mostly humorous.

In Avatar, comedy tends to mean Sokka, and in my mind, this is nothing but excellent, because Sokka-- as the goofy-but-loveable-non-magical-one-with-a-real-sense-of-duty-- is definitely my favorite Avatar character. We get to see him pretend to be the Avatar to impress a girl in "Sokka the Avatar" by Joshua Hamilton and Justin Ridge, try to teach the Earth King how to live in the wild in "It's Only Natural" by Johane Matte and Joshua Hamilton, frustrate Prince Zuko with his insistence that "swordbending" is a real thing in "Swordbending" by Alison Wilgus and Justin Ridge, and form his own club in "No Benders Allowed" by Alison Wilgus and Elsa Garagarza.

Best of all, he enlists in the Fire Nation army in "Private Fire" by Hamilton and Matte again. "Private Fire" is my favorite story in the book, and I smile every time I think about it (which is more often than you might think); of all of these, it's the one I dearly wish had been made into a television episode. In it, Sokka is put through his paces in the same disguise he adopted a few times in the show, Wang Fire, complete with comically large mustache. The ending is just hilarious, so I won't spoil it for you: but if you love Sokka, you'll love this.

Other highlights include the occasional universe-expanding serious story or actioner, like a flashback to Aang's pre-iceberg days in the Fire Nation in "Dragon Days" by Alison Wilgus, Johane Matte, and Tom McWeeney, or "Combustion Man on a Train" by Alison Wilgus, Rawles Lumumba, and Tom McWeeney, a great little action tale where Sokka and Aang must fight their most brutal enemy while minimizing civilian casualties on a fast-moving train.

There are also a number of stories that bridge the gap between the second and third seasons. In addition to the aforementioned "It's Only Natural," Zuko and Mai begin their romance (as poor, cute Jin gets pushed to the side) and Zuko decides to for sure throw in his lot with his own people in "Going Home Again" by Aaron Ehasz, May Chan, Katie Mattila, Alison Wilgus, and Amy Kim Ganter, and Team Avatar secures a Fire Nation ship in "The Bridge" by Joshua Hamilton, Tim Hedrick, Aaron Ehasz, Frank Pittarese, and Reagan Lodge. None of this are particularly essential (obviously the show did just find without them), but they are nice to have.

Overall, if you're a fan of Avatar and want more adventures with its well-balanced cast of characters, this book is a quick, fun, enjoyable read.

13 November 2015

Isaac Asimov's Typology of Science Fiction

Recently I came across an allusion to the "three primary postulates" of science fiction, described as "what if," "if only," and "if this goes on." I immediately recognized them from the reading of my youth, specifically Isaac Asimov's introduction to the 1962 anthology More Soviet Science Fiction. This was one of many Asimov books passed down to me by my father, and so I imagine I read it at least half a dozen times as a child (though I do not own and have never read the Soviet Science Fiction to which it is a sequel).

In the introduction to MSSF, Asimov first recapitulates his argument from SSF, that American science fiction has three stages:
  • Stage One: adventure dominant
  • Stage Two: technology dominant
  • Stage Three: sociology dominant
I haven't read that, like I said, so I don't know exactly what Asimov imagines fitting into each stage, but you can kind of infer it from his comment that "the best of contemporary American science fiction [is] in Stage Three, dealing with the possible societies of the future that might or might not develop in response to new gadgets, rather than with the gadgets themselves" (7).

In the introduction to MSSF, Asimov develops three gambits for Stage Three science fiction: (like any good scientist, he loves his categories and lists)
  • a) What if--
  • b) If only--
  • c) If this goes on--
It's not really obvious from the gambits themselves, but he imagines each as being a very specific type of sociological extrapolation. Stage Three-A is the "what if" story that is totally divorced from present-day reality, not actually about extrapolation per se, but more like a generalized thought experiment; the example he gives is "What if a human colony on Mars lacks water and cannot get it from Earth?" (8). He claims that this is a "strictly contemporary" move, arising in the 1920s (8), but I think this overlooks some of the proto-sf we call "utopian" that is not about imagining idealized societies, just different ones, such as Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Coming Race (1871) or Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872). Of course, these stories still manage to pack in some commentary on their contemporary societies, albeit more obliquely (as one could imagine happening in Asimov's Mars example).

Stage Three-B he does admit a longer genesis for, as the "If only" question is meant to be a positive one, basically "If only this thing that I think is terrible was not actually true"; his examples include "If only men were truly religious" or "If only I could fly" (9). Basically, this is (as he admits) the utopian story, and he traces its genesis to (duh) Thomas More's Utopia (1516). In the early sf I study, one can see the Stage Three-B story in tales such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), which one could imagine asking, "If only we had a centralized government that provided jobs and credit for everyone and also electric furniture" or William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), which asks "If only we were all art-loving socialists who were kind to our neighbours." (Asimov actually uses Erewhon as an example of Stage Three-B, but I think Erewhonian society is more complicated than that; it has its positives, yes, but it swaps them for some negatives that Victorian British society didn't have.)

Stage Three-C, then, is the dystopian extrapolation, the "this" of "If this goes on--" is a thing the author considers to be bad. Asimov cites (of course) 1984 and Brave New World; in early science fiction, I feel like almost every H. G. Wells story fits into this mold. The Time Machine (1895) is "If this division of the laboring and intellectual classes goes on--" and The War in the Air (1908) is "If this building towards a European conflict along with the development of air-power goes on--" and The Sleeper Awakes (1910) is "If this increased urbanization and stifling of democracy goes on--".

Like all typologies, it has its uses and limits, and Asimov himself makes some goofy statements, such as suggesting that Stage Three science fiction stories are difficult under communism because you might have to admit there's something wrong with communism to pull them off. A previous owner of my copy of MSSF (one Michael Lippman, apparently) underlined this statement: "Modern American science fiction makes virtually no use of the Stage Three-B story, however. Part of the reason is the the bitterness against society is lacking" (10), and then wrote "HAH!" in the margins.

Upon recognizing the "postulates" in the book that I was recently reading, I googled them to see if they had some pre-Asimov roots that I was unaware of. The three gambits of Stage Three are attributed to a lot of different people, or often go completely unattributed. Furthermore, most everyone refers to them as describing all science fiction, not (as Asimov did) a specific subtype of it, sociological extrapolation. Others fail to recognize what each of the gambits actually means; even though you could plug something positive into "If this goes on--", that's not how Asimov actually meant it. Some examples:
There's plenty more, but that's the first couple pages of Google results. None of the citations-- not even those to Asimov-- are specific enough to name an actual source, so I feel justified in maintaining my belief that they are an original Asimov coinage, even if they are not necessarily original to the introduction to More Soviet Science Fiction; it seems pretty obscure to be the root of all this. Then again, maybe that's why so many people know Asimov coined it, but not where he did it!

The most consistent citation of a non-Asimov source is Robert Heinlein, and I think that's because he actually wrote a 1940 short novel called If This Goes On--, which seems (from the synopsis) to really be an "If this goes on--" story; I'd imagine it's where Asimov got that particular wording from to begin with!