How others see us (literary agent edition)

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

The aspiring writers in the audience may already be aware of QueryShark. If you’re not, you should be; few things teach more effectively in a creative field like writing (in my experience at least) than having a selection of negative examples to hold up against the positives, and QueryShark offers anonymous eviscerations of query letters that’ll show you how to do it properly. Or at least how not to do it properly, which is almost as useful.

But I mention QueryShark today for a different reason, namely one of the rarer successful queries. First, here’s the query sans critique:

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash–or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn’t so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

Sounds interesting, right? Here’s how the writer capped it off:

TAKING THE HIGHWAY,a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

And here the bit of the agent’s response I’m interested in:

This isn’t science fiction. And I’d STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There’s a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn’t handle SF but would read this.   Like…me.

OK – that book as laid out in that query is definitely science fiction, even if only by the old Damon Knight “what I point to when I say it” rule of thumb. It’s set in a speculative future, for goodness’ sake; it may be a harsh thing to say, but using a reinvigorated Detroit as your setting puts you firmly into alternate world territory.

What actually I’m interested in here is the chicken-and-egg problem that sf has with mainstream acceptance. There above is a solid query for an interesting science fictional novel… but there also is a warning that calling it such will make it harder to sell. It’s an acknowledgement of industry prejudices, in other words, and the action of an agent who wants to see a good book get bought.

But what I see here is something similar to the way in which female writers feel pressured to write under masculine pseudonyms or use their initials; it’s an invitation that says “OK, look, we think you’ve got the beans to play the game, but you can’t come in wearing that outfit; it’s not that we’ve got anything against it, but, y’know, people will look at you funny…” It’s an enablement of prejudice, in other words, though it’s being done with pure motives.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and serenading the poor oppressed genre; as mentioned before, I think that’s a counterproductive thing, an entrenchment in one’s own cult of ghettoised victimhood. Nor am I raging at an agent for not understanding what science fiction is, or rather what it can be. But the query response above highlights the very arbitrariness of the distinction between sf and ‘proper’ fiction: in fact, it’s a note for note replaying of the classic “it’s too good to be science fiction!” riff.

So why mention it at all? Because it makes plain that the problem is with the label, not the product. Look at the commenters saying “ooh, I don’t like sc-ifi, but I think I’d love this!” Well, y’know, maybe you would like sci-fi if you read some of it. But you’re not going to do that when it comes with a label that says “sci-fi”. Green eggs and ham, innit?

I’m increasingly starting to think that advocating for science fiction (or even genre in general) is a failed strategy. If you want to conquer that prejudice, you need to start doing it with one book at a time. If labelling your work science fiction will exclude it from a certain venue, then don’t label it; submit it without its convention badge and Beeblebear, and see what happens. Give them a chance to bounce or buy it on its own merits, rather than the connotations of a label that even we fans can’t agree on a definition for.

And then, once they’ve published it, tell all the journalists about how it’s actually a science fiction novel. You’ve got to get inside the building before you set the bomb off, you see… 😉

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2010

Things are getting real weird real fast. Did you hear about the Germans who insisted on the right to “opt out” of Google Street View and have their houses pixelated? Well, now they’re being targetted by pro-Google activism that consists of drive-by egg-raids and labels stuck to letterboxes proclaiming that “Google’s cool” [via TechDirt].

Double-U. Tee. Eff?

For the record, I think the folk opting out of Street View are misguided, and the egg-raiders are idiots; no advocacy in this post, I assure you. But think a moment on the high weirdness of this situation, about the mad wild flux of global culture that has made it possible. Just a decade ago, this would have been a gonzo near-future sf plot that any sane editor would have bounced for being charmingly implausible…

I’m sure this is the part where I’m supposed to wonder “how did we get here from there?”, but that’s the weirdest thing of all – I know exactly how we got here from there, because I’ve made a point of watching it unfold like a card-sharp’s prestidigitation, but I still can’t quite tell how the trick was done: it’s hopeful and baffling and wonderful and insane and terrifying all at once.

And things are likely to get weirder as the times get tougherI’m starting to think Brenda may have a point; the Singularity’s already started, it just doesn’t look anything like the shiny transcendent technotopia we thought it would be. Which shouldn’t be surprising, really… but it still is.

[ * And a posthumous hat-tip to the late Doctor Gonzo for the headline, who I resolutely believe would be taking a similar horrified joy – or perhaps a joyous horror, if there’s a difference – in the headlines of the moment. We’ve bought the ticket; now we’re taking the ride. ]

The case for cognition enhancement advocacy

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

It’s yet another hat-tip to George Dvorsky, this time for pointing out a paper by Gary Miller in which he lays out the obstacles in the path of supporters of cognitive enhancement pharmacology, and ways for overcoming such:

I argue that, regardless how miniscule the risks or how blatantly obvious the benefits, a majority of U.S. citizens is unlikely to support the unrestricted dissemination of cognition enhancing drugs, because each individual member of the majority will be led astray by cognitive biases and illusions, as well as logical fallacies.

If this premise is accurate, then the people of the United States may already be suffering an opportunity cost that cannot be recouped. While a minority of the U.S. electorate can challenge the constitutionality of a policy enacted by a majority, a minority cannot sue to challenge the legislature’s refusal to enact a specific policy. In other words, we in the minority have no way of claiming we were harmed by what “good” could have come—but did not come—due to the legislature’s inaction. We cannot claim the “opportunity cost to the greater good” as an injury, and we cannot compel a court to balance that opportunity cost of inaction against the individual interests that dissuaded the majority from action. Our only recourse is to compel the majority to change its stance via persuasion.

Sounds remarkably like Mike Treder’s suggestion that calm rational discussion of the pros and cons is the best way to advance the transhumanist project, no? No big surprise, I guess, given the overlap between the groups in question… though as I said before, as much as it’s the most morally sensible course of action available, I don’t know how much good calm rational advocacy will be on a an irrational and sensationalist political landscape. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Rationalising the promises of transhumanism

Paul Raven @ 29-10-2010

My brain is broken today (real ale festivals: not quite so fun the day after!), so I’m devoid of my usual scintillating wit and astute commentary on the big questions of the day*. So instead, go read this lucid call-to-arms to H+ advocates and cheerleaders from Mike Treder, managing director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies [via Queering The Singularity].

Don’t you remember all those promises of decades past, that our awesome technologies soon would enable us to eliminate illness, to banish poverty, end aging, and control the weather? That everyone then would enjoy a world of abundance and opportunity? Don’t you realize that for people who are paying attention, this is déjà vu all over again?

No, it doesn’t work that way. It never has and it never will. Reality intrudes.

So let’s not continue to make the mistakes of the past. Let’s try to be a little smarter this time.

Instead of promoting exciting visions of a utopian future, we could shift our focus to discussions of how to better prepare for uncertain change, how to create sustainable and resilient human societies, how to live in better harmony with each other and with the rest of the natural world around us.

Shorter version: quit grandstanding, start talking to people about realistic risks and rewards. Hearts and minds.

I have a lot of sympathy with Treder’s thinking, there, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the chances of bringing rational foresight to the general population; if dumb populist soundbitery were that easily conquered, Glenn Beck would be flipping burgers for a living. But hey, that’s all the more reason to keep fighting, AMIRITES?

[ * Sorry, no refunds. ]

Is transhumanism the most dangerous idea in the world? (Hint: probably not.)

Paul Raven @ 27-09-2010

Kyle Munkittrick is making waves over at the Discover Magazine Science Not Fiction blog; he decided to air the transhumanist movement’s ideas in a post entitled “The Most Dangerous Idea In The World“.

Given that Discover is a fairly mainstream (if geeky) publication, there was a fair bit of fervent push-back in the comments thread, so Munkittrick collected together the five most common riffs for rebuttal, creating one of the most lucid and reasonable “don’t panic” posts about transhumanism in a mainstream publication that I think I’ve ever seen. His bounce-back against accusations of [transhumanism=eugenics=evil] is particularly good, and broadly applicable:

Eugenics, like any technology, is neutral. “Eu” is actually the Greek root for “good.” The problem is that over history a lot of nasty people felt that they should be able to force their definition of “good” on others. Though Hitler is a common example, there was a eugenics program in the US for quite sometime that coercively sterilized those deemed unworthy to reproduce, due to race, economic status, and mental condition. Both programs are considered “negative eugenics” in that they prevent unwanted individuals from reproducing. Positive eugenics is different in two key ways. The first is that it is entirely voluntary. Whether parents want to merely screen for potential diseases, fine-tune every detail of their child’s traits, or leave the whole thing to chance is their prerogative. The second difference is that there is no “ideal”–the process is open ended. Instead of eugenics having a state-decreed goal like blond hair and blue eyes, every parent would decide what is best for their child. As most people want healthy, intelligent, happy children, those traits are what would define the “good” of positive eugenics.

It’s interesting to watch transhumanism entering mainstream consciousness; there was that widely-linked “Open Letter to Christian Leaders on Biotechnology and The Future Of Man” doing the rounds a week or so ago, and it’s a topic that keeps cropping up in non-geek media channels with increasing regularity, probably because it pushes every future-shock techno-fear button on the switchboard.

It’s also going to be interesting to watch how transhumanism reacts to increased scrutiny, because it’s a long way from being a monoculture. The last few years have seen the more serious and level-headed advocates (I’m thinking of folk like George Dvorsky and Mike Anissimov, who are the two I’ve been reading for the longest) working hard to present a coherent, rational and non-incendiary platform for debate… but just as with any subculture, there are some real oddballs in the architecture, and it’s the cranks who tend to shout loudest and attract attention, often negative. Interesting times ahead…

Bonus: Michael Anissimov points to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “5 minute introduction” to the concept of the Technological Singularity, which is also pretty plainly-put. Of course, the Technological Singularity shouldn’t be conflated with transhumanism, but it’s a closely related idea, and is sometimes treated as an ideology rather than a theory by those more vocal and marginal elements to whom I referred earlier… so it behoves the wise to understand both as best they can. 🙂