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The End of All Things: It’s Done!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/03/2015 - 21:47
Finished Saturday, April 4 at 9:02 am, Perth, Australia time. 99,000 words, give or take. And it’s pretty good. Immensely relieved to be done. For those wondering: Hardcover release on August 11, 2015. Electronic release of each of the four novellas that comprise the novel will happen in the immediate weeks before. Yes, we’re platforming … Continue reading The End of All Things: It’s Done! →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Nineteen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/03/2015 - 10:35
Is the novel finished: NO, but soooooooooooo close. Today’s question: So, how ya doin? My answer: I’m sooooooo close to being done with the novel, but I’m also literally falling down fatigued (remember I’m in Australia at the moment so it’s evening for me as I write this), so I’m going to go to bed, get a … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Nineteen →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Eighteen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/02/2015 - 10:03
Is the novel finished: NO, but it’s pretty close now. Today’s question: What’s the longest you’ve been away from home? For this exercise, we’re not counting military deployments, college stays, or things like LDS missionary work or the peace corps. We’re talking like “I’ve left the house and will have nothing resembling a permanent address until I … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Eighteen →

Orwell and Writing

Contrary Brin - Wed, 04/01/2015 - 14:46
You would be writers out there, of both fiction and nonfiction! Have a look at George Orwell's wonderful advice to writers of English prose -- Politics and the English Language. It is 95% spot on — valuable for those who want to communicate, instead of being pompous!

Still, as you read this excellent (if somewhat elderly) article, note that I have a few slight disagreements.  He begins by offering  five examples of bad prose, then follows with this:

“Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.”

Huh.  What I found objectionable in all five was something else entirely — a clear lack of empathy with the hurried reader.  

In each example, the writer seemed to demand that the reader scan his words slowly, carefully and several times, in order to parse a sentence-meaning!  When, in fact, that multiple re-read and care is the duty of the writer, not the reader. In each of the five examples, long sentences could have been broken into several, allowing the reader to build comprehension in digestible bites, instead of pedantic lumps.

Yes, Orwell does much better. His subsequent paragraph is well-crafted and easy to read/understand.  His points are well-taken and persuasive… and he appears to miss the very trait that his paragraph displays! The trait that marks this article as different from his benighted examples.

Distilling it: Orwell (or any good writer) views the reader as a collaborator in the goal and process of comprehensible communication.  You can even skim Orwell and get a gist of his intent, something a bad writer hates and makes deliberately difficult, but that a good writer like Orwell doesn't mind… much.

The writers of those five examples appear to view the reader as an adversary, to be pummeled into submission.

I agree with Orwell's comment about metaphors… though only as a general warning.  In fact, most of the “old” metaphors he mentions are still fine for use in 2015! Just with some care.

The rest is vivid and persuasive. Indeed, I would add several more categories! I used to demand that my students write a story with No Adjectives or Adverbs!  To see if they could still create a vivid scene.  Then to know that you can add adjectival description like frosting, but you never use it as a crutch.

So here’s the trick.  Go minimize all the faults Orwell describes - as a habit of spare and direct writing…

… then choose to break any rule on a case-by-case basis, for some color here.  For a little appropriately pretentious prose there!  You learn from his rules good habits.  Then - when you have used them to become skilled -- break 'em whenever you see fit!


Follow-up: Various authors offer... Advice for Writers. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day Seventeen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/01/2015 - 10:09
Is the novel finished: NO Today’s question: April Fool’s Day: Love it, hate it, indifferent about it? My answer: I like it as a concept but am generally disappointed in the execution, as most “jokes” or “pranks” on April Fool’s Day aren’t really funny or clever. Being funny and clever is harder than most people seem to think … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Seventeen →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Sixteen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/31/2015 - 09:55
Is the novel finished: NO Today’s question: What’s the longest amount of time you’ve ever slept, from head down on the pillow to head up? “Sleep” in this case meaning actual sleep, not a coma, trauma-induced unconsciousness or any such thing (actual sleep related to things like colds and flus totally count, however). My answer: In high school, … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Sixteen →

View From a Hotel Window: Perth

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/31/2015 - 09:43
Taken earlier today, before I took a jetlag-laden nap. I was mildly concerned that if I took a nap in the afternoon I would be unable to sleep this evening, but now it’s evening here in Perth and I’m here to tell you, I will have no trouble sleeping. 34 hours of travel is exhausting. … Continue reading View From a Hotel Window: Perth →

How the American education system doesn’t fail

Contrary Brin - Mon, 03/30/2015 - 18:19
Fareed Zakaria makes a number of excellent points in this article -- Why America's obsession with STEM is dangerous -- about the U.S. education system, whose faults are regularly exposed by those infamous international math tests – but whose huge advantages are almost never discussed, including a culture that seems to engender a major portion of the world’s creativity. 
Zakaria is spot on in many ways… yet he betrays the topic by buying into zero sum thinking. He argues, for example, that calls for increased emphasis on STEM education (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) must necessarily undermine these creative advantages, by robbing American students of exposure to English, the arts, humanities and other tools of a broad and generally adaptable, modern mind.
Sorry, but that part -- like most zero-sum reasoning -- is pure hokum. 

Oh, Zakaria’s premise is on-target; we need to double down on  our investment in creative generalist education. But his fretfulness distracts from a key point here – that the “well-roundedness” trait is embedded far too deeply in the North American system to be threatened so easily. Its bulwark is fundamental and potent – in the four-year U.S. Baccalaureate degree. 
Most Americans are astonished to learn what a “bachelor’s” degree consists of, across most of Europe and Asia. Taking just three years (nominally), it calls for a 17 year old to dive into a single specialization, almost as narrowly as someone in law or medical or grad school, with only token requirements to lift her or his head and look beyond.
That is a fine way to make science “boffins” (the contemptuous British term for STEM specialists)… or upper-crust history majors who are destined for roles in government or boardrooms, without a clue how the world really works.  But it seems a wretched thing to do to teenagers whose prefrontal lobes haven’t even kicked-in yet, and who should taste from many pots, before deciding which one to cook. Yanks and Canadians rightfully recoil from such a dismal life sentence for any poor teenager who is caught in that premature-specialization machine.
Breadth requirements University of MichiganThe North American university pattern is inherently different in its program, but also in its expectations for what it takes to be a well-rounded citizen. The fourth year of a U.S. Baccalaureate degree consists entirely of breadth requirements. 

A young person who enrolls in a science or math curriculum, at almost 99% of accredited U.S. colleges, may not graduate without taking six or more courses in the arts, humanities, history and literature. Precisely the prescription demanded by Fareed Zakaria, only without the fragility that he implies.

As one side effect, our nascent boffins not only learn much about the color and texture of human experience. They also discover how easy those subjects can be! And hence, an inventor who wants to start a company might decide to get a law degree, or MBA, “on the side.”  Indeed, many do. And this helps to explain Silicon Valley, where boffins rule.
Likewise, North American students in arts or humanities are required to take half a dozen light-but-fascinating science and math survey classes. I taught “Astronomy for Poets,” one year, and saw how happy the guys and gals were, to lose their fear of nerdy things. They left with at least a general awareness of the universe, its scope and rules, and how quickly this adventurous civilization is learning more. See: The Surprising Effectiveness of College Literacy Classes, by Art Hobson.
(Always, every year, one science survey class was more popular than our introductory astronomy course. It was “the Biology Of Human Sexuality.” Curse you, bio nerds!”)
This, too, has had a major outcome. The United States may do badly in international tests of memorized facts and rote skills. But we always score in the top three, at “Adult Science Literacy.”  Last year, U.S. citizens scored in second place. I believe another year we were first!  
Is this an unadulterated success?  Of course not. In order to rank number one or two, the U.S. had only to score twenty-eight percent in adult Science Literacy Rate (SLR) -- a shamefully low bar, that helps to explain why forty percent of our population actually credits blithering nonsense, like climate change denialism and anti-vaccine mania.  What the ASL scores actually show is how bloody awful the rest of the world is, at graduating well-rounded citizens.  Yes, even worse than America.

(Homeopathy? Oh, my.)
Clearly there is just one reason why U.S. "adult" "science" "literacy" would be so much higher than our other scores, measuring the memorized/rote skills of children.  That difference is college breadth requirements. Indeed, during the last decade, reformers in both the EU and Japan have been hand-wringing about this very point, promoting changes in primary, secondary and university education, demanding that they be taught “in a more American manner."
And hence the bone I have to pick with Fareed Zakaria (author of the new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education).  Most of what he says is right! But he buys into zero sum thinking and jeremiads of doom, when the real news is actually quite mixed. 

Evidence suggests that North Americans have backed the right horse – aiming to teach well-rounded generalists who then, at age 21 or 22, can choose to specialize with a broad grounding and a wide stance. We do this at a cost – doing more poorly than other nations at tests measuring rote skills and memorized facts. This fact, in turn, has hurtthose U.S. students who need basic or vocational proficiencies, more than they need exposure to stars and art. We have abandoned vocational education, and betrayed those kids.
But for the 50%+ who do go to college of some sort, there is as much good news, as bad. The patternis the right one for developing agile, creative citizens. It is a pattern that engendered eighty of the one hundred best universities on the planet. 

Moreover, we can work with that pattern, making it ever better at preparing students for this ever-changing world.
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. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day Fifteen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:00
Is the novel finished: PROBABLY NOT (I might have finished it on the plane, but that seems unlikely to me, and as I’m writing this ahead of time because I am likely still on the plane, I don’t know for sure) Today’s question: Your favorite stuffed animal from your childhood (or heck, if it’s one … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Fifteen →

Dear Ernie Cline

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 12:00
Dear Ernie: As I was packing clothes for my trip to Australia, I came across an old t-shirt for VIP, your high school band. Man, I don’t remember how long I’ve had this shirt or how, in fact, I came in possession of it — I seem to remember a trip to Texas and fighting … Continue reading Dear Ernie Cline →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Fourteen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 09:41
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: When was your first flight on an airplane? If you remember, where did you go? Aside from it being your first plane trip, was there anything notable about it? My answer: It was when I was five, and my sister and I got on a plane — unaccompanied! … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Fourteen →

At last! No more Atlas!

Contrary Brin - Sat, 03/28/2015 - 23:25
Let's conclude this series about sci fi films that exaggerate human error, in order to make a polemical point. 

Exaggeration-of-error was understandable in the otherwise wonderful Avatar. (Though it still should have been done even-better.)  Now let's sweep all the way to the opposite end of the quality spectrum -- from the sublime to the absurd.

== Okay, we had to == 

It was required and behooved. I had no choice. We rented… and watched… Who is John Galt? Part III of ATLAS SHRUGGED.
Oh, oh my, how did they manage?  This episode was spectacularly worse than the other two, proving that there are no limits to execrable. 

Oh sure, I took into account that this was the portion of the book wherein Ayn Rand launches into a 60 page speech, one that has helped lure two generations of angry, young-white underachievers away from any sensible (Smithian) version of libertarianism – (based on flat-open-fair creative competition and rooted in actual human nature) - toward a life hating rant-fest of ingrate solipsism.
In fact, though, the movie version of John Galt’s speech was the bestpart of this awful trudge, wherein dialogue, acting and even the sets sank below minimum standards for a high school film project. Distilled to a few minutes, at least the speech had a decent stab at doing what Vonnegut aimed for in the vastly more intelligent and effective libertarian-satire tale "Harrison Bergeron." 

Indeed, if we ever did make a society as deliberately debased and wretched as the strawman People's Republic of America portrayed in Rand's book and film, well, I might have said a few of the same things Galt growled, in this hyper digested version.
But that's the point, eh? As I said, in my earlier essay about Atlas Shrugged (one that's more carefully parsed and analytical, revealing parallels between Rand and her mentor, Karl Marx), the strawman notion that Ayn Rand and her followers erect in their minds – an oligarchic-socialist cesspool that punishes every innovator and steals everything from creators - is hallucinatory, bearing only slivers of glancing overlap with the USA of her time...

...and even less with today's era of Elon Musk and Google and Richard Branson and Whole Foods and Uber and university-spinoff startups and privately-invented self-driving cars.

Never once do Randians address the question: "compared to what?" Across 6000 years of awful rule by feudal lord-cheaters, can they point to a society that was friendlier to inventive entrepreneurs than this one? Or a society that ever engendered so many libertarians?  Oh, I am all for enhancing some pro-liberty-and-competitive-ingenuity trends. But to assume that this narrow renaissance should be hated, when the alternative attractor state of feudal repression looms from all sides? Oy, silly guys.
But I've shown all that, already.  Moreover, in the case of A.S. Part III, there's much worse – so much worse - than just piling up resentment based on (mostly) delusional grievances.
== Do these folks even pay attention? ==

For example, the makers of this film don’t even try to soft-pedal the volcanically blatant evil of Rand's top hero - John Galt - who demands that the outer civilization "get out of my way," and stop aggressing his ubermensch Nietzchean demigods... while he’s hypocritically cheating and aggressing like mad! Committing nearly all of the deadly destruction in the story, blowing up critical infrastructure, consigning millions to starvation and darkness with acts of sabotageon a scale that would make Al Qaeda and every terrorist group in history envious. All of them, combined.
Note, this isn’t soft-pedaled or disguised, but avowed openly, in the movie's very first scene! The elite of Galt’s Gulch cannot win on their virtues, so they murderously cheat.
(Indeed, if you know a thing about iron cantilever construction, the Taggert Bridge could have fallen - in the time allotted - in no other way.)
Then there is the blatant way that Ayn Rand imitates -- in the Passion of The Galt -- the dramatic arc of Jesus, from his betrayal by an apostle, to the Temptation, to the Torment and Crucifixion... followed by a kind of resurrection. Hey, copy and crib from the best.  That's what she did with Marx.

I just had to smile when the director and producer of this film version went out of their way to include a minor, one page scene from the book, during Dagny's tour of Galt's Gulch, when she speaks to a lower-caste baker woman who happens to have... (shudder)... procreated!  The only character to have or even mentionchildren in Ayn Rand's entire, vast canon -- indeed across all of her works about the "life-oriented philosophy." 

I had to wonder, was this obscure scene included because for years I've rubbed Randian noses in the utterly impotent sterility of their uber-demigod role models? Several dozen archetype "ideal humans." Not one of whom, at any point or at any level, engages in the most basic human activity: bearing and raising children. 

Not even the somewhat admirable - or at least respect-worthy - architect, Howard Roark, from The Fountainhead, can spare a glance toward the future. How very un-darwinian, for social darwinists.
(Research call: can anyone cite a previous Rand critic who pointed this out? It is so glaring, there has to be! I just want to know.)
== Rise of the looter-manipulators ==

Oh, ironies abound! Like the cameo appearances of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck in this spew. Part and parcel of the central Fox narrative – they admit that libertarians have every reason to be disgusted with the Republican Party, which has never, ever, ever done a single thing to help small business, or innovators, or flat-open-fair capitalism.
But… but Goppers say libertarian-sounding things! And doesn’t that matter far more than substance or statistics or other sciencey things like facts? Or actual, actual outcomes?  So come on home, every election (you fools)! And ignore the plain truth: that markets and innovation, productivity and small business, deregulation and every other thing that libertarians should care about actually do far, far better under democrats. 
Indeed, democrats have deregulated ten times as many industries as republicans have ever even tried to do.

Such facts would matter to a Smithian libertarian, who might have the guts to face information-contrary-to-narrative. But Randians? They want the world of feudal oligarchs that Fox is striving to bring back. (Come on guys, admit it.)
== The core question ==
Oh, but here's the crux, guys.
Why have you not already built Galt's Gulch? 
Seriously, it’s been ages.  Republicans spent 6 years (2001-2007) controlling every branch of government including the courts, and have had a pretty strong lock since, especially in half the states, where the Randian rhetoric has risen ever-stronger. But... well... do you see any pro-competition measures from them?
All right, forget the GOP – they are in the pockets of oligarchic “looters” who Rand portrays as vastly worse than mere unionized-socialists. (Though you will always, always, always trudge back to voterepublican, won’t you, dope?) 

No, even if you toss aside the undead were-elephant, we are left demanding of youwhy you haven’t built your paradise already, the way Ayn Rand's heroic John Galt insisted you should?  By yourselves?
There are plenty of places, all over the U.S., where some money and a bunch of inventive uber-guys could take over a county and start running it according to Randian principles. Maybe not quite as “liberated” as Galt’s Gulch - perhaps having to obey eco-laws, for example, and paying taxes (big deal), but still pretty far along the spectrum!  (Heck, wasn’t there an idea, years back, for libertarians to move to New Hampshire and take over? Idaho would seem a better bet, though….)
Seasteading InstituteEven more so in some capital-hungry small nation. I could name a dozen where, backed by real investment, a colony could set up to start doing what they please, unfettered by all those compromises made by the People’s Republic of America. So why haven’t you put your money and effort where your mouth is?
Only Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman and a few of their pals have done this with some tepid sincerity, slipping a tiny sliver of actual money into Seasteading, sketching grand images of what it might look like, if someone else were to create new principalities with sovereign rights somewhere out on the open ocean.  I offered some advice as to how to do it right… advice that was not appreciated, even though it was sincere and practical and covered bases that any non-hallucinatory seasteading project would have to, if it meant business. 

But never mind, I re-cycled the ideas and showed the way-to-do-it in Existence. Indeed, the only places where Randians have actually stood up to emulate Galt and openly out-compete those dreary mixed-economy compromisers are... in fiction.
== Which is beside the point ==
What is the point?
If fact, I do agree with these fellows on one crucial matter. The Randians are right to fear a particular failure mode: that “looters” – mostly established oligarchs but also socialists – might wreck the flat-open-fair civilization that brings creative miracles into the world, through the marvelous fecundity of flat-open-fair competition. 

Neither oligarchs nor socialists like competition (though the former lie, and claim that they do.) So yes, that kind of enemy is worth guarding against!  Indeed, that is one set of directions where-from a collapse of our enlightenment revolution might come.  

What they neglect is to notice there are others, indeed a myriad ways that cheaters could ruin our brilliant oasis in the bleak horror of human history. 

Others are right, too, in their own fixated notions of where Big Brother might come from! Our renaissance could fall to religious zealots, faceless corporations, manipulative media, dogmatic movements, Crichtonian science-gone-mad scenarios, Matrix-style machine gods… or ingrate-solipsist demigods who rationalize that sabotaging civilization is the best option, practically and morally.
If only we weren’t so all-fired eager to declare "only my side’s enemies are dangerous!" In fact, you paranoids out there… you’re all partly right!  And, by dismissing the notion that your own side’s elites might also be dangerous, you are also insanely wrong.
Me? I find appealing the much more nuanced and generous libertarianism of Adam Smith, who liberals and more subtle libertarians should both embrace for his incrementalist care to nurture the best of competition, while evading the relentless cheating that ruined competition for 60 centuries.
But this here screed of mine started out about an awful, awful movie, based on a tedious, life-hating book, written by a hysterical Russian émigré and acolyte of Karl Marx. And despite this cult’s rare glimmers of on-target criticism, its potential to change a damned thing was cauterized, long ago, by fanatic over-simplification.
Except perhaps for Peter Thiel, the correlation of Randianism with impotent under-achievement is just too blatant for us to ignore any longer, or to take seriously and the preachings of its maniacal guru. Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:14.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-font-family:Times; mso-fareast-language:JA;}

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day Thirteen

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 03/28/2015 - 10:54
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Name a product brand (or two) that you are not entirely rationally attached to. This is usually expressed is a rivalry (Coke vs. Pepsi, XBox vs. PlayStation) but doesn’t have to be. My answer: I think Coke Zero is obvious, so I’ll mention a less known one: I … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Thirteen →

Perils of Pandora IV: An unofficial, speculative addendum

Contrary Brin - Fri, 03/27/2015 - 18:21
Okay, I am almost finished here.

It is a tribute to James Cameron that he provokes careful, even critical, appraisals of his work, which I tried to do in my riffs on Avatar. In Part III, I offered one proposal for a three-minute tweak -- possibly in a director's cut  -- that might repair the core, moral heart of this great-but-flawed film. 

Will that happen? When it snows on Pandora! ;-)                  I also alluded to some other, even more far-out-meddlesome ideas. Just for fun, in this unofficial addendum... one writer having fun, playing in another fellow's sand box... why don't we look at a concept that isn't even my own! It is yet another, larger tweak that could both surprise audiences and really make them think, suggested by one of my readers -- Matthew Bell:
  "All the amazing aspects of Pandora, all the magical exaggerations, along with its strangely un-biological biology and the behavior of its natives can be explained if you assume that the planet is a post-singularity world."                  Now, some of you may be unfamiliar with the "singularity" as it was first laid out by the great science fiction author Vernor Vinge, later now pushed hard by Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near. This notion -- much discussed among the world's nerds -- is both simple yet profoundly intricate.  It takes the fact that human skill and knowledge are accumulating at not just an accelerating rate -- but the rate of acceleration is itself accelerating.                  The most familiar sign of this acceleration is Moore's Law, under which computing power doubles every 18 months or so. At this pace, it should be possible to emulate human intelligence in a box, within 20 years or so. Then that artificially intelligent (AI) box can design a new, improved one, which designs the next and so on, in a sequence that rapidly takes off. In mathematical terms, a "singularity" is what happens when such trends accelerate beyond any ability to predict outcomes. All bets are off, when everything you took for granted has changed.                  Now, a number of authors (including me) have tried to picture what life might be like on the other side of a singularity (see my novella Stones of Significance). If the huge brains we create turn out to be monstrous and unsympathetic, they may try to stomp us, as in the Teminator and Matrix flicks. Or they could become loyal assistants to human ambition, helping us span the starways, as in Luc Besson's Lucy or in Her, or in the Culture novels of Iain Banks. There are so many possible ways that this transition might work out – and I cover a number of them in my novel, Existence.                  But one is especially enticing when it comes to Avatar. The possibility -- suggested by Matthew Bell, but really kind of an obvious possible riff, and subsequently proposed by others -- is that we and our super-mind computer friends might use immense new "godlike" powers the way today's teenagers use the spectacular computers in their homes. 
                  To play.
Okay then, picture this…                  …the Na'vi are dashing about and flying through Pandora's vivid, colorful forests as kids -- young minds -- immersed in a game. Their true selves are rooted in the planetary mainframe, which manifests at the surface as a white tree. (How very Tolkien-esque!) This could explain why the biology and ethnography and all other features seem exaggerated for effect, including the internet-like rapid communion network that laces everything from the animals to the Tree of Life. Including the way Pandoran creatures can plug-in.                  If we play along with this post-singularity notion a bit, we realize that Avatar isn’t Dances with Wolves at all! It’s more like Star Trek’s “Errand of Mercy.” In this famous example of a frequent plot in SF, humans encounter a "primitive folk," and don’t understand them. Over time, it is revealed the primitives are actually vastly more advanced people who have decided to live in a rustic manner, either for their own reasons, or in order not to reveal the truth to young races out exploring. In that one memorable episode, the Organians are energy beings who get the Federation and Klingons to stop fighting. One of the recent Star Trek films had a similar theme.                  Let's go a bit with this notion that Pandora's biosphere (and "unobtainium") turn out to be the result of a post-singularity super-civilization. Then the story that we all got to watch in Avatar might conceal one of three sub-plots.
1) Visiting humans were the primitives, in technology as well as culture! The "war" was a test, which those who sided with the Na'vi passed on our behalf. It ends with the soldiers/scientists "going back to school." 
 2) The Na'vi -- helped by Jake -- win the war. They then hit pause and evaluate the terrific game they all just played… only to be horrified! To learn that humans who are killed stay dead!  (Their own dead just reboot.) "Why didn't you tell us you were mortal?" they cry out in angst. Though also impressed that human warriors would be willing to stake so much on the line, in battle.
3) The great simulation of Pandora, while beautiful, has a deeper purpose. A real foe is coming.  This is training. And humanity is now embroiled, like it or not.

 As Matthew Bell put it: "The Colonel’s bomb mission was never going to succeed. The only question was in what subtle way would it be averted. Eywa, or should I say AI-wa, had it worked out well in advance, and sent the seeds to tag Jake Sully so that he could play this role, and thus both find somebody who would be human enough to arrange expulsion of the humans, and also join the Na’vi and fight for their side. Indeed, you could say that Jake was AI-wa’s avatar, or at least instrument, as is clear from the very start."

Yipe! That may be drifting way too far, even for me. After all, despite the many elements that he borrowed, Avatar is James Cameron's story to tell. These are just fannish daydreams, then. My own readers send them to me all the time.  
If Mr. Cameron reacts as I do, then he feels flattered and pleased.  I am always a sucker to talk story, and then try to find some new story, that breaks with the cliches.

And on that final note, let us bid fond farewell to Planet Pandora and its very very very tall... Until we all great the great pleasure of visiting again, anon.
===
Return to Part I: Perils of Pandora: Why Avatar (Tragically) Fails to Make us Better
  Part II: How James Cameron Might Still Set Things Right
  Part III: Perils of Pandora: Can Avatar be 'Fixed'?
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

I’m Participating in Nerdcon: Stories This October in Minneapolis

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/27/2015 - 12:35
And what is Nerdcon: Stories? This informational video might help: There’s also this ginchy Web site, with even more information. And for those of you who stubbornly refuse to follow links, the guests (aside from me) include: John and Hank Green, Holly Black and Cassie Claire, Katherine Woodson, Patrick Rothfuss, Mary Robinette Kowal, Welcome to … Continue reading I’m Participating in Nerdcon: Stories This October in Minneapolis →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Twelve

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/27/2015 - 11:45
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: What is the furthest away you’ve ever been from your home? My answer: So far, Melbourne, Australia, which is (or so Google tells me) 9,807 miles from my current hometown of Bradford, Ohio. However, that record is about to be broken, because on Sunday I get on a plane to … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Twelve →

The Big Idea: Cat Rambo

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/27/2015 - 09:48
How long does a world exist for an author before it makes it into a novel? Sometimes it can be a long time indeed. As Cat Rambo explains, the world in which her novel Beasts of Tabat takes place was a land she knew and wrote about well before this novel came to be. CAT RAMBO:  … Continue reading The Big Idea: Cat Rambo →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Eleven

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:10
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: When you were fifteen, what was your favorite electric or electronic object? These can be computers, toys, phones, televisions, game consoles, etc. You get the idea. My answer: Eddie Chowaiki’s Macintosh. He had one of the first of these computers, and I was in his dorm room constantly, using … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Eleven →

Perils of Pandora, Part III: Can Avatar be 'fixed?'

Contrary Brin - Wed, 03/25/2015 - 16:02
Following on my earlier analyses of James Cameron's Avatar, please let me reiterate that I actually quite like the film!  What's not to like about such a feast for the eye that's also packed with terrific action, and that tries so hard for goodness?  Well, as I have shown, it is that last part where Mr. Cameron inadvertently fails, delivering instead a blow to our confidence that we can become better people. That we can make a better civilization,

And here we ponder... 
== Is there a way out? ==

In fact, I believe Avatar's moral flaws could be fixed with only minimal alterations! Maybe five minutes worth of footage, added to a "director's cut," might alleviate many of the problems outlined in my earlier postings Part I: Why Avatar (Tragically) Fails to Make us Better and Part II: How James Cameron can set things right. 
Just five minutes.
Shall I give it a try?            Picture the beginning, as a crippled Jake Sully arrives at the human mining colony exploiting riches from Pandora -- riches that Earth desperately needs, in order to restore its former health. But there are tradeoffs, including an unscrupulous company and a suspicious-dangerous native population.
Only now, let's suppose that Earth civilization is not run by imbeciles who are ignoring history. Instead, our descendants run a generally moral society that established rules for decent treatment of the natives, to be enforced by an honorable governor and her staff.
Have I wrecked Avatar? Not really. Bear with me!            Let's posit that the Company chafes under the governor's restrictions, constantly conniving and conspiring to get around them. To provoke the Na'vi into a war they cannot win, exactly what happened repeatedly, in the American West.           Imagine in the film's first ten minutes, while Jake is literally getting his legs, we see hopeful signs. A meeting is underway, on one of the floating islands, where the good colonial governor is about to sign a treaty with moderates among the Na'vi...            Um, now there's a twist. Moderates among the Na’vi?            Why, I am talking about those among the natives who are guardedly curious, cautiously friendly, determined to preserve their world(!) but also willing to compromise and let Earthlings have resources they need to save their own distant planet. More like the Cherokee and Iroquois, these are the tribesmen who support Sigourney Weaver's school, though they demand Earth send children to Pandora who might be young and flexible enough to absorb Na'vi lessons, too.
            "No, you may not go anywhere near our trees!" they explain.            "Give us drones and such to help us enforce this!            “On the other hand, we sure find your spaceships fascinating.            "And can we try to see if this avatar machine of yours works both ways? So we can feel what it's like to be human?"            All of this could be telescoped into just three minutes of screen time! Things look hopeful... too hopeful! And so the audience knows what to expect.            The conference island blows up!            The governor and her aides -- except Sigourney -- are dead. So are the Na'vi moderates.            The Company guy rubs his hands. Earth won't investigate too hard if he has a mountain-high stack of unobtanium waiting, when the next ship arrives.            At which point... the whole rest of the film can ensue almost exactly as-is!            Obstinate-immature company stooges versus obstinate-immature remnant Na'vi. And we root for the Na'vi, of course!  Because if we must choose between two packs of obstinate-immature jerks, let’s side with the underdogs who are defending their homes.            Only, while the rest of the movie proceeds, it is with this idea planted in the viewers' minds:
            It's a tragedy. We should have taken more precautions, sending more of our best and fewer of our worst. But at least there were real efforts to avoid this, by future humans who might do better next time, learning from this mistake.            Now let's root for Jake and Neytiri and the obstinate wing of the Na'vi. Because obstinacy is called for now!            And none of this says that all of our descendants will be evil, all of the time.            Only slightly altering its lessons on tolerance and diversity and ecological responsibility, this would dramatically adjust the guilt trip so that it offers a patina of hopefulness, rather than utter despair for despicable humanity.            The moral would be keep trying instead of give up.  
== A side note on scale ==

One of the most amazingly silly things about most sci fi is the assumption that a planet, is about the same size as -- say -- Cuba.

That's about the range that one might expect a Na'vi riding a dragon might tell the tale about how his tribe beat the snot out of alien invaders.  Heck, let it be Texas! No matter. 

The point is that all the company really has to do is relocate to another part of Pandora, beyond the range of even dragon-riding news-bearers.  That's an inconvenience that could instead be an asset to good storytellers.  But we have to learn to think scale.
         == A Futile Hope ==
Okay... back to my idea about those three-minutes at the beginning, to make Avatar a realistic and effective lesson, and not a berating ruiner-of-confidence.  So. Do I expect James Cameron to make this tweak?  

Of course not. All I can do is carp from the sidelines that "this coulda made it better"...            …and shrug as others attribute it all to jealousy.  Ah well.            Is that proposal the only alternative occurring to me, when I ponder this immensely entertaining and thought-provoking film? Of course not. There are scads of ideas, including a post-singularity riff that could explain so much of why Planet Pandora is the way it is, offering several double-twist, ironic surprises about humanity's interaction with the Na'vi.            Perhaps -- purely for entertainment -- I'll muse on these for you, another time.            None of which matters except for this key point...            ... which is to plead with you. Look around yourself at the current flood of film dystopias and novels that wallow in apocalypse.            Hey, I enjoy a good fall-of-civilization tale and I have written some, myself.  But the current obsession-craze is just tedious. Heck, Avatar positively fizzes with subtlety and optimism, by comparison!             Which makes our conclusion all the more painful. For James Cameron’s grand sci-fi epic could have spread confident determination to seek self-improvement – as individuals and as a civilization -- while delivering entertainment and mind-blowing vision to billions.  It tried hard to do that and came so-close!            Alas, instead, Avatar wound up undermining our confidence in humanity's ability to do that very thing. It did not have to turn out this way.

=======================
What follows in Part IV (coming) is not a formal part of my article, but just a writer having fun, playing in another fellow's sand box...

or return to Part I: Perils of Pandora: Why Avatar (tragically) fails to make us better
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Proof That Science Fiction Is the Literature of the Future, and That I Am the Prognostication MASTER

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:41
In The Android’s Dream, which I wrote over a decade ago now, I reached into the thinky crevasses of my brain to conceive of a thing that no human had dared to dream of: white chocolate M&M’s. Yes! I was the first! They came from my very thinkmeat! And people said to me then, well, hold … Continue reading Proof That Science Fiction Is the Literature of the Future, and That I Am the Prognostication MASTER →
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