Sunday, June 30, 2013

If I picked the Hugos, 2013 Edition

I just realized today that I've read all the nominees! Woohoo!

Well, let's have a look, in no particular order.

Mira Grant's Blackout came out early last year, and I read it on the spot. It's number three of her "Newsflesh" series, an innovative and fun zombie thriller that follows the lives of a team of professional bloggers. In book three, a number of reveals have already happened, and the one that remains is unmasking the conspiracy that has been driving the zombie infestations. The heroes bring it off, although they can't avoid a tragic death.

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a fantasy about getting writers of TV shows to give their characters a bit more thought. The title makes fun of the observation that many Star Trek fans have made that characters who join the captain on a mission, but who wear a red shirt, have a terrible life expectancy. Well, Ensign Dahl is quickly clued in how to avoid falling prey to bad writing, but tragedy still strikes. Dahl contrives to journey to the Real Worldtm, where he and his friends confront the people responsible for their meaningless lives.

Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is another addition to her "Vorkosigan Saga." It concerns Captain Ivan Vorpatril, an easygoing fellow her fans met earlier in A Civil Campaign, who once again gets unwillingly dragged into an adventure by Byerly Vorrutyer, whom fans also met in the earlier book. Ivan is the sort of guy all guys wish they could be - competent, cool under pressure, able to see through mind bending plots - and apparently is being shoved into a bit of a screwball romantic comedy in this case. There's some danger to life and limb, especially towards the end, but as long as we get the requisite happy ending, it's all cool.

Kim Stanley Robinson's decidedly hard SF entry 2312, set, obviously, 300 years in the future follows a handful of characters around the solar system, a place that's at the same time exotic and familiar, well settled and filled with intrigue. The story starts with a death, and intimations are that the death wasn't entirely natural. When that event is quickly followed by what appears to be a sophisticated terrorist attack, our characters head off in various directions with varying levels of purposefulness to try and nab the bad guys.

And, finally, there's Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, a Dungeons and Dragon-esque adventure in the world of One-thousand-and-one Arabian Nights. Wizard Adoulla, with the help of a holy fighter and a shapeshifting desert girl, faces down an evil wizard who has designs on the khalif's throne. The story has a number of battles and finishes with a battle royal at the khalif's palace.

I had a soft spot for Blackout. The second book in that series, Deadline concerned itself with several interesting philosophical questions, and I thought Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) just rocked the zombie world with a refreshing take on the science of becoming a zombie, and on the politics that might arise in such a world. Sadly, her conspiracy driven finale fell short of my expectations. Conspiracies are difficult things to write well, and I got the distinct impression that she was letting herself get sloppy, when compared to the tight plotting of the first two novels. Still, it was an excellent book.

John Scalzi writes some cracking good yarns, and Redshirts was a fun read, as well, but it was more a fannish love letter to Star Trek and the like than it was what I would think of as a serious SF&F story. Yes, the story had to be written, and, yes, I'm glad I read it. I compare it favorably with many stories. But because it's mostly an in-joke with some thinly disguised advice to writers, I think it falls short of my admittedly idiosyncratic requirements for a Hugo nominee. That it got nominated is more due to the love fans have for Scalzi the author, I think, than for the quality of this book.

Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorkosigan" series has such a strong following, that she pretty much only has to publish another book in the series, and her fans will push her into the short list. That's not a slam, but it means that she's had some fairly weak offerings get nominated, like her novel Cryoburn, which I reviewed a few years ago. Happily, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is a much stronger book than Cryoburn, though setting is still a bit weak, giving us generic city scapes with only a little better sense of place than she managed in the earlier book. But the characters are more fleshed out, and even the somewhat one-sided female characters she introduces are given more stage time. Still, this book falls short for me.

I reviewed Saladin Ahmed's Kingdom of the Crescent Moon earlier. When I describe it as a Dungeons and Dragon-esque adventure, I don't mean it as a slam, but the tropes are transparent enough that anyone familiar with the game will recognize it. What made me happy about the story is that here I had a sword and sorcery fantasy that was not set in a Euro-centric medieval world. We need more like that, and I'd be happy to see this book win for that reason.

However, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is a true tour-de-force. This is a book with well thought out and well fleshed out characters. It's got plotting, oh heavens it's got plotting. It's got setting, yessir, complete with surfing the frickin' rings of Saturn. And it's hard SF. OK, I'm told the market for hard SF is a fraction of the market for fantasy. That only makes me love this book more: Robinson has not knocked off just another copy of write-by-the-numbers novel. I know all authors pour a little bit of their very soul into their books, but with this book, it shows. Yes, 2312 also won the Nebula this year, but, hell, it deserved it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Prickly Propositions

Justice for Hedgehogs
Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013)
Harvard University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-674-04671-9

Morals or ethics are contentious issues that seem to divide us (the people sharing the most general forms of Western Civilization) into two distinct camps.

On the one hand there are those who say their guidance to moral behavior is received from a higher power, as transmitted to us by inspired men and women in past ages. On the other, there are those who claim that all behavioral rules are socially constructed, and none are intrinsically better than any others. The disagreements between these two camps are what shape much of the culture wars of the past few decades.

Ronald Dworkin stepped into this affray to say that both sides are completely wrong. The title of this book refers to Archilochus' surviving quip, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Dworkin means to prove that there is a unity of value (one big thing that the hedgehog knows) that we can use to arrive at true rules for moral and ethical behavior (he makes a distinction between the two). He argues that, once this set of true rules has been described, the moral and ethical rules for politics and laws become clear, as well. It's a tall order, and he starts by demolishing the case of the multiculturalists, the moral relativists, and anyone else who might dispute that it is possible to make true statements about morals or ethics.

It's a tall order.

"I will not rely on any assumption that a theory is sound just because it fits with other theories we also find agreeable."
Everything is up for grabs, but he wants to arrive at an objective truth. He's totally serious about the objectivity of this truth, and spends a considerable amount of time discussing truth in its various forms.

Dworkin nails down one principle first and foremost: Hume's Guillotine.

"[Hume's Principle] requires us to reject the Enlightenment's epistemological code for the moral domains."
This was a surprising move for me. E.O. Wilson, writing in Consilience, felt certain that the unity of knowledge had to lead to an understanding of ethics. Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape argues that answering questions about ethics by definition means acting so other people don't come to harm, and to the extent that it is possible, ensuring that people in general flourish.

But Dworkin means to carve out a new path. In the case of morals and ethics, he says, Hume's Principle doesn't allow us to look for physical evidence that we have arrived at a true statement. (He coins the amusing term "morons" to describe particles that might determine moral truths, the way protons, neutrons, and electrons determine physical truths.) Instead, he says, we must use interpretive reasoning, which he describes as a collaborative process (a social construction, in other words), which has explanatory power (accounts for why we say some act is a moral or ethical act), and conceptually is consistent with other parts of the web of moral truths that we are building.

He makes the unique distinction between morals and ethics (this is to make his arguments easier to organize, not because his use of the words is somehow more correct) that morals are rules that govern our behavior towards other people, and ethics are rules that govern our behavior towards ourselves. He starts by looking at morals, where he uses as his foundation Kant's notion that a moral truth should not depend on any benefit that being moral might bring.

As I was reading this book I found that his closely reasoned synthesis made a lot of sense. I didn't agree with him in every detail, but certainly a lot of notions that had been floating around in my head became better defined and better understood. I certainly agreed with most of the political program that he derived from his moral and ethical principles - particularly where he argues that a political community is by its very nature coercive, so it must avoid intruding on the ethical realm of people (their behavior towards themselves), while still showing equal concern for all citizens (the moral end of the business).

But the fact that I agreed with him here also raised a danger flag. He had arrived here by proposing a principle that, to me, seemed eminently sensible: the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is only a small part of what many people use to make moral decisions. The recently developed Moral Foundations Theory, just by way of example, attempts to explain the wide divergence of moral behavior across cultures by referring to six distinct instincts according to which people make moral decisions. The Golden Rule makes use of just some of them: Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, and perhaps Liberty/Oppression. This raised the important question of which principles someone to whom these other instincts were more important would start with. Recent studies seem to show that in particular Conservatives depend a lot more on the other instincts, particularly Sanctity/Degradation. Dworkin would expect a Hassidic Jew to build his interpretive web on something other than the Talmud, arguing that by Hume's Principle an inspired person (someone with an intution for moral truths, in other words) cannot exist. But that doesn't mean that it isn't possible to create moral principles that have equal standing with the Golden Rule, and express concerns for Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. (They don't disappear under Dworkin's treatment, but they certainly don't hold pride of place.)

It surprised me a little to find that, while Dworkin admitted that this interpretive process may lead to more than one set of moral and ethical truths, he carried through his particular program with single mindedness. Not only that, but Dworkin's attack on establishment moral philosophy must have been such a surprise that few people challenged him on that point, even though, prior to his publication, he invited comments from pretty much the entire world, and held a major symposium where his book was critiqued quite mercilessly. Yes, this is moral philosophy with peer review.

But that flaw aside, this book must be one of the most important books on moral philosophy published in the past 100 years. Even if you think you'd rather hang your hat on received moral rules (e.g. Qur'an, Bhagavad Gita, Doctrine and Covenants, Kojiki, etc - the fact that you may realize there are some that I'm leaving out makes my point here, as well as Dworkin's), you'll want to brave the dojo of moral philosophy.