Saturday, April 21, 2007

"You mean, it's not supposed to do this?"

The Hugo nominees have been announced, I'm doing My Civic Duty and attempting to work through them before the winner is announced.

Just finished Watts' Blindsight - enjoyable enough. I'm a sucker for any novel that has an appendix with footnotes. But I think I might be jaded, given how highly praised it's been.

During WWII, Britain and the US were courting Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz. Churchill gave him a car (with the wheel on the disfavored side); but FDR gave him an airplane (with a support crew). There's a (probably apochryphal) story that they took the Bedouin king up for his first flight in an airplane, and asked him: "Aren't you impressed?" To which, his entirely reasonable response is supposed to have been: "Isn't it supposed to do this?"

Which is sort of my response to Blindsight. A good, solid sf novel, lotsa sense-of-wonder, but not quite paradigm-shattering, as some of the reviews would lead you believe. I've already read a bunch of stuff on the question of consciousness, thank you. This held my interest, but didn't really change the way I view the world. If I were twelve, it would have blown my head off, but today I think I need an even-stronger dose.

Oh, and I think I've invented a name for some of this stuff. Now, ANY work of speculative fiction - heck, any work of fiction - can be made to sound ridiculous by over-summarizing the plot, to the point of parody.

But I'm noticing a trend I think can be called "dash" SF: it's
"A familiar premise (dash) -- but with an exotic element added".

It's a re-telling of the history of the Napoleonic Wars -- but with DRAGONS.
It's a re-telling of the "Jupiter Space" segment of "2001" -- but with a VAMPIRE.

(Both of which are interesting novels, btw.) "Dash" SF. Or perhaps "Butwith" SF.



Monday, April 09, 2007

Talking Politics With Strangers

My one Conservative Pal and I have tentatively agreed that the liberal/conservative split might be as much a matter of temperment as it a question of ideology.

There are some political discussion boards over on Library Thing; I made the mistake of assuming that the level of discourse among bibliophiles might be higher than it is on your typical internet webstite. (Wrong.)

I've been chased out of a couple political discussions over there: once by a guy who, as it turned out, is literally certifiable (he's gone to jail for stalking...), a guy who was shortly thereafter banned from the site for being crazy; and since then, I was chased out of a discussion by a guy who's both breathtakingly Wrong, AND who is utterly certain of his opinions. (He might be crazy too, but at least he's smarter than the first nut.) When I showed him evidence of how a reasonable person might think his crazy opinions might be incorrect, he denounced me as both "impolite" and - remarkably - as "inane". Neither term is one I've ever heard applied to me before. But there's not much to be gained by arguing with strangers on the internets.

So I try to stay out of the political discussions over there. The liberal boards aren't especially deep, but the conservative boards I still sometimes read for amusement value. (e.g.: "William Blake wrote in response to JS Mill's utilitarianism" - pure comedy gold. Somebody even pointed out to them that that is just anachronistic tosh, but that correction went unregarded and ignored as the conservatives were too busy congratulating the author for his profundity. And he's their smart one.)

I've come to think that conservatives and liberals simply handle ideas differently. Jonathan Haidt is definitely on to something - "Conservatives have Issues that Liberals don't even recognize"; but it might be even simpler than Haidt's schema.

Liberals handle ideas as abstractions. Pretty much by definition, liberals can walk all around an issue, and look at it from all of its various angles.
That's why science is essentially a progressive activity. Liberals are forever challenging assumptions, even their own. (This is also part of the reason why conservatives accuse liberals of not HAVING any core values.) Criticize an idea, and a liberal might argue with you, but any liberal worth the name is simultaneously thinking "Hmmmm...there might be something to that" - and they'll then start marshaling evidence for-and-against, to help sort out where the truth lies.

(In passing, let's note that this tends to put liberals at a disadvantage in a debate. I'm thinking of conservative Lew Lehrman's ads attacking liberal Mario Cuomo: "Mario Cuomo says that there ARE no simple answers." This was said as though the ability to recognize complexity was a bad thing.)

Conservatives, on the other hand, hold ideas as part of their identity. They ARE (Fundamentalist)/(Republican)/(Whatever) - and if you attack one of their ideas, you're attacking part of their core identity. Nobody likes that. So they feel completely justified in reflexively counterattacking. Because, you know, they already possess The Truth. (Just ask them.) So an attack on The Truth/Themselves must met with what they consider to be simply a "reciprocal" counterattack. "Challenge my beliefs? You must be nothing but a troll or moron."
The conversations head downhill rapidly after that.

Liberals try to use discussion as a way of working toward The Truth; conservatives seem to use discussion as a means of re-affirming their group identity.

And woe to any liberal who disturbs their mutual affirmations.

Anecdotal Appendix: A year or so ago, My Conservative Pal and I were kicking around the issue of marriage equality, as we seem to do every year or so lately ... and MCP said, "Well, I think homosexuality is wrong"; and I then lured him into My Cunning Rhetorical Trap by asking him innocently, " 'Wrong'? What does that mean?"

To my delight, he fell for it, assuming that, by gum, they really DO exist: he actually was talking to a librul who apparently didn't know the difference between "Right" And "Wrong".

And I got to explain to him that his sense of what's "right" and "wrong" was not a sufficient basis for public policy. Society has already decided that homosexuality - 'right' or 'wrong' aside - was perfectly legal - and that therefore the question was one of equal protection before the law - and not simply what MCP thought was "wrong".

I didn't change his mind, of course. Because being against "gay marriage" is part of who he IS. It's how he defines himself, a part of his identity.

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