Endangered Languages Project

I’m not a linguist, but I’ve always had a mild fascination with languages. I don’t know many, and my memory’s too bad to retain any I don’t use regularly. But I’ve picked up bits and pieces from a bunch and still occasionally go on a kick to pick up bits and pieces from yet another new obscure one. Plus, I have used two very different languages for fiction, which I believe is a sign I have a good enough handle of these two languages to go beyond using them for rudimentary communication. (and I’ve also created my own two separate writing “systems” and one “language” I’ve so far populated with about twenty or so grammar rules and several hundred words, that I fairly proud of)

So, needless to say, when I stumbled onto this website, it struck a chord with me. I don’t know if I will (and how I can) get involved, but I’ll definitely be on the cheerleading squad for it!

A Quick Thought On Genre

SF/F Utopia: Where Spaceships are Just Means of Transportation and the Existence of a MagicChild™ Doesn’t Automatically Turn Everyone Else into a Fucking Idiot.

MagicChild™ includes, but is not limited to: children with special abilities or disabilities, children professed to overthrow current governing system or leaders, reincarnations of goddesses, peasant boys seeking their fortune, mysterious orphans, hobbits, ewoks, village idiots, and any protagonist’s pet. Parodies may be permitted on a case by case basis.

Shut Up! Even Spambots Hate What You Have to Say!

So, I have my fair share of spam coming in as comments on my blog. I read through them, just in case it’s not spam, but the blood and sweat of some random soul that’s lost its way and thinks they’re commenting on someone else’s blog.

Plus, well, it’s nice to read “your article was very thoughtfully written” or “I liked what you have to say on this topic” from time to time, even if you know it’s not really directed at you, and was posted under your hotlink to a cheesy heavy metal youtube video.

But lately, I’ve noticed a new trend. More and more often, the random text between the links in the spam comments has been a critique of my “article”. Today, for example, a lovely spambot commented on the length of my post and how I should focus on just the keypoints of the subject matter and not include the “parts that people ignore.”

Well, how about that. As if my writerly ego needs any more stomping.

(by the way, this particular comment went to my “Your Esteemed Host Draws Dragons …” post =)

Back From the Great Industrial Wilds of Asia

So, I’m back, in one piece.

This was an interesting trip, both work-related (which I can’t discuss here, and wouldn’t even if I could) and general culture-wise.

For one, my perception of China changed quite a bit. Until this trip, I had traveled to only a couple of Chinese provinces, both with a long history as trading/industrial centers. For many reasons, these places are greatly polluted and overpopulated.

I hold a special love for Hong Kong – I’m a HK action flicks addict and the place feels like an (n+1)th home to me — and, considering Hong Kong’s history, I have a hard time thinking of it as part of China. But I’ve been to several other cities in the Guangdong province, and they’ve been pretty depressing to me. I experienced about the same thing in Shanghai and its outskirts.

But on this trip, I visited a central China city (an aerospace and metallurgy center for China) — and, boy, what a difference. This was probably one of the best maintained large cities I’ve seen in my whole life. Sure, traffic was as bad as anywhere else in China (and that’s pretty bad), but, otherwise, it was a different — and very clean — world. I was impressed. Also, I had a chance to visit some cultural spots there, including an active archeological dig, and I was also pretty glad to see a respect and pride in history.

So, all in all, very interesting trip.

On the writing side, I didn’t do much. I had very little downtime on this trip. And, to my surprise, most of it went into developing a “written script” for my “Common” language for one of my fantasy worlds (All Things Made Of Shadows and Broken Circles take place in this world). It’s a silly, fairly pointless exercise (mostly for the sake of brainsturbation), but it turned out to be incredibly fun.

So, now the “Common” language has grown to have a set grammar, an about 100-word vocabulary, and a written script that needs a little more ironing out, but I’m generally happy with.

I’m not doing it for a specific purpose (if any of the stories of this world get published, you won’t be seeing actual Common appearing in them — except that in one place, I use the Common grammar with English to show one of the characters mixing up foreign — to them – languages). Way back when, the whole thing started as a vague idea for a puzzle in a game module. The game module idea has since gone into the closet, buried under hundreds others like it, but I’ve found that occasionally playing with the language is fun. And fun things don’t die in my world.

I don’t know if I’ll share more of the language here or on my website. I’m often tempted to make some of my story background processes or “fun” activities public (even if the traffic through this blog and my website is tiny and consists mostly of spambots). I usually resist the temptation – because, after all, what’s the point — but, who knows. I occasionally get organizational and presentational impulses, so maybe one day, I’ll publish the Common vocabulary or script, for the hell of it.

Most importantly, I’m back. Yey!

On Education and Information Overload

When I was a senior in high school, I studied the most advanced form of math available at my school (integrals). I was pretty proud, because my older (and more adept at all matters logical) brother hadn’t studied this subject until college. I discussed it with my teacher at the time, who shared that during his undergraduate studies, this level of math belonged to graduate school curriculum.

Five years later, I was a senior in University and I was trying to wrap my mind around tensor math. It was the first time I’d felt what seemed like a mental limitation that prevented me from ”grasping” a logical subject. I later did find out that it was mostly physical limitations that got in the way (poor sleeping schedule and psychological overload, but that’s a different topic). But when I experienced that mental block, I envisioned how in twenty years, high school students would be breezing through tensor math and having a grand time with it. In moments like these, I would feel rather hopeful. I would feel as if I was living in the proverbial future.

Fast forward ten years. Here I am, sitting and reading some articles on materials advances and so forth (for work). I typically can follow most concepts in physics, but I’ve been out of the theoretical side of things for a while now, so every so often I bump into some unfamiliar term that I need to research in order to reason through. The information, at least on an intermediate level, is readily available if you know where to look for it. But hardly anyone, unless they are employed in the respective field, would ever seek it out. And in moments like these, I think back to the times when I still believed that the world marched alongside the advances in math and sciences.

And gone is the joy. That feeling that we’re standing on the threshold of the future.

Science and technology are progressing. Every day, someone in a lab somewhere finds a new answer and a new question. Every day, someone puts a new concept to practice. We see the results in consumer electronics. Someday, hopefully soon, we’ll see them in energy and biotechnology.

But how many people actually understand the underlying principles behind how even simple, every day items function? And let’s forget the “hard” sciences. How many people smirk (or, alternatively, cringe in horror) when they hear “organic chicken”? How many people understand that genetic engineering has been in humanity’s repertoire from the day a human chose to plant the seeds from the bigger cucumber or leave the stronger lamb to breed? How many people realize that recycling isn’t a magical process that reverses the recyclables to their original raw state without any use of energy and leftover byproduct? And I won’t even touch subjects like history and psychology.

And here, I’m only talking about people who take pride in being considered progressive and educated.

This was a rather long lead into the subject that’s been bugging me for a while now. I recently argued with a friend about availability of information, its effect on people’s decision-making abilities, and the purpose of education.

My friend’s point was that the excess of available information causes confusion – and people then tend to either become susceptible to opinions of people they “trust” without thinking through the implications, or altogether fail to make logical decisions. And, in his opinion, the culprit was the availability of too much information, and too many opinions based on this information. (And his solution was that people kept their opinions to themselves, which is another discussion altogether)

Now, I think that the problem lies in a large number of people not being adept at sorting and reasoning through information. And, with an education system that’s more and more geared towards making kids feel good about themselves (i.e. balancing their school curriculum to fit their interests/strengths and lowering standards), we are only deepening the problem. Sure, we might be making kids happier in school – but school isn’t a babysitting service provided by the state or respective private organization (or, at least, it’s not supposed to be). It’s supposed to be an institution that educates young people and ideally turns them into intellectually well-adjusted adults. And that’s not an easy – nor is it supposed to be a “happy” – process.

And one of the most important parts of education, especially in this new world where almost any piece of information is readily available, is training the ability to process information and be capable of making decisions based on it. No, training critical thinking isn’t easy, nor is it pleasant. It requires effort, it requires exposure to tons of information, as wells as effort to understand that information and apply logic to sort through it. It requires challenging limitations and teaching focus even on subjects that might not be interesting to the particular individual. It requires both depth and breadth. It requires developing the basic human abilities to think and to learn and building experience and comfort using them.

So, when someone tells me that people are overloaded with opinions and facts, and it’s unfair to expect them to be capable of making decision by themselves, so let’s make sure they only get a few ”sanctioned” opinions and “necessary” facts to wade through – all I can see is someone saying that people are dumb and I’m evil for saying that no, they aren’t dumb, they are badly educated and that, if we shield them from the evil overloads of a world better geared to people who have been taught to think, we’d be doing society an even greater disservice.

So, yeah, I’m in the camp that thinks it’s okay to raise the standards in schools to where it isn’t easy to excel, no matter how much this hurts parents’ pride – because, let’s face it, if every update of the standard to excel sets its requirements at average, you get a downward slope, both in your standards, and in your average.

Plus, it should be in the natural evolution of things that parents are dumber and less educated than their kids (and they should be proud to be so). And, if we do make sure this is so, maybe in a few generations, we’ll have a majority of people who are capable of reading a few articles, identifying facts vs. opinions in them, and forming their own (reasonable) opinions from what they’ve read. And maybe then, the world will once again walk in step with scientific and technological progress.

I know it’s wishful thinking, but a girl can dream…

[From “Nothing Much — And Then Even Less”] On Gender And Science Fiction

A few days ago, some dood published an internets article about females (and gays) ruining the genre of science fiction. Again. Causing yet the next wave of widespread backlash against ’em moronic bigots who dare voice their cock-eyed mind. (I will not provide links to either side of this argument, out of principle)

I tend to stay out of these, because all I usually see are two self-righteous extremes launching crusades at the slightest sign the Other Side may be Expressing An Opinion. Sometimes, the fireworks are fun to watch. Typically, it’s just frustrating to see otherwise reasonable people going feral over inane, often childish insults. But today, I thought I’d share my own thoughts on the topic, especially since I don’t have much else to put on this blog.

First, what I think is common knowledge: save for a few notable exceptions, the genre of science fiction was dominated by male writers and readers for the first several decades of its “modern” existence. A large chunk of the early science fiction was written by non-writers, often giving it a dry, almost academic quality, with a slant towards problem-solving and with a Marty Stu in the spotlight — which readers tolerated and eventually accepted as a norm of sorts. Even when science fiction overlapped with other genres (action/adventure, mystery, westerns, romance, etc.), it still kept its stigma as a geek playground. And, at the time, geekdom was a primarily boy affliction.

Then, these geeks had children (or younger siblings, or protégés, etc.). And because geekdom is, indeed, a non-gender-specific, transmittable affliction, girls, just like boys, fell to it. They too wanted to play. And brought along their non-geek friends. So, as every time the popularity of any given playground grows, the rules changed. And in the case of science fiction, they changed to reflect the tendency of modern western societies to focus less on problem-solving and hard fact, and more on relationships and internal strife.

So, the way I see it, the changes in the genre have little to do with the gender (or sexual orientation) of its writers and fans. I see plenty of bad attempts at relationships in science fiction coming both from straight, man’s-man male authors, and from frilly, girly female authors. As I see the occasional problem-solving focus from both male and female authors.

To be completely honest, I do get frustrated with some of the more prevalent themes in science fiction (and fantasy) nowadays. The engineer in me does want more problem-solving in my stories, and, as a product of my past, I often find the tone of mainstream fiction too naive, detached, and pink (or, alternatively, purple). When this happens, I tend to revert back to 50s and 60s sci-fi, even if I realize that most of it IS pretty bad prose.

But to whine that girls ruined my genre? That’s just silly trolling. If anything, the influx of new blood saved science fiction as a genre. Sure, it’s different than it was fifty years ago. So are people. So is the society we live in. So is our science. If you don’t like where we’re going, debate the facts, propose intelligent alternatives, or contribute to whatever changes are to come. Whining just makes people want to kick you.

To the Other Side — get off your soap box. You aren’t special because you’re wearing the shirt. Especially since your “prefaded” label’s sticking out. By seeking every little excuse to flaunt your Enlightened Mind, all you’re doing is kicking whining puppies. Plus, your buddies from your 2:30pm Wednesday Save-The-Whining-Puppies activist club may take offense to it.

[From “Nothing Much — And Then Even Less”] Progressive Fiction

Recently, I submitted a near-future hard-ish sci-fi piece to an “Optimistic Sci-Fi” anthology. It was rejected with the explanation that what the editor looked for was sci-fi that tackled “current” issues, and mine (centered on spaceflight, and, to a lesser degree, social alienation at the work place and the nature of what drives humans to explore) simply didn’t.

I don’t mind the rejection — only an editor can decide what is right for their publication, and there’s no guarantee that my story was written well enough even if it were the correct material — but his justification of the rejection got me thinking about what I perceive science fiction to be, versus what I’ve been seeing in certain “serious” publications and other writers/readers’ opinions online.

To start, the greater whole of science fiction is as diverse as literature itself. If it contains a relevant to the story speculative element (from an unlikely piece of technology in modern times or a twist on a historical event, to a whole world that is based on principles of physics that stretch our imagination), then the piece of prose can be classified as “sci-fi.” Everything else, adventure, heroism, romance, mystery, drama, humor, high-concept, introspection, political or social commentaries, etc. etc. — is fair game, as long as it works with the speculative element and helps turn the concept into a story. And what is popular today is merely a subset of the greater whole, and is fickle as any other fad.

Furthermore, different media nurture different flavors of science fiction. So, to make sweeping generalizations about the essense of “modern” science fiction is impractical and any generalization will be most certainly incorrect as soon as I put it down in a sentence.

But here are some of my observations for the traditional print markets (POD and small press are a different matter, and I’m afraid I don’t know enough to comment on them).

Longer form seems to be, as always, dominated by the Big Names, who can do whatever they damn well please, but, thankfully, mostly stick to the old and tried, whatever that happens to be for them. Then, you have a smaller batch of Fad Cronies (are we out of the silly vampire/werewolf phase yet? wassdat, steam punk?), some of whom will fade into oblivion as soon as their sub-genre is replaced by the next fad, and some who will go on to grow into Big Names and do whatever they damn well please. And then, you have the few Wild Cards, who may be lucky enough to initiate a fad and become Big Names, but will most likely either carve out a niche for themselves, or crash and burn (or just be dismissed and quickly forgotten). (by the way, I’m not including the existing universes books not because I don’t consider them science fiction, but because they come with preset tropes and topics, and are only slightly influenced by the passage of time and editor/audience preferences)

Shorter form seems to have a similar distribution, except that the Big Names experiment a little more, Fad Cronies tend to have a smaller page-share and sometimes only restricted access, and the Wild Cards appear to be encouraged to go shorter than short, but have more slots. Also, shorter form publications (especially anthologies) sometimes attempt to resurrect old fads, or call for specific themes that aren’t usually a focus in the mainstream of the genre.

All that said, I’m still talking about science fiction. Which means, no matter the tradition, fad, experiment, or unlikely theme, it still needs to have that speculative element central to the story. And, after having taken the scenic route, I’m finally arriving at my point.

I’ve been seeing a lot of thematic fiction (gender/racial/etc. oppression, environmental decline, overpopulation, large-scale aggression, etc.) with barely a touch of speculation in it, in science fiction publications. Not that these themes aren’t important, poignant, actual, and so on. On the contrary. But I’ve often felt these don’t belong in the genre. It’s like slipping on a pair of medieval boots with that super-nice tux and going to a ren faire. Sure people will notice the tux. You may even get a compliment on the boots. But you’ll get the tux dusty — and you probably won’t get quite the same reception as if you had gone to that formal social mixer. That is, such thematic fiction may get a lot more attention and appreciation outside the genre of science fiction. Not because it stains the genre or something silly as that. But because fiction in the genre is supposed to be built on its speculative elements, not on the message.

To take the quite worn-out example: yes, Starship Troopers (the book) had a lot of political and social commentary in it. But at its core, it was a story about humans dealing with aliens. You change the bugs to people and bring the action to Earth, your circumstances, strategy, and resolution change to the point where you have a different story. Does the commentary change? Not necessarily, but that’s what helps a science fiction story resonate with its readers — it still needs to have underlying themes that, whether or not the reader agrees with the messages, are related to universal or current topics.

But, nowadays, from comments on blogs, webpages, and forums, I’m getting the impression that there are many people out there who cringe at aliens as if they’ve just found a cockroach in their breakfast, think space is so 50’s, believe science and math are boring unless they are somehow twisted into “art,” consider technology and gadgets fine for flakes like Bond, but not much else, find fifty years into the future to be too far out to bother with … and, for whatever reason, still call whatever they want to read/write “science fiction.”

Er?

I don’t read only science fiction (or fantasy) — actually, most of the books I’ve purchased lately haven’t even been fiction. I believe that there’s fine reading outside the genre, and I just don’t understand why some people are dead-set on pushing for “progressive” science fiction, when, in fact, they are just asking for contemporary fiction with a touch of speculation in it.

The science fiction genre is quite rich in itself. It already has its traditions, its culture, its cycles of fads, and baselines and classics, and constantly evolves within its own — granted, pretty fuzzy — boundaries. We, as the fans of the genre, may sometimes get frustrated with certain fads and their Cronies, become disappointed with Big Names, and yearn for Wild Cards to our tastes. We sometimes may think the market is going to hell and claim to have the best solutions for its “revival.” But, at the end of the day, I think that we still want our stories to require us to take an often times quite literal leap of imagination — that precious geek-out moment, if you will — and we still want the speculation at the core of our story, with all its controversial or heart-warming messages in tow.

Or, I guess, I do.

And if I wanted to read a handbook on current world issues and possible solutions (for the optimists) or aftermaths (for the pessimists) in fiction format, I’d be more than happy to walk over to a different section of the bookstore. “Progressive fiction” sounds like a good term, I think. Any takers?