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Category Archives: Philosophical Musings

Ten Written Works That Changed My Life

As an author and academic, the written word has had a tremendous impact on my life. I spend most of my time, both at work and at home, dealing with the written word in its various forms, whether through writing, editing, or reading, in fiction and non-fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that certain specific works I have read – whether they be book series, novels, nonfiction books, essays, or short stories – have resonated with me or otherwise drastically affected either how I saw the world, how I interacted with it, or how I lived my life. In keeping with the current trend of making lists, I wanted to then offer you all a list of the top ten written works that have changed my life:

1). The Grey King by Susan Cooper
When I was but a wee lad, my mother read this book to my brothers and me. Though it is the fourth book in Cooper’s Dark is Rising quintet, it was by far her favorite of the series, and at the time one of her favorite books. This book changed my life simply because it is the first book I have a clear memory of reading (or hearing), and it was got me hooked on reading non-picture books. I am certain I read other books when I was younger, and I even remember many of them. However, it is upon having this book read to me by my mother that I got hooked on the written word, and understood how powerful books can be when combined with your imagination. Plus, it’s a great book and part of a great series (I went on to read all five books), and I actually made friends by introducing them to the themes of this work!

2). The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I read The Lord of the Rings at a very young age, and it remains the first book I actually read on my own (I have no idea why my parents let me do this). It also introduced me to high fantasy, and opened my eyes to the power that world-building can have. I think I can trace my own obsession with world-building as a writer (and reader) back to the influence of The Lord of the Rings. While I have mixed feelings about the writing and characters (and plot), the world of the The Lord of the Rings was the first immersive world I experienced other than this one.

3). The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
Rest in Peace, Brian Jacques. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was small, at a book signing. I was too shy to speak to him, but all I remember was a laugh, him commenting on what a nice boy I was, and a signature in The Legend of Luke. I still have that book, which remains one of my most valued possessions because it showed me that authors are people. It was the first experience I had meeting a famous author, and it made me realize that there a person behind the words, and worlds, that I was reading about. Redwall as a book series was also the first extensive series I ever read, and the rodent main characters – and my love for them – were what inspired my mother to make me try the Skaven race in the tabeltop game Warhammer, which had an enormous impact on my lifecourse, as it turned me into a gamer and roleplayer. Thus, I really think I can trace back my earliest desires to write back to Redwall and its introducing me to the world of gaming, as well as of showing me that authors are real.

4). The Dune Series by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson
Dune was the first science fiction novel I ever read, and I still consider it one of the best, if not the best, novel ever written. It turned me onto the dark path of science fiction, from which I never recovered. I did not want to read this book at first, as I thought it looked boring and stupid, but both of my parents forced me to read it. After a chapter, I was hooked. By the end of the novel, I wanted more, and I began reading the rest of the series, including the prequels and sequels (well, most of them, anyway). Dune sparked my first interest in questions about humanity, and not only what it means to be human, but what it means to have a human society. Perhaps here I found my earliest interest in the social sciences, my other passion.

5). The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
If Dune was my first science fiction novel and series and introduced me to the genre, Hyperion was what kept me interested. To my young mind, Hyperion was everything Dune was, and better, because it was shorter and (at the time) it seemed to me to have such a great sense of scale. I read Hyperion and its sequels before finishing the Dune books, and so I was able to achieve a sense of completeness in it before I ever got that same sense from DuneHyperion was also a beautiful story, in a way that Dune isn’t (Dune is brilliant, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful), and made me rethink the ways in which I saw the world. It instilled in me a sense of wonder and awe (which my cynicism eventually shattered), and also showed me what happens when power is used to destroy mankind’s potential futures. It was Hyperion and its sequels that made me think about what it meant to be human on an individual scale, and what it meant to truly live life, rather than just experiencing it. The Hyperion Cantos remains one of my favorite book series, on par with Dune in many respects, and it introduced an element of humanism into my own thoughts – and eventually, my writing.

6). The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Well, this item certainly changes the tone of the list. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, or The Communist Manifesto, is the first piece of non-textbook scholarly work I remember reading (in freshman year of high school), and it has stuck with me. I have read it countless times now in my work as a sociologist, and while other examples of Marx’s work may illustrate the Manifesto‘s ideas better (The German Ideology and Capital come to mind), the Manifesto remains the best concise work of what Marxism is. While I don’t agree with everything Marx said, a lot of what he did say rang true with me, and it was after reading The Communist Manifesto that I began not only to see better my own role in society, and my class’ role in history, but that I also began to think, for the first time sociologically. As I am now pursuing a PhD in Sociology, the importance of this work should be rather self-evident.

7). Democracy for the Few by Michael Parenti
This was the textbook for my introductory sociology course at university. While I credit my interest in sociology to a certain amazing and influential high school teacher, it was this sociology course on “social problems” and this textbook that cemented my interest in sociology, and led me down the path I am now. This book is what kept me in sociology after Marx’s Manifesto and my high school teacher introduced me to it. Written by a journalist, this book was the first to open my eyes to all of the problems in contemporary American society, and what drove me to want to try and alleviate some of those problems (hubris, I know), and what kindled my interest in sociology as a discipline and a way of looking at the world. I still have this textbook on my bookshelf, and I maintain that, while maybe a bit dated, it is one of the best introductions to what the social sciences can offer society at larger ever written.

8). “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft
While by no means the first work of horror I ever read (Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” win that prize), H. P. Lovecraft’s famous short story has been by far the most influential piece of horror in my own life. One large part of this is because this was the first story by H. P. Lovecraft I ever read, and another part of it is that in it I found an expression of my own growing cynicism, first implanted in me by reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The cosmic standpoint offered in this short story – and in most of Lovecraft’s work – actually made me feel better about my own nihilistic views (at the time), which had come to replace some of the humanist values instilled in me by Simmons’ Hyperion. In particular, the opening passage of the short story still resonates me, and it is sometimes a viewpoint that I still espouse:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.

Aside from this, H. P. Lovecraft has had a tremendous impact on the themes in my own writing, perhaps more so than any other author.

9). There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

Another work of nonfiction, this book was written by a journalist who followed a family living in the Chago projects for several years, and coupled this work with interviews about the family’s past and, eventually, with work he did revisiting the family many years later. This book is a visceral account of black poverty in modern America, and is hugely eye-opening for a middle-class white American like myself. Other books about race and class could have been hear as well: Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow spring to mind, but both of those, while sound sociological analyses and eye-opening in their own right, lack the imagery and visceralness of There Are No Children Here. This book really made me think about race, class, violence, and poverty in a way I had never thought about before. [Interestingly, I have yet to find an account of gender inequities that had a similar impact on my life].

10). 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
This is by far the most recently read book on this list; in fact, I only read it a few months ago. Despite this, 2001: A Space Odyssey has significantly changed my understanding of the larger universe in which we live. While previously, Lovecraftian themes of insignificance and horrible truths dominated my thoughts, Clarke approached the problem of significance in an entirely different way. Like Lovecraft, he believed that mankind was ultimately insignificant in the cosmos, and 2001 clearly demonstrates this. However, for him, this insignificance is a beautiful thing, not a horrifying one, and somehow he manages to inject a human element into an enormous universe. The universe isn’t horrifying; it’s beautiful. The passage in which Clarke describes the ship’s passage over Jupiter in 2001 is one of the nest descriptive passages I’ve ever read, and simultaneously puts humanity in their cosmic place while urging them to step beyond it. 2001: A Space Odyssey combined the humanism I took from Hyperion with Lovecraft’s cosmic despair and allowed them to both live side by side in me, and gave me a burst of optimism to temper my pessimism.

So there you have it; ten written works that changed my life! Feel free to comment with yours, or of course, to try and read some of the ones I listed above!

And some honorable mentions:

The Uplift Saga by David Brin
American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton
Selections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
“Bureaucracy” by Max Weber
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Personal, Philosophical Musings, Readings

 

Dark and Bleak Writing

For a long time, I considered myself a “dark” writer. I thought that my writing was dark and gritty, showcasing the bad side of reality, the side that everyone else wants to ignore. Part of this came from my identification in part as a horror writer; horror is dark, right? Well, it can be, but it isn’t necessarily. Poe’s writings were dark. Alas, my own horror is not inspired by Poe, but rather by Lovecraft. While Lovecraft himself was in part inspired by Poe, most of his writings, I don’t think, were dark. His writings, instead, were bleak – and so are mine.

What then, I hear you ask, is the difference between dark and bleak? While many will probably disagree, I believe that the difference between dark and bleak is that dark reveals cruelty, and bleak reveals futility. Dark writing has hope; bleak writing does not. Dark writing is personal; bleak writing is impersonal. At its core, I think, dark writing explores the mankind’s inner darkness, while bleak writing describes the universe’s outer darkness. Dark writing is concerned with portraying the bottom-most depths of humanity, and showing how utterly cruel and sadistic other living beings can be. It shows the dark side of social and personal lives, and the cruelty embedded in every interaction. Bleak writing, on the other hand, shows not cruel individuals and the darkness inherent in humanity, but instead the hopelessness of existence and the forces outside of your own control that shape your life, often with utter indifference. It isn’t the potential for cruelty that scares in bleak writing, but rather the indisputable fact that nothing you will do matters.

If this difference is unclear, that’s fine; for a long time, it was unclear to me. My best analogy for the difference is in comparing the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Poe’s stories, while they did not always feature a clear antagonist, were all driven by human activity (a piece I wrote that I think is somewhat dark is “Station Fourteen;” some might disagree and have a good case for it). When there were antagonists, even if they were not human, they often had human characteristics (see “The Devil in the Belfry,” a piece of dark satire). In “The Telltale Heart,” the cruelty of mankind is brought out through murder and explored through the psychosis it brings. “The Pit and the Pendulum” has no individual antagonists, but the source of darkness is mankind itself – and also, at the end, mankind is also the source of hope. In many dark stories, the dark is contrasted with the light, and both are highlighted, albeit with a heavy emphasis on the dark.

This is not the case in the bleak writings of H. P. Lovecraft. The darkness or lightness of humanity isn’t explored because it isn’t relevant. It doesn’t matter; nothing anyone does matter, and the future will be terrible (my own story “Hell Factory” is a prime example of this). H. P. Lovecraft was the master of this idea, and indeed really gave birth to it in his development of cosmicism. Even Lovecraft’s autobiographical hero Randolph Carter, in the end, wasn’t able to really have any effect on anything; in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he is still fooled by Nyarlathotep, and he suffers a terrible fate in the “Silver Key” stories. None of Lovecraft’s protagonists win; even the faint hope in some of Poe’s stories is gone. Furthermore, their fate is not the result of personal cruelty or even any kind of human foe; their fate is the result of the inexplicable and inexorable forces of the universe, represented by literally incomprehensible eldritch (I love that word) deities. There is no salvation from the dark; there is only a bleak future.

So, the major difference? Dark writing is concerned with personal cruelties perpetuated by social forces or individuals, and brings out the bad parts of everyday life. Bleak writing is concerned with impersonal forces that make personal activities meaningless, and give individuals little agency to change their doomed future. Dark writing, I think, is more common than bleak writing, because dark writing still offers the possibility of a happy ending, with the protagonist coming out a changed, more nuanced individual due to his horrible experiences. Dark writing leaves room for victory, and often ends on victory. Bleak writing, on the other hand, almost by definition, offers no such victory; any victories that are won are meaningless, as we are quickly reminded. Only insanity, death, or doom awaits the protagonist in a bleak story. He will not be a more nuanced man by the end of it; he will be mad or else six feet under (in an alternate dimension).

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2014 in Philosophical Musings

 

Slave to My Muse

Before I got into the headlong flight of NaNo, I wanted to share my thoughts about my muse. I am currently not on speaking terms with her (or him; I don’t know which it is) at the moment, as when I most needed to catch up on schoolwork, my muse decided to, after having been absent for two months, come back with a vengeance, and force me not only to delay my catch-up work, but to force me to work on a completely new project unrelated to the things I wanted to do! I was forced to sit back and watch, in an almost out of body experience, as my muse grabbed my limbs and force me to create, of all things, a board game based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, in which you play as a semi-Lovecraftian protagonist seeking to summon the Great Old Ones to rule the world!

The good news is, the first playtest went well, and was addictive and loads of fun. When I have a more final version, I might put it up here for download!

The point of my mini-rant, though, is that muses can be fickle. Mine is. I also am a slave to it; I cannot direct it. It goes where it wants and does what it wants, and I have no choice to follow, no matter my circumstances. It can be rather annoying.

That is all for now. Onward and forward!

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Philosophical Musings, Writing

 

Presidential Hair Fashion

In my endless procrastination in order to avoid doing university work over the summer, I spend a fair bit of time perusing Wikipedia. For whatever reason, I somehow managed to get to reading about U.S. Presidents. By reading, of course, I mean looking at their Wikipedia portraits and noting how they have changed over time. Interestingly, the Presidential fashion sense has gone through some distinct phases with relatively clear boundaries. I encourage everyone to also go through the Wikipedia pages of the United States Presidents, and see what they think of my following Eras of Presidential Hair Fashion. For best reading results, please open up the Wikipedia page of George Washington, and look at the portraits as we go.

The Wigged Old Men: George Washington to James Madison

In the early days of the United States Presidency, the American heads of state took their cues from England, and retained their odd penchant for uncomfortable looking wigs and serious looks on their faces. These Presidents include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – the first four. Or, perhaps we should call them the Fab Four?

The Slick Men With Prominent Foreheads: James Monroe to Andrew Jackson

These men used large amounts of hair gel, and likely combed their hair back not only to cover their bald spots, but also to proudly show off their large, well-developed, sometimes-shiny foreheads. Their hair was all nicely combed back, giving their hair a nice, slick look to complement their beautiful skulls. John Quincy Adams falls into this category not so much for the slicked-back hair, but because he was unafraid to lose his hair in order to flaunt his forehead. James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson were all men with slicked back hair and really nice foreheads.

Van Buren, Mad Scientist: Martin van Buren

It is only fitting that the only President not born on American soil have his own category. To be fair, John Quincy Adams in many ways resembles Van Buren, but Van Buren takes Adams’ mad scientist look even further, leaving Adams with his cronies in the large forehead department while catapulting himself into a category all on his own, with crazy hair on either side of his head, and very little of it in the middle. He looks quite the mad scientist.

Men With Almost-Bangs: William Henry Harrison and John Tyler

In contrast to the slicked-back hair of their predecessors, both William H. Harrison and John Tyler let their hair grow forwards, and while that hair might not be quite long enough to hide their elegant foreheads, they certainly made an effort to grow those bands! William Henry Harrison and John Tyler are the only presidents in this category.

The Slicked-back Renaissance: James Polk

James Polk, for whatever reason, rejected the bang-growing ways of his predecessors and returned to the days of Monroe, Adams II, and Jackson, and represents the culmination of the look.

Crazy Hair Taylor and Slick Fillmore: Zachary Taylor to Millard Fillmore

His hair is crazy. No one liked it at the time, so he was replaced by another President with slicked-back hair, Millard Fillmore. Fillmore, unfortunately, was unable to effectively revive the slicked-back look, and lost his election, surprisingly, to another president with crazy hair.

The New Crazy Hair Party: Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan

It turned out that Zachary Taylor was ahead of his time, and when the young and dashing Franklin Pierce adopted his long, scraggly, wild hairstyle, everyone went wild for it, and he probably won the election in a landslide. The older generation picked up on the craze, and James Buchanan attempted to emulate him, but instead got a very strange, wild head of short hair. Nice try, though; A for effort!

The Bearded Generation and Slicked-back Interregnum: Abraham Lincoln to James A. Garfield

Abraham Lincoln began a new craze, but like President Taylor, he was ahead of his time. Lincoln was the first president to sport a beard while in office, but following his assassination, his successor was afraid to grow one. Andrew Johnson, instead, returned to more conservative fashions, fearing for his safety. His hair embodies the old “slicked-back forehead” style, and he ruled well during the Bearded Interregnum. The bearded Ulysses S. Grant revived the bearded style following Johnson’s removal from office on account of too much hair gel, and he began a generation of bearded presidents, with Rutherford B. Hayes representing the Golden Age of Presidential Beards. After Grant, Presidents of the bearded generation include Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield.

The Mustachioed Revolution: Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland

Chester A. Arthur began to Mustachioed state, where all men addressed each other as “mustachioed comrade.” Arthur pioneered the look, and he was emulated by his lesser successor Grover Cleveland, much like Stalin pretended to emulate Lenin. Unfortunately, like the Soviet Union, the mustachioed men could not hold the nation together, and so lost the presidency.

The Facial Hair Wars: Benjamin Harrison to William McKinley

The more conservative Benjamin Harrison revived the bearded tradition, but a second mustachioed revolution overthrew his hegemony and Grover Cleveland’s mustache again took center stage as he became the only President to rule twice nonconsecutively. Unfortunately, like before, Cleveland was unable to hold onto power for a long time, and so he was overthrown in a coup by William McKinley, who had neither beard nor mustache, and for a brief time ended the dominance of facial hair.

The Mustachioed Resurgence

Following William McKinley’s death at the hand of an ardent (if slightly deranged) mustache-supporter, the mustachioed men again gained dominance, with Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt leading the charge, in the process also making glasses look awesome. His successor, William Howard Taft, continued the mustachioed tradition, and even exceeded his predecessor’s mustachioed talents with the greatest Presidential Mustache of all time. Taft was the last President to wear facial hair.

The Decline of Facial Hair and the Dynasty of Presidents Without Facial Hair: Woodrow Wilson to Dwight D. Eisenhower

Unfortunately, the glorious mustache would not last long. Woodrow Wilson, in honor of McKinley, denounced mustachioed violence and went clean-shaven to show his support for the mustache-less underclass of America. As a result, facial hair declined in the United States, with his successors Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower also refusing to sport a mustache. The Dynasty of Presidents Without Facial Hair, founded by Wilson, was the longest-lasting American Presidential Dynasty. A second, less commonly-noted fact about this Dynasty is that they revived the slicked-back hair tradition of the Monroe area, many of them taking the style to new extremes. Their foreheads became shinier and their hair slicker during this area as fashions returned to more conservative values.

A Man With Slicked Bangs: John F. Kennedy

Not only did this man’s life end with a bang, but he also had bangs. Unfortunately for bang-lovers, he slicked his bangs back so that the beloved JFK did not look too liberal. However, his hairstyle also had the effect of making his forehead far less prominent than his hair, which represents the height of presidential hair fashion.

A Foreheaded Revival: Lyndon B. Johnson to Gerald Ford

Following Kennedy’s semi-daring almost-bangs – and then the bang that ended JFK’s life – his vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, who had always hated that hair style,returned once more to the traditional slicked-back hair, shining forehead that so many Americans were used to. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford also kept this old tradition alive.

The Man With Bangs: Jimmy Carter

For the first time in the entire history of the Presidency, a man with bangs was elected, giving banged people across the country something to celebrate for once. Carter was unafraid to hide his forehead, and did so proudly, his hair falling over the upper part of his head, unencumbered by gel. Unfortunately for him, the American populace did not appreciate this look, and got rid of him for someone with more gel.

The Gel Duo: Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush

Unappreciative of Carter’s experimentation, the American public decided that Ronald Reagan, whose hair gel probably weighed more than he did, was better suited for the job. His successor, George H. W. Bushed, tried to emulate his master, but his neck was not strong enough to sustain the same weight of gel, so he had to make do with less, in a still-impressive attempt to look like Reagan. Both men also had prominent foreheads that their slick, gelled hair showed off.

A Man With a Lot of Hair: Bill Clinton

Like Franklin Pierce, Bill Clinton had a lot of hair. Unlike President Pierce, Clinton’s hair was not long and wild: it was thick and tamed. Weighed down with a considerable amount of gel, Bill Clinton’s hair rivaled and possibly exceeded Reagan’s. However, he did not use nearly as much gel, and that is where he fell short.

A Gelled Revolution: George W. Bush

Like father, like son. George W. Bush attempted to emulate his father’s (and Reagan’s) gelled style, but used even less gel than Clinton did with even more hair than his father. The result was a strange style never before seen in the history of the Presidency, where it almost seems as if George Bush’s forehead was framed by his hair. The style seemed popular, though, and it was eight years before he was overthrown.

That’s Hair? My, What Big Ears You Have!: Barack Obama

Barack Obama has very little hair. He also has large ears. His fashion sense is dangerous, as it is so unlike the Presidents preceding him. This upcoming election year, we will see if he has what it takes to survive on the 2012 Presidential Runway against Mitt Romney, whose hair seems to promise a return to the forehead-framing days of Bush and his ilk.

What fashion direction will the Presidential Hair take next? Comment and weigh in!

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Philosophical Musings

 

Hard and Soft Science Fiction

I consider myself primarily a writer of science fiction, and most of what I read is science fiction as well. In the science fiction camp, there are many ways to categorize the genre – military, space opera, alien, humanist, social, and many others – but one polarized model frequently comes to the fore: hard and soft science fiction. Like any polarity, I believe that categorizing science fiction into one of these two categories is a disservice to the genre, but yet it still tends to be done. To be fair, most people will acknowledge that there is a “spectrum” of science fiction “hardness,” and that most science fiction plots, worlds, and characters are a mix of soft and hard. Yet, even so, this does mean that certain science fiction universes and plots are classified as “hard” or “soft” depending on which side they tend to fall on more often.

Still, despite the polarization doing the genre a disservice, the terms “hard” and “soft” are still useful in describing many works of science fiction. For those unfamiliar with the terms, “hard” science fiction is science fiction that tries to get its science right and present a realistic world based on solid scientific principles. Examples of hard science fiction authors include Iain Banks and Arthur C. Clarke. “Soft” science fiction is science fiction that does not necessarily adhere to the principles of scientific realism, and is not based upon proven science fiction principles. Both types of science fiction have their flaws and their benefits, and both add their own unique contribution to the collective science fiction consciousness.

Yet, I often see soft science fiction derided by hard science fiction authors as not “real” science fiction, or as “weak” science fiction, or as “fantasy” and not science fiction at all. I hate to break it to people like this, but science fiction is fantasy. It is speculative fantasy, and the key to defining science fiction, in my opinion, is the word “speculative.” Science fiction plots and worlds generally start with the question “what if?” and then go on from there. The biggest difference between hard and soft science fiction is how they approach the answer.

For example, say that a hard science fiction writer and a soft science fiction writer both ask the question “What if humanity was able to somehow travel faster than the speed of light?” (a common enough question in the science fiction world). A hard science fiction author would frame his answer in terms of how humanity would have managed to achieve this, and tends to focus on how that technology can be directly applied to situations, and how exactly it functions.

A soft science fiction writer would approach the question differently, and instead of asking “how,” would ask what effects will this technology have on society? Like I mentioned above, all science fiction mixes up both of these things, but what makes a story “hard” or “soft” is which answering style is focused on.

Let’s take another example. The question: “What if humanity found sentient extraterrestrial life?” A hard science fiction author might answer that question by describing the difficulties in opening communication with that alien species, technological differences, and the sheer improbability of finding another sentient lifeform. A soft science fiction author might answer that question by examining what would happen were the two societies to merge, how extraterrestrial intelligence would change life on home, and how the human race would change. Again, the two classifications are in no way mutually exclusive; it’s the focus that defines “hard” and “soft.”

So, in a nutshell, what do I think the difference between hard and soft science fiction is? Hard science fiction is science fiction that emphasizes the how (things would work), and soft science fiction is science fiction that emphasizes the what (things would happen). Hard science fiction plots tend to examine science, and soft science fiction tends to examine society. To draw another comparison, hard science fiction is like science, and soft science fiction is like the humanities. They both offer invaluable contributions to the picture of science fiction as a whole, and I don’t think either can be ignored, or one valued more than the other. They both have their place on the science fiction spectrum.

Of course, being a soft science fiction author myself, I know that soft science fiction is, naturally, better.

Any thoughts from other authors – hard, soft, or non science fiction – are more than welcome.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2012 in Philosophical Musings

 

Feminine Pollution and Male Social Control

Disclaimer: I am not here trying to express my own views about women and men. I am merely trying to explain my thoughts on how the American ideologies about the two sexes and genders work.

As many of you know, one of the subjects I study at university is Sociology (the other being History). As I was using the restroom today, something got me thinking about the gendered division of restrooms. In my personal experience, it has been acceptable for women to enter men’s bathrooms, but unacceptable for the opposite to occur. If a woman goes into a man’s bathroom, she is admired and her courage applauded. If a man goes into a woman’s bathroom, he is shamed by most of society, save for those with the attitudes of college frat brothers, and is considered a voyeur. Part of this difference, I think, has to do with the sexualization of women in Western society, but part of it also has to do with the nature of the social spheres of men and women, and their characteristics.

The sociologist Barrie Thorne studied gender socialization in children (her book Gender Play is fascinating, if you ever get the chance to read it). One of the things Thorne comments on in her book is the role of “pollution rituals” such as cooties in forming an image of women as the ultimate source of contamination. This narrative is evident in narratives such as the concept of original sin and the Garden of Eden, as well, with woman being responsible for humanity’s downfall. Pollution rituals in childhood, however, reinforce this social idea of women as contaminating, somehow, and with this comes the idea that those things associated with women – the feminine – are also contaminated.

It is, in many parts of Western society, more socially acceptable for girls to act like boys than the reverse. This is interesting, because Western society is patriarchal, and men have significantly more power than women, though they try to deny it. If society is patriarchal, one would think that it would be most logical to exclude women from the world of men, in order that men can maintain their hegemony. Yet, as mentioned above, when women break through into the world of men, they are often accepted and sometimes admired and applauded, especially where sports are concerned (one realm this is not true in is politics; look at the treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Primaries). When men enter the world of women, however, they are shamed and made into social outcasts.

One example of this is gay men. Conceptions of sexuality are very closely tied to conceptions of gender in this society, and males are expected to be extremely heterosexual. Gay men are subjected to more derision and scorn in society (think of all the “buttsex” jokes and the use of threatening one’s sexuality as a means of social control among men in schools) than lesbian women are. By being attracted to other men, gay men step into the world of Western women, leaving the male sphere, and are subjected to scorn because of it. When women are attracted to other women, they step into the man’s sphere, and are not subjected to as much scorn and derision (this is not to say that the experience of lesbians is insignificant at all; they are still subjected to a lot of bigotry and hatred). It is more socially acceptable to be lesbian than to be gay. Why? Part of this, I think, again comes back to the sexualization of women in society, and part of the limited acceptances of lesbianism is a voyeuristic one; men like to think about women having sex, because women’s bodies have become more sexualized than men’s. Additionally, power comes into it: women are not seen as a threat, and so their deviance is deemed as slightly more “acceptable.”

So, then, why is it more acceptable for women to step into men’s worlds than the opposite? Is it solely because women are not seen as threatening male hegemony due to cultural notions of their relative weakness? No. I think another major aspect of it is that male hegemony is more worried about keeping its own in line than being worried about women stepping their world. As I said, women are not considered a “threat” to male hegemony, but males becoming more “feminine” is. Feminine males break the illusion of heterogeneous masculinity, and threaten the integrity of the entire male establishment. As such, greater social control is put in place moderating men’s behavior when they step into the feminine world. They are called “sissies,” and being called a “girl” is a common form of social punishment and pressure for males, especially in competitive environments. Women – and those things associated with them – are a source of pollution from which men must be protected, and the only thing that can protect them is the shield of their own masculinity. Men must stay in groups to be protected, and be united against corruption; only by clearly dividing the lines of power and making sure that men appear to be “better” than women can male hegemony be maintained. Women who become more male-like, I would argue, lose some of the feminine miasma surrounding them, and are no longer sources of contamination. Interesting, to me this indicates that women themselves are not the source of contamination so much, but instead, femininity is.

As a disclaimer, I am also not claiming that there is no pressure for women to act feminine; their certainly is. However, “tomboys” are more common and accepted than “sissy boys” are, generally, especially in younger ages, when gender identity is still being formed (for research on this, I refer to Barrie Thorne’s book again).

Just my random thoughts for the day. If any women want to weigh in on this, please do! I am a guy, and so am not sure how the experience of the other gender matches with social norms/what I said above!

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Philosophical Musings

 

Social Relationships and the Internet

I spend a lot of time on the computer. Many people would say it’s an unhealthy amount of time. However, I don’t spend this time playing games; I spend most of this time interacting with other people from across the world, mostly through various instant messaging programs, but also through Twitter, Facebook, and forums. There has been a lot of talk around me about how relationships that one has over the internet are somehow less meaningful than those one has in “real life.” As I have watched my online and “real life” relationships develop, I find that I have to disagree on many counts with this philosophy.

The internet has allowed us to pick our friends in a way we never have been able to do before. No longer is someone limited to picking out the best people from those who surround them, but instead one can pick people from around the world. This means that you can choose to interact with the people who you enjoy interacting with the most, no matter where they are. You never get sick of them, as you are never forced to be near them for long periods of time, and so I’ve found that I have significantly more positive relationships most of my online-only friends than I do with my real-life ones. This is not to say that I don’t have positive relationships with my real life friends; in fact, my most positive relationship is in the “real world,” with my significant other. Overall, however, I get along better with most of my online acquaintances than my “real life” ones.

However, there is a difference between positiveness and meaningfulness, and many people deride the internet for destroying meaningful relationships. However, I think that there is something particularly deep about interacting with someone only through (in my case) a written medium, like a pen pal. It reduces the other person to nothing more than pure consciousness, and aren’t we always taught that it’s what’s inside a person that counts most? What better way to get to know someone’s insides (puns intended) than to strip away the shell of their body and meet with their mind, away from the distractions of the “real world?” I believe that this level of contact can actually deepen relationships.

However, there is one very, very large “if” clause. As many are quick to point out, it is very easy to hide your identity over the internet. This allows for dangerous people to masquerade as something other than who they “really” are, and for internet users into fooling other people. I have a question for everyone with regards to this. What defines who you “really” are?

If someone is using the internet to their own sleazy ends, then their internet persona, in the end, is still sleazy. If someone used the internet to express themselves exactly as they would in “real life,” then they are exactly the same in both realms. The vast majority of people on the internet, however, are neither sleazy nor are their online selves the same as their “real life” selfs. They actively try to act differently, and many argue that they are being someone that they aren’t.

I challenge this assertion, and flip it upside down. I feel more at home on the internet, connecting with other minds only, than I do in person. In most cases (not all), I actually feel more like myself on the internet than I do in “real life.” In “real life,” we all wear masks, and are forced to hide things from other people, constantly performing, to use sociological terms, facework and impression management. On the internet, one does not need to keep up the masks anymore, as no one else can see them or reach them (unless they are interacting with a dedicated stalker, in which case there are problems to be dealt with). This dropping of the masks, I think, allows for someone’s “true” self to be revealed over the internet, as they are freed from social control; their inner thoughts and desires (Freud’s Id) can come out with the ego and superego of society keeping them down. This certainly often has a negative effect in many public venues (just look at YouTube), when people use the internet to try and become someone more than they were in real life. However, in small-scale or private interactions between people who only know each other through the internet, this does not generally occur, and I believe allows people to connect on a deeper level than they would otherwise be able to.

This is not to say that there is no merit in “real life” relationships; there certainly is, and they can definitely be enjoyed! I do not think it is necessarily accurate to judge these relationships as “inferior” to “real life” relationships, however; like “real life” relationships, each online relationship must be judged on a case-by-case basis. Is the perceived “erosion” of physical relationships really necessarily a bad thing?

Thoughts?

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in Philosophical Musings

 
 
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