The Challenge of Setting in SF

I had a roommate once who had never read any SF before we moved in together. She saw my collection of science fiction and decided to give it a try.

She grabbed a book off my shelf at random—a far future, hard scifi title. Pretty advanced for her first exposure to the genre. She found it very frustrating.

She had no problem getting into the characters or the plot. She understood the science well enough and enjoyed how the author extrapolated it. She didn’t get too tripped up over the genre-specific vocabulary, either, although she did have to ask me what some of the acronyms stood for.

The problem was the setting. She couldn’t make sense of the world of the story, the environment. She didn’t know what things were and couldn’t picture them. Presented with an imagined far-future, alien setting, she felt lost and disoriented.

She was frustrated because she thought she was supposed to understand it. She felt like she was missing something, some key that would bring the world of the story into focus. Something to make it all make sense.

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Searching for the Other

Human beings are monotypic: we’re the only species within our taxonomic genus. Monotypic genera are relatively rare—it’s unusual for there to be no other species within a genus, especially among higher level complex organisms. (*)

We weren’t always monotypic. We shared Ice Age Europe with Homo neanderthalensis for tens of thousands of years. We shared parts of the planet with H. erectus for much of our early existence. It’s possible we even overlapped somewhat with H. heidelbergensis (I don’t know what the scholarly consensus is on this—recent discoveries have complicated the origins of H. sapiens. There were also many more coexistent relatives during our early evolution.)

For well over half of our existence on this planet as H. sapiens, there were other people out there who were within our taxonomic genus but who weren’t our species.

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On Food and Headaches

I started getting headaches in my mid-20s. I threw out my back at work one day and never did anything to fix it—I relied on my standard “ignore it and it’ll go away” strategy. This caused entrenched muscle imbalances, which led to steadily mounting tension along the length of my spine, which eventually came to rest in my neck and shoulders.

I started getting tension headaches at the back of my head, where my spine connects to my skull. These headaches are a dull throb on one side or the other, sometimes nothing much, sometimes bad enough to make me sweaty and nauseous and shaky. I always knew when one was coming on because it would be preceded by a few hours of mounting tension in my back and shoulders. I always knew when one would be really bad because my neck would start cracking every time I moved my head.

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Artists vs. Craftsmen, or: Why I’m Not Participating in NaPoWriMo This Year

I won’t be participating in NaPoWriMo this year. I waffled for the past couple of months as to whether or not I should. To explain why I’m not, I need to tell you about a recent revelation I had about myself:

I finally realized that I’m not actually a creative person. More importantly—I’m happy with that. I’m tired of feeling like I’m supposed to be creative when I’m clearly not.

To explain this revelation, I need to tell you a story about LEGO…

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Practicing Empathy

I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.

What a bastard.

It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.

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Another Perspective on Poverty

This is a story that hits much closer to home for me, as it happened to a friend of mine. But her story has done as much as anything to affect how I understand poverty, how I understand the role of government assistance, of social safety nets.

And it has done as much as anything to teach me the dangers of making assumptions.

I have a friend who experienced difficult times during the recession of the Bush Years. She and her husband are both capable and hard workers, college educated. He worked in a skilled labor field and she did general office work. They did fine for themselves.

Then he was involved in an accident and was severely injured. He’s disabled for the rest of his life. As a result, he could no longer work in his chosen field. He lost his job, lost his health insurance. And we all know COBRA is prohibitively expensive.

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Perspectives on Poverty

[I posted a truncated version of what follows as a Tweet-thread.]

Poverty is something I think about frequently. Working in an urban public library system, many of our patrons are poor. The community we serve has significant neighborhoods of poverty. It’s our responsibility to understand what our patrons need, what life is really like for them.

This is an issue that’s always on my mind but it seems particularly important to speak out about it now.

There’s a group of kids—teens and tweens—who hang out at a local library. Sometimes they hang out at the McDonald’s down the street. These kids clearly live in poverty.

All of them have smartphones.

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