Friday, April 08, 2011

The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Why are Science Fiction and Fantasy so often grouped together? Obviously, because they share readership and so are well placed together in book stores. And... heck... some of us write both! Still, there are very real differences.

Look, fantasy is the mother genre -- e.g. Gilgamesh, the Illad, Odyssey and most religions. Science Fiction is the brash offshoot. All literature has deep roots in fantasy, which in turn emerges from the font of our dreams.

Having said that, what is my definition of the separation? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability: 

"Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?" 

For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas -- NOTHING EVER CHANGES!

== Nothing Ever Changes == 

No, the root element is right there in that word "change." Science fiction borrows many elements from the mother genre - fantasy -- elements of boldness and the fantastic that date back to Homer and Gilgamesh. But sci fi then rebels against all literary foundations by embracing change.  Even when it warns against BAD change it is relishing, exulting, expanding upon what Einstein called the "gedankenexperiment" or thought experiment: What if?

When SciFi goes "whatif" it takes the sacred word seriously.

Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. It's in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated... the social order stays the same.

It may be the natural genre... but should we be proud of that?

== The Possibility of Change ==

Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change.

Not that children always choose to learn from their parent's mistakes! When they don't, when they are obstinately stupid and miss opportunities, you can get a sci fi tragedy... far more horrible than anything "tragic" in Aristotle's Poetics. Aristotle says tragedy is Oedipus writhing futilely against fate. A sci fi tragedy portrays people suffering, same as in older tragedies... but with this crucial difference -- things did not have to be this way. It wasn't "fate." We - or the characters - could've done better. There was, at some point, a chance to change our own destiny.

One type of tragedy makes you weep - hey, Oedipus is powerful stuff. But for millennia the deep moral lesson - the thing taught in all "campbellian myths" - is that resistance is futile. The overall situation, the rule of fate, remains the same.

The other type of tragedy - the new kind - is a cautionary tale that may change your decisions. It may alter destiny.

You can see why the absurd old farts who inhabit most lit departments hate science fiction. SF considers it possible that the eternal "verities" and relentless stupidities praised by Henry James might someday be obsolete! If we make kids who are better than us (our goal, duh?) then their Startrekkian heirs will still have problems. 

Why insist that our descendants have to fret over the same ones? Can't they assume the solutions we find, take them for granted, and move on to new, interesting issues of their own?

Isn't that what we did? 

==The Rulers of Destiny==

The implicit assumption in most fantasy is that the form of governance that ruled most human societies since the discovery of grain must always govern us. Oh, kingly rulers my topple and shift, but the abiding assumptions and social castes generally do not. 

Aragorn may be a better king than Sauron would have been. Hurray. Fine. But he's still a freaking king. And the palantir on his desk that lets him see faraway places and converse with viceroys across the realm is still reserved for the super elite. No way are we going to see mass-produced palantirs appearing on every peasant's tabletop from Rohan to the Shire. (The way our civilization plopped such a miracle on YOUR tabletop.) It never even occurs to Aragorn or Gandalf to give the poor the godlike powers they themselves get to wield... let alone provide them with libraries, running water, printing presses or the germ theory of disease. Only little Peregrin Took seems to get a glimmer of an idea in that direction. The only character who briefly ponders possibilities, and he's soon bullied out of it.

Of course, magical thinking solely the province of non-technological minds.  In many ways, the nerdy-techno "singularity" is - at root - just a modern manifestation of magical-transcendentalism.  Indeed, our 21st Century America is awash in mystics!  The technological illiterates among them either wallow in the Book of Revelations or lefty-Gaian nostalgism or else solipsistic AynRandianism,  Those who are tech-empowered shift their transcendentalism to what's been called the "rapture of the nerds."  Same stuff though, when you dig deep to the level of personality, and thousands of years old.

The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is simply betrayal. Pure and simple. Those bastards were the enemy for 6,000 years. Some kings and wizards were less bad than others. But they were all "dark lords." We are the heirs of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Pericles, Franklin, Faraday, Lincoln, Einstein. Any one of whom was worth every elf and dragon and fairy ever imagined.

==Alternate authors==

And when an author like Tim Powers resists these assumptions, in books such as The Drawing of the Dark, he is writing science fiction, whether or not there are pirates, or wizards or demons.

This is why, despite her dragons and bards and medieval craft in her Dragons of Pern universeAnne McCaffrey proclaimed loudly that "I am a science fiction writer!"  

Because her characters know that change is coming.  Some resist, many are eager to bring it on as fast as they can.  And the future on Pern will have both dragons and flush toilets.  Songs and tapestries and universities and hyperdrive ships. 

Terry Pratchett writes science fiction because his Discworld Universe (borne through space by a mythical turtle) has something called progress.  People are waking, rising up. 

On the other hand, George Martin's depressing Game of Thrones saga has very little magic in it, but it consigns the peasants to endless, endless, endless misery and feudal oppression, with absolutely no hope of progress. It is part of the longer/older tradition stretching back to Homer. It is fantasy. 

==Looking forward==

Science fiction contemplates the possibility of successfully defying fate, creating a better future through our own efforts.

Change is the principal feature of our age, and literature should explore how people deal with it. 

The best science fiction does that, head on.

==See also: 

My essay:  Science Fiction and its Heresies

and Speculations on Science Fiction


Jacob said...

Hi David,

Would you consider Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings Fantasy or Science Fiction? There is active Engineering (or perhaps rediscovery) of items which are Mass Produced for the 'Haves' rather than just the worthy few. There is variation in government structure by region. But unfortunately the world is designed to have resets every so often. Rather anti-progress.

Sean Strange said...

Very nice post. Science fiction is a tricky business. Except for near future and post-apocalypse settings, how do you write stories that are both scientifically convincing and interesting to modern humans?

When I think about the farther future, I think of some kind of unimaginable (and probably uninteresting) post-Singularity world. It's very difficult for me to imagine an interstellar civilization with normal, human scale characters as in most classic SF. Space is just way too big for humans! Dune was a nice try, but Herbert had to invent the "Butlerian Jihad" and basically write a feudal fantasy in space.

So I guess my question is, can science fiction give us convincing human scale stories that take us on adventures like Lord of the Rings?

David Brin said...

Yes, Dune was about a complete takeover by feudal renunciators who utterly rejected even a hint of singularity, except via mutant mental powers.

I am always appalled that anyone can misconstrue Herbert's hatred of the world he made.

There are a few post singularity stories. See one of mine "Stones...." at Free short stories at

matthew said...

So Terry Pratchett's Discworld is science fiction due to the changing nature of the rulers in the world, but Ender's Game and Star Wars are fantasy courtesy of the immutable Campbellian nature of the heroes?
Not that I am disagreeing at this point, just clarifying...
And I never had thought of Herbert hating Arrakis - I figured that all the material in the appendix was his love affair with the ecosystem.
Interesting take you have here, doctor. Need to ponder this more.

hercons: vampire romance conventions

Dan said...

Charles Stross & Harry Conolloy have explored these themes a little, something I found quite interesting.

Here's a piece on thrillers, labelling them as high/low fantasy; but there's plenty more.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the invite to your site.

I wonder if the real reason isn't that previous social structures are just more FAMILIAR so they are easier to conjecture and postulate from. Since there is no recorded time in which people did not fantasize, and since writing by projecting their present provide a rich historical record of themes and scenarios from which to draw, which is precisely what Tolkien did.

I wonder too if some "better" social structure needs to be created and it is our job to do so.

I also have to admit that my more favorite sf/fantasy books revolve around the theme of restoring a "better world order" that has been over-run by the bad guys.

It's a theme that runs through:

Asmimov's Foundation
Robert A. Heinlein's Future History books
Shadow of the Swan series by MK Wren
Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan

Heck, even Star Wars is based on that theme.

Some of them reveal the Better World Order, others leave you at the gate, but I wonder if their popularity doesn't shadow a sense of destiny that we all share.

All the best,

Paul said...

re: your 'net vote scheme from the last thread...
a) How do you cancel your online vote when you vote in person?

b) Anything which can link you to your vote has the potential for vote buying. You get people to register their vote-code with you just after they vote, but before it's published. If they vote as instructed, you send their money/reward.

c) Anything which separates people from the physical act of voting lends itself to fraud. It's hard enough to stop "deadman" voting now, how can you hope to combat fraud when, for example, the owners of a chain of nursing home can apply for voter-codes on behalf of their residents, then vote en-mass for their favourite cause (or highest bidder.)

brian t said...

I don't think the Lord of the Rings comment is entirely fair, since the ending (when Aragorn becomes King) is the beginning of a new age in "Middle Earth". It's suggested that things are not simply going to be the same as they were before. After all we learned about Aragorn before that, including his history with the Elves and their more democratic ways, it doesn't seem likely that he will be just another King in the old style.

Tolkein famously hated any attempt to draw allegories between his work and current events, but we can see historical parallels, to the royal families of England and even Ancient Rome, which transitioned from Kingdom to Republic to Empire to collapse. Events just take longer in that world: change is slower, more evolutionary than revolutionary. In the SF universes of Stapledon, Clarke, Vinge, or Asimov's Foundation, the most violent upheaval is just a footnote. 8)

Tim H. said...

The likelyhood of the featured technology might be used to draw the line, from here, a hyperdrive seems about as likely as The One Ring, or a Balrog. at least 'til someone discovers a loophole in the universe.

Tony Fisk said...

David's talking about a different approach to social engineering, not whether you get from A to B via warp drive or 'disapparating' (or even 'walking'!).

It isn't so much about the 'science' as it is the speculation.

By this measure, I'd certainly include Pratchett and Gaiman in the speculative camp, for all that their tales are of a decidedly fantastical nature.

On e-voting. My thoughts for an open system are here. Old stuff now, but I thought that you should be able to quite happily follow the old maxim of voting early and voting often. Oh yes, and get rid of those queues! They only serve to enforce the notion that voting is boring and futile.

Jacob said...

Hi Paul,

re:a) We currently mark everyone who votes to ensure they don't vote multiple times. This list can be fed into an a program which generates a list of ######## of people who voted in person. When the final Internet vote is tallied for addition to In-Person voting, that sub-set is removed.

re:b) A valid point. Vote buying could go on in our current system, but there isn't a way to ensure the manipulator got what he wanted. In practice, how would you solicit voter codes if the penalties associated with such actions were harsh (say 20 years in jail plus a Million dollar fine per count)?

re:c) (1) In theory, you could shift this theme from Internet voting to Public/Private voting where it was only done at the courthouse. I don't care for that method, but it would address the concern.

(2) There would need to be a good form of Voter Verification before issue of ########s. Something I argue we need anyway for the current absentee voting system. An effective checker would also have additional benefits in addressing other forms of fraud.

(3) Nefarious nursing home chain owners can manipulate the vote in other means. Largely by control of information flow. But this would give them more control. Again, its a valid point. I would hope that penalties would discourage such actions.

Much of the fraud that can be committed by the ideas I'm putting forth can be done by Absentee Voting. This just makes it easier. But unlike Absentee Voting, there is greater potential for catching the crooks due to the Transparent nature of the design.

I think the greatest flaws in the system relate to your first post. The Closing a week early to allow people to verify (and correct) their vote mostly addresses them.

Catfish N. Cod said...

Having said that, what is my definition of the separation? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability.

Following along Jacob's question: OK, so here's an interesting puzzle down the middle of your proposed divide: The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan (and, for the last three volumes, the selfsame Brandon Sanderson). On different time scales, it flips back and forth on the answer to this question!

(1) During the Third Age (the current setting of the story), humanity has remained relatively static at a level ranging from Antiquity (ancient Roman or Han Dynasty China) to the Renaissance. Yet it is made clear that forces other than Humanity (namely unspeakable extradimensional evil) has been surpressing humanity's ability to advance.

(2) Looking at the ages previous to and after the Third Age, Humanity can and does improve. The Second Age (or Age of Legends) was a post-scarcity gift economy and a worldwide peaceful democracy/meritocracy supported by highly advanced science (which included psi powers now considered 'magic' by the survivors of the fall of that civilization). The Fourth Age, as seen in prophetic visions, will have an industrial revolution in its first few centuries. So humanity clearly is improvable.

(3) And yet, over the very VERY long time span, the cosmology of the series demands that this improvability be broken! "Time is a Wheel", and thus horrific calamities must occur to ultimately destroy even the best human cultures. Indeed, it is implied that at the end of the Seventh Age, the Earth is reset to the birth of the species and all of history must begin again from hunter-gatherer days. So worldly progress is ultimately futile, though by the mystical mechanism of reincarnation, soul-improvement is still possible.

So... is humanity improvable? Seems to depend, in this instance, on your point of view.

I am always appalled that anyone can misconstrue Herbert's hatred of the world he made.

Could you speak more on that, or provide references? I'd like to understand that better. I know about Herbert's opinion of Heroism and that he saw the whole mechanism of Prophecy that he devised as a disaster -- as is made clear in the rest of the series. But I've never heard of him hating the original setting with feudalism and the Jihad and all. What's up with that?

David Brin said...

Matthew said "So Terry Pratchett's Discworld is science fiction due to the changing nature of the rulers in the world, but Ender's Game and Star Wars are fantasy courtesy of the immutable Campbellian nature of the heroes? "


DUNE is a marvel.  A morality tale about humanity turning back from the godlike post-singularity state and rejecting it by embracing all the old ways. Feudalism, hierarchy, strict limitations on disruptive science, and emphasis on styles of exalted mysticism that require sacrifice of normality, monklike dedication and self-abnegation.


...and Herbert is very worried and critical of it in DUNE.

You root for the Atreides because the Harkonnens are so horrible.  Same with Elrond vs Sauron.  But in fact, any of us should wish a plague on both their houses.

Brian T... .  Tolkien (sighing) admits that change happens.  In fact, LOTR is one long lament that change happens, and may even be necessary.

But he chooses between two futures.  The clanking, mechanical horror of mordor or the new, more egalitarian - but still hierarchical and bucolic - future of the clever little hobbits.
JRRT was complex, I respect that.  But he was never going to LIKE the future.

ell said...

One old definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy was that fantasy was impossible -- it relied on magic -- the supernatural. Then someone tamed electricity to run toasters and weed whackers and computers, and electricity isn't fantasy anymore. No wonder science fiction and fantasy are shelved together in bookstores.

A fantasy author once told me that the fantasy has to operate under rules just as rigorous as scientific rules. If it can't rain on Tuesday, then you can't make it rain on Tuesday in the story. (If it nevertheless rains on Tuesday in the story, then the book goes into the mystery section of the bookstore.)

ZarPaulus said...

So, the difference is Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, is it?

So where does Cyberpunk fit in? I've heard people claim it's Romantic because it portrays dystopian worlds made possible by advanced technology (as opposed to Post-Cyberpunk/Transhumanist sci-fi)

Michael C. Rush said...

For many people, fantasy is more comfortable than sf, just as the familiar (and the familiar doesn't have to be real: dreams--and nightmares--can become familiar) is more comfortable to many people than the unknown.

I think most fantasy appeals to an appetite for simplicity while much sf appeals to an appetite for the complexity of the real. (This should not be interpreted as a criticism of fantasy. I think there's absolutely a place for it. But it's far less likely to serve as a driver of radical change outside of its pages.)

ribock said...

I’d suggest the difference lies in the pre- and post- Enlightenment attitudes to progress. In traditional fantasy the hero overcomes, but the problems remain the same. There are no new solutions. Knowledge never increases. No progress.

Sci-fi is optimistic. Problems are there to be solved. Sure, the solutions must produce more problems but the fun goes on, new knowledge increasing forever and ever. This is the picture drawn in David Deutsch’s latest book *The beginning of Infinity.*

David Brin said...

rushmc, of course fantasy is familiar. Feudalism is rooted in human genes. Its alternative is hard.

But Sci fi is not inherently optimistic. It is inherently POTENTIALLY optimistic. The potential for positive change is there, which is why sci fi tragedies can hurt so much.

Michael C. Rush said...

>>But Sci fi is not inherently optimistic.

Agreed. Radical change can occur in various directions. (What's the opposite of the Singularity? A sine wave, with "progress" plotted on the Y axis...)

And inherent potentiality may be ignored, suppressed, or diverted (I would argue that an example of this is the internet in 2011).

LarryHart said...

Is "What happened to the 'Star Trak' franchise?" a sci-fi tragedy?

Or the "Star Wars" franchise, for that matter?

Actually, speaking of "Dune", I wasn't sure if your description above applied to the original book of that title, or the extended series. To me, the book "Dune" bears the same relation to the rest of the extended series that "Star Wars" has to the other five films.

Acacia H. said...

Reposting this from the comment on Dr. Brin's Facebook page:

It depends on what your definition of fantasy is. For instance, are super hero comics fantasy or science fiction? There is a very good case to describe a superhero in the same terms of the Hero from mythology. Really, what is the difference between Hercules, the son of a God, and Superman, a space alien who is superstrong thanks to the light of the sun?

For that matter, you can also ask if psychic abilities and the like are fantasy or not. If so, then you have a number of contemporary fantasy comics where people have abilities attributed to the Gods or to Heroes... but who are otherwise human and who exist in Democratic societies (more often than not).

Now, if you mean fantasy as in swords and sorcery fantasy... then yes, the majority of those tend to be monarchies. But that is because the stories are anachronisms (if I have the right word) that are trying to put unreal elements into a setting people have a better chance of comprehending.

Fantasy also depends on the type. High Fantasy can have magic everywhere, and end up with magic trains and magic phones and the like. Harry Potter was High Fantasy... with a Democratic (or Parliamentary at least) government structure built within the English structure. It is Low Fantasy, where magic is rarer, that you end up with the Elites having magic... and often these Elites are depicted as evil and using their magic in a selfish fashion.

In this case, is not the Magician an allegory for the rich power-hungry industrialist in our society who gets away with everything because he has the police and government in his pocket?

So fantasy depends on who writes it, and the form the fantasy takes. There are many forms of fantasy, and some do look forward even as they incorporate impossible elements within them.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Rob said...

If Frank Herbert wrote it, then yes. I don't know what the world is going on with the Herbert/Anderson collaborations.

Paul said...

Re: e-vote
I'm still unclear about point "a".

"This list can be fed into an a program which generates a list of ######## of people who voted in person."

If your name can be linked (by algorithm or secret-database) to your voter-code, then it will leak. Effectively publishing your name with your vote. That is a Bad Thing. Voter secrecy is absolutely vital to democracy. No fraud is more dangerous.

If not, then I still can't see how you can remove someone's vote if they turn up in person. (You can prevent them from re-voting, obviously. But you can't delete their e-vote.)

(David, everyone's having fun with the SF/fantasy thread. So if you want this topic ended, just shout at us and I'll drop it. (Well, I'll probably say one more thing, but then I'll drop it, honest!))

Paul said...

SF vs Fantasy.

It may be heresy, but I've always thought SF was just a sub-set of Fantasy. "Stories set in universes that don't exist."

ZarPaulus' distinction of Romantic and... Progressive/Enlightenment/etc, makes more sense than trying to cast Star Wars as fantasy-not-SF, and Dragon riders as SF-not-fantasy.

(There seems to be another distinction between "Story" vs "What-if" SF. All SF (and most fantasy) has a "What-If" in the setting/rules for the universe. But there's a classic SF genre of the single-change-what-if. The story/characters are almost immaterial, the interesting thing is to speculate what would happen if This-Thing happened or was discovered or was invented.)

Jacob said...

To clarify, there would be a public list of ########s and associated votes. This is totaled and considered projected results 1 week out from the vote in person.

Then the vote in person and absentee votes are tallied. This generates a separate list of people that have voted. This list of people is then submitted to a computer (that notably can be completely unnetworked) which generates associated #######s List.

A Match is done between the Vote In Person/Absentee ##### List and the Internet Voting List. All matches will have their Internet ##### removed from the previously determined Projected Total.


I really don't think that secrecy is 'absolutely vital'. Rather, I think it is important and serious efforts should be made maintain it. I know that Fraud is easier in a Private System than a Transparent one.

I am strongly motivated to find a way to address the true problem with Democracy: an uninformed electorate. Most people have no idea what is on the ballot past the top 1 or 2 slots. I want people to be able to gather information at their leisure to better select their own best choice.

I also want voting to begin early and be flexible such that they can change their support if a primary candidate drops out.

I want to reduce media speculation and pollster manipulation by saying 'Lets just see who is >actually< leading now.'

You seem extremely wary of those that are inclined to misbehave. The more Transparent a system is, the harder it is to do.

Jonathan S. said...

Another example of fantasy that would be reclassified as SF under Dr. Brin's proposal is Rick Cook's Wizardry series (Wizard's Bane, The Wizardry Compiled, The Wizardry Cursed, The Wizardry Consulted, and probably one or two more I haven't read). As the stories open, magic is the province of Wizards, men and women trained for years, sometimes decades, in the arcane instructions needed to use its power. After being summoned to the World, however, programmer Wiz Zumwalt creates a magic compiler, that enables anyone willing to put in a little study to use those same powers - more safely and reliably than established Wizards!

To his credit, Mr, Cook does go so far as to examine some of the implications of releasing magic so cavalierly in a world of about the same level of social development as pre-medieval Europe. It becomes clear that if Wiz's compiler is going to become so widely known, they're going to have to find a way to get the peasants a better education...

sociotard said...

For fantasy in the progressive camp, I might suggest Jim Butcher's "furies of Alera". They are feudal, but they do change some of their policies over the course of the book. Normally only super-powered elites got a vote in elections for the senate, but Gaius Octavian pushes to expand that. There's also implications that the problems the humans face and the solutions at their disposal will be different in the future.

David Brin said...

Two good examples. I must get a copy of Rick Cook's books! Know who publishes them?

Paul said...

Re: e-voting.
If I vote in person, do I give the polling officials my e-vote code number? If so, that answers the question I had.

Re: Anonymous ballot.
It's not "Secrecy" per se that I mean. If your vote can be matched to your name, coercion is a major risk to democracy.

If you vote for the "X Party", Party-Y officials/judges/cops/etc can mess with you. That's worrying enough when your society is mostly "law abiding".

But what happens during paranoid periods like McCarthyism, or in modern Russia. When Party-Y are in government, they control the police, courts, etc, they can harass/bankrupt/arrest anyone who votes against them? That kills Democracy. You end up with a one-party state. Voter anonymity is vital. More important than some minor ballot box stuffing.

Periods like McCathy & J. Edgar Hoover happen in the best societies. But they end when enough people can vote against them without fear of reprisals.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin

BAEN books do Rick Cook,

I think he may even be in the free e-book library

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Periods like McCathy & J. Edgar Hoover happen in the best societies. But they end when enough people can vote against them without fear of reprisals."

Do they?
I don't remember hearing of this type of repression in any parliamentary system?

In a parliamentary system a ruling party has much less direct control over its citizens

I believe this is a unique feature of the American system
But I would love to be educated about other democracies falling into this trap

Catfish N. Cod said...

I don't condemn Elrond for being what he is, Dr. Brin. The fact is that Elves had intrinsic disadvantages to being progressive -- starting with their naturally indefinite lifespans. That breeds a certain kind of conservatism and restricts thought in a society, because you can't necessarily outlive bad ideas or their proponents. The best you can do is move somewhere else to start over (which happens repeatedly in Elvish history).

Not that Elves weren't capable of mucking things up and making real mistakes. The Noldor are particularly bad at this; hoarding technology for their own gain at the expense of everyone else is their calling card and also their damnation. And the Noldor are most of the Elves we see in the Silmarillion and forming the backstory to LoTR; Galadriel, the most powerful elf in LoTR, is the last of that kin.

It occurs to me that we may not be seeing the Elves at their best... Elvenhome in the Uttermost West may well have progressed in the way we'd prefer, having had the nasty elements of their society ship off to Middle-Earth in a sort of Golgafrincham Ark B.

As to Tolkien and governmental structures, let me propose another idea. Could he be characterized as a.... libertarian?

Think about it. Of all the governments we see, the most minimalist is the hobbits'! How much government does the Shire really have? The nominal chief executive, the Thain, is purely symbolic; he does nothing besides run his own (large) household. The functional chief executive, the Mayor, only operates a few services -- the Post Office, the Sherriffs (police), the Bounders (border patrol), and the Hobbitry-in-Arms (militia). The legislature is run Town Meeting-style and is convened rarely. There's no attempt at economic or social engineering whatsoever; foreign policy is purely defensive; taxes are low; and most business is conducted between individuals.

This sounds like a fairly minimalist libertarian state to me! And it's what Tolkien creates as his idealized version of English society. THAT for all those highfalutin Elves and Halfelven and Kings and whatnot.

Catfish N. Cod said...

Hmm, the system seems to have eaten the last bit.

Rick Cook's Wiz Biz -- the first two books of his Wizardry Compiled series

LarryHart said...

Regarding "Dune",

I wonder how much of Dr Brin's antipathy has to do with the Butlerian Jihad--the past event in which humanity rebelled against the use of "thinking machines" in favor of super-trained human minds (Mentats).

On the one hand, this does reek of abandonment of technology in favor of mysticism.

But on the other hand, I always read that from a Vonnegutian perspective--that what humanity rebelled against was not technology per se, but a system that forces human beings to compete with machines, much the way our present real-world system does.

Also, perhaps worth of note is that Asimov's "Foundation" starts off with science having to pose as religious mysticism in order to get a foothold in the new kingdoms surrounding Terminus. But that wasn't because Asimov was advocating Romantic mysticism over science. Just the opposite, in fact.

David Brin said...

It may someday be necessary to renounce technology in order to save us. I am willing to go with Herbert's thought experiment.

(Though see Iain Banks 's "culture" for a better one.)

Still, renunciationism so conveniently rationalizes the return to a feudal/fascist crushing of all human competitive spirit, forever, that one must needs wonder about the rationalizers and whether they lie.

Acacia H. said...

At the point we are in civilization today, we would need a significant die-off of the human populace in order to survive on a lower technology level. Of course, abandoning tech would force a die-off in this case as people would starve to death without the technology needed for farming, irrigation, fertilization, and so forth... or for that matter the medicines we use to survive so many diseases out there today.

No. Abandoning or even trying to lessen our technological usage is a pipe dream. What we need to do is learn how to effectively and efficiently use our technology.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Again, I'm coming at this as a Vonnegut fan...

What we really need to do is to let technology do its thing, and let humans do our thing, but NOT solely value humans on the basis of how well they COMPETE with machines.

Tony Fisk said...

You are tilting at the very basis of economic rationalism there! (humans turn out to be the spurious overhead in most economic models, despite what the Hawthorne Experiments demonstrated) I think I'm coming at this from a vague recollection of Ellison's 'Repent Harlequin!, said the Tick-Tock Man'

facenis: Tymbrini social network

Paul said...

Re:Abandoning tech.
Hmmm, I wonder how we would do compared to our ancestors, if we had to abandon "technology" but still retained science (and Enlightenment Materialism/acceptance-of-reality.)

(podess: She of the cubical.)

Amanda said...

The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is... you think sci-fi is cooler.

I mean, the terms "science fiction" and "fantasy," being only words, can mean anything you want them to mean. The way you define it, science fiction has quite a broad scope and fantasy a very narrow scope. Personally I define "fantasy" as "stories based on old myths" and sci-fi as "stories based on new inventions and the possibilities they have created." Neither your definition nor mine are correct - they are only opinions. But wouldn't it be easier to say that you like speculative fiction that explores new possibilities, rather than making some sort of inherently subjective distinction between genres?

Rob said...

I have no particular quarrel with a database which, as public information, would tell the world that I voted in an election.

However, as the supporters of Proposition 8 in California found out, as well as the opponents of Washington's Referendum 71, if your opponents are angry enough about a majority outcome, they will try to compile a list. And with Google Earth tools, a list becomes a map to the houses of all the people who oppose you. And that was just petition signers and campaign donations!

If someone can compile a list and a map of all the people who appear to hold the positions you don't like, then someone else can put you on a list of people they don't like.

For initiative petitions, maybe that's just a cost of signing. For the actual vote, no way. No freaking way. That's more chilling than Tammany Hall, especially when it moves at the speed of electrons.

Acacia H. said...

I always felt the most effective method of getting people to vote is a cash incentive. When someone votes in an election, they get a $5 bill.

For those who worry about voter fraud, I have a simple solution: use the dyes they use in third world nation votes. If your finger is dyed because you voted, then you have proof you don't double-vote. It's simple, effective, and even a badge of pride.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Amanda, notice how you deliberately evaded even glancingly engaging ANY of the ideas that I raised.

Not one.

Instead you baselessly accuse me of trying to straightjacket you and force you to conform to my "definition."

This is outrageous, and you know it. I merely offered up a pattern that DOES hold across a lot of the tales that YOU call "fantasy". I attempted to show a new perspective and to get you to ponder some aspects of the literature you clearly love (and that I admire, in many ways too.)

Clearly, in your case, I failed. To you, one definition is enough. Well okay, enjoy it.

Jacob said...

And yet in the system I describe, it would take actual Espionage to acquire said list. As David Brin asserts a Transparent Society detests Snoops. We can make the penalty associated with possessing such a list jail time + a Billion dollars. (Effectively ending any organization which would use the list.)
Concurrently, a significant whistle blower reward could be offered to incentivize discovery.

Tony Fisk said...

The e-vote database I came up with holds a table with an entry for each voter. This is the basis for registration.

A separate table defines the ballot of votes. It contains the id, the timestamp, the actual voting details, the voter's (private) digital signature, and the electoral commission's signature. This provides the actual voting count, and the verification mechanism.

A further table links ballot id with (encrypted) link id. This allows the voter to access and check their own voting trail (I mentioned it allowed you to vote early, and often? Naturally, only the latest vote counts!) It provides a personal level of verification, but this is where traceablility is a potential issue.

I think it works at face value, but I daresay there are a number of digital crowbars that could pry it open.

The preoccupation with voter anonymity does raise an interesting question, however: in a transparent society, how anonymous will your vote be anyway? Why would it matter?

castrogi: the people whose voting intentions are known. Reviled as a neutered underclass, they nevertheless consider themselves cut free: nobody has them by the balls any more!

Paul said...

So "transparency" requires that the list is "secret"? That doesn't work. Someone has access, computers don't run themselves. That person controls the information. If you're going to do this, you may as well have a public show of hands.

But, Jacob, you underestimate just how powerful a tool this information is for suppression of democracy. There's a reason the secret-ballot was invented.

Re:Encryption, e-sigs, etc.
Honestly I can't see why we need to spend so much effort just to replace a pencil and a piece of paper. Why does everyone assume that computer voting is somehow magically more efficient.

If you don't like queues, double the number of polling places & staff. If you are worried about turn-out, use incentives (payments or fines). There are simpler solutions than e-voting.

$5 and a cookie, and I'll vote for anyone.

(sciat: Bad science fiction.)

Tony Fisk said...

If you don't like queues, double the number of polling places & staff.

Paid for by?

As it happens, I agree that the pencil and paper system works well in Australia, and we have compulsory voting anyway.

Things in the States appear a bit murkier (although things often seem murkier from a distance) In particular, it seems to be a 'tactic' to have issues with available polling booths in electoral areas deemed to be inconvenient.

Anyway, my interest with e-voting is to do with convenience. At the moment, everyone has a bunfest and a sausage sizzle every 3-4 years. And that's your sliver of democracy done and dusted. This way of proceeding doesn't scale down to people voting more frequently (eg every week)

OMG is this guy serious??? Well, sort of. If that *was* your reaction, then ask yourself why? If it was because you couldn't stand the thought of an ongoing political circus (I couldn't!!), then I think it proves my point about convenience. I do think that democracy should, and could, have a greater engagement from its constituents than once every 3-4 years (news polls aside)

credd: what you get on the streets when you can supply bredd

Tony Fisk said...

$5 and a cookie, and I'll vote for anyone.

(*sigh*) That's the way Anakin (and Lucas) went!

nononi: the standard Shakespearian put-down

Amanda said...

I do love fantasy, though I'm pretty sure the fantasy I love is at least partially in the sci-fi camp according to your definition. One of my favorite series of all time, the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce, does show positive, progressive social change. There is a monarchy throughout all of the books set in that universe, but things do change in that women are eventually allowed to join the military without dressing up as boys, and the protagonists actually feel an obligation to the poor. But by the definitions normally used (people riding horses, wielding swords, doing magic, etc.) it's fantasy.

Or take the writing project I'm working on right now (I'm not published, just an amateur) - it's about a world wherein magic is controlled by a ritualistic religious order and is eventually going to be made available to the masses. But it would be in the fantasy section of the bookstore if it were ever published, because it's very sword-and-sorcery in style. I personally think it would belong there.

But it doesn't really matter to me whether people think a particular book is fantasy or science fiction. My point is simply that words can be defined however one wants. The symbol + means "plus" to us, or maybe a cross, but (I hear) it's the number ten in Chinese. Are we right or are the Chinese right? It's a ridiculous question - we simply use different definitions.

Of course, if you wanted to pre-dispose your readership to debate, or get people to engage with ideas, then you went about it the right way.

Ian said...

"Why does everyone assume that computer voting is somehow magically more efficient."

Brazil, which has electronic voting regularly returns complete results for congressional and Presidential elections within a couple of hours of the polls closing,

Australia and many other countries which use paper ballots don;t coem close to matching that.

there's a simple and logical way to check the integrity of electronic voting.

Electronic voting machines can be set up so that the maxhine prints out a paper copy of the vote before recording the result electronically. Only when the voter is satisfied with the print-out is the vote recorded.

The paper ballot is then treated as presently so there's a complete paper back-up to the electronic voting.

Any discrepancy between the two tallies of more than ,say, 0.5% would trigger a recount and them, if necessary a fresh election.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Electronic voting

The UK uses paper
- voting closes ~9pm - the first results are in by midnight
By 5am the majority of the results are in,
The removals van is at No10 by 11am the next morning

More people = more money to hire counters,
There are very small numbers of spoiled ballots as counters simply pass questionable ballots up the chain, eventually to the returning officer

In the USA the problem is not the number of voters BUT the number of things you vote on

Does anybody remember a Superman comic where the man of steel has to collect green kryptonite - which will be used to kill him
He collects so much it has the opposite effect.

I wonder if somebody who does not approve of democracy has arranged the American system -
"They want to Vote! - I'll give them voting until it comes out of their eyes"

Amanda said...

Oh, and on the subject of pointing out a pattern that holds across a lot of what I call fantasy - I absolutely agree. It is fairly common for fantasy stories to uphold the ideal of monarchy and feudalism, and it isn't a particularly helpful or inspiring formula. I find it rather annoying, partly because I love the aesthetics of fantasy and would like to see more innovation with regard to theme and plot. There's so much fantasy can do. It doesn't have to follow the rules of the real universe, so you have a lot of leeway to explore social issues. You can pose whatever weird moral dilemma you want. And you can do it with magic, sparkling gemstones, shining swords, and talking animals!

Acacia H. said...

Ever consider part of the reason why monarchies are prevalent in fantasy is partly due to the fascination so many people have with the British Monarchy, which ultimately has no power but is still this large flashy thing that people fixate on?

People then write fantasy, put their favorite monarchy in there, and forget about the practicalities of government such as Parliament.


Dr. Brin, in The Element of Fire by Martha Wells, the Queen (or more specifically the mother of the King, who still has considerable political power after her son came of age) did everything in her power to increase the power of the Ministries and lessen the power of the nobles and royalty. She then started to shun and ignore the head of the Ministries in a political ploy to try and get her son to listen to the man.

Sadly it didn't work because of a noble who latched onto the King and who had considerable power over him. Part of the political power play is what drives the plot of the book. It's a fascinating read.

ROb H.

Tony Fisk said...

Not sure where Martin's ASOIAF cycle fits in to this pattern. It depicts a completely traditional feudal society, yet I would tend to think of Martin, himself, as pretty progressive. It is distinctly un-romantic in its depiction of civil warfare, and none of the elite are particularly savoury in nature (well, apart from Ned Stark, perhaps).

Martin does seem to be setting the whole thing up for a fall, though. In between the tribal squabbles, Winter and the Others are a-comin' in! (whenever he gets around to it: come July, I'm thinking Tyrion will be heartily sick of 'drinking himself across the Dornish sea' for the last ten years!)

veremin: undead things that scuttle behind the skirting boards

LarryHart said...


At the point we are in civilization today, we would need a significant die-off of the human populace in order to survive on a lower technology level. Of course, abandoning tech would force a die-off in this case as people would starve to death without the technology needed for farming, irrigation, fertilization, and so forth... or for that matter the medicines we use to survive so many diseases out there today.

This was described beautifully in a passage in "Brave New World" from Mustapha Mond's point of view. I don't have the book in front of me, but basically (and much more poetically), he expounded on the fact that there were 1 billion people alive before the industrial revolution and 2 billion "now" (gosh does that seem a long time ago!), and if the wheels ever stop turning, the job of burying the billion dead will be insurmountable for the billion remaining.

JuhnDonn said...

I think one of the attractions that fantasy (and long term stagnation) hold is that a lot of human beings, despite not liking their particular place in life, find a solid world picture of great comfort. Even if things are not so great for them, they don't have to make any hard choices to get by.

A fluid/changing future requires hard thought and effort on behalf of an individual. And as we've discussed here before, certain mindsets respond to new ideas positively while others manifest fear and anger.

Unknown said...

Meyer-Briggs Type inventory, which is a loose method ( my take on it anyway ) admittedly, would give you poor odds for children learning from there parents behaviors.

And considering that our failed education system
which is so 19thCent. Prussian in design, coupled with systemic ecological challenges/changes, that is a lot of biomass to influence, human kudzu adapted for a cold climate.

Ad in some religion/denial sauce ( most popular networked fantasy games are Islam versus everyone, Christians' are right & Hindus are US )

Which stone, are you game, to move up which hill?

Paul said...

"Paid for by?"

Whoever is paying for electronic voting systems.

"Australia [...] which use paper ballots don;t coem close to matching that."

I can remember only one election where we didn't know within a few hours of polls closing who had won government.)

"there's a simple and logical way to check the integrity of electronic voting [...]"

...By pretending it's a paper based system. So... why not just have a paper based system. Again, why the assumption that e-voting is somehow automatically superior, when you know you have to jump through hoops just to equal paper based systems.

All those special measures are necessary because e-voting is so awful. Even when you don't acknowledge it, you are starting with the assumption "e-voting is unsafe", so you try to make it only slightly less safe than paper based systems. But all your careful plans will be promptly ignored whoever actually commissions the new system.

(By "paper-based-systems", I'm excluding all voting machines. E-voting might be better than some of the bizarre systems used in the US, but not because e-voting is good...)

Rob said...

A democratic vote represents the degree of ambivalence of a group of people. The last school levy that passed around here passed with a 2/3 majority. Thus, the community went for the tax.

Breaking that up into who did and who didn't agree serves to continue discord where a secret ballot is intended to discontinue it. As others have pointed out, the secret ballot was created for a reason.

Jacob said...

Re: Tony
I like most of what you've put forth here and on Casting Light. There are some differences, but I imagine they could be resolved.

Your argument is flawed. ~Someone has access to a list of any government's spies. Therefore, the list might as well be public for everyone.~

The guardians of Identity - Name lists would be charged to ensure they don't get out.


I don't underestimate the power of information. I say we already have similar political lists. Assuming espionage (which I don't), it would only improve the accuracy and completeness of those lists. Notably what I describe is an option and not a mandate. Only those that choose to vote this way would be subject to your fears.

Re: reason for secret-ballot
In a brutal society, extra precautions must be made. In historic times, you were much more likely to be murdered, beaten, or simply harassed. A secret ballot makes more sense. In certain parts of the world it still makes sense in the modern day.

However as we move towards a more Transparent society, it becomes harder to misbehave. Those actions could be recorded or simply traced back to the aggressors. I assert that we have reached the point where the benefits outweigh the risks considering its an opt in system.

re: cost
Mostly because its obscenely high right now. Initially it would cost more (but not significantly so) to include Internet voting. However if it became popular, we would be able to close down polling stations and reduce long term cost. At some point in the future, I imagine only the Voting offices themselves being open for in person voting.


re: Concept of Faster Results
The final results would not be any faster as you will tally In-Person and Absentee Votes. However, checking current results could be done throughout the election cycle. Think about the ramifications on Polling and the News cycle. Or the US primary voting when people change their vote due to candidates dropping out. These are the major side benefits to Internet Voting.

The reason for it in the first place is to give people the ability to become more informed about the middle and bottom of the ticket.


The paper system is awful in its own unique ways. Elections can be stolen by stripping away or changing someone's vote. You have absolutely no way to determine if your Vote was counted properly.

Ultimately you can choose to Vote in Person and let others choose their preferred Voting method.

Transparent Voting runs the risk of having Team Nefarious come after you if they are able to get through security precautions.

Paper Voting runs the risk of having Team Nefarious just steal the electron completely.

matthew said...

I argue the other way on secret ballots. They are outdated. I can find out the political leanings of almost anyone with enough Google time. From leanings I can venture a very good guess who that someone voted for. Sure, this can cause problems. Sure, my employer (military-friendly mostly-aircraft parts manufacture) tends to be very conservative while I am unabashedly liberal. Let a pattern of hire/fire build due to political bent and you have, ... the US right now. How does voting transparency change this equation? Except getting rid of fraud?

undoput: what I wish I could do on the 7th hole at my local golf course

Jonathan S. said...

Really, Matthew?

I hereby issue you a challenge:

My real name is Jonathan Sills. I am not a mathematics professor, nor am I CEO of a company that sends flowers. You have one month to Google me to your heart's content. What are my political leanings? How did I vote in the last election?

TheMadLibrarian said...

I remember reading once a proposal that the difference between science fiction and fantasy was that fantasy was about critters and sci-fi was about machines. We now come to the problem where bio-engineering might be able to create all sorts of fantastical beasts, not just clone dinosaurs :D Think of the engineering problems in trying to create a traditional large, flying, fire-breathing dragon. Anne McCaffrey made a stab at it with the dragons of Pern, but the details are still elusive.

We also have Clarke's Theorem that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This brings us to some very boggy ground indeed.


uperse: Something rude in a heavily accented Ankh-Morpork dialect

Abilard said...

Amanda said "... being only words, can mean anything you want them to mean. ... [clip] ... Neither your definition nor mine are correct - they are only opinions."

:: stifled scream::

I have a fantasy where post-modern ideas like this are squishy GUMBAS and I crush them with my hammer. ;-)

Some patterns model reality better than others, and knowledge is only a model of reality, not absolute. To test which model is better we can look at edge conditions (Pern, Dune, etc) and see if the patterns in question hold. We can also attempt to determine which model has the most utility.

Dr. Brin applies this particular model to politics, social science, and art. While it shows us something valuable about human nature, I personally think his model has limited utility because it tends to separate whatever is being studied into too broad categories. For example, is it useful for me to know that Pern is science fiction and Dragonlance is fantasy, or am I better served by grouping them together and speculating on the Freudian implications of dragon myths? Does it help me to group Rome and Assyria together as societies that exploited their people heavily, as contrasted with post-Enlightenment societies; or are their differences more important?

Probably depends on what questions you are trying to answer.

Tacitus2 said...

Mr. Sills,

A spirited challenge! I look forward to the outcome.

But to be realistic the internet annonymity of people named Smith unfairly exceeds that of those named Hackenschutz-Xiong.

The secret ballot has served us well, long may it continue.


David Brin said...

Amanda, I can dig magic gems and such Heck, within 100 years our heirs will be incanting magic spells and only a few people will recall that there's machines in the walls that are actually obeying and making stuff happen!

Irony? Magic will pervade the cities. But it will NOT happen in wholly natural forests etc. (No machinery in the walls!) Exactly the opposite of the cliche.

Again, it is about whether the enlightenment notions of change, social mobility, and forcing rulers to face brash competition. And the ultimate thing... today's wizards compete to SHARE knowledge. The wizard who keep secret books is evil

Abilard, my model was not meant to constrain, but to open perspectives.

Tony Fisk said...

It would probably take you about 5 minutes to work out my voting preferences.

So what? I know you know! I don't particularly care, either (although I can appreciate that someone in a place like Baghdad or China might be a bit more concerned about such things)

butmed: a suppository

Jacob said...

I'm guessing Tony would have been the 2nd vote for Lizard People.

Rob said...

There's a difference between what one prefers and the vote one casts.

For example, I prefer a society where there are no elective convenience abortions. But I also prefer a society where women are not abused. Thus, my position on abortion would permit its use in certain circumstances.

I've never been offered a vote in favor of my position, but the vote which permits such a abortions are seen as "anti-life" by a number of my own family, leave alone the significant double-digit minority of people who would agree with them.

Better that that ballot stay secret, since I don't want a vote on a constraint of choices to ever represent my personal position

Jacob said...

Hi Rob,

Please bear with me as I try to explain where I'm coming from.

I'd like to discuss the difference between being progressive and conservative. They aren't the same as being "Big P" Progressive or "Big C" Conservative as those are largely Specific agenda platforms.

To be progressive is to seek progress, change or reform. To be conservative is to resist change or seeking to maintain the current system. But unfortunately in America, Democrats seem conservative or at least clumsy and slow in changing their positions. While Republicans are progressive in the sense that they are actively seeking to dismantle government.

I am a progressive in the sense that I'm always interested in exploring other possible answers. What we have works. I'd like to experiment in order to find a better system.

I rather dislike the choices available us across the political spectrum. I would argue that any long standing debate (R v D, etc) has two wrong answers as each has failed to speak to a super majority of the people. I agree with you about the choices of 'Life' vs 'Choice' which do not satisfy me.

I want a way to make voter/government relations interactive rather than passive. I'd like to be able to purpose alternative solutions which (to me) make more sense than the existing static/conservative unworkable solutions.

I feel that the internet is the major interactive media of the day. Integrating government function into the traditional form of voter information solicitation (voting) is one step on that path.

David Brin made an excellent post a while back about the manic behavior sometimes displayed by those seeking change. I've taken it to heart and believe that while we should dream and think of new solutions, they should be implemented cautiously and objectively.

That is why I have designed a system that lets people use traditional methods if they prefer. Its way I think great caution should be used while implementing a system which I personally believe is vastly superior to the existing one.

I'd like to ask you to consider a change; to problem solve for a better solution on this or an alternative plan; to be cautious and prudent while looking for a better way. Otherwise, I fear we leave our children with the same unsatisfactory choices that we deal with.

Rob said...

You're teaching gramma to suck eggs, there, Jacob.

Ian said...

"Not sure where Martin's ASOIAF cycle fits in to this pattern. It depicts a completely traditional feudal society,..."

Not really, you have the incipient peasant revolt and my favorite scene in the whole series is probably the bit where The Onion Knight argues that Kings derive their power from their subjects and demands to know what Stanis Barratheon has done to deserve being King.

David Brin said...

I was gonna save this for later. But...

No wonder they are waging a War on Science.

”Using data from MRI scans, researchers at the University College London found that self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex--a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety.” ...

"It's very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions," he . "More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude." president-obama-and-the-house-gop-ever-agree-science-suggests-no
20110411/pl_yblog_theticket/will president-

Tony Fisk said...

Perhaps more work could also be done to determine what causes those size disparities, and whether they can be altered by environment.

fairk: the new, improved, environmentally responsible name for extracting coal seam gas.

Tony Fisk said...

... what Stanis Barratheon has done to deserve being King.
I don't recall that bit, but it's been a while (may I suggest that the answer is 'not be covered in shit?')

Currently reading Donella Meadows' 'Thinking in Systems'. She makes a point that hierarchies (along with resilience and 'emergent-cy') are a natural property of systems: they provide a stable framework from which more complex systems may develop.

She also makes the point that hierarchies develop from the bottom up, not the top down! Explain *that*, Ser Stannis!

rewinn said...

Jonathan Stroud's delightful "Bartemeus" triology may illustrate the Machinations of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Stroud imagines a Victorian British Empire in which the important technology is not steam or chemistry, but the summoning of demons (including the epynomous "Bartemeus").
People who know how to control demons form a natural and highly oppressive aristocracy .... so far, it's a classical fantasy in the gaslight era.

However, there is a Resistence founded on (Spoiler Alert!) the ability for "ordinary" people to research the use of magic
(e.g. careful sabotage of spellbooks...) aided by the tendency of those with some genetic resistence to demons to servive, reproduce and eventually overwhlem the demon-summoners. At the end of the triology, there is hope that the Resistence may lead to a small-d democratic Revolution, although our protagonists makes The Hero's Sacrifice in an unusual, and unusually satisfying, way.

I confess I hadn't made Dr. Brin;s connection between the potential hopefulness of SF vs. the essential anti-egalitarianism of Fantasy, but I think there's something to it at least in the stock stuff. Pullman's "Dark Materials" (starting with "The Golden Compass") is an exception since the uber-conflict is (!spoiler alert!) a Rebellion against Authority by a light-bearer who seeks to replace the Kingdom of Heaven with a Democracy of Heaven. That this plot element IMO garauntees we won't see the 3rd book filmed (no matter HOW wonderfully Nicole Kidman played the morally ambiguous protagnoist) suggests that reality itself may be a fantasy.

Paul said...

Re: Secret list of votes.
"Someone has access to a list of any government's spies. Therefore, [paul argued] the list might as well be public for everyone."

No. It's the people in power who have access to the list of spies. And it's in their interest that no one else gets hold of it.

The secret vote list OTOH is being held by people appointed by the people in power, and they are supposed to keep the list a secret from their own masters. See the difference?

Jacob, I appreciate the problems you are trying to solve. The false dichotomy of the two party system, participation levels, appreciation of minor players, etc. But you've decided that electronic voting solves those problems. It doesn't. Paper vs Plastic is itself a false dichotomy. E-voting will simply reflect the system encoded into it.

You need to solve the problem of the electoral system, purely in theory, before you can look at how best to encode it.

Two party dominance is a factor of first-past-the-post systems. IMO, Australia's instant-run-off (or preference, where you vote 1,2,3,4,5) voting helps empower minor players. And there are other ideas like "approval" voting. (Where you mark each candidate on a scale of like/dislike. Ie, 5,5,3,1,1.) And most of those alternative systems can be applied to a paper based system, or e-voting booths, or online voting.

Paul said...

Re: secret ballot.

The secret ballot renders itself unnecessary. In the same way, an open respectful government or police-force or military doesn't need checks on its power. But you can't get to that condition without those checks.

I don't care if anyone knows how I vote. (Preference voting: so, single-issue parties, then minor left parties, then Labor, then Liberal, then christian-right, lastly white-power. I have switched Lab/Lib previously, voting for Hewson's Libs over Keating's Labor. I've never voted for Howard. If I can be bothered, I vote Below-the-Line in the Senate/LC, usually reversing the order-of-preference for the major parties' candidates, just to be a dick. (And I bet none of that makes any sense to US readers.))

But there have been eras in Australia's history where I'm glad we had the secret ballot. When the Country Party tried to ban the Communist Party, and the referendum was held, people voted it down. (Yay people.) I bet there were plenty of public servents, police, judges, etc, who were glad of the secret ballot.

(mundemar: 1976 Tidy Town winner.)

Paul said...

re: liberal brains having bigger complexity sense.

I wonder if this is like the London cabbies having an enlarged spatial-awareness centre. Practice effect.

(parbari: Beat the Mundemar Tigers in the 1976 Lightning Carnival.)

Paul said...

And lucky last...

If a power is inherently exclusive, does society become inherently hierarchical. Ie, if magic is limited to 1% of the population, will they, by necessity, become rulers (or at least king-makers.)

(cheanan: 1982 Brownlow Medalist, played under-19s for the Parbari Lions in the 1976 Lightning Carnival.)

David Brin said...

Open Salon gave me the cover:

Ian said...

"... what Stanis Barratheon has done to deserve being King.
I don't recall that bit, but it's been a while (may I suggest that the answer is 'not be covered in shit?')"

No, it's stop participating the interminable civil war with the other claimants to the throne and ride to the aid of the Black Watch when The Wall is about to be overrun by refugees from the lands to the north.

Ian said...

"...By pretending it's a paper based system. So... why not just have a paper based system. Again, why the assumption that e-voting is somehow automatically superior, when you know you have to jump through hoops just to equal paper based systems."

Because having a dual system provides greater reliability than either system by itself.

Also we may know who's going to be forming a government here in Australia with a day of the polls closing but trust me that's just the start of the process.

Ministerial commissions can't be formally issued until the official return of the electoral roll, that doesn't happen until every seat is formally declared.

That doesn't happen for a week or more.

In the interim the government is still in caretaker mode (and if there's a changeover the former Ministers still have the run of the Ministerial offices and the paper shredders there in - not to mention the liquor cabinets.)

So thousands of highly paid civil servants sit on their arses doing crosswords and playing Minesweeper.

Catfish N. Cod said...

Rewinn said:
Pullman's "Dark Materials" (starting with "The Golden Compass") is an exception since the uber-conflict is (!spoiler alert!) a Rebellion against Authority by a light-bearer who seeks to replace the Kingdom of Heaven with a Democracy of Heaven.

Pullman insists his position is militant atheism. This I find rather ironic, for HDM is a quite clear modern retelling of the Gnostic myth: the claimed god is a pretender, but with true knowledge he can be overthrown and the true splendor of the world will be revealed to all.

This is in some ways the REVERSE of a 'science fiction' tale, The Diamond Age, where even our heroes only act to produce a new (more liberated, true) clade within a world-paradigm where only a few know the arcane mysteries of nanoassembly and intelligent programming. And those few rule the world according to their cultural whims: Neo-Victorian, Confucian... the imposition of _feudal, stifling forms_ on a previously egalitarian culture.

Paul said...

"Would we even recognize alien artifacts? Maybe some of those brown dwarfs we're finding are Dyson spheres around white dwarfs. Maybe Hot Jupiters are massive solar collectors."

Think bigger.

Much bigger.

Okay, so about 100 million light years away, we find definitive evidence of artificial manipulation of entire galaxies.

By tracking the age of stars within the structures, we can see it originated in a cluster in a small galaxy in a group, spreading through the parent galaxy, then to neighbouring galaxies.

The wave of manipulation spreads at a never more than 1% of light speed.

We've no idea of the beings responsible. No signals. No idea even what they are doing. No sign of FTL, but clearly technology past anything we can envisage.

My question is, how do we react? I mean, after the TV gets bored. When it's just there.

We aren't under threat. We aren't in contact with an advanced culture, and probably never will be. Nothing's actually happening, we just know they exist.

sociotard said...

Now I kind of wonder what Dr. Brin thinks of "Kirinyaga", in which a bunch of African tribespeople go to another planet where they can go back to their roots and be as primitive as they like. The main character believes in this dream with all his heart.

Over the course of the book, he is horrified to watch as the rising generation starts wanting bicycles and barbed wire and womens rights and on and on. After they get those things, he wishes a curse on them, goes back to earth and walks a cloned elephant up a radioactive mountain to live out the rest of his days as "the only true Kikuyu"

Paul said...

I think this video probably best sums up my attitude to electronic voting vs paper based systems.

Rob said...

Doesn't feed and a stable cost more than insurance on a Subaru, Paul? :-)

Tim H. said...

Speakin' of elections, Derf put some of his "shrub" era stuff together:
the questionable taste is part of their charm.

David Brin said...

Paul, those galaxies are impressive, awe-inspiring and stimulate the imagination... they clearly inspired yours! But from Pulsars to faces on Mars, we tend to get carried away and later find natural explanations.

Have you access to public papers about these two galaxies?

Sociotard, Kirinyaga is brilliant and no one does sci fi malaise like Resnick! Clearly it is sci fi in that change is possible and it is possible for children to be different. His African-themed series of Alien planet novels is wonderful.

sociotard said...

has anybody read that Chinese report on US Civil Rights?

I've only just started, but it already looks pretty full of baloney.

soc said...

Fear of death leads to rejection of evolution.

Anonymous said...

I've had employers order me to vote their way. I've been intimidated by tough guys at the polls. Of course the vote has to be secret.

No use in complaining to authorities; the government at those times was in cahoots with the employers and poll thugs.

Ian said...

Maybe the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that every species has their version of Doc Brin warning about the dangers of first contact and they're just too damn persuasive.

Tony Fisk said...

Bottom line is, some voters are uncomfortable with having their votes visible, and a voting system should accommodate them.

I believe the one I proposed does this. Some believe that no online system can be hack-proofed. I would suggest that nothing is hack-proof, and that bully-boys don't scale.

Tony Fisk said...

Yes. I can imagine a cartoon depicting everyone that's out there quietly listening.

Caption reads: 'The Earie Silence'

(Sub-caption reads: 'Look! There! Could it be... tinnitus!?')

David Brin said...

"Maybe the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that every species has their version of Doc Brin warning about the dangers of first contact and they're just too damn persuasive."

Bah! Ian what's the title of my blog? Hm?

WHy do all my libertarian friends think I'm a liberal but I rant at liberals about Adam Smith?

If everybody believes something... well... some commonly accepted things are simply true. 90% of science. And Hitler and Stalin were bad.

Otherwise? I am always on the lookout for things to poke at. What d'you think I'd say if humanity just hunkered down in fear?

Winter Seale said...

I've read you write about this before, and it always draws my mind back a series of fantasy role playing games for the game consoles called Suikoden ( which is quite unusual in that while it takes place in a feudal society, the plot of most of the games involves overthrowing a kingdom and installing a democracy.

The games move from kingdom to kingdom and you can often go back and visit the democracies you created in previous games.

I really wasn't struck by how unusual this was until I saw you writing about this topic.

Ian said...

David, I know what you mean but did you ever wonder you could be too successful in this particular area?

Harry Seo said...

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matthew said...

@ Jonathan Sills -
Interesting, the Jon Sills that is a CEO and sells flowers shows up in a combined search with David Brin, too. Small world. Thanks for the clues.

However, I found your twitter account.

From comments made there and in this blog I believe that you are a social libertarian (meaning not overly interested in giving other people rules to live by), not associated with the religious right (disparaging remarks about both religion and Sarah Palin) , and most likely voted Dem in the last election. I believe you are also 46 years old. And quite a gaming geek. Oh, and you dig guns.


Paul said...

What country are you posting from? I've heard of employer-threats in Russia, but never from the US.

Re: Scaling up bully-boys.
That's my main fear of e-voting. "Stealing" a paper election is labour intensive, only easy when the result is already close. But e-vote corruption is limitless.

Re: The listening aliens.
At the edge of any solar system the parent star acts as a gravitational lens. Radio arrays at those spots would pick up any radio use. Radar, TV, wifi. They would be able to learn about their neighbours, and over thousand of years at least some of them would risk direct contact. That network would grow slowly, and by the time we arrived on the scene, talking with newcomers is routine.

Unless... monsters.

Paul said...

Re: Ring galaxies.

[Laughs] I realise that ring galaxies are natural, from collisions I think. But it inspired my hypothetical question. When people talk about "alien contact", they mean visitors, invasions, or radio contact.

But I wondered what would happen if we knew of something out there, something powerful, with no other information.

There would be media hysteria initially. But after the fuss dies down, what happens to our culture, long term, just from the knowledge of Them?

Ian said...

Just listening to NPR on civil war re-enactors and thinking about Carrington Events.

It'd be amusing if the re-enactors found themselves the front line of defense after an alien EMP attack.

LarryHart said...


What country are you posting from? I've heard of employer-threats in Russia, but never from the US.

We're in a period of relative calm these days, but perhaps with Republican initiatives coming up, that will be ending? That party seems intent on taking us back to the time before FDR's presidency. With the relationship that existed between employer and employee in the 1880s thru 1920s? I would have NO DOUBT that the implicit or explicit threat would be there--vote as I say, or you're out of a job! Senator Rand Paul (never thought I'd see those words in that order) would be right out there DEFENDING the employer's "freedom" to do so.

And (I'm going off on a bit of a tangent here) people who might threaten you knowing how you DID vote is NOT(!) the same thing as their being able to figure out your TENDENCY. It's a red herring to conflate the two. The whole meat behind intimidation is to CHANGE the way you vote. "Of course you'd normally vote for X, but if you value your life/job/health, you're going to vote for Y instead!" The threat can only work if the threatener can see how you actually DID vote.

Rob said...

More to the point, it takes different forms today, but still goes on, in the form of rhetoric that goes like, "I don't know how we're going to keep staffing at these levels unless Obamacare fails utterly."

Sometimes, that's sincere. Other times... not so much.

Even so, I've lived in places where having the wrong religion means you can't get hired at all, so it's not beyond the pale to suppose that having the wrong political persuasion could mean the same thing. A secret ballot works against those kinds of discrimination.

Jacob said...

Hi Anonymous,

In your situation you should exercise the option to Vote in Person or Absentee Vote both of which would protect you from retribution.

You should also immediately find another job >if that is an option<. Supporting such an organization with your hard work is helping people who don't respect you to make your own decision. If you are courageous get them on tape on such subjects and put the information to the media.

Re: e-vote corruption is limitless.
ABSOLUTELY Incorrect. You don't have a good grasp of what I'm talking about. Its the exact opposite in fact. Untraceable paper ballots have limitless >potential< for corrupted results. There is simply no way to verify that your specific vote counted. Where as the system I encourage gives you certainty that your vote counted. Transparency is the only system by which an individual outside of the system can check the system.

re: LarryHart
For those who are fearful or simply want to be cautious, they can continue to vote in person. In some states, they can tell if you pull D or R Primary Ballots. The parties have built lists of Strong D, Strong R, etc. Its a practice that should be stopped because it makes all the unlikely Fear situations possible.

Secret Ballots are appropriate where people can be abused by the powerful acting in secrecy.

Transparent Ballots are appropriate for people who little to fear and want to ensure their vote isn't being tampered with.

Paul said...

You are assuming your preferred system will be introduced without alteration, I'm assuming it will be corrupted.

Looking at the machines which have actually been introduced, which of us has history on their side?

The problems with the US paper-based system are caused by bad design, bad mechanisation, poor funding, and, of course, corruption by officials.

Why would the people in power, who benefit from those things, behave any better when they choose an e-voting system? (And again, I point you to the actual machines that have been introduced.)

Jacob said...

Those machines have nothing to do with Transparency. They were built in the theory of Efficiency. Making it easier to tally votes. Apples and Oranges.

Politicians change things because they want to -or- because they are forced to. If you want political change, you either show how a tool can be used against their rivals or convince them that they need support something because otherwise they will have difficulty with re-election.

It is very easy to nay-say. Its even rather natural to go with what you know. To be conservative. I'm asking this you/this community identify problems AND try to problem solve them. To purpose alternative solutions. To be progressive and try to improve the future.

You say you assume it will be corrupted. How so and can you think of a way to make it resistant to specific corruptions. Or deal with likely road bumps like a Party saying Idea X is a good thing and the other saying Idea X is a sign of the End Times.

Rob said...

And you're tossing up strawmen. Jacob, I oppose your idea because after 20 years of civic involvement, I think the benefits of a secret ballot outweigh those of an open ballot.

You're addressing problems possible with a secret ballot system, if it's gamed by well-organized corporate groups or people already in power.

Well, the secret ballot systems in the United States already have controls in place for that. Most of the time, they even work pretty well.

My concern is in an area you're not addressing: As with the results of Proposition 8 or other highly controversial issues (for whatever reason), the "losing" side was so enraged at the loss, that they made blacklists out of the campaign donors and drove some people from their livelihoods.

This stuff happened at a grassroots level; there was no need for a large corporate entity or a political action group to coordinate things. Your half-computer-literate user of Microsoft Access can put together such lists from government disclosures, freely available to anyone, mash them up with Google Maps, and lo and behold, those action groups *have* the blacklists they need for... let's call it "targeted canvassing".

Now, if you want a balloting system to be *individually* transparent, so that I as a voter can go in and examine all the ballots I have cast, then I have no issue with that. But if the results by individual are available as a list, you will have empowered the kinds of violent demagoguery possible when you know precisely who disagrees with you in each precinct, and where they live. (And if you know a name and a precinct, then you can easily find the person's address. Precincts are not large.)

And, not to put to fine a point on it, but you will also have opened up list making to elected officials, who are stereotypically seen as corrupt enough to use a list of opponents, whether or not the law actually permits it.

Partisan and issue ballots have to stay secret, or we move towards a kind of mob rule which chills an honest vote. That's a failure mode of democracy, not an enhancement.

matthew said...

My point is that given the amount of information online about most people is that you can make lists for retribution without knowing how someone voted. Make a list of 1000 loudmouths or weirdos in a medium-sized american town. Shun them. Drive them from jobs. Suggest that their kids get beat up after school. Error in the list doesn't really matter - what is important is that all non-party speech is chilled. This already goes on to a degree; it is easy to ratchet up the effect. This is why I believe that an open ballot is not too large a change.

sociotard said...

I actually saw a nice version of the personally accessible vote checker idea. The guy proposed having each ballot contain a barcode. There is a copy of the barcode that you can tear off and take with you. Later, you can check that yes, ballot #6666666-666 was counted, with the following votes. Your name is never connected to a specific ballot, but you can still confirm that the ballot was counted (just don't forget to shred and burn your copy of the barcode)

I think this is the right talk

David Brin said...

Paul, I think the discovery of even one very distant "Kardashev" type civilization would make people very thoughtful and fill my schedule with speaking gigs.

Ian, the world would be saved by WW One re-enactors... oops there aren't any.

Jacob said...

Seconds first. Thats an excellent alternative Sociotard. It loses some of the secondary benefits I'd like to see, but does address some of the core issue.

Is there a way we can mix the system such that someone could change their vote in a primary after a candidate dropped out? (Mostly a problem for the long American Primaries.) I'll think on it.


Hi Rob,

Can you be specific as to the straw-men I'm raising? I'll try to address them.

This isn't about an open ballot system replacing a secret ballot one. Its about mixing the two in such a way lets the two operate side by side. Allowing the voter to choose which of the two they want to exercise.

You and others are concerned about vigilantes. In order for them to be dangerous, espionage has to have taken place. Information has to be distributed without alerting the authorities.

Consider a possible security layout. I register to vote and choose to take the provided #123456789 number and #Password provided.

That number #123456789 was generated and linked to #Alt987654321. This #123456789 to #Alt987654321 list is stored in a secure location. There is also a #Alt987654321 to #RealId-Jacob computer which is stored at a different location.

Now in order for a vigilante group to get my voting history they have to break into 2 different locations. Put one of the two locations at a secret Nuclear base. It becomes impractical for privacy to be violated anything but major players.


We can keep these lists as secure as other national secrets.

The result by individual is never available. Only...
#123456789 - Voted for X, Y, Z.
As I know I'm #123456789 for year 2012, I know my vote is counted.

No one else should know. Don't believe it? Then vote in Person.

JuhnDonn said...

David Brin said... the world would be saved by WW One re-enactors... oops there aren't any.

I still have a M17 Enfield (.30-06) with 16" Bayonet and ammo belt from WWI re-enacment. 'Course I prefer my Garand and Carbine from WWII but there ya' go.

David Brin said...

Why would anyone dress up to re-enact the worst war ever to have been a soldier?

WWII was the worst ever to be a civilian.)

Anonymous said...

Employers telling employees how to vote:

I work for a construction company in Southern California. After being awarded the competitive bid, the company lobbied for an increase in property tax to pay for a new high school. It was common knowledge that if the ballot measure failed to pass, then another round of layoffs would be likely. (The company laid people off the prior 2 years between Thanksgiving and Christmas). The school and company are in the same city. I live in the next town over, so I could not vote on the issue.

Rob said...

Jacob, your idea combined with Sociotard's notion, I'd have no objections, if the query was "will/did my vote get tallied", and not "I demand to review my own personal ballot, now that the election returns are in." The former is fair to ask, the latter opens up the gates of demagoguery and demands for revote that no judge in his right mind would ever approve.

Even then, you're assuming, it seems, that American elections are nationalized. They're not, and never have been. Each *county* has its own system. Some states impose uniformity on the counties, my state didn't until this year. Congresscritters and Presidential Electors are credentialed by the Secretary of State of each State.

And this is worth pointing out: When I made such an inquiry with my County Clerk last year, worried that my signature might not match, they were able to tell me that I hadn't missed an election for ten years, and that my ballots were counted each time.


Rob said...

And now that I've actually watched the TED talk Sociotard linked to, I'm on board with something like that. I wonder what an American elections official would say. Probably something along the lines of "yeah, but how much does it cost?"

Tony Fisk said...

While I stated my views on secret voting earlier, it clearly depends on circumstances and personal preference and confidentiality would need to be provided by any new system if it is to be acceptable.

I have to ask in what direction a society is headed if the need to protect voter confidentiality is increasing, though (and what those voters are doing about it).

I still think the key to combatting online vote fraud/leverage is to make the database open to all, and opaque to all. By that I mean that you can see the overall voting results, and may perform verification checks. You should be able to check your own voting record, but nobody else's. I proposed a system to do it, and will have to check that TED talk now when I've time...

Tony Fisk said...

Is *this* where they all are? Is the 'pull of the tides' another predictive hit? (although Frederick Pohl thought of it as well!)

Jacob said...

Regarding the Ted talk:
Assuming the Encrypted Code contains the associated names (not shown in example), I didn't see any flaw with the system. Other than the hand handle scanners in the hands of thugs outside the polls.

It's "I'd like to track my vote to the point that it is summed with Private Votes for the final Total." which I believe the Ted Talk did. It gives rise to the Election Challenge which you mention. However, I've already built in the feature where Internet Voting closes and is finalized 1 week before the final Vote In Person day. This gives people time to correct an Internet Vote Fraud by Voting in person. Thus a Judge can dismiss such a case as you describe.

While I'd like to see Transparent Voting on the national scene, there is no reason that it couldn't be implemented on the county level. Obviously without economics of scale, relative cost increases. I wouldn't recommend it for anything short a start or major city County.

I understand that you were assured that your ballots were counted each time. But it isn't verifiable. It is possible (but very unlikely) that your vote was cast aside and numbers supporting the party in power replaced your precinct. Frankly I'd be dubious about implementing a new plan for such a small case until a whistle blower or two came forward. But there are many other potential benefits associated with a plan that would make it worth while.

Tony Fisk said...

Ooh! It may be a predictive hit for Tolkien as well! At the end of the Second Age and the fall of Numenor, the Valar caused the world to curve on itself, and the West was withdrawn from view.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy much closer to home, any comments on Obama's latest woe mitigation plan?

"We can't tax the very people that we expect to reinvest in our economy," Mr Boehner said.

Indeed not, but who would these people be? The rich don't make money, they collect it.

David Brin said...

China bans time travel

Tim H. said...

The gerontocracy feared an encroachment on their turf.

Paul said...

(Blogger's being a bitch... part one...)

You don't actually need to link the voter-number to the voter's name. If every registered voter is sent a card with a randomly generated key and no record is kept of what card was sent to what voter. Vote online with the key. (Then add a password. Key+password lets you verify or change your vote.)

(rewismis: Acronym for "What You See Is Not What You Get".)

Paul said...

(Part two...)

If you only vote in person, they check your voter card is unused. If you decide to vote in person after voting online, you can ask the Electoral Official to delete your e-vote.

Jacob, does that meet your needs? You remain anonymous unless you put your hand up and say "this is me". Also, you only need to lock the e-vote record on the polling day.

Paul said...

(part three...)

"concerned about vigilantes. [...] Information has to be distributed without alerting the authorities."

Dude, it's the authorities I'm worried about.

(enspig: Short pig. As distinct from emspig.)

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

"We can't tax the very people that we expect to reinvest in our economy," Mr Boehner said.

Indeed not, but who would these people be? The rich don't make money, they collect it.

More to the point, they don't invest it in productivity any more.

It might well have been true 90 years ago that "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA". The same is NOT the case for Haliburton or NewsCorp.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:
China bans time travel.

So everybody has to stop moving forward at one second per second?

Paul said...

(3rd attempt)

Broccoli helps cure lung infection.

Symbolic magic?


(sersl: Blogger is sersl giving me the shits.)

Paul said...

Best Show'n'tell Ever!

Youtube from BadAstronomy.

Jacob said...

Hi Paul,

Yes, I think it would. I'd require people to pick up the card in person to reduce the security risk of cards being misused.

In my system, authorities wouldn't have access. The computers would be kept cold and stored away. Fraud investigations would only be able to access under secrutiny of both parties + observers a subset of the list that was relative to whatever they were investigating.

But that doesn't mean an alternative such as the one you suggest might not make people more comfortable.

LarryHart said...

The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?"

Democratic budgets are science fiction.

Republican budgets are fantasy.

As comic-book writer/author Dave Sim would say, "Like any good story, it explains a lot."

Anonymous said...

Is the suggestion that an individual can choose to vote openly or secretly?

Scenario: Vote for Joe Schmo or you'll be laid off. Vote openly and your boss gives you a raise. Vote secretly and your boss assumes you voted for Jim Schwim and you're out looking for a job.

Anonymous said...

Absentee ballots are the worst thing for employees with overbearing employers. The boss can order you to bring in an absentee ballot, mark it for you, and order you to sign the flap; then the boss takes the ballot from you and mails it to assure that his candidate/proposition gets your vote.

Or you can try to find another job in this economy.

Acacia H. said...

And even better, if you record your employer doing that, you can be put in jail for illegally recording him or her, while his blatantly illegal actions get a pass because his rights were violated.

Rob H.

David Brin said...


rewinn said...

@Robert said... And even better, if you record your employer doing that, you can be put in jail for illegally recording him or her, while his blatantly illegal actions get a pass because his rights were violated."
It's not clear that you committed any crime (especially if you are forethoughtful enough to be wearing a wire for your local prosecutor), and it is clear that the employer did.

You're still at the mercy of the local prosecutor, who is often elected.

Paul said...

"In my system, authorities wouldn't have access. The computers would be kept [...]"

Kept by whom? This is the main problem I have with your system. The people who bring in the system, are the people who set the terms of access, and are the people who control the machines.

There are lots of proposed systems of government or elections, which I think would work better than democracy/etc, except they require absolute honesty by the people who create and run the system.

Paul said...

Yes, my variant of Jacob's idea would allow bullying. Worse than you think, it's just "Give me your voter-card or you'll be sacked." (It'll be subtler than that, psychopaths are generally quite good at this stuff.)

guthrie said...

I certainly saw 20 or so WW1 re-enactors in England at a multi-period event about 7 years ago now. Their display consisted to a large extent of sitting about for ages, then going over the top and getting massacred by a machine gun.

The WW2 people had tanks and armoured cars and a spitfire flypast.

Anthony said...

This kind of distinction makes me think about L.E. Modesitt's Spellsong Cycle. It's sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but the main character/sorceress is actually a middle-aged music teacher who gets transported to another world. A large part of the book is her struggle to change the social order there. She insists on educating the children of nobles, and using her spells to build networks of roads, and mine gold.

Douglas Moran said...

I just recently heard China Mieville on "Geek's Guide to the Galaxy," and he stated that he believes that there actually *is no* difference between science fiction and fantasy. I would love to see Brin and Mieville discuss the top. Not *fight*; I'm genuinely interested in how they would discuss the topic!

Totally That Guy! - Glasgow Web Development said...

A lot of sci-fi fans don't believe in mystical concepts like 'fate'. If they did, they'd be reading fantasy.
'Defying fate' is an oxymoron. Fate, if it means anything at all, means that it's unchangeable. If you can change it, it's not fate. It's just probability and you 'defy' that every time you throw two heads in a row. Doesn't sound quite so dramatic though, does it?

No. said...

No. Stop.

Wayne Klein said...

First time poster here...I don't know that I agree with all of the limitations applied to fantasy, science fiction, etc. They can cross over and you can even see hybrids as a result.

Herbert's novel isn't just about humanity rejecting the singularity but also about humanity's obsession with a messiah and how the message becomes so perverted that it u der mines the very essence of society.

The anti-technology aspect of the Dune books is directly related to the reactionary aspect of humanity against technology that escapes their understanding and the vast intelligent artificial intelligence that attempts to control humanity. The irony, of course, is that both aspects (the messiah and the artificial intelligence) end up damaging society. We, as a culture, are always looking for deliverance because it's easier than taking the reins of our future and controlling our own destiny. In Herbert's worlds we see the extremes humanity and there's a lack of balance.

Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor) said...

It's an interesting argument, but ultimately a useless one. If you define SF and F by your own idiosyncratic definition, you create nothing but confusion.

A definition of Science Fiction *MUST* include all the works that are generally considered classics and foundational works of the genre, AND all the works that the *general public* will immediately recognize when you say the name. Your definition would do neither. It's just another variant of the guy who tries to say that "science fiction" means "stuff based on real science that we know" -- in other words, what HE means when he says "science fiction" is what other people call "ultra-hard SF".

If your definition of Science Fiction doesn't include Foundation (which is all about Preserving the Old Order And Minimizing the Disruption Before We Get Back To It) or Star Wars (which plotwise is very like a classic Fantasy novel) it's failed at the most basic level: being useful in conversation with most people.

In actuality, of course, any definition that's so hard-edged as to try to divide Science Fiction and Fantasy will fail, because they don't divide that easily. There's ultra-hard SF way over here on one side, and Lord of the Rings style fantasy off on the other (along with Oz, etc.), but a whole hell of a lot of stuff lies across the spectrum between.

Anonymous said...

As the comment right above mine (as I type) puts it, an interesting argument. I've only just read it, briefly, once, so I'm not sure whether I agree with it, but I do feel compelled to pipe in with a quibble.

I think pointing to Tolkien and calling The Lord of the Rings fantasy is, by your own standards, an error. The book's over-arching theme (or one of them) was about nothing but change, of an old order giving way to a new. Granted that Tolkien probably saw that change as a decline, not an improvement, but his was not a static vision.

And of course there was that fantastic world-building, which is why I also wanted to define it as SF, not fantasy. But that's my own buggaboo ...