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.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #2: In the Imagicon

"In the Imagicon," by George Henry Smith
Appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1966

Then Cecily made him feel even sillier by leaning over and kissing his right foot with passionate red lips. "Oh, Dandor! Dandor, I love you so much," she murmured.

Dandor resisted the temptation to use one of his newly pampered feet to give her a healthy kick on her round little bottom. He resisted it because even at times like this, when his life with these women began to seem unreal, he tried to be as kind as possible to them. Even when their worship and adoration threatened to bore him to death, he tried to be kind.

So instead of kicking Cecily, he yawned.

I'm gonna let that quote up there just sink in for a minute.


For a genre that spent so much time yapping on about the future, Golden Age science fiction--in this case, one of the last shoots springing up in the mid-1960s, when the old fields were beginning to wilt beneath the New Wave--spent a hell of a lot of its time rooted in the past. Yeah, I know, science fiction is fundamentally about the time it's written in, and "In the Imagicon" by George Henry Smith--who previously brought us such towering works of literature as 1963's Sexodus!--could not be more of a product of the 1960s if it tried. This is the sort of stuff that proto-nerds who aspired to become Don Draper would read. I feel like it's quintessentially of its time, to the degree that it reads almost like a parody of it.

Leaping into the story, we are introduced to the foppish, indolent Dandor, who is in the process of being fed grapes, getting a pedicure, and being generally worshipped by women--a blonde, a voluptuous brunette, and cuddly twin redheads, and yes those are how they're described and essentially the limits of their characterization, and god damn, man, am I really meant to take this at all seriously? Is this supposed to be a laff-out-loud comedy piece? I DON'T KNOW ANYMORE, SOMEONE HOLD ME

Ahem. Moving on. Dandor's problem is that he's getting awfully bored by being waited on and worshipped in his "palatial palace," because screw you guys, it's 1966, you don't need more descriptive adjectives when you're probably half-drunk by now anyway. So he leaves, back out through the imagicon of the title, and we see Dandor as he really is: a pioneer on the frozen colony world of Nestrond, home of punishing storms and snows and ice wolves, and which really begs the question of why you'd cross light-years to colonize a place that makes Antarctica look appealing. What really makes it intolerable, though, is Nona, his shrew of a wife! Am I right, fellas? The narrative lovingly details her faults--"a big, raw-boned woman with stringy black hair, a broad flat face with thin lips and uneven, yellowish teeth. God but she's ugly, he thought as he stared at her." Now that he's back in the real world, Dandor's got work to do, and he hates it! So he digs up ice moss for the fire, fixes the cattleshed roof to keep the icewolves from attacking their space cows, digs a cesspool, and so on.

Nestrond, for all intents and purposes, was settled by people who not only made it to the end of the Oregon Trail without dying of dysentery, but found a starship there waiting for them.

Disaster strikes in the night when ice wolves attack--six-legged, because alien critters gotta have six legs, otherwise how're you to know they're alien? Dandor manages to see them off thanks to his trusty laser rifle, but not before one of them takes a good chunk out of him; good enough, in fact, to demand that his entire leg be amputated. Because, sure, they have enough technological infrastructure to support stuff like laser rifles and imagicons, but not indoor plumbing or twentieth-century medicine. Presumably Nestrond's colonists are, in fact, survivors of a failed expedition. Maybe they were the advance team and the main ship blew up in orbit--they are in dire straits, with the last of the morphine gone and no anaesthetic more sophisticated than whiskey. Nobody's to say.

Dandor is aghast over the loss of his leg, of course--not because of the pain, not because of how much harder it'll make it to scratch out a life, but because now there'll be no imagicon; he'll belong only to Nona. How, he asks himself, could she treat him this way? Yeah! How could she ever stay by his side in his condition and make him face the world? One has to ask why she even bothers, on a world where there are twenty men for every woman. I mean, she obviously sees something in this guy, or she'd have just walked out while he was on one of his imagicon trips, right? Wouldn't you want to have someone standing by you at a low point like that?

Not our Dandor! He knows just what to do--escape from the dreaded barbs of reality! Half-mad with pain and bleeding out from his as-yet-uncauterized stump, he drags himself until he seals himself up into the imagicon, "more dead than alive," and slowly fades away while the soft voices of his adoring palace women brush against his ears--

Except, in a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan--who would not be born for another four years, so at least he's not responsible for this one--Dandor wakes up, good as new, in the real world. In the palace. Because, you see, Dandor's palatial palace is reality, and it's Nestrond that's the product of the imagicon! On Earth in the year 22300, Dandor is on top thanks to a plague which killed all but a handful of men--many of whom "had not been able to stand the strain... too many years of having everything and every woman they wanted." Dandor created Nestrond as a place he could find "a taste of hell," without which "how could a man appreciate heaven?"

How could a man appreciate heaven.

Because this story is really all about the mens.

As I chip away at it, I feel like there's a pool of anti-woman sentiment bubbling underneath. Look at the difference between Earth of 22300, where men are powerful through their rarity and which is depicted as a warm, peaceful, beautiful place, and Nestrond, where women are powerful through their rarity and is explicitly described as a hell on multiple occasions. On Earth, Dandor is "sweetheart" and on Nestrond, he's "idiot." On Earth, he is fed grapes; on Nestrond, he's grudgingly served thin soup, stale bread, and rancid pork.

It almost reads like it's a parody of certain attitudes now. Nestrond reads like the sort of place any given MRA would come up with to describe a feminist world, and I'm confident that what MRAs yearn for is a world where they can all be Dandors. I have to wonder what the women might say if you asked them to describe their world. Are they happy feeding this guy, rubbing his feet, servicing him, when he descends into unreality as soon as they start to bore him? From where I'm sitting, this "heaven" seems pretty damn one-sided.

As I put this together, I had a realization: unlike Nona, who is given a rather detailed description to cement the hellishness of Nestrond, we're never actually given a description of Dandor. But I have a pretty good idea.





You want to hear the real punchline, though?

This story made the first ballot for the 1967 Nebula Award.

Sheesh.

Previous Tailings
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Is About Independence

I was keenly aware last month that it might well be the last time I ever visted the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not that I had foreknowledge of my death--though I hope that's a long way off yet--but because in the not-too-distant future, there may not be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland anymore. Not if the YES vote in Scotland gets its way. Back in August, things were still at a slow boil: the NO side was consistently polling double-digit leads, and I was one of the few on my side of the Atlantic who even knew the referendum was going ahead. The only evidence I found for it was on my last day in the country, when I found a pro-independence sticker someone had left in Victoria Station.

The red symbolizes the blood that the newborn Scottish Empire will drown its English oppressors in, no doubt.

Today, everyone's blood is hot. It's less than a week to the vote and anticipation is running high--and on the NO side, so visions of near-apocalyptic problems should Scotland go its own way. From complaints of BBC reporting bias to rumors of MI5 agents in Scotland and whistlestop tours by Westminster's premier talking heads, the English political establishment is throwing all its weight into the "Better Together" camp. No doubt the government will sponsor a last-minute love-in for the Unionist side on Tuesday or Wednesday, much like the Canadian government did in Montreal's Place du Canada just before Quebec voted in 1995.

I've seen a lot of speculation that the reason Westminster is throwing so much weight into this is down to North Sea oil, oil that would become Scottish--and that's a pretty damn good motivation for a government to be committed to the unionist side. If Montreal was afloat on a sea of petroleum, I doubt Quebec's referendum would have taken the same trajectory.

But I don't think that's the whole story. It's not just about wealth, or power, I think--it's about fear.

Fear of failure. Fear of the idea that Scotland's independence would mean that the United Kingdom, which stood for three centuries against Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Margaret Thatcher's poll taxes, has failed.

Recently, Rachael Acks wrote a piece about divorce that you should read in any event, because it's rad. As I chewed on it, I realized that with just a few word replacements, it resonates with what's going on in Scotland today. Change "divorce" to "separation" and "screaming arguments" with "civil wars," but the idea that separation means that a country has failed is a strong one. Look at the United States, for instance: in the Hotel America you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. On the face of it, it's ridiculous--no country lasts forever, but what this policy does ensure is that when the United States does fall apart, it will be with screaming and gunfire and the throwing of dishes. I'm confident the States would never see a referendum as peaceful as Scotland's, because there is no place for it in the laws as they currently stand.

It echoes with a problem prevalent in our culture, I think; the notion that your life can be cheapened by other's choices. I'll admit there are risks inherent in Scotland going its own way, but there are risks in everything. A lot of the commentary I see from NO supporters, especially English NO supporters, revolves around how they would feel to have the United Kingdom separate--it's such a deep-seated notion that the first phrase I wrote there was "to have the United Kingdom break apart," as if the Scottish referendum is the equivalent of throwing fine china at the floor, and afterward everyone will have to sweep up and make do with what shards are left.

"We're not a failure," Rachael wrote. "Our relationship is not a failure. Because we made each other stronger, better people. We loved and supported each other through thick and thin until we reached a place in our lives where we couldn't support each other in that same way any more. It's time to continue loving and supporting each other in a different way."

Scotland and England made each other stronger, too. But just because a relationship has existed, that inertia alone shouldn't justify why it continues to exist if there's enough reason to reconsider--and with the way the polls have turned toward YES in the past months, a lot of reconsidering has been done up past Hadrian's Wall.

If Scotland chooses independence, it's not a failure of the United Kingdom. It's just a new day.