Classifying Science Fictional Ideas

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 11, 2014

We like to think that science fiction has no limits. We love to believe that science fiction writers can imagine anything.  But is that true?  Reading your first few hundred science fiction stories, it does feel like the genre has unlimited avenues of exploration.  However, after a lifetime of reading, over a thousand science fiction novels, and countless science fiction short stories, I’ve started feeling the genre is limited, and limited patterns are emerging.  Even if there’s the potential for an infinite number of science fiction stories, there’s always the limitation of demarcation.  We can divide things into what is science fiction, and what is not science fiction.

biological classfication

What if we classified science fictional ideas like biological classification where science fiction would be compared to how we classify life.  What would be the domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of science fictional ideas?  How would we organize novels into a hierarchy?  Has science fictional ideas evolved out of each other to present an evolutionary taxonomy?  Or are there other structures that we can all agree on?  I’m just opening this idea up for discussion and will present a test classification for consideration.  I’d like to see other classification systems suggested, and amendments to mine.  So post links and suggestions in the comments section.  For instance, Wikipedia offers two classifications:  lists and themes.  Other ideas can be found in their outline of science fiction.

Here’s my first test classification.  [Click to enlarge.]

Classfication of science fiction

I wanted to create the smallest number of domains possible, and I was hoping to find a single highly descriptive word for each.  I flubbed on “Created Beings.”  I’m not really fond of “Humanity” either.  My system mainly thinks of science fiction as stories about the future – future Earth, future humans, meeting aliens, creating new life forms, and traveling through the universe.  Most of the main themes of science fiction would be equal to biological kingdoms – robots, alien invasions, interplanetary travel, post-humans, etc.

Making the classification of science fiction be a perfect analogy to the biological classification of life would be a kluge, but it would be neat if we could map specific novels to be the equivalent of a species.  If we could come up with a successful classification system it should be possible to select any science fiction novel or short story and put it into the structure – assuming we could classify SF stories as being about one topic.

Science fiction novels are usually about many ideas.  For example. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov.  It could be classified under robots or galactic empires.  However, it’s mostly about robots.  Then again, some people might claim it’s mostly about agoraphobia and space colonies.  And where would we put such a bizarre novel as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein?  Under my system I’d file it under Humanity, Mind and Philosophy, although Religion might work too.

If you wrote a novel about how intelligent robots create an Earthly utopia, would it be classified under Earth or Created Beings?  There are animals that give biologists trouble when classifying, so we should expect problem novels too.  On the other hand, we could think of a different way of looking at classification.  Think of classifying books for library card catalog systems.  These systems allow for multiple subject entries, but even in libraries, books are shelved under single subject groups.  And I tend to think most writers ultimately think of their books as having a major theme.

Classifying science fictional ideas is an idle amusement, yet it’s a revealing way to think about science fiction.  A way to give a big picture overview of the genre.  Like having the mental ability to instantly distinguish between cats and dogs, such a classification system would define science fiction.  For example, I would never file traditional vampire and werewolves stories into my classification of science fiction.  Even though many people casually dump stories of the undead into the genre because they think science fiction is a dumping ground for anything weird, I believe we need to think of the genre in more precise terms.

We can also think of classifying fiction in general, so that fiction is the highest level, and the genres – literary, mystery, western, science fiction, romance, etc. – are the domains.  This would make Science Fiction one branch off of Fiction.  But if genre is Kingdom, do we need five layers of classification between it and the specific work which would be the Species?  Is Fiction, Genre, Theme, Work enough?  That makes me think of using Fiction, Genre, Theme, Time, Setting, Topic, Work.  That way The Naked Sun would be classified as Fiction, Science Fiction, Robots, Future, Colony World, Conflicting Cultures, The Naked Sun.

Many themes from classifying general fiction can be applied to any of the specific themes of science fiction.  Thus you could add romance or war to almost any of my SF categories.

As you can see, this could lead to all kinds of possibilities.  A classification system really helped understand the organization of biological life.  Would such a classification system help in the understanding of fiction?

[I use Xmind to create the mind map above.  You can get this free program that runs under Windows, OS X and Linux if you want to create your own classification system.]

JWH

Are We Becoming Cyborgs?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 9, 2014

Because of a pinched nerve I’m having difficulty typing.  Because I want to write, I’m seeking alternatives to a keyboard and computer screen.  This failure to type is revealing something about my current state of being.  My mind and body have adapted to the computer.  When I can’t use the computer, or the Internet is down, I’m anxious, and feel physical withdrawal.  I hate this feeling.  Even though my arm hurts more as I type, I keep typing.  Sort of crazy, isn’t it?

handwriting

I’ve tried dictating, and I’ve tried hand writing, and I’ve discovered I’m lousy at both.  When I was young I could write longhand for hours.  Now I can barely scratch out a few minutes of a childish looking print.  Fifty years of typewriters and word processors have ruined me for that ancient tool – the pen. 

The net is full of stories about the death of penmanship.  I used to think, “So what, we’ve got computers.”  Now I regret those thoughtless words.  My left arm burns, throbs and stings as I type, and I feel like banging on it like  Dr. Strangelove.  

I’ve become a cyborg.  The transformation has snuck up me.  If you think you’re still 100% human, try going without your smartphone for a week.

I realize now I shouldn’t have let myself become so adapted to one way of writing.  My body has integrated with cyberspace, and now I feel handicapped when when I can jack in.  Yet, I know fully well that writers were immensely productive before the 20th century with just pen and paper.  Helen Keller wrote inspiringly without seeing or hearing.

Even if I can get my doctors to fix my neck and arm, I think I need to relearn handwriting and pick up the skill of dictation.  I’ve read about a number of authors who write by talking and they claim its immensely productive.  My ability to speak is better than my handwriting, but not by much. Both are so linear.  My thinking depends on word processing features, spelling checkers, and referencing Wikipedia and Google. I now need the Internet to complete my sentences.

Because I’ve thoroughly aggravated my arm, I need to go rest it a couple hours.

JWH

Sitting is the New Smoking

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The new catch phrase I’m hearing is “Sitting is the New Smoking.”  This statement conveys so much.  It triggers memories about my dad, who died when I was 18, and he was 49.  He was a smoker, and survived two heart attacks and a stroke before he died on his third heart attack.  I always wondered how long he would have lived if he had never smoked.  It’s a shame he didn’t learn that smoking was bad when he was growing up, but that knowledge just wasn’t common back then.  What future common knowledge are we missing out on now?  Is sitting really the new smoking?

I have to wonder if my life would have been different if I had known sitting was so bad.  I’ve had back problems for years, and at the moment I’m having neck problems, with a pinched nerve.  Writing this essay is causing increasing pain in my arm.  And the pain is more than physical.  I am reminded of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone about a bookworm named Henry Beamis.  All he wanted to do was read put people wouldn’t let him.  Finally he’s the last man on Earth and has all the time in the world to read, and he breaks his glasses.  I retired thinking I’d have all the time in the world to write and read, and at this moment I can’t do either without aggravating my pains.  I’ve become Henry Beamis.

Pack Matthews gives me hope though in his TED Talk, “Sitting is the New Smoking but you’ve got Options.”

Matthews says pains are like canaries in a coal mine, warning us that we need to do something different immediately.  But he also promises that we’re never too old to improve.  Our body’s ability to readapt is impressive.  This video is well worth watching.  Even if you’re not suffering, knowing that sitting is the new smoking when you’re young and healthy is very important too.

When I was a kid I was very active, but as the decades progressed I’ve become more and more sedentary.  Even when I was a programmer and sat at my chair all day long I got up a lot, helping people out all over a four story building, and often in other buildings.  Now that I’m retired I spend almost all my time sitting, and its caught up to me.  I’ve got to develop routines of more activity.  In the video above, Matthews shows people a simple test to measure potential longevity as it relates to physical mobility.  Currently, I’d score very low.  But he promises that it’s possible to increase my score.

Watch the video and try the test yourself.  You might be surprised.

Just how bad is the sedentary lifestyle?  Is it truly equal to the life-shortening effects of cigarettes consumption?  The studies aren’t saying skipping exercise is bad for you, but the actual act of prolonged sitting is bad, and even causes cancer.  The trouble is we all do a lot of sitting.  Most of us work at a desk all day long at work or school, then we come home and watch TV for hours, or sit at the computer or play video games.  Even the educational pastime of reading which is good for your mind is bad for your body.

Just read some of the many articles on Google about this topic.

The conundrum we face is how to integrate more activity into our ass-in-the-chair lives.  I’ve been laid up where the only comfortable position I can find is reclined in a La-Z-Boy has made me think of alternatives for not being able to sit at my desk.  One thing I’ve considered is dictating my writing and converting it with Dragon Dictate to Word files.  That same solution would work with walking and standing.  However, my spinal stenosis and degenerative disc problems limit my walking, but I am trying to walk more.

Matthews wasn’t the only TED Talker to attack sitting.  Nilofer Merchant presented “Got a meeting?  Take a walk.”

Of course, my problem is writing at the computer.  How can I take a walk and write?  Well, people have come up with a solution, the treadmill desk.  I’ve seen stories about them on TV, and there’s lots about them on the Internet.  Here Jordan Keyes talks about this treadmill desk after using it for almost two years.

The above video didn’t say much about the health value of using a treadmill desk to me until I saw this older video, when we see Keyes in a much larger body.  Of course, he’s doing more than walking and typing to lose weight, but the two videos do effectively show how his efforts have made a change in his life.

But not everyone likes treadmill desks.  I’m not quite ready to spend $1200-1500 yet, but I’m thinking hard about this.  If anyone reading this blog uses a treadmill desk, please leave a comment below.

There are many things to consider in such a setup.  Unless you’re always working at the treadmill desk you’ll have to have a sit down desk also, meaning two computer setups, or using a laptop you move around a lot.  Many people are using standing desks that can adjust to sitting and standing.  These come in a huge variety.  And it’s possible to get just a flat treadmill to move under such an adjustable desk.

But if we stand around all the time, won’t standing become the new sitting?  I would imagine the key is to keep moving in lots of positions.  It’s really not practical to avoid sitting all day long.  I often see advice suggesting we get up and move around more, maybe once an hour.  I was recently told to think of my posture every time I go through a doorway, and was even given some exercises to try using with the doorway.  My chiropractor told me my ears should be above my shoulder, and that I had bad posture.  This fit right in with this graphic about ergonomics at the computer workstation.

office-ergonomics-by-physiotherapists 

Note how they want ears, shoulders and hip to line up.  I’ve developed sort of an old man slump, with my head tilted forward like a turtle’s head coming out of its shell.

I’ve always learned a lot physical therapy.  I think what I need to do, or even what we all need to do, if spend a few moments each hour doing yoga and physical therapy stretches.  I’ve already begun to ride my exercise bike more while watching television, but dang, even that involves sitting.

Sitting might be the new smoking, but giving up sitting is going to be impossible, at least for me, so the most I can hope for is keeping my ass out of the chair as much as possible.

JWH

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

by James Wallace Harris, October 3, 2014

Is there one novel that defines your life?  Have you return to it decade after decade throughout your life?  Has the author spoken to you across time, space and the gulf between life and death?  Does the narrative commentary resonate with your heart and mind?  Do lines of dialog feel like they are speaking to events in your life like you’re listening to a Greek oracle, or studying hexagrams from the I Ching?  For Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch by George Elliot is one such book, and she’s written My Life in Middlemarch to explain her literary touchstone.

my-life-in-middlemarch

A year and a month ago I wrote “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about such writers.  Most of us have many such books and writers that haunt us, but Mead focuses on one novel, and one writer, and writes a whole book about how that one story haunts her life.  If you read the reviews at Goodreads you’ll see that most readers give her four stars out of five, with few rating it a full five stars, and with some giving far fewer.  How much you like this book will depend on whether or not you’ve read Middlemarch, how much English lit professor you have in you, and how much more you’d want from Mead.

Mead does a fair amount of travel and research to give us background on George Elliot and her most famous novel, but not nearly as much as a definitive biography.  Nor is her tale of book-love a proper memoir.  Personally, I was quite taken with her story as is, and it makes me want to reread Middlemarch for closer study.  However, it doesn’t really live up to its promise either.  And I’d really like to see someone pull off such a memoir.  It would have to be far more personal, far more detailed, far more psychological.  Not detailed in biography or close reading of the text, which I’m satisfied with Mead’s work here, but in giving us intimate personal reading details that make us feel true reading obsession.

Two books that come closer to mind of what I’d like to read is Among Others by Jo Walton, a novel about a lonely girl growing up reading science fiction, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a nonfiction novel that integrates Plato into a man’s life.  The passion I’d like to see is such biblio-memoirs is what I found in Possession by A. S. Byatt.

Even though I feel My Life in Middlemarch is a very worthy book, I longed to read Mead’s deep personal details about each time she read Middlemarch.  I ached to know how a 20th century woman could find so much love and understanding in a 19th century woman.  I wonder if I could do what I want with my favorite childhood novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.

JWH

The Inspiration of Pain

By James Wallace Harris – September 28, 2014

I haven’t been writing this week because I have a pinched nerve in my neck that makes my arm ache if I sit at the computer. This has been very depressing.  What’s that old saying about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone? Man is it true!  One reason I haven’t hated having the spinal stenosis and not being able to walk much or stand for long periods of time, is because I could sit and work at the computer to my heart’s content.  I hope some physical therapy will solve my neck and arm problem, because my dream years of retirement are planned around sitting at a computer.

Another old saying comes to mind – “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”  It’s funny how so many of these cliched old sayings mean so much more when you’re in pain.  Since I can’t sit in a regular chair I wondered if I could type with a computer in my La-Z-Boy. Since I don’t travel I don’t keep a laptop handy, but luckily I had my wife’s old one in the closet. I spent all day yesterday and the day before trying to get a version of Linux on that old laptop. Every version I tried had trouble with the video or wi-fi card, or the system would flat out crash. I eventually discovered that an older version of Ubuntu, 12.04, would work, and I could make it work with the video and wi-fi. I also learned that even though I think Elementary OS is more beautiful than Ubuntu, Ubuntu is more suited to my needs because of the apps it runs.

I’m now writing in my La-Z-Boy with the laptop on a cutting board and me reclined. I needed the cutting board because this old HP laptop runs so hot it burns my legs. But the experiment works, my left arm doesn’t hurt nearly as much as sitting up. It’s one temporary solution inspired by pain.

This morning I watched “Building a monument to wounded warriors” on CBS Sunday Morning about a new monument on the Washington Mall devoted to permanently disabled soldiers from all wars. They interviewed a number of solders and they each explained how their disability inspired them to overcome obstacles and to become even better people. That really made me feel wimpy. I don’t want to not write, so I have to be like them and think of ways around the obstacles. Even this solution is wearing on my arm, but I can’t stop.

I’m also reminded of the book, The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, about people who suffered visual problems because of a stroke. Sack’s book is far scarier than anything Stephen King has ever written. It’s one thing to overcome pain and disability, it’s another thing altogether to overcome altered states of being. The thing is, unless your dead you have to keep moving forward, and it’s surprising how much a human can adapt.

Besides fixing up an old computer with Linux, writing this essay has forced me to learn to write with the WordPress editor under Chrome. That’s good because I’m thinking about getting a Chromebook. It would be much lighter and cooler to use when writing from my lap, but it means giving up all the Microsoft Windows tools I’m so used to using now. And that’s part of the lesson of adapting – doing things in a new way.

When I first configured this Ubuntu Linux machine I also found software to replace all my Windows applications. Then it occurred to me that Chromebooks mean doing everything in Chrome and I could try that now. This has been an excellent lesson. It’s so damn annoying not to be doing things my old way, but I’m learning that there are many ways to do something and I shouldn’t be so attached to any particular way, especially if my body is going to keep changing on me.

JWH

The Hive Mind of the Internet–Is Complete Freedom of Information Possible?

Internet-1200

By James Wallace Harris – September 23, 2014

In America we take freedom for granted, and because of this we expect the Internet to be free and open.  Internet visionaries like to think that everyone who joins the Internet shares their ideals.  The potential of the Internet is to unite humanity and reduce the distance between 7.3 billion people to zero.  We are all just a few keystrokes away from each other, and we can organize into groups not related by geographical boundaries.  Over time this will erode the concept of nations and it’s a threat to all theologies and philosophies.  Open access to all information is the universal solvent to narrative fallacy.  Censorship on the Internet is a complex issue.

Sunday The New York Times published an extensive essay “China Clamps Down on Web, Pinching Companies Like Google.”  Because China wants to control the flow of information its citizens sees, it has practically turned off Google, and is working to censor many other global Internet companies and services.  Other countries do this too.  Even in America, parents and schools censor the Internet.  Each of these groups want to protect people from what they consider dangerous ideas.  But what ideas are dangerous?

Ideas are dangerous when they threaten an individual or group.  Their specific dangers are relative.  I want the Internet to be as free and open as possible, but I am willing to accept limitations imposed on us by reality.  The Internet is a commons open to all, but it might need some imposed rules and some suggested forms of etiquette and courtesies.  It will probably take decades to hash these out.

Complete open information is a threat to all ideologies.  Most people on Earth live by beliefs they feel are true, but most are not.  To protect their narrative fallacy groups have to limit information consumption by their believers.  The Internet is leading us toward a future where all ideologies will have their validity challenged by open access to all knowledge and facts.  In other words, the Internet is having a homogenizing effect and various groups want to fight that.  That’s one level of censorship.

We all believe in censoring the internet to a small degree.  No one wants scammers, phishers, viruses and malware.  No one wants criminals and terrorists using the Internet for evil.  Nor do we want to see beheadings or child porn.  And many of us are getting annoyed by the level of ads.  Everyone wants their personal computer and the cloud computers they use to be safe from criminal activity, and to be protected from seeing the worst horrors of the world.  That’s another kind of censorship.

In Europe, Google is being forced to erase references about people when they request it.  That’s getting into a gray area.  Some people want privacy and protection from libel, but other people would prefer Google not whitewash history either.  There are editorial wars on Wikipedia by polarized groups who battle back and forth on particular entries hoping to present their version of the truth.  At Amazon, authors and their friends will write glowing self-promoting reviews, while people with grudges against those writers will write one star reviews.  This kind of control of information is not censorship, but something like what we see in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – whoever writes the narrative gets to make the truth.

A huge problem on the Internet, especially in anonymous comment sections, is declarations of hate.  It has gotten so bad that many sites are now turning off their comment features.  Is this censorship or policing hate crimes?  We like to think we have absolute freedom of speech, and total freedom of the press, but we don’t.  Political correctness is evolving to protect most citizens of the Earth, but not the enemies of civilization.  There are actions, ideas, beliefs and people who embrace hate and chaos that we have to protect ourselves from.  This begs the question:  Should we allow anonymity on the net?

I think we can agree there are lines to be drawn, the trouble is almost every nation, citizen and group wants to draw the lines differently.  The wonder of the Internet is it’s openness.  It’s fantastic that every person on Earth can interact with any other person on Earth.  China has a different vision of how to create a perfect society.  So does The United States.  The problems mentioned in The New York Times article that trouble me are those cases involving scientists and businessmen working around the world on collaborative projects.  I would like to think all scientific journals are open to all.  That’s how science succeeds.  We really don’t want the scientific world of China, and the scientific world of North America, and the scientific world of the European Union.

Then we have various religious groups trying to control what is science and what is not, or what belongs in the classroom, and what doesn’t.  We have to be protected from their ideological censorship.  There is freedom of religion, but there is also freedom from religion.  Should we censor individuals and groups that publish lies and deception?  Who decides?  How?

We have to assume we’re all living in the same reality.  Any Balkanization of the Internet will create islands of delusions about reality.  We need to make sure the Internet is as open as possible, but this might mean we need to negotiate agreements on some censorship and filters for the sake of that openness.  Nations will have to hammer our firewall treaties that respect each other, but we should all promote the maximum openness possible.  There is talk in different places around the world, of seceding from the Internet to creation national nets.  Isn’t this like creating Amish communities?

Ultimately I think any political philosophy or religion must coexist with how reality actually works.  Groups need to work out methods of coexisting with other groups.  Nations, corporations and organized belief systems need to have their rights protected, but all users must be protected from ideological imperialism, or even rampant commercialism.

But I also think individuals need to hammer out Internet codes of conduct too.  Society off the Internet is evolving concepts of political correctness for proper public behavior in the real world.  I think such personal political correctness should exist in the cyber world as well.  I’m horrified by what some men say to women they disagree with on the Internet.  I’m horrified by what many people believe.  But within the bounds of free speech and human rights, I need to accept that people have a wide spectrum of beliefs I don’t agree with.  On the other hand, I think we all have the right to expect a certain level of civility.

We’ve reached an age where the human race is partially living in the hive mind of cyberspace, and it’s going to take some time to develop new laws, rules, etiquettes, proper behaviors, concepts of politeness, etc.

JWH

A New Look

path-through-trees

If you are a regular reader of Auxiliary Memory you’ve notice that things look different.  The URL has been changed to be easier to remember – http://auxiliarymemory.com.  The purpose of the new layout is to make online reading more pleasant, and to simplify the look on smartphones or tablets.  There is one simple menu at the top of the page under the three horizontal line symbol.

My new goal is to write more enjoyable essays to read.  Essays with more content and structure.  This will involve more research and study.  Most readers come to this site because Google directs them here, but I do have a few friends who are regular readers.  Readers from Google are researching a topic.  Now that I’m retired I have more time to study, and this gives me an opportunity prowl the web for fascinating subjects to write about.  This exercises my aging mind and improves my writing skills.  Writing has become my main retirement hobby.

I’ll continue to write biographical pieces, but I want to write less about me.  As I’ve worked to research new subjects I’ve learned that journalism is  stimulating and challenging.  My hit statistics show certain kinds of essays get no hits.  There are many reasons for this.  First, the essay is blather about nothing, so there is nothing for Google to index.  Second, many other people have written about the topic better and Google points to their essays.  Or third, I’ve written about something that no one even bothers to query Google.

Yes, I do have friends and a few subscribers that read whatever I write, and I’m grateful for their encouragement.  To replay their kindness I feel inspired to work harder.  I must write about things that interest me, but the challenge of being a writer requires I be more interesting to others.  The simplicity of my new layout is intended to keep my focus on words and sentences worth reading.

JWH – 9/20/14