Saturday, September 18, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Whither the Republic: Forms of Government in Science Fiction

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for Whither the Republic: Forms of Government in Science Fiction :

Plenty of science fiction seems to base itself around future empires and kingdoms, and still more have focused on democratic Federations and Commonwealths - but are there forms of government we’ve been overlooking? What are some of the potential forms of government and political systems we might use in science fiction stories, and how would they affect the  kinds of stories we could tell?
Will Elliot, Gail Carriger, Howard Tayler, Dave Freer 

Unfortunately, or fortunately for his many fans, Howard Tayler was the only one able to make it to this particular panel.

H: I’m sure many of you who are looking at the man on the stage are wondering if he is feeling uncomfortable because he has no co-panellists, but rest assured I am a humourist, and I’m not afraid of you because I’m currently imagining you all in my underwear. (Laughter)

Q: Wouldn’t that be crowded? (Laughter)

H: Well, a couple of you are going to be disappointed because I’ve got no one here to argue with.  I want to share a story where I made two NPCs in a roleplaying game where the party members wanted them to argue, and expected me to roleplay both sides of this argument.  It’s difficult, but not impossible.

H: So who is here because that have an axe to grind, a bone to chew or a hatchet to bury in meaty, meaty flesh with regards to politics?  No one?  Okay, good.

Q: Maybe they’re just too smart to put their hands up.

H:And that’s a good place to stand in a political debate. (Laughter)

H: I promise not to let my white-bread Utah upbringing, I promise not to let that colour my argument Republican red.

Q: ???

H: Who likes what that lady just said? (Hands up) There, it’s a democracy.  Who doesn’t like it?  Come on, I was hoping for at least one… there we go!  I wanted to say it’s a democracy, but it’s also a tyranny.  See what I did there?  That was clever. (Laughter)

Q: Incorrect systems of government?

H: In scientifical societies (In Banks – Iain M. Banks?), I love that word, I wish we’d kept it, once there are enough resources in one of these cultures, you read about an oligarchical system where the peasants never have the power to move into the higher ranks, and it’s supposed to be crazy space socialism, but I end up thinking I want to live there, because I can be anything I want.

H: Have any of you read David Brin’s essay on about Star Wars versus Star Trek?  He asks the question “Which universe would you rather live in?” and it would be cool to be a Jedi, but more likely I’d be some nobody without the Force, whereas Star Trek is idyllic, all this exciting stuff is happening on the fringes of space.

H: [story of Lando & copilot taking out the death star, illusion of power to the people, but it’s not]

H: Sorry, there’s a long hair on my microphone, it was creeping me out, and now… distracted.  And my internal censor just kicked in and said “No, you’re not gonna tell that story.”

H: In my world, it’s come to my attention that no one wants to hear about who I voted for in the last US election, they want something funny that rewards them for reading the book.  When I write about the politics in Schlock Mercenary, I want to take something that is happening in the real world and look at it in a funny way, extrapolate it into the future so people will look at it and think “That’s completely absurd!”

SF society, interesting – look at south Africa between 2002 and 2003.  Advertising 24 hour protection i.e. from private mercenaries. 

H: We just got word that this is the official Howard Tayler show! I’m going to put on a radio voice!  Monday! Monday! Monday!

Q: When are you syndicating?

H: No, I don’t have a face for radio.

 H: What District 9 did is they made South Africa so real that we accepted it, then showed us the future of what happens with race relations when aliens get involved.

H: Mike Williamson presented a case of Libertarianism in one of his stories, but he didn’t make it feel real enough, and one reader described it as a form of the Potemkin village that completely threw them out of the story, because it was a little too perfect to be real.

H: What’s the best kind of government?

Q: One that works. (Laughter)

H: Some people believe the government has a responsibility to its people in regards to infrastructure, in that they don’t let private companies build roads, but they’re wrestling with the idea of letting them build private internet lines, and we use the internet much as we use roads these days, and so how is that fair?  What will happen when they turn what should be a service toward their profit?

H: I’m going to open it up to questions, let’s save comments for later, or at least, if you want to make a comment, phrase it as a question so I can answer it and seem smarter than I am.

Q: How do you make people believe your government?

H: You have to believe it yourself, you have to set up rules and follow them and convince them you’re an expert.  Sometimes if you hold up the vaguely-explained thing in this hand and the unexplained thing in this hand, once you have the audience believing the unexplained thing, they kind of read through the other one and accept the explanation.  It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.

H: Inevitably, we’ll come to hard science-fiction and hand-wavium, hand-wavium makes the hyperdrive work.  I don’t know what’s inside an annie plant, I don’t know why they’re all round, but I’m consistent enough that people will believe it, and forget about the science.

Q: [Long convoluted comment]

H: Now phrase it in the form of a question.

Q: How do you make that work?

H: There you go!  I often approach religion in a certain way, usually in the form of areligion, one word, which is the belief that there can be no belief, which is still a belief.  I have two characters who sometimes debate religion, both of which I’m sympathetic with, and I will get two emails consecutively, one from a religious person thanking me for treating religion with respect, and someone else saying that they were worried the Mormon sci-fi writer was going to let religion beat science all the time and thanking me for being reasonable. 

H: It would be the same as getting a socialist to argue with a capitalist, and the socialist is saying “We’ve gotten to the point where we have enough resources that we can redistribute the wealth” and the capitalist will say “Yes, but we have those resources because we compete for them” and neither of those sounds inherently wrong.  I’m just making this up off the top of my head, but if I wanted to write further about this, I would look for excellent essays written for and against capitalism and socialism, then have these two characters embrace the best parts of each argument and pit them against each other.

H: My background is in music.  John Cage once said “well-stolen is half-composed” – I will steal like a bandit.

H: Think for a moment of one novel that has faithfully replicated politics and government, and put your hand up, and we’ll do a roll call.

Mike Williamson Freehold/That weapon

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a strange land

Julian Comstock

The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness, by Le Guin

Frank Herbert, Dune

H: The fact that Herbert took machine life completely out of that society so that manipulating people was still the way of gaining power in that society was an excellent way of maintaining feudalism in a science-fiction setting.

Aasimov, Caves of Steel

Ken McCloud

L. Niell Smith

C.J. Cherryh’s Down Below Station – you could tell the bad guy was the bad guy because he was a little less sympathetic, but you could tell he still believed he was the hero in his own story.

Pandora’s star by Peter F. Hamilton

Kevin Anderson, Sage of the Seven Suns

Sheri  S. Tepper

Phoenix Café – White Queen

H: Brandon Sanderson’s new book The Way of Kings, has really fun political things happening, looking at what happens below you when you’re the one in charge.  It’s a thousand pages long, just for the first book, but it’s the best epic fantasy I’ve read.

H: Why do aliens always have human-style governments?  For the same reason all the aliens I draw have two eyebrows, because they need to be relatable.  If you have a completely alien system of government, it will throw your reader out of your story and you lose them, and that’s sad.

H: Louis the 14th is Lord Vetinari – even though everyone hates him, he’s more useful than a power vacuum where he’s standing.

H: Someone once asked me which of my characters I identify the most with, and I said General Xinchub, and they were shocked, but he’s just a guy who does what’s necessary to preserve the things he loves, or to do his job.  He’s not evil, he’s just a great-good sort of guy.

H: As Orson Scott Card once said – pick the person in the most pain, and there’s your story.

H: Ladies and gentlemen, you have been a kind and wonderful audience, thank you for not making me tell any more underwear jokes. (Applause)

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