Heinlein

Review | Arkwright by Allen Steele

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There’s a lot to love about Allen Steele’s Arkwright. I’m a little in love with it myself.

The story follows Nathan Arkwright and his family. Arkwright is a fictional contemporary of Heinlein, Clarke, and the golden age authors in SF. He’s best known for his Galaxy Patrol stories, a pulpy SF series that would, in his universe, help inspire young readers to go into the sciences, become astronauts, and generally love fiction and reading. When Arkwright dies, estranged from his family, he leaves his estate to the newly established Arkwright Foundation. The Arkwright Foundation, led by his granddaughter, is committed to taking humanity into space and interstellar travel.

The book is broken up into three parts: Nathan Arkwright’s history, the development of the Arkwright Foundation and its mission execution, and the results of the interstellar travel.

As a result, I want to talk about the book in parts.

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Nathan Arkwright’s history is easily my favorite part of the book. It composes the first third and is an homage to the golden age of SF. It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. If all you read is the first third of this book,  it will have been well worth your time.

Nathan Arkwright’s history recounts the Futurian movement in SF, a push to use SF as a means of talking about social and scientific change as opposed to simply a means of entertainment. The Futurian movement in SF caused an actual break in the SF world at a New York convention in 1937. Arkwright is caught up in the split, but doesn’t feel at home with either side of the movement. As a result, he observes the dynamic and interacts with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and Robert Heinlein. It’s basically the coolest alt history/fanfic ever.

Note: If you want to read more about the actual Futurian split in SF, you can read The Futurians by Damon Knight and it’s mentioned in Arthur C. Clarke’s autobiography.

Nat Arkwright and his friends are fun and likeable. They’re energetic and representative of the enthusiasm for SF and the industry that makes being a part of SF great. The tone matches the time and the characters undergo changes in their lives (WWII, family dynamics, friendships and relationships) and eventually go through the cycle of enthusiast, jaded, and renewed. There’s so much to love here.

The Arkwright Foundation comes about after Nat’s death and is led by his granddaughter Kate. A significant part of this section is about the generations that it takes to make interstellar travel actually possible. It’s not overly technical, but is probably a fair description of the time and efforts it would take to make a starship actually work. One of Nat’s descendants describes the family commitment as cult-like.

While I could appreciate this part, and many folks have compared it to a generation ship in so far as it takes multiple generations to make the mission happen. There’s definitely a point here.

While each of the characters are likeable and I can understand and appreciate the role this section plays, the story feels a bit like the kind of story you write as a kid. You know the one. There’s a mommy and a daddy who fall in love and have a baby. That baby grows up to fall in love and becomes a mommy/daddy and has a baby, so on and so forth into eternity. Each character has a role to play in the mission’s success, but it wasn’t as engaging as I’d like and felt a bit formulaic.

Once the ship lands, the story picks up again. The interstellar ship, the Galactique, successfully lands and begins to disseminate new plant and animal life to make their new home habitable. Because of the expense of sending actual adults, the mission collected zygotes to send into space and fertilize upon arrival. Those become the descendants of Nat Arkwright and his allies in space.

This section of the book really interested me. It poses the question: if we do send children into space to be born and grow and develop on their own, who do they become? And equally as interesting, are we still human if we change ourselves to adapt to a new world. Evolution and a nature v. nurture are all wrapped up in one here and I thought the results are fascinating. The characters and new social norms are captivating. The development of government and religion– or rather the exploration of what may come to pass– is so interesting. It’s the kind of question I actually spend a lot of time thinking about.

To make it better, the new humans have distinct features physically and linguistically. They walk on both all fours and bipedally. Their language is all computer abbreviations, min for minutes and secs for seconds without knowing the full word. It’s really an interesting line of thinking.

I really liked this novel, though I would say it’s U-shaped. Exciting and the beginning and end with a bit of a dull middle. Regardless, you can tell Steele spent a lot of time thinking about the way he uses SF and what there really is to love about it: the future and the changes the future brings.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review

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Let’s Talk about the Hugo Awards (Now with more libertarianism!)

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I’ve been increasingly frustrated by the state of the SFF world. It seems like it’s been one thing after another for so long. Constant low-level hostility and tension has been at best worrisome and at worse disturbing. I’ve mostly tried ignoring the chaos, especially considering that much of the disruptions have come from a very small number of people.

I still hold by much of what was said in my earlier post.

Unfortunately, the chaos has continued. Most recently, a false police report was filed by a Hugo nominee against another, leading to a full WorldCon investigation and the nominee’s work being rejected from a magazine. In the fall out, death threats and harassment ensued. We’ll be talking a little bit about this. For the full background on the story, you can see some of the posts I’ll link below.

While the “victim” of the false police report has accepted Lou Antonelli’s apologies, the actions of Antonelli haven’t ceased to have consequences. Antonelli’s actions in particular aren’t really what I want to talk about. I’m going to be addressing the actions we have seen in our community more broadly. It feels a bit ridiculous that I should even have to do this; these behaviors are far from common. Unfortunately, they’ve insinuated themselves into our world.

I’m approaching much of this from a more libertarian perspective. This is for a few reasons (1) I think that a libertarian discourse about rights and the role of the state is fitting for the behaviors we have seen in this community; and (2) I think that a discourse about positive and negative rights is a broadly applicable approach for the rhetoric that accompanies the behaviors we have seen recently.

When we talk about rights we do so in two terms: positive and negative. In short, positive rights are rights that obligate action and negative rights are rights that impede action. For example, the right to a public education obligates the State to provide schooling, thus it is a positive right. The right to free speech prohibits censorship, and thus is a negative right.

Below, I am going to use this framework to talk about specific action we’ve seen in SFF fandom lately and why it is unacceptable.

I’ll also be talking about the difference between “public” and “private.” One of the trickier aspects of this conversation is that I am going to be using two sets of public and private. In normal discussions, we talk about public and private in terms of who views an action and who is effected by it. If I am walking in the mall, I am in public. If I am in my home, I am in private. This is complicated by the role of the State (by which I mean your governing body). For the State, there is the private individual and the public one. For instance, you are still a public individual when you make a phone call to the police. You are a private individual when you are in the store, purchasing an item. I’ll try to be as clear as possible when using these different approaches to public and private.

Before we start

I want to make sure that we’re on the same page, here. If you are an adult, you have the right to make your own decisions. That includes decisions you make for your self, your dependents, and your property. I’m pretty generous about the application of this. Where your decision-making ends, by necessity, is where that decision impacts another person (person’s property or dependents included) about whom you do not get to make decisions.

This may be more recognizable as “You can swing a cat until it hits someone.” Your cat, your space, fine. If your cat hits someone in the face, not fine. Obviously, in a modern society, this isn’t something we can roll with carte blanche, but you get the point.

Why you don’t get to make threats on the internet

I’m a big believer in the right to free speech. Want to say something ridiculous? dumb? mean? racist? Go for it. You have the right to say just about whatever you want in public.

Normally.

Remember that you get to do whatever you want until it affects someone else. Threats to another inherently change the state of another person. The threat of bodily harm (or emotional, personal, or other) changes the ability of another person to make decisions. If you mean it or not, if you can carry it out or not, they must account for your reaction. Therefore, a threat is an impediment to them.

In this case, you have a negative right to censorship, but the other person’s negative right to bodily and personal safety takes priority.  This isn’t because your right to say what you want isn’t important. It’s because the violation of theirs is (1) more serious, and (2) has a wider implication for their rights overall. The violation of the right to bodily and personal safety is the cornerstone upon which all our other rights are founded. You cannot speak freely if you aren’t physically safe. You cannot practice religion if you are not physically safe. See where I’m going with this?

Hence, that person would justifiably call the police.

When we talk about the role of the State, there are very few commonly agreed upon duties that we assign it. Government is tricky and should be limited. One of the almost universally agreed upon roles we attribute to the government is the protection of property against legitimate threats to its injury. This includes one’s person. You own your body.

The internet can be tricky. It sure feels like a private interaction when you send a comment or a message to someone over the computer. After all, you may only intend for them to read it. Here’s the kicker: the internet isn’t actually private and it wouldn’t matter if it were.

The internet is actually a public forum. Legally, we treat comment and message boards as though you were shouting in the park. This makes sense because by and large our internet usage is widely visible. When it isn’t, your data and message is constantly accessible by a large group of people and companies: your internet provider, the website you use, the website’s hosts, your recipients’ internet provider, the website they’re using, the website’s host, etc.  Luckily, the same rules apply to the internet as if you were in a park. You can basically say whatever you want, with the understanding that, like in a park, you may be overheard even when it seems private.

Regardless, it wouldn’t matter even if a threat via the internet were privately sent. A threat to one’s person is still a threat. Even if you say you didn’t mean it. Even if it was just to scare them. Even if it was just out of rage. Any threat to one’s body, property, or dependents can legitimately be brought to the police. No matter who makes it or where it was said. The State’s involvement here is 100% legitimate.

Why you don’t get to call the police and make a false report

The police force is, at least in theory, a public good (note: I use public good here to mean public resource). Often, we think of the police as a way to keep people from breaking the law. Their role, however, is more fundamental.

The police force is a problematic presence at best. They must balance between protecting our fundamental rights (most notably property right) and enforcing the will of the State. If you’re suspicious of the police, you have good reason to be. The expansion of police duties necessarily comes at the expense of liberty.

So, how do you, oh suspicious one, keep the police force limited? You don’t invite them where they aren’t needed.

We tell our three-year-olds only to call 9-1-1 when there is an emergency. This is vital when we consider the police as a public good. The police has limited personnel. They cannot be everywhere at once and by calling them when you don’t need them, you limit the ability of the police to deal with real threats.

Moreover, when you call the police when they are not needed, you invite the expansion of the police force, further legislation, more government. If you are interested in limiting the size and scope of government — the amount of interference that the government can run in the individual’s life– you should not call in false threats. It’s the surest way to expand that which you want less of.

Why you don’t get to give out someone’s personal information to people

Private information. Private information. Private information.

We talked earlier about the difference between private and public. Remember?

There is a right to privacy. It protects your ability to make your own choices. You cannot be autonomous if you don’t have the right to keep other people from sticking their noses in your business.

So, when you go dig through the deep dark depths of the world to get someone’s personal information, like their real name, where they live, their cell phone number, you are violating their right to privacy (again a negative right).

When you do this, knowing that people are asking for that information, knowing that people will be using it for harmful and malicious purposes, you are culpable for the harm that results. You have violated a right, thus enabling harm. Don’t do it.

This is far from an exhaustive list of things that are happening. Regardless, I think if we respect one another’s rights, we cut a lot of the bad off at the head. Basically, just think WWHD? What would Heinlein do?

Links

WorldCon Statement on Lou Antonelli and David Gerrold: https://www.facebook.com/sasquan/posts/880154438687988
Pattern Matching: Lou Antonelli and the Sad Puppy Slate: http://www.pretty-terrible.com/2015/08/10/pattern-matching-lou-antonelli-and-the-sad-puppies/
File 770 on Antonelli’s apology: http://file770.com/?p=24262
Another File 770: http://file770.com/?p=24256
Editor Carrie Cuinn on the reaction to her pulling Antonelli’s work: http://carriecuinn.com/2015/08/10/a-statement-about-lou-antonelli-lakeside-circus-harassment-and-safety/