“Enemy of the People”

Now that Trump has called at least some members of the media “the enemy of the people,” it’s apparently time for another refresher course in history, especially since far too many Americans have a tendency to ignore history. That tendency, unhappily, is not new either. The great Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.”

History may not repeat itself exactly. It may not, at times, even rhyme, as Mark Twain put it, but history does offer lessons, and one of those lessons is that any attempt to muzzle the press, or the media, is the mark of an incipient tyrant. Such efforts are not new even in the history of the United States. When John Adams was president, the Alien and Sedition Acts were employed to punish writers and presses that criticized the Adams Administration. One Congressman wrote and published an article decrying the “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” of the administration, and was punished by a hefty fine and four months in jail. And he was far from the only one prosecuted for criticizing the government.

In the end, of course, Adams’s use of the acts was one of the factors that led to his defeat in the next election by Thomas Jefferson and the repeal of most of the acts.

Regardless of how aggressive or even scurrilous the media attacks on the President may be, history shows that political leaders who try to curb the media critical of them all too often do so as the first step toward aggrandizing themselves or even as the first step toward using government to destroy the ability of their opponents to speak so that such political leaders can obtain greater and continuing power.

Trump has every right to complain about how the press treats him, whether such treatment is accurate and fair or whether it is not. But under the First Amendment, even the President does not have the right to censor his critics, nor should he be equating criticism against him to being an enemy of the people.

Besides which, there is the very real question of “the enemy of which people?”

Trump is essentially claiming that anyone who doesn’t agree with him is an enemy of the people. Not only is that a highly polarizing view, but those of us who don’t agree with many, if not most, of his policies, are not enemies. We’re citizens as well, and citizenship brings with it the right to criticize.

Let Trump defend his policies on their merits, but not by personal attacks on those who oppose him. That’s just using the power of the presidency to bully others, and it also directs attention away from the policies themselves.

But, that too, is a well-known historical tactic of dictators and demagogues, a tactic forgotten or ignored, because too many people think history doesn’t teach anything… or don’t believe it, which may be why 43% of all Republicans believe that the President should have the authority to shut down “misbehaving” media outlets.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when nearly half of a major political party believes in censorship by the President, to me, that’s frightening.

Science in S.F.

For some time, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that some readers who proclaim their love of science fiction don’t really love science or SF that actually relies on science. What they love are the gadgets, the faster-than-light travel, the blasters or lasers, the AIs that think like people and not like artificial intelligences. And many of these people seem to get upset if science gets more than a passing mention.

Now… I know. I’m the one who has, for years, railed about writers who don’t write about people, or whose characters are cardboard propped up by in-depth and very realistic science that goes on for too many pages. And I’ve called that segment of the genre technoporn.

But there should be a middle ground [yes… I’m once more advocating for middle ground and moderation in a society that is ever more polarized] where science is a real and tangible part of the fiction, but enables or restricts the acts of the characters in the fashion that it does in “real life.”

When I wrote Solar Express, I knew that there would be a segment of readers who didn’t like the fact that the two main characters communicate through what is essentially a future form of email. And some readers did object, not as many as I feared, but I wasn’t restricting my characters artificially, or because I was being old-fashioned, but because even speed of light communications don’t work in real time much beyond the orbit of the moon because of the time delay. The Earth is roughly eight light-minutes from the sun, and that means a 16 minute delay between sending a message and getting a reply. I also limited the technology to what we know is theoretically possible… and potentially affordable.

But I’m seeing a growing number of readers who aren’t interested in the slightest in science, and who object if even a hint of real science lasts more than a sentence.
Some readers will likely say that’s fine if the book is set in a future where the plot doesn’t rely on science, but unless we’re talking post-apocalyptic societies with lower technologies, the science should at least be semi-realistic. And, if the writer is dealing with a plot relying heavily on science and technology, some of that needs to leak out in passing, enough so that the “science” isn’t just another form of “hand-wavium.”

Science has great possibilities for speculative fiction, but real science also has considerable limitations… and high-tech science is incredibly expensive. The Navy attempted to come up with a truly futuristic warship in the U.S.S. Zumwalt, but the advanced guns required ammunition that cost almost a million dollars for each projectile. Just 2,000 rounds would have cost almost $2 billion.

So… death stars are really nifty, but no realistic empire could ever afford to build them, and most of the weapons wouldn’t work, and certainly not the way they’re depicted. All of which just may be why there are fewer and fewer authors who even attempt realistic SF, and why so much of what passes as hard SF is really science fantasy, but which very few readers or writers want to admit.

Awards, Panels, and Diversity

For those who are fortunate enough to have missed the latest kerfuffle involving the World Science Fiction Convention, this year, when a preliminary program was posted, there was an uproar.


Because, from what I can gather: (1) a number of authors who had been nominated for World Science Fiction Awards (the Hugos) were not even on the program; (2) at least one individual whose gender remains a mystery to me and who had been listed on the program was greatly offended because some convention volunteer had changed that individual’s gender to masculine; (3) too many white straight males and a few too many straight white females were on the program and apparently too few people of various colors and genders were not [I’m writing this on what was reported, because the first program was taken down before I ever saw it.].

Several years ago, there was a movement at WorldCon by the “Sad Puppies” to try to outvote “the regulars” because the Sad Puppies felt that the regular attendees were pandering far too much to diversity in nominating writers for awards and that “diversity criteria” outweighed story content and quality. This year, it appears, that the diversity crowd was outraged because they felt marginalized.

In short, it seems that in nominating writers for awards, and granting recognition in terms of being on the program, some group is always outraged. I’d be among the first to say that no individual or group should be excluded or marginalized because of color, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or lack thereof, or choice of topic. By the same token, no one should be included just because of those characteristics. The focus should be on what is written, not who wrote it… or who didn’t.

Years ago, Betty Ballantine, the co-founder of Ballantine Books, was reputed to have said that there was more than one kind of award, and that one award that was so often overlooked was how many people actually read a book. Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, has offered similar words.

The Hugos are represented as acclaiming the best F&SF published the previous year. They don’t exactly do that. They represent the judgement of those WorldCon attendees who choose to vote as to what is the “best.” Nominations require that the nominator be a member of either the current WorldCon or the previous WorldCon, but only those who have purchased a membership for the current year can vote to choose which of the top nominees will win.

The number of WorldCon memberships can vary greatly from year to year, from as low as perhaps 3,500 to the 10,000 range [which is rare], and the winners rack up only a few thousand votes.

Now… consider the size of the F&SF readership market. Last year, in the U.S. alone, over twelve million F&SF books were sold, and major publishers and well-established independent presses issued roughly 2,000 different titles. There’s no truly accurate way to establish how many self-published titles were issued, but I think it’s unlikely that, at most, more than a few thousand titles sold more than a thousand copies, but that’s still at least another million or more books sold. The website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has more than 43,000 followers, and I know literally at least a score of writers I strongly suspect have sold more than 100,000 copies of one or more novels. All of the Harry Potter books sold at least in the tens of millions. Since it’s unlikely that most of the buyers bought more than one copy, this suggests to me that there’s a very active U.S. F&SF readership that well exceeds 100,000 and by quite possibly quite a bit more.

All of that means that, while getting a Hugo gets an author certain bragging rights, it doesn’t mean that other books may not be better. It just means that a majority of the few thousand attendees thought the Hugo winner was better than the other nominees. Even professional editors in the field and critical literary magazines disagree over what’s “best.” I know of quite a few F&SF books cited by Kirkus Reviews as “best books” of the year that didn’t even make the Hugo nominees listing.

So… who gets chosen for Hugo awards and representation on panels is still a very subjective matter, depending on where the convention is held and, frankly, to some degree, what writers, topics, and treatments are the “flavor of the year” and what are not… all of which tends to get overlooked in the on-going hullabaloo.

In the end, time will sort out what books endure as good or great, and which are not… at least mostly, because, upon occasion, even time is unfair… and that’s something all of us, writers and readers, should remember.

More of the Same

From what I can see politically, the hard-core Republicans who largely control the Republican Party are more and more worried about the increasingly liberal Democratic Party, and, as a result, are nominating more and more ultra-conservatives, looking for ultra-conservative judges, and doing their best to disenfranchise voters whose districts or ethnicities suggest they might be more liberal. These trends are the result of fears that the “white” and business-oriented culture will be marginalized, and even “socialized” if the Democrats gain power.

In turn, among the Democratic Party, there is a growing liberal groundswell, fueled by a growing hatred of ultra-conservative and discriminatory Republican policies and attitudes, and by a long and barely suppressed anger at Republican tactics they see as oppressive and discriminatory toward minorities and the poor, and benefitting only a tiny percentage of the American people, the richest one tenth of one percent. As a result, more moderate Democrat politicians are being defeated in primaries or being pushed out.

The result of these trends continuing can only be increasing polarization of the U.S. political system. For the first time in a century, and possibly much longer, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Democrats and Republicans claiming to have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party have now reached nearly 60%, and 45 percent of Republicans say that Democratic policies threaten the nation, while 41 percent of Democrats think the same of Republican policies.

A Rasmussen poll claims that nearly half the population thinks that a civil war is likely in the years ahead.


I’d submit that the answer lies in the very human tendency to double-down on cherished beliefs when one is fearful or feels threatened. And right now, lots of Americans feel threatened because, due to rapid changes in technology and economics, we live in a very uncertain time. Less educated white males have seen their economic status and future possibilities dwindle. Minorities and ethnic groups chafe under what they perceive as continued economic and political discrimination, and that feeling is reinforced by Republican efforts to make it even harder for them to vote. The Me Too Movement has pointed out gross gender discrimination, especially by white males, as well as continued underpayment of women in the same positions as men. Industrial automation has cost the nation millions of higher-paid semi-skilled jobs, replacing them with high tech equipment operated by far fewer higher-skilled employees. More education is needed for almost every decent paying job, but the cost of that education has skyrocketed while middle and working class incomes have stagnated. Even the weather is getting more uncertain.

These are just the leading causes of uncertainty, and far from a comprehensive listing, but the political result is that people cling more desperately to core beliefs, even when doing so is only going to make matters worse. Higher technology and climate change aren’t going away. Neither is a global economy. Nor are the concerns of people who’ve been discriminated on account of race, color, creed, or gender. And doubling down on either “business is the only answer” or “more government is the only answer” or “less government is the only answer” or any number of simplistic slogans is only going to make matters worse.

But for all that, simplistic slogans and beliefs continue to prevail, trumpeted by no less than the President.

Free Press… or Fake News?

After CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins persisted in asking President Trump questions he didn’t want to answer, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications chief Bill Shine told Collins she could not attend the Rose Garden event with the European Commission president which was open to all other members of the credentialed media, because Collins’ previous questions were “inappropriate.”

Presidents often don’t like the questions posed by reporters, and they can certainly chose not to answer, but for Trump or his staff to single out one reporter because the President didn’t like the questions is a rather chilling precedent.

During the Obama Administration, conservatives were upset, rightly so, because that administration investigated reporter James Rosen for apparently reporting on leaked material from the State Department. But Rosen wasn’t banned from covering the White House.

The fact that the Trump White House clearly went too far in banning Collins from the Rose Garden was illustrated by the fact that not only were “liberal” media outlets outraged, but so were conservative outlets such as Fox News

The President spends an immense amount of time and Twitter complaining about “fake news,” yet he not only refuses to answer questions on current news, but he bans the reporter who asks them? This is behavior more like third-world dictatorships or Putin’s Russia.

So… is Trump going to ban every reporter for pushing “fake news” if they ask him embarrassing questions that bear on ongoing investigations? Or other matters we should know about?