Orwell or Wells—Can Science Save Humanity?

Will Science save humankind, or lead us to our doom? The Internet is buzzing lately with various online outlets reprinting this article by Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, about a debate between H. G. Wells and George Orwell on this topic.

H.G. Wells, best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, believed science was the best hope for humanity’s future. George Orwell, an essayist, critic, and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, took a less optimistic view.

The article makes it sound like a lively back-and-forth argument ensued, but from the essays cited, it seems rather one-sided. In the early 1940s, H.G. Wells was in his late 70s and near death. George Orwell was in his late 30s, (though not too far from his own death at 46). From what I can glean, this was mostly Orwell criticizing Wells, not the other way around.

Before we explore the ‘debate,’ let me define terms. Science is a systematic process for gaining knowledge about the universe through experimentation. Since it involves the accumulation of knowledge, it’s unlikely that Science, by itself, can either save or destroy humanity. I think of Engineering as the application of scientific knowledge to design, invent, and produce useful products.

When both Wells and Orwell refer to Science, I think they meant to include Engineering. For the purpose of this blogpost, I’ll use that same shorthand meaning of Science.

Wells grew up in an era far different from Orwell’s. He saw the rapid development of science—automobiles, submarines, airplanes, relativity, skyscrapers, rocketry, and medicine—and foresaw amazing wonders that would benefit mankind. He figured the same scientific process that could produce those wonders could also lead to better government if we placed scientists in charge.

Let’s give Wells some credit, though. He was no Pollyanna. Many of his novels portrayed the misuse of science for destructive ends. But George Orwell seized on some of Wells’ more optimistic—though lesser known—writings.

In the early 1940s, Orwell watched with growing horror at the growth of Hitler’s Germany and saw it as the embodiment of Wells’ ideas, a nation of submarines, rockets, and airplanes, with science-minded people running the show. To Orwell, Deutschland was no Utopia. He castigated Wells in a couple of scathing essays.

In his article in The Conversation, Gunderman claims the debate is still relevant today. It’s been 75 years since Orwell penned his criticisms; have we learned enough to settle the argument?

Since that time, Science has split the atom to provide electricity, visited the Marianas Trench, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, put instant communication in our pockets, sent probes to explore the outer planets, multiplied crop yields, mapped the human genome, and extended lifespans through medical breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Science also brought us nuclear weapons, the Apollo 1 fire and two space shuttle disasters, Chernobyl, computer viruses, armed drones, and electronic spying. Soon, perhaps, an artificial intelligence Singularity may be looming.

In my view, science is a tool, like a knife or hammer. People can use it for good or evil. It amplifies our capacity for both. The concepts of good or evil reside in the individual human mind. To ask if Science will save humanity is like asking if a hammer will save humanity. It depends on how we use the tool.

The real question is whether our good natures will prevail over our evil ones. I think there are far more good people than evil ones, but the evil ones have greater influence per capita. For some reason, a few clever evil people can sway many good people to their side.

So far, across the span of human time our good natures have won out and the products of science have proffered more benefits than harm. On average, life is better now than in the past, for most. But it’s a close thing, and our history shows frequent backsliding.

Whether humanity achieves Utopia, destroys itself, or some outcome in between, Science will deserve neither credit nor blame. Only the human capacity for love or hate will determine our future. And that’s the realm of fiction writers like—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Defeating Distraction, Finding Focus

You’re writing at a good pace, but then get distracted, torn away from your story. You hate when that happens, but sometimes the diversion is irresistible. What causes that, and how can you prevent it?

We live in a distraction-rich environment. Even before the Internet, there were rooms to clean, library books to return, lawns to mow, desk items to straighten, and windows to gaze through. Today, there are Facebook posts to like, tweets to retweet, texts to answer, online stores to shop in, blog posts to read, and new sites to explore.

Still, this tendency to get distracted doesn’t make sense, does it? You sat down fully intending to write your story. Then things went awry; that best-laid plan went askew, you diverted to a tangent. Why does that happen?

Let’s separate two types of distraction—external and internal—and tackle each separately.

External Distractions

These attack you from outside and appeal to one or more senses. A funny show comes on TV, a favorite song blares from the radio, the cat snuggles against you, a pleasant aroma wafts from the kitchen.

The cure for these might seem simple; just eliminate external sources of distraction. Write in a bare, soundproof room with the door shut, on a computer disconnected from the net.

That might work for some, but for many of us it’s not practical. It’s better to start by eliminating your most common, most alluring distractions if you can. As for the others, learn to become aware when a distractor is pulling you away. At the onset of each distraction, make a conscious decision to allow it or not.

Consider setting up a “focus object,” an inspirational something to redirect you toward your story, akin to the busts of Beethoven atop pianos. I made a framed picture of Jules Verne with the caption “Keep writing, Steve,” and mounted it above my desk. Pick a focus object specific to you and glance at it when you feel the tug of some external interruption.

Internal Distractions

The internal ones are worse, since your own mind assails you and there’s no one else to blame. Your mind wanders away from your story and suddenly there’s something else needing your attention. You have a bill due today; this story idea needs additional research; you’re wondering what that old high school friend is up to.

These generally occur when you’re stuck and need to solve an unexpected story problem. You feel you have to pause and think before writing further. That’s the moment when your brain takes a meandering walk.

As with external distractions, part of the cure is learning to recognize the distraction at the moment it occurs. If you were truly stuck just before that instant, maybe a short break is just the thing you need. Your subconscious can work on the problem while you’re engaged in the distracting activity.

If you were making progress right before that moment, ask yourself this question: “Is this the best use of my time right now?” On occasion, the distraction will be the best answer. Most times, you’ll realize you should return to your story.

Final Thoughts

Visualization is another technique for dealing with distractions. Keep a vision of you finishing your story, admiring it, and submitting it for publication. Think of how good that will feel. Use that vision to get you focused back on writing.

Recognize, too, that you can’t stay focused forever. You need to give your brain a rest. The Pomodoro Technique can be a way to promote both proper focusing and reasonable breaks.

You’ll find more great advice on dealing with distractions at this post by Leo Babauta and this one by Margarita Tartakovsky.

I hope you enjoyed… Sorry, I’ve got to go. Something else has attracted the attention of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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4 Ways to Fix the Boring Parts

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.” Is that the secret to good fiction writing? Can it be that simple?

Let’s say you’re looking over the story you just finished writing and you see a section where the action really drags. While writing, it seemed necessary to describe a scene fully or explain a character’s backstory so later plot actions would make sense. Now you’re torn. Should you follow Hitchcock’s advice and just cut that section, or leave it in at the risk of boring your readers?

I recommend using the following process to deal with boring sections of your story:

  1. No matter what the nature of boring part, and no matter what attribute makes it boring, ask if you really need it at all. If readers can still follow the plot or identify with the characters without that part, or if it’s some superfluous tangent, then obey Alfred and cut it out. (Okay, you can save the text in some ‘deleted darlings’ file for use in a different story if you want, but cut it out of this one.)
  2. If the boring part of your story feels like the action is dragging and it could use some interesting twist, see author Steve Parolini’s entertaining post. He’ll delight you with 12 plot twists you can use. As you read them, you’ll realize there are many more; the dozen he gives you may suggest others that will fit your story better. Note: these twists may well send your story in unplanned (but definitely unboring) directions.
  3. If the boring part is a setting depiction, or a description of character backstory, or a detailed explanation of some aspect of the story, it’s possible you really do need to convey that information somehow. That part, though currently boring, is necessary for the reader to enjoy or understand the story. For this situation, turn to this post by mooderino, (which also has a wonderfully fitting image), who provides three options for that boring part:
    1. Move it later. Don’t put it at the beginning, but save it for a point when the reader is hooked on the story and the protagonist.
    2. Move it to a scene when that character is alone. The reader isn’t expecting much action in these scenes, and the reader is catching her breath from a previous action scene.
    3. Split it up and sprinkle it around. Perhaps you can insert pieces of the information into more interesting scenes, thus allowing those details to emerge as the story moves along.
  4. If none of the preceding steps really work for you; if that boring part reveals something important about the plot, character, or setting; then take the risk and leave it right where it is. That’s the advice of author Richard Riley in this post. You might just want to edit that boring part to put more energy in the words, but other than that, just leave it.

If this has helped you deal with a boring section of your story, leave a comment, but be careful not to wake up—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Improving Your Creativity, Habit by Habit

Each of us is born creative. Some lose their creativity along the way. If you’d like to write fiction, but don’t think you’re creative enough, I believe you can increase that attribute through effort.

Researchers Carolyn Gregoire and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman developed a list of habits practiced by creative people. In their book, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Gregoire and Kaufman introduce and discuss those habits.

However, if you’re trying to improve by practicing good habits, it’s difficult to work on ten all at once. In his self-improvement efforts, Benjamin Franklin tackled just one habit per week. Therefore, I took the ten habits from the Gregoire and Kaufman book and rated them according to how important they are to becoming a better fiction writer. That way you can concentrate on one at a time in your creative journey.

I’ll present each of the habits in reverse order of importance, like any good Top Ten List. The order of the list is mine; other authors might disagree. Each habit is important, and all worth doing. You’ll find you do some already, so you won’t have to work on those.

10. Turning Adversity into Advantage. It’s good to develop your ability to accept failure as part of the process, to learn from it, and to move on. As a writer, your stories will get rejected; some of your books won’t sell; some marketing ideas won’t work; your stories will receive bad reviews. You’ll need to use these misfortunes to improve. As important as this habit is, I judged it the least necessary for developing the type of creativity needed by fiction writers.

9. Solitude. Writing fiction is a solitary endeavor. Creative people need to be able to tune out the world’s noise, to enjoy being alone without feeling lonely. That can be difficult for extreme extroverts. Still, it didn’t rate high on my list, since it’s not a habit you’ll need to practice before you can write. Just write, and you’ll soon get used to being alone.

8. Intuition. As you assemble words into effective sentences, expressive paragraphs, and enjoyable stories, you won’t have time to reason out what works best in every case. Most often you’ll have to go with your gut. This habit is low on the list because it’s hard to practice (try setting out to be more intuitive today) and because it should develop naturally the more you write.

7. Daydreaming. All writers do this. They let their mind wander in unfocused thought, free to go where it will, perhaps to see things anew or to connect the unconnected. The only reason this habit isn’t higher on the list is its low degree of difficulty, for most people.

6. Sensitivity. It’s valuable to be aware of the world and to understand the connections between outside events and your own mood and feelings. You can use that ability to create characters readers will love. For some, this comes naturally but others have to work on it.

5. Passion. There has to be an inner fire, some powerful force driving you to tell a story, to sustain you through the times when writing seems too hard. It’s not an easy habit to practice, though. Moreover, once you experience the success of selling a story, your passion to write more will increase on its own.

4. Openness to Experience. Your muse must be fed, and her diet is experiences. You have to get out in the world, explore new places, meet new people, try new activities, break down the doors of your comfort zone. This is easy for some, but others have to work at it.

3. Mindfulness. A creative person can focus, can think about the world, can think about feelings, and can think about thinking itself. Unlike daydreaming, this is directed, intentional. This is the usual state of writers when writing.

2. Thinking Differently. Creative folks disdain norms, shun convention, and strive for originality. They adopt a unique perspective, and break out of the everyday. Fiction writers must do this, to craft stories that will interest and delight readers. There’s a reason they call them novels, after all.

Drum roll, please. And now, the #1 habit of creative people, the one most important to fiction writers…

1. Imaginative Play. Remember your childhood games? You’d build crude replicas of things that would be huge and perfect in your mind. You’d imagine situations, assume a role, and play it out. No constraints, no rules, no limits. Your mind would ask, “what if…?” and off you’d go. Fiction writers either never outgrow that habit, or find a way to renew it through practice. It’s the essence of creative writing.

You already know what to work on, don’t you? You’ve identified the most difficult habits on the list and you’re set to practice them. Soon you’ll be tapping into hidden reservoirs from which your creative juices will flow. Good luck, Writer, and please take a moment along your wandering, creative journey to leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Are Readers of Science Fiction…Stupid?

Hoisted by their own petard? The very science that science fiction readers adore has now declared them idiots.

Or has it?

Some accounts of a recent scientific study are concluding that reading SF makes people stupid. Researchers Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University set out to challenge the results of an earlier 2013 study suggesting literary fiction makes readers smarter. These researchers believed whatever was going on in the earlier study had nothing to do with genre, and hoped to prove it.

It might help to know some terms used in the recent study:

  • Theory of Mind (ToM)—the text doesn’t tell readers what a character is feeling or thinking, so they must infer those things.
  • Theory of World (ToW)—the text doesn’t tell readers about the world of the story (physical laws, social norms, etc.), so they must infer those things.

Initially, Gavaler and Johnson suspected ToM would be the same in any genre, but ToW would be more challenging in SF, since the worlds of those stories are so different from our own. Things didn’t work out that way.

They asked 150 randomly selected readers to read a 1000-word short story. Each read one of four versions of the same story:

  • Text 1: set in a small town diner. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 2: set in a space station cafeteria. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 3: small town diner. Thoughts and feelings stated.
  • Text 4: space station. Thoughts and feelings stated.

Study participants answered questions posed by the researchers. From these answers, the researchers concluded, “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality.” “Science fiction readers reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

According to the study, the SF story readers “appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself…the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading.”

What should we make of this? Are readers of literary fiction smarter than readers of SF? Does reading SF make you stupid?

Perhaps the study was flawed. Were the participants truly random? Did the texts bias readers against SF? Were the post-reading questions biased in some way?

For the moment, let’s assume the study results are true. They imply the public regards SF as a lowbrow genre in comparison to literary works. There’s a valid reason people believe that. Many early SF stories and a lot of SF movies and TV shows were not high quality. In the early years, not many authors were writing science fiction, but the demand for stories was large, and readers weren’t as sophisticated or discerning as they are now. Science fiction fans of the time focused on settings—the weirder and more outlandish the better—not characters.

Given that history, it’s unsurprising that the public views SF as an uncultured mass-market genre for philistines, despite a huge advancement in the quality of writing in recent decades

Another factor is relevance to the reader’s life. Of the sample texts provided in the study, a reader is far more likely to relate to the scene in the small-town diner than the one in the alien-populated space station. Because of that, the public views science fiction as escapist in nature. SF writers strive to say something relevant about the human experience. Despite that, readers will always feel more distant from SF characters than they do from characters in contemporary literary fiction.

In my view, the study didn’t prove science fiction is for dummies, let alone that it makes people dummies. It showed people are different from each other; that’s why so many genres exist. As science fiction improves in quality, it will delight more readers. Delighting readers, and helping to make them smarter, is the main mission of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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