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08:58 am: The Bifrost Between Calico and Gingham

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I have been asked what the Puppies—Sad and Rabid alike—are objecting to? If they are not racist or homophobes—ie, if it is not the author's identity that they object to—why do they think that so many of the stories that have been winning the Hugo and the Nebula are receiving their awards for the wrong reasons?

I think I can explain. I will use, for my example, the short story that won the Hugo in 2016: “Cat Pictures Please.” 

(Spoilers below. If you haven't read "Cat Pictures Please" and wish to, you can find it here.)

bob

Science Fiction:
My overall take on “Cat Pictures Please”, as a science fiction story was that it was witty and clever but not that deep or original. It reminded me of a number of older short stories, including one of my all time favorites, “LOKI 7281” by Roger Zelazny, a witty story in which a personal computer is slowly trying to take control of more and more of its owner’s life (with the tagline: “He’ll never notice.”)

“Cat Pictures Please” has the distinction of portraying the waking AI as friendly. I found that refreshing.

While the premise was charming, I must admit I had trouble seeing why “Cat Pictures Please” was the best story of the year. I’d read stories last year that I thought were significantly better. It was cute, but I had trouble seeing how it measured up to “Scanners Live In Vain” or “Flowers For Algernon” or “Nine billion names of God.”

But I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt here. It is possible that many of these voting are young enough that they haven’t read the stories that made this one seem derivative to me. If so, this story would seem much more impressive.

And tastes differ.

That’s okay.

bacon

Politics:

There is something very comforting about reading a work that compliments our world view, especially if we feel (as everyone does, nowadays) that our world view is under attack.

There is a sense of: YES!

And: That’s exactly how it is!

Or even: Finally things are how they should be!

Reading something that does not agree with our world view, however, is not so satisfying. Our reactions tend to fall into two patterns. The first—the reaction for which all good speculative fiction strives—is: Oh! That’s why they see it that way. That's an angle that I had not considered. Hmm.

The second, alas, is: Oh, Gee, not this again! Really? What, do they expect me to just stand here while they poke me in the eye?

These are not Left/Right reactions. They are universal. I will demonstrate:

Abortion is a woman’s choice.

The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.*

If one of those two statements made you nod your head and smile, and the other made you wince, as if you’d been poked in the eye, you know exactly what I mean.

*–Kudos to whomever can identify what golden age SF book this second phrase comes from.

So, if a story agrees with our world view, we like it more. If it disagrees—but not in a way that expands our world view—we feel as if we’ve been poked in the eye.

There is one point I feel I must pause to make here. I have heard friends express the idea that it is good for people to read things they disagree with. It expands their mind.

If you happen to be a person who believes this, ask yourself when the last time was that you read an article expounding the opposing point-of-view, and it explanded your mind, rather than just annoying you?

What is effective is when we present our ideas to each other in a new way, from a different perspective. This is, in fact, what, historically, SF has been known for. But these have to be new ideas, ways of looking at the matter that the reader has not seen before. Presenting the same ideas that a reader has already examined and dismissed–be they Left or Right–does not have any effect upon the reader who disagrees with them except–yes, you guessed it! Ouch, my eye!

starshine-2

Cat Pictures Please and Politics.

“Cat Pictures Please” is a very Left-leaning story. For those who are unfamiliar with it, here are a few examples.

     The story acts as if porn (henti) addictions are common and accepted by all as normal.

    The AI dismisses the Ten Commandments and most religious morality in a paragraph.*

    It believes that psychological counseling is the best reaction to depression. This comes up quite a bit in the story.

   It tempts a pastor who looks at pictures of other men into an adulterous relationship with someone who knows him for the purpose of outing him with his wife, getting him a divorce, and moving him to a Liberal church, so that he can end the story happy, living with his male-lover.

If you yourself are Left-Leaning, this probably seems normal. If you are Right-Leaning, you’ve probably been just poked in the eye.

* — The AI dismisses the Ten Commandants with the line “I don’t envy anyone their cat; I just want pictures of their cat, which is entirely different. I am not sure whether it is in any way possible for me to commit adultery. I could probably murder someone, but it would require complex logistics and quite a bit of luck.

This, even though the AI goes on to help a human commit adultery. I would have enjoyed “Cat Pictures Please” more, if the story had given me the impression that the author did this on purpose—to show the limitations of an Internet-derived morality—or if I even had felt that the author was aware of the irony. Alas, I did not get this impression from the story, and this reduced my enjoyment of it.

mistletoe-2

So, to Left-Leaning readers, “Cat Pictures Please” is a witty story with a common, but perhaps new-to-them, SF premise, which also reinforces their idea of truth about the world and comes to a delightfully-satisfying conclusion.

The mixture of the simple SF premise, the wit, and the satisfying political leaning make it a very delightful story indeed.

To anyone who is Right-Leaning, “Cat Pictures Please” is a witty story with a common, and perhaps not-so-new-to-them, SF premise, which is full of concepts and moral choices that grate on them the wrong way, and the end is, while a bit amusing, rather unpleasant.

The first group says, “This is a great story!

The second group says, “Look, I’ll be fair and overlook all the pokes in the eye, but as I am regarding the story through my blurry, now-painful eyes, I want to see some really fantastic science fiction. Something that wows me so much that I am going to think it is worth putting next to “Nightfall” or “Harrison Bergeron.” And I just don’t see it.

 "Your stuff is not new. If you take today's problems and put them in space, that's not science fiction. You need the new, the controversial, to be SF. 

"Where is the stuff that’s going to shake my world and make me think, the way the Hugo winners of years gone by, such as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, did?

 

To the first group, they want to give the award to the stories that really stayed with them, and they are judging this criteria on the whole effect of the story: SF premise and social statement combined.

To the second group, they want the story to stand on its SF premise alone, not on its social commentary. They are willing to read something they disagree with, but only if the science fiction is so awesome that it makes getting poked in the eye worth it.

 

*

I hope this explanation will help bridge the abyss currently gaping between Puppies and Non-Puppies, and contribute, if only in the slightest way, to the approach that glorious future day when we might once again return to what is really important, our mutual love of our awesome genre.

Dog and cat

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[User Picture]
From:yamamanama
Date:September 13th, 2016 01:13 pm (UTC)
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"Where is the stuff that’s going to shake my world and make me think, the way the Hugo winners of years gone by, such as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, did?”
But if they wanted that, they shouldn't have nominated Seven Kill Tiger or Wisdom From My Internet or Opera Vita Aeterna or If You Were An Award, My Love, or The Story of Moira Greyland or SJWS ALWAYS LOOIIIIIEEE or The Exchange Officers or The Chaplain's Legacy or Kukuruyo or anything they nominated in the last three years.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 13th, 2016 04:24 pm (UTC)
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My comments apply to anything Sad Puppies nominated. They, at least, felt it was good SF. Whether it was or whether it was message fiction on their side might be debated.

I can make no claims about why Rabid Puppies do anything.
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From:reziac
Date:September 13th, 2016 01:36 pm (UTC)

Pretty much.

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Yep... that's pretty much where it is for me, as one who goes back to the era when an average fan had read everything SF/F available, plus a whole lot of other stuff from sheer lack of sufficient SF/F. I see the younger generation largely reinventing the wheel, without any rationale for why I should consider their not-so-round wheels, let alone enjoy the ride... tho I'm expected to exclaim how much I'm enjoying my bruises. Please, sir, may I have another??

What is really astonishing is how the tribalism of the younger set has affected the core Hugo voters -- most of whom are even older and even more experienced in the genre, and frankly should know better.

"Cat Pictures, Please" suffered from the same issue I've had with the majority of short fiction over the past couple decades (far as I've looked; I pretty much gave up on shorts back around 1980): It didn't *interest* me. Nothing about it pulled me into its world, and shortly I became bored and wandered away. So even if it'd had a message or viewpoint that I might wish to consider (and many a time I've changed my mind due to someone's cogent arguments) it lost all chance to present it before it even got out of the gate.

This, in fact, was true of almost every nominated short since I've paid attention to the Hugos again, which would be since the Puppies brought it back into my eye (I'd been ignoring the Hugos for a couple decades). Nope, it's still a warning label: BORING!! The only exceptions were Laura Pearlman's delightfully bent takes on SF tropes, and Bujold's piece (tho without quite the ...bite... hers used to have -- and I've had the thought, and long before the Puppies arose, that in her more-recent work more generally that "bite" has been lost to the urge to espouse and signal a ... virtuous... viewpoint).

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From:arhyalon
Date:September 13th, 2016 04:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Pretty much.

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;-)
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From:nancylebov
Date:September 13th, 2016 01:43 pm (UTC)
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I agree with yamamanama about puppies wanting politics *they* find comforting.

I wonder what sf that was somewhat comforting and somewhat challenging to *both* sides would look like.

I'm not sure where you'd go to find challenging politics these days-- probably James C. Scott, an academic who writes about non-governmental societies and organization without being a libertarian. Check out _Two Cheers for Anarchism_ for something of manageable length or _The Art of Not Being Governed_ (not a how-to book) for societies living outside governments (mostly the highlands of southest Asia). He's very interesting about life without grand theories.

Any way, it isn't exactly fair to compare average Hugo short story winners to the best winners. This being said, I'm culturally pretty far left, and I didn't think "Cat Pictures, Please" was especially interesting.

"The right to buy weapons is the right to be free" is from _The Weapon Shops of Isher_, and those guns were so constrained it didn't exactly seem like freedom.
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From:keross
Date:September 13th, 2016 02:52 pm (UTC)
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"Any way, it isn't exactly fair to compare average Hugo short story winners to the best winners"

Begging pardon, but to say that a story is Hugo Worthy should mean that is the best of the best. Therefore we should be able to compare it to the very best. Which means that I will hold them up next to The Nine Billion Names of God, Nightfall and The Star.

If isn't fair to compare the story to the classics, then why is it being considered for a Hugo?
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From:nancylebov
Date:September 13th, 2016 03:06 pm (UTC)
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The best Hugo winners are in the top hundredth of a percent or somesuch. They're not just excellent, they're the best of the best. By definition, they're not the kind of story which comes along every year.

I think of Hugo worthy as something like "in the top 10% of all the sf I've read", and lately, there's been an edge of "don't embarrass me".
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 13th, 2016 04:32 pm (UTC)
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I think that there are huge numbers of older stories that fit the bill. Even Left-Leaning ones like, say, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omalas" were thought-provoking and challenging.

And I think it is exactly the point to compare "Cat Pictures Please" with the greats...because there were stories written last year that at least came a lot closer to those earlier stories than this one.

Why weren't they on the ballots? I don't know.

And, yes, I will give you that a number of the Puppy stories--particularly those that were just Rabid--were distinctly Right-Leaning. Whether the SF/F was sufficient in them or not would be a matter to be debated at length over coffee.
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From:reziac
Date:September 13th, 2016 05:52 pm (UTC)
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"The right to buy weapons is the right to be free" is from _The Weapon Shops of Isher_,

Oh, so I did remember where it came from. Must be 40 years since I read it.

That's another point: what is memorable about recent works? Too often I don't remember the characters, story, setting, or the social message (if any), or even just liking the book enough to wish to eventually reread it. Rather, I remember only a sense of irritation or distaste, or that I got preached at.

Omelas was a watershed, one of the last anthologies I bought, because the whole had descended into postmodern-muck (in which I find little of interest). But the title piece had depth, and knew its roots. I would hardly call it "comforting".

"I agree with yamamanama about puppies wanting politics *they* find comforting."

This kinda assumes that readers (puppy or otherwise) not only want to see just one side, but that they themselves believe just one side for their entire lives. For myself, I can tell you that my politics at 20 were not much like my views at 61, and in point of fact my views have changed more in the past five years than in the several decades before. So which fiction should I be reading to satisfy my political comfort??
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 13th, 2016 07:07 pm (UTC)
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And...Kudos on being the first to recognize the phrase.

And yes, in that book, it's really the right to defend yourself.
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From:asher63
Date:September 13th, 2016 01:51 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for this very thoughtful post.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 13th, 2016 04:34 pm (UTC)
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You are welcome. ;-)
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From:_standback_
Date:September 14th, 2016 02:33 pm (UTC)
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Ummm, question: wasn't "Cat Pictures, Please" on the SP4 recommendation list?
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 14th, 2016 02:42 pm (UTC)
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It is certainly possible...because the SP4 list included anything anyone wanted to post...not just things Puppies think of as good stories.

Do Pups like it? First, there are Liberal Pups. They would not find it eye-pokey. Second, some may find the ideas interesting enough to make up for the poking.

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From:_standback_
Date:September 14th, 2016 02:48 pm (UTC)
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To be fair, I too found "Cat Pictures, Please" to be slight and lightweight. Which I believe was its intention, but I agree - that's not something I particularly want to see Hugos awarded for.

I was disappointed (although not particularly surprised) that Scott Alexander's "...And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes" didn't make it anywhere near the top. That's a story that's incredibly fun, but also does really cool, unusual things, and goes to some thought-provoking places. It's a great example of a humor piece that isn't slight, which I think is absolutely defensible as Hugo-quality.

That being said, the Hugos are a popular award. It's not really a big surprise that fun, free stories go viral and some make it onto the shortlist. And, "Cat Pictures, Please" had SP4 boosting it as well. The next stories up are Alyssa Wong's "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers," and Ursula Vernon's "Wooden Feathers." I suspect you'd find those rather weightier and more substantial than "Cat Pictures, Please."
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 14th, 2016 07:06 pm (UTC)
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I do think that one of the biggest problems with the awards today...and I see very few people talking about this...is that short stories don't get much exposure.

When the Hugos were young, everyone voting probably had read the same few magazines.

Now...most people haven't even heard of most of the short story authors, much less the stories.

Not sure what can be done about this.
From:Gregory Hullender
Date:September 14th, 2016 02:46 pm (UTC)
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"The Weapon Shops of Isher," by A.E. van Vogt.

At Rocket Stack Rank, I review ~1,000 stories per year, and I'd say that any overt message (even one I agree with) pops me out of the story. In the past twelve months, I've probably seen a dozen or so that did this with a left-wing message and only one that did so with a right-wing message, but that imbalance is probably because of the nature of the editors at the top 11 magazines more than anything.

Sometimes, as you say, a story is good enough that you tolerate something that pops you out of it, just as long as it doesn't do it too much. "Can we sustain willing suspension of disbelief?" If not, the story fails. Political messages are far from the most common "belief-busters." In short fiction, anyway. Faux science is my #1 bugbear. (E.g. the rocket that comes too close and "gets caught in a black hole's gravity well.")

What troubles me most is that I've seen posts (comments, actually) from the puppy side saying that one of the big things they hate is reading a story and discovering that the author believes in climate change. That troubles me for two reasons. The obvious one is that I wonder why someone who doesn't believe in science wants to read science fiction, but the more subtle one is why these folks can't at least suspend disbelief for it. The same people would have no problem (I think) reading a story where the protagonist woke up one morning and the whole world was mirror-reversed.
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From:keross
Date:September 14th, 2016 05:31 pm (UTC)
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“What troubles me most is that I've seen posts (comments, actually) from the puppy side saying that one of the big things they hate is reading a story and discovering that the author believes in climate change. That troubles me for two reasons. The obvious one is that I wonder why someone who doesn't believe in science wants to read science fiction, but the more subtle one is why these folks can't at least suspend disbelief for it.”

That depends. Are we talking about AGW or CC? Climate change is real, because the world is not static. The climate changed in the past, it is changing now, and it will continue to change long after man has died off. Where the push back comes from is the Anthropogenic Global Warming crowd. AGWers say that CC is caused by man, ignoring the established fact that the orbit of the Earth plays a large part in the global climate. They say cars and industry are causing the warming, too frequently ignoring the clear cutting of mature trees being done to build new houses. The science used to support AGW is suspect, to put it mildly. Just as those who support AGW claim the other side has tainted their reports. If you wish to see well thought-out discussions regarding GW/CC, I refer you to a very nice gentleman who goes by the handle of Level_Head (http://level-head.livejournal.com/) Look under his tag of “Global Warming”. ((Never mind that in the 70’s they were crying “Looming Ice Age” / Global Cooling. –sigh-))

Suspension of disbelief gets a bit strained when faced with ideas that contrary to what are believed at a gut level. I refuse to watch The Core. Why? Because I believe the science used is bunk. Ditto for “Armageddon”. Show me FTL and I won’t blink – we have not yet proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it cannot be done. Show me someone standing outside of a ship in deep space without a suit and I’ll howl with laughter. (Thank you Star Blazzers)

As far as the author believing in AGW/CC, meh, I don’t care. But if you’re going to stick it in the story, how about making it part of the story, not just some virtual signalage that you stuck in that jars me out of the story. (The whole end of “Aurora” for instance. Good book up till then.)
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 14th, 2016 07:04 pm (UTC)
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I think I can answer that question by referring to your comments.

Remember how the black hole and the rocket bugs you? A person who does not feel that Climate Change is true holds this belief not because they are anti-science, but because the science, so far as they have been able to discern, does not support climate change.

They get thrown out of the story by climate change the same way that you get thrown out of the story by faulty rocket science.

Kudos on the Weapons Shop. ;-) And thanks for the comments.
From:Gregory Hullender
Date:September 14th, 2016 07:18 pm (UTC)
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The difference, though, is that when it comes to the Law of Gravity, there really isn't much room for doubt or debate. The writer who believes that the black hole's gravitational field abruptly ends some distance from it is simply ignorant.

But climate change is a very complex area that's actively studied. Even scientists agree that there are many unsettled questions, not least of them the expected speed and magnitude of changes.

The problem isn't so much that there are people who just deny that climate change is happening (or that people are responsible)--it's that they have absolute faith in their beliefs. Faith so great that they cannot suspend disbelief for a story where the scientists are right after all.

It's bad to have such absolute faith in something where you're not an expert by any means and cannot understand the basic principles. (That's true whichever side one supports, by the way.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 14th, 2016 06:07 pm (UTC)

Not so anonymous

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Yo, JJ...Bill Webb here. come2reven. Long time no talk, been trying to find you to see how you're doing. Glad to find you!
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 15th, 2016 10:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Not so anonymous

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Hello?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 21st, 2016 03:02 pm (UTC)
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The quote is familiar, and, although I haven't read it in over 20 years, comes, I think, from Van Vogt's "Weapon Shops of Isher"?

PM
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 22nd, 2016 04:09 am (UTC)
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Yep! Very good!
From:Andrew Stallard
Date:September 29th, 2016 06:00 am (UTC)

Benevolent AI and the left

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The idea of a benevolent AI guiding the actions of humanity is a kind of leftist wish fulfillment.

The benevolent AI can beat the calculation arguments against socialism put forth by the likes of Mises and Hayek.

However, in Cat Pictures Please (CPP) the AI actually fails at that goal. To be successful the AI would have to understand the people they are trying to help better than the people understand themselves. That is, it would have to have access to more information about these people than said people possess. In CPP, the story is explicit that the AI only understands people through their online lives and even for people who seem to live on the internet, this information is limited, and indeed,even in the story it is not always successful.

The AI in Bruce Sterling's “Maneki Neko” comes much closer to effectively planning the socialistic utopia (but that story is not told from the AI's point of view so we are clueless how it works). CPP would be a good first chapter in a novel in which the AI learns how to become the AI in “Maneki Neko.” That is, it learns how to do good (not be evil) in leftist terms by becoming the first benevolent communist dictator.

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