Friday, November 25, 2011

Farewell to Two Amazing Women

Two fantastic women departed from our sight on Earth last week, leaving it more barren than before.

Anne McCaffrey was my friend and colleague -- a wonderful writer, deeply devoted to her craft, her fans, her civilization, and delivering wonder to millions.

I barely knew Lynn Margulis, who was no less gifted and no less a gift, having prodigious impact on the world of ideas and the advancement of science. Both were fascinating people, cultural icons and role models.

==Lynn Margulis==

Professor Lynn Margulis was instrumental in developing "endosymbiotic theory"... the incredible theory that our very cells derived out of the unification of many separate species that learned, through the harsh selective process of evolution, to work together for their common benefit.

Once a radical idea, it's now widely accepted that the mitochondria inhabiting - and providing power to - the cells of eukaryotic metazoans like fish and mammals are descended from bacteria-like creatures that once lived independently, but somehow united through a process of symbiosis that became Margulis's lifelong theme.  Other cellular organelles have since been proposed or accepted as having joined us through a process of incorporation that took a billion years.

This theme was taken to new levels when Margulis extended the early "Gaia Hypothesis" of James Lovelock... the notion that Earth's biosphere shares many traits of a living organism, such as self-correcting feedback loops, synergistic behavior and overall optimization, as if it were in effect a living being.

That's the "weak Gaia Hypothesis." The strong version, which Margulis never proclaimed, would remove from my previous paragraph the words "if it were in effect."

I made extensive use of Margulis ideas, performing riffs in my own work. Heart of the Comet explored possible implications of endosymbiotic theory. And it was impossible to avoid having great fun with both weak and strong versions of the Gaia Hypothesis in my novel Earth.  Both themes reappear in my forthcoming book, Existence.

What I admired most about Lynn Margulis was her bold willingness to always take a step back in order to encompass the wider context, the bigger picture.  Then an even bigger context, and so on.

==Anne McCaffrey==

Anne was a sweet lady who showed me great kindness whenever I visited her impossibly green farm in County Wicklow, Ireland.

I could reminisce further, but that would just be pointless bragging. So I'll pay tribute to the colleague and writer who entertained and influenced millions.  One thing Anne did for me was to help distill what is the essence of my profession.  It happened one day when we were both being interviewed by a reporter, who referred to the famous McCaffrey "Dragons of Pern" books as "fantasy novels."

Oh, how Anne bristled! With clenched restraint, she corrected the reporter:

"I don't write fantasy. I am a science fiction author.

Now, a great many people have tried to define the difference between fantasy and SF.  Some try to explain it as a matter of past or future, or setting, or gimmicks and tools  (e.g. swords vs spaceships), or even the vast moral distinction between magic and science. And sure, one can grasp how some folks make lazy assumptions.  If it's got dragons, well then, it must belong in the same category as Tolkien, right?

Anne dealt with that part of it swiftly. "My dragons were genetically engineered. Scientists designed them to help colonists save themselves from a terrible environmental threat."

Hm, well. It's not just the dragons. Most of Anne's tales are filled with colorful things like tapestries and great stone castle holds, with much talk of weaving and herbal lore and fathom-deep traditions. There are duels and nobles and bards and songs and brave knights that are standard fare in your typical fantasy.  If you're going to judge by superficialities, like the furniture, then it's easy to see why some people make the mistake.

But here's the real difference and it goes to the heart. The characters in the Pern stories dwell in a feudal setting, all right.  But unlike the endlessly repeated trope-protagonists in all those Tolkien-clone universes most of them don't want to!

And they don't intend to. Not for any longer than they must.

In the course of Anne McCaffrey's fictional universe -- as the stories unfold -- people discover that things weren't always this way - with peasant-serfs tied to the rocky land, wracked by filth, pestilence and arbitrary rule by hereditary lords, staring in occasional wonder at the great dragon-riders who protect them from raining death. Sure, their condition is eased by a myriad lovely traditions and crafts, reflecting the makeshift creativity of brave folk, improvising - making the best of things across centuries of darkness.

But during the span of many novels, they come to discover a core truth: that things could be better. That their civilization fell from a height so great that people once voyaged between stars, cured disease, pondered secrets of the universe... and even made dragons. And, as soon as they realize this, they start wanting to get all of those things back.

Anne's characters know there's something better than living in grimy ignorance and violence, even lightened by clever medieval arts. It will be a long climb back, but they itch to get their hands on flush toilets, movable type, computers, democracy. And one thing is certain - they are going to quit being feudal, just as soon as they can.

Oh, sure. Feudalism tugs at something deep within us. Those images of lords and secretive mages and so on resonate, because we're all descended from the harems of guys who managed to pull off that trick! Anne -- lately in collaboration with her most-excellent son, Todd -- certainly made good use of those themes, and more power to them both! 

But the McCaffrey notion of the time flow of wisdom was always aimed forward, rooted in a love and belief in progress, in our ability to raise better generations, in a hope that better days will come.

Anne McCaffrey was a science fiction author. One of the best. And I'm proud to say she was my friend.


My condolences to Dorion Sagan, and to my esteemed colleague Todd McCaffrey, and to their families. Soar on.


Jao Romero said...

I am reading Isaac Asimov and I just finished the foundation series and I can't help thinking how forward Isaac was when he wrote about Galaxia.

David Brin said...

Jao Romero thanks... though you haven't finished till you have read FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH!

David Brin said...

A quotation from Anne McC:

“Who wills, Can.
Who tries, Does.
Who loves, Lives.”

Not only is it beautiful and wise, but it goes right into the face of that evil little oven mitt... Yoda.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin (main post):

I could reminisce further, but that would just be pointless bragging.

You dog, you.


Acacia H. said...

You know something, Dr. Brin? You're right. In fact, McCaffrey even was prescient on the current efforts of the Oligarchy to remain in power. Look at the conspiracies that existed in the later Pern stories against those forces for change and hope? Including attacks against those Harpers that were at the forefront of the new knowledge, the Holders that embraced change... and even those Dragonriders (who were the protectors of the people of Pern) who were at the forefront of the new technologies... and eliminating the threat of the Red Planet (and Thread) forever.

I fell out of love with her writing of late. Her early works just don't capture my imagination like they once did... I always considered that I'd outgrown them. But perhaps rather my tastes changed, rather than "outgrowing" anything. And sure, I might not enjoy the Harper Hall trilogy any longer or the first Dragonrider trilogy... but the later books... maybe it's time for me to dust them off and read them once more.

For old time's sake... and to remember one of the writers who when I was young ignited my interest in writing and science fiction. Even if it did have dragons. ;)

Rob H.

P.S. - I'm curious, Dr. Brin... would you consider a work to be fantasy if it included magic and the like... but also efforts by its characters to change for the better, to innovate and bring about a better tomorrow and a society of and for the people? I'm just curious.

sociotard said...

I got to watch the Prophets of Science Fiction bit on Mr. Dick. It was good, but I could tell they cut a bunch of Dr. Brin's comments on surveillance.

It's a shame they don't put it on Hulu or somesuch. It'd be nice to be able to direct more friends to it.

David Brin said...

Of course Anne wrote "fantasy" in the sense that her tales were very feminine in flavor and filled with artsy-craftsy riffs and songs and voluptuous descriptions of weaving patterns and gowns and such. A hard core sci fi reader might start shouting "get ON with it!"

But gosh, she did it well, created vastly interesting archetypes... and she was so much on our side...

Anonymous said...

Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock worked on the Gaia Hypothesis, which inspired me to study science another life ago. I did not become a scientist, but that is a long story.

Thank you for informing us of her passing.

Nicholas MacDonald said...

Related to the Fantasy vs. Science Fiction dichotomy:

Daniel Polansky ("Slums of the Shire") talks about his own thoughts on what a grim world most "fantasies" must be for the majority of people... and John C. Wright ("Not Last Long Even as Slaves") responds with a vocal defense of the fantasy genre and what we've lost:

rewinn said...

I remember the pleasure I felt in reading the first part of Dragonriders in a crinkly old Analog so many years ago. McCaffrey did harm to none and brought pleasure to millions; let us hope we each can do half as well.

Dr. Brin's comments help me understand why that first Pernese novellette struck me so well and was in many ways more inspirational than Lord of the Rings, which was becoming popular at roughly the same time. Both works feature monsters, swords, feudalism and above all existential threats that could be held off only by a warrior elite. However Tolkien's epic (beautifully written and deeply imagined) is all about the wrongfulness seeking knowledge that the Gods have forbidden. Almost everything bad that happened in LotR came from The Elves wrongfully coming to Middle Earth to knock off the Big Bad (and the backstory is even worse, with the Elves screwing up in trying to copy the Great Lights and Ulmo messing up by creating bipeds too early.) Tolkien's virtues are courage, loyalty and knowing your place!
In contrast, McCaffery's Pernese could survive only by supplementing their courage and loyalty with a question for knowledge. The end of the first segment in Analog is something like ... hey, Red Star, some day we going to figure out how to get you!

If that's the difference between fantasy and SF, that's a more usable distinction than "with or without swords". It might make much of de Camp's light comedies into SF (I'm thinking The Falliable Fiend in particular).

David Brin said...

Those original analog serials of the Pern stories had the BEST dragons! Vastly better than any since. Hey, I like Michael Whelan a lot - cool dude. But his dragons don't hold a candle to those ones in Analog. Wish I could see those illos again.

Acacia H. said...

My best friend was rather snippy earlier when I linked this, saying via e-mail "she's science fantasy at best." I pointed out that a character he created that I have in the Wolf PACT stories I write is thus a fantasy character and he claimed to have no problem with that.

He hasn't responded to my next comment: Star Trek is fantasy. After all, Spock has telepathy, which doesn't exist in the real world. And in fact, FTL doesn't exist and thus any fiction with FTL is fantasy.

Hey, if he's going to be snippy, I'm going hardcore scifi on his ass. (He has issues with dragon-caused rapes in the series, which I admit detracted from the early stories.) And while people have been disrespecting Steve Jobs soon after his death... from what I can tell, Anne McCaffrey was a decent and caring person, not some sociopath who cared only for the bottom line and not for the conditions of those people working (even indirectly) for him. So I'm perhaps less tolerant of disrespect toward her at the moment. *shrugs*

Rob H.

Stefan Jones said...

Could Gaia have existed in the PAST?

Life began with a planetary mega-organism

"ONCE upon a time, 3 billion years ago, there lived a single organism called LUCA. It was enormous: a mega-organism like none seen since, it filled the planet's oceans before splitting into three and giving birth to the ancestors of all living things on Earth today.

This strange picture is emerging from efforts to pin down the last universal common ancestor - not the first life that emerged on Earth but the life form that gave rise to all others.

The latest results suggest LUCA was the result of early life's fight to survive, attempts at which turned the ocean into a global genetic swap shop for hundreds of millions of years. Cells struggling to survive on their own exchanged useful parts with each other without competition - effectively creating a global mega-organism."

Doug said...

Dr. Brin, you got me curious, so I tracked down a link to those illustrations from the original Analog publication.

Tony Fisk said...

Those are gorgeous illustrations, Doug!

McCaffrey treated the term 'here be dragons' as a challenge rather than a warning.

As for Spock's telepathy, transporter beams and Romulan cloaking devices vs occlumency, portkeys and invisibility shrouds, I coin a corollary to Clarke's Third Law:
"Any magic sufficiently well described is indistinguishable from technology."

Stefan: it gets better! Some models suggest two co-existing meta-organisms: Gaia and Pontus(Ocean). They appear to prefer slightly different thermostat settings. Rather like some households...

Alfred Wallace was describing 'great sky rivers' in the late eighteen hundreds. Typically containing as much moisture as the Amazon? Since one is currently streaming across Australia, and appears to have its 'estuary' located on the East/South East, I can believe it!

idsper: the little voice saying 'you know you want to.'

duncan cairncross said...

Well our election is over,
The center right party and the "smiling assassin" have won but hopefully they will need one of the other parties to govern so they may be prevented from selling the country's assets to their cronies

Acacia H. said...

Handwaving magical thinking and magical storytelling away as sufficiently advanced technology that appears to be magic to the uninformed is lazy writing. The corollary should be: so long as the "magic" and technological underbase in fact are viable according to the laws of physics.

In short: no destruction or creation of energy/matter (transformation into the other state, yes, but no annihilation of matter and claiming "it was turned into Dark Energy" or the like), no effects that couldn't exist in the universe (space whales that subside off of microorganisms that exist off of hydrogen ions thrown off by the sun), or any of a number of fantastic ideas that cannot in fact exist outside of whimsy and imagination.

Spock's telepathy (and that of a number of species in the Star Trek expanded universe) is not explainable as technosorcery. It is described as an innate ability of these species. FTL is on the hazy side as there are some theories that might allow for it. But space energy beings, space blobs, half-alien/half-human hybrids beget of sex (and sexual organs between species that are compatible), and godlings and the like push Star Trek into the fantasy genre (even if you label it "science fantasy" so to try and spin it as scifi). So too is most science fiction due to the fascination people have with psychic powers and other similar phenomena that have never been remotely explained scientifically.

Well, if you're going to go the hard science fiction route. Myself, I'm only stating it because if my conservative friend is so petty as to spit in the beliefs of a deceased old woman whose one sin was writing stories he found distasteful later in life then I'm going to destroy the illusions he has about classic science fiction television and movies.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Meaning whizz-bang tech might as well be fantasy magic if it's not explained.

(Which doesn't make 'City and the Stars' fantasy!)

Ironically, Spock's telepathy and cloaking devices are now conceivable (if not actually achievable) Warp drives and transporter beams?... we'll get back to you on that (they may be next year's curriculum at Hogwarts!)

There is an interesting trend here: consider how sf technology has been depicted over time. In things like 'My Favourite Martian', *anything* went! Same for Star Trek (although it was made to sound more serious and 'technical') Dr. Who presented the technology as a bit of tongue in cheek ('reversing the polarities' of hyper-complex machinery being a common solution employed by Jon Pertwee, a joke for anyone with a passing knowledge of electrical circuits)

However, we've since become more discerning, and recent series try to be more realistic. B5 and BSG tried to make their space battles realistic (within the constraints of drama: B5 still had sound in space, the later BSG did not). Terra Nova in particular has a lot of techno babble... that isn't babble. Think about what this means.

Stefan Jones said...

It is Frederik Pohl's 92nd birthday, and he is asking his fans to do something for him:

My Birthday Wish for America

'doesucke': It would be most unseemly to describe this here, but suffice to say that it will get you arrested in most states.

David Brin said...

Wow Doug thanks. Those were great dragons.

Stefan, re a vast primeval organism, what coincidence! I was just reading FLUKE by Christopher Moore. Funny/philosophical science satire stuff.

sociotard said...

This one is for the author of Tangents Reviews

I didn't see it reviewed on that blog, and I didn't see the authors contact information, and I know he frequents this site. anyway . . .

Stefan Jones said...

Interesting article on "rocket crane" which will lower the Curiosity rover onto Mars:

* * *
Fluke was wonderful. I knew that Moore could do great humorous urban fantasy . . . kind of like a raunchy, American Terry Pratchett. Fluke is raunchy, funny SF.

"bloona": Synthetic luncheon meat, by your friends at Soylent, Inc.

David Brin said...


Doug S. said...

I think Larry Niven made that comment about sufficiently described magic being indistinguishable from a technology a long time ago...