Archive for January, 2017

“Do You Hear What I Hear?”

During a discussion with a friend, who spent a career in the production side of popular music, ending up as the head of a fairly well known record label, the question came up as to what actually constituted a “standard” in popular music, that is, a song recorded and/or covered by a number of well-known performers. Our friend the former music industry executive immediately pointed out that each generation had its “standards,” to which I rejoined that not all “standards” were necessarily equal, because there can be a difference between standards, particularly given in the technical skill of the composer and performer of one generation’s standard, and that of another generation’s standards, and that there also can be a great difference between popularity and artistic excellence.

That brings up several questions. First, how can a listener tell the difference? Second, does it really matter? And third, assuming that one can tell the difference, why does it matter?

To begin with, most listeners can’t tell the difference, not really, because a listener can’t tell the difference if he or she hasn’t listened to a broad range of music, and the majority of listeners tend to listen in a narrow comfort range, both in terms of type of music and the time and style in which it is/was played or recorded. In addition, if someone doesn’t know something about the technical side of both instrumental and vocal music production, the distinctions are merely based on likeability or familiarity. That’s fine from a personal point of view, but it means that such a person really can’t see how music has changed.

Does being able to see the changes and what they indicate really matter? Again, on the level of whether one enjoys the current “standards,” it doesn’t. On a cultural and societal level, I’d submit that it does. When complex melodic patterns are replaced on a wide scale by short melodic repetitions, when repetitive rhythms and percussive effects overshadow melody and meaning, when lyrics become increasingly crude and simplistic in popular music, those all reflect a considerable societal change. But anyone who hasn’t listened to poplar music spanning decades or hasn’t studied it won’t even see the change, much less consider the implications.

Popular music is symptomatic of culture, and the issue goes well beyond music. The same issues apply to popular fiction, what art is popular, what movies and television shows earn the most or have the highest audience ratings, and even what theatre is most popular – or what entertainment form is dominant.

The majority of those immersed in a society/culture really don’t see, let alone question, what such changes mean… and what they foretell. Part of that is that most members of any culture don’t understand their own history, let alone the broader path of past history.

In the early days of Rome, gladiatorial contests were rare, and semi-religious. Chariot racing was small-time. By the time of the empire, particularly after Augustus, both had become popular blood sports. A century ago, football in the United States was a collegiate sport, and limited to comparatively few colleges at that, and baseball was the national sport. There was auto racing, but it was the habit of a few, generally wealthy, individuals.

Now, football has become the national blood sport; basketball has gone from being a generally non-contact sport to a contact sport, and NASCAR is a multi-billion dollar business. And, oh, yes, the most popular music is incredibly simplistic and linguistically almost unintelligible (while sounding pretty much all alike), and a greater percentage of movies now incorporate more and more sex and violence.

Do you see what I see?

The Importance of Place

No, I’m not going to pontificate about where people of privilege live and how that location benefits them, true as it is. Rather, I’m going to point out how the patterns of how and where Americans live influences (some might say biases) the entire political system of the United States.

By now, most people who follow U.S. politics know that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, yet lost the Electoral College by a wide margin – termed “a landslide” by Trump. When the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College, the reason was very simple. They didn’t want Presidential elections decided by the votes in Virginia and Pennsylvania, at least not exclusively by those two states.

What people tend to overlook about the Electoral College is that it reflects a mash-up of the make-up of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, that is, the total number of votes represents the total number of representative and senators. While states with greater populations have a greater number of representatives, each state has two senators. Thus, right off the bat, rural and sparsely populated states have an advantage.

The second problem is that, when the Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College, the United States was essentially ninety percent rural. This meant, that from the beginning, state legislatures were dominated by rural interests. While that influence has continually diminished, on the state level, in almost every state, rural lawmakers have an outsized vote. More important, since state legislatures, in all but two states, as I recall, dominate the reapportionment of congressional districts every ten years. Those states with rural populations tend to redistrict with an eye to maintaining the dominance of rural interests.

What has happened in Utah provides a good example of this. When I was working some forty years ago, Utah had two representatives, and one was a Democrat and one a Republican. This wasn’t a one-time thing. It continued for at least a decade, except… when Utah got more people and another Representative, the legislature made sure two of the three seats were Republican. At that time Utah periodically elected Democratic governors. For the past twenty-five years, there haven’t been any. That’s largely because of redistricting. And now, all the representatives and senators are Republicans, despite the fact that Salt Lake City has a Lesbian Democratic mayor. This just might have something to do with the 2011 re-districting that split up Salt Lake City so pieces of that Democratic bastion were included in districts where Democratic voters were outnumbered by Republicans.

Under current law, this is perfectly legal, but that “legality” overlooks two facts, one demographic and the other political.

The demographic factor is that poorer voters, for the most part, tend end up in high population density areas out of economic necessity. This makes shenanigans like re-districting them to minimize their impact much easier, and once that happens, their political power is reduced.

The political factor is that it’s not only expensive to run for political office, but it also requires name recognition, and our current President is a very good example of this. The only practical way for a non-wealthy candidate to gain political office is to work his or her way up the ladder, from city council to state representative to state senator, then U.S. Representative. If you’re in the minority, current redistricting practices make this difficult, and, as in the case of Utah at present, pretty near a practical impossibility. Add to this the fact that people working near the minimum wage level, who tend to lean Democratic usually have less financial resources, and less time to devote to politics.

California is an example of more successful Democratic redistricting, but I’d submit that it only worked there because of the growing wealth of the “newer” entertainment industry, which tends to be more liberal. Without that wealth, the state would likely have remained as it was in the time of Ronald Reagan, and the Democrats in most states can’t muster that of financial support.

So…in a different way… place matters more than is usually considered.

The March on Washington

Last Saturday, in Washington, D.C., well over 300,000 women, possibly as many as half a million, demonstrated in support of women’s rights and against the Trump administration’s positions on those rights, as did hundreds of thousands in scores of cities and towns across the nation – and even in a number of foreign cities. High profile women, primarily in politics and entertainment, spoke and exhorted women and men alike to press to retain and expand women’s rights.

Meanwhile, in thousands of suburbs and small towns across the country, life continued apace, with almost no mention or recognition of the march, except through national media outlets and media sources based primarily in large urban centers. Trump and his administration largely ignored the protestors, except to complain that they were snarling traffic and making it difficult for him and his staff to get to a scheduled meeting at CIA headquarters.

What all those demonstrators may not realize is that their millions still comprise only a few percent of the American people, and it takes more than that to effect political change, or even to keep Trump from rolling back past changes.

The bottom line? Demonstrations, whether by women, black, or other minorities, mean nothing to this president and this administration. By themselves they will change nothing. Trump respects no one and no thing except his own ego and propositions, and nothing will change his mind or his actions except some form of power, whether that power be electoral, legal, regulatory, economic, or military.

This is going to be the reality of the political system so long as Trump is president. Those who disagree will either be ignored or attacked. Civility will avail an opponent of Trump nothing but contempt, and Trump will attempt to meet power with power and crush it. Oh, there will be times of civility and charm, but only when it suits Trump.

I honestly don’t think most current politicians, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, have come in contact with anyone like Trump, and they in for more of a shock than they realize.

As for the Democrats, for the past decade and a half, if not longer, they’ve relied far too heavily on media to make their case and push their policies. They’ve neglected building grass-roots and local and state-level political structures in far too many parts of the country, and they’ve thought that demonstrations would push the way for change – and, for the most part, that hasn’t happened… and it won’t. Right now, such demonstrations will either be ignored or create a backlash of greater polarization. And, if the Democrats don’t get back to basics and hard political, legal, social, and economic grunt-work, they’re going to continue to get steam-rollered.

How Could You Possibly Miss…?

… or what about a little perspective?

The other day I was reading a post on that listed books in which weather magic was central to the plot – and, yes, The Towers of the Sunset was mentioned. When I came to the comments, all of which either seconded a book on the list or suggested another, one particular comment struck me, because over the past ten years, I’ve seen a form of this comment time and time again. The comment poster wrote, “How the list could be drawn up without [XXXXX] defies belief.” I’ve left out the name of the book because the title is irrelevant to what follows.

Once upon a time, when I was a struggling poet and had a day job, and even before that, I was a voracious reader, largely of science fiction, because that was in the days before much fantasy was published (and part of that time was even before The Lord of the Rings). I read a lot, sometimes close to three hundred books a year, and I’d accumulated a paperback library of some 3,000 F&SF books before I moved to New Hampshire in late 1989 and had to downsize my library – and life – a great deal. At that time, as my late editor David Hartwell pointed out, back then, it was barely possible to read every new F&SF title that came out in a year, and I came close some years.

That was then. This is now, as the saying goes. Right now, the major publishers and the genre F&SF presses publish around 1,800 new titles a year, and reprint another 1,600 – and that doesn’t count mainstream, romance, or mystery books that cross over or self-published titles. So there shouldn’t be a question as to why a science fiction or fantasy reviewer or columnist perhaps doesn’t include all the books that fit a given category, such as weather magic. It’s because, despite best efforts, no one can read them all, except perhaps a speed reader who has nothing else to do.

But then, shouldn’t such reviewers or columnists at least read the “best” books? That becomes a question of exactly what are the best books. Locus magazine, which bills itself as “the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field,” last year recommended something like 120 titles. That listing doesn’t include some titles recommended by others, such as the Nebula and Hugo awards, or by other recommenders, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, or Publishers Weekly. I’d venture that every year more than three hundred titles make some authority’s “best” list. That’s not surprising; even “experts” in the field have strong disagreements about what constitutes a good book, and I’ve definitely disagreed with some of those “best” recommendations or felt that other books that didn’t get a recommendation deserved such. And, to no one’s surprise, least of all mine, I’ve had more than a few books receive starred or rave reviews from one expert and be totally panned by another.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing sense of outrage, at least among some readers, when reviewers or “experts” disagree with their opinion or fail to mention a work they feel is important or that shouldn’t have been overlooked. There’s no doubt that some works probably shouldn’t be overlooked, for better or worse, because of their enormous impact. In this light, certainly Lord of the Rings comes to mind, as well as other works that have shown their impact by remaining in print and being widely read for several decades.

But the bottom line is simply that it’s difficult, if not impossible, even for the reviewers and “experts,” to read every book recommended as “best,” let alone every book that every reader feels is important, let alone agree on the significance or contribution (or lack thereof) of such books.

Another Legislative Misstep?

Last year, in an effort to curb the sale of fraudulently signed sports memorabilia and other memorabilia, the state of California passed a law that also affects the sale of books signed by the author. Although the sponsor of the bill claims that it was not meant to apply to bookstores and booksellers, it appears that such an exclusion isn’t actually in the law itself, although EBay did get itself an exclusion, as did pawnbrokers.

Under California AB 1570, when a California consumer sells an autographed item worth $5 or more, the consumer’s name and address must be included on a Certificate of Authenticity (COA). This requirement also applies to anyone reselling the item as authentic, be it a bookseller, auction house, comic book dealer, antiques dealer, autograph dealer, art dealer, an estate sales company, or even a charity. Copies of the certificate must be kept for seven years. Equally significant is the requirement for sellers to disclose the name and address of the person from whom they acquired the signed book – which is a violation of their right to privacy (a right which is also protected by law in California).

The COA must (1) Describe the collectible and specify the name of the personality who autographed it. (2) Either specify the purchase price and date of sale or be accompanied by a separate invoice setting forth that information. (3) Contain an express warranty, which shall be conclusively presumed to be part of the bargain, of the authenticity of the collectible… (4) Specify whether the collectible is offered as one of a limited edition… (5) Indicate whether the dealer is surety bonded… (6) Indicate the last four digits of the dealer’s resale certificate number… (7) Indicate whether the item was autographed in the presence of the dealer and specify the date and location of, and the name of a witness to, the autograph signing. (8) Indicate whether the item was obtained or purchased from a third party. If so, indicate the name and address of this third party. (9) Include an identifying serial number that corresponds to an identifying number printed on the collectible item, if any….

That means, among other things, that the law applies to anyone engaged in the online sale of signed items. So, if a bookstore holds an author signing for the author’s latest book and then offers the signed books on its website, it is engaged in the online business of selling signed items. Easton Press, which has a business of selling autographed new books, now refuses to sell such books in California presumably because of the paperwork requirements. So do at least three other national collectible book dealers.

I know that both Borderlands Books in San Francisco and Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego have shipped signed copies of my books in the past, and, of course, Subterranean Press offers signed limited editions of the books of scores of authors, all of which would seem to be subject to the law – which also has penalties, as stated in the law itself:

“ Any consumer injured by the failure of a dealer to provide a certificate of authenticity containing the information required by this section, or by a dealer’s furnishing of a certificate of authenticity that is false, shall be entitled to recover, in addition to actual damages, a civil penalty in an amount equal to 10 times actual damages, plus court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, interest, and expert witness fees…”

All that strikes me as pretty onerous for a signed book.

The Age of Illusion

The International Union of Geological Sciences, the organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, defines our current geological age as the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age. In 2000, however, the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen defined our current age as the “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because humanity has irrevocably changed both the environment and the planet.

Personally, I think the Paraisthiscene Age, i.e., the Age of New Illusion, would be just as appropriate, if not more so, given the range of illusions that humankind now embraces and possibly always has.

We could begin with the first great illusion, that of religion. According to a number of sources, there are more than 4,200 separate recognized religions, and more than twenty-two that have at least half a million followers. Each faith, of course, believes that it is the only “true” religion, regardless of any disclaimers to the contrary. There is certainly the possibility that, given all these faiths, that one might actually be “true.” Even if there is one “true” faith, that means that all the other believers are following an illusion, and a significant proportion of them are doing such things as shooting and otherwise harming non-believers in the name of that illusion.

A whole host of illusions are centered on war, but the greatest illusion of them all is that someone “wins” a war. If all the costs are counted, the “winner” is the side, country or alliance that loses the least, both in terms of power, economics, and casualties.

There are also a great number of economic illusions, such as the idea that gold will always be the most secure and stable measure of value. Most people really don’t understand fully that value depends on societal beliefs and practices, not on intrinsic worth of an item or commodity. Without someone willing to buy that gold brick, it’s just a soft metal. Without laws, practices, and belief, a dollar is just a piece of paper. Its “intrinsic” worth is based on a societally accepted convention that enables our economic system to function.

The freedom of choice is another illusion, one I’ve discussed before. While we all have choices, unless we’re billionaires, a myriad of factors constrain our choices. The supermarket, internet, bazaar, and thousands of other sources may offer a dazzling array of possible choices, but most of those choices are illusory for most people because they lack the resources to exercise a wide freedom of choice.

As the fragmentation and proliferation of information sources has continued, more and more of what is represented in the media is illusion of one sort or another, whether the result of inaccurate, false, or partial information, or totally fabricated “fake news.” And most people, rather than reading or watching across a broad spectrum of views and facts, gladly settle for the illusion that confirms their beliefs.

On a larger scale, in a way, everything that we see and experience is an illusion. We believe that the chair in which we sit or the table which holds dinner are solid objects, and markedly different from the air we breathe or the clouds from which rain falls, but in fact everything in the material universe is essentially composed of the same sub-sub-atomic particles. What determines what we see as solidity is merely a matter of spacing of quarks and leptons.

But then, what I see is real, and what you see is illusion.

Publication Realities

Within a week of the publication of the hardcover edition of Recluce Tales, I had several complaints that the hardcover was not the same size as the other Recluce books… and that it didn’t match. Guess what? A great many of my SF hardcovers are printed in the smaller hardcover size, but not all of them, and the different sizes don’t match on my shelves either.

Tor isn’t being arbitrary. Nor is Tor deliberately trying to destroy the symmetry of anyone’s bookcases. It’s combination of two factors. First, because it’s a collection and not a novel, Tor felt, based on past reader reaction, that a distinction needed to be made between the “regular” Recluce novels and the collection. Second, there were also economic considerations.

What some readers may not have noticed is that story collections don’t sell nearly as well as novels, even story collections set in the worlds of very popular series. In addition, single author story collections are selling less well now than they were five or ten years ago. A number of well-known authors had story collections released in full-sized hardcovers eight to nine years ago. My own earlier collection – Viewpoints Critical – was released in 2008 in a full-sized hardcover, but it wasn’t linked to any existing series.

Since then, the economics of publishing have changed drastically, and this is reflected in single-author story collections.

Off-hand, I could only find two authors, besides me, who’ve published a story collection with a major publisher in the past five or so years. Those were Brandon Sanderson, with his Cosmere collection, Arcanum Unbounded, that came out in November from Tor, and Steven Erikson, whose collection was published by Bantam in 2014. Both were also published in the smaller hardcover size. Kim Stanley Robinson, Alastair Reynolds, and Jack McDevitt all had their collections published by the specialty publisher Subterranean Press, at a much higher price, and two of the three were still in the smaller dimension hardcovers.

A great number of collections, some from well-known authors, have also come out from small presses, and some have only been in paperback and e-book format. F. Paul Wilson published Quick Fixes, his collection of Repairman Jack stories in paperback and ebook himself.

Perhaps the most striking point is that when Tor decides to publish something by Brandon Sanderson in the smaller size hardcover, where sales are not likely the only consideration, Tor clearly felt that they had to also distinguish his stories from his novels, as they did with Recluce Tales.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I frankly feel fortunate that Tor was able to publish Recluce Tales in hardcover, especially given the state of the market, and particularly since it took me over ten years to write those stories.

The Death of Wonder

Over Christmas, we visited family in the New York City area, and one of the sights we took in was the Botanic Garden’s model train exhibit – which features G-scale model trains winding their way through the enclosed garden pavilions past miniature models of historic buildings in the New York area, both existing and past homes, all made out of scraps of trees and plants. There was a model of vanished Penn Station, as well as one of Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, a whole host of mansions [past and present], various New York bridges, and more other structures than I can remember. And all of them created in great detail from plants or plant material – and nothing else. Even the transparent windows were from plants.

It was truly awe inspiring… at least to us. But there was the couple behind us, who declared, less than quietly, “This is boring. Can’t we skip ahead?”

Now, I’m among the first to recognize that a sense of inspiration or wonder is personal, and where I see something wonderful someone else may not… or may be bored out of their mind. Nonetheless, I’m concerned about what I don’t see that much of these days, especially here in the United States, and what I’m seeing less and less of is wonder in the real world. I can see that spark of wonder in people looking at screens, screens both large and small, but not in people looking at what can be done with plants, or in double rainbows arching in front of red mountains, or in crimson, sky-blue pink sunsets, or in majestic red sandstone pillars in a national park, or in mountain sand dunes made of pink coral sand sculpted by the wind.

I’ve also noticed in my visits to our national parks that while attendance is increasing, a greater and greater percentage of those visiting seem to be from other nations, at least from all the languages I hear that aren’t English.

To me, no screen can capture the beauty of fresh-fallen snow across the pines just as the sun clears the mountains to the east. And maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but to me, a screen is just as screen, and all of the computer-generated imagery on it is just that – an artificial image. A good CGI team can create anything, but it’s not real. And it’s not complete.

What’s in the real world is more complete. A live acoustical concert is more complete and encompassing than a recorded concert, or one electronically amplified, because even the best recording equipment doesn’t capture the overtones and harmonics. Even the best CGI doesn’t capture all the shifting light patterns.

What electronics does do is cram high speed images into shorter and shorter time periods at greater and greater volume – call it the fast food of perception. And like fast food, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

And I have to wonder if it’s leading not only to a detachment from reality, as postulated by SF author James Gunn in The Joy Makers way back in 1961,but also to the death of wonder about reality, especially among young people.

The Problem with Algorithms

I’m reminded on a daily basis of the prevalence of algorithms, since every time that I check on how well one of my books is doing on Amazon or B&N before long I get an email or an internet add suggesting that I buy that book. Then, too, because I live where I can’t just run out and buy a decent shirt, or coat, or even office supplies [since our sole office supply store lost its least ten months ago],and because I have to do that shopping online, I get more “targeted” ads suggesting I buy more of what I just bought.

All of this makes little sense, because I don’t need to buy more copies of the books I wrote. Nor am I likely to buy more shirts after I just purchased some… or more office supplies right after I’ve stocked up.

Now… occasionally I do buy other books, but the recommendations I get from Amazon based on my purchases are laughable. All of this suggests that, while algorithms are being used to extrapolate from my purchases what I might be interested in buying, they’re not doing a very good job… and they’re just irritating.

If that were the only problem with algorithms, I wouldn’t be writing about them.

Algorithms govern the way in which our computers present almost everything to us, from particular ways of seeing the world, reproducing stereotypes, and even strengthening our existing views of the world by tailoring news based on our past reading or searches. In essence, algorithms narrow our view of the world without warning and without providing any sense of what we may be missing.

As ScienceDaily points out, “An algorithm that claims to spot beauty and tell you which selfies to delete implies we should trust technology more than ourselves to make aesthetic choices. Such algorithms also carry assumptions that beauty can be defined as universal and timeless, and can be easily reduced to a particular combination of data.”

Add to that the idea that everything is reducible to data, which in turn affects the way people perceive their environment and everyday relations. This also explains the growing popularity of wearable devices that track aspects of our physical activity and health, then analyze and relay them back to us, directly affecting our behavior.

And last, but certainly not least, there is the fact that there are a host of algorithms that companies and governments use to track the movements and purchases of every cell phone user. A New York Times story in 2012 showed that, using such data, researchers were able to use this data to predict where people would be 24 hours later to within 20 meters.

In 1999, David Brin, both a scientist and an SF writer, predicted the demise of privacy in his book, The Transparent Society. Guess what? We’re there.