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The Problem With Standardized Tests: The Kobyashi Maru Theorem

This is going to be an education rant in the guise of a science fiction rant, or maybe a science fiction rant in the guise of an education rant – your choice, really. My day job is as an educator and one of my former education-related jobs was working for a test prep company, teaching students how to take the SAT. I have a lot of opinions about tests, not all of them bad, but I will say this: standardized tests, in order to function as designed, need completely unrealistic infrastructure and, for that reason, they should be universally abolished or completely changed.

By way of demonstrating what I’m talking about, let’s talk about that iconic science fiction test, the Kobyashi Maru of Starfleet Academy.

For those of you not in the know, the Kobyashi Maru is a bridge crew simulation that Starfleet runs for its cadets, placing them in an impossible, unwinnable situation for the purpose of seeing how the cadets will react under such pressures. On the surface, this is a wholly reasonable and even intelligently designed test, very much in the vein of what a standardized test aspires to be: a test that can be applied equally to everyone that will generate completely unbiased results that allow you to evaluate all students who take the test equally. It’s also the purest of test-design fiction – it literally cannot exist as displayed and actually work.

The reason for this is very simple: as soon as students learn how the test works (and they inevitably will, since students always talk to other students about tests), the test will cease to be an accurate measure of the cadet’s capabilities because they will know it’s a no-win scenario going in. This necessarily will change their behavior towards said test and will, therefore, throw off the results. So, sure, for the first few years (if we’re being generous) the Kobyashi Maru will be a perfectly reasonable test because no one will actually know it is no-win, but before long somebody will find out. Once they find out, it is in their interest that the test (1) not change and (2) they guide their friends in how to take the test. Furthermore, instructors – whose capabilities will likewise be judged by how their students perform on the test – will inevitably skew their instruction (even surreptitiously) to reflect the qualities the test aims for.

Before long, certainly long before the events of The Wrath of Khan, the test would be bracketed by

There is no way he is the ONLY person to do this.

all manner of pedagogical apparatuses that serve to help students perform well on the test, and that wouldn’t even count the cheaters, such as Kirk (who would doubtlessly be more numerous).

The solution, of course, is for Starfleet to change the test somehow, but even if they change that test, if it is designed to test the same thing (a no-win scenario), it will inevitably be vulnerable to the same kind of gaming as it was before. Test gamesters will just have to modulate their strategies somewhat, and the Academy will be right back where it started.

This is exactly the problem real world standardized testing faces. There is nothing inherently wrong with a standardized test. A standardized test is attempting to create an assessment tool that will tell you (with some degree of accuracy) the aptitude of any student in some specific set of skills, regardless of who they are or when they take the test. All SAT results, in other words, are supposed to be comparable with all other SAT results. This is a useful tool! Given that everyone comes from different school systems and are taught by different teachers and that, no matter how hard anyone tries, GPA is not and just cannot be a completely even or universally measurable kind of assessment (some people’s schools are easier/harder than others! Some schools “don’t believe” in GPA! Etc, etc.). Having some kind of universal yardstick by which to assess everybody is great!

But it can’t work! And here’s why:

1: It only works if nobody knows HOW it works

Here’s the thing: multiple choice standardized tests are a game. They are a game because they are (and sort of have to be) graded by machines and they have to assess all the exact same skills in the exact same proportions. Once you “solve” how the game works, the test becomes monumentally easier. Like the Kobyashi Maru, it is inevitable that people will figure out how the game works and, once they do that, they throw off all the results, since the results are designed to compare your performance against everyone else’s performance. So, unless you can keep the content of your test some kind of state secret (and good luck with that!), any given standardized test is only good for as long as it takes for the test takers to figure out the rules.

2: The people who know how it works will inevitably be the best connected/wealthiest people

Okay, fine – so suppose your test has been cracked by somebody. The damage, at least, would be somewhat mitigated if everyone had access to the tools needed to crack the test themselves. That’s never the case, though! The people who will be taught to crack the test will inevitable be the ones who can afford the tutors or who happen to have the connections or live in the kinds of privileged communities that get these kinds of advantages. This is NOT everyone, and this inequality automatically invalidates the test results, since some people are actually taking the test (the regular folks) and others are simply cracking the game behind the test (the test preppers). You can’t have an accurate standardized test that is testing two different cohorts of people in two different ways for two different things. Want to know something funny? The students that routinely did the worst on SAT math were almost always the best at math in all other environments. Why? They didn’t see the game. The best way to do well on SAT math is to do as little math as possible. Don’t believe me? Well, this lazy math student scored in the 95% percentile on SAT math by doing just that. And I did it several times over.

3: The test cannot be fundamentally changed without invalidating its own existence.

“Just change the test” sounds like a great plan, but if you fundamentally change how the test works, you automatically invalidate all the preceding test scores. In other words, if part of the purpose of a test like the SAT (or MCAS or TOEFL or LSAT or MCAT or whatever) is to produce scores that can be compared (and this is their purpose), then changing how the test works means your test has lost the very thing that makes it useful.

4: Testing warps instruction!

Because these tests are so important and because they are also so crackable, this means that teachers have a vested interest in teaching students to crack the test, knowing (as I point out in #2) that not all of their students will have the resources to crack it on their own. So, instead of actually learning things, they learn how to take a test. Pretty much everybody knows about this problem at this point – it’s cliche to even point it out – but it is also 100% true. Students that are taught to take tests have less knowledge, fewer skills, and impaired critical thinking when placed against previous generations who were not saddled with these things. I know this because I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for 15 years and have watched both the amount of testing rise and the quality of incoming students drop simultaneously. Granted, that’s anecdotal – maybe I’m wrong (I hope I am!) – but I somewhat doubt it.

5: A perfect test doesn’t exist in the first place!

And all of this is just assuming the test is actually able to test the thing it claims it does! Sure, a well-designed standardized test might give us accurate picture of the average, neurotypical student, but this hardly covers everyone! Furthermore, I sort of doubt there’s any reliable way you could get a standardized test to apply equally to everybody – people, and how they think or approach test taking, are just too different.

So, if Starfleet Academy is still giving the Kobyashi Maru after however many years it takes for Kirk to go from being a cadet to being on the verge of retirement, it’s safe to assume that it is no longer performing the function it once did. It should be abolished and replaced with something new. Furthermore, we should reassess the need to compare students to other students in these kind of universal, simplistic ways. When looking to the future, we should try to imagine something more nuanced, more accurate, and fairer. You know, the sort of thing the Federation might cook up.

When Worlds Collide: Coming this Summer!

Hi, everybody!

Good news! If finally figured out how to get back to the classic editor on WordPress, which means I’ll probably get back to posting more regularly than once a month or so (I really really hate this site’s “block editor”).

Cool cover, right?

More (relevant) good news! I’ve got a story in an anthology releasing this summer! It’s called When Worlds Collide, published by Zombies Need Brains. Here’s the description:

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:

What could possibly happen when two cultures meet for the first time?

In WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, anything.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE presents fourteen original stories where two different societies intersect and deal with the aftermath of that meeting. Will the conflicting cultures merge and adapt and find peace? Or will they clash, unable to either accept their differences or acknowledge their commonalities? Who will survive when the last of the Fae battle a world-killing AI? What happens when a being who is part of a vast collective-consciousness is forced to face their own individuality? Can a werewolf ever break free of the unholy pact its fae creator has made with humanity? Will Earth really manage to commit the biggest and most egregious faux pas in history when it’s on the cusp of joining the Galactic Union? And why is it that two very different kinds of elves are angrily facing off at a simple dinner party?

Whether your taste runs to humor, horror, science fiction, or fantasy, the stories collected in this latest anthology from Zombies Need Brains and written by some of today’s hottest SF&F authors will delight, thrill, and terrify you. Join Christopher Leapock, Howard Andrew Jones, Gary Kloster, Louis Evans, Peter S. Drang, Esther Friesner, S.C. Butler, Nancy Holzner, Auston Habershaw, Violette Malan, Stephen Leigh, Alan Smale, Steven Harper, and Jordan Chase-Young as they delve into what may happen…WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.

“The Erratics” by Christopher Leapock
“Brother of Swords” by Howard Andrew Jones
“Walls of Teeth and Iron” by Gary Kloster
“Faux Pas” by Louis Evans
“Darithian Life Cycle” by Peter S. Drang
“Seelie With a Kiss” by Esther Friesner
“What and Why” by S.C. Butler
“Melusina” by Nancy Holzner
“Malevolent Liberation of Pret” by Auston Habershaw
“Mercenary Code” by Violette Malan
“Deep Heart Inside” by Stephen Leigh
“Dogs of Babylon” by Alan Smale
“Eight Mile City” by Steven Harper
“How the Fae of Savernake Forest Fought the AI that Ate the World” by Jordan Chase-Young

So, there I am, cheek-and-jowl with some fine authors in a really cool themed anthology. It’s releasing sometime this summer, but you can pre-order it by going to Zombies Need Brains’ site.

Go and check it out!

 

The Thin Skin of Worlds

Writing has been difficult of late. Stuck at home, the world aflame, so very many distractions. And yet I have much to do. Novel edits, for one thing. Story edits, for another. New stories desperate for revision, for creation. Many in new worlds, as yet fully formed.

It takes effort to remain inside a story. What I mean by inside is this: to write a strange world, you must inhabit that world. You have to take up its sights and sounds and smells and flavors as your own. You must push away the real and dwell wholly in the imaginary. No doubt there are authors – better, more disciplined authors than myself – who can sink into their world more easily than I can, but for me, it takes time. It takes silence and solitude and a mind relatively at peace. If my concentration slips, the whole world I’m building pops, like a bubble, and then where am I? In my office at home, with children downstairs needing attention, a democracy that is crumbling to ruin, a day job that is now wholly contained within my laptop and bleating for attention, regardless of the hour or day of the week. I’ve got a video game console right downstairs, I’ve books to read at my fingertips.

I remember a time this was easier, staying inside this bubble and living there. I remember daydreaming more often, letting my mind drift. I spend hours each day alone, on the train or in my office at work or in the silence of a lunch break by myself. COVID has blown all of that away. I have to re-adapt.

There is little more frustrating than wanting to write and being unable to do so. I’ve got a dark planet full of spiders and cities of spun silk that needs attention, but I just don’t have the time to find my way back there just now. Too much clamors for my attention; every bubble I blow bursts before I’ve time to find my reflection there.

I miss the calm of my former life. I miss the bustle that let the calm exist. Now, instead, there is just a dull roar – the gusting of a steady wind, blowing away dreams half-formed. Picture me, then, running down the road after them, trying to remember what they look like as they sail up and up, out of view.

The Coolness:Reality Ratio

It’s been two months since I posted here last. A lot’s been going on in my life, in the world, etc.. But I’m still around and for the first time in a while I have something I want to talk about.

Like a lot of people, I have been watching The Mandalorian. Unlike most of you, I’ve been…underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the first season! But this season has taken what I felt was something new and different in Star Wars and reduced to pretty much the same thing as all the other Star Wars stuff, and it’s just not for me.

I’m not here to complain about The Mandalorian, though. Trying not to rain on other people’s parades, etc, etc.. What watching this last season has shown me, though, is just how important audience buy-in is for something like Star Wars to work. And when I say “something like Star Wars,” I mean “tent-pole franchises that rely on an established fan base.” Because, let’s face it, if Star Wars didn’t have an established fanbase or a sizeable footprint in the scifi/fantasy zeitgeist, a lot of it just doesn’t stand up to even minor scrutiny.

It’s a truism at this point that Star Wars defiantly refuses to make sense at any point. Honestly, it doesn’t have to! Nobody cares that the Death Star makes no goddamned sense. The fact that there are no railings anywhere is a running joke, not an actual criticism. Stormtroopers are inexplicably punched in the helmet and for some reason this renders them unconscious and all people talk about is how cool the puncher is.

Why don’t they care? Well, because Star Wars as a franchise has already, somewhere along the line, done the work of earning the audience’s enthusiasm. For an awful lot of us, that enthusiasm was earned long, long ago when we were kids and our critical reasoning was less robust. For others of us, we stumbled across those scattered gemstones in the Star Wars canon that are honestly, legitimately good stories. And once we’re in, it can hold onto us for a goddamned LONG time.

The Mandalorian is an operative example of this phenomenon. As someone who had no interest in The Clone Wars series, the inclusion of Bo Katan was both perplexing and supremely uninteresting. Who is this person showing up Mando on his own show? Why should I give a crap about her problems? Well, if you were a pre-existing fan, then it’s great! If you weren’t? Well, tough luck, because the show is presenting you with no actual reasons to like or care about this character besides her cool outfit. If you don’t accept her coolness right off the bat, the rest of it won’t work, either.

Proving this is the inclusion of Luke Skywalker in the season 2 finale. Despite his appearance being completely random, his use as deus ex machina largely unearned, and the dialogue given to him wooden and stilted, I was still really excited to see Luke again. But that’s a cheap trick, though – it’s driven by nostalgia for how cool Luke was/might have been/is, not by anything actually present. If I didn’t know who Luke Skywalker is (somehow) and watched that episode, my reaction would probably be confusion and possibly even incredulity as he saws his way down that corridor and the Dark Troopers just sort of let it happen to them. “Why didn’t Mando just do that with the Dark Saber, then?” is one basic question one might ask. It is the purpose of a show like this to keep you from asking that question, because you are just too breathless from all the fun.

In cases like that, the “coolness” of the show exceeds the burden of realism. Star Wars is not alone here. Doctor Who does this (should have been shot by a Dalek long, long ago), every James Bond movie does this (remember in Golden Eye when Bond falls faster than the plane), Harry Potter does this (does Harry ever learn geometry?), Marvel does this (Cap’s shield makes no sense) – it’s a feature, not a bug. It’s just rare for me to experience both sides of that equation inside the same exact show or even the same episode.

Now, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, a thing to aspire to or a thing to avoid – this I leave to you. But let me tell you, once The Mandalorian lost me, I couldn’t stop seeing all the holes in, well, everything. Even knowing what I know about Star Wars, I’d hoped for something more tangible.

New S&SF Anthologies Kickstarter from Zombies Need Brains – Pledge now!

Hello, friends!

Click on the image and pledge now!

I mentioned a little while back that I had been invited to anchor an anthology of cross-cultural exchange stories called When Worlds Collide. Well, it’s happening – or, at least, it’s in the process of happening. To fund the anthologies (and thus pay the authors and pay for the printing and so on), the publisher, Zombies Need Brains, is running a Kickstarter for three separate anthologies right now! If you pledge at the right level, you’ll get copies of these anthologies, too!

And for you writers out there? If the Kickstarter funds, there will be an open call for submissions to all three anthologies! This is a great venue for getting your first publication or adding to your publication list for newer authors.

Here are the anthologies currently being funded:

THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING

HUMANITY:

In this follow-up to THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY, we switch our attention to how the deities of old have managed to fit themselves into today’s modern world! Is Narcissus an Instagram influencer? Is Coyote playing the stock market? Does Ra own a solar panel company? Was Dr. Ruth really Venus? How have the gods and goddesses managed to survive alongside cell phones and computers and social media influencers? We invite authors to explore how the immortals have changed with the times.

Edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors (and the gods they may use) include:

  • Alma Alexander (Freyja: Nordic),
  • David Farland (Woden/Odin: German),
  • Tanya Huff (Hera: Greek),
  • Juliet E. McKenna (Nemesis/Themis: Greek),
  • Phyllis Irene Radford (Anshar/Tiamet: Babylonian),
  • Laura Resnick (assorted),
  • Kari Sperring (Cigfa, Goewin, Gwydion: Welsh),
  • Jean Marie Ward (Dionysus: Greek), and
  • Edward Willett (Ninkasi: Sumerian)

DERELICT:

No one can resist the mystery of the abandoned ship–whether it’s the ghost ship found afloat at sea in the Bermuda Triangle or the spaceship drifting in the depths of space a la the movie Alien. What happened to the crew? What horror forced them to abandon their vessel and flee…or are they still on board, trapped or even all dead? In this anthology, we want authors to explore all of the possibilities when one runs across…a DERELICT.

Edited by David B. Coe & Joshua Palmatier, DERELICT will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:

  • Jacey Bedford,
  • Alex Bledsoe,
  • Gerald Brandt,
  • Julie E. Czerneda,
  • Kate Elliott,
  • John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell,
  • D.B. Jackson,
  • Gini Koch,
  • Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, and
  • Kristine Smith

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:

Throughout history, different cultures have collided in different ways, whether it be the peaceful contact between Rome and Han China in the second century that established the Silk Road, or the more violent interactions between Europe and the Americas thirteen hundred years later. Such first contact stories have long been a staple of speculative fiction. The stories featured in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will continue this long tradition as the authors explore the myriad ways in which two cultures—alien or fae, machine or human—can clash. Will the colliding societies manage to peacefully coexist after they finally meet? Or will they embark instead on a path of mutual self-destruction? Find out—WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.

Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors include:

  • S.C. Butler,
  • Esther Friesner,
  • Auston Habershaw,
  • Steven Harper,
  • Nancy Holzner,
  • Howard Andrew Jones,
  • Stephen Leigh,
  • Violette Malan, and
  • Alan Smale

So what are you all waiting for? This is you pre-ordering three great collections AND giving yourself the opportunity to submit to them! (To say nothing of any pledge rewards or stretch goals involved!) Get going!

Pledge today!

When They Point the Canon at You

Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.

I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:

“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”

Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.

I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.

How much homage must we pay to the past, exactly? And why?

Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.

Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!

That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.

The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.

Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.

In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.

But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.

The Elasticity of Time, Part 2

The test of humanity

Paul Atreides kneels before the Reverend Mother.

“Put your hand in the box,” she says.

“What is in there?” Paul asks.

“Pain.”

Dune has been on my mind lately, and not only because Denis Villeneuve’s version of the book is destined for theaters sometime after we are released from our coronavirus isolation. Indeed, my thoughts on this have been circling around Dune because of the virus itself.

In the book, Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. She places a poison needle at his neck (the gom jabbar) and Paul is required to keep his hand inside a pain-inducing box until such time as she tells him to remove it. If he removes it before permitted, he dies. The test, she says, is to see whether he is a human. In other words, is he capable of overcoming instinct and impulse (to remove his hand from pain) by being aware of consequences (death). Since permanent death is obviously worse than temporary pain, the rational human being will endure the latter to evade the former.

Which brings me to our present moment:

If you do not have the virus, it can seem like the virus is not real. If Paul is never pricked by the needle, do we really know that the poison is ever there? The discomfort we are experiencing – social isolation, economic uncertainty, lack of haircuts – grows steadily by the day. Are we sure it’s necessary? As it gets worse, our instincts kick in – you’ve been to Baskin Robbins tons of times and lived! Why should this time be any different? For Christ’s sake, it’s only a haircut and the barber isn’t even sneezing! Isn’t this just like the flu? I’ve had the flu before and been fine, thankyouverymuch! LET ME GO TO TARGET!

Left and right and all over, people are failing the gom jabbar. They are proving that their impulses are greater than their reason. I suppose we should not be surprised – even Herbert made it clear that few could conceivably pass the gom jabbar, and that it would be unusual for a male to be able to do so at all (which, honestly, I find a pretty fair assessment: if there’s anyone in our society able to endure discomfort for – hopefully – long-term gain, it’s women. Want proof? Find a mother. Literally any mother.).

We are all of us sitting there with our hand inside the box, the poison needle poised at our necks. Needle may strike, it may not, but one thing is certain: it has struck down already some 90,000 of us. The great tragedy is, of course, that many of those who have died did keep their hand in the box and did prove themselves more than an animal. They were likely done in by the animals around them – who did not wear their mask, who did not keep their distance, who did not stay home.

Yes, I called these people animals.

Frank Herbert calls these people animals, too. For what is somebody ruled by impulse and crude desire but an animal? They certainly aren’t using their higher reasoning functions, are they?

Time plays funny tricks on you when you are in pain or uncomfortable. The minutes stretch into hours and weirdly also the days run together, until it is hard to tell where you are or when it is or what you had planned to do. The world outside becomes unreal, ephemeral. In the normal world, we act as aggressively as we can to stop the pain or avoid the discomfort – this is instinct. But we’re being tested in a different way, now. We are not being tested for how quick we can move or how decisvely we can act. We are being asked to endure.

I would be remiss, also, if I didn’t make a mention of privilege here, as well. Some of us can stay inside and guard ourselves in relative comfort. There are a lot out there who cannot – first line responders and essential employees, the poor and homeless, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities that require constant care. For them especially should we endure this test. It is also deeply ironic that those who have the most privilege are the ones least able to do as they are asked.

Unlike in Herbert’s story, all of us have the means by which to evade the needle. We only need to keep going. Someday the needle will be removed and we will have passed our test.

Today is not that day.

 

Heart over Mind: Why Details Don’t Matter as Much

I’d like to talk about two science fiction properties today, one of which I like quite a bit and the other which I actively despise. These properties are the Netflix Lost in Space reboot and the abysmal, frenetically empty Rise of Skywalker. In an effort to keep this from becoming a rant on RoS (because that could go on for a while), I’m going to try and focus the conversation here and use the comparison to Lost in Space to draw out certain elemental weaknesses in Episode IX that make it, very basically, a terrible movie and a story poorly told. Spoiler alert, of course, but honestly it’s really hard to spoil a movie that’s about nothing. So, mostly spoiler alert for Lost in Space.

The reason I think this comparison should work pretty well is that Lost in Space has a lot of the same weaknesses that Rise of Skywalker has. Namely, the technical details of the story don’t make

Found Family!

any sense and the pacing is frequently breathless and frenetic. For example:

In Rise of Skywalker

  • The idea that the Sith planet is hidden and yet hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people need to have traveled there to build the secret fleet makes no sense.
  • The idea that a fleet of Star Destroyers could just be hidden underwater while being built makes no sense.
  • Lightspeed Jumping makes no sense
  • The whole thing with the Sith Dagger makes no sense.
  • The fact that Poe’s helmeted friend from that rainy planet gave him the Only Way Off The Planet and then managed to get off the planet anyway later on makes no sense.
  • Palpatine’s plan to have Kylo kill Rey only to have him not kill Rey so that Palpatine could not kill Rey only so that later on he could kill Rey MAKES NO SENSE.

In Lost in Space

Actual Family (and Don)!

  • Sailboats don’t work like that.
  • Re-entry doesn’t work like that.
  • Ice doesn’t freeze that way.
  • What the hell did the horse eat on the space station for 7 months?
  • You mean to tell me nobody thought to look for the kid on that space station for SEVEN MONTHS?
  • Everybody’s got computers on their wrists collecting all kinds of data about them but not BIOMETRIC DATA?
  • What did the raptors on the desert planet eat before humans showed up?
  • So that whole forest is, like a year old? WHAT?!

Both properties have the characters in near-constant peril, sometimes arbitrarily. There is always somebody yelling something at somebody else, such as “GET BACK TO THE SHIP!” or “HURRY UP!” or “RUN!”

And yet, Lost in Space is a hundred thousand times better than Rise of Skywalker. When watching LoS, I am usually at the edge of my seat, holding my breath, cheering, and so on. In Episode IX, I was laughing at the movie, throwing my hands up in frustration, and rolling my eyes. The big question, then, is why?

The answer?

In Lost in Space the peril is always character oriented and the moments of downtime are spent setting up character relationships. In Rise of Skywalker the peril has very little to do with any of the characters and the downtime is spent setting up the next set-piece or maguffin-related errand.

Look, we all know that none of the Robinsons are going to die (well, I’m pretty sure – not all the way through Season 2 yet) just like we ALL know that Rey, Poe, and Finn are going to live. We all know the good guys are going to win in the end – it’s light space opera, so it’s basically guaranteed. When that’s the case, the trick to getting the audience invested in the peril that you’ve devised is getting you to hook into the emotional state of the characters themselves. You, sitting on your couch at home, are well aware that the Robinsons live through this, but because you are so connected to the Robinsons on an emotional level, you are still anxious for them. You have empathy for their situation. It builds this empathy with flashbacks to the kids’ relationships with their parents back on Earth, with tender moments among the family or even by themselves (the Christmas celebration! Penny’s book! Will’s toy robot! Don and his pet chicken!). The “clever” plans that save the day? They come up with them in seconds and implement them through montage and then whammo, we’ve turned a spaceship into a sailboat and (hand waving) it works or something.

See, we (the audience) don’t ACTUALLY care about the technical details of a story that much. I know, I know – right now you’re trying to marshal arguments to the contrary, about how this or that science fiction movie or book or whatever had crappy science and it knocked you completely out of the book. And here I am, calling you a liar.

That’s right, I said it.

You know what beloved scifi franchise has shitty science and NOBODY CARES? Firefly. Garbage, guys – just straight up crappy world-building on several intersecting levels. Do you care? No.

You know what else has garbage technical details? Star Trek. YES, STAR TREK. The holodeck? C’mon now.

You know what else? EVERY SINGLE STAR WARS MOVIE, YES EVEN THE GOOD ONES!

Even The Martian hand-waved away crucial details to make the plot work!

The reason technical details knock you out of the story is not because the technical details were bad – you’ve forgiven those before and you will again – it’s because you didn’t connect or engage with the emotional content of the story or the characters’ conflicts.

Consider Rise of Skywalker, then. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, almost no one gets to finish talking without being interrupted (I timed it). Any character relationship building that is established is rushed, hasty, and clearly playing second fiddle to the external conflicts. Christ, look at poor Finn – he’s gone something important to tell Rey and the movie literally never gives him the opportunity to say it. What the fuck is that about? We want to hear what he has to say! No, we need to hear what he has to say or we’ll NEVER CARE ABOUT IT! And caring about what happens to the characters is literally the only thing that matters in any story, or, if not the only thing, the thing that needs to happen first before anything else will work.

Much like in the initial Abrams Star Trek reboot, any sympathy or connection we have with the characters in Rise of Skywalker is largely residual – we like them because we already know them from previous properties. There is just about no character building that occurs in the movie itself, with the possible exception of Rey and Kylo (and even that was inhibited by all the planet hopping and macguffin chasing, rather than aided by it). To make matters worse, the few moments where something happens that might affect how the characters think and behave are all erased by the film shortly thereafter. Chewie? Alive. 3-PO? Gets his memory back. Poe’s old flame? Makes it off the planet. Finn’s secret? Doesn’t matter. Hux’s betrayal? Not only nonsensical but discarded arbitrarily in the next scene. That kiss? What the fuck was that about?

Peril, danger, external conflict does not work if the audience has not invested in the characters on the screen. And that is an investment you need to keep investing in. You can’t do in once and expect it to ride for the next three films or six episodes or whatever. The audience is a fickle beast, sitting there in their comfy chair eating Raisinettes and popcorn, and looking for any opportunity to check out of your nonsensical thrill ride. However, once you hook them, suddenly you can violate the laws of physics (or even your own world-building) and almost nobody will care because, like it or not, we are creatures of the heart more than we have ever been creatures of the mind.

 

A Twilight Imperium Battle Report

Because I am known to write battle reports from time to time – chiefly for Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar and on other websites – and I have now played The World’s Biggest Board Game, Twilight Imperium, twice now, I have elected to write a report of my last game of this huge, huge undertaking. If you aren’t a gaming fan, this may grant some insight one man’s obsession with narrative and with gaming. Or maybe it will be monumentally boring.

In any event, one of the things I like about games is the stories they create. I’m obsessed with storytelling, as you may guess, and games that tell stories are the very best kind. So, here I am taking my this 9 hour boardgame and turning it into a story. I will be eliding certain details of the game in the interest of streamlining and also because so many damned things happen in this game that I couldn’t possibly keep track of everything. But it will all make some sense in the end.

The Beginning

The Imperial Throne on Mechatol Rex stands empty, vacant these many, many years. Only the Winnaran Custodians sit in the Eternal City, maintaining the ancient mechanisms of rule for the day when they are utilized again. From an age of civil strife have emerged new aspirants to the throne…or, perhaps not so new.

The Kingdom of Xxcha (Played by John)

The peaceful reptilian species, learned and wise, are nestled in the galactic southwest upon the lush planets of Archon Ren and Archon Tau.

The Barony of Letnev (Played by Brandon)

Deep beneath the surface of the sunless world, Arc Prime, the ruthless Baron plots with his ministers to restore the Letnev to glory. Situated in the galactic northwest, they rest at the other side of a series of lush and fertile systems, ripe for plucking.

The Yssaril Tribes (Played by Dave)

A newcomer to the galactic stage, the once primitive arboreal species known as the Yssaril (think “Ewoks, only less fuzzy”) have emerged from their jungle homeworld in the galactic north having appropriated the technology of their would-be colonizers and with a huge network of spies and assassins bent upon ensuring they will never be subjugated again.

The Emirates of the Hacan (Played by Adam)

Their cluster of homeworlds in the galactic northeast relatively bereft of resources, the noble and leonine Hacan are a species of merchants and traders, known throughout the galaxy. They see it as natural that they should be the kingmakers in the Empire, as it is only through their efforts that civilization has persisted in these dark times.

The Mentak Coalition (Played by Fisher)

A loose confederation of pirates, privateers, and renegades based on the rugged Moll Primus in the galactic southeast, they are surrounded by asteroid fields and vast areas of empty space and uninhabitable, worthless rocks. They are free, though, and unwilling to bend the knee to anyone.

The L1Z1X Mind-net (Played by Myself)

Little do these newcomers know that the descendants of the last Imperial Dynasty – the Lazax – have re-emerged. But not as they were – no – as something far worse. Cybernetic beings of cold logic and long-burning hatred, they see the galaxy as theirs by right. Hailing from their secret planet in the galactic south, known only as 0.0.0, their arrival is a surprise to the other species, and one the L1Z1X plan on capitalizing upon.

A view from the Galactic North

Turn 1-2

The early objectives in the game were to conquer four planets of the same type and develop a variety of technologies, both ship-upgrades and pure tech. I, as the L1Z1X Mindnet, was fortunate enough to be in proximity to a LOT of cultural planets. The trouble was a lot of them were in the sphere of the peaceful, contemplative Xxcha. A deal was struck early on–we exchanged promissory notes for future ceasefires, to ensure a demilitarized border, and split the planets equally between us. My cyborg minions expanded quickly, conquering five planets in short order.

The other civilizations in the galaxy followed suit, to varying degrees of success, expanding their borders. The Hacan and the Yssaril, while trying to make a similar accord as the one between myself and the Xxcha, tried to split two planets in the Arrian/Meer system, which was a diplomatic arrangement that would cause both powers no end of logistical problems as they tried to keep their navies from shooting at each other (better, I think, to start shooting and have done).

In the West, the Letnev stumbled on early objectives, starting a failed border skirmish with the Xxcha and having planets annexed out from under its heel by careful peace treaties pursued by the patient, reptillian Xxcha. It played a variety of action cards dispatching emissaries to the Custodians of Mechatol Rex, feeling out the idea of the Baron of Letnev one day occupying the Imperial Throne.

End of Turn 2 (Approximately)

Turns 3-4

Up until this turn, the galaxy was fairly peaceful, despite the L1Z1X developing improvements to its Super-Dreadnought technology (the much-feared Super Super Dreadnought!). That changed, however, when the Yssaril made the bold move to land troops on Mechatol Rex and claim the planet for their own!

The diminutive forest dwellers were welcomed as heroes for a new era as they marched through the grand Imperial square and the ambassador, clad in loincloth, climbed the podium and uttered the first words the people of the Imperial planet would hear from their new rulers: “YUB YUB!” It echoed from the stately facades of the buildings, and the revelry went long into the night (reports of cannibalism and playing makeshift xylophones out of their enemy’s helmets is unconfirmed).

In response to this insult (a slave species? Claiming the Senate? Outrageous!), the Baron of Letnev sent a punitive fleet to the Tar’Mann system, wiping out the Yssaril garrison there and claiming the planet. This was followed by the grand armada of the L1Z1X, led by its flagship, the 0.0.1, blockading the space around Mechatol Rex by destroying that Yssaril fleet. Alas, their moment in the sun was fleeting, at best, and never again did the Yssaril reach such heights.

What was strange was that the L1Z1X did not invade Mechatol Rex. In their (my) arrogance, I considered all other civilizations a minor threat, at best, and claiming their toy – the Imperial Planet my people had abandoned so long ago – held little interest for them. This was short sighted. Nevertheless, the Grand Armada invaded planets belonging to the Hacan next, crushing their fleets and claiming a series of planets good for mining rare minerals needed to sustain the L1Z1X war machine.

This new war was accompanied by a new and strange alliance. The Mentak Alliance, long a thorn in the side of Hacan trading interests (and stealing trade goods from them multiple times every single turn), made common cause with the sinister L1Z1X Mind-net, striking at Hacan outer systems in exchange for access to specific world needed to improve their technology. The L1Z1X, seeing the space pirates as a useful nuisance, used the distraction they caused to extort their home system with a ceasefire promissory note. This was again unwise – better I had negotiated for the Support the Throne note for a free victory point, but oh well.

The Hacan made an attempt at a counter-attack before this happened, trying to invade the Lodor system, only to have it smashed (at great cost to the L1Z1X fleet), exiling a lone dreadnought to the asteroid-strewn badlands around hostile Mentak space.

Meanwhile, in the galactic west, the Letnev and Xxcha, reaching an uneasy truce, made steady gains in material, technology, and political power.

The Grand Armada strikes the Hacan!

Turns 5-6

The Mindnet Wars served to exhaust the Hacan, the Mentak Alliance, and even the mighty L1Z1X itself. The war essentially ended with the Hacan conquering the Mentak homeworld of Moll Primus and the L1Z1X, no longer interested in the Hacan or the pirates, now that the minerals had been extracted, abandoning the two minor powers to their fates.

In that time, however, the Letnev had grown steadily more powerful. With a huge industrial base to draw from, a steady truce with the Xxcha, and the Yssaril too weak to interfere directly (despite their many legislative riders and political ploys on Mechatol Rex earning them resources), the Barony seized control of the Imperial Planet and essentially controlled the Senate for some time, with no other power trying to dislodge them.

The L1Z1X took action against them in the Tar’Mann system, destroying a Letnev Fleet and claiming the planet. In their arrogance, however, the cyborgs had not fully reckoned on the Letnev’s strength – all the move did was anger the mighty Baron. Now, the formerly floundering barony was the most powerful civilization in the galaxy, amassing accolades and prophesies from the halls of Mechatol Rex, which they had established as their own capital.

In their anger, they marshaled the forces of the senate and their power as Speaker to have the L1Z1X ambassador publicly executed (and I lost all my action cards). The, as the Mind-net plotted its revenge, the Xxcha violated the ceasefire at Resculon – war, now on two fronts! And no mere merchants or pirates these, either – the hardened, sophisticated fleets of Letnev and Xxcha, bolstered by years of prosperity and steady growth.

Turn 6 (approximately)

Turns 7-8

At this point, lagging on victory points and spread too thin, the mind-net (i.e. myself) realized that it had left itself far, far too vulnerable. The Letnev struck, driving my forces out of Thibah, and my counter attack destroyed their fleet there, but could not re-take the planet. I needed to weaken the Letnev and keep my ships in range to support my home systems when the Xxcha attacked. So, I gambled everything on one last, big battle – a full invasion of the key Letnev system of Mornar Xuul.

It was my flagship, two super-super dreadnoughts, a carrier full of infantry, and four fighters against a Letnev dreadnought, two destroyers, and three fighters. My fighters were wiped out by the destroyers in the initial volley, while I had to work through his own to get at his capital ships. Despite being outnumbered, I destroyed the Letnev fleet, but not before a lucky shot from a Letnev Dreadnought destroyed my flagship and, thereby, wiped out my own bid for hegemony.

The Xxcha marshaled themselves for a last-turn invasion of my homeworld while the Mentak Alliance won a stunning victory over the Hacan to reclaim their own homeworld. By this time, however, the Letnev were unstoppable. They scored a last 3 victory points in one turn and won the game. The Baron of Letnev was crowned Imperial Emperor, the threat of the L1Z1X was ended, and the Xxcha, seeing the wisdom of peace over warfare, joined the Letnev in Mechatol Rex as advisors.

Post Mortem

This is a huge, huge game and so I can’t possibly comment on every little decision made. I can, however, theorize what I did right and what I did wrong. Now, I’ve only played the game twice and this is the first time I tried to play aggressively (last time I took the slow-build strategy that the Letnev and Xxcha employed in this game and won as a result). Aggressive play is really difficult, since you have to keep moving around and it is really easy to get spread too thin and to find yourself working too hard for VPs. I think threats and extortion was the way to go, but in the future I’ll be sure to extort Support the Throne cards instead of Ceasefires.

Not landing on Mechatol Rex was a mistake. It represents a potential 1VP per turn, is way easier to defend than other distant systems, and I should have taken it when I had the chance. I also should have tried harder to become Speaker and, therefore, possibly grab the Leadership Strategy card. I was working with a dearth of command tokens for most of the game, hence why my forces were so bare by the end.

Anyway, despite 8.5 hours of gameplay, we all had a great time and we look forward to doing it again soon. Except I probably won’t be writing too many reports. This is way harder to keep straight in your head when compared to a mere game of Warhammer 40K.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who came out to play! I now return you to your regularly scheduled musings on fantasy, scifi, and writing.

 

 

New Story Out: “What the Plague Did To Us” in Galaxy’s Edge

Hey, everyone! I’ve got a new short story out (well, a flash story – it’s very short) out in this July 2019 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. I’m in a great issue, too, alongside such brilliant writers as Robert J Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Kevin J Anderson, Gregory Benford, and more! The best part is this: for this month only, you can read my story and others for free online! Just go to the website and check it out!

My story is my take on the zombie apocalypse and it is like, maybe, 1500 words, so you have no excuse not to read it. Go and check it out now!

About Readercon:

So, Readercon this past weekend was a lot of fun, even though I was only there for one day. I saw two very interesting and engaging talks, one by Graham Sleight about Instrumentality and Science Fiction (is SF useful as a predictive tool for the future) and one by Austin Grossman about the origin of genre. Both fascinating, both mixtures of things I didn’t know and things I did, and both of which I’ll be chewing over for a while.

I was on a panel about World’s Worst Jobs that was great, great fun and I heard a bunch of crazy stories (and got to tell one, too). I gave a reading from Dead But Once that had a small audience, but was well received. To wrap it all up, I went to the launch party for Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War, which just sounds like an amazing book you should all go out and buy right now.

So, overall a great experience at another great Readercon!

Writing Updates

I continue working through the summer on not just one novel, but two. Well, in truth, the first draft of the first novel I wrote this summer crashed and burned last week and I need to let the wreckage settle while I consider how to make another attempt (probably not until after Christmas). So I’m working on a second one now, which I won’t have time to finish before the Fall Semester kicks in, but I’m hoping I can at least get a sizeable chunk done. What kinds of books are they? Well, the first is a gritty space opera full of bizarre aliens and no humans whatsoever and the second is a more humorous thing set in a modern mall involving mythical creatures. So, in other words, totally different things. Is this good? Bad? Unwise? I don’t know. My agent seems to think it will be fine, but one wonders nevertheless.

In any event, onward and upward! Talk to you folks soon!