Archive for August, 2016

Alternate Views?

One author’s viewpoint of the future, of society, of technology, of anything, in fact, should not preclude another’s view, or the views of a number of other authors. Nor should authors be condemned for whether they incorporate and impose a new or “better” view of matters such as gender, ethnicity, and social mores on a past society, or whether they fail to do that. What should be questioned is their accuracy in depicting the past as it was, and, if the work is F&SF, whether the society, technology, cultures, etc., they are depicting are workable and believable, and, also, for me, anyway, whether such a culture could actually evolve into what is persented.

Now, that doesn’t mean anyone has to like what an author does. I don’t particularly like the world of Game of Thrones, but as more than a few historians have pointed out, George R. R. Martin’s use of the War of the Roses as a model of sorts for his world certainly does capture the brutality and the almost total lack of morality rampant in that type of culture. I can admire the craft, but I don’t have to like the result.

That would seem obvious, or it should be, but it clearly isn’t to all too many in the F&SF field. Like it or not, in the past, and still in some societies, most positions of power and prestige and most of those in science were and are held by men, regardless of culture or ethnicity. This isn’t good for a great number of reasons, first and foremost being the fact that any society that does this is wasting at least half of its intelligence and abilities, if not a great deal more. But it did happen, and it continues to happen in some places, and likely will for a long time in others.

If an author wants to write in that kind of world, that’s his or her business, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should be required to like what such authors write or grant them awards. Nor does it mean that they should be denied readers or awards, either. Nor should it mean that writers who depict worlds with diverse populations and cultures should automatically expect readers or awards for merely pointing out what hasn’t yet happened in most societies, particularly if their talent in telling the story is submerged by the “message.” I understand this very well, since every so often some reader or reviewer critiques me for being too pedantic, and, in retrospect, at times I may have been. At other times, I suspect the readers and reviewers in question simply didn’t like considering what was behind what I wrote, but that’s a danger all writers face.

Readers largely buy what entertains them, and what entertains the bulk of readers bears less and less resemblance to reality [as I learned more than 20 years ago by publishing a very “real” book that was incredibly unpopular while watching authors who depicted the same milieu most unrealistically rake in millions]. Often what is entertaining not only has little accuracy in depicting human behavior, politics, and technology, etc., but also isn’t even that well-written, but it still sells.

Various literary awards aren’t all that much better in reflecting excellence, either, because they’re either popularity contests, as in the case of the F&SF Hugo awards, or they reflect the tastes of a small panel of judges, as in the World Fantasy Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes or even the Nobel Prize for literature. While such awards may reflect excellence, that view of excellence is highly influenced by the tastes of those doing the judging.

So…all the stone-throwing because authors do or don’t depict something in a given way seems to me irrelevant to how popular a book is or how technically and artistically good it may be.

But then, some people revel in throwing stones, either figuratively or actually.

Another Take on Income Inequality

Sometime around 7500 B.C., people began building clustered mud-brick houses at Catalhoyuk, Turkey. According to detailed archeological studies, for roughly the next thousand years, the same patterns of life persisted, apparently with all families living in the same fashion and with approximately the same level of goods and the same size houses. Analyses of the human remains show that men and women received the same level and type of food as well.

By around 6500 B.C., however, income and status inequality began to develop, and as it did, more violence also began to appear, including a significant number of individuals with healed head injuries, wounds that suggest to the archaeologists who have studied the site for more than forty years that such injuries were inflicted as a means of social control, but that such control was not necessary until pronounced income/resource inequality began to develop. This is, of course, a conclusion drawn by those studying Catalhoyuk, but it does appear without doubt that the society appeared more stable when the income levels were similar and that more violence occurred once income inequality began to develop.

I have to say that this scarcely surprises me. Historically, countries with high levels of income inequality have often had violent uprisings and/or revolutions, such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban revolution, the more recent violence in the Sudan, and the troubles in Colombia and Venezuela.

In looking at income inequality by country across the world, I was struck by several facts. First, among industrialized/technological nations, the United States has the greatest income inequality. Among all nations, there is a pronounced tendency for countries with high income inequality also to have high levels of societal violence, and that includes the United States.

All of which suggests that pushing for tax cuts on the wealthy and opposing increases in the minimum wage may well have costs beyond the merely monetary.


This year, the buzzword at the local university is “retention.” What it amounts to for faculty and staff is, essentially, to do anything possible to keep students in school. Act as their friend or their counselor. Give them any way you can to pass courses. Ensure that they get instant positive feedback.

Along with this comes a blizzard of brand-new acronyms, a program to train faculty as emergency counselors and psychologists [because the three new counselors the administration hired are so far behind that they’ll never get through the caseload of students], and the very clear message that university faculty members are responsible for getting students through in five years or less, faculty and no one else.

Since most entering students have never really had to work hard to learn and study, they’re not really prepared for college-level work, and it often seems like they can’t wait to get out of class and return to their smart-phones and ear-buds.

And that doesn’t include the facts that the local university is located in a culture where more than half the students take off two years for a Church mission, where women are pressured to marry and have children young, and where the majority of students feel “crushed,” if they get a grade below an “A” even when they don’t do the work. That doesn’t take into account that roughly half of the students are working part-time or full-time because families averaging five children spaced close together can almost never provide anywhere close to the funds necessary for college.

Then add to that the fact that many classes are taught by underpaid adjuncts who are juggling other jobs and commitments, and that the administrative loads dumped on full-time teaching faculty continue to increase and result in longer and longer hours providing information and reports to administrators that have very little to do with teaching.

And, of course, it’s absolutely taboo for a faculty member to even hint at asking whether some of these students should even be in college or whether the university is doing those students any favors by trying to keep them in classes as long as possible.

The truly miraculous aspect of it all is that so many faculty members struggle to do their best for students who are seldom grateful and an administration that’s preoccupied with numbers and thinks that excellence can be quantified by retention numbers.

Analyzing to the Death

I’ve always wanted to understand, and worked at developing my own abilities to do that whether the subject happened to be technological, historical, political, or otherwise in nature. One of the many things I’ve learned through these exercises is that while I may think I understand something, there’s always more to be learned… but there comes a point where additional knowledge adds little to understanding. Likewise, understanding is only the first step in resolving problems, and far too many individuals seem to believe that if they just “understand” the situation or problem, it can be solved or resolved.

Years and years ago, A.E. van Vogt wrote about non-Aristotlian [Null-A] thinking, presenting it as rejection of “single-valued” or straight-line logic or thinking and suggesting that a multi-valued/perspective logic structure was better for dealing with problems. That kind of approach sounded good on paper – as a good author can often make something sound – but I had a feeling that there was something inherently flawed with the idea.

Recent interactions have brought to mind that feeling, and I realized exactly what van Vogt had missed. While his proposed Null-A thinking may well work better in solving technological and physical problems, it’s limited, and often useless, in dealing with people problems, because the overwhelming majority of people don’t think that way… and don’t want to. Every individual has his or her own value system, in most cases differing slightly from that of others in his or her society, but those systems are essentially based on “either-or” assumptions. Either something is “good” or it’s not, and when something goes wrong, or is not to their liking, their default feeling is that someone else or something else is wrong or the problem.

Sometimes, that may be largely the problem, but usually, from what I’ve observed, most problems, especially human problems, have multiple causes and contributing factors, and most people reject their own contributing factors and insist that the problem is caused by other people or other factors.

Now… you can analyze this to death and come up with and list all the factors. You can point out all the psychological impediments those involved with or concerned with the problem have. But all that analysis does nothing to solve the problem – because those involved have emotional anchors to their point of view, and a number of studies, some of them quite recent, have indicated, those emotional anchors are far more powerful than either facts or logic. Only an emotional impact of some sort will change those views.

And all the analyses and data don’t seem able to change that. Likewise, bashing those who observe that this is in fact an accurate observation of current human nature doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of human beings are governed by emotionally-based, either-or feelings and decision-making.

Caught in the Middle

You might say that I’m an idealistic romantic, tempered by time and experience into a somewhat cynical pragmatist, who’s been caught more times than I can count between extremists on both sides who insist that their view is the only “true” one, and that their interpretation of events and facts is the only accurate one. I’ve also self-classified myself as a moderate, dangerous as that has become in a culture that has become more and more self-oriented and more and more polarized. Why do I say dangerous? Because attempting to point out that there are truths and lies on both sides can subject one to attacks from the true believers on each side. And, unhappily, there are “sides,” whether they’re called that or not, because people do have differing beliefs, based on their environment and their heritage, and, yes, even their genetics. I’ve seen this in my own extended family where, at times, siblings of the same parents have very different views of fundamental issues.

I’ve also observed that today there are fewer and fewer people who want to steer a middle course, and more and more who believe that moderation, or an understanding that one can’t remedy evils just with the enactment of a law or a proclamation, is a sin of the first order and who believe that a simple and extreme “solution” is the answer, ignoring the fact that virtually all such extreme solutions can’t be implemented, either practically or legally.

Both the extreme “Trumpists” and the extreme “Sandernistas” also seem to have the feeling that, if they don’t get all of what they want immediately, the system is rigged. And, in a way, they’re right. The Founding Fathers designed our government so that immediate and radical change in government was close to impossible. That doesn’t mean change can’t occur; it just means that you have to work at it for much longer. But some of these people turn their backs on what has been accomplished because they didn’t get everything they wanted immediately, which is another expression of the current situation, because not only is the electorate polarized, but the extremes on both ends want their polarized goals and ideology implemented instantly.

The current presidential election highlights this cultural disaster, because surveys indicate that the factor motivating most voters is not support FOR a candidate, but opposition to that candidate’s opponent. And how did this all come about?

In a single word – dissatisfaction.

Despite the fact that the United States and a number of other industrialized nations enjoy historically the highest standard of living overall, and certainly the best level of health, all too many people are unhappy. The have-nots are unhappy because they feel that too much of the recent economic gains go to the top one tenth of one percent, a feeling not unjustified by the fact that over eighty percent of American families have seen either flat or falling incomes (in real dollars) over the last ten years and that in the recovery since 2008, 85% of the income gains have gone to the top one percent of earners. Add to that the fact that somewhere between sixty and eighty percent (depending on the study) of new jobs have wages that pay less than $17.00 per hour, and roughly half pay below $13.50 [which amounts to annual wages barely above the poverty line for a family of four.

Much of the middle class and former middle class is unhappy, simply because, at best, their incomes have remained flat while costs of everything, especially education and medical care, have climbed.

Those who make more aren’t exactly happy either, because they’re working longer hours for minimal increases in income, at a time when U.S. non-hourly employees and professionals already work the longest hours in the world.

Only the top one tenth of one percent are doing really well income-wise, and they’re spending billions on the elections because there’s really only one place that there’s a large pool of taxable income necessary to cut the federal deficit or to pay for new programs – and that’s in their bank accounts and securities portfolios.

And that’s just the income dissatisfaction, without getting into education, the struggle over environmental issues, crumbling infrastructure, foreign trade, and a host of other problems.

But the bottom line is, no matter which side you’re on, or even if you have no side, problems that have been building for a generation can’t be solved as the result of one election, or simple one-time solutions, particularly if no one wants to recognize the problems that others have.

Glory and Gruntwork

One of my guilty pleasures is watching certain sports in the Olympics, especially swimming, but also at least a little bit of volleyball, either indoor or beach. What struck me after watching parts of several matches was that what decided the outcome of those matches wasn’t which team had the most powerful serves or the best strikers or blockers, but who had the best diggers and setters, the men or women who got in there and did the hard and dirty and largely unnoticed work that took the edge off the power serves and set up the thundering spikes.

Metaphorically and practically speaking, the same is true in most human endeavors. It’s the effective gruntwork, the unseen set-ups, the unnoticed research, the careful checking and cross-checking that lead to success.

In writing, for the most part, it’s not the brilliant phrases, the basic plot, or the non-stop action that defines a really good book, but rather the expertise in all the other aspects of writing, such as the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the subplots, and the tiny details that link everything into a seamless unity.

In politics, it’s not the brilliant speech-making or the lofty rhetoric that defines an effective lawmaker, but the skills in crafting a measure so that it will pass all the tests of legality and Constitutionality, of building effective support among both members of one’s own party and of the opposition, of doing enough research to be able to answer every possible objection to the proposal, of knowing the subject well enough to be able to explain the issue and the solution to everyone from grade-schoolers to those with doctorates, and to do so without being condescending or arrogant, and then having the perseverance to do it all again and again in order to get the job done, all the while not alienating the voters and raising enough money for the next campaign.

In business, success isn’t measured just by having the lowest prices, the best profit margin, the most efficient production process or the most productive workers. Long-term success also requires continual innovation; understanding of not only where markets are, but where they will be; an ability to discover and assess outside factors that will affect society and thus industry; and mastery of all the little details behind each of these.

My wife, the opera and voice professor, also has a listing of the details that most young singers either ignore or shortchange, including: improper posture, because that makes effective breathing almost impossible; poor everyday speaking and pronunciation, because that carries over into singing; failure to learn the musical rhythms of a song before memorizing the lyrics; lack of adequate keyboard skills; and a whole host more.

In short, all those unsexy, grubby, painstaking, unglorious tasks that are seldom, if ever, recognized are what lie behind success… and that’s something that fewer and fewer young people are taught and shown every passing year, as well as something that far too many voters fail to take into account when casting their ballots.

This Electronic World

Yesterday, my wife the professor set out for work… and was back in less than half an hour. Why? Because the power was out at the university, and the reason was that a student who was texting while driving lost control of his car and ran into the electric power distribution transformer. The immediate result was that the entire university lost power for more than half a day, but because the transformer is actually connected to the music building, the university public works crews could shunt power to the rest of the campus, but repairs to the music building’s electric distribution system may take several days, perhaps a week. In the meantime, even without power, the building is effectively shut except for emergency access, because all the locks are electronic.

Texting while driving strikes again, and while this comparatively small accident injured only one driver and shut down a small-to-mid-sized university for half a day, the fact that all the doors are electronically actuated underscores the growing reliance of everything in society on electronics and electric power.

A far larger problem occurred early Monday morning when apparently the failure of a piece of electronic equipment at Delta’s headquarters triggered a power failure and crashed the entire computer system and grounded the airline’s flights for hours, causing more than 600 flights to be canceled and some 3,000 or more to be delayed. Delta said it didn’t know why the power outage hadn’t brought all the back-up systems on line.

And that wasn’t the first airline computer problem. A month ago Southwest airlines had to delay and/or cancel some 2,000 flights due to a computer system glitch.

These kinds of events point out the vulnerability of the United States to power outages and computer system crashes, and, frankly, the fact that it appears that we just might need to be doing more as a society to safeguard and back up both our power sources and our electronic information networks and security systems.

Perhaps some businesses are, but it appears that the cost to Delta from the latest outage/crash is going to cost quite a bit more than up-grading and improving back-up systems would have… and now back-up costs will still be incurred. From what I’ve observed of the local power company here in Utah, they’re still playing roulette with their placement of spare transformers and the like, suggesting that the efforts of electric power system providers leave quite a bit to be desired.

But then, maximizing current profits takes precedence over everything, even long-term profitability – or even survival – just as the immediate pleasure of texting appears to take precedence over safety… and even survival.

NOTE: The latest word from the university is that the damage was so extensive that it will likely cost at least several hundred thousand dollars to replace the equipment, and take six months to a year to obtain a permanent replacement transformer/distributor. In the meantime, the university is operating on a mix of a back-up generator and “temporary” re-wiring.

Writers’ Shift

Over the past few years I’ve been asked how the field of writing has changed since I was first published, a question I suspect comes up because I’ve managed to stay published for a long enough time that I might have some perspective on any possible changes affecting writers, in particular.

Some of the changes are obvious to any even casual reader, such as the decline in the number of big box chain bookstores and the growth of ebooks, along with a decline in the availability of a diversity of mass market paperback books. Others are less likely to be quite so apparent, and some will be apparent only to long-time F&SF readers, such as the actual length of books.

When I started writing most SF novels fell in the 80,000-90,000 word range, and for a very good reason. Almost all science fiction was published as paperback originals, and paperback books longer than that had a disconcerting tendency to fall apart rather quickly. Also, there was very little fantasy, and for whatever reason, science fiction novels, in general, tend to be shorter than fantasy novels. The binding technology has gotten better, and now most F&SF tends to be published in hardcover first – a practice pioneered largely by Tor, I might add. And whether it’s because of better bindings, more fantasy, or something else, F&SF books are definitely longer and larger than they were thirty-five years ago.

While it’s one of those things I can’t prove absolutely, what I have observed suggests that writers who are not blockbuster best-sellers and who turn out a book a year or more infrequently are earning less than they used to, largely because bookstores carry fewer titles in backlist inventory and because media buzz, even electronic media hype, tends to die out much more quickly after a book is released than it once did. That’s one of the reasons why more and more authors find they need to publish more frequently and to establish and maintain as much of a media presence as they can. The problem with this is that maintaining a full-scale media presence takes a great deal of time and effort, and that time and effort isn’t going toward actually writing books.

At the same time, publishers aren’t doing as many author tours, except for their very top authors, as they once did, and more and more authors are trying to arrange their own appearances, pretty much anywhere that they can. This was greatly frowned upon in past years, especially by the big-box book chains. One such chain wouldn’t let me appear in any of their stores for several years because I went around corporate management and worked out an appearance in one of the chain’s stores because, for some reason, the chain didn’t seem to want me appearing in any of their stores in a certain mid-sized city, even though the local stores did. Now, the local community relations people in many of the B&N stores seem much more receptive to that, but I wonder if they’re just keeping corporate headquarters in the dark, or if headquarters is just grateful for anything that might boost sales.

Because more and more authors are doing personal marketing of some sort, the author who doesn’t is often at a disadvantage, but personal marketing takes a considerable amount of time and effort, as well as a financial outlay that can range from modest to outrageous.

Another area that’s changed is that there’s much more media interest in authors who are in some way personally intriguing or young and attractive. While this has always been true to some degree, it seems as though that’s become even more so, and that there is now a greater number of authors who get read more because of their media persona than because of the content of their books.

Not surprisingly, really accurate “hard” science fiction has declined, replaced largely by “space opera,” even steampunk, perhaps because it takes more knowledge and effort to write good solid science-based fiction, because scientific discoveries have ruled out a great number of popular scenarios, because those discoveries require more knowledge on the part of readers at a time when fewer and fewer readers are science-literate, and because more and more readers prefer exciting escapism from a world they believe is already too technically demanding.

And, of course, there is self-publishing, the growth of which is well-known, but which would have astounded followers of the field if someone had predicted its impact in 1990, and probably such an accurate prediction would have earned the forecaster ridicule. That impact was made possible by electronic books, an innovation which unfortunately has also had the impact of effectively destroying significant percentage the mass market paperback sales, while boosting piracy, with the result that most authors’ per book ebook sales don’t make up for the loss in sales of recently released books, and largely only authors with either blockbuster titles or long backlists come close to the royalty levels that existed in the 1990s.

All in all, a very mixed bag in how authors have fared.

The Self-Made Myth

It’s always baffled me how so many successful, usually white, usually male, individuals claim that they alone were close to solely responsible for their success, discounting or ignoring so many factors that contributed to that success.

One factor that’s so often discounted is simply the fact that it’s easier to take risks if you’ll still have a safe place to sleep and something to eat if that risk turns to failure. Another is knowing that you have the skills or qualifications to get another job. Yet another is having a lighter skin color. Another is having a manner of speaking that’s accepted. The list of other overlooked “advantages” is far longer than most “self-made” men will ever consider. And I’ve certainly had more than a few of those usually discounted or overlooked advantages.

Then, there’s luck. Now, it is true that people who work and try harder do have more “luck” than those who don’t, but in all the fields in which I’ve worked, I can name a number of people who had more talent and who worked harder that others who were more successful, largely because the successful ones were in the right place at the right time.

Obviously, it’s not all luck. I do work hard. I’ve averaged writing 2 ½ books a year for more than twenty straight years, and I’ve visited almost forty percent of the B&N bookstores in the U.S. over the past 20 years, as well as hundreds of other bookstores, not to mention the time and effort spent on the website and other activities, but there are other authors who worked that hard as well, and not sold as well as I have, and there are some who haven’t worked as hard as I have who’ve sold a great deal more.

I was a marginally successful short story writer – very marginal – until Ben Bova wrote me a critical rejection letter. He didn’t have to write it. I was fortunate that he did, because his suggestion that I should write novels was absolutely accurate. I was also fortunate that David Hartwell read all the major SF magazines, because when I submitted my first novel to him, he recalled my name from the few ANALOG stories I’d written, and that meant that he turned to reading my manuscript before those of totally unknown writers. Now he bought the book because it was good enough to publish, but I’m sure there were others good enough to publish that probably didn’t get bought for various reasons. I was also fortunate that David prompted me to do to my first SF convention, because the experience at that particular convention prompted me to write The Magic of Recluce, which I never would have considered, at least not until later, and Tor published that book with a Darrell Sweet cover just a year after The Eye of the World, the first Wheel of Time book, which had a Sweet cover, and the fact that The Magic of Recluce also had a Darrell Sweet cover and was released so soon after The Eye of the World certainly had to have helped enormously in launching my fantasy career.

Whether you call it luck or good fortune, it’s still a factor, and while I’m exceedingly happy that those events worked out that way, I’m also very well aware that they might not have… and that I could still be struggling to write short fiction while mired in a 60-80 hour a week high stress job in Washington, D.C. All of which is why I’m extremely skeptical of anyone who touts themselves as self-made. There are doubtless a handful of such individuals, but far, far fewer than most of those who claim such a title will ever understand.