Some Future in your Science Fiction

I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's The Martians, on my Kindle the other day (the short review: It was great, I don't know how I felt about the poetry at the end, but I liked the collection.) and promptly began reading this month's Asimov's. The first story is an alternate history/fantastic history/I-think-there's-science-fiction-coming-but-it's-not-here-yet, piece and I can't bring myself to really read get into it. It's well written, and I even find myself delighting at the text (in a technical sense.) I think the issue that I'm running into is that I don't really get the alternate history thing.

Which is, you know, weird. I should break out and say that my fiction tends to be very historically concerned. I'm fascinated by history and there are a lot of historiographical themes and ideas in the stories I write. But they're all set in the future, and try as I might, I don't really have much interest in writing stories set in the past of our world. Alternate or otherwise.

Maybe it has something to do with my view of history. I tend to take a big picture approach to history and I tend to think that single events and single individuals rarely really affect history. If you called me a determinist I'd probably gnash my teeth for a few moments and then agree. Which makes constructing alternate histories sort of difficult. Add to that the fact that quasi-deterministic big pictures, though probably accurate and helpful, don't lend themselves to good stories. When you don't feel like your characters--any of them--have agency, it doesn't make for terribly interesting story telling.

At least for me. I think other people can pull it off.

This whole "I want my science fiction to be set in the future," thing isn't something I can rationalize or support very well. Clearly I don't find the past to be a very good "escape." The future is fun, vast, and full of possibilities and enables the sorts of things that I enjoy most in science fiction: the ability to engage in a critique of the present, high energy stories with adventure, and for lack of a better term, stories that impart a "sense of wonder." There's more out there, I just can't seem to muster the interest.

This isn't to say that I don't sometimes find myself enchanted by non-futuristic stories, it's just not a terribly frequent or predictable sort of experience. I should also be clear, I'm not of the opinion that when science fiction stories talk about the future and are set in a future, that they are about anything except the present at all.

And I'm not terribly proud of this. I suppose we all have our things.

I worry that my tastes aren't sophisticated enough, that I enjoy stories for the wrong reasons, or that I get too caught up in the scenery and forget to pay attention to what really matters. Despite this whole "writer thing," that I have going on these days I don't have very much formal training in literature. It's sort of awkward to say "I feel like I'm not a very good reader," that's definitely something that I battle with.

For those of you who are part of the larger community of science fiction/fantasy/genre fiction readers (which I think necessarily includes writers,) I'd be very interested to learn your thoughts on this subject: how do you relate to the future in the stories that you write and read? The past? Alternate histories? Is there some connection that I've mostly failed to see? Am I not alone in this?

Thank you (preemptively) for your feedback.

The Tiling Window Manager Story

As I said in "The Odd Cyborg Out," I'm thinking of giving StumpWM a run. So I did some musing about tiling window managers, because I am who I am. Here goes,

So, like I said, I've been tinkering a very little with StumpWM, and I thought some background might be useful. For those of you who aren't familiar, StumpWM is another tiling window manager, like my old standard Awesome, except Stump is written in Common Lisp, and is descended from different origins from Awesome. Here's the history as I understand it.

The History of Tiling Window Managers

There was (and is,) this very minimalist tiling window manager called dwm which is written in less than 2000 lines of code, and is only configurable by modifying the original C code and then recompiling. It's intentionally elitist, and targeted at a very high level of user. While this is ok, particularly given the niche that are likely to want to use tiling window managers, there were a lot of people who wanted very different things from dwm. In a familiar story to those of us who follow free software and open source development: lots of people started maintaining and sharing patch-sets for DWM. These added additional functionality like easier configuration tools, integration with menus, notification libraries, theeing support, API hooks, and the rest is history.

Fast-forwarding a bit, these patch-sets inspired a number of forks, clones, and children projects. DWM was great (so I hear) if you were into it, but I think the consensus is that even if you were geeky/dweeby enough for it, it required a lot of attention and work to get it to be really useable in a day-to-day sort of way. As a result we see things like Awesome, which began life as a fork of DWM with some configuration options, and has grown into it's own project "in the tradition of dwm." dwm is also a leading inpsiration for projects like Xmonad, which is a re-implementation of dwm in the Haskell programing language with some added features around extension and configuration options.

This default configuration problem is something of an issue in the tiling window manager space, that I might need to return to in a later post. In any case...

Stump, by contrast has nothing (really) to do with dwm, except that they take a similar sort of approach to the "window management" problem which is to say that window behavior in both are highly structured and efficient. They tiling windows to use the whole screen and focus on a user experience which is highly keyboard driven operation. Stump, like xmonad, is designed to use one language exclusively for both the core program, the configuration, and the extension of the environment.

And, as I touched on in my last post on the subject I'm kind of enamored with lisp, and it clicks in my head. I don't think that I "chose wrong" with regards to Awesome, or that I've wasted a bunch of time with Awesome. Frankly, I think I'm pretty likely to remain involved with the project, but I think I'm a very different computer user--Cyborg--today than I was back then, and one of the things that I've discovered since I started using Awesome has been emacs and Lisp.

My History with Awesome

Lets talk a little bit more about Awesome though. Awesome is the thing that set me along the path to being a full-time GNU/Linux user. I found the tiling window manager paradigm the perfect thing that lets me concentrate on the parts of my projects that are important and not get hung up on the distractions of organizing windows, and all of the "mouse stuff" that took too much of my brain time. I started playing around in a VM on my old Macbook and I found that I just got things accomplished there somehow. And the more I played with things the more I got into it, and the rest is history.

When I finally gave up the mac, however, I realized that my flirtation with vim wasn't going to cut it, and I sort of fell down the emacs rabbit hole, which makes sense--in retrospect--given my temperament and the kind of work that I do, but none the less here I am. While Awesome is something that I'm comfortable with and that has severed me quite well, there are a number of inspirations for my switch. Some of them have to do with Awesome itself, but most of them have to do with me:

  • I want to learn Common Lisp. While I know that emacs' lisp, and Common Lisp aren't the same there are similarities, and Lua was something that I've put up with and avoided a lot while using Awesome. Its not that Lua is hard, quite the opposite, it's just that I don't have much use for it in any other context, and while I know enough to make awesome really work for me, my configuration is incredibly boring.

    Not that I think Common Lisp is exactly the kind of thing that is going to be incredibly useful to me in my career in the future, but like I said: I like the way Lisp makes me think, and it's a language that can be used for production-grade types of things, and it's a standard, it's not explained from a math-centric [1] perspective, and like I said reading lisp code makes sense to me. Go figure.

  • There are several of quirks with Awesome which get to me:

  • If you change your configuration, you have to restart the window manager. Which wouldn't be a big problem except...

  • When you restart, if you have a window that appears in more than one tag, the window only appears on one tag.

  • The commands for awesome are by default pretty "vimmy," and while my current config has been properly "emacsified," you have to do a lot of ugliness to get emacs-style chords (e.g. "C-x C-r o a f" or Control-x, Control-R, followed by o, a, and f.) which I kind of like.)

  • Because one of my primary environments is running a virtual machine (in Virtual Box) on an OS X host, I've run into some problems around using the Command/Windows/Mod4 key, and there's no really good way to get around this in awesome.

So that's my beef, along with the change in usage pattern that I talked about last time, which is probably the biggest single factor. I'm not terribly familiar with Stump yet, so I don't have a lot to offer in terms of thoughts, but I've been tinkering in the laptop, and it fits my brain, which is rather nice. I'll post more as I progress. For now I think I better cut this off.

[1]This is my major problem with haskell. It looks awesome, I sort of understand it when people talk about it, but every "here's how to use haskell" guide I read is fully of what I think are "simple" math examples, of how it works, but I have a hard time tracking the math in the examples, so I have a hard time grasping the code and programming lessons because the examples are too hard for me. This is the problem of having geeked out on 20th continental philosophy in college and not math/programming, I think.

Unsung Heroes

September the 11th will always be remembered for the events in New York City in the year 2001, but our remembrances on this date shouldn't be dedicated solely the crimes of 2001.

On September 11, 1973 a Chilean man by the name of Victor Jara was executed for writing and singing songs. After Pinochet and the other Generals came to power they started killing those people who they felt threatened by. Victor Jara was on the top of their list not only because of support of Allende and the Popular Unity party, but because his songs were political, and he had influence with the people.

They put him in prison where he began to sing to keep up the spirits of himself and his fellow inmates. The guards broke his hands with their rifle butts, but he continued to sing and write poems. On 9.11.73 Victor Jara was takenóalong with five thousand other men to the soccer stadium where he was tortured and eventually was murdered. There are reports that say he sang until the very end, and I can believe it.

The following poem was the last that he wrote, on the morning of his execution, in blood more or less, it was smuggled out of the stadium and the translation you see here comes to us through Pete Seeger.

Estadio Chile -Victor Jara

We are 5,000 ó here in this little part of the city We are 5,000 ó how many more will there be? In the whole city, and in the country 10,000 hands Which could seed the fields, make run the factories. How much humanity ó now with hunger, pain, panic and terror?

There are six of us ó lost in space among the stars, One dead, one beaten like I never believed a human could be so beaten. The other four wanting to leave all the terror, One leaping into space, other beating their heads against the wall All with gazes fixed on death.

The military carry out their plans with precision; Blood is medals for them, Slaughter is the badge of heroism. Oh my God, is this the world you created? Was it for this, the seven days, of amazement and toil?

The blood of companero Presidente is stronger than bombs Is stronger than machine guns. O you song, you come out so badly when I must sing o the terror! What I see I never saw. What I have felt, and what I feel must come out! "Hara brotar el momento! Hara brotar el momento!"

There are some things that we can never be allowed to forget, words that need to be said, and there are the songs of unsung hero's must be sung.