Archive for March, 2009

Politics and Laws in Retrofuturism.

March 26, 2009

The contrast between Star Trek’s Prime Directive and the actions of the futurists in retrofuturism promises to fuel a number of topics here. The topic came from responses to a chapter I posted to our local novel writing group. A discussion on the history and ethics of interactions between cultures has ensued. Then a weighty online site published a relevant article today (see link). I have permission to quote one of our participants; hopefully, the others will agree to continue the thread anonymously in a future blog. First, the thread from a chapter of The Wildcat’s Burden (to be released this fall) that started the discussion.

About the politics of Gisel and her male companions. The whole novel casts her in a new situation of authority where she is obliged to make decisions she hates. It’s a different situation than her earlier career when as a junior officer she obeyed orders — or conveniently lost the ones she didn’t like. I don’t see how the Iskanders can build a modern world without initiating the progression to a host of modern problems that we haven’t solved — and think that’s the direction the theme has to go.

Her father wants to replace the coal and steam infrastructure with electrical technology as soon as possible, with a mixture of fusion energy and renewables, but it’s clear that other nations will not understand the importance of doing this. I have kept the Iskanders from developing oil deposits, but the coal-poor Empire would almost certainly develop the Romanian, Iranian, North African, and Saudi oil fields (all within the Empire) rather than import all their fuel coal from northern Europe. I also agree that once the aviation genie is let out of the bottle there seems no way to prevent bombing campaigns.

Unless, of course, the Iskanders are going to build superior weapons to police the rest of the world, but that’s a scenario I have yet to explore. Is it clear in retrofuturist fiction that the creators of the advances are morally obligated to produce the super-national governance to control abuses of their teachings? Is that even possible? What do you think?

The first answer from Merilyn –

In reply to your questions in the last paragraph, I’ve been a long time fan of the various incarnations of Star Trek with its “Prime Directive,” which I’ve copied and pasted below:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

Of course, in the series, exceptions are always made – though always with the very best of intentions!

I think any members of an advanced civilization finding themselves on a more primitive world cannot help but have an influence and affect a change. (Would I give up books because their presence might contaminate a world I’ve brought them to?) Is there an obligation to do so? I’d like to think the “advanced” civilization would try not to repeat the errors made on their own world and the “good guys” in fiction should make an effort to do so. The “bad guys” don’t care. However, regardless of what anyone does, the world they have come to has its own very complex history. culture, economics….all of which will be affected by any introduced “advances” – and the results are probably difficult to predict. In his three books Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson explores these questions, though on a world without any inhabitants. I think good writers will make us ask those kinds of questions, which you do.

My response to this was somewhat less reserved – I suppose the difference between retrofuturist fiction and Star Trek is a good point at which to start. The key element of retrofuturism is the intrusion of a future element into an earlier culture, with the starting assumption that the arc of interference itself is the theme and the dynamic of the story. The degree and nature of the ‘contamination’ is the specimen on the slide.

I must admit I’ve never been a fan of Star Trek. Living in a continent that was stolen from its owners, (and having been born and raised in a country that lived by taking advantage of others and distorting the paths of their cultural evolution) as did Roddenberry, I find the Prime Directive to be sanctimonious drivel. The two-faced posturing used as entertainment by Hollywood is the same hypocrisy that has crippled the United Nations from its inception. If there are two dissimilar cultures in contact, both will attempt to use the other – one more successfully, one less. Justice lies somewhere in the middle, but the interaction is always dynamic and the mid point continually changes.

I will admit to viewing the good intentions of the Iskanders with a large dose of cynicism, since every disaster probably stems from good intentions. I also admit that my antipathy to authoritarian structures and individuals colours the plots. I think, though, that much of Gisel’s appeal comes from her flouting of authority, which is why I wanted to look at her reactions in this novel when she became one of the authority figures. As the author of the Iskanders’ efforts at penalty-free and victim-free development I must admit to a degree of sympathy for Henrik Matah – trying to reach Utopia without the necessary visits to the dark satanic mills along the road.

A second respondent offered a number of observations that expand the discussion – including notes on the way that modern governments treat pre-existing cultures within their societies. I hope she will expand on this in a further discussion. A third, also a Star Trek fan, weighed in with observations that the prime Directive was generally broken in every episode. And then Tom Dispatch weighed in with another article on the Prime Directive and the actual behaviour of “Starship Ameriprise”.


My Heritage Victorian Laundry.

March 17, 2009

This piece of family history gives a small clue where my interest in writing retrofuturism was born.  In many ways my life has spanned the past world of Victorian England (in my grandparents’ experience) and the intrusive future that we live in today.  In knitting them together with fiction I deepen my contact with the past and the present. It’s a journey everyone will take some time in their lives.

Laundries were in my maternal grandparents’ family. Around the beginning of the last century, they owned the Hamilton House Laundry on Putney Bridge Road, in a suburb of London on the south bank of the Thames. When my grandfather came home from the Boer War in 1901 he became a laundryman – I believe he drove the laundry delivery cart.

Hamilton House Laundry was gone when I was a kid, but Mother and I walked past the building once. We still had one left in the family – Heathfield Laundry at Crowthorne, Berkshire. Mother and I visited at least annually when I was a boy to see her aunts. I believe the building is gone today – I looked for it on Google Maps and that corner is part of a housing development. Of course, it hadn’t been a laundry since around 1960. But I swear it was the last Victorian laundry in captivity.

Crowthorne had few paved streets in the 40s and 50s when we visited most. The one the laundry was on was unimproved surficial sand (geologically speaking), as were all the others in that part of the village. The houses, and the laundry had no electricity, the people worked by gas lights. Remember gas lights? No, I expect you don’t. They did have indoor plumbing and running water, but the outside toilets still existed, and everyone had water butts that collected the run-off from the roofs. Things changed slowly in those days, and everyone knew where they were – but the big water tank that collected water from the roofs was invaluable to the laundry. You couldn’t let all that soft water go to waste.

Without electric power the laundry ran on woman power. Nellie, built like a plough horse, provided the arm power that turned the tubs of the huge wooden barrel-staved washing machines. She also heaved the buckets of hot water from the copper and poured them into the tubs when the outer and inner hatches were opened and the dirty laundry piled inside. I used to enjoy watching the end of the cycle when the brass spigots at the bottoms of the tubs were opened and the grey soapy water ran out into the little channels in the floor that directed it to the outside drain. I used to dream about building my own soapy water canals to float matchbox boats on – instead of getting in the way of the women when I floated them on theirs.

The wet laundry was carried outside to dry – in the drying sheds if the weather was rainy or outside on all the clotheslines that filled the huge lawn toward the south of the property. Beyond there the lawn vanished into the woods and the footpath to the next street, where the parish church stood, made straight for a wicket gate in the fence. I enjoyed the drying sheds on cold days, but could never stay long because the well-stoked coke stoves and the humidity rivaled any Finnish sauna. The dry laundry went one of two ways – the sheets went to the motor driven ironing roller, like a huge wringer from an old washing machine – the smalls went inside to where my Aunt Clad and the other ladies ironed everything by hand. I liked watching Cousin Gwen feed the sheets in between the rollers to the accompaniment of the chuff chuff of the motor that drove the operating belt from outside. Mr – there, I’ve forgotten his name – came once a week to tend the motor for sheet ironing day.

The irons were all flat-irons, of course, and were heated on racks afixed to the sides of a large upright coke stove, until Dolly or Aunt Clad came for a fresh one and tested the temperature by wafting the backs of their hands over the surface, or holding them close to a cheek. I used to watch the ironing and the starching of collars for the masters at Wellington College – the biggest customer. It was a fine warm room to stay in on a cold rainy day but barely tolerable during a hot summer. Everything was ironed to perfection, all seams straight and square, and if any item of wash was observed to be worn or missing something it would go in the hamper for Aunt Nell.

Aunt Nell was the owner, ever since Mr Budge had gone to the great wash-house in the sky. She occupied her own room where she sewed missing buttons back on, turned the worn collars of shirts, repaired rips, and sorted the items into the approprate piles for delivery. She and Cousin Gwen lived in the brick house at the end of the brick built ‘works’ building. Being relatives of the owner Mother and I could repair to the kitchen inside for afternoon tea, while the working women took their thermos of tea and packet of cake to either the warmest or coolest room of the works – according to the time of year. I think the wages were very modest – in fact the whole operation probably ran on a shoestring – but the workers were almost an extended family and spent their whole working lives there.

Somewhere near 1960 things changed. Perhaps my Cousin Jean’s husband and I started an inevitable progression when we installed the first electric wiring and lights in the house. But perhaps it had something to do with the fact that everyone was becoming old and grey. Aunt Nell and Aunt Clad worked until they were over eighty, and I suspect the working ladies were well past 65. In the end they bowed to the inevitable when Wellington College announced they were switching their laundry contract to a larger and more modern business. The house was retained but the works and most of the grounds were sold to a businessman who made electonic parts. Thus the Victorian holdover jumped from 1860 to 1960 almost overnight.

The Aunts’ retirements were short, but Cousin Gwen enjoyed many years in the little bungalow built for her in the old rose garden. The ‘machinery’ was scrapped instead of going to a museum, where it belonged. And I suspect the masters at Wellington College never had their shirts and collars so well cared for ever again.

Read an E-Book Week.

March 9, 2009

As a Read an E-Book Week promotion, Zumaya Publications (who will be publisher of my fantasy, Rast) is giving away free e-books. Go to this link to find them —

Liz has also prepared the promotion for visitors who currently do not have an e-reader device. First you need to download the eReader by clicking the (green & blue) link at the top left of the list. In eReader you will have to select the device you want to read the downloaded pdb file of the book you select.

Since my e-reader (the eBookwise 1150) is not on the list I downloaded the Windows version, which allows you to read on the full screen of the computer or a portion of it.

I had always meant to explore M D (Dom) Benoit’s Jack Meter series – a Sci-Fi detective – and one is there to download. Also the first volume of the Everdark series by Elizabeth Burton is available, of special interest to me because I was a crit partner for the third novel of the series. I expect the rest of the generous helping of freebies are of the same quality, but I’m not familiar with either writers or books.

Read an E-Book Week runs from March 8th to the 14th. I’m pasting some more links below to companies offering free e-books during the promotion.

Lexcycle Sponsors Read an E-Book Week. Set of directions for first-time users of iPhone and iPod Touch.

Twilight Times Books is offering Darrell Bain’s autobiography, Darrell Bain’s World of Books, as a free download during Read an E-Book Week March 8 – 14, 2009. We will be offering an additional free ebook each day.

More information and articles at the links below.

A short post today.

March 6, 2009

Take a look at the Reviews page — I have two new reviews of Arrival posted.