Stress and Risk

In terms of fatal risks, the most dangerous occupations in the United States are those of loggers, fishers, pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, and ranchers. Police rank fifteenth on the list, a fact pointed out by some of my readers.

The problem with that listing, though, is that it’s a single factor listing.

Compare that list to another list, that of the most stressful jobs. According to a study by CareerCast, the most stressful jobs of 2016 are, in order: enlisted military personnel, firefighters, pilots, and police, followed by 24 other positions. Other sources add to the high stress jobs such professions as surgeons, teachers, and nurses, but almost all the various high stress job ranking lists include military personnel, firefighters, pilots, and police officers in some order at the top of the list.

One of the highest factors leading to stress for most people is uncertainty, of not knowing what to expect or when. In fact, almost any job can be high stress, especially if high expectations are placed on the worker without giving that worker either sufficient resources, time, or enough control of the situation, but what’s interesting about the “top four” high stress jobs is that all of them have high levels of uncertainty, ranging from all the time to part of the time, and that three of the four, all except pilots, almost always have to operate with insufficient resources, time, and control, while pilots have to deal with a different set of stresses, such as the responsibility of hundreds of lives in their hands, often terrible and unpredictable weather, and an unrelenting schedule.

Although all of the “top four” jobs involve uncertainty, only police and pilots face it largely unremittingly, and speaking as a former military pilot, except in combat, pilots don’t generally have to worry about the possibility that at any moment someone could be shooting at them. This knowledge can’t help but trigger anticipatory stress for police as well as for deployed military personnel.

Those who hire personnel for those jobs also recognize that fact by allowing people in those fields to retire early, a tacit and real acknowledgement of just how great a toll those occupations, with their combination of stress and risk, can take on people, not only mentally, but physically, and interestingly enough, recruiting enough qualified police and pilots is becoming more and more difficult.

The Slam-Bang Opening

Recently, a reader who is also a writer trying to get published wrote me lamenting the fact that her writing is similar to much of mine, in that it doesn’t begin with an immediate crisis, killing, or an action forcing everything into a literary hundred yard dash. Or, put another way, she doesn’t write slam-bang action openings, and it appears to her – and to me – that there’s more and more emphasis in F&SF for just such openings.

Now, I have nothing against openings with action. Fall of Angels begins with a violent battle scene, followed by a failing ship, and an emergency abandon-ship scene. Of Tangible Ghosts opens with a murder. An assassination by explosives sets the stage in Imager’s Intrigue. But frankly, most of my books open more prosaically with the killings, battles, explosions, treason, wars, etc., coming a bit later. And that’s usually the way real life is.

The problem with beginning with lots of action is that anything that comes after that seems like a let-down, especially to those readers who read only for the action. Those are the readers, of course, who usually won’t enjoy my books anyway because they’re “toooo slooow,” to quote one of them. But an action-packed opening can be a trap because it tends to imply that more and more action will follow, and if the action level doesn’t increase, that lets down “action-oriented” readers, and even if the level of action stays the same, then it’s just “more of the same,” and to avoid that an author needs to ratchet up the levels of violence, and often, sex and gore.

I’ve been reading F&SF for about sixty years, and it appears to me, especially in the last fifteen to twenty years, that the violence, speed, action, and shock-value quotients, so to speak, have all accelerated and become ever more prevalent. I’m certainly not against action, or even violence, and my characters, have, upon occasion, done some terrible deeds – and I’m talking about the protagonists, not about the villains – but I have the feeling that more and more authors are relying far too heavily on action and violence and shock value for the sake of shock value, rather than on plot, character, and, frankly, the technical strength of writing, in order to reach and hold readers.

Recently, say, over the past ten years, I’ve seen an increase in letters and emails to me that say that I’m one of a handful of authors that the writer can still enjoy reading because too many authors focus on action, sex, and violence. In the first twenty-five to thirty years of my professional career, I doubt that I got even a handful of such communications. Obviously, many of these writers are older and more traditional readers, but some clearly are not.

Given this reaction, limited as it may be, and my own continuing ability to sell books, I do have the suspicion that there’s still a market for a less violent approach to writing F&SF, but, as in many things, only time will tell, but I will say to any aspiring writer that the story should trump the marketing appeal of the slam-bang opening.

Everyone’s Shouting

Last week a shooter killed five Dallas policemen and wounded nine others at a protest held in Dallas to protest the killings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. This is the largest single killing of police officers since 9/11.

Too many people remain focused almost exclusively on police abuses, and such abuses clearly exist. There’s absolutely no doubt that they do. And for all the light shined on such abuses, they continue to occur. Some police departments have made great strides in dealing with the issue of discriminatory “over-policing” of minorities, especially blacks, and some have done far less to address the problem of police abuse, especially of black males.

Police officers need to realize that the problem isn’t going to just die down and go away. It won’t, not so long as abuses continue, so long as black anger increases, and so long as there are three hundred million guns in the United States.

Yet, from what I’ve seen reported, the Dallas police department is one of those that seems to have been trying hard and doing well in this regard, one headed by a black police chief, and one where the officers killed were on duty protecting a peaceful demonstration, ironically against police excesses – until the shooter opened fire.

That said, the black community has to face up to some very hard facts as well. By any standard, even taking into account poverty, poor schooling, and various systemic problems that cause discrimination, including racial profiling, the crime rate among young black males is unacceptable. Other impoverished minorities face a great many of the same structural and social problems, and the crime rate of their young males comes nowhere close to that of young black males. Drive-by shootings and random violence and killing of children as a result of gang fights are not deaths caused by police behavior.

Yet all too many on each side of this divide, and it is a divide, refuse to see or address their own problems, and the anger and the shouting seem to grow louder. While neither side is totally blameless and neither side is totally to blame, too many on each side are behaving that way. In effect, it’s another example of polarization.

David Brown, the Dallas police chief, said it well, that the divisiveness has to stop, but it won’t stop until the majorities and minorities on each side in all metropolitan areas and towns take a long, hard, and honest look at their own problems. There’s been progress, but not nearly enough, and we as a society are running out of time.

Divo/Diva?

Theoretically, the words “diva” or “divo” are Italian for the most prominent singers, either female or male. Among professional classical singers, usually when those terms are applied to a singer, they’re meant in a much less complimentary way, a form of shorthand for a self-important pain in the ass, who makes life difficult for colleagues, conductors, accompanists, or anyone else who does not worship at the diva’s/divo’s feet.

While such divas or divos may be even outstanding and highly acclaimed, few end up having long or lasting careers. One of the very basic reasons for this is that, compared to the number of extremely talented professional singers, the number of top-flight and high-paying opera houses is very limited, and the number of good roles suited to even the best singers in each voice type is also limited.

There’s also a misconception that divos and divas only exist in the world of music, but I’ve certainly run across them in other fields, particularly in politics, but also in education, and even among F&SF writers. No… I won’t name names, because that’s not the point of what else I’m going to say. The point is simple. If you’re enough of a pain in the ass, no matter how talented you are, sooner or later, you’re going to be replaced. If you have enormous talent and ability, it will occur later, but it will happen. This is true whether you’re a writer, an artist, or an editor.

And if you’re a beginning author, you won’t even get to the point of being recognized as a divo or diva. I know. I’ve seen it happen on more than a few occasions, where an author insists he knows more than an editor and that the editor doesn’t know how to market his book or doesn’t understand his genius… or something else. In most cases that I’ve seen, those writers never really went anywhere. [And by the way, from what I’ve seen, in writing, there are more divos than divas.]

I’m not saying that editors are always right. They’re not. But almost always, a seasoned editor is far more likely to be right than a beginning author. The seasoned editors got there by having a better track record than other editors, and if you don’t think editing is a competitive business, talk to a few editors.

All that doesn’t mean an author can’t ask why, especially if the asking is done politely. And it doesn’t mean an author can’t suggest. But unless you’re already at the top of the bestseller lists, you’d best not demand. And even being at the top of the list isn’t proof against divo-self-destruction of career. I’ve seen that happen, too.

Just like singers, we authors are kept in business and kept writing by having enough people buy our books that the royalties pay the bills for us and for our publishers – and the same is still true if you self-publish. Most editors handle a number of authors. They tend to resent authors who take up a great deal of their time unless those authors produce incredibly good sales numbers, and they still resent those authors, which means, if you’re one of those, when the sales numbers drop, that editor isn’t going to be quite so solicitous. And if you’re not one of those authors, and are barely making the sales cut, when someone else comes along who’s much easier to work with, your books will go on the back burner, and that’s if you’re lucky.

I suppose the point I’m hammering is simply: Be the best you can be, but never be a divo/diva.

The “Belief” Deception

Most of us, as human beings, tend to feel very strongly about those beliefs that we hold dear. In most places, those strong feelings center on religious faith, sometimes on the family, sometimes on political or social beliefs, and to a lesser degree on other matters, at least for most people, from what I’ve observed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with believing in something strongly, even passionately, but most of human history is replete with violence seemingly triggered by those passionate beliefs. Why do I say “seemingly”? Because, in the overwhelming majority of instances, those seeking power and dominance use those beliefs in causes against others in order to bolster their own position and power.

Henry VIII’s split with Rome and the Catholic faith, and his creation of the Church of England, had little to do with the vast majority of tenets of the Catholic Church, but everything to do with his desire to divorce his queen and remarry in order to have a son to inherit the crown – surely an issue of power and dominance.

Luther’s ninety-five theses nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparked the Protestant Reformation, which was initially far more about reforming abuses of power in the Catholic Church than about changing fundamental beliefs in God and Christ.

The split in Islam, between Shia and Sunni, arose essentially over the issue of who should lead the faith after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 A.D. While other issues separating the two have arisen, the split was basically about power and dominance, and it remains the same today.

While Ireland has seen a long history of Protestant/Catholic conflict and animosity, that conflict is far more rooted in power than doctrine, since the vast majority of those in power in Ireland after the end of the Williamite War in 1691 were, prior to the Irish Revolution of 1916, members of the Protestant Ascendency. After the partition of Ireland and the end of most hostilities in the Republic of Ireland in 1923, the Protestants retained economic and social control in Northern Ireland, and that conflict continued almost unabated until the agreement of 1998, although hostilities still simmer, largely because of economic and political inequalities.

The American Revolution, for all the talk of freedom, was about who controlled the resources and the economy of the then thirteen colonies and about British restrictions on trade and manufactures.

The Taliban and ISIS, while they claim to be Islamic, seem to be far more interested in power and control than in any of the more peaceful aspects of Islam. And certainly, the Crusades were far more about power and plunder than religion, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.

This desire for control, and wanting to have government force people who are different to “do things my way” remains a disturbing aspect of politics in the United States, and elsewhere.

No matter what anyone may say in religious terms about the abortion/anti-abortion conflict in the U.S., that conflict is purely and simply about who has control of a woman’s body – the woman or an outsider, whether that outsider is either a religious belief, her husband, or the government. All the rationalizing and reasoning, all the saying why, doesn’t change that basic fact. It’s about control. So is the issue of who can marry whom.

Yet government has to have laws, and enforce them, or there will be chaos. As a number of politicians and sages have noted, liberty also requires order. Order requires popular support. So any law that enslaves or unnecessarily controls a significant percentage of the population eventually creates unrest and often violence. This rather obvious truth tends to be ignored by those who use beliefs to obtain or maintain power over others.

As far as laws or practices being unnecessarily controlling, there’s a simple question that can resolve many of those questions. Does the law in practice physically or economically harm certain groups of people? It would seem to me, simple man that I am, that believing in a different god or the same god in a different way harms no one. Taking up a gun to force that belief does so.

The bottom line is whether beliefs are used for self-motivation and guidance or whether they’re used to force beliefs on others – or to harm or kill those who believe differently.

Beware those who trumpet beliefs while brandishing laws or weapons and ask who will gain control of what – and how.