Archive for August, 2007

The Anecdotal Species?

A recent article in the Economist suggested that the U.S. space program was headed further astray by concentrating on manned missions when so much more knowledge could be obtained at a lower cost from instrumented unmanned missions. After reading that, my first reaction was to disagree — on the grounds that unmanned missions keep getting their funding cut because they’re “just” research, and research always tends to get cut first in any consensus budgeting process, either in the corporate world or in government. In addition, I had the feeling that most people don’t identify with space cameras, comet probes, asteroid probes, near-earth orbit surveys, and the like, despite the cries and protests from many in the scientific community that “science missions,” as opposed to astronaut missions, are being under-funded, even though they provide far more information per dollar spent.

But then, ever since the Soviet space program collapsed, much of the impetus for U.S. space development seems to have collapsed as well, whether for manned or unmanned projects. Only when Americans perceive an immediate and real threat do we seem able to press for research in technological or military areas.

As I considered these points, I began also to reflect upon the time I spent at the U.S. EPA, when there was a great furor over the possible contamination from leaking Superfund sites. Now, there was no question that a considerable number of abandoned waste sites were in fact leaking and contaminating the environment near those locations, and public opinion was clear and decisive. Fixing Superfund sites was top priority. Somewhat later on, the Agency looked further into the environment priorities, and issued several reports. The gist of the findings was that, in general, that the public’s priorities for environmental improvement were almost inversely related to the real dangers to people and health. The actual illnesses and deaths from leaking Superfund sites were far lower than those from at least five other major environmental issues. How could this be? It happened, I believe, because we are an anecdotal and egocentric species. Those dangers we see and hear personally, those we can understand easily, and those which can be related to us personally by those we know and trust — these are the dangers we believe in. When chemically-caused cancer occurs in a local community because of groundwater contamination, we react. But when the EPA or a state health agency notes that fatalities are rising from exposure to natural radon or skin cancer caused by the thinning of the ozone layer, we don’t. When health agencies point out that smoking is a far greater health hazard than any of the environmental concerns, such notice has a comparatively small effect. Even when the massive damage claims arrive from increased hurricane activities, we tend not to put as much personal priority in looking into why hurricanes seem to be more of a problem — and we just want someone else to pay for the repairs.

We all want our problems solved first. Then, and only then, will we devote resources to other people’s difficulties. This is a practical and natural approach from a Darwinian and historical point of view. If we don’t solve our problems first, we and our children may not be around to solve anyone else’s problems. But what happens when a non-immediate problem could become a far-larger problem threatening us and everyone else?

This difficulty isn’t a new problem in American society, and it’s not a problem confined to the U.S. Prior to roughly 1938, no one wanted to consider the implications of what Stalin was doing in the USSR or Hitler in Germany, or Mussolini in Italy. No one in the “western” world paid all that much attention to the Japanese “rape of Nanking” and what it foreshadowed. Today, because the area has no oil and no strategic import, and because few Americans have seen or experienced the brutality and continual death, most Americans don’t really pay much real attention to the genocide in Darfur.

This same mindset applies to the exploration of space — or the issues surrounding global warming. If something doesn’t pose an imminent danger or have an immediate entertainment or economic value… one that can be exploited quickly, why bother?

Then… add one more complicating factor. In neither space exploration nor global warming do we truly have a certain solution. While we’ve reached the point where it appears that a majority of the knowledgeable scientific community believes that there is some form of global warming occurring, there is no strong consensus on what might be called a workable strategy. What one group calls workable is called punitive by another. Reducing carbon emissions is one possibility, but that will penalize third world and developing nations disproportionately, if carried out. Unilateral action by industrial nations means their citizens bear higher costs. Reducing greenhouse gases is another possible approach, but that cost falls more heavily on the high-tech economies. Requiring more fuel efficient cars increases costs and decreases choices more for those who require cars to get to their jobs… And so it goes.

The bottom-line question might well be: Can a species that’s been hard-wired over a million years to be short-term, personally/familially-oriented, and anecdotal cope with problems that require long-term planning and wide-spread consensus?

Belief?

Believing in something does not make it true. Disbelieving in something does not mean that it cannot exist. Admittedly, on the quantum level, the act of observing often changes or fixes what is, but so far, at least, the question is not whether a particle or wave or photon exists, but in what form and exactly where.

The problem in human behavior is that belief has consequences, often deadly ones. I cannot imagine that a Supreme Being, should one exist, could possibly care whether the correct prophet happened to be the son or the nephew, or whatever, of the old prophet. Nor do I think that it is at all rational that rigid belief in one set of rituals about a God will give one worshipper eternal favor while rigid belief in another set of rituals about that same God will damn a different worshipper eternally. And I have great difficulty in thinking that any deity will grant one eternal and blissful life for slaughtering those who believe differently, particularly those who have done nothing to offend one except not to share the same beliefs.

All that said, in human affairs, it doesn’t matter much whether I or others have difficulty understanding why people would care about such differences passionately enough to kill to attempt to force their beliefs on those who would choose to believe differently — or not to believe in a deity at all. The fact is that, both now and throughout history, millions upon millions of people have been killed over beliefs, not just religious beliefs, but political beliefs, cultural beliefs, and even economic beliefs.

Yet there is no true proof behind these beliefs, especially religious beliefs. Oh, there are books, and testimonies, and prophets, and visions, and unexplained phenomena, but true proof, in the scientific sense, is missing. Even for some well-accepted political beliefs, solid verifiable proof of their efficacy is scant or lacking altogether.

Science, at least in theory, is supposed to test propositions and to verify them. We apply such methodology to every physical aspect of life in modern society, yet there is no comparable test for “belief.” All one has to do is to say, “I believe.”

And so, despite astronomical, atomic, chemical, and geologic evidence that the universe is close to 15 billion years old, there are those who choose to believe that it was created far more recently than that. Despite a long fossil record documenting evolution, creationists cite lapses and faults in the fossil chronology, yet dismiss the counter-argument that there is no physical record at all suggesting “instant” divine creation. Nor is there any true physical evidence suggesting an afterlife.

So… what’s the problem with belief? Everyone has some belief or another.

Beliefs have consequences, and not just the obvious ones. Take the widely held belief in some form of an afterlife, a belief held by close to seventy percent of all Americans and eighty percent of Americans over 50, according to recent surveys. What does that mean? One of the greatest dangers of this commonly held belief is that it allows cruelty in the name of all manner of rationales. After all, if there is a supreme deity, if there is an afterlife, well… all those folks who got slaughtered have another chance to repent and redeem themselves. It’s not like it’s forever.

But… what if it is? What if one life is all anyone gets? There’s lots of belief about eternal life, but there’s no proof, not scientific proof. We want all sorts of tests about whether our food is safe to eat, whether our cars are safe to drive, whether our water is pure, whether our air is clean. Yet, we believe in an afterlife without a single shred of scientific proof. Are there two standards in life? Those for the physical world, where everything must be proven and proven again, where lawsuits abound over the tiniest discrepancies… and those for beliefs, where, regardless of the consequences, we accept something totally unproven?

Is that because we can’t face, and don’t want to face, the truly toxic aspect of belief in an afterlife — that it allows us all sorts of justifications for cruelty, for oppression, for suppression? If the life we have now is the only one we will ever have, and if we accept that, could we live with all that we have done to others?

Then, too, the truly terrifying possibility is that we could, and that the results would be worse, far worse. Does that mean that belief in unproven deities is preferable to the alternative? If so, what does that say about us as a species?

Thoughts on Reader Commentaries

Like many authors, I do read at least some of the posts and commentaries about my work, not so much for ego-surfing, because one nasty comment wounds more than a score of positive ones heal, but to see what some of the reactions [if any] to what I wrote are. After many years, there are certain patterns which have become obvious.

First, a number of readers believe that whatever my protagonists say and do is what I believe. So do I believe in pre-emptive action [as do Jimjoy Wright, Nathaniel Firstborne Whaler, and Gerswin], in semi-preemptive action [ala Lerris, Lorn, Trystin, or Van Albert], or reaction in massive force [Ecktor deJanes, Anna, or Secca]?

Because different protagonists react in different fashions, I find that this occasionally engenders one of two reactions from readers. The first reaction is that I am being inconsistent. The second reaction, which is far more common, is when the reader fixates on a particular type of hero or behavior and ignores all the others. For example, many readers believe that I only write coming of age stories about young heroes, But even in the Recluce Saga, of the fourteen books published [or about to be published], exactly half deal with “coming-of-age.” None of the Spellsong Cycle novels use that approach, and only one of the Corean Chronicles is really a coming-of-age tale. Almost none of my science fiction novels deal with “coming of age” themes. By these figures, less than twenty percent of my work is true “coming of age” work.

Then there is the charge that I write the “same” book, over and over. To this charge, I plead “partly guilty,” in that there are common sub-themes in every book I write: the hero or heroine learns something and accomplishes something and there’s some form of romantic interest. I’m not terribly interested in writing books where the protagonist learns nothing and/or accomplishes nothing. In practice, a protagonist either learns or doesn’t learn, accomplishes something or doesn’t. Now, in the James Bond books, and in many of the endless series with the same cast of characters, a great deal of action takes place, but when it’s all over, what exactly has happened? Isn’t the norm that one set of disposable characters has been killed or jailed, or been made love to and discarded, only to be replaced by another set for the next episode? Has the real structure of the world or the political system changed — or has the scenery just been replaced, so to speak, and made ready for another series of adrenaline-filled [or lust-filled or whatever-filled] adventures?

Nor am I interested in writing nihilistic or “black” fiction. Years ago, in my closest approach to the dark side, I did write one classical tragedy in three volumes, and sales of the third volume plummeted. Interestingly enough, now that The Forever Hero has been reprinted in a single fat trade paperback, it has continued to sell modestly… but reader reaction has been more than a little mixed. Even so, I seldom write books with unabashedly “everything is well” endings. Most of what I write has what I’d call “bittersweet” endings, those where the protagonists achieve their goals, but end up paying more, if not far more, than they dreamed possible. I’ve also discovered that, because I often don’t make that explicit, a number of readers don’t always catch the darkness veiled within the ending.

In a larger sense, however, ALL writers write the same books over and over. As Heinlein pointed out over 35 years ago, there are only a handful of plots, presented in many guises, but limited in “formula,” if you will, to those basic plots.

Oh… and then there’s the reader reaction to the food. More than a few times, there have been questions and comments about why my books have so many scenes where the characters eat. With those comments and questions have come observations about the food, ranging from why it’s so simple in some books to why it’s so elaborate in others. Why the meal scenes? Because, especially in low-tech societies, meals are about the only opportunity for conversations and decisions involving more than two people. As for the fare served, I try to make it appropriate to the time and culture, as well as to the economic status of those at the table.

Finally, as exemplified by the reaction of some few readers to my comments and amplifications on why most readers don’t like or aren’t interested in F&SF, there are always those who believe that, by what I have written, I am attacking their most cherished beliefs, and that because I am, I’m clearly an idiot. By this standard, I suspect all of us are idiots to someone, and writers more so because writers who continue to be published have to say something, and something will always offend someone. My personal belief is that a writer who offends no one usually has little to offer.

Most professional writers do offend someone, and in that sense, you as readers can judge authors not only by their supporters and friends, but also by those who dislike them , although I would also suggest, based on experience, that most readers who dislike an author cannot be impartial in evaluating their dislike. Why? Because most writers published by major publishing houses produce an acceptable technical product [even if editors must proof and correct it in some cases], when someone claims they dislike a writer because his work is “badly written,” “excessively verbose,” “so spare you can’t follow the action,” “filled with cliches,” and the like, all too often this sort of criticism veils a deeper dislike within the reader, and one based more upon conflicting values than upon the writer’s technical deficiencies. Now, I am far from claiming that we as writers do not make technical mistakes or that we do not occasionally manifest such deficiencies, but any writer who has glaring technical deficiencies, as cited by some readers, will not get book after book published. In the end, most criticism reflects as much, if not more, about the critic as about the author.

More on the "Death" of Science Fiction

A recent article/commentary in Discover suggested that science fiction, if not dead, was certainly dying, and one of the symbols the author used was the implication that the prevalence of middle-aged [and older] writers at the Nebula/SFWA awards suggested a lack of new ideas and creativity. Needless to say, as a moderately established writer who is certainly no longer young, I find such an “analysis” not only irritating, but fallacious, on two counts.

First, age, per se, is no indicator of creative ability in science fiction or any other literary form, and it never has been, contrary to Bruno Maddox’s apparent assumptions. If one looks at the record of the past, Robert Heinlein was 52 the year Starship Troopers was published and 54 when Stranger in a Strange Land came out. At 31, Roger Zelazny wasn’t exactly a callow youth when Lord of Light was published. Arthur C. Clarke was in his early thirties when his first novel [Against the Fall of Night] was published as serial. William Gibson was 36 when Neuromancer was published. Even today, the “hot new” SF writers, such as Jo Walton, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, and China Mieville, while not old by any stretch, are in their late thirties or early forties.

Second, those talented and even younger writers who have not yet been recognized widely are often at the stage of having stories and first and second novels published. They are not generally not exactly the most prosperous of individuals, or they have demanding “day jobs” and tend not to attend in as great a proportion the more expensive and distant conventions and conferences. Nonetheless, they exist, even if most weren’t at the Nebula awards.

Science fiction may not always get it right, but the writers are still in there pitching, with far more ideas than Mr. Maddox, who seems to equate experience and flowery Hawaiian shirts with a lack of creativity and inspiration.

MediaPredict — The End of "Literature"… Or Even Just "Good" Books?

The New Yorker recently reported on Simon & Schuster’s efforts with MediaPredict to develop what would amount to the “collective judgment of readers to evaluate books proposals” by reading selections presented on a website. The reason why any bottom-line oriented publisher would attempt to discover a better way of determining what books will be commercially successful is obvious to anyone familiar with the publishing industry — something like seven out of every ten books published lose money. Needless to say, more than a few people responded with comments suggesting this “American Idol” approach would doom the publishing industry to institutionalized mediocrity.

As those of you who have read more than a few of my books know, I believe that, with a few well-cited exceptions, extremely popular works of art in any field tend not to be excellent, and many of the few that are both popular and excellent tend to be those from earlier historical periods that have been propagandized by well-established cultural and social institutions. This is the way it is and has always been… and it may well continue. In the publishing industry charges and countercharges have flown back and forth for years, on subjects such as editorial elitism, genre segregation, reviewer bias, critical prejudice against commercially successful authors… and on and on.

For all that, the publishing industry has managed a remarkable diversity in publication, and in the F&SF field, small and niche publishers have broadened that diversity, as have more recent internet publishers.

What bothers me more about the MediaPredict approach is that it substitutes the judgment of one small group — those who enjoy reading off electronic displays and have time to read online — for that of another smaller group — editors and agents. Since my work has been far more popular with readers than with editors and agents — with the notable exception of one long-time editor — I certainly have always questioned the collective judgment of editors and agents. Any competent editor or agent can certainly tell what kind of novels are selling. On the other hand, it takes a truly outstanding editor to determine what kind of book that isn’t currently being published will sell, and there are very few editors who can make an accurate judgment like that on a consistent basis.

But will the MediaPredict approach make any better judgment on the commercial potential of a book? I doubt it… and here’s why.

Both online readers and editors are largely self-selected groups, if self-selected for different reasons, and this reflects the larger problem I see with the MediaPredict approach. The self-selection criteria for being an online reader effectively eliminate large groups of individuals from the selection process. Even some twenty years into the wide-scale personal computing/cellphone/PDA age, the majority of novel readers doesn’t read and doesn’t want to read books off a screen… any kind of screen. It takes a certain mindset to enjoy doing this, and I suspect that mindset is different from non-screen-readers. MediaPredict might do quite well at determining what kind of books appeal to that audience, but that audience is currently a minority of readers– especially outside the F&SF and possibly the thriller fields.

Editors, for all their short-comings, and they do have many, are held responsible over time for the success of their selections, and editors who tend to have too many commercial failures generally have short careers. There’s not even that check over the MediaPredict approach, nor has anyone asked one other critical question: Do the “screen-readers” predict accurately not only who likes the books being previewed, but whether they represent actual buyers? In short, will those on-screen preferences translate accurately into bottom-line profits? Because, in the end, that’s how the industry measures success.

If It’s Not in the Database…

The other day, my wife attempted to book a hotel room online, a relatively simple task even for those of us who had to learn computers at an advanced age, say, over thirty when we first encountered what then passed for personal computation. Everything went fine until she attempted to enter our home address.

Her reservation was rejected because our actual street name did not match the one in U.S. Postal Service database. The Postal Service address eliminates the word “south” and runs together the last two words. We did manage to figure it out and get the reservation, but, frankly, this sort of hassle could foreshadow a far greater problem.

After the momentary hassle was resolved, I looked at my driver’s license. It shows the correct street address, and not the one that the Postal Service database says is “correct.” Then I went outside and looked at the street sign. The name on the sign matches my driver’s license and the legal description on our property tax. But… the government database gives the wrong address.

Does that mean at sometime in the future, if we have more security crackdowns at airports, I — or my wife or some other unfortunate soul whose address does not match — will be dragged aside because the database used by the government is flawed, and because computers aren’t smart enough to figure out that a phrase like “West Ridge” might be the same as “Westridge?”

So long as the mail gets here, I don’t much care whether it’s addressed to the equivalent of West Ridge or Westridge, but I do care when the wrong terms get put in a computer that may well affect my personal freedom because the correct address is flagged as being “wrong” in a federal database. As we all know, computers aren’t that “smart.” If it doesn’t match, it doesn’t match. Now… all one has to do is to combine a literal-minded security official with a faulty database before the difficulties begin. We’ve already had the spectacle of a five-year-old [as I recall] boy being denied passage on an airliner because his name matched that of a suspicious person.

Years ago, I thought the story [whose name and author I've forgotten] that had an innocent man being executed because a computer glitch turned a citation for overdue library books into a murder conviction was amusing… and far-fetched. Now… I’m beginning to worry that such a possibility is neither. What concerns me even more is that I haven’t seen much written about such cases as an indication of a systemic problem, rather than isolated instances that will just go away or be the problem of a few individuals. But what if I — or you — happen to be those individuals?

Just how are we going to prove that the database is wrong — especially in time to catch the flight or avoid detention as a suspicious individual?