Transmission of Habit

How do groups and organizations foster healthy futures?

Transmission of Habit
Credits: NASA Ames Research Center / Rick Guidice

I took Bram to YMCA Camp Abnaki for a Father/Son weekend a couple of weeks ago. I'd worked at the camp as a counselor and administrator for a number of years, and it was interesting to see some lingering footprints that my friends and I left behind. We spent hours immersed in a years-long D&D campaign that saw sessions stretch deep into the night. The game wasn't nearly as popular as it's become in the years since, and we weren't exactly shunned for that, but it wasn't entirely embraced.

Now, the camp's conference room boasts a massive library of books and games; including D&D, which is now taught regularly to campers as an activity. There are other things too: anyone getting up to speak prefaces themselves by saying that they have a statement rather than an "announcement": while I was there, that word triggered a minutes-long series of songs and chants that often derailed any announcements that the speaker wanted. That got its start while I was there, 20 or so years ago, and I can't help but wonder what would happen if someone said "announcements" at the podium now. Would they still remember the song?

It's something that's persisted, being handed down year after year by the counselors and campers that remembered it from last year, and has become something of a tradition. I have little doubt that it'll linger for another decade or two, to the point where people will wonder where it originated.

Something that's fascinated me over the years is how organizations transmit information internally: not just the memos and the TPS reports, but how the individual behaviors, codified in a workplace structure, get carried down from person to person to form a workplace's culture. I've been part of a number of organizations over the years, and as part of them, it's interesting to see what quirks and habits they've picked up that their employees — often without knowing it — carry them along.

There was a bombshell of a letter that came out last week about Blue Origin's workplace culture, written by a former employee named Alexandra Abrams and 20 employees (current and former) of the company, who allege that it's hampered by sexism and racism. The whole thing is worth a read, and it recalls a lot of what Mary Robinette Kowal covered in her piece in the New York Times a while back, about how these sorts of cultural structures can lead to long-lasting harm.

The charges range from sexist behavior ("We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women. Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them.") to revelations that an executive was dismissed only after he groped a female employee. The letter paints a picture of a workplace culture that isn't great (which Blue Origin has denied) for women and people of color, that it's led to low morale, that the company's directions can change on a whim, and that all of there's doubts about the safety of the company's rockets. Chillingly, it makes a comparison to the Challenger, which was destroyed because of an accelerated work schedule and the "internal stifling of differences of opinion as one of the organizational issues that led to the disaster and loss of life."

This letter's a notable one not just because it points to a systemic issue with the company, but also because of what it says for about Jeff Bezos's ambitions for a spacefaring civilization (and for that matter, that of Elon Musk and Richard Branson.) These guys each want to see humanity propelled off into the stars, so that we have another home world and a bulwark against annihilation. That's a commendable goal, but if you're resting that on a shaky foundation, you're trying to set up a civilization, anything that deviates from an inclusive culture will set humanity up to fail in the long run.

In 1939, the Futurians had a problem: James Taurasi. He was standing in the doorway to Caravan Hall, where the first-ever World Science Fiction Convention was being held, and wasn't letting them in. Taurasi had good reason to be irritated at the members before him: Donald Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, John Michel, Robert A. W. Lowndes and Jack Gillespie: that spring, the group and its various members had been getting into verbal fights with other fans in the New York area over the nature of fandom and the purpose of science fiction itself, and burned a bunch of bridges along the way.

The convention's organizers had planned for their arrival, and had talked about what they would do if the Futurians showed up and started causing problems. Taursai argued with them until another organizer, Sam Moskowitz arrived, and he pressed them for their intentions: did they want to show up to participate, or were they there to cause problems? As he was doing so, a fan brought in a yellow pamphlet that a pair of Futurian members, John Michel and David Kyle, had written, a dramatic warning to anyone attending the convention that Moskowitz and his faction of science fiction fandom was acting in an undemocratic manner, and laid out some of the issues that they'd encountered. (It's a hilarious, overly dramatic read that only a bunch of pedantic teenagers would come up with).

The incident became known as "The Great Exclusion Act of 1939" and highlighted that science fiction fandom (at its beginnings!) wasn't a unified or straightforward social thing: it was a vibrant, cantankerous body that was shaped by the personalities that made it up. Those men — and they were nearly all men — helped shape the foundation of science fiction. One of those members of fandom at that time (and a nominal Futurian who made it into the convention) was Isaac Asimov, who would just a couple of years later start writing the stories that would make up Foundation.

There were women who existed in the world of fandom at this point, but while we point to notable examples like Judith Merrill or C.L. Moore or Leigh Brackett or Katherine MacLean, they're often the exception to the rule. While researching the Cosplay book, I came across an interesting survey that the members of TorCon I conducted in 1948. "Fandom" was largely between the ages of 15 and 44, fairly well educated (most had completed high school, a bunch were in college), most were single, and 89 percent were men. Tellingly, I didn't see any reference to race.

Groups carry down information and habits, and homogenous groups will carry down the practices and ticks that might be deemed safe without the prying eyes of those who might take offense. What types of language or attitudes or opinions did some of these men utter in the safe privacy of their social circles? I think it's unsurprising that fans / writers like Asimov wrote only a couple of women into the entirety of the initial Foundation trilogy, and went on to gain a reputation for being handsy whenever he visited his publisher. It doesn't surprise me when I hear stories about Harlan Ellison asking young, underage fans about their sex life. And it's no shock when an author proudly proclaims that her hard SF story also comes with queer South Asian characters, people come out of the woodwork to complain that she's lecturing her audience. And it's not terribly surprising that someone who grew up fantasizing about the idea that humanity needs to protect itself with redundancies might have also founded and fostered an organization that maintains some of those attitudes.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can think about the types of worlds that we want as creators, and imagine how we can continually tinker, overhaul, and improve today into tomorrow. If those stories that inspired generations — for good reason! — helped bring us the ongoing space race and advances in science and technology, what will the stories of today tell us about the progress that we can strive for tomorrow?

Further reading

Dune and global conflict

Over on Wired, Andy Greenberg spoke with a handful of national (and international) security experts about how Dune holds up in the midst of a devastating war in the Middle East. This is something that I've written about before, and years ago, someone pointed out that what Frank Herbert was doing was making some keen observations about the nature of warfare, especially given the influence that Lawrence of Arabia held on him.

An acquaintance of mine, MG Mick Ryan of the Australian Defence College, has some good things to say: "If you’d said in the wake of World War II that the United States would lose a war to guerrillas who didn’t have an air force or navy or even really heavy weapons, people would have just thought that you were insane,” says Major General Mick Ryan, commander of the Australian Defence College and author of the forthcoming book War Transformed. “But Dune did kind of presage that, didn’t it?”

The piece is accompanied by another by Jonathan Bratten, who makes some comparisons to it and Carl Von Clausewitz's On War: both had a dep understanding in how a movement's gravity impacts the battlefield (called the "center of gravity". I'm a big proponent of using science fiction as a teaching tool, whether it's in the classroom, in business, or within the military, and this makes a good case for that.

Dune trailer

Speaking of Dune, Warner Bros. released a new, final trailer for the film. I have the excite.

Foundation Recap

I've started my recap of Apple's Foundation, which I'm sending out to paid subscribers on Saturday mornings. Here's the one for Episode 3, and the one for episode 4 will go out tomorrow morning. We've been chatting about the series off and on during the week in the Slack channel, and if you'd like to take part (and support the newsletter while you're at it), head on over to Membership and sign up.

And in other good news: Apple has renewed the series for a second season.

A new Good Omen

There's a new edition of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel Good Omens coming out in November: it'll feature the cast of the Amazon miniseries, with David Tennant reprising his role as the demon Crowley and Michael Sheen voicing the angel Aziraphale. The casting was pitch-perfect in the series, and it'll be good to hear them again reading the book.

Halloween Horrors

Dr. Elizabeth Segran has an insightful piece up on Fast Company: the annual rush to buy cheap Halloween costumes is a significant waste of money and resources. The industry rakes in $3 billion a year, and a lot of those costumes are tossed into the trash afterwards. It's a good reminder to repurpose and try and make things yourself, but I'll take issue with her assertion that people can have no crafting skills — it's all a matter of practice and patience. That said, there are some solid ideas on how to build a costume in a somewhat sustainable way.  

House of the Dragon

Warner Bros. has been on a roll this week with trailers. HBO Max revealed a first look at the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. It looks very Game of Thrones, which, I suppose, is the point.

October Books

In case you missed it last week, I rounded up a bunch of new books coming out in October that you should check out. Here's the list in chronological order, and again sorted by genre.

Plugging the plot holes

Del Rey announced a quartet of new Star Wars books that'll hit stores next year. What caught my attention was the upcoming book by Adam Christopher, Star Wars: Shadow of the Sith, which is set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Christopher had been writing another SW novel, one set during The Mandalorian but that was ultimately canned, ostensibly because it's hard to write a book while a series is currently on the air and subject to change.

What caught my eye about this was that it's doing something that I've tried to comfort myself with a bit: The Rise of Skywalker introduced a lot of nonsensical things: the return of Palpatine, a secret army hiding out on an ancient Sith planet, some Sideous acolytes carrying around super-specific clues to find key plot points, etc. After watching the film, I've felt that time will help, if anything, because Lucasfilm's team will work on additional stories to help explain it after the fact. That's what seems to be happening here: the story will follow Lando as he looks for his kidnapped daughter, and along the way, teams up with Luke when he comes across some clues about Exegol and the Sith. Along the way, we'll learn a little more about Ochi of Bestoon, the remains of which Rey, Poe, Finn, and Lando discovered on a desert planet.

I figure there'll be more to come after Christopher's book, and hopefully, it'll help to rehabilitate that particular storyline. Over the years, I've been heartened at how fans have come around to the prequel trilogy, in no small part because of the Clone Wars TV series, but because people came to it with new ideas and observations that paint those (flawed) films in a new light.

Vermont Sci-Fi & Fantasy Fest

I spent the weekend attending the Vermont Sci-Fi & Fantasy Fest, trooping with the Green Mountain Squad, and sitting on a couple of panels about cosplay and the 501st / Rebel Legions. I made the local nightly news, and also spoke with Seven Days writer Chris Farnsworth about the hobby.

As always, thanks for reading. I've been hip-deep in book work, but there's a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. Things are slowly coming together, and hopefully, I'll have good news to report soonish.

In the meantime, have a good weekend,