October 7, 2004

Linux and science fiction: Parallel universes

Author: Lee Schlesinger

Linucon -- what a great concept: A
convention focused half on science fiction and half on Linux. As a fan
of both who just attended the World
Science Fiction Convention
in Boston last month, I see huge
similarities between the two constituencies.First, the obvious. If you blindfolded a random illiterate man on the
street (illiterate, so he couldn't read the session names, but reading
is a crucial skill shared by both groups) and set him down in a corridor
at either a Linux conference or a science fiction convention, the only
way he'd be able to tell which kind of event he was at would be the presence
of penguins at the Linux do and the unusual hall costumes worn by two
percent of the SF fans. Physically, the two groups are the same --
slightly older than average, tending toward long hair and beards (the
latter only on the men).

When you sit down in a room with them to discuss relevant issues, both
sets of fans are passionate. They have strongly held opinions and
they're not afraid to share them. They're also both highly intelligent
and have good memories. Linux fans can cite arcane syntax for commands
they last used months ago. SF fans can cite plot points of novels they
read in their teens.

Sometimes that prodigious memory works against them. Both groups have a
tendency to hyperfocus on minutiae at the expense of the bigger picture.
For Linux, this translates into heated arguments about the merits of
individual desktop environment components, for instance, while ignoring
larger usability issues. For SF? Well, at one session I attended at the
Worldcon, a panelist complained that one of his pet peeves with many
fantasy novels was a lack of originality. He pointed out that most
fantasy stories published nowadays are set in milieus that resemble
medieval Europe, where the common people are farmers and there are
feudal lords and kings. The audience responded by challenging him on the
need for exotic creatures in fantasies. "If you have an agrarian
setting, why make up some exotic creature? Why not just use a cow?" And
they could have argued that point with the panel and among themselves
for the rest of the session, missing the larger issue about a lack of
originality.

Maybe that's because fans (of both kinds) rarely get to interact in
person with others who share their obsessions. Both Linux and SF tend to
attract geeky individuals who don't quite fit in with the dominant
culture. You don't see a large percentage of Linux users or science
fiction readers at NASCAR events or Outkast concerts. But just because
they don't socialize well with "mundanes" doesn't mean they don't like
to socialize. Put them together with other birds of a feather and watch
them have fun. For first-time LinuxWorld or SF convention attendees,
it's a joyous revelation that there are other people who are just as
weird as they, and in the same way.

I wish I were going to be in Austin this weekend for Linucon, but my
colleague Joe Barr will be there, waving the NewsForge banner. I'll be
at other events, though. I'm just as happy sitting in the audience for a
panel on overlooked settings for alternate history stories or roving a
dealer room in search of an elusive copy of Lisa Mason's "Pangaea" books
as I am attending a panel on Linux backup alternatives or future
directions in package management.

Linucon organizers, if you want a panelist for next year's show who
knows both Linux and science fiction, please call me. Note that I'm not
making this offer for ego reasons. My only goal is to serve man.

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