Wednesday, July 31, 2013


I went to the dentist yesterday. I'm having two crowns put in at hideous expense, and my dental insurance pays for almost none of the work. I thought I was going to spend my retirement traveling. Though -- in point of fact -- I am not much of a traveler. However, I still keep thinking that the money I am spending on my teeth would pay for a nice trip to Iceland.

I'm headachy and tired this morning. A simple dental appointment should not slow me down so much. Maybe it's PTSD, due to the money I am paying out.

Or it may be that I really dislike dental work. I am old enough to remember how primitive dentistry used to be, back in the 1950s when the dentists used stone tools. Those early experiences have stayed with me. Modern dental chairs are designed to be comfortable and form-fitting. I always notice that I am lying in them as straight as a board, my body rigid. And I notice when I describe torture in my writing, the torture device always looks more or less like a dental chair, surrounded by dental appliances. (To be fair, it looks more like 1950s dental equipment than the current chairs and machines.)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who Is Going to Buy the Cars, Henry?

Another facebook discussion, this one about the apparent plan of US business and the federal government to create a permanent recession, leaving most Americans poor or living precarious lives, always on the edge of poverty. I wrote:
The part I don't understand is how one maintains a consumer economy if most people have too little money. However, Keynes said you can stabilize an economy at any level, including endless depression. The question then becomes, can you stabilize a society with endless poverty?
One of my facebook colleagues wrote that the plan was apparently to sell to the Chinese, if Americans could not afford to buy.

I replied:

I did some quick checking on the Internet. The US consumer economy is approximately 11 trillion dollars a year. The Chinese consumer economy is approximately 3 trillion a year. Because there are so many more Chinese, the spending money per person is a lot lower, and a lot of that spending money is going to go (I assume) to food and housing. This may help US agribusiness, but not other US companies. The European Union is currently collapsing, and most of the rest of the world is poor. The US is 25% of the world Gross Domestic Product. Lose that and you lose a lot of buying power.

I don't think most business people and politicians are able to think about economics. This is also true of most economists, who are utterly clueless about how economies work.

So, am I able to think about economics? Well, I am better prepared than economists, because my training is in accounting and science fiction. Accounting is about real money in the real world; and science fiction (at its best) is about extrapolating the present into the future and seeing the possible results of present action. Good science fiction, like good accounting, is rooted in reality.
The economist James Galbraith was recently in Greece. He said one of the things he noticed were all the elderly people going through garbage, looking for something to eat. He also noticed all the empty storefronts. This is the end result of austerity economics.

Greece has some special problems, because it belongs to the European Union and does not have its own currency. But this could happen in any country, if the government decides that spending must be reduced and the social safety net is not needed. Societies are complex and fragile. It isn't that difficult to break one apart.

Urban Spawl 2

I grew up in a city and have always lived in cities. This may be one reason why I never got a a driver's license. My mother didn't drive, which is another reason, though not driving is really eccentric in my generation. I have never liked cars or suburbs. Cars are way expensive and a crazy way to move people around in an urban area. America makes transportation, which should be a public good, a private expense -- though the highways are a public expense and an ugly blight on the landscape. Imagine if we had the old trolleys I remember from my childhood, instead of vast concrete structures that cut the city into pieces.

Suburbs are ridiculous. In the Twin Cities Metro Area, developers have paved over farms, marshes and woods to create ghastly housing. The farms provided food. The marshes soaked up runoff water. The woods absorbed carbon dioxide. The suburbs -- mostly bare green lawns, roads and ugly houses, isolated in the middle of their lawns -- produce nothing useful, except work for developers and highway builders and money for the Koch Brothers' oil company.

According to AAA, the average cost of owning and operating a car is now $760 a month. The cost of a monthly all-you-can-ride card for Twin Cities Metro Transit is $85. This is for the expensive card, which allows you to ride express buses. But if the buses don't run where you live or work, you need the car, however expensive it may be.

If we are going to survive in the modern world of global warming and peak everything, we need dense housing and mass transit.

Urban Sprawl

Paul Krugman has an article on urban sprawl and how hard it is on working people who rely on mass transit.

Here are my comments from facebook:
I don't drive, which means I have organized my entire working life around mass transit, though Patrick does drive and has a car. We use the car for shopping and trips out of town, and Patrick used it for his job, before he retired. We always lived within the Twin Cities, near bus lines that ran fairly frequently. Not everyone can do this, especially now, when most of the apartment building and conversion in the core cities seems to be upscale. People are pushed out into the inner ring suburbs, because that's where they can afford to rent. They may move to find better schools, though my friends with kids have them in St. Paul schools and are mostly happy with the schools. I don't know how much education drives movement any more.

A friend was talking about how bad bus service in the Twin Cities is. I don't find this, but my standards may be low. But there is no question bus service in the suburbs is awful. I live close to multiple lines, some of which run every 20 minutes through the weekend. The places I am likely to want to go -- the centers of the two cities and the commercial areas leading out of the centers, such as Grand Avenue in St. Paul -- all have good service. There are buses running to the suburbs which run ONLY at rush hours on week days. If you miss your bus, there may not be another one.

Poor working people are in a bind. If they live in the Cities, they may need a car to get to jobs in the suburbs. If they live in the suburbs, they may need a car to get around at all. But cars are expensive, and affordable cars are likely to be unreliable.

I can survive without a car (a) because Patrick has a car and (b) because we can afford to live in the city next to good bus lines and (c) because I have always been able to find jobs in the Cities and on bus lines. Not everyone can.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


I got another review of Big Mama Stories at Strange Horizons. All the reviews thus far (two in Locus, one at, plus Strange Horizons) say the stories are a tad bit too didactic, though the reviews are mostly positive.

I mentioned this to my brother. He said, "The stories are what they are. If people don't like this kind of story, they won't like these." Which I thought was a nifty way to describe the book.

There is also a nice and intelligent reader's review at Amazon.

Do reviews matter? They matter to me. I pay attention to recommendations from reviewers I respect, and I pay attention to blurbs by writers I respect.

The next question is, what is wrong with didactic? There is a long tradition of stories with morals. AEsop's Fables, for example. Fairy tales and folk tales can be anarchic, as in trickster stories. They can also have straightforward morals. Be kind of old people and animals, especially if the animals can talk.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pacific Rim Again

I am clearly not able to let go of this movie. So here is more from facebook:
The two bits of advice on how to watch Pacific Rim I have encountered are (a) pay attention to the visuals and (b) pay attention to the emotions. Don't pay attention to the idiotic script. Patrick just asked, "Then why have the idiotic script?" I think he's right. The movie would have been much better with no words at all.

It needs to be restored as a silent movie, like Abel Gance's 1927 tour de force Napoleon. A music sound track would be fine. There was one on the restored version of Gance's movie which I saw I think in the 1980s. But I wouldn't go with silent movie subtitles. The movie needs to be entirely without words, except for the credits.
One of my facebook colleagues suggested that the movie should just be a series of fights between monsters and robots.

I answered:
That's pretty much what it was. But there was silly stuff involving people and words that got in.

The people could be left in, moving around to dramatic movie music. But no words!
Patrick said, "It would be like Koyaanisqatsi."

A 1982 movie that consisted of images and music by Philip Glass. Well, yes. It would sort of be like that. Only with robots fighting monsters.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pacific Rim

I have now seen Pacific Rim. I think it may be the most boring movie I have sat through. At one point I took off my glasses so I wouldn't be able to see the screen. I considered going to sleep.

The script writers should be shot for crimes against plot, dialogue, art and science fiction. Back in the day, you could give Jackie Chan an escalator and something else simple -- a bag of groceries, an umbrella -- and he could create a fight scene a hundred times as good as anything in this movie.

The idea of huge robots boxing with monsters struck me as silly. And the fights were incoherent and dull and endless. Think of that amazing fight scene late in the original Matrix, with Neo almost dancing around bullets. That's what you get when a Chinese martial arts expert designs your fights. The fight scenes in Pacific Rim appeared to have designed by small children or possibly dogs.

Patrick adds, "What do you have against dogs?"

I liked John Carter. I liked Thor and Captain America. I didn't like The Avengers, but it was one of those movies where I was interested enough to try and rewrite the script in my head. Too much fighting and not enough character development, but Joss W. was stuck with too many superheroes. There wasn't much he could do about that. And the obvious solution -- to make the movie about Loki and his conflict with Thor, because Loki's envy and villainy is what drives the plot -- would have left the other heroes in the background.

I knew everything ahead of time in Pacific Rim, including most -- if not all -- of the dialogue. Not only was it predictable, it was stupid. I have large parts of Jane Austen memorized. But hearing the lines again gives pleasure. Surprise is not essential. But decent writing is.

I went with Lyda Morehouse and Sean Murphy, both of whom liked the movie. Lyda said it was a movie about robots and monsters fighting, and it worked well as that. She also said it was an homage to Godzilla movies and the kind of anime that is all fighting. I have to defer to her knowledge.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bird Listening

A couple of days ago, I came out of my building and heard a liquid bird song coming from a tree in front. I'm terrible at bird calls, so I had to look for the bird, which proved to be a robin.

The winter bird calls around here are the gurgles of pigeons, the cawing of crows and the chip-chip-chip of English sparrows. It's a pleasure when the robins and house finches arrive in the spring.

I should learn more calls, but I mostly would not hear them. The birds around here seem to be of a limited variety. Though I once saw a hawk chase a pigeon right over the cars parked in front of my building. That was awesome. The pigeon was still ahead when they flew out of sight.

Still, there are times, especially in the spring, when I hear calls I don't recognize. They are migratory birds, warblers, too small for me to spot.

Story! Picture!

Ouch. My page views were down to 48 yesterday. So here is a picture. Pictures make a blog more attractive.
This goes on sale July 23, and it contains one of my stories, a hwarhath Sherlock Holmes story. Dozois puts together a good anthology, so you might be interested in getting the book.

I don't usually self-promote. Not much, anyway. But Dozois is recruiting authors to spread the word. Since he buys my stories, I want his anthologies to do well.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

More on Auks

I decided I need to know the Icelandic word for auk. It's alka, with an accent over the 'a' which means it is pronounced 'au.' Auk came into the English language from Icelandic or Norwegian. The Icelandic word for great auk is geirfugl, which means 'spear bird.'


This all started with this photo from a facebook post by Icelandic Weather Report:
It turns out that island in the distance is Eldey, where great auks had their last nesting ground. I checked Eldey in Wikipedia and found this:
The island formerly supported a large population of Great Auk after they moved there from Geirfuglasker following a volcanic eruption in 1830. When the colony was discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were counted. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony. The last pair, found incubating an egg, were killed there in July 1844, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.
Then I wrote on facebook:
I have a dim memory that this pair of birds was collected for the American Museum of Natural History, but I may be wrong. I wonder if we have enough genetic material to bring these animals back? It would not be easy. It would require a mother from a related species, and they are all considerably smaller. Worth a try, though. Along with mammoths and quaggas and the giant ground sloth... Dodos ought to be possible, though again the problem is the mother, as it is with the giant ground sloth... Moas?

I could write an Icelandic troll story. It turns out that trolls are still raising giant auks somewhere in the middle of Iceland, where no one goes, or maybe inside a cliff above the ocean... I wonder if they have to take the auks out swimming to keep them happy?

So one moonlit night an Icelander sees trolls wading out into the ocean, with auks on strings so they can't get away. But they can still frolic in the waves...
Most likely I won't write this story. I have six stories plus a novel to finish. But the same summer cabin fever that makes me so restless makes me want to start new writing.

Summer Cabin Fever

The temp was in the 90s yesterday and the high today is predicted to be 95. After that, temps will begin to fall.

I ran errands yesterday. Most of the time, I was inside, but I had to go out to move from building to building. Weather like this -- sunny and almost cloudless with a temp in the 90s -- makes me rapidly queasy. I plan to spend today inside doing tasks I have been avoiding.

During most of my life, work gave structure to my days. Since I got laid off (four years ago now) I have put together an alternative structure, so I don't simply float through the rest of my life. The structure is not anything dramatic: meetings with friends, exercise at the Y, my writing groups. But it allows me to feel something is getting done.

Appointments for yesterday and today fell through. That, combined with the heat, makes me feel frustrated. It's summer cabin fever.

I told Patrick yesterday I was bored and wanted to do something exciting. We could hop a plane to Iceland, I suppose. But it would be hard to get seats, I expect, and I have dental work and a convention coming up and no extra money.

I am suddenly reminded of the Shel Silverstein book that tells kids there is no Oz, but maybe someday you can go to Detroit...

Patrick just told me it's close to 90 in Duluth, so driving there is not an option...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The flowers I bought at the Farmers Market made Patrick's allergies kick up. I think it was the lilies in the bouquet, though it might be the sunflower. I moved them into my room, where they sit on the window ledge and look lovely.

He doesn't seem to react to daisies or chrysanthemums. So I have left the bouquet of green poms (which are apparently a daisy relative) in the living room. Next time I go to the Market I will look for bouquets without lilies or sunflowers. Zinneas might be okay, and they are wonderfully bright.


One final remark and I will leave the Zimmerman case. It is now possible to carry concealed guns in all fifty states.

It's a long, long time ago now, but I lived in Central Brooklyn and Inner City Detroit when both were not safe. The way you survive in a rough neighborhood is to pay attention and exercise ordinary common sense. Guns are a lot less useful than alertness and street smarts.

That is one point. The other is, crime -- except for the white collar crime practiced by bankers and politicians -- has been falling in the US for years. The paranoid fear of one's neighbors is just that -- paranoia and craziness. In many cases, it is about racism as well as irrational fear. The US is changing, and a lot of white people cannot handle this fact. Their fear of the future diffuses into a fear of almost everything, but especially people of color, and more especially young men of color.

There is no good reason to carry a handgun, unless it's required by your job. There is no reason to own any gun, unless you need it for sport; and sport should not include hunting other humans.

I am really, really tired of the NRA and frightened white people. I realize that frightened people come in all colors. But I think a large part of the power of the NRA is white fear.

There is more than one reason for this fear. People's lives are getting worse. Pay has been level or falling for decades now. The cost of health care is way up, and many people no longer get health care through their jobs. The cost of education is ridiculous. Jobs are unstable. Unions, which used to be some protection for workers and which helped keep wages up, even for non-union workers, cover only 11% of the work force now. The government is clearly run for the benefit of the rich, who appear to be looting the economy, rather than building anything useful. What lies ahead? More poverty. More instability. Environmental degradation. Global warming.

People of color have always had to deal with hard times and prejudice. But there was a period, for several decades after World War Two, when life was pretty good for white working guys. That period has ended.

It is rational to be afraid, but the problem is not people of color or women or gays; and it cannot be solved by guns.

The answer, as union activists have told us for decades, is to organize -- at the work place and in the neighborhood and city and state. Handguns are not any help in this situation. It is crazy to fear the other ordinary people who face hard times like you and should be your allies.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More on the Zimmerman Case

In reply to a comment on the previous post: how could George Zimmerman be said to have provoked a fight?

He went after Trayvon Martin, instead of staying put as the 911 operator told him. We don't know what happened then, because we have only one witness, Zimmerman, who cannot be called neutral.

I'd say that Zimmerman, by ignoring the 911 operator, showed himself to be either a vigilante or a fool. I can imagine him scaring or angering Trayvon Martin. Then, when Martin tried to defend himself, Zimmerman could have become frightened and shot him.

I don't think it's likely that Martin would have started a fight out of nowhere. But I certainly can imagine him confronting a man who was following him in the dark. I have been followed down dark streets. It's threatening. A woman or an older man would most likely look for help. A young man -- a teenager -- might well confront.

There are other possible scenarios. But we don't know what happened. All we know is -- it happened because George Zimmerman had a gun and did not listen to the 911 operator.

I notice that one big city newspaper after another has expressed unhappiness with the Zimmerman verdict. The general feeling is, people should not stalked and killed because they are black and male and wear a hoodie.

The case happened in a society where there is too much gun violence and too much racism, and where a significant part of the population is tired of guns and racism. When you look at responses to the case, you need to remember this.

Monday, July 15, 2013

George Zimmerman

I've now read several articles that say the Zimmerman decision was correct, given law and the facts of the case. Apparently the state has to disprove self defense, and if there is only one witness, the shooter, this is hard to do. Also you can apparently start a fight, then decide your life is in danger and use deadly force and this is legitimate self-defense. Scott Lemieux, who writes for the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, says that the law needs to be rethought, given all the people carrying guns. The people I have read all say that the decision may be correct, but this is no way changes the fact that it's a lot harder for people of color to get justice in this country.

It seems intuitively wrong that an armed man can stalk an unarmed teenager and kill him, and this is not even manslaughter. But that is apparently the law. It seems obvious to me that killing has become too easy.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Farmers Market

What is wrong with me? The Farmers Market opens at the beginning of May, and I just made my first trip of the year, two and a half months later. I have missed the asparagus and the spring spinach, of course. The market is now full of swiss chard, collard greens, huge green heaps of kale, huge red heaps of tomatoes, yellow zucchini as large as my forearm, cucumbers...

I got bread with asiago cheese baked into it, swiss chard, small zucchinis and a mixed bouquet heavy on the zinnias.

And one sunflower. I love sunflowers, but they make Patrick's allergies flare up. One should be okay.

And now, free of extra charge, William Blake's great sunflower poem:
Ah, Sunflower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go.


This is from Dean Baker's wonderful blog on economics Beat The Press:
The Washington Post had a piece noting the rapid growth of automobile production in Mexico that raised the possibility that it would come at the expense of production in the United States. The piece points out that the auto companies now hire new workers in the United States at wages between $14 and $18 an hour.

It is worth noting that if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth over the last 45 years it would be almost $17.00 an hour today. This means that newly hired workers would in many cases be working for less than a productivity indexed minimum wage. The minimum wage had largely tracked productivity growth in the three decades from 1938 to 1968. (The unemployment rate in the last 1960s was less than 4.0 percent.)
The bolding is mine. $17 a hour is $36,360, not a huge amount, not enough to maintain a household in the Twin Cities. According to the Jobs Now Coalition, a single parent with one child needs to make about $39,000 a year to make basic expenses in the Twin Cities. (A large amount of this is child care, which runs about $8,000 a year in the Metro Area according to Jobs Now. If we had publicly funded childcare, this small family could get by on a bit over $30,000 a year.)

This calculation assumes that the employer provides health care. Many employers do not. If the worker has to buy his or her family's health care, the cost of living in the Metro Area rises to over $45,000 a year.

Even though $17 an hour would not be adequate, it is a lot more than many workers with children are getting now.

So we either need a much higher federal minimum wage (it is now $7.25 an hour) or we need national health care or both. If we had national health care, Medicare for all, then a new federal minimum wage of $19.25 an hour would be adequate. If we had Medicare for all and state funded child care, then we could make do with a federal minimum wage of about $14.50, double what it is now.

I have no idea how working people get by.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


The milkweed is blooming, along with crown vetch, mullein, big purple thistles, chicory and a lot of yellow flowers I don't recognize. They might be yellow sweet clover, but I don't think so. It's hard to identify flowers while traveling 60 miles an hour on a freeway. I have the same problem with birds. Crows and pigeons are easy, as are the red tailed hawks that sit on freeway light posts. Impossible to miss the egrets and great blue herons that fly over occasionally. But the little birds are too fast and small. I can't figure out what they are.

Patrick and I made it to Uncle Hugo's for a copy of the July Locus, which has a positive review of Big Mama Stories by Gary Wolfe. Then a couple more errands, then home.

So far Big Mama Stories has gotten three reviews, two in Locus, one at All three are positive. Two of them compare me to Italo Calvino. I'll take that comparison.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Dental Work

I had a busy -- for me -- day yesterday: an exercise class in the morning, then a visit to the dentist in the afternoon and finally a meeting of the Wyrdsmiths writing group in the evening. The exercise class was enjoyable, and the Wyrdsmiths were really fine. But the dentist told me I need two crowns. My share, after my dental insurance pays its part, will be $2,100. This is disturbing.

I'm retired, which means very little money is coming in. I do have some retirement savings, but interest rates are so low right now that they generate almost no income. Certificates of deposit pay under one percent. That's less than inflation. I am actually losing money on my savings.

People my age are advised to stay out of the stock market, because we don't have the time to ride out ups and downs. We might need our money at a point that the market is low. In addition, I think the stock market is a bubble right now. Europe and the US are in recessions/depressions, and the gigantic Chinese economy is slowing down. There is no good reason for stocks to be up, except that the rich need a place to put their money. A bubble market is going to crash sooner or later.

In any case, my savings (such as they are) are producing almost no revenue. I have a small amount of money coming in from writing, but it isn't much. So I am looking at a large outlay when there in no compensating income. It is not a pleasant experience.

I do have the money to pay for the dental work. Many retired people have no savings. Company pension plans have mostly vanished, except for public employees, which is one reason the rightwing hates public employees. 401(k) plans and IRAs have not worked. Most people have not been able to save enough to matter. According to the blog Zero Hedge, the average amount in retirement accounts in 2012 was $77,300. This is not enough to pay for a retirement. Even with Medicare, one illness can wipe this out. Large numbers of American workers don't make enough to save anything, and many save very little -- or have to withdraw from their 401(k)s to pay for emergencies such as unemployment or illness.

So retirees are dependent on Social Security, which averages about $1,200 a month. Congress and the president keep trying to find ways to cut this inadequate amount. Imagine if I did not have savings. The dental work would be equal to two months income.

Social Security payments need to go up, not down; and Medicare should cover dental work; and Medicare should be extended to the entire population. There are various ways to pay for higher SS payments. Right now the SS tax (FICA) is capped at $106,800. Income above that is not taxed. Removing the cap would bring in extra money. (Remember that a huge amount of our national income goes to people making more than $100,000.) Or the FICA tax rate could be slightly increased, which would also bring in more money. Or increased Social Security payments could be funded out of general revenues.

Increasing Social Security would put more money into the economy and thus increase tax revenues. Expanding Medicare would mean that money now spent in our bloated and overpriced Medical-Industrial Complex could go into the rest of the economy, creating new jobs and producing more tax revenue.

The final reason to expand Social Security and Medicare is -- it's humane. Most Americans will live 15 years or more after the official retirement age of 65. (Though there are counties in the US where the life expectancy is lower than third world countries.) As it stands now, many of them will spend this time at the edge of poverty, always worried and often afraid. Their children, who have their own financial problems, will struggle to help Mom and Dad. Or cut Mom and Dad adrift.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Time Travel and Alternative History

The previous post is a lead-in to talking about alternative history and time travel stories. The argument of alternative history stories is that history is not fixed. It could have turned out other than it has. I tend to see history as having a broad trend. As one of the panelists at CONvergence said, this is the river theory. For the most part, history keeps to its bed. This view says that it's hard to make major changes to history. But hard does mean not impossible. Rivers do change their courses. And I may be wrong. History may be far more changeable than I believe.

The other view of history is the tree theory: history is full of branching points, at which it could have taken a different turn. (Terry Pratchett calls this "the trousers theory of time." At certain points, history bifurcates, and there is a choice as to which leg one goes down.)

It's possible that history took both branches, creating two separate universes. This is the multiverse theory. Some physicists are interested in this.

Time travel stories also tend to see history as unfixed. One steps on a butterfly in the Mesozoic and the future one came from no longer exists -- or, if it still exists, it is in another universe, which cannot be reached. (This is "The Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury.)

There are time travel stories in which history does not change. "The Man Who Murdered Mohammed" by Alfred Bester is one example. The time traveler goes back and kills key people in history. But the effect is not to change history. Rather, it changes him. With each murder, he becomes less likely and real, until he finally vanishes.

I argue, in "Big Red Mama in Time and Morris, Minnesota," just out in Big Mama Stories from Aqueduct Press, that time is hard to change. For the most part, history re-stabilizes. This puts me at the conservative end of time travel theories.

But this does not lead me to argue that the present and future are fixed. And I do believe that large changes in the past might well change the present and future. If you went back and introduced modern technology to imperial Rome, as L. Sprague DeCamp did in Lest Darkness Fall, you might well avoid the dark and middle ages.

I think the likelihood of time travel is still up for grabs. According to Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Canada, current theories about physics do not include anything about time. It is simply ignored. According to Smolin, this is a mistake: a successful description of reality needs to include time.

If we don't have a description of reality that includes time, then we can hardly know whether or not time travel is possible.

One of the odd things about time is -- it appears to go in one direction only. But we don't know why, and we don't know for sure whether or not this is always true. Most physical phenomena go in both directions. You can make water (H2O) from O and H2. You can also split water into O and H2. This cannot be done with time. Until we have a theory that explains this, backed by good experiments, we simply don't know for certain if it's possible to reverse time or travel back in it.

The main argument against time travel is the grandfather paradox, which doesn't convince me. If you don't know it, it goes like this: if time travel is possible, then you can go back and kill you grandfather before he fathered your father or mother. But then you don't exist, so you can't commit the murder.

I'm reading a paper by a philosopher, who argues you cannot kill your grandfather precisely because of this paradox. For one reason or another -- a change of heart, a gun misfiring -- the murder will not happen, because it cannot happen.

This also does not convince me. I imagine something closer to the Bester story. If you kill your grandfather, then you don't exist and cannot kill your grandfather. Therefore he lives and fathers one of your parents. Therefore you exist and go back in time and kill him. He dies and you don't exist and cannot kill him. He lives and fathers your parent, you exist and kill him, and the entire cycle happens over and over. Why can't this happen? We don't know enough to say.

In any case, I seem to be writing time travel stories and some alternative histories, and most likely I will continue to.

The important thing about both is as an aid to thinking about the present: for the most part, the stories say history is contingent and thus can be changed. Right now, we can only make changes in the present. Well, then, we ought to assume that what we do matters and work to make changes now. Floss. Go on a diet. Join good cause organizations. Plant a garden. Put solar panels on your roof. Believe in change.


One of the commenters on my previous post asked me to explain what I meant by "Margaret Thatcher's terrible lie, There Is No Alternative." I can't be sure exactly how I answered the question, because I deleted my comment by mistake. It was apparently up long enough for the commenter to reply, which he or she did by saying that I should ask my school -- I assume this means my college -- for my tuition back. Apparently I did not get a proper education. (My major was art history, with minors in English and philosophy. I don't know what any of these -- except possibly philosophy -- had to do with Margaret Thatcher.)

TINA is (in my opinion) a terrible lie because it says that change is not possible: there are no alternatives to our present world of capitalism and neoliberal economics. This is obviously not true. Human history is a record of change. We are not living in Roman times or the Neolithic. Even societies that appear static -- the rare hunting and gathering societies that still exist -- are not, as far as we can tell, really static. Most are in contact with the outside world and get at least some information and objects.

The Native American peoples of the Andes have recently carried off modern -- possibly even avant garde-- revolutions in Bolivia and Ecuador. This suggests they are not the same people they were 100 or 200 years ago.

Rural Afghans have cell phones. They did not have these when I was in Afghanistan 50 years ago. Their society seemed then to be isolated and unchanging. (Though if you know the history of Afghanistan, you know a lot has changed there since the days of Alexander. It only became isolated and 'unchanging' when sea trade replaced the Great Silk Route.)

Capitalism, as we know it, goes back only a few hundred years. Neoliberal economics goes back less than a hundred years. I doubt that either will last forever. Why should they?

As Isaac Asimov said, "There will be a future, and it will be different."

There are philosophies that argue history is rigid: change happens, but in ways that are absolutely determined and inevitable. This is the argument of vulgar Marxists, who used to say that the proletarian revolution was inevitable. It would happen, no matter what anyone did. This theory does not have a lot of followers today.

Pierre Simon LaPlace is famous for saying (per Wikipedia) that "if someone knows the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe, their past and future values for any given time are entailed; they can be calculated from the laws of classical mechanics." Later scientists and philosophers have argued that thermodynamics, quantum physics and chaos theory all make determinism impossible. If we cannot determine the future in physics, it does not seem likely we can determine it elsewhere: physics is the root science. Those atoms and sub-atomic particles underlie everything else. If the future cannot be determined, even in theory, then it cannot be fixed. True change is possible.

The argument that change is impossible is an argument for doing nothing. This is what I dislike about it. If action makes no difference, why act? I also dislike it, because it's obviously wrong. There are always alternatives, if one believes in historical change and human free will.

(I don't know if free will actually exists. But given our current knowledge, it is a good assumption. We should all act as if action is effective and we can make changes in our lives.)

Saturday, July 06, 2013

An Alternative History Panel

I'm not going back to CONvergence today, since I have an essay to finish. I think it's due today. (I just checked and can't find the last email from the editor, so will have to go on memory.)

I felt I talked too much on the one panel I did yesterday. I was trying to think something through out loud. This should not be done on panels, which ought to be communal activities. Thinking through should be done somewhere private, by oneself or with one or two (very patient) friends.

The ideas I was trying to think through were difficult (for me, at least) and I didn't have a good grasp on them. What is the nature of time? A huge topic, which I am in no way competent to talk about. And what is the nature of history? Does it follow broad trends, like a river that usually keeps to its bed, or is it highly contingent? Can you change it dramatically with a single action?

The final questions I had were, why do people write alternative histories, and why are alternative histories so popular right now?

I have written a couple of alternative history stories in recent years and a number of time travel stories. I think time travel is related to alternative history. Both ask the question, can one change the past? Which becomes the question, can one change the present and future? A hugely important question. We are at a point in history (I think) when the present does not look especially good and the future looks grim. Is major change possible? How do we achieve it?

In any case, I had a lot of questions, too many for a one-hour panel. I'm going back to the con tomorrow. I have one panel, on how to write heroes. I think I will go in unprepared -- with no questions or ideas.
Sean Murphy made a very good comment at the panel: change depends on the magnitude of the event. A small event does not change history. A large one does. To use the river metaphor, the course of the Mississippi is not easy to change, but it can be done. The river's course was changed by the New Madrid earthquake. It was a big event. More than that, the Army Corps of Engineers is in a constant struggle with the course of the Mississippi. Their dams and levees are not the same size as the Madrid earthquake, but they are big, and there are a lot of them. Sean was talking about strange attractors, and he lost me. But I think I got the basic point.

History is mostly stable, but it can be changed. It is both a river and a tree of contingent events.
Having said that, I begin to think about a story involving time engineers, trying to keep history on a certain course, and time saboteurs, planning to blow up levees.
Alternative history and time travel stories are, it now occurs to me, a direct challenge to Margaret Thatcher's terrible lie, There Is No Alternative. Both say, history can be changed.

Friday, July 05, 2013


I am off to the 7,000 person monster local SF convention. I have a panel on alternative history at 11 this morning and one on how to write villains at 7 tonight. My final panel is at 11 am on Sunday: how to write heroes.

I actually don't have an opinion on how to write heroes or villains. I write them the way I write all characters: one sentence at a time.


I skipped the second panel and came home.


This is from a facebook discussion of global warming and coastal cities being at risk:
I have a great description in a current story of waves rushing between tall buildings in lower Manhattan... The buildings have been abandoned, except by squatters... One more thing to finish. I have three stories going at once now. Either my writing pace has to pick up, or my imagination has to slow down.

I'm not complaining. This is a lot better than the periods when I feel I have nothing to write.

I'm not sure what the appeal of destroying cities is. I've lived in New York, Detroit and the Twin Cities and put all three into stories as ruins. I've also lived in Honolulu, Paris and outside Philadelphia and not felt any need (as far as I can remember) to reduce them to ruins.
I think I have ruined the cities I love best. In Detroit's case, of course, it has more of less happened. The other cities are still with us.