Thoughts on Action in Fiction

Action in science fiction and fantasy is often overvalued, whereas, in mainstream fiction, from what I’ve seen, it tends to be undervalued. Part of this difference, I suspect, lies in expectations. Historically, science fiction and fantasy were expected to be exciting, and most readers tend to view action as exciting, while “mainstream fiction” is supposed to be “thoughtful.”

What this view tends to overlook is the fact that action, in real life, is always either the result of an earlier decision or a reaction to some other event or action. In short, somewhere along the line, someone’s “thought” was behind all that action.

Wars don’t start when one kingdom sends knights or troops across the border of another kingdom. They begin well before that for any number of reasons, when a prince is killed by a terrorist, or when a group of dissident aristocrats protest taxes imposed by a distant ruler, or when the head of state of one country decides to take back territory taken in a previous war, which had begun because that territory had been taken away even earlier. Or perhaps the war began when the ruler of a land decided to repudiate the authority of a high priest. Or when the ruler of one land seizes the ships of another land and demands tribute. From the decisions made in studies, throne rooms, military headquarters, or mercantile banks come actions that spur conflicts of interest, and those conflicts lead to wars or military actions and adventures of various sorts.

All too often in action-oriented books, there’s little or no mention of what led to the fighting, except for a brief mention or rationale, with most of the emphasis on what those involved must do in the situations in which they find themselves, and in a way, that makes matters so much simpler. Whatever the protagonist does is for his or her survival. The tacit assumption in most books, except those where the protagonist is an anti-hero, is that the main character’s goals are worthwhile, even in those instances where he or she may not be, although, sometimes, the story is about how the noble protagonist must stoop to despicable means in order to survive or to accomplish great and worthwhile goals [and, yes, I’ve written a few books with that plotline, but I’d like to think that there was a great deal more about why he or she happened to be in that position].

All that leads to the question: Does it matter what led to the fighting or the action?

Obviously, I think it does, as well as the question of how that thought or decision led to what follows. Almost always, military and “action” figures in real life reflect some aspect of their society… and the way that society, or that part of it, thinks. That means that a character that is true to life is going to give some thought to why he or she acts in the way they do, and they may feel conflicts with their mission or their orders… or with the laws under which they live. Or they may agree totally and yet find their orders in conflict with what they believe they stand for.

In most F&SF, this conflict and others are usually resolved in terms of action, although, personally, I try never to have all conflicts fully resolved, even when the ending theoretically ties up most of the loose ends. In mainstream fiction, it’s often never resolved, even when action does occur, but then F&SF has “traditionally” been more optimistic, an optimism that’s often come under attack by the “darker” side of the field as being unrealistic, but doesn’t that make “dark” F&SF more like mainstream fiction with magic or high tech?

Living in La-La Land

One of the greatest gifts of the species homo sapiens is the ability to dream of what might be. Unfortunately, that ability is also one of our greatest curses, because it allows individuals to dream up unworkable and truly terrible beliefs and inspires them to try to impose them upon others, often by force or deception, if not both. In this, mass media, like all technology, allows the amplification of human abilities to spread and impose various beliefs.

So now we live in a country where the President of the United States believes that a tax bill that conveys the majority of its benefits upon the wealthiest one percent of all Americans will improve life for everyone and where a significant percentage of Americans shares that belief. A country where the President and policy makers believe that there’s a workable military solution to the nuclear weapons efforts of North Korea [and there is, that is, if you’re willing to accept the destruction of South Korea and millions of Korean deaths]. A country where roughly half the population believes that the massive proliferation of individual weapons of death actually reduces violence, despite endless and irrefutable [factually, that is] statistics to the contrary.

These sorts of delusions, of course, aren’t limited to the United States, and some other countries are far worse, but even here in the “good ole USA,” I run across personal examples that stagger me, even as I recognize that belief is stronger than fact, stronger than rationality, and more powerful than a speeding locomotive [to totally scramble metaphorical comparisons].

This week, a student we know revealed that she was told not to come for Christmas by her mother because she had set a horrible example for her younger siblings. Her offense? She was dating a young man who was not of her faith. Rejecting your own child for that?

Then I heard the university president claim that over the past twenty years the university had more than doubled in size, but the student/faculty ratio was lower. When the full-time faculty has increased by only thirty percent, but the administration and adjunct faculty have more than tripled, is this self-delusion or deliberate deception?

Here in Utah, President Trump proclaimed that his action to cut the Bears Ears National Monument by more than eighty-five percent would allow native people to have a rightful voice over the “sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions.” Those Native Americans clearly didn’t think much of that, since they supported the original monument size and in fact have so far filed four lawsuits against the Administration. The president also contends that the best Senate candidate for the open seat in Alabama is a confirmed sexual predator of high school girls because the Senate needs that Republican vote, while, of course, Al Franken and John Conyers – both Democrats – should be expelled from Congress for their sexual predation.

A national poll and study revealed that Americans continue to value men on their accomplishments and women upon their appearance. And, as I’ve mentioned so many times before, educational bureaucrats and politicians keep claiming education is getting better, and that more students are going to college and graduating. That may be so, but a greater and greater percentage of them can’t learn and synthesize information or write coherent paragraphs.

All this gives me the uneasy feeling that the “true believers,” those who place belief in their political tribe or faith above facts and reality, are winning and that the United States is indeed moving toward becoming even more of a La-La Land, where all that matters is the strength of belief, whatever that belief may be.

Another Statistic

A few days ago, a friend of mine, who was also the husband of a colleague of my wife the professor, became a statistic. He shot himself fatally while his wife, also a professor of music, was at work. We’ve been friends, if not the closest of friends, for a number of years, and we even had them over for Thanksgiving dinner, as we have had for the past several years.

He had been an on-site construction manager for industrial projects, and some thirty years ago was badly injured in a construction accident. He was almost completely paralyzed for some time, but managed to regain enough muscular control that he could walk, talk, and handle most everyday tasks, although he did lose what I’d estimate as probably 60-70% of his former muscular strength, especially in his upper body. He lived most of his life since the accident in some degree of pain. With the help of opioids, he’d managed a normal life as essentially a house-husband – he did the cooking and light cleaning. And this worked for more than 25 years. But several years ago, even though he’d never abused opioids, with all the furor over them, he was essentially denied their use. Then he fell getting out of bed and shattered his leg, and had to go into total rehabilitative care because he didn’t have the upper body strength or coordination to use either crutches or a walker. Even after the leg healed, the pain got worse, and he lost 60 pounds in a year, and the doctors kept insisting the pain was all in his head.

He tried more physical therapy, to the degree that it was physically possible, and forced himself to take walks three to four times a day. Nothing that the medical profession suggested worked, and to top it all off, at one point, doctors even implied that both my friend and his wife were opioid users, which was totally ludicrous, given that she abstained from any kind of stimulants or drugs, except coffee, tea, and diet cokes… and that he had never turned to illegal drugs or to illegal means of acquiring prescription painkillers.

In the end, when he finally took his own life because the pain overwhelmed him, he became, not a victim of opioids, but of the war on opioids. He was an intelligent and highly disciplined man, a devoted vegetarian, who’d never used any drugs, except the opioid painkillers, and those never to excess, and who might have two glasses of wine with dinner, very occasionally. He was gently and kindly witty and very good company. He’d managed very well for 25 years on a moderate opioid regime, but with all the furor about opioids, this relief was denied to him.

This is not the only story I’ve heard along these lines, but it’s the closest one that I’ve witnessed personally.

As I’ve noted before, it seems as though the policymakers in this country, and possibly elsewhere, are ignoring the problem of pain and are essentially treating everyone who seeks relief of that pain as a potential criminal statistic. If this continues, and I see no sign of it changing, there will be a significant increase in both suicides and/or the use of illegal drugs or “illegal” possession of legal opioid painkillers, if not all three. And that’s assuming that these increases haven’t already begun.

“Connected” or “Disconnected” ?

One of the seemingly unfathomable and comparatively new outlooks my wife the professor has noted among students entering college in the last two to three years is a comparatively much lower level of understanding of certain connections and values that used to be easily comprehended by past students.

For example, students given full tuition scholarships, which require at least an even “B” average, are blowing off classes and not doing the work…. and they lose a four-year scholarship, which is worth tens of thousands of dollars. And we’re not talking about well-off students with family money, nor are these students disadvantaged minorities. They come from working or middle-class families; they have good grades in high school and high SAT/ACT test scores. Some of them will overcommit to part-time work in order to pay for what those of us in an older generation would have considered luxuries, such as newer cars and I-phones, but they’re not using the money to buy textbooks, or even borrow them, or in the case of music students, not even to purchase the music they’re supposed to be learning as part of their major, complaining all the time that they don’t have the money. It’s almost as if college is an imposition.

At the same time, they pay for everything with plastic, almost as if they had no idea of where the money represented by the endless card-swiping comes from.

Then there are those of higher than average intelligence who cannot take a series of events, or pieces of music, or facts and synthesize what they have in common or how they differ. Nor can a majority of them write a coherent paragraph. Far too many of them feel that they have no obligation to learn, and that every professor is under an obligation not only to inspire them, but to spoon feed them what they need to know. This is not helped by an administration whose overt and clearly expressed philosophy is that professors are solely responsible for keeping students in school and that student retention is a higher priority than a good education.

A majority of these students have little or no intellectual curiosity, as well as little knowledge of either American culture or history, let alone the history or cultures of other lands.

Yet, they’re generally good young people, if as self-centered as most teenagers have been in at least the past several generations. They’re not mean or vicious, but they don’t seem able to figure out what work needs to be done unless they’re given specific directions. And when they reach the end of those directions, they stop and look around blankly.

In many ways, for a generation cited as the most connected in history, it’s almost as if they’re totally disconnected from anything but their electronic “reality.” They don’t talk to the people around them. Far too many of them don’t understand deadlines and get upset when professors don’t “understand” that they’re stressed or have emotional issues. They don’t really seem to make a connection between the quality of work and success. They don’t understand, or want to understand, the history that led to where they are.

Too many of the voice students can’t even explain what they feel when they’re singing, and yet they want to be professional singers… and they don’t get the fact that unless they can master their own bodies, and understand the feelings and muscular control necessary, they’ll never make it as singers or teachers of singing. In fact, many actively reject connecting to their physical feelings.

Disconnection may shut out a world they find unpleasant or unimportant… until that world crashes through their electronic bubble and asks them to pay the bills with real physical work requiring meeting standards on someone else’s timetable. And it will… sooner or later.

The Betrayal of Trust?

As I’ve pointed out before, both in this blog and in various novels, public trust is vital for a working civilization on all levels. We trust that there will be water and power. Despite a handful of terrible mass shootings, we trust that, in the vast majority of times, we can walk the streets of our communities without being gunned down. We used to trust the media for comparatively honest reporting, but that trust is rapidly vanishing, and has vanished entirely in the minds of a large segment of the American population.

Because we’re a social species, we instinctively look for individuals in whom we can place trust. Most people don’t trust numbers, and they tend to trust those who try to persuade them with numbers and statistics even less. They want to trust people who are like them and who seem to tell the truth.

But what happens when more and more public figures are revealed not to be truthful in their private lives, or worse, to have engaged in reprehensible behavior that they kept secret through their power? Immediately, people begin to wonder in whom they can put their trust. Americans have already lost faith in most career politicians – one of the reasons why Trump was elected.

More than ever we’re seeing how many more politicians and media figures have engaged in far less than exemplary conduct in their private lives, and the trustworthiness of the media, never that high to begin with in recent decades, is plummeting, as is the public image of business leaders. What we don’t like to admit, either privately or publicly, is that what we’re seeing about public figures isn’t anything new, but merely a revelation of what has gone on all along. What’s different is that the formerly powerless people who used to be abused without recourse now have recourse, and the results are anything but pretty. History has also revealed that revered and beloved leaders often kept secrets that might have driven them from power, had they been revealed, but those revelations usually didn’t come out until much later.

What some powerful people also fail to realize is that, in a mass media and social media society, very little can remain hidden for long, and it’s harder and harder to keep secret personal shortcomings or abhorrent or potentially illegal or immoral behavior. And, no matter who you are, all of us have deeds or words that could be embarrassing or worse if revealed to the world. This isn’t something new. We want to have leaders better than we are, and we want them to be above reproach in everything. But our leaders don’t come from some spotless heaven; they come from society. Yet we feel betrayed when dirty secrets or sexual harassment charges appear in the media.

And that sense of betrayal makes it harder and harder for leaders to lead, and to reach any sort of consensus, partly because each side doesn’t believe it can trust the other, and partly because, when there is a lack of trust, people want absolute guarantees and, too often, an absolute guarantee for one side totally alienates the other side.

Now… if we want to reduce the magnitude of the “trust” issue in business, government, and the media, there’s one fairly straightforward way to elect politicians less likely to engage in sexual harassment, or to choose news executives and anchors who are less likely to use the “casting couch,” and that’s to put more women in charge. While there are some women who have sexually harassed others, according to EEOC figures, men in power are more than five times more likely to abuse their position than are women. Not that this will set well with most men… like most unpleasant facts.

Another possible way to deal with the trust issue is to spend more time verifying those facts that can be verified, rather than blindly trusting people we find appealing and likable. Another way is to be more skeptical and to judge political and media figures by what they’ve done… and what they’ve failed to do… and to evaluate what they propose by what the impact will be… and not by what they claim. We may not ever know all the exact details, but when a tax cut has the greatest immediate benefits for the wealthiest one percent, is it really prudent to trust the politicians who claim that it’s a great benefit for the other 99% of the population? When every nation in the world, except the U.S., has taken a stand of some sort against global warming, is it really wise to trust politicians who ignore this, or who claim global warming is a hoax.

When a political party rigs the representation in a state so that by winning less than half the votes in that state, that party controls 60% of the state legislature, can the politicians of that party really be trusted to be truthful?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to reduce our emphasis on personality or increase our emphasis on facts and actual accomplishments. We might not be quite so disillusioned then.