You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.
Spoliers: It could have been better.
A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog. It’s mostly just for fun. But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try. Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.
I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney. I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much. If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.
Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.
Something I’ve always been interested in is what makes someone a reader. In general. But something much more personal to me is the issue of reading and boys and why boys don’t read. That’s the conventional wisdom. But I only started hearing it after I was already a rabid reader myself.
(A quick note: I’m a guy.)
And I found it incredibly frustrating, because it didn’t match up with my personal experience. More than that, it didn’t match up with what I saw of my friends, either. And I think that’s an issue that has to be addressed.
I’m writing this post after having stumbled across a book blog called Stacked. Specifically, a series of posts they had about boys reading. As I read this series of posts, written primarily by adult women, and often citing Michael Sullivan, I became increasingly frustrated. The posts were full of claims that boys don’t read, boys do read, but they read thus, boys’ brains work like this which is why they read this. Not a single one of these claims matched my experiences as a young reader. And I admit, I may have been an outlier. (It’s useful for understanding my comments here to actually spend the ten or twenty minutes to read those posts first.)
But I have no reason to believe it’s anymore likely that I was the outlier and Sullivan the average male reader than the other way around. It’s a common problem in scientific research to take your personal opinions and experiences as the norm. Anyone who’s taken a serious class on research or statistics will have heard about anecdotal evidence–essentially, here’s how it was for me, that must be representative of the wider reality. I have been guilty of relying on anecdotal evidence myself many times. But in this case, I don’t believe I am the only one.
One of the primary claims made in the posts is that boys have a “rules and tools” thought process. The common cliche about asking for directions gets cited. And much is made of this being an inherent cognitive attribute of men vs. women. Personally, I think it’s more of a cultural imposition. We tell boys what the proper male behavior is, and punish them for not modeling it, and then we claim it’s an inherent biological trait. It’s not. What really bothered me about these posts was that they spoke as if all boys ever followed these specific in-built patterns. That’s a pile of crap. I have no doubt that these are trends among large cross-sections of the men and boys in Western society–whatever their supposed basis. But they are not the only trends, and I’m not even convinced they’re the most common trends. But they offer a simple way to view the differences between girls and boys in terms of behavior and educational performance, and so people desperate for an explanation glom onto them.
And I want to suggest that for that reason, they may be doing more harm than good. If you tell boys this is how they are, full stop, then anyone who hasn’t yet been inculcated with these patterns is forced t re-evaluate themselves. Are they doing something wrong? Are they weird? Should they be acting differently? And that more than anything, pushes more and more boys and men into these patterns of thinking. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The short version here is that people need to learn to acknowledge that the world is complicated and cannot be reduced to simple binary patterns. It sucks, and it’s frustrating, but it’s true. And trying to force the world into those patterns, especially as concerns cultural, societal, or any human sphere can lead to exactly the harm you hope to counteract.
As a result of these issues, I don’t often share my reading with my friends and family offline, because I’ve been told that that’s not proper behavior. And if boys tend to engage in reading in isolation, then it’s only these false dichotomies we have to blame, and nothing inherent in their make-up.
Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn. One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.
What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy. I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.
So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe. Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots. And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting. Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in. Etc.
And that’s understandable. They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on. Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take. And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?
The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world. What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods? Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings? And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?
I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.
1. Industrialization is one such plot. It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk. The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts. Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution. Control of data and information drives many of the plots. Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it. Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.
2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were. You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era. During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class. You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class. Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.
3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues. The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity. The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries. Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence. The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain. The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination. Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point. So is the ability to trade. Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in. British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.
4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries. The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion. Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.
5. Resource management is another common source of tension. Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value. All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.
6. Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points. Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society. The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.
7. Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict. Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel. So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US. Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories. US influence pre-war on Afghanistan. Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.
8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp. Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.
And there are many more things than what I’ve listed. Almost infinite sources of inspiration. Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.
In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:
1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.
2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.
3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.
In my last post, I introduced the topic of natural language processing and discussed the issue of how the context of a piece of language has an enormous impact on its translation into another language. In this post, I want to address issue with translation. Specifically, I want to talk how language is really an integrated function of the way the human brain models the world, and why this might make it difficult to create a machine translator isolated from the rest of an artificial intelligence.
When a human uses language they are expressing things that are based upon an integrated model of the universe in which they live. There is a linguistic model in their brain that divides up their concept of the world into ideas representable by words. For example, let’s look at the word “pit bull”. (It’s written with two words, but as a compound word, it functions as a single noun.) Pit bull is a generic term for a group of terrier dog breeds. Terriers are dogs. Dogs are mammals. Mammals are animals. This relationship is called a hypernym/hyponym relationship. All content words(nouns/verbs/adjectives) are part of a hierarchical tree of hypo-/hyper-nym relationships.
So when you talk about a pit bull, you’re invoking the tree to which it belongs, and anything you say about a pit bull will trigger the conversational participants’ knowledge and feelings about not only pit bulls, but all the other members of the tree to which it belongs. It would be fairly trivial programming-wise, although possibly quite tedious data-entry-wise to create a hypo-/hyper-nym tree for the couple-hundred-thousand or so words that make up the core vocabulary of English. But to codify the various associations to all those words would be a lot more difficult. Such a tree would be a step towards creating both a world-model and knowledge-base, aspects of artificial intelligence not explicitly related to the problem of machine translation. That’s because humans use their whole brain when they use language, and so by default, they use more than just a bare set of grammar rules when parsing language and translating between one language and another.
One use of such a tree and its associations would be to distinguish between homographs or homonyms. For example, if the computer sees a word it knows is associated with animals, it could work through the hypernym tree to see if “animal” is a hypernym or association with say, the word horse. Or, if it sees the word “grain”, it could run through the trees of other words to see if they are farming/crop related or wood-related. Or, perhaps, crossing language boundaries, if a language has one word that covers all senses of “ride”, and the other language distinguishes between riding in a car, or riding a horse, the program could use the trees to search for horse- or car-related words that might let it make a best guess one which verb is appropriate in a given context.
The long and short of the case I intend to make is that a true and accurate translation program cannot be written without taking enormous steps down the path of artificial intelligence. A purely rule-based system, no matter how many epicycles are added to it, cannot be entirely accurate, because even a human being with native fluency in both languages and extensive knowledge and experience of translating cannot be entirely accurate. Language is too malleable and allows too many equivalent forms to always allow for a single definitive translation of anything reasonably complex, and this is why it is necessary to make value judgements based on extra-linguistic data, which can only be comprehensively modeled by using techniques beyond pure grammatical rules.
In the next post, I’ll talk about statistical methods of machine translation, and hopefully I’ll be following that up with a critique and analysis of the spec fic concept of a universal translator.