Sunday, April 10, 2016

On a Rail to the Future

If you were to take a measuring tape to one of the many railways embedded in or buried under Toronto's streets -- not recommended, incidentally, because those tracks are heavily used -- you'd find something unique, if a bit pedestrian. Every railway has a track gauge, which is just how far apart the rails are. The miniature railways you'll find at certain tourist attractions may have only a fifteen-inch gauge, while the broad-gauge railways of India, Pakistan, and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit are five and a half feet wide. In Toronto, you'd find that the rails are built to a gauge of 4 feet, 10 7⁄8 inches -- just slightly wider than standard gauge -- and nowhere else in the world will you find operating tracks built to that specification.

It's not because Toronto wanted to be unique and special. It goes back to 1861, when the first horsecar lines started operating in the young city; the rails were built with that specific gauge so that the carriages in use at the time could themselves take advantage of the rails. As the streetcar system expanded, the track gauge was maintained so that the same equipment could be used across the entire network, and as the Toronto subway was initially aiming to use streetcar-derived rolling stock, the underground railways use the same track separation because of one decision a hundred and fifty years ago.

Why do I bring this up? Because it's a simple illustration of how history echoes; not only can simple choices have wide-ranging consequences, but the past reverberates in the present.

These rails haven't even been used for fifty years, and yet they're still here.
This is not something a lot of people appear to understand. Case in point: Hillary Clinton, the presumptive heir to the Democratic presidential nomination because, well, her last name is "Clinton." Back in 2010, while she was still Secretary of State, she commented on the issue of African economic development, but in the sort of tin-eared way that only a Westerner who thinks history is "just a bunch of things that happened" could.

"For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century," Reuters quoted Clinton as saying. "We've got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let's make money for everybody."

Think back to rails for a moment. Toronto's unique track gauge is the result of a simple choice a hundred and fifty years ago, but it's not going away. To remove it from the face of Earth would not only mean tearing up eighty-two kilometers of streetcar lines, but the complete re-railing of nearly a hundred kilometers of subway and the retrofitting of hundreds of subway trains and streetcars. It would take a supreme effort to make the gauge go away.

The Western conquest and occupation of Africa lasted for decades. It carved scars that will never heal. Just as the outlines of the Roman Empire are visible in the shape of the world today, two thousand years later -- hell, there's a legend that says wagon wheel gauges go back to ruts cut by Roman chariots -- in the forty-first century, the damage that the West caused to Africa, and Asia, and, hell, anywhere that wasn't the West, will still be visible.

It will take a supreme effort to for the conquered and oppressed regions of the world to heal. It is not something that can just be "got over." To make a statement like that betrays not only privilege but unthinking privilege, and helps illustrate why Clinton is fortunate she's going against candidates as oozily unlikeable as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

History is loud, and we live in an echo chamber. The voices of the past still whisper today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tailings of the Golden Age #5: The Trouble with Telstar

"The Trouble with Telstar," by John Berryman
Appeared in Analog, June 1963

These space-jockeys have their own vocabulary, and their own oh, so cool way of playing it during the countdown. I'm pretty familiar with complex components, but they were checking of equipment I never heard of. We had gyros--hell, our gyros had gyros. And we had tanks, and pressures and temperatures and voltages and who-stuck-John. It was all very impressive.

Analog doesn't have a reputation as a hard-science magazine for nothing. Open a copy from the 1960s: amidst the stories and John W. Campbell's angry denunciations of scientific orthodoxy, you'll find ads from outfits like Republic Aviation and General Dynamics and Allied Chemical. Analog gained a reputation as being filled with stories about engineers solving technical problem because, to a great degree, that's the audience it was aimed at in the '60s--and that's the audience that John Berryman's "The Trouble with Telstar" was written to appeal to.

Mike Seaman has a problem that, presumably for once, doesn't have anything to do with his name. He's one of the top men behind the communication satellites made by Communications Corporation--truly, a staggeringly inspired name, but I've seen ones in real life every bit as ridiculous--and these satellites are failing in a way that can't be pinned down. There's a lot of talk about busted solenoids and backroom back-and-forths about who's responsible, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the point: apparently, it'd be cheaper to send a man (because 1960s) into orbit to repair the satellites. Much of the story deals with Seaman training for his mission and dealing with friction from the established astronauts, who look at him as a jumped-up repairman. Granted, they're not wrong; he's flying the mission not because he's an ideal astronaut candidate, but because he came up with the idea for the orbital repair and his bosses volunteered him. Life in the private sector sure is grand.

Once in orbit, Seaman fixes the satellites and there's some brief peril, because there's always got to be some kind of peril. Fortunately, with the production of fresh space debris that totally won't come back to haunt anyone ever, the day is saved and Our Hero™ can claim his reward in the form of his boss's secretary, who only dates astronauts. ("If you haven't made at least three orbits, she won't even have dinner with you.")

Maybe this would be entertaining to an engineer in 1963 who has to deal with crap like this on a regular basis, but to a non-engineer like myself in 2016 it's just... boring. I can see why Campbell printed it, because John W. Campbell loves him his stories of engineers solving technical problems, but that doesn't change the fact that it's aggressively mediocre. I mean, there wasn't even any quote from it ridiculous enough to stick in my mind for use at the top of this post. It's just inert, but that didn't keep it from being on the cover of the issue it ran in!

Now, to be fair, there were some parts in there that struck me as interesting--but only in a historical context; had I read the story in 1963 they would not have stood out. Berryman did earn a nod in that he anticipated neutral buoyancy training for EVAs a couple of years before NASA picked it up. Seaman is launched to orbit in a Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which at the time would have placed the story in the late 1960s. In reality the Dyna-Soar program was cancelled six months after the issue disappeared from newsstands, so the story has an unintential alternate history vibe to it now. Berryman's frequent use of "telstar" as a standard noun for a communications satellite felt like a brush with a parallel dictionary, before the terminology of space had settled firmly down into what we have today.

As well, the story is only passively sexist, which practically feels like a victory for something printed by John W. Campbell in 1963. The secretary character has no character, is described little beyond "small, dark, intense... pert [and] lively," and the punchline of the story is her being dumped by Seaman: "no dame was worth that ride."

I will note that the John Berryman who wrote this is not the John Berryman who's listed on Wikipedia. Unless you're a weirdo like me reading old magazines for fun, there's no real reason for you to have heard of him; the science-fictional Berryman's career was dominated by short fiction, and trailed off shortly after "The Trouble with Telstar" was written; his last credit is 1986's "The Big Dish," which was also an Analog cover story, and he died in 1988.

If you're really interested, you can read "The Trouble with Telstar" for free at Archive.org. There's also a Kindle edition available on Amazon for $5.45, which is utterly ridiculous; the entire June 1963 issue of Analog cost $0.50, and even with fifty years of inflation factored in, that's only $3.91. But unless you have some specific interest in the history of the field, there's not much to recommend spending your time with it.

Previous Tailings
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tunnel Visions: The Docklands Light Railway

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.


London! Home to the mother of metros, the sprawling London Underground, opened in 1863 and connecting the core of the Square Mile with the commuter fringes of Metro-land, and you can't seriously believe I was going to do one of these things about the Underground, can you? Entire books can be, and have been, written about the Underground. Books can be written out individual lines of the Underground, lines which are more complicated and cover more ground than entire systems that have previously appeared in Tunnel Visions. Maybe if I spent a couple of years living in London and using the Tube every day, things would be a bit different, but today it's just not on. I mean, come on. This is the first time I've got out of North America for this. Baby steps.

What's far more manageable on a sightseer's budget is the Docklands Light Railway--a network which you could easily miss, even as a transit fan touching down in the capital. It doesn't have the history or the character of the Tube, for sure, and it's not well-known enough to show up in blockbuster movies even when it would make sense to in the narrative--I'm looking at you, Thor: The Dark World--but it is small enough to hold a picture of in one's head, and concise enough for an outlander to get at least an impression of in the course of a week and a half.

That's small in the context of London, of course. What you've got to remember is that London is gargantuan. The DLR... the DLR is less so.

System

Two DLR trains pass over the waters of Middle Dock in Canary Wharf, above the skyscrapers of the City of London.

As its name suggests, the Docklands Light Railway was built to serve the Docklands region in the East End, and not Heathrow Airport. It started running in 1987, when the light rail renaissance saw rails being laid across Europe and even bits of North America, and when the Docklands were still transitioning from being, y'know, docks. Today it reaches across the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and beyond, linking Greenwich and Beckton to London City Airport and the claustrophobic, sweaty subterranean hell that is the Bank-Monument station complex. My friends mocked me about it and my desperation to use alternate routes between platforms after the incident, but that's exactly what it is. Come on, tell me I'm wrong.

By the early 1990s the DLR remained fairly limited, with lines connecting Tower Gateway to Island Gardens at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs and from there to Stratford in the north--though even then, the underground connection to Bank and the eastern extension to Beckton were under construction, as was the station at Canary Wharf. It wasn't until 1999 that it was taken south of the Thames through Greenwich to Lewisham, and it hopped the river again ten years later as part of an extention to Woolwich Arsenal. Today, the system touches on wide areas of East London beyond those pockets served by the Tube or the new Overground, and is big enough that it could be dropped down into a North American city on its own and be one of the continent's larger networks. There are plenty of cities over here that would love to have something like the DLR.

In London, though, it's just another part of the patchwork transit that shuffles people across the capital like so many things that are shuffled. Hell, Mark Mason--who's famous to me for performing the not-entirely-sane act of walking the extent of the London Underground on foot--doesn't even think it should be considered part of the same system, and he's not wrong. From the technology it uses to the nature of the route, the DLR feels more like some other city's transit system grafted onto London after some marathon urban surgery session. Considering that that feeling holds clear today, almost a year after I first stepped foot on the thing, I'd say there's a firm point to it. Nevertheless, there is noticeable overlap between the DLR and the Underground--automated announcements, for instance, are shared between them, such as the one that often reminds riders to keep their Oyster contactless payment cards separate from others to avoid card clash. Worthwhile advice, incidentally, as I discovered that my Presto contactless payment card did, in fact, cause card clash.

The future will see it tied more tightly into the transit knots that bind the capital together, though. Construction on Crossrail, the mammoth fifteen-billion-pound project that will route even more suburban trains through London from 2018, is advanced enough that I could see the grand shell of the future station at Canary Wharf and the works underway at Custom House and the portal near Canning Town--connections that will further open up east London. Though I don't imagine many tourists will end up that way regardless. For me, my explorations of the DLR made me wonder when someone would take note of my accent and ask what the hell I was doing out there.


Stations

A late-evening DLR train waits beneath the glass roof of Canary Wharf station.

As of this writing, Docklands Light Railway passengers have their choice of forty-five stations to alight at, although Woolwich Arsenal is the odd station out here for being the only one beyond Zone 3 and therefore the only station I never even tried to reach--I mean, come on, if I was going anywhere beyond Zone 3 that wasn't Heathrow, it's be Cockfosters. Of these, seven link up with the Underground--though Canary Wharf's "link" is more theoretical than actual, considering the tales I've heard of people losing their way between one and the other, and the jet-lagged wandering about I had to do before I found it--and other connections enable transfers to the Overground and the Emirates Air Line, because I guess there will always be people who want to see the Millennium Dome from the air without having to get on an airplane. If you're looking for a plane, though, you can pick one out on the London City Airport departures board they've thoughtfully installed at Platform 3 at Canning Town.

There's also substantial integration with mainline National Rail services throughout the system, though I was only to experience it at Lewisham, the terminus of the DLR's branch into Greenwich. When I alighted there, I ran into a tide of people coming from the other end, a veritable Bloor-Yonge transfer's worth of people streaming out of the National Rail station. There were quite a few taxis waiting to pick up fares, but for a suburban transfer station, its commuter parking was surprisingly nonexistent. I come from a Canadian perspective, remember--the suburban stops on Toronto's commuter rail lines feature multi-storey car parks. The only allowance for parking I found nearby was for the Tesco next door, and with a £70 charge for staying longer than three hours, I doubt it's welcoming to commuters. Hell, for that rate you could park in the City, I'd imagine. Though I don't know if there are any parking garages there, between all those old roads with oddly specific names like "Old Jewry" or "Poultry." Not Poultry Road or Poultry Street, mind you--just Poultry.

Given that background, I was gratified to discover that the DLR maintains the English tradition of maintaining odd names that made sense a hundred or a thousand years ago. I mean, it'd never occur to me to name a station "Mudchute," especially existing as it does between calm parkland and undoubtedly super-expensive housing on the Isle of Dogs--but hell, there was a chute there for getting rid of mud during construction a hundred and sixty years ago, and it's not likely to have any competition in the name department any time soon, so why not? Just up the line you'll find Crossharbour, which provided a brief reminder of home, because even disgraced British criminals like Conrad Black need transit stations to lord over, even if he's actually a baron.

One thing that struck me fairly early on about the DLR--in fact, it's the second entry in my notes--is that there are spots where you can easily see one station while in another. Granted, this isn't unheard of outside London, since there are points along Toronto's Bloor-Danforth Line where the lights of the next station are visible in the distance, bright against the tunnel's darkness. But following the pedestrian path through the closely-bounded confines of Millwall Park, Island Gardens Station had only just disappeared behind a bend of foliage when the signs for Mudchute came into view, and East Ferry Road doesn't seem nearly developed enough to sustain a justifiable catchment area for both stations. Aside from a pub advertising cash prizes for trivia night (£1 per person to enroll), it's lined with the sort of brick-solid workmen's homes that have undoubtedly been colonized by professionals who spend their days in Canary Wharf shuffling around other peoples' money.

Appropriately enough, then, Canary Wharf refined the concept beyond anything I was familiar with. From its DLR platforms, the station at West India Quays is clearly visible from Canary Wharf, which itself is clearly visible from Heron Quays, to the extent that the Underground connection at the Jubilee Line applies pretty much equally to Canary Wharf and Heron Quays--staying as I was down by Island Gardens, I frequently found it easier to hike to Heron Quays and be one station closer to alighting.

That is, if you're able to alight at your station at all. It's a good thing that DLR trains allow passengers to pass from one carriage to the next, as on the Toronto Rocket; at Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (a committee-chosen name if ever there was one) and Elverson Road, the standard DLR trains are actually too long for the platforms, requiring automated announcements reminding riders to move to the center of the train to alight, because allowing people to walk off onto, say, the third rail would be a Bad Thing Indeed™. TfL gets around that by keeping the first two and last two doors shut, but if thirty-two years of life has taught me anything, it's that I'm shocked as hell that you don't see people trying to force them open. Maybe it does happen and the news just doesn't cross the Atlantic.


The DLR's Deptford Bridge station, well done up in concrete, stretches across Blackheath Road.

Another thing that struck me about the DLR is how much variety there was in the nature of its stations. Not architecturally, I mean--the oldest is younger than I am, and so many of them are trapped in that late-20th century glass-and-steel style that can't hold a candle to the sort of stuff that Leslie Green designed for the Underground a hundred years ago. No, in this case I just mean the way they interact with the cityscape around them. Take, for example, the terminal stations at Bank and Tower Gateway--the former accessed by a five-minute march (I timed it) from the District Line and Circle Line platforms through cramped and overheated passageways, and the latter accessed by a five-minute walk from Tower Hill station, though to be fair I started my clock from the platform, and most of that time was spent getting out of Tower Hill station. Once all the other tourists peeled off toward the Tower of London, the route to Tower Gateway was bright and open and much preferable, honestly, and from it the DLR sets off comfortably above the London streetscape.

Much of the DLR is elevated, at that. Along the Isle of Dogs, it only meets the ground at Mudchute--where a man who looks like he's just come from the modern office, smartly casual dress with a backpack slung over one shoulder, alights with a Sainsbury's bag weighed down to translucency and hurries away past a sign bearing Boris Johnson's promise that it's only seventeen minutes from there to Bank--and then only to sink underground to Island Gardens and thence to Greenwich; before the extension was tunneled under the river, Mudchute and Island Gardens were both elevated stations. Island Gardens, beyond its vaguely-nautical flair, is a bit of an imposing station if only becuse of what I presume are ventilation shafts for the tunnels--if it ever shows up on an episode of Doctor Who, presumably they'll prove to be disguised planetary defense laser cannons or something. Other stations, like Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich, are deep enough underground that there's enough room to put the tunnelling shield they used to build it on display, while ones like the Beckton terminus are at ground level.

Then there are places like Stratford, and though it's no Stratford International it's still a riot of walkways and platforms connecting to the Central Line and Jubilee Line, the London Overground, National Rail, and three distinct branches of the DLR itself. Ten months on, I remember it mostly as "busy." I managed to find the platform for the DLR branch I wanted just after I left, and even then it only ran as far as Canary Wharf. The thirteen-minute wait for the next train was the longest I experienced in London, and is leagues better than most American transit agencies I've ridden with. After I lived through those lucky minutes and headed away, the train passed construction sites, former Olympic venues, well-maintained greens and buildings with letters falling off the sides. There was a gritty industrial feeling to it all, I thought, much like Scarborough as seen from the RT.

As in Scarborough, it can get cold on the DLR's platforms at night. After 11, when the trains have pulled back to every ten minutes, there's plenty of time for bracing winds off the river to blow in.

Equipment

A DLR train picks up new passengers at West India Quay station.

If I could only use one word to describe the Docklands Light Railway, it'd be "automated." Like the SkyTrain in Vancouver and like the future bearing down on us like a shotgun full of robot parts, the DLR's trains drive themselves across the network with no direct human intervention outside of the transit control center. At least, that's how it works as an ideal. In reality, automation is still a fickle, finicky thing, for which everyone can thank their jobs for as long as they still have them.

Like the SkyTrain, DLR trains can be operated by a human when necessary, and on Monday, August 11, 2014 I witnessed a hell of a lot of DLR trains being operated by humans. The previous night, a disabled train at Westferry and a signal delay had halted movement across the entire DLR network, a delay that lasted at least as long as it took me to ride the Tube from Monument to Bow Road and then walk to Bow Church, where I found two trains frozen at their respective platforms with doors wide open. Even when the system wasn't rebounding from a major collapse, I found my path crossing with human staff fairly often, though generally in the form of fare inspectors. I encountered fare inspectors--they may have been the same person, actually, now that I think about it--on the first two trips I ever took on the DLR.

The trains themselves are fairly unremarkable, and if not for the general '80s-retro blockiness of their design and the English accents in the announcements and among the passengers, I could have been back in Vancouver. Presumably owing to London's present cool and rainy climate, there wasn't much air conditioning that I recall encountering along the system, and if you wanted ventilation you cracked a window as if you were on a bus. Their self-driving nature means that passengers can get a good view down the tracks from the front car, but unlike Vancouver, there's no single seat in the middle that makes you feel like the captain of the train.

Still, the rolling stock is small and personal enough that the "Light Railway" part of the DLR's name isn't just an affectation. They're not that much bigger than the new streetcars that have begun to hit Toronto's streets, and which will be the backbone of this city's light railway network if it ever gets off the ground. Still, I don't imagine that many tourists get out to Tower Hamlets, and there are plenty of politicians out there who would be shocked to find that a city as world-renowned as London is willing and able to build light railway networks where they're called for.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

The way up to Tower Gateway, the original Central London terminus of the DLR.

Once I figured out how to get from Canary Wharf Underground station to Canary Wharf DLR station, things were pretty easy-going from there. The Oyster card is pretty foolproof, and I had plenty of chances to practice on the Underground before I made it to the DLR--hell, the biggest issue I encountered was that DLR stations lack turnstiles, and so there'd constantly be the little voice in the back of my head trying to convince me that I'd forgotten to tap my Oyster card and that I'd really rue this day. As I recall, the biggest problem with tapping in ended up boiling down to "where is the Oyster card reader"--at Heron Quays, in particular, it seemed like there were only a couple of readers, set down at a detour from the escalators that took passengers up to the hull-shaped platform. I made sure to tap on the way out, as well, even though I was travelling on a 7-day Travelcard and may not have needed to. But that's the way it goes sometimes. If we didn't do things we didn't need to, the world would be a lot less odd.

Likewise, it's easy to get into DLR stations. The elevated ones I visited all had escalators and elevators, and I'm given to understand that that sort of access holds true for the system as a whole--considering it opened in 1987, when people had actually started to give a shit about other people, I'd expect nothing less. The stations themselves change from side-platform to center-platform with little rhyme or reason--Canary Wharf DLR has a Spanish solution setup with six platforms, the first time I'd encountered one--but the platforms are all equipped with LED boards telling you where the next three trains are going from there, and how long it'll be until they leave. Still, access isn't ideal--at some elevated stations, like Westferry, changing from one branch to the other means you have to descend from the station to street level, cross a couple of streets, and then climb back to to the far side platform and hope you haven't missed the train.

As long as you're there, though, you'll be able to make it open for you. DLR trains don't necessarily open all of their doors automatically; instead, like the Phoenix Metro and Toronto's newest streetcars, each set of doors comes with a button that you can press to open them, though a lot of the time you'll be preempted by people alighting through the same doors.

Signage on the DLR is of the same quality that I encountered on the Underground, and it shares the same Johnston font. Also shared are the "Travel Better London" posters, though some were not entirely as applicable--the "Remember to Stay Hydrated" one, for starters, which made far more sense in the context of a poorly-ventilated, standing-room-only Metropolitan or District Line train running through 150-year-old tunnels. It stuck with me for a while until I realized the reason it was giving me so much trouble was because "oughta" and "water" don't rhyme in a Canadian accent.

DLR ticket vending machines at Deptford Bridge station.

Generally speaking--I'd prefer to dispense with the hedging, but I didn't visit them all and I'd rather not rely entirely on fallible memory--DLR stations are equipped with ticket vending machines that allow you to top up your Oyster card by cash, credit, or debit, capable of speaking a panoply of European languages like Polish, French, and Swedish, and they had no problem at all with my North American credit card. Considering the way things are going, though, these may be on the outs in another few years; during my time in London, I kept seeing advertisements and reminders about how riders could use bank cards directly to pay for Tube or DLR fares, without having to first load money onto an Oyster. It's the sort of innovation I'd imagine Toronto picking up in, oh, another forty years or so.

Conclusion

A Stratford-bound train waits to depart from the terminus at Beckton.

This write-up was on unfortunate hold for a while--hell, as I write this, it's been nearly ten months since I took off from Heathrow--but I'm still glad I experienced the DLR and the area of London that it serves. I was there for the World Science Fiction Convention, and if it had been anywhere in London but ExCeL, I doubt I'd have wandered into the DLR's territory, something that's probably true for a great majority of the tourists that visit London. It felt off the track beaten by tourists, beyond the places that everyone says you have to go to when you visit there, and consequentially it felt valid to me, more real--that I was experiencing the city as it is when the knots of foreigners aren't gawking, that I could start to feel the pulse of the capital.

Seeing as how I am a foreigner, it's a bit hollow, I know. I don't claim to understand the DLR--a week's worth of disconnected rambles, generally independent of needing to get to a specific place by a specific time, can't match the experience of someone who relies on it from day to day. Having thought about it, though, I feel like no matter where we go in the world, we can only really understand shadows.

Maybe that's enough.



Previous Tunnel Visions
this tunnel visions brought to you by liquor and peanuts.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Hugo Rockets, Reaction Mass

It's been nearly a week since news of the Hugo nominees dropped, and there have been approximately seventy billion reaction posts and tweets from everyone even tangentially related to the whole mess--so at this point, I figure, my neck is aching and everyone else has said something about it, so why not me? I'm not going to go into deep details; if you're unfamiliar with the situation, suffice it to say that this year's Hugo Award nominations were dominated by a particular voting slate that has, among other things, marked itself as a reaction to the tides in which science fiction's most storied award has been following recently. It's divided between the Sad Puppies, headed by writers Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, and the Rabid Puppies, led by racist, sexist, friend to gators, and all-around loathsome person Theodore Beale, who (surprise, surprise) snaffled multiple nominations for himself under his pseudonym Vox Day.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't wade into this morass at all--I have enough stressors in my life as it is, and my social privilege is such that "just ignore it" is a valid option for me. But I will anyway, because as I discovered for the first time last Saturday, I have a personal connection to the Sad Puppies' slate. Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is up for Best Semiprozine, and this affects me because I have been a slush reader for ASIM for the last seven years--which means that if you sent a story to ASIM at any time since 2008 and got rejected, I may well have been one of the people that said "no" to it.

Working with ASIM was my first entry into the world of science fiction, before I'd placed a single story anywhere, well before I'd ever been paid for my words. As I write this there's a new piece of slush in my inbox waiting for my review. I'm happy to be able to be a part of something that people can enjoy, to help make it be as good as it can be.

Which is why, when I saw that ASIM had made its first-ever Hugo ballot thanks to the Sad Puppies' efforts, the thing that echoed in my mind was this: your approval fills me with shame.

Why?

Because, as far as I can see it, the Sad Puppies appear to spring out of the same suspicious, conspiratarian view that characterizes so much of modern American culture, and as such is yet another example of Americans ruining everything the rest of us. (When it comes to science fiction fandom, see also the DC in 2017 Worldcon bid Kool-Aid-Manning into a field that was until then divided between Japan, Montreal, and Helsinki, because god forbid the Americans let the rest of us have one fucking year to ourselves.)

Do a search for "Sad Puppies slate" and the first thing you'll find at the top of Google News is a National Review article headlined "Social-Justice Warriors Aren't So Tough When Even Sad Puppies Can Beat Them."

Go exploring for comments from the people involved and you'll see things like Larry Correia's belief that the Hugos have been "politically biased," or that there's "an ongoing culture war between artistic free expression and puritanical bullies," and his statements from last year that "a chunk of the Hugo voters are biased toward the left, and put the author’s politics far ahead of the quality of the work."

Search for "Sad Puppies" in general and you'll find a lot of stuff framing this not as a gesture to get overlooked works on the ballot, but as a way to stick it to social justice warriors.

It doesn't exactly inspire me with confidence as regards the purity of their motives.

Not that I think that they're bad people, necessarily; I can't speak for everyone, but going by what I've seen and heard, I believe that at least Torgersen really is interested in highlighting works that he sees as not falling into the "Hugo Standard"--but I also believe that he's gone about it in an exceptionally ham-fisted manner.

I believe that he's a modern-day Sorcerer's Apprentice, and he's unleashed something that he was never able to control.

But.

I don't care if the SPs think they're striking a blow for overlooked works. What I care about is that for me, their actions have tainted the entire process. That any award resulting from this would always ask the niggling question "is it really that good, or was it just politically acceptable to a bunch of people gaming the system?" It's true that the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are, this year, distinct--but this is the first year this is true, after the Sad Puppies got one of VD's works onto last year's ballot, and which finished sixth behind No Award--but I will also point out that the SP state still includes three nominees from Castalia House, a brand-new publisher established by, and heavily printing, Beale.

But I'll tell you what I'm going to do when I get my voters' ballot. I will take that Best Semiprozine category, and I will not rank ASIM--but I will rank "No Award."

Why?

Because being tied, even tangentially, to those who think that people like Theodore Beale and John C. Wright represent the best of science fiction makes me feel dirty.

Because I don't want your goddamn charity.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tailings of the Golden Age #4: Industrial Revolution

"Industrial Revolution," by "Winston P. Sanders" (aka Poul Anderson)
Appeared in Analog, September 1963

He was still gladder when the suits were off. Lieutenant Ziska in dress uniform was stunning, but Ellen in civvies, a fluffy low-cut blouse and close-fitting slacks, was a hydrogen blast. He wanted to roll over and pant, but settled for saying, "Welcome back" and holding her hand rather longer than necessary.

Science fiction of the 1960s, ladeez and germs--when we're talking about science fiction that John W. Campbell bought for Analog, at that time a titan, it could practically be its own subgenre. I've often remarked that the lion's share can be summed up as "white male engineers solving technical problems," and "Industrial Revolution" is a typical specimen--but for all that, it could have been written yesterday, which goes to show how much things don't change in half a century. This is a story about square-jawed, right-thinking, competent men who probably vote Republican versus a starship full of literal Social Justice warriors.

Also, as the representative quote above suggests, it's pretty distractingly sexist.

Dateline: the future, somewhere in the asteroid belt. The Sword is one of the first profitable independent concerns out there, an asteroid converted into an industrial outpost, processing gas scooped from Jupiter's atmosphere and turning it into stuff. It's a private enterprise, as we're reminded again and again throughout the story, because this is Campbellian science fiction where government is bad and capitalism is rad. When it comes to its inhabitants, the testosterone is palpable--there's a ten-to-one ratio of men to women on this asteroid because 1960s, and only two of the women are single. Just acknowledging that bit actually makes me feel more emotion than most anything else in the story; imagine how they would feel, millions of kilometers away from anything else, surrounded by men who are no doubt all trying to out-Nice Guy™ each other.

The Sword's workaday existence is interrupted by the arrival of NASS Altair, a North American warship (yeah, because us up here are falling over ourselves to be Americans--pfft), and the initial action of the story follows Mike Blades, one of the asteroid's VIPs, showing the military bigwigs around and answering their oddly specific questions about radiation shielding and so on. In the meantime, he takes an interest in Lieutenant Ellen Ziska, a "she-Canadian" (???) Altair officer and does his utmost to get into her pants by the tried-and-true juxtaposition of long walks in arboretums and political arguments.

See, the problem here is that the last election in North America has brought the Social Justice Party to power, with more and more people on Earth getting angry about investing so much money into starting up Belt industries, only to see much of the Belt's profits reinvested into building itself up rather than shipping its raw materials back down the well. So it's pretty much the tired old American Revolution transposed into space, because god forbid you be even slightly creative. Things go sour when the Altair conveniently "loses" a nuclear missile, and it's up to Mike Blades to figure out a way to use his technical savvy to defend the unarmed asteroid from the looters and moochers trying to take it away.

For what it is, "Industrial Revolution" isn't terrible. It was good enough for John W. Campbell to buy, sure, but just check out Galactic Journey to get a better idea of what Campbell thought "good enough" meant. The best I can think to say about it is "innocuous"--if not for the fact that "Winston P. Sanders" is really Poul Anderson, it would've been long forgotten. ISFDB tells me that it was the second of multiple stories that make up the "Flying Mountains" series, but really... it's average. At best. The motivations of the antagonists are the standard-issue "Earth needs more tax money to pay for welfare" that you see over and over again in science fiction, and the protagonists essentially have no character at all.

Incidentally, I wish there were more stories from this era that approached things from the other side of the political spectrum--I'd love to eviscerate them, but the shadow of the Soviet Union was long in the '60s, I imagine. Even Star Trek didn't get properly communist until the '80s.

"Industrial Revolution" is available for free download via Project Gutenberg.

Previous Tailings
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Everyone Is Posting Ad Astra Schedules So I Guess I Should Too

("My Ad Astra Schedule" would probably have been a more compact title, but a lot of people are probably doing variations of that, too.)

If you're one of the maybe two people who actually pays attention to this weblog anymore, you may have noticed that I'm going to be putting in an appearance at Ad Astra, Toronto's own Richmond Hill-based science fiction convention, early next month. The panel schedules have at last come down from on high, and here's what I'll be up to if you feel like tracking me down for some unfathomable reason.

Saturday

A Trillion Is a Statistic
Time: 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Room: Markham B
Panellists: Ian Keeling, Karl Schroeder
It happens so often in science fiction there's a name for it: "earth-shattering kaboom." From Lensmen to Ender's Game and beyond, sf has been solving problems with genocide for decades. Is this just authorial laziness, motivating heroes with a big enough bang, or is reflective of something dark in the genre's soul?

The Wisdom of Ages Past: Relevance of Older Science Fiction
Time: 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Room: Oakridge
Panellists: David Lamb, Hayden Trenholm, Nina Munteanu
The golden age of science fiction still has a solid grip on the minds and dreams of even the youngest readers today. What can we still learn from the greats, and what of their ideas or methods are so outmoded that they can only be appreciated as a history lesson of how the industry used to be?

Sunday

Readings: Andrew Barton & Mike Rimar
Time: 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Room: Aurora

I willn't tell you what'll be happening at the reading on Sunday. It's SOOPER SEKRIT so you'll just have to come.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

HD 28185: An Elite Odyssey

The first time I went to Los Angeles, what struck me was how this place I'd never been to in all my life could be so damn familiar. We see things on our screens and we read them on our pages, and while it's no substitute for experiencing a place with your own senses unmediated by anything, sometimes it's the only way we can make these journeys. As a science fiction writer, that's particularly the case for me--it's unlikely I'll ever leave Earth, and telling stories of far-off places is the best we can hope for. Even knowing these places are real can be staggering enough sometimes: last year I had the opportunity to view Saturn through a telescope, and my first thought on seeing those rings was "my god, it really does look like that."

One place I've visited twice now in print is the HD 28185 system, 138 light-years away in the constellation Eridanus; fourteen years ago we detected a gas giant orbiting in its habitable zone, and it's around that gas giant I've placed Esperanza, setting of the stories "The Paragon of Animals" in the March 2013 issue of Analog and "The Badges of Her Grief" in its March 2015 issue, which is available now--and you should totally go out and get it! It's a place that feels familiar now, though it's also a place I could never visit.

At least, I couldn't until Elite: Dangerous came out. This space flying-trading-pirating-exploring sim, the latest expression of a thirty-year franchise that goes back to vector graphics on the BBC Micro, is set in a one-to-one reproduction of the Milky Way and its four hundred billion stars. For now, it's also likely to be the closest I'll get to exploring the galaxy. With that in mind, given the occasion of "The Badges of Her Grief" seeing print, I went on a "short" pilgrimage to HD 28185--or as it's known in-game, HIP 20723, as E:D seems to have a serious love for the Hipparcos catalogue.

Well, as short as anything measured in light-years can be.

It wasn't THAT much of an odyssey, though. From my home base at Big Harry's Monkey Hangout* in the Jotunheim system, it was a trip of 158 light-years, with a brief stopover in the Ongkuma system to investigate the short-lived slave rebellion there. Seeing as how ships in E:D are capable of flying faster-than-light in normal space due to the magical frameshift drive--a technical necessity for a multiplayer game that, nonetheless, makes me feel dirty--and my Adder can cross 15 light-year gulfs in as many seconds, it was the work of an evening. I didn't even have to leave human space; to my regret, I discovered that HD 28185 is part of the Empire, the requisite society of neo-Roman assbutts that maintains slavery in the 34th century to remind us that they're a bunch of jerks.

It's not even a particularly interesting system. I was hoping to find things that would fire my imagination--perhaps even an Earthlike planet! What I found would be nothing to write home about if this was any other system--an asteroid belt close to the star and a rocky, ringed world with sulphur dioxide air, a 182 degree surface temperature, and a lonely orbital mining platform above, and at the edge of the system that I could detect, the gas giant HD 28185 b. Only in the stories I write is it called Corazon.



Not much, is it? Not even so much as a moon. I mean, I was hoping that it would at least have rings. Nevertheless--it had a feeling of reality to it. It's a world we know is out there. It's a place we can speculate about, and in this small way, I can see its face.

I'll be back there again, for future stories. For now, I like knowing that it's out there to be found.

* Which, incidentally, sounds like the sort of name the Culture would give to a space station. So far, it is only rivalled in-game by Norman-Mavis's Bingo Palace and Lucy Young's Orbital Happy Home.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Year That Existed

...even though I rather wish it hadn't. There's not much I have to say--two new stories saw print this year and I made one additional sale that will be hitting the stands in January, which was rad, though I wish those numbers were higher; if you're looking for rejection numbers, I've got that locked down. That was the okay part. The rest of the year was characterized pretty much by death, desensitization, and a yawning sense of dread, like we're all standing on the edge of a thousand-foot drop and pebbles are starting to tumble off the edge.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #3: Next Door, Next World

"Next Door, Next World," by Robert Donald Locke
Appeared in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, April 1961

"Lance," said Carolyn.
"Yes?"
"You feel it too, don't you?"
"Feel what?"
"That there is danger involved. That something dreadfully, dreadfully wrong can happen to you while you're out there. No matter what the eggheads say about it." A paroxysm of sobs suddenly racked the girl's slender body. "Oh, darling, don't go!"

Fun fact: the above theme of the protagonist being entirely oblivious to everything around him and needing everything to be explained to him will continue throughout this story!

There are certain--tics, perhaps--in Golden Age-era science fiction. Epithets like "Space!" and "Unity!" because god forbid anyone encounter the word "fuck" in print, the rah-rah belief that the United States of the 1950s is the social model that will one day be projected over vast swaths of the galaxy, and at least in John W. Campbell's Analog, a focus on square-jawed white male engineers solving technical problems. Robert Donald Locke's "Next Door, Next World feels like a story that was written in the 1940s and features one of the thick-headedest protagonists I've ever tagged along with, and had I not been cooling my heels in a hospital waiting room I doubt I'd have bothered.

Major Smoke Manmuscle Roll Fizzlebeef Lance Cooper is a "big man with space-tanned features"--and I have to wonder if "space-tanned" is not in fact a euphemism for "chronic radiation poisoning"--set to fly the latest hyperspace rocket out to Groombridge 34. As we learn in a hackneyed groundside scene where his fiancée Carolyn acts the Standard '50s Female routine, full of sobs and requiring a Strong Man's Arms and talking about how women are saner than men because they don't go exploring, hyperspace is something of a dangerous place: one or two flights out of every ten don't come back at all, and sometimes the pilot returns a bit off. But the fears of "this frail, clinging, lovely piece of femininity he wanted so dearly" are nothing next to the Glorious Conquest of Interstellar Space, so away he flies!

He experiences Weird Shit in hyperspace, of course, because what would hyperspace _be_ without that? He feels himself split apart, sees duplicates of his ship outside where there should be nothing at all, but returns to normal space feeling none the worse for wear and after a quick sightseeing expedition, makes the return hop back to Earth where his fiancée Carolyn is waiting for him--except, shock! When he lands, no one recognizes her name, not even her dad, his boss Colonel "Hard-Head" Sagen! Lance immediately jumps to the logical conclusion: everyone is pulling a complicated prank on him. After his experience is declared classified and he's put in a cell, he manages to escape--because of course it's easy as hell to steal a military guard's sidearm and effect escape with it--and goes to his girl's place, looking for answers from her mother.

Because of course the best place to go looking for answers after you've broken out of military custody is *the home of the military superior who placed you in custody*! Seeing as how Mrs. Sagen is, you know, intelligent, she alerts the military to Lance's presence--and while he escapes again, he does so fuming about her "double-cross," while I start to wonder if hyperspace pilots are chosen specifically for their expendability.

He returns to the base--because of course they won't look there--and finds that his friends don't recognize him, he remembers things that are no longer the case, and comes to the conclusion that everyone is lying to him. Finally, he's brought before a military psychiatrist and finds out the truth that was pretty apparent from the first word: he's slipped into a parallel universe, where his girlfriend was never born. Apparently this happens a lot.

It was at this point that I seriously began to doubt Cooper's bonafides--it's as if someone shaved the stupidest Watson and stuffed him into a starship. Despite being presented with a litany of examples of pilots who came back "off"--wearing the wrong uniform, a man with a mustache he couldn't possibly have grown so fast--and by his own admission being aware of the parallel worlds theory, he does not consider that he might actually be in a parallel world until he's practically being told his name is Homer Thompson. Nevertheless, driven only by a desire to see his girlfriend again, he takes the Colonel at gunpoint and finagles his way back into his hyperspace ship, and blasts off in the hopes of reaching his own world. Does he make it?

Well, kinda.

Cooper's thickheadedness over his predicament is, I think, another one of those artifacts of older science fiction. Science fiction is built around the projection of current trends into the future, but at the time this story was written, science fiction was still culturally marginal, and so a lot of Golden Age sf feels like they're set in worlds which do not themselves include a cultural legacy of science fiction. I mean, if I got shot through hyperspace and came back to find people I knew were gone and the world was just subtly askew, the notion of parallel universes would be on my theory plate thanks to things like Sliders or the Mirror Universe from Star Trek or actual scientific investigations toward whether a multiverse exists. Lance Cooper, being the resident of a '50s future, doesn't have that cultural background and so looks stupid for never even entertaining the notion.

As for the story itself, it's written in the stilted manner that's common for a lot of sf writing from that era. I mean, things like "Dad opined he'd have walloped the daylights out of me" - who the hell uses words like "opined" in casual conversation? It's no surprise Robert Donald Locke didn't leave a mark on the field--he's got only eleven credits on ISFDB, and this was in fact his last story.

If you're interested, Next Door, Next World is available for download on Project Gutenberg.

Previous Tailings
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Will No One Stand Up for the White Dudes?

One of the few childhood memories that I have managed to hang onto is this: an intense feeling of resentment that the date and time of my mom's wedding meant I wasn't able to watch Ren and Stimpy. Because why hold onto things like the last day I spent with my grandfather before he died--who needs that stuff, amirite? It's strange, though, because I don't really remember watching much of the show at any other point; for pretty much everything Nickelodeon ever put out, to be honest. It's probably that there wasn't much of an opportunity; in my corner of Canada in the early 1990s, the 500-channel universe was still a couple of years away from my house, and our satellite dish was one of those big backyard monsters that looked like what you'd use to beam greetings or dirty limericks to distant stars, and most of the channels ended up getting scrambled after a while anyway.

So I don't have any kind of nostalgia for Nickelodeon. But I know that's not the same for everyone in my age bracket. Recently, because James Nicoll wants to make us all suffer, I came across an interview with Matthew Klickstein, some guy I'd never heard of; at first I thought he was a former Nickelodeon star, but no, he's just the author of an "oral history" of Nickelodeon's golden age, because everything sounds more highbrow if you call it an oral history.

Some of it is pretty innocuous. But not all of it. Take this bit right here.

"[Nickelodeon series Sanjay and Craig] is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian — except for the fact that [Nickelodeon President] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity."


Or this!

"Some of these other shows — My Brother and Me, Diego, and Legend of Korra — it’s great that they’re bringing diversity into it now. Fantastic. But you know those shows are not nearly as good as Ren and Stimpy, which was made by all white people!"


Or how about this?

"That's true, that's fine, but why can't [a hypothetical Indian kid in the audience] relate to a white guy too? I was talking with the guy who wrote for DC, and he made a really good point: Why does someone who’s making something about a black person need to be black? Why does someone making a show about an Indian person need to be Indian? Why does someone making a show about women need to be a woman? If you’re making something about an alien, you don’t need to be an alien to do it. That’s ultimately what it comes down to: They will connect with the character no matter what."


First off, and I can't believe this guy is dense enough to require me saying this, but here goes: you do not need to be an alien in order to make something about aliens because, to the degree that we have thus far been able to measure, THERE ARE NO ALIENS. There are no Zeta Reticulans who have had their culture appropriated into Halloween costumes, no green people from Antares who have been the butt of joke after racist joke. Aliens are blank slates of a sort that DO NOT EXIST in reality. Aliens do not have to come with baggage, and in that, they can be liberating. When you're dealing with actual peoples that actually exist, it behooves you to not fuck things up, buddy.

Maybe the reason you don't understand why an Indian kid shouldn't have to relate to a white guy is connected to the fact that, as a white guy yourself, somewhere between A BUTTLOAD and DAMN NEAR ALL of the characters presented on TV have historically been, you guessed it, white guys! You ask why a character has to be Indian--did you ever stop to ask yourself why this other character over here has to be white? Or a guy?

The other day, on the last day of Can-Con in Ottawa, I watched the premier episode of Kagagi. It's a new superhero cartoon series airing on APTN, that stars a First Nations teenager, is built around Native mythology, and was broadcast in 20% Algonquin. You know what? It was rad. You know what's more rad, though? That First Nations kids, kids who have to deal with a historical legacy of being shat on and marginalized and dodging genocide that goes back centuries, have someone to identify with who is like them. Who knows what they're going through. Who understands.

Which is more than I can expect from this chump.

But he does provide another data point to shore up my hypothesis that anyone who throws the phrase "political correctness" about as a criticism is most likely an asshole.

(Yes, I know that I am, in fact, a white dude as well. I am often--nah, make that eternally--mortified by the actions of many of those to whom I am phenotypically similar.)