Archive for November, 2013

The Wild West Web

A little while ago I came across a book review website/blog that pretty much trashed my 2002 novel, Archform:Beauty in a way that was clear the blogger had neither any understanding of what the book was about nor of a lot of other things.  So I simply posted the following comment on the review, “Interestingly enough, both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly gave it starred reviews.”  Not surprisingly, the blogger replied to the effect that he really didn’t care what they thought and that he was selling it back to the used book store… and by the way, that my own words said that minority voices were important.  I agreed that minority voices needed to be heard, but that didn’t mean that they were either accurate or inaccurate simply by virtue of being minority voices.  Then I was questioned about why I’d made the first comment, as if it were somehow rude to question a review offered with open comments. When the blogger then stated that I‘d never change his mind, I pointed out that my comments weren’t made for that point since it was obvious I would never change his mind. I should have left it at that, but, unfortunately, I didn’t.  I added the phrase that I wrote for people who could think, with the clear implication that he couldn’t. I understand that created a slight furor with some people.

This “discussion” of sorts, however, crystalized, at least in my mind, something that I and a great many others have talked around and about, but which tends to be overlooked.  With the proliferation of niche news, niche blogs, niche products, we are creating, or have created, a society where anyone can express the most inaccurate or misrepresentative or misleading views or selected facts for “their” following,” and because like attracts like, seldom are these facts ever challenged in that niche.  Oh, CNN may dispute Fox News, or CBS and BBC news may present very different views of a story, but there is seldom another side shown on any niche program.  What’s truly frightening to me is that there’s more discussion of the other side on the entertainment shows such as Colbert or Bill Maher, or it’s buried on early Sunday morning news shows.  Obviously, there are exceptions, but they’re few, and getting fewer. This “niche isolation” also contributes to societal polarization because the followers in each niche continually reinforce their beliefs in their interactions with each other, which makes it easier and easier to ignore, minimize, or marginalize any conflicting views.  

In addition, the internet/world wide web has become a “wild west” of information dissemination, where some sources are good, some bad, and all misrepresentative to some degree.  The web has also become more and more powerful in influencing what readers choose to buy or not to buy, and for authors that makes favorable information valuable and unfavorable information worrisome, particularly if that unfavorable information is highly misrepresentative or inaccurate.  What compounds this us that with people compartmentalizing their information intake there’s no telling if they’ll ever encounter other information to balance or expand their knowledge base about an author, particularly if their initial information comes from a source that views the author unfavorably.

Part of the reason why I made the initial comment in the first place is because I’ve always disliked anonymous snipers, particularly when they don’t know what they’re talking about. I think, far too idealistically, that such people should not go unquestioned.  But what I realized well after the fact, was that society has become so polarized that, for the most part, very few people still retain even semi-open minds when their judgments or beliefs are questioned. The problem with my reaction to the “review” is that, in all likelihood, all it did was make people who would never like my books anyway mad at me, while suggesting to those who do like my work that I’m excessively sensitive.

But all writers are.  That’s not the question.  The question is how we should balance such sensitivity when facing adverse material on the web that could affect our sales, reputation, and livelihood… and how we actually do.  It’s easy to suggest we remain above the fray, and that has historically been the best policy, but with the way the times are changing, I have to wonder if such “neutrality” is necessarily wise… and yet, I’ve seen and heard certain authors have spent so much time and money reacting to so many slights, misrepresentations, and inaccuracies that I’ve wondered if that didn’t do more damage than help.

It’s definitely a brave new world (web).

The Writing “Gender Gap”

On October 22nd, Liz Bourke’s article on “Reading, Writing, Radicalisation” appeared on  In the article, she notes:

“…the US market has seen near parity [in books published by male and female authors] over the last three years but the volume of noise on the internet is still, in general, louder when it comes to male authors. Now, I will freely grant that many male authors write rather good books, but the engagement/ enthusiasm surrounding them, surrounding their series, and their new releases, seems rather disproportionate by comparison. (It is certainly disproportionate in terms of what is reviewed in genre publications and what makes it onto New And Notable bookshop displays.)

She also notes that in the British F&SF market male authors published exceed female authors by fifteen to thirty percent annually.

One theme pervades both the article and the comments on the article, and that is that with the possible exception of a literal handful of female authors, such as J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, male authors get more sales and more press than do female authors.  I’m not about to argue with that fact, because, from what I’ve seen, and the facts and figures I’ve observed, it appears to be the case. On a personal basis, I went back over the titles on my Kindle and the paper books I’ve purchased and read over the past three years, and 45% were written by women and 55% by men.  Interestingly enough, the four books I had no interest in finishing were all written by men [and no, I won’t name them].

I would argue, however, that the difference in sales and press does not lie, per se, anywhere close to exclusively in the gender of the writer, but in the approach taken by the writer, and that, on a statistical basis, those books receiving press (especially within the F&SF genre) and massive sales tend to emphasize certain obvious and often violent aspects of human behavior and culture and minimize less blatant details of culture and behavior.  In turn, from what I’ve read, in general, and only in general, since individual authors vary widely, more female authors, even some writing under male or androgynous pen names, tend to show a greater range of subtle details than do male authors and focus more on character and character development than do male authors.

Personally, I have also observed that any book that I write with a female protagonist sells far less well than those with male protagonists, even those in my best-selling fantasy series. Yet while only ten percent of my published novels have female protagonists, those books account for over a quarter of the books of mine that have received starred reviews.  So I have some doubts that it’s because the books featuring women as protagonists aren’t as good as the others.

What all this suggests to me is that certain kinds of books draw more sales and press than do other kinds [obviously], and that the difference isn’t so much because of the gender implied by the author’s name [although I will note that there are still references in places on the internet that insist that I am female, which clearly I’m not], but because of the way in which the book is written, and that, in general, the approach taken by women writers tends to be more thoughtful and detailed… and, frankly, thoughtful and detailed doesn’t sell as well… as I have previously noted in regard to what I write, which is why I think it’s somewhat misleading to suggest that the issue is primarily based on the perceived gender of the author.  I wouldn’t deny that some gender prejudice exists, because I’ve seen it in every field, including writing, but the bottom line in publishing is in fact sales, and for now, the blatant, direct, and not-very-subtle tends to dominate the publishing best-sellers, regardless of author gender.  



The other day was, as one children’s book puts it, “an awful, no-good, horrible, very bad day.”  Well… it wasn’t THAT bad, by any measure, but it was incredibly frustrating.  I discovered that a document required by a government agency, a document that had been sent twice, had apparently been lost or misplaced twice  — which required sending it once again. I also discovered that the manuscript that I’d sent to my editor by UPS two-day air had not arrived, and had been sitting for almost two days in Salt Lake, and when I tried to follow-up, no one knew where it was.  Now, I’d sent the manuscript by two-day air, at his request, so that he could get it and read it during his travels. Another day passed, and UPS finally located it in Des Moines, and I was assured it would be only a day late [which was too late for my editor, meaning a three-week delay before he could read it]… Another day passed, and the manuscript finally reached Philadelphia.  It finally reached New York and the Tor offices five days after being sent as a two-day air shipment.

Both the government and UPS are large institutions, and I think the thing that bothers me about institutional incompetence is that, in essence, no one is accountable.  If I screw up as an author, there’s no doubt that I screwed up.  I can’t blame anything but the price and the package on anyone else, and, in the interests of full disclosure, I will point out that, with the advent of electronic publishing, the vast majority of typos are my fault.  The editors and I both try to catch them, but I made them, not my editors.

The other problem with institutional incompetence is that too many of the “solutions” simply don’t work very well, particularly those which attempt to reward good employees and not less competent ones.  In every institutional, educational, and government or corporate setting in which I’ve worked, and in every one for which I did consulting work, the one thing that was common to all was that the highest rated employees were the ones who knew how to work the system.  Some of them were also quite good at their work as well, but there were many who were far less competent than lower-rated employees who were not as politically skilled, and many incompetent employees managed to keep jobs they screwed up through their political skills.  Yet, as time and experience have shown, reliance on purely “subjective” standards results in massive discrimination and even more corruption, not to mention unbridled nepotism.

Why does this happen even with laws dealing with the matter?  Because the law demands that procedures be “fair,” i.e., not only applied equitably to all employees, but also that employees be judged on objective and measurable standards.  One of the big problems there is that subjective standards are often more accurate.  I’ve watched organizations be torn apart by gossip and back-biting, by underhanded use of accurate information to misinform and to undermine the performance of others, who then appear incompetent, and sometimes do incompetent acts because of such misinformation. Individuals who engage in this kind of manipulative and unscrupulous behavior are usually skilled enough in doing it that they never violate any objective standard.  Thus, the most a supervisor can do is refuse to promote them, and that can be tricky as well, both legally and in practice.  I’ve seen individuals promoted just so that a supervisor could get rid of them.

Do I have any real and workable answers?  Not really, because, like it or not, a certain measure of incompetence is inevitable in any large structure… and that’s why I, and others, have late packages and must sometimes submit forms time and again.

The “Ethical Hierarchy” of Law

More than a few times in my life, I’ve seen a legal decision and thought, “How could that ever be considered just… or even ethical?”  I’ve certainly heard others voice similar sentiments. Now, I know that while many lawyers and judges, perhaps the vast majority, believe that the highest priority of law is the pursuit of justice, I also know that as a tool for obtaining justice, the law and those who enforce and interpret it often fall short in seeking justice… or in many cases even being able to seek it. Part of the reason for that, besides incompetence or corruption, is the simple fact that we as a society must reconcile conflicting ethical hierarchies.

In the United States, the Congress and the courts have made an effort over the life of the nation to press for the equality of individuals under the law, and that includes the rights of people to be able to vote based on their qualifications rather than their appearance or color or gender, and more recently to be considered for employment based on qualifications. Obviously, we have a ways to go, but the legal emphasis on equal rights has been broadened and, in this regard, matters have improved over the years.

At the same time, with the increase and widening of individual rights, other historic “rights” have been limited, such as, at least for white males, the right to associate with those they chose and the right not to be forced to associate with those they do not choose, the right of to whom they might sell property, and the right to choose the employees they feel are “best” for a position, regardless of more objective qualifications.  So, while at one time, the right of employer’s choice and an individual’s “free association” ruled supreme, now, under current law, those former rights to discriminate on the basis of creed or color or gender have been placed lower on the legal hierarchy than the right of individuals to be considered on their other qualifications.

 The same shift in rights has also occurred in determining the membership in clubs and organizations, so that it has become far more difficult for a club to reject applicants because of gender, color, or religion.  One predictable reaction is that initiation fees at private country clubs have, in general, soared to astronomical levels, so that the discrimination has become, at least theoretically, purely economic.

There is another area where there is a conflict still playing out, and that is between the general “right to life” of a person and the right to property and to protect one’s property.  In general, the general framework of the law has historically allowed the use of deadly force in self-defense, but not to allow in a broad construct the use of deadly force “merely” to protect property, and in recent years there have actually been court cases where burglars have been awarded damages because a property owner used excessive force in protecting his or her property.  In some states, even the right to self-defense was limited if the person whose property was being invaded could withdraw safely.  And most police and lawyers say that, no matter what happened even a few moments before, shooting an intruder or attacker in the back is definitely a dangerous move from a legal standpoint.

The often unspoken justification for this particular “hierarchy” is that no property has a value equivalent to a human life, because one cannot put a value on life.  Even as a general principle, however, there are some problems with this justification. First, both government regulations for the environment and safely are based on fixed [if varied] values for human life, as are the limits for wrongful death under law in many instances. So are insurance policies. Then there’s the question of what property is and what it represents.  If you work and use some of your income to buy various goods – a house, a car, a television, a stereo – you have literally “spent” some of your life on those goods.  If someone steals or destroys those goods, in a sense, they’ve taken part of your life.   This is also true if someone hacks into your bank account or credit card.

But, for the most part, the law doesn’t see it that way.  So you have criminals who”steal,” if you will, small or sometimes significant parts of people’s lives getting minor sentences, and then serving them and returning to doing the same thing, while someone who is convicted of  killing someone will be punished more severely… yet if you add up the “pieces” of lives stolen by so-called non-violent criminals, the total damage to people in society might be far greater.

But that’s the way the hierarchy of law works.


The November issue of The Atlantic contains a feature article with the results of a survey designed to suggest on the fifty greatest inventions. I read the list before I read the article, and it struck me immediately that there was a large “something” missing from the list.  It took me a few minutes to realize what I thought it was – the domestication of animals. Now it turned out that since I didn’t read the article until after reading the list, I missed the fine print, which specified that the inventions had to have been made after the use and discovery of the wheel.

Even so, I remain convinced that human beings would not have civilization as we know it today without the development of domesticated animals, particularly large beasts of burden. As a practical matter, there has not been a technologically advanced human society that did not have beasts of burden.  Even the handicapped Incas had lamas, but for all their wizardry with stone, they never reached the level of wide-scale iron-working, for example [admittedly, the lack of trees and easily reached iron didn’t help either], but the North American native cultures had plenty of trees to work with, but no domesticated beasts of burden, except dogs, and they couldn’t make the technological leap into the iron age, either.

Why not?  Because the development of technology requires an agricultural surplus, and creating such a surplus appears to be close to impossible without organized and productive agriculture, and that has never developed anywhere on the planet without some form of large beast of burden.  A hunter/gatherer or an early planting culture has never made that leap without beasts of burden.

All of which points out to me, at least, that the vaunted human ingenuity needed some help, that we couldn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so to speak, without the horse, the ox, the water buffalo, the donkey, perhaps the elephant.  In turn, that suggests that there are indeed limits to human capabilities… something that we, as a species, really don’t like to consider.

Just a thought.

“Debating” the Issues

I always get amused and sometimes angered when someone insists on “debating” questions or issues that have been settled, especially those settled by science [and yes, I know, some science issues turn out not to be so settled, but those issues get re-settled by evidence, not debate].  For example, like it or not, global warming is happening, and like it or not, there is absolutely no genetic basis for “racial superiority.”  When people insist on “debating” those issues again, especially without new evidence, and either the politicians or the media give into them, it gives air time and publicity to bad ideas.  Just look what has happened time and time again, even under democratic regimes, when various bad ideas were debated, such as “racial purity” in the Weimar Republic that became as result of such issues the Third Reich, or, for that matter, segregation in the United States after the Civil War, by which racial superiority was resurrected through “debate” over the worth and capability of black Americans and ensuing legislation and then an infamous Supreme Court decision.

Here in the United States, I understand fully that the federal government cannot continue to run massive deficits indefinitely, but giving publicity and debating time to Ted Cruz so that he can espouse the idea that the United States should not pay its bills because the deficit is too high?  Not paying your bills is a bad idea, especially when the world’s economy rests on our currency.  This shouldn’t have to be debated.  Not paying our bills shouldn’t even be considered.  That’s not a debate; it’s demagoguery.  So is the always-resurrected idea that an income tax is somehow unconstitutional. 

Evolution is not speculation.  It’s a theory that has literally hundreds of millions of years of evidence behind it, not to mention some recently documented cases of evolution among current living species.  For Texas state legislators, and others, to insist that “creationism” be given equal time in the states’ high school curriculum, as if there is any factual basis to debate, isn’t debating the issues.  The issue is scientifically settled.  It’s just not religiously settled, and that’s not something that should even come into the content of textbooks in a nation founded on the idea of separation of church and state.

Debate on the basis of belief alone is a fool’s game, because it inevitably degenerates into a contest resolved by some form of power, not on the evidence or facts, and the most powerful fool wins.

As I’ve noted before,  at times there are not two equal sides to some issues, at least on a factual basis. There are times to say, “Enough.  Until you have new, real, and tangible evidence to demonstrate conditions have changed, this debate is over.” But, of course, that seldom happens, because true believers are never convinced by facts that don’t agree with their beliefs.

The Ender’s Game Controversy

In the science fiction community, another well-known and controversial figure has just recently declared that no one has really debated his ideas.  In a recent interview, Orson Scott Card said about the muted uproar over his views that has followed the turning of Ender’s Game into a movie, “I’ve had no criticism.  I’ve had savage, lying, deceptive personal attacks, but no actual criticism because they’ve never addressed any of my actual ideas.”  This statement is true only in the sense that the attacks have not been made on the issues raised by either the book or the movie, but absolutely false in the sense that the attacks have indeed addressed head-on ideas that Card has expressed elsewhere. 

Card has said, “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down…” [Mormon Times, 2008].  In an interview[, February 3, 2000], Card actually stated that “It should be perfectly legitimate to fire somebody for that reason [for being a homosexual] or reasons like it.” 

He’s also recently said words to the effect that, while he opposed the changes in the laws that now prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation/gender and allow gay marriage on a state-by-state basis, now that these laws exist, they’ve made his past comments moot.  Legally, that’s largely true, except…he did say that he intended to bring down the government if it “changed” the definition of marriage, and those words were rather close to advocating the violent overthrow of the government.

Now, I have met Scott on two occasions, and he certainly did not come across as stridently as those quotes indicate, but the quotes I cited are anything but isolated instances of his views.  And, like it or not, those views are at variance with both the law and public opinion, and pointing out that fact is not a personal attack.  It’s a sad truth.  Scott can talk all he wants about his critics not addressing the issues, but they have.  They just haven’t addressed the issues he wants addressed.

And as a public figure, which Scott definitely is,  especially with the coming release of the Ender’s Game film and the position of the book atop the New York Times paperback bestseller list, he should also know that once you open your mouth on public issues, especially if you say something nasty or hateful to or about others, it’s not going away.  Not ever.  Just ask Paula Deen.

“Small Government” Idiocy

As long as I’ve been writing commentary on this site, I’ve received comments from proponents of  “small government,” who argue, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan and others, that small  government is better. 

What few of these proponents of “small government” seem to understand is that the combination of small government and high technology is not a recipe for freedom, but for oppression of everyone but the well-off by the well-off.  Now… I am not anywhere close to a fan of government for the sake of government or for more bureaucracy and government agencies, but the problem we face as a society is that technology, especially high technology, requires bigness, and bigness equals power, and government, and sometimes not even government, is about all that can rein in concentrated corporate power.

At one point, the United States did have small government.  We didn’t have food inspections, and the amount of tainted, spoiled, and bad food sold was enormous.  We didn’t have environmental regulations, and most major rivers were dead or dying, and little could live in them, and several were so polluted they caught fire.  The air was so filled with soot in some cities that white shirts were gray by noon. We didn’t have banking regulations, and on a regular basis there were widespread bank failures where depositors lost everything.  We didn’t even have standardized time zones, and train schedules were essentially unusable.

Today, the United States and the world is far more advanced – and complex. There are over 80,000 flights in the United States every day. Major airports average a takeoff and landing every 1-4 minutes. Despite all the complaints, the U.S. averages about one major commercial accident a year, and some years have passed without any. Without government-imposed uniform standards for operations, safety, and maintenance, those numbers would be far higher.  Without regulation of the communications spectrum, broadcasting would be either chaos or the property of broadcasters with the biggest wallets and the most powerful transmitters.

Despite the complaints and the touting of industry about its innovation, without government funding and research, we wouldn’t have the internet or the I-Phone.  Nor would we have the interstate highway system.  We would also have millions of people living and dying in extreme poverty – as they once did – as opposed to a less than perfectly efficient welfare/disability system that results in a much less than desirable and barely adequate standard of living for a majority of the unemployed or unemployable.

Yet despite the progress created by government, imperfect as it is, there is a lack of recognition of how it has improved life in the United States for virtually everyone, and the cries for small government continue.  What these people want, it seems to me, is less government regulation over that sector of commerce, business, or life that is most important to them, in particular, and fewer rules and regulations that impede their freedom of action and ability to maximize profits. 

Government is anything but perfect, and in many areas, its regulations are indeed cumbersome and sometime unnecessary.  In other areas, the regulations don’t work, and in some areas, more regulation is likely necessary.  But what that means is that we need more effective and efficient government, not the “small government” so often touted by both ultra-conservatives and ultra-libertarians. We tried small government, and it didn’t work for a moderately complex industrializing society, and it certainly won’t work for a society that’s even more complex in a world that is getting ever more complicated.

But then, the history of small government, and its copious failures, has already been forgotten, as so much of unpleasant history is, lost in the nostalgia for a time that never was.

Repetition or Rhyme?

Over the past two centuries especially, but for longer than that, authors, historians, pundits and others have debated the question of whether history repeats itself and what, if anything, we can learn from the study of history, Personally, I like Santayana’s statement about those who fail to learn the lessons of history being doomed to repeat them.  But I also like Twain’s comment that history doesn’t repeat itself, but that it rhymes.

To say that there’s been some upheaval caused by conflicts centered on the Islamic faith over the last half-century or so would be an understatement.  Some, such as Bill Maher, who dislikes all religion, but Islam in particular, have tended to overlook the historical “rhyme” presented by the crisis facing Islam today – and it is indeed a crisis, because Christianity entered a similar phase and crisis some five centuries ago, when the ideas coming out of the Renaissance, a more scientific outlook, and doubts about the infallibility of Church and the Papacy came to a head with brutal conflicts all across Europe that lasted more than a century and resulted in the Reformation and the fragmentation of the Catholic Church.  Too many Christians today tend to gloss over the brutality and the death toll that occurred during that period.  Historical records indicate that the death toll amounted to as much as half the population of the German principalities and a third of those living in Czech or Bohemian territories.  This was also the time period when the Inquisition effectively terrorized Spain, and when Protestant-Catholic strife wracked England.  In the end, the result was effectively the establishment of government in western Europe on primarily a secular basis [with a few notable exceptions], not that such governments were not initially highly influenced by religion and religious institutions.

We’re seeing a huge socio-politico-religious upheaval involving Islam today, largely centered in the Middle East and Northern Africa today, and that strife is largely the result of the impact of Western secularity and technology on societies that have essentially been governed on an Islamic basis largely at odds with the fundamental secular basis of western nations. and most likely at least partly, if not largely, incompatible with high technology and science.  Such secular beliefs as individual worth outside the religious structure, the greater personal value and political independence of women, the supremacy of science and the scientific mindset over religion and doctrine pose a tremendous threat to the existing social and religious structure in those nations – just as the Renaissance and the rise of science did to the Catholic Church five centuries ago, and that established Islamic structure is opposing and will continue to oppose change, just as happened in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, frankly, just as some fundamentalist Christian sects still oppose change.

Unhappily, the “lessons of history,” or their “rhymes,” as Twain put it, as well as what we are already observing suggest that the death toll will continue, and may well rise, because the fight over belief is central to human and social identity…and few give up old and familiar beliefs for newer “truths” without a struggle, especially if the new beliefs result in less power for those individuals (in this case, traditional Islamic males) who stand to lose the position that they have held through religion.