Saturday, February 21, 2009

Obama one month in

One month into Obama's term, I'd say that things are going pretty much exactly as I expected. He's signed a number of relatively costless initiatives like SCHIP that were all but passed except for Presidential veto, affirmed Bush-era imprisonment and trial policies for people at e.g. Bagram prison, avoided nationalizing banks that need to be nationalized, and gotten through a stimulus package that benefits mostly Obama. Why that last? Because it doesn't benefit actual voters to have a bucket of money thrown at bailing out the system, not when that's only getting us out of trouble that the system got us into in the first place. It helps Obama to not have a Depression during his term, but for the rest of us, the help is rather like the kind of help you get when someone tells you "your money or your life" and you give them your money -- it's better not to lose your life, but that's hardly help. Meanwhile, Obama got the stimulus package through with politically valueless concessions that severely reduced its effectiveness, plus what should be recognized by now as his signature move, a completely gratuitous culture-war slam at his backers for just the possibility of political benefit (by which I mean what he did with money for contraception).

My inaugural poem is holding up well. I still think, of course, that Obama is vastly better than McCain would have been, probably better than Hillary Clinton would have been. But the progressive reaction to the stimulus plan was laughable. "Why isn't Obama calling on us to help push this through?" It was like Boxer in Animal Farm asking plaintively why they weren't letting him work harder. The reaction should have been to threaten to sabotage the stimulus package through pressure on a sympathetic Senator or two unless Obama bought them off with more progressive elements in it. He would have understood that perfectly well. As the poem says, my hope for change rests on that Obama is actually going to need the left for the last few votes to get past the GOP, and the left is going to wake up and start using that leverage.

At least there's $100 million in the stimulus for lead paint removal. That will do some good.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


On reading a funny Adam Roberts review of Anathem, full of parody neologisms, I was struck (in the comment box) with the idea of the yawnpiphany. In some seriousness, that's the best name I've yet been able to think of for a certain New Wave SF writing technique.

It goes like this. Let's say that you want to rebel against the tired old forms of SF. In some sense, you want to be literary. But you're also rebelling against literariness itself; you don't want to merely imitate Modernist classics or join in the forming post-modernism. You want something that is a specifically SF form of iconoclasm.

That means that formal innovation is probably out. SF never had any sort of advanced formalism to reject. What SF had are "ideas" and adventure. So the best rebellion is a long-drawn-out attempt to bore the reader. Not by simply writing a bad book -- anyone could do that. But instead a purposeful, skillful repetition of the same thing over and over until the reader has a yawnpiphany that makes it impossible for them to see standard SF quite in the same way anymore.

Yes, Waiting for Godot has been done. But I think that there is a specifically SF form of this. I wrote about this a bit when considering Brian Aldiss' Hothouse, a novel of anti-ideas. A better example is his Report on Probability A, an anti-novel. But I don't feel up to considering that book at the length it deserves yet. So I'll just mention it -- there's a bit about it in the post on Hothouse -- along with two other candidate works that I immediately thought of: Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and Michael Moorcock's Pyat Quartet.

The Iron Dream is a work that I can't seem to convince anyone else of the importance of. It's structured as a laugh, an "oh, that's clever", a long grind, and a yell. I keep thinking that people who think that it's good but not great somehow don't appreciate the long grind. The laugh is the splash page from the publisher at the beginning, which says how popular the author of The Iron Dream, Adolph Hitler, is with SF fans and how his costumes are special favorites at SF conventions. The "oh, that's clever" is the first chapter, in which the protagonist, in a dead-on savaging of every Golden Age SF trope, sets out to save the pure humans via necessary genocide against the wholly evil mind-controlling twisted mutants. The yell at the end is the afterword by a supposed critic of the book. But it's the long grind that gets undervalued. By the end of the first chapter, you've realized that the book is an SF adventure story that recapitulates the real Hitler's actual rise to power. It goes on and on as he and his followers rejoice homoerotically as they wipe out the evil mutants and the mutant-lovers, and there's a real temptation to just skip a few chapters, since, after all, you've gotten the idea.

But you can't. Reading the same thing over and over, you start to realize -- or at least I started to realize; I don't really know whether anyone else reacts similarly -- just how often you've read the same thing over and over, better concealed, in real SF. I've referred to this as "strapping your inner fanboy down Clockwork Orange style." You know intellectually what point Spinrad is making after the first chapter, but you don't feel it, in your gut, until a point somewhere near the end. This is the yawnpiphany.

Or there's the example of the Moorcock Pyat series. I've only actually managed to make it through the first one of these books, myself. I've never read a more determined attempt to make a wholly unsympathetic protagonist. (There's a good review here). Pyat is a cocaine-fueled self-hating ultra-right schemer whose only talent, as he goes through the 20th century, is to con people into having sex with him, and to fool others and himself into thinking that he is capable of SF engineering feats which, of course, fail. He lurches from one country to another, getting involved in every fascist movement going, and escaping each one badly used and having badly used others. This might seem like a shockarama, and at the beginning perhaps it is. But it's the same thing over and over. By the middle of the first book, I was flipping pages forward, thinking that OK, I've learned all there is to learn from this horrible unreliable narrator. Is there anything more?

Again, this is intended, I believe, as a source of the yawnpiphany for every historic-fantasy-adventure book, most particularly Moorcock's own. It's the kind of thing where I can describe the idea of the book, and you the reader can think that you get it, but you can't really get it until you've pushed past the point of boredom and said, "Wow! This is really quite like..." which is when your boredom becomes identified with the slight boredom that you felt when reading, say, the middle of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and its strangely cute crypto-authoritarianism. Which is not a bad book, but that's the point of the yawnpiphany; at its best, it can change your whole reading of a subgenre.

At any rate, that's it for the yawnpiphany. Most of my ideas on SF, like it, are dialogically half-formed out of comment boxes, a process of uncertain value. But anyone still reading this far should really check out this really amusing post by John Holbo about the philosophical thought experiment of Lewd and Prude, complete with some fanfic I wrote in the comment box. That's really what blogging should be about.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Wait a minute -- literal or figurative volcano?"

That was how I answered the beginnings of the phone call. In this case, yes, it's literal: there's a volcano threatening to go off at Mount Redoubt in Alaska which could possibly once again (as it did a couple of decades ago) affect the Drift River Oil Terminal, a set of storage tanks that usually stores hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil. Chevron refuses to release information about how much oil they have left at the facility, citing Homeland Security concerns. There's a good article on it here.

How is this possibly homeland security information? Everyone already knows where the facility is, has pictures of it, and knows how much oil it generally holds. What Chevron doesn't want to release is information about how much oil it holds right now, now that they've pumped some of the oil out in response to the volcano building up nearby. Of course they have all sorts of economic motives to leave as much oil as possible there and risk it, and people concerned about the environment have opposite motives to push them to get the oil out of the river's floodplain. I don't understand how they even can claim a concern about terrorism without everyone laughing at them.

This is not the first time that terrorism has been claimed as a concern in order to avoid the release of chemical accident information. On the contrary, that started even before 9/11 -- even as industry managed to have its politicians avoid making any requirements that they actually do anything to reduce accident risk. I've worked with this kind of thing for a long time, which is why I got the call in the first place. This may be a good test of Obama's new FOIA policy. It really comes down to one of two alternatives. If the government knows what Chevron is doing to prepare for this volcano, then that information should be FOIA-able. And if it doesn't know, why not?