Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From Whence You Dream











*Apologies about being late again. I forgot it was Wednesday. Sorry.*

Dave mentioned in his post – and I guess we are still in that vein of discontent – that we don’t see much “puzzle” sf. Part of this, I think is because it is so very hard to write. I have a nodding acquaintance with science and read about science constantly, but I think just the research for a problem short story would take me as much as research for an historical novel. And it doesn’t pay as well.

But there is something beyond that – something that ties in with discussions at Liberty con the weekend before last. There was a panel on why children aren’t all that interested in space anymore. It tied in with several panels I’ve attended or participated in as to why fantasy is doing better among children than science fiction.

Always the conclusion of the panel is something like “because we’re living in science fiction now.” It is a conclusion to which I offer a dissenting opinion. That is not it. That is not even vaguely it. Because, my dears, I was once referred to as “a child of the lunar age” and I fail to see my moon colonies and – do I need to say it? – “Dude, where’s my flying car?”

No, the reason children by and large aren’t interested in science fiction – and beyond the terrible teaching of science many of them receive, I hear. This is a part I don’t know from personal experience because my children, except for one year, have had excellent science and math teachers – is that we’ve become all too serious about it.

Okay, okay, I can see you all frowning, and you can stop it. You can stop with the “science is a serious thing” too. Yes it is. But when something becomes so serious that you can no longer be playful with it, it is in fact dead.

What first attracted me to science fiction were the big what ifs. What if there was a civilization on Earth before us? What if our ancestors came from space? What if we were visited by an alien race that changed our way of life completely?

At fourteen I read – no, devoured – the whole line of “Chariots of the gods” poppycock. At some level I think I already knew it was poppycock, but it was interesting and exciting, and it made me dream. So did a lot of the science fiction I read at the time: Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Puppet Masters; City; Way Station; Our Children’s Children. It made me dream and speculate and ultimately sent me into learning real science.

Could any of those books get published today? Spacesuit, maybe, updated for the new tech. The others? Not a chance. Puppet Masters? But we “know” xenobiology wouldn’t allow for this; City? But ants could not civilize even if...; Way Station: why would they need a transmission station on Earth? How does it work? Our current science indicates... Our Children’s Children? Time travel could not work in that way. And if we sent them back in time, why haven’t we found any remnants.

I could give you counters to all these dream-killing thoughts. If you think about it, you can imagine ways around it, and there’s always “what makes you think our science is the definitive word?” What if there’s something as big as “heavier than air can’t fly” that we hold immutably true and isn’t? However, I couldn’t get it past the science-fiction editors (except maybe Baen who have more imagination than most and a fondness for space opera) and I certainly couldn’t get it past the reviewers.

And there we come to the core of it. We’ve become small and petty and scolding, holding on to those verities we “know”. We’ve forgotten how to – or are scared of – dreaming big dreams. And then we wonder why kids aren’t interested in science fiction? Oh, my heavens – they aren’t interested because it’s become another lesson to be learned, while sitting quietly, mind, and not playing with your toys.

(This is, I think , why Steampunk is big. It allows one to dream again.)

So am I saying we should publish “garbage” like our ancestors came from the stars? Yes. Yes, I am. A respectable liar-for-pay like us should be able to come up with some reason to explain away all those skeletons and evidence of human evolution on this planet. (I can come up with three off the top of my head.) And because humans are always more interesting than aliens we can’t understand, a respectable liar for pay should be able to come up with ten reasons why aliens will resemble us; why there are humans in the stars; why the starts are – to quote a book title – our destiny.

No, I’m not saying do PFA. What Rowena and Dave said about “some nano machine that is in effect magic” has been annoying me for decades. Ditto for a lot of other things (though I have a fondness for parallel universes.) Look, guys, I have to come up with a logical background for my FANTASY much less my SF. A good liar creates a background that makes people wonder – and which sends them back to check the details. And when you do this with kids, they will go back and study the science, at first to figure out a way it COULD be true. And then they’ll be hooked.

When all we’re offering them is exacting priesthood and barren worlds, in my opinion, there’s nothing there for them. Or for us. So let’s learn to dream again, and teach it to our children.

What do you guys think? Am I being too cavalier with sacred science? Do we have to watch that our kids don’t stumble off the path, even at the price of losing them forever? Who here wants to set off, right now, to a world where ants have developed a civilization, dogs are intelligent, and humans are hopping along the stars, meeting species they can in fact talk to? And how many here read about the big impact on Jupiter and thought ‘it’s aliens, trying to alien-form the system to their requirements’? How many of you look at the starry night and would like to think there are humans out there among the stars, and one day we’ll join them?

23 comments:

C Kelsey said...

"If you thought that science is certain - well, that is just an error on your part" --Richard Feynman

Absolutely correct Sarah. And the most agravating part is that I know dozens of scientists who have fun with their own work. Nothing tickles them more than to posit a rediculous assumption based on established science. Even stranger, I've yet to meet a scientist of any sort who didn't dabble in speculative fiction.

We all remember that Einstein said genius is mostly imagination. I remember a few years ago, Discover magazine posted an article on how to re-spark interest in science in school. Teach the weird, fun, imaginative stuff first! Then go to the basics. The problem is, how many teachers allow themselves to have fun with their jobs anymore? It they aren't having fun, how can you expect a kid to have fun?

As for the impact on Jupiter... my first thought was that it's a large scale kinetic impactor like NASA is planning for the moon. Eject a large amount of debree into space and analyze the contents. THEN the aliens will use Jupiter as a fuel source while they xeno-form Mars. :D

Anonymous said...

I second C Kelsey's comment on imagination. That was my first thought upon reading this post. I can't begin to tell you the people who surprise me by having not much imagination in their lives. They are intelligent, warm people who definitely do NOT sit around at night wondering about the things I do. And their kids. Lord, they wouldn't be caught dead wondering how you can fit so much information into that iPod or portable Gameboy.

Several thoughts come to mind as for the reasons. I don't know how much validity these possibilities have, but I think they are to be considered.

1. So many kids today have no patience. They come from a "now" culture. Wondering about things for which we have no answer now aren't worth the time. They can spend their time on truly fantastic electronic inventions which become more fantastic every day. Someone else will figure out the mysteries of life.

2. Teaching is a part of it. Erica hasn't had a decent science teacher more than she's had one. They haven't made it interesting or relevant to her life (not to mention they haven't known much about general science [consider her 8th grade teacher who'd never even heard of the string theory when Erica presented her report to the class]). And I believe the relevant issue is important when teaching science. A teacher must be able to help a child understand how science and the mysteries of science can be relevant to his/her life.

3. The passing of information down from adult to child is a massively important thing. I believe that imagination is a learned art. While my parents aren't quite as "out there" as I am, they did teach me growing up that we know less rather than more about our world. We've raised Erica to wonder about everything from what the mathematically possibilities of life in the stars really are to how many people ignore the fact that we live in a world of aliens (species with different values, language skills, and lifestyles) here on Earth and the possibilities of trying to communicate with them.

So why don't so many people have much imagination? I don't know.

Linda Davis

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kelsy -- Yes, imagination is so important. If you think you know the answers, you'll never ask the questions!

Linda -- Our media is responsible for dumbing down everything. Here in Australia the 'news' is 15 minutes of current affairs and 15 minutes of sport. Argh! Sport?

Teachers who are passionate about their subject and inspire learning are real gems.

And there is a saying, educate a mother and you educate a family. The greatest gift you can give your children is an enquiring mind.

Science Fiction should tickle your 'sense of wonder'.

Science stems from 'I wonder why ...'

In Renaissance times a person could learn everything there was to know (in theory). Now a person can learn a great deal about one small aspect. But to make sense of the world, you need to know a lot about a lot of things.

In 'Guns, Germs and Steel' l Jared Diamond combined knowledge from across different sciences to make sense of the original question, 'why do some peoples advance further than others?'.

It has nothing to do with innate cleverness or worthiness. It is purely the chance coincidence of where the peoples live and what resources are available. Without enough food to allow a portion of society to explore and think, your group will not have the luxury of invention.

Can you teach people to think?

Kate said...

I don't think it's just that science isn't wonderful anymore - I don't think anything is wonderful anymore. All that thought about the wonderful possibilities and where we could be in the future got flooded by a king tide of political correctness and not looking sideways lest you accidentally discriminate against someone.

You tell a kid "this is serious" and it's immediately boring.

Let the kid have fun with it, and imagination comes into play. Do the cool stuff, the neat, the weird, and scaffold the rest. If you don't squash the kid's imagination, teaching him to think isn't that hard. It's almost all state of mind: I hated math and sucked at it until we hit algebra and geometry. Then math stopped being boring old arithmetic and started being puzzles, and I loved it.

Most kids are capable of that to some extent. Okay, most of them aren't going to sit down and work out the equation relating the number of sides of an equal shape to the angle between the sides like I did, but they can and do enjoy playing games with the fields where they're comfortable.

If the poor sods have never been challenged because some idiot educators feared it would "damage their self esteem" it might be difficult to get that innate playfulness back.

And just as an example of "science can be so cool" - take a look at this

Trust me, you really do want to mute the sound. It might scar you forever otherwise. But the imagery is wonderful.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, your post brought a lot of comments to mind as I read. The first actually came from something my son said while we were cleaning closets earlier today. He came across some old workbooks I used when I was in elementary school. He looked them over and his first comment was to the effect of, "So, this is what real learning looks like." Then he looked again and just shook his head. When I asked him about it, he said the workbooks looked like fun.

That started me thinking. Teachers on the whole don't have time to make learning fun any more. They are too busy filling in all the forms required by the local school boards, the state and the feds. Every lesson plan has to be justified. More time, much more time, is spent simply justifying what they are doing than in actually preparing to teach.

Then there's the reading the students are assigned. Gone are the days when students read for fun. Now they are given books with "messages". Summer reading often consists of books dealing with MCs who are either addicts, pregnant, abuse victims, etc. When I asked once why these depressing books were assigned, I was told it was so the kids would be prepared for "real life".

Nor are our kids given any incentive in school to use their imagination. Gone are the days when students were encouraged to tell stories based on what they'd learned in class. Science is dry facts and figures, no cool experiments and explorations because we don't dare risk someone getting hurt.

So what do we do? We quit writing the depressing dystopian stories and give them a well-written, FUN tale. Challenge their minds as we challenge their imaginations. Make them feel good about reading and don't preach to them. To coin, sort of, a phrase, "If you write it, they will come."

tintinaus said...

I was just looking at a lot of the SF books I read as a youngster and one thing that stands out is that the are short! At around 200 pages people like Heinlein, Norton, Simak and Co. produced short SF stories full of wonder and adventure. There was quite often an underlying message hidden in there too to assuage the critics of "all action-no depth" stories.

Whenever I check the YA shelves today I don't see (m)any covers with alien worlds, monsters, or rocket ships in front of a starry backdrop and those that do are invariably fantasy. I see rows of Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda - bright covers, thin as to not panic the non-reader, interesting stories with a diverse group of characters and suitable for kids of 8-10! Sure the characterisations are a bit bare but really that is about the only criticism I would have about them.

What we need is bite sized meaty morsels that perhaps Ashton Scholastic would be happy to add to their lists(that is where I got my first Andre Norton book). With these 'lures' perhaps we can get kids looking to the stars again.

KylieQ said...

There are still teachers out there who try to make learning interesting. My husband teaches history and every semester he makes sure that each class does something fun related to the topic. When they are learning about Pompeii, they make their own frescos. For the Rats of Tobruk (sorry, not sure about the spelling), they go to Emu Gully where there is a sort of mock-up of the tunnels and they have to get their team through it while they get fired on with paint balls.
What bugs me is that there is an exception that somebody will make it all interesting so that they want to learn. What happened to the kids who wanted to learn for learning's sake? Now it's all spoon-fed to them and all they have to do is sit and wait for the information to come to them.
Part of the problem too is the amount of information available. Without an interest in a specific area, it would be overwhelming to know where to start learning.

KylieQ said...

Rowena - can you teach people to think? Absolutely. I work in student administration and we regularly have students ask how to fill in various application forms. The "name" field causes a lot of anguish - they point to it and ask what they should write there (as ridiculous as it sounds, I'm not kidding and these are 18 year olds). I know that a teacher friend of ours hands out exam papers with the student's names already filled out on them. No wonder they don't know how to do this for themselves when they get to university. If we stopped spoon-feeding them so much, they would learn to think for themselves.
Sorry to rant - this is a pet peeve!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kylie, I made sure I taught my kids to question, which is the first step in thinking.

It makes for some interesting discussions.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Tintinaus, you're right about the older SF books being shorter.

It becomes a really hard slog to stretch out a book to 1000 pages, like one I read recently. So many story threads, so many characters and no resolution at the end.

Amanda Green said...

Kylie, don't get me wrong. I cherish the teachers who manage to find a way to make class interesting. The problem here in Texas is that they really are not given much time to do so. Worse, if an administrator comes in and sees the teacher doing something not exactly approved of in the lesson plan, something not qualified and quantified by the TEAKS and PEAKS, that teacher can wind up in hot water. Our problem is the trend that has hamstrung teachers so they can't modify lessons to meet each student's needs. The result is the student who picks up the lesson quicker gets bored. The student who is a bit slower on the uptake is left behind. And there is nothing the teacher can do about it. To alter a lesson plan for a single student or a couple of students means weeks of paperwork, administrative hearings, etc., and no guarantee it will be approved. Sorry, this is a pet peeve of mine as a mother and former educator. I'll quit hijacking Sarah's blog now.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris K,
I think the teachers might not KNOW enough themselves to have fun with it. We've all become very serious about science, like it's some kind of revealed truth instead of a process of investigation to FIND the truth.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for science and rationality -- I am not however for "this you cannot thing" and "here you cannot go". I live by the dictum that there is more in the earth and the heavens than is dreams of in our philosophy -- and in the words of the time philosophy WAS science.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda,

I don't think we should blame the kids. It's too easy to do. Look, these kids "with no patience" read Harry Potter. Sometimes over and over again. My younger son read multiple translations of the Odyssey and compared them.

I really think it's a matter of our science fiction not using imagination but rather "what we know" and being too rigid. Okay, I confess I skipped most "science" in Heinlein's books, but there was enough around it to keep me interested in science. If that makes sense.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Yes and no. It's easier to teach people WHAT to think which is what our establishment tends to devolve to. Hence the clinging to science as revealed truth, instead of probing the unsatisfactorilly explained for better answers.

For instance, having devoted three years about ten years ago to read all on the evolution of man, I came away thinking Heinlein had it right when he said it had more holes than there are bastards in an European royal line. Does this mean I think we were created in totto? No. Even though I'm religious, I don't think G-d operates like that. He plays chess within the rules. But I do think that much of the argument over which skelletons belong in our closet and no are like the literary arguments I went through at college -- sound and fury signifying nothing except the reputation of those involved.

HOWEVER if I write a science fiction story that doesn't accord with the most popular/dissiminated current theory, I won't be able to get it published. And if I do, I will be crucified.

And that, my dear, is where science becomes dogma -- and not just on that front -- and we're all the poorer for it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

A lot of this is a culture that has decided to be "serious" things have to be dreary and dank and awful and we must always keep our sins before our eyes, like Victorian children.

I don't know how many of you remember that in the early nineties ALL the stories published were post apocalyptic, even when they had to rewrite the end of the cold war to do it. I called it the "rusty future" phase. I don't even know if it's still going on, as I've read very few short stories in the last five years or so. (Time. I read novels by preference.)

But I agree. If I want to read about someone in a miserable apartment, with clogged drains, I'll read the diary of the nearest college student.

It certainly doesn't give one that ... antecipation for the future that drove golden age sf

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,

Yes, our school system has a lot to answer for. But kids will learn anything they want whether the school offers it or not. IF they're motivated to learn.

Robert -- poor sap -- thought that edutainment was all there was in "computer games" until he was about seven.

Since we gave him a computer at three, he ran through all the magic school bus games and became an expert in geology, biology, etc.
No one was MAKING him. He was skipping meals to sit there and play.

So if we can give the kids science to dream upon, they'll learn. Oh, maybe the change won't be quick, but when THEY're teachers, it will be better for learning. But more important, when they're scientists, they'll be able to dream-ahead.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Tintinaus,

And we need editors that understand selling the kids "doom, gloom and how wretched the world is you'll inherit, and how we already know everything you need to know" is not the way to riches. Where to find them, I don't know.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kylie,

I've taught off and on, mostly language, and I agree with you. Not ALL material can be made exciting. My students are regularly aghast when I tell them all you can do with verbs and (some) grammar rules is cram. Practice won't help till you've crammed.

HOWEVER that said, they're not working because we haven't inspired them. Which brings us back to SF that inspires. (Hey, it's my dead horse. I can flog it if I want to!)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kylie,

the name thing sometimes has NOTHING to do with thinking. Robert has extreme test anxiety that often causes him to forget his name or the date. I used to do that...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Question, yes, but examine evidence too. And not be afraid to disagree with all your peers. This has caused some animated moments when the kids go head-on with teachers' and classmates.

First day of class, Eric's history teacher (9th grade, last year) asked him how he could be sure he existed. So, Eric started packing all his notebooks, put his backpack on, and headed for the door.

Teacher asked what he thought he was doing. Eric said if he didn't exist he didn't have to sit in class.

Teacher admitted Eric exists, end of argument.

Sometimes I wonder if I should have them registered as weapons...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Goat-gaggers are a weird trend in SF. I think they fit the "more book for the money"? model, but frankly it puzzles me. There might be economies of scale in large books, but I don't know which. I think smaller books, even if cheaper, would in the end wield more proffit, and surely the electronic typesetting has made them more feasible.

I think it's part of the trend towards "serious/weighty" tomes. If you can't be depressing, you have to be long.

Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed some of these long ones, but by and large I prefer a single strong plot line with smaller/less important subplots, to the over-braided everyone-but-the-cook stories. Maybe I'm an oddity.

Dave Freer said...

'why kids are more interested in fantasy' - Well, I'd like to dissent from their conclusion too, but in a rather different way. I don't think it's seriousness, or that we're living it. I think science in science fiction has become too remote, too cool flashing lights gadgets that you don't really have to understand - Hamilton, Stross, Doctrow... they might be really nice guys, but the science in their books leaves me cold. Yet the ideas in Heinlein got me daydreaming furiously. The ideas filled me with wonder... but in many ways they were big ideas and simple clear ACCESSABLE execution. I could mentally as a 10 year old understand rocketry in Heinlein. And really, engineering IS that simple, in concept at least. It's not easy to write accessable science. Being fun to read about, and having off the wall implauble ideas sorted with a bit of handwavium to make a fun story is part of that accessibility. Bling and dazzle are easier, but really that's NOT science. What humans do - no matter how complex the science is is, is to create accessable platforms. Computing got leagues harder and cleverer than it was back in punchcard time... but progrmmers made access languages, and tools to make it easier to get what is going - that little icon on your screen - makes a very complex programme accessible... and as often as not gives the user a good handle on what it does. Good sf needs to do the same.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

you know, Dave, you might be right. It's not how my brain is wired. Mind you, I still enjoyed the details say in Have Spacesuit, because I could see myself BUILDING the suit. And the details of how the Luna habitat works in TMIAHM. But when he got into orbital calculations for pages on end, I just went "okay" -- however, for Eric that's what rivets him. The explanation of how things work, in detail. Particularly mechanical. Even if it is made-up, you have to feel you could DO it.

In my own space opera I found myself fudging a lot of it because the character herself is facing a civilization so completely different. Maybe I'll try to improve on it in the sequel :D I mean some of this we can get a sort of squinty idea how it would work, and perhaps it would be better if grounded. (Who knows.) :)