July 25, 2010

SLICE OF PIE: Dogma, Dogmatic and Dogmatism

Rereading my favorite science fiction writer, David Brin, got me thinking. In his essay, “The Dogma of Otherness”, he says, “The Dogma of Otherness insists that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something to offer.” (OTHERNESS © 1994 by David Brin)

Let’s define some terms: a dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Its roots are Greek, from the word that meant 'opinion', or literally, 'seem good, think' (Oxford Free Online Dictionary).

Dogmatic means “inclined to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true” (Oxford Free Online Dictionary).

But dogmatism veers off in a different direction: “Dogmatism is defined [in Dr. Judy J. Johnson’s 2009 book WHAT’S SO WRONG WITH BEING ABSOLUTELY RIGHT: THE DANGEROUS NATURE OF DOGMATIC BELIEF] as a ‘personality trait that combines cognitive, emotional, and behavioral characteristics to personify prejudicial, closed-minded belief systems that are pronounced with rigid certainty’. …[and] has a ‘genetic, structural component that interacts with other predisposing factors’…the burden of responsibility for adult dogmatists lies with no one else but themselves…Johnson concludes with invaluable practical advice for parents, as well as important recommendations for changes in social values and institutions. Johnson even draws upon Buddhism to portray a way of life that guards against dogmatism.”


Of course, there are other definitions as well and Dr. Francis Crick, who co-discovered the molecular nature of DNA and is considered one of the top 100 greatest scientific discoveries redefined it to suit his specific purpose: “The central dogma of molecular biology was first articulated by Francis Crick in 1958 and re-stated in a Nature paper published in 1970. [It] is a framework for understanding the transfer of sequence information between sequential information-carrying biopolymers, in the most common or general case, in living organisms… [Francis Crick wrote:] “Jacques Monod pointed out to me that I did not appear to understand the correct use of the word dogma…but since I thought that all religious beliefs were without foundation, I used the word the way I myself thought about it, not as most of the world does…” (If this isn’t a dogmatic statement, I don’t know what is…incidentally, it seems a bit arrogant, too).


Let me try to simplify: a dogma is something you believe in, whether there is solid proof for it or not. OK.

If you do believe in that sometime even when questioned or challenged, you are dogmatic. That seems like it can be OK, too.

Dogmatism however, is related to the other “isms” in that it becomes a complex system of belief, and as a system, it becomes hard to move, hard to change and paradoxically, easier to believe in. Most often these articles on dogma, dogmatic and dogmatism use religion, in particular Christianity and Islam as prime examples, though they occasionally include other things as well.

Having a dogma and being dogmatic does NOT appear to be the same as dogmatism.

David Brin named observations about western science fiction fans the Dogma of Otherness (or similarly the Doctrine of Otherness). He saw, at least at one convention/speaking engagement, that our Western, American culture insists that OTHER dogmas are just as valid as ours and that paradoxically, it created a sort of “super dogma”. The essay quoted above shows that he is absolutely dogmatic about his dogma, and that’s fine as far as I can tell. But he slips perilously close to dogmatism when he states, “But for others of us who have passed through the Doctrine of Otherness, it might be time to move on…to the attitude of Elder Brothers and Sisters only a little more knowledgeable than our fellow creatures but with the power and duty to be their guardian.” I’ve been…taught…by David Brin’s words, so I know he takes this very seriously.

An anthropologist Brin quotes several times though, might have meant his comment to counter Brin’s dogmatism. Dr. Matt Cartmill, anthropologist at Duke University wrote: “If biologists don't want to see the theory of evolution evicted from public schools because of its religious content, they need to accept the limitations of science and stop trying to draw vast, cosmic conclusions from the plain facts of evolution. Humility isn't just a cardinal virtue in Christian doctrine; it's also a virtue in the practice of science." http://imagine-hawaii.com/science.html

I take this as a strong warning to me as a Christian. I will dogmatically embrace Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. In order to avoid dogmatism though, I also need to be close friends with the Dogma of Otherness, at least as Brin formulated it originally: “…all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something to offer.”

The Bible does confirm the Dogma of Otherness by God’s example: “You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God's. The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” (Deuteronomy 1:17) and “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him.” (John 9:31).

Lots here for me to think about.


July 22, 2010


This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So I added some imaginary elements and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom.

In the darkness, another match flared and Tommy Hastings saw the faces of Bonnie and Clyde.

He and Freddie Merrill backed away from the witch and Bonnie and Clyde right into the farmer who had given them a ride into town. His arms were spread, leaning on each side of the cabin’s open door, blocking the exit. The witch leaned over and lit a kerosene lamp and sat back in her chair as she slipped the chimney over the flame.

Tommy spun around and ducked under one the farmer’s arms. Freddie ducked under the other. Tommy thought they’d made it out of the cabin, gulping the cool night air when Freddie screamed, “Tommy!”

From inside the cabin, the witch called, “See you boys in Duluth!”

The farmer had caught hold of his T-shirt, yanked him back and now had his forearm across Freddie’s throat. He said, “Get back here. Now. Or I’ll strangle your friend.”

Tommy stopped and turned. “What do you want?” he asked.

“I want you to get back here.” Tommy stepped forward slowly. “Hurry up boy! I don’t have all night!”

Tommy stopped, relaxing his clenched fists. “You let him go before I come any closer.”

The farmer laughed and released Freddie who stumbled down the stairs then bolted to Tommy. “Run for your lives!” he cried.

The farmer reached into the cabin and brought out his rifle, slapping it to his shoulder and said, “You boys move, you’re dead.”

Freddie had lots of experience with threats. He flung an obscenity over his shoulder and ran faster. Tommy followed, though zigging and zagging like a Green Bay Packer.

The farmer cursed as well and pulled the trigger. The blast echoed into the silent night as the boys sprinted on the road. Pellets ripped through the leaves over their heads, but nothing hit them. They kept running even though they pulled together. Tommy shouted, “He wanted to kill us!”

“He was scared!” Freddie shouted back.

Tommy screeched to a halt and exclaimed, “He was afraid? I thought I was dead!”

Freddie grabbed him, pulling him along. “He was scared of us!”

“Of us? What do they have to be afraid of?”

“I don’t know – but I seen that look in dad’s eyes any time he gets crazy mad at Mom! ‘specially when she says she’s gonna leave us!”

“He was afraid?” Tommy shouted, sprinting down the rough asphalt road. “I about crapped my pants.”

They kept running until Freddie suddenly burst out laughing.

“What?” Tommy exclaimed, stopping in the middle of the road.

“Keep running and I’ll tell you!”

Tommy caught up with him in a second. “What?”

“They was more afraid of us than we was of them.” Tommy opened his mouth. Freddie cut him off, “I know when people are afraid. I’m an expert. They were afraid of us.”

“Why?” Tommy cried.

“I don’t know. And I think we need to find out.”

image: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/165/426480412_8ac9e7b99b.jpg

July 18, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Road Rage, Fermi’s Paradox, Hard Wiring and God

I have a theory. It’s a little odd, but I think there’s some evidence here that if twisted AGWlly, it might make some sense…
If not, well then, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
Road rage (violence exhibited by drivers in traffic) is on the increase and is recognized as a condition in the UK, the US, and Australia. I have personally experienced and witnessed road rage in Nigeria, Liberia and Cameroon. At the risk of making broad, sweeping assumptions, I would guess that humans experience road rage when there’s a road with multiple drivers on it.
Fermi’s Paradox (the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations) might find an answer here. While not original, one explanation is that those “other” civilizations are avoiding us. My theory is that they are working hard at staying away because of road rage.
“The brain is "hard-wired" with connections much like a skyscraper or airplane is hard-wired with electrical wiring. In the case of the brain, the connections are made by neurons that connect the sensory inputs and motor outputs with centers in the various lobes of the cortex.” There are also connections between these cortical centers and other parts of the brain.” In my theory, the amygdala, basal ganglia, limbic system and the pre-central gyrus are hard-wired together to create a basic sense of territoriality in the human animal. It is this that drives us to say “mine!”
Even those who love and follow God discover that theology (the study of God) cannot help us. It’s a matter of faith (like the extraterrestrian belief in aliens despite no verifiable proof). Those who don’t believe in God say that the idea of God is ridiculous because they can’t understand God; or “gods are crutches”; or God is for the intellectually weak; or that we are in charge of our own destiny, there is no God.
(When plotting data points on a graph, the least-squares-fit is the line or curve that comes closest to going through all the points
www.sciencemaster.com/physical/item/earthquake_glossary.php ).
In my mind, the line describes this: No one has contacted us because we are hard-wired to be territorial. This hard-wiring creates road rage because we perceive the 144 square feet around our car as “our territory”. We set our own speed limit. We listen to our own music. When someone invades, we fight back. We typically ignore brief incursions, but lash out when the invasion is intentional. (Extraterrestrians will insist that in order to go into space in the first place, extraterrestrials MUST be territorial because it’s the only thing that could drive space exploration. I will point out the singular genius in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS for an investigation of a different exploration-driving hard-wiring.) I propose that our type of hard-wiring is not the norm among the intelligences in our galactic arm. They prefer we stay here and learn us some genetic engineering to de-hard-wire ourselves.
Humans find it very hard to accept God, in particular the Christian God, because we cannot understand how someone who HAD it all GAVE it all away. That makes no sense to us on a genetic level. The billion of us who believe that way do so by faith alone – which is the ONLY way belief in Christ can happen. It’s NOT an intellectual compulsion nor is it a biological compulsion.

In summary: Humanity is territorial due to cerebral hard-wiring which causes road rage while at the same time making it difficult to believe in a God who gave up all His territory for our sake and has also prevented First Contact between Humans and alien cultures.

July 11, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Nathan Bransford 5 – Good Querying

Nathan Bransford is a West Coast agent with the New York literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd. For the past nine years, he has been writing a popular blog reflecting on and illuminating the publishing world. Humorous, serious and ultimately enlightening, I’ll be looking at how THE ESSENTIALS (PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU QUERY) have had an impact on my writing. I am using them with his permission and if you’d like to read his blog (which I highly recommend) go to http://blog.nathanbransford.com/.

I have had a few good responses to queries in the past, so I’m not a COMPLETE Query Loser (hey, does that sound like the name of a blog?)

I’ll post one of my queries that got a positive response and then I’ll turn you loose on the links below. There are an uncountable number of query resources out there ranging from an agent or editor’s own site to lessons and books written about commentaries.

My question is though, with all the really good resources out there, why do some people still send queries in that are incorrectly done? Apparently I’m not the only one to wonder this because several agents and editors lament that very same thing in their blogs.

Be that as it may, here’s one of my SUCCESSFUL queries:


Attached is my attempt -- my one and ONLY attempt -- to write literary SF on the order of Gene Wolfe or JG Ballard. If you want the "story" behind the story, I can prepare one. Other than that, have at it!


“PS -- At the risk of sounding like I'm slobbering all over myself...thanks again for your support in the Trial [redacted]. I appreciate it more than you'll ever know.”

Because of that query in January of 2010, I got this response:


”Friday, July 09, 2010
“Hi, Guy,
”We'd like to use your story,
‘Teaching Women to Fly’
in Stupefying Stories #1. Before we can do so, though, we want to be
certain that both we and you have a clear understanding of what this
entails. We, being Rampant Loon Media LLC, a
Minnesota corporation, want a
one-time, non-exclusive... [legalese and agreement stuff]”
Other places you can look at excellent queries (sometimes) and the process by which 
they are groomed into excellence (often) – that is besides Nathan Bransford’s site:
Queryshark (aka agent Janet Reid)
Rants and Ramblings (agent Rachel Gardener)
Miss Snark (this is no longer a “live” blog but an archive of previous work)
KT Literary Agency (blog for the whole agency)
Guide to Literary Agents (Chuck Sambuchino)
If you want to write query letters that sell, you have to work at it. 
These sites will give you some of the tools!
image: http://www.poewar.com/wp-content/uploads/2004/10/query_letter.jpg

July 8, 2010


Daniel Keyes’ FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON: the story has stayed with me for decades, a symbol for both the overwhelming possibilities of the human intellect and the overwhelming impossibilities faced by a profoundly challenged human mind. I’ve started and stopped this novel a half a dozen times in eleven years. I want to bring the original idea into the present millennium. To read RECONSTRUCTION from beginning to here, click on the label to the right and scroll to the bottom.

Even though Mai Li applied her newly invented Teach Young Idiots How To Read In One Hour method to CJ, he wasn’t reading after two hours.

Mai Li stared at him. Shaking her head, she said, “It should have worked. All the research points to the probability of success in this methodology I synthesized. You should be reading at a college level now.” She took his chin in one hand and turned his head hard, tipping his chin down so he was facing the science book sitting on the desk. It was his hardest class – even though it was his favorite – because the teacher talked a lot and didn’t make them read much. “Try it again.”

He tried squinting. He tried opening his eyes as wide as he could…

Mai Li elbowed him and said, “Quit making those weird faces. You look like you’re possessed.”

“I’m trying to understand the words so I can say them.”

“That’s not how you read!” she exclaimed.

“Then how do I do it?” He pointed, “I recognize that that is either ‘was’ or ‘saw’. I’m not sure because I can’t tell what direction I’m reading at the moment.”

“You’re speaking gibberish! What do you mean you ‘can’t tell what direction’ you’re ‘reading at the moment’? You read from left to right!”

From the doorway, Mom said, “You read Hebrew from right to left.”

“And Chinese is top to bottom,” CJ chimed in.

Mai Li looked at CJ first then turned to look at Mom. After a moment, she sighed and said, “You’re both right. Educating is harder than I thought it would be – even for me.”

Mom snorted and said, “I can’t even find a definition that makes sense of what ‘education’ is, let alone figure out whether or not it’s happening in CJ’s school and what I can do to help.”

Mai Li stood and turned angrily, “An education is a complex mix of events, facts, biology, attitude, and culture!” Mom and CJ looked at her like she was insane. She sputtered for a moment. She finally said, “Can’t you see that the timing of events that make particular facts available, and the biological condition of the brain and body to which they are exposed is framed by the attitude of the person who owns all those parts hung from the wall of the attitude of the culture from which they come?”

“What?” CJ said.

She shook her head, took a deep breath then asked, “How old are you?”

“Almost fourteen.”

“All right. What math fact did you learn for the first time this year?”

“We learned to work with the Pythagorean Theorem,” CJ said immediately.

She nodded. “Would you have been able to use it when you were in kindergarten?”

CJ laughed. “No.”

“Why not?”

CJ stared at her then shrugged, saying, “Kindergartners can’t think that way.”

“Yet. That’s the timing and the biology. You learn certain things at certain times because your brain is ready for them.” She lunged forward, grabbing him by the neck. He tried to pull away, but her other hand slapped onto the back of his neck and pulled him close to her face. “Will you work harder at learning this reading method if I do this?” She dug her fingernails into his neck. He struggled briefly and she let go. He staggered backwards. “Well?”


“That’s the ‘personal attitude’ part of the equation. If you don’t want to learn, you won’t.” She looked at Mom, saying, “Is education important?”

Startled, she didn’t hesitate when she said, “Of course.”

She waved at her mother and looked at CJ, “If the culture in which an individual lives doesn’t value learning; if the individual doesn’t value learning; if the brain isn’t mature enough to handle the facts at the right time, then it can’t learn no matter how often you expose it.” She sat down, “Now sit down next to me: you’re old enough, your brain is mature enough, you want to and Mom has always wanted us to learn as much as we can no matter what our brains are…were…” she stopped talking. Staring at CJ she whispered, “…like.”

image: http://jk070.k12.sd.us/read.gif

July 4, 2010

SLICE OF PIE: Another Layer of Latent…

I’ve written a number of times about C. S. Lewis’ quote regarding Christian writers creating works in which their beliefs are latent rather than blatant:

http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2008/01/flashicle-4-writing-longer-short.html , http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2010/03/possibly-irritating-essays-latent.html , http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2010/02/pie-dragons-and-christians-and.html , http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2007/09/christianity-disappears-in-space-ii.html ,

http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2009/07/slice-of-pie-why-do-we-need-christian.html (Until this moment, I didn’t realize just HOW many times I’d written on the subject!)

At any rate, today it occurred to me abruptly that any philosophy might be promulgated in this way. In fact, several writers whose work I enjoy immensely and whom I respect use the methodology of injecting their specific belief systems into their writing without “preaching”. Few writers do more than latently promote their ideology; though some do so more blatantly. In fact, Christian writers who try to write science fiction and fantasy and other speculative fiction “with a message”, might learn a thing or two from writers who simply allow their beliefs to permeate their work.

The examples below are single phrases in much larger novels and while they pitch a particular philosophical viewpoint, they don’t hammer the belief, either.

Frank Herbert, DUNE: “When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual.” – from “Muad’Dib: The Ninety-Nine Wonders of the Universe” by Princess Irulan (p 408)

Anne McCaffrey, DRAGONSDAWN: “‘We may not be religious in the archaic meaning of the word, but it makes good sense to give worker and beast one day’s rest,’ Emily stated in the second of the mass meetings. ‘The old Judean Bible used by some of the old religious sects on Earth contained a great many commonsensical suggestions for an agricultural society, and some moral and ethical traditions which are worthy of retention, she held up her hand, smiling benignly – ‘but without any hint of fanatic adherence. We left that back on Earth along with war!’” (p 112)

Lois McMaster Bujold, BARRAYAR: “The two shall be made one flesh. How literal that ancient pious mouthing had turned out to be.” (p 474)

Carl Sagan, CONTACT: “But imagine that your kind of god – omnipotent, omniscient, compassionate – really wanted to leave a record for future generations, to make his existence unmistakable to, say, the remote descendants of Moses. It’s easy, trivial. Just a few enigmatic phrases, and some fierce commandments that they be passed on unchanged…Such as ‘The Sun is a star.’” (p 136)

Jack McDevitt, ODYSSEY: “‘It can be a major loss, Mac,’ [Valya] said, finally. ‘There are times when you need to be able to believe in a higher power, or you can’t make it through.’…[Mac replied], ‘Maybe. But the notion that we need a higher power, that’s more a human failing than a reflection of reality. The universe pays no attention to what we need. Truth is what it is, and the inconveniences it might cause us don’t change anything.’” (p 203)

David Weber, OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF: (I’ve commented on his work at length here: http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2008/08/slice-of-pie-by-schism-rent-asunder.html )

So, if you’re a Christian who is writing a speculative fiction novel, learn from the masters – only a few phrases can share your faith and get the Word into the hearts and minds of unbelievers who might be seeking life in Christ without even knowing it.

image: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_JxjlVoK6fS4/SsLLjeVSZbI/AAAAAAAAADA/LhNt_cTjFzw/s320/Hubble_1995_Pillars_of_Creation.jpg

July 1, 2010


This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So I added some imaginary elements and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom. (62 hour work-week and not knowing exactly where this is going; like HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERE: Emerald of Earth…sometimes stories write themselves, sometimes you have to dig around to discover the message you’re trying to pass on.)

Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill looked both ways before crossing the street. That’s what you did in the city.

Tommy said, “What are we doing?” Freddie shot him a strange look. Tommy shook his head, “No, think about it! Why’d we just look before crossing the street?”

Freddie busted out laughing. “We probably looked like we were crazy!” Reaching the other side, they kept going, walking down to the beach.

Tommy said, “This is huge! I can’t even see the other side.”

They watched the gently rolling waves as the sun touched the horizon and began to slide into the shadows. Freddie said, “It’s like I never seen this much water, ever.” He sank down to his butt, legs crossed and didn’t speak.

Tommy sat down beside him. Somewhere in the gathering dark, a loon warbled the song of a crazy, soft-spoken woman. A crane flew overhead. Farther out on the water, someone in a small boat lit a lantern. Freddie said, “People live on this here lake.”

Tommy nodded. “Wish I did.”

They sat as the shoreline on the right side of Mille Lacs blazed for an instant in the last rays of the setting sun then fell into utter darkness as the shadow of night crept over the lake. Just over the trees a star appeared as the blood red light of sunset turned orange then blue then purple. The Moon hadn’t risen yet, but there was a glimmering in the east even as the sky turned black and starry.

“There’s a lot of stars,” whispered Freddie.

Tommy only nodded. After a while, he stood up. The Moon had peeked over the treetops. “We gotta find us a place to sleep.”

“Can’t we sleep on the beach?”

Tommy shrugged. “If we did, we’d be freezin’ by morning. Besides, you ever sleep out under the stars before?”


“Dad did. He said bats crap on you.”

“No!” Freddie hurried back to the road and stopped again. “I don’t think we’ll be able to hitchhike.” He looked up and down the road. “Ain’t nobody driving up here.”

Tommy joined him, glanced, and took a left and started walking. Freddie followed him, “Where you going?”

“Well, we gotta go around the lake and this way looks shorter.”

Neither boy spoke as they walked. It was so quiet, they could hear themselves breathing. The faint slap of waves on the shore came from the lake.

“Where we gonna sleep?” Freddie asked.

“Maybe in one of the cabins,” said Tommy, pointing at the occasional small, boxy house that loomed out of the darkness. Lights flickered in the windows of one or two. “What’s that smell?” he asked abruptly.

“Outhouses,” said Freddie.


“Outdoor bathrooms. My cousins in Anoka had one when we were little. It’s where you take a dump when you’re up north.”


“You asked.” They walked on, the paved road curved to the left. They walked. The full Moon came up, light slanting silver through the trees. “What if there’s werewolves?”

Tommy laughed and said, “Ain’t no such thing as werewolves.” He stopped in front of a sign and squinted in the dark. Finally he said, “Says here some town called Bayview about eleven miles ahead.”

“Eleven miles!” Freddie exclaimed.

“Shhh!” Tommy hissed. “I think now’s the time to get into one of those cabins, sleep for the night then set out in the morning.”

Freddie nodded and the boys angled from the road to a dark cabin on the lake side of the road. Tommy stepped up on a short wooden stairway and touched the handle of a screen door.

Freddie tromped on the steps, his tread loud. “Shhhh!” Tommy hissed again. “You sound like you got army boots on!” They stood in frozen silence for an eternity as the Moon rose an inch. Finally, Tommy opened the door slowly and stepped in. Freddie followed behind a moment later.

Suddenly, someone struck a match. Behind the flame, the face of the witch from Anoka flared. She said softly, “Well, well, well. Wasn’t expecting to see you boys here. But now that you are,” she paused and laughed. “Now that you are, the real party can start.”