About Josh Young

Joshua M. Young is a theology student and science fiction author.

Review: The Orville, Episode One.

I am not a fan of Seth McFarlane. I find Family Guy about 95% annoying, 4% dumb, and about 1% funny. I can’t stand even the commercials for American Dad, so I’ve never given it a shot, except where someone is watching it in the break room at work. So it was really weird to me when I saw the initial trailers for The Orville and didn’t immediately hate everything about what I’d seen. Maybe it was the influence of Jon Favreau. But then something far stranger happened: in interviews with Seth McFarlane, he wasn’t sounding like the kind of guy who would make Family Guy. He talked about his sorrow over the current fixation of sci-fi with grim dystopias and lamented the death of hopeful, optimistic sci-fi. He talked about his love for classic Star Trek and shows like The Twilight Zone with a big idea behind them. He put forth a mission statement for The Orville that declared it must be “fun, dramatic, and aspirational.” He sounded, if not superversive, exactly, then like someone whom superversion could happily call a friend. (Gotta say, I never saw that one coming.) With the premier of The Orville finally here, we can now sit back and examine McFarlane’s work to see how it held up to his goals.

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Signal Boost: “Question of the Day: The Andre Polk Memorial Anthology.”

Some of you might be familiar with Andre Polk. Most of you probably aren’t. He wasn’t a big time writer; I don’t think he had anything published. But if he loved writing, and if you happened to be a member of the Space Opera: Writers group over on Facebook prior to his death, you knew what kind of guy he was. Though chronically ill and constantly in and out of the hospital, he was consistently cheerful and would religiously post a fun “Question of the Day” to prompt discussions in the group. He lost the battle against his illnesses earlier this year, and his absence in the group is still felt. You folks being a science fiction sort of audience, I feel like I can make the comparison to the Enterprise after Spock’s death without anyone feeling like I’m trivializing the loss of a friend.

Question of the Day: The Andre Polk Memorial Anthology is the Space Opera: Writers response to Andre’s death. Twenty-two space opera stories gathered together as both a memorial and a gift to Andre’s family; proceeds will got to his family. Help us remember a lost friend and care for those he left behind by picking up a copy. Question of the Day  will be available on Sept 18th; it’s available for pre-order now.

Realism in Fiction and the Spice of Life.

The hard SF debate has sort of come and gone, and between work, school, and a brand new infant in our house, I kind of missed the boat on it. But I’ve been chewing over “realism” in fiction a lot lately, and I wanted to weigh in.

I tend to prefer a sort of realism to my stories. I love my giant robot anime show, but I tend, as I’ve said, to drift towards “real” robots. Mass produced, engineered military equipment. Things that require fuel and repairs and ammo. Superhero stories have to work very hard for me, because I have a hard time accepting the superhero power set more often than not. I’m quite capable of enjoying something absurd and off the wall, but I’m happier when I don’t have to, say, sit there and wonder if Star Wars even takes place in a universe where space is vacuum.

But why? Why do I balk at giant face-robots powered by fighting spirit and embrace airplanes that turn into giant robots because of alien super-tech? The best thing I can think of is that realism, like “hardness,” is a sort of spice. Some things are great with lots of it. Some are better with little dashes. Some stories work better with it; some work better without it.

I’m a big fan of spicy foods—if you ask people who are not spicy food people. Real spicy food people probably think I’m a wuss, because I find there’s a point, right around the far end of the jalapeno level, where heat starts to make things lose their flavor. When you stop focusing on flavor, and start focusing on heat, you’ve lost the point.

Realism is like that, I think. There’s a time when slavery to verisimilitude makes you lose the point—and I think, like spicy foods, it’s actually a fairly low point.

But what are we using it for? Like it or not, all entertainment is, on some level, a manifestation of the author’s worldview; and as a manifestation of that worldview, meant for widespread dissemination and consumption, fiction has something evangelistic about it, whether we mean it or not. It’s one of the cardinals of the Superversive mindset: fiction has a perspective that is communicated (and internalized).

I’ve talked about the difference between good science fiction and bad science fiction before. To recap:

A good science fiction story will look upward, towards the stars and away from the self.

A bad science fiction story will fixate downward, towards the ground and focus on the self.

Realism can be used in service of either of these sorts of stories. It seems to me that, along with science fiction stories, realism comes in two flavors. I’ve tried to come up with pithy names, but turns out that you can find an already existent idea of  “[X] Realism” for just about any value of X, so I’m just going to call them what I want to call them: Mundane Realism and Superversive Realism.

Mundane Realism is the “bad” realism. It’s the realism of post WWI disillusionment. It takes V’ger’s question and turns it into a statement: “This is all that I am. There is nothing more.” Nothing greater. Nothing beyond our ken. Mundane Realism is the perspective of nihilism, of a deterministic meat machines, of  people who see only problems, who lump people into categories. Mundane realism is the death of dreams—and it’s the enemy of absolutely everyone who loves science fiction. I hate to keep harping on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, but I’m going to: it’s the kind of perspective that writes a book about colonizing another planet, only to spend the last third of it with the colonists coming home with their tale between their legs and the message that humanity is confined to one solar system, because anything else is impossible, and should be, because it’s cruel to expect your descendants to struggle for something. It’s the worldview that suggests that no external struggle is worth it or meaningful, that the only thing that matters is the small scale. Screwed up people doing screwed up things. It ignores the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, because, hey. They don’t exist.

But there exists something else. I’m a theologian by training, and maybe that colors my perspectives. (We seminary folks would call it a “hermeneutical lens.”) Superversive Realism acknowledges that truth. That reality. Not every Superversive story is going to be hard SF—and, in fact, in Hard SF, or Campbellian SF, or Blue SF, whatever you want to call it, it’s probably going to be precluded by the worldviews of many authors. But it’s also not excluded by the nature of the sub-genre.

Consider Interstellar. The film’s pretty far up there on the hardness scale for most of the runtime. Some folks—particularly those of the Mundane Realist ilk—had a problem with the resolution of the film because it “softens” in the last act. All that gushy stuff about love. But I submit that from the perspective of a theology student, Interstellar is a realist film from start to finish. It posits a realist perspective that embraces our best knowledge of the universe’s mechanics—and then opens that up to embrace the theologian’s perspective of love as a motive force. (The motive force; some theologians talk about the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and Jesus.) Interstellar’s realism—and the strength of its realism—comes in precisely because it knows when to back down on realism. Interstellar recognizes a suprarealism. A Superversive realism.

At the end of the day, the issue is less about realism per se and more about our use of it. Overuse results in a bitter taste—a lingering, foul thing taste you can’t shake. But it’s a useful seasoning when applied with skill—or you’re just not trying to beat someone over the head with it.

Alien Game by Rod Walker

Last summer I reviewed a little book with the unassuming title of Mutiny in Space. Left to my own devices, I usually pick up books with big, grandiose titles like The Vindication of Man or The Big Event of Cosmic Importance with a Thing That Sounds All Powerful. Mutinies are all fine and good, but they don’t tend to be the main draw for me. It’d be like offering me a big, heaping bowl of corn. It’s great, sure. But where’s my fraggin’ steak?

And then Mutiny in Space turned out to be really, really good. If mutinies are corn, Mutiny in Space is that awesome Mexican corn where they spread mayo all over it and spicy chili powder and cheese and lime juice and I’m just going to stop now….

Anyways, Mutiny in Space turned out to be so much fun, and so spot-on with the Heinlein juvenile feel that I couldn’t even complain about the title, because that’s the sort of title things had when Heinlein was writing his juveniles. (The Star Beast? Star beasts are fine, but they’re a side dish.) So I was really pretty excited to visit Walker’s work again when I was sent a copy of Alien Game for review. So how’d it stack up?

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Josh! What is best in Sci-Fi?

There’s been a lot of lively debate the last few weeks about the relative merits of things like pulp vs no pulp, and why the devil would you ever want to drink orange juice without pulp? Or worse, strain wonderful apple cider of all its suspended pulpy particles and turn it into apple juice…. Or, rather, I guess, pulp sci-fi vs men with screwdrivers sci-fi. The contention seems to broadly be that straining the pulp out of science fiction has left us with the science fiction equivalent to the abomination that is apple juice and pulpless orange juice, and that it all the fault of John W. Campbell and his cohorts. Broadly speaking.

I’m not a science fiction historian. I mean, compared to the average guy, I’ve read a pretty wide swath of science fiction and fantasy, including relative unknowns like J. H. Rosny. I tend to range pretty far, rather than sticking to one particular style or period that I like. But I can’t argue about what certain editors wanted or promoted, things like that; I’ve never really had the reason to look into it, and frankly, I’d rather just read the stories. But last week and the week before, as I was up to my neck in midterms (8000+ words of theology written, plus all the accompanying research), I kept drifting back to one thought: I really like men with screwdrivers in my scifi.

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Once More into the Breach: Genre!

We’re spilling a lot of inkwell, spraying a lot of pixels— arguing about Science Fiction lately. Is it sick? If it is, what does its salvation look like? Is science fiction is the style of the pulps the only way forward for healthy science fiction? Is one form of scifi inferior to another form? Somewhere along the way, the assertion seems to have been made that splitting “Science Fiction & Fantasy” into “‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Fantasy'”– two separate genres.

Claims (With a Pratchett-captial ‘C’) have been made! Battle Lines have been drawn! Absurdity has been uttered! Wisdom has made itself known! Attempts to summarize a coherent message have been made, and the result is—

Well, the result is about 75 open browser tabs, and y’all are pushing my research on the Battle of Passchendaele off into the edge of the screen somewhere.

The Argument as I Understand It:

Once, in the Golden Age, Science Fiction and Fantasy was a genre, and all were happy. Then along came a man, praised by some and loathed by others, who changed the face of the Genre-sphere. One side claims he stripped the the genre of all excitement and thus helped pave the way for modern virtue-signal fiction; the other side claims that the Golden Age wasn’t really all that Golden, and most of it was crap, anyways, the same way most of it is crap now.The first side decided that the way forward was to, in fact, move backwards, and return to the Edenic existence of the Genre Monad. The second side thinks this is bunk, and the way forward is to focus on the superversive: the things that are true, good, and beautiful in fiction.

Phew.

Like most arguments, I feel like there’s a lot of hyperbole being thrown around– and let’s face it, at least one party discussing this is known, in his own words, for “lobbing bombs.” That’s all well and good, I guess. It gets page views by enraging people. Maybe it furthers the discussion by making people feel the need to reply. There’s a downside to hyperbolic bombs, though: your message gets lost in the sensationalism.

The Genre and Genre.

A week or two ago, Daddy Warpig argued that there is no Hard SF— a claim that is ridiculous. There is, demonstrably, a sub-genre of science fiction that chooses to limit itself to science as we know it. Now, DW makes some decent points in his argument, but the article is flawed. What he’s describing– a narrative perspective that eschews anything unrealistic– isn’t hard SF; what he’s describing is mundane SF. Mundane SF might be a detestable rejection of everything the genre is, but it still exists.  And even if we were talking about legitimate hard science fiction, it’s wrong to see the perspectives of scientific accuracy as buzzkills; it’s perfectly possible to write a joyous, pulpy adventure in a hard science fiction world. John C. Wright is very good at it. (Careful. TVTropes link.)

It would be terrible if the only thing in the world was Hard Scifi in much the same way it would be terrible if the only thing in the world for dinner was pepperoni pizza. Pepperoni pizza is pretty awesome, but it’s not going to hit the spot if you want tacos. But there’s more to the genre than Hard SciFi, isn’t there?

We’ve got space opera, cyberpunk, teampunk, military SF; dozens of subgenres and subsubgenres. Some have grown more popular. Some have faded with time. It’s what happens; tastes change. Now here’s what’s awesome about subgenres: I prefer stories that hit space opera notes, and I find steampunk somewhat overplayed. If I want a story that hits those space opera notes, I can safely avoid– usually– the steampunk authors. We shouldn’t be afraid to dream outside genre boundaries, but it’s handy to have that rough reference guide: “This is a story that I’m probably going to enjoy when I’m in this mood.”

The Way Forward

In several places, Daddy Warpig– and probably others– seem to suggest that the way to make written SF relevant again is to work to bring everything back under the aegis of “Science Fiction and Fantasy.” In general, I’m a fan of just writing your damn story and letting it go where you want it to– genres are a guide for readers, not the authors– but by insisting that everything SF fall under that category, you’re being just as prescriptivist as the folks who “chased out” all the fantasy from the SciFi world. Force anything into a mold, and you’ll break it. The way forward isn’t a return to an idyllic world of SF&F; it’s to tell your damn story in the way it needs to be told. Sometimes that will be a hard-to-classify genre mishmash; sometimes it’ll be a diamond-hard Hard SF story.

What’s critical isn’t the genre, subgenre, or subsubgenre. It’s the craft and the perspective.

Remember:

A good science fiction story will look upward, towards the stars and away from the self.

A bad science fiction story will fixate downward, towards the ground and focus on the self.

“Angel Voice” Duet: Right in the feels.

I know I never shut up about Macross, but do yourself a favor and take the time to watch this AMV, “Angel Voice.” Featuring a duet between Basara of Macross 7— which I still need to sit down and watch– and Lynn Minmay, Macross‘ original idol, it uses video from the just about the whole franchise, and does an amazing job of encapsulating everything that’s awesome about the Macross universe.