When Elites Fail…

Like it or not, every enduring human civilization has had an elite of some sort. By elite, I mean the relatively small group – compared to the size of the society – that directs and controls the use of that society’s resources and sets that society’s goals and the mechanisms for achieving or attempting to achieve those goals.

Historically, and even at present, different countries have different elites, based on military power, economic power, political power, or religious power, or combinations of various kinds of power, and as time passes the composition of those elites tends to change, usually slowly, except in the cases of violent revolution. In general, the larger the country, the smaller the elite in proportion to the total population. In addition, the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty also suggests that economic inequality is the historical norm for most countries most of the time.

Since elites are a small percentage of the population, the members of the elite need a means of control. In the United States that means has largely been economically based from the very beginning of the United States. Initially, only white males could vote, and effectively, only white males of a propertied status could afford to run for office, where they associated with others of the propertied status. What tends to get overlooked by many about the Civil War was that, for the southern elite, the war was entirely economic. Slaves were a major form of wealth, and without that slave “property” many of the great southern plantations were essentially bankrupt. Thus, the southern elites were fighting for preservation of their unchallenged status as elites.

The rapid industrialization of the United States resulted in a change in the economic and social structure with the numbers of small farmers being gradually but inexorably reduced, with a concomitant growth in factory workers, who, initially were in practice little more than wage slaves, especially child and female workers. The growth in concentration of wealth and power in the “robber barons,” such as Astor, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Gould, Mellon, and others, without a corresponding increase in the worth and income of the workers was one of the factors behind the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896, as exemplified by his statement to the National Democratic Convention, where he stated that “The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer…” From there Bryan went on to suggest that the Republican candidate [McKinley] was basically the tool of the monied interests, concluding with the famous line, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But Bryan lost the election by 600,000 votes after industrialist Mark Hanna raised huge contributions from industry.

With McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president, and over an eight year period pushed through a host of reform measures that improved public health, working conditions, and restricted and sometimes eliminated monopoly powers, and his successor, William Howard Taft, continued those efforts. In 1907, when a financial panic threatened to bring down the entire U.S. financial system, Roosevelt and his Treasury Secretary worked with financier J.P. Morgan to stave off the crisis. These efforts, and an improved economy, defused much of the working and lower middle class anger.

Roosevelt, however, wasn’t so much a supporter of the working class as what might be called a member of “responsible elite,” a man who felt that business and power had gone too far.

In contrast is what happened in Russia. People tend to forget that in the early 1900s Russia was the fifth most powerful economy in the world, but unlike Roosevelt and Taft, Czar Nicholas II and the Russian aristocracy continued to bleed the small middle class, the workers, and the serfs, with the result of continued revolts and unrest. Nicholas agreed to the creation of a parliament [the Duma] and then did his best to eliminate or minimize what few powers it had. And, in the end, the old elite lost everything they had to the new elites, whose power was based on sheer force, rather than a mixture of money and force.

There are more than a few other examples, but what they tend to show is that all societies have elites, and that those elites control society until they become incompetent… and another elite takes power.

From what I’ve observed, it appears that an increasing percentage of the American people is anything but pleased with all too many members of the current American elite, especially with business executives, the media, and politicians, and that most of those visible elites seem almost dismissive of or oblivious to that displeasure… and, more important, unwilling to deal with the root causes of that displeasure, except with words and, so far, empty promises.

Supporting the Short Stories…

Most of my readers, I suspect, associate my name with books that are, shall we say, substantial in length and scope. Some may know that I occasionally have written shorter works, and a few may recall that a long, long time ago, for the first ten years of my writing career, I only wrote short fiction.

At present, I’ve written and had published forty-five short works of fiction, mostly short stories, but including two novellas, and that total doesn’t include the novella I later expanded into a novel. By comparison I just turned in the manuscript for my seventy-fourth novel [Endgames, the sequel to Assassin’s Price].

Back in 1972, when I’d just sold my very first story to ANALOG, I had no idea of ever writing a novel, and I might never have written one if I hadn’t essentially been forced to by Ben Bova, the then-editor of ANALOG, who rejected another story of mine (one of many that were rejected) with the note that he wouldn’t consider another story of mine until I wrote a novel, because he felt I was primarily a novelist, rather than a short story writer. That was an incredibly perceptive observation because he’d never seen any work of mine in excess of a few thousand words.

I took his advice, and as the cliché goes, the rest was history… and lots of novels. But I never lost the love of short fiction, and occasionally wrote a story here and there, usually, but not always, by request for anthologies. But stories, even brilliant outstanding stories, cannot sustain a writer in this day and age, as they could in the 1920s and even into the 1940s. I did a rough calculation, and all of my earnings from short fiction, and that includes the two book collections, total roughly half of what I now receive for a single fantasy novel.

This is an example of why, so far as I’ve been able to determine, there are essentially no full-time F&SF short-story writers making a living wage. So I was very fortunate to have gotten Ben’s advice and just smart enough to have taken it… and equally fortunate that readers have liked the books I’ve written.

All of which brings me to another point. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve agreed to write a story for a kickstarter anthology from the small press Zombies Need Brains, entitled The Razor’s Edge. The neat thing about the anthology is that half the stories are written by name authors and the other half are selected from open submissions. I’ve finished the first draft of the story, and that’s good because it takes me much longer to write short fiction, but it won’t see print unless the kickstarter is funded, which it isn’t at present. Also, you won’t see new stories from other favorite authors, and even more important, you won’t be giving a chance to new authors.

Yes, I’ll be paid, but it’s not much, and I wrote the story for the story, not for the very modest sum – and that’s definitely true for pretty much all the name authors. So… if The Razor’s Edge is something you might like, or if you want to give some up and coming authors a chance, pledge something at the kickstarter [ The Razor’s Edge Kickstarter ]. I’ll appreciate your efforts, and so will a few new authors, some of whom might graduate to writing big thick books that you might also like in the future.

Preconceptions

There’s the old saying that goes “it isn’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, but what you know that isn’t so.” All too often what we know that isn’t so lies in the preconceptions that we have. Because erroneous preconceptions are usually feelings and/or beliefs that we seldom examine, we run far greater risks with them than with what we know we don’t know.

Of course, one of the greatest erroneous preconceptions is that we know something that we really don’t, as recently demonstrated by Donald Trump’s statements about how easy it would be to fix healthcare and taxes, neither of which is amenable to a simple “fix,” at least not without totally screwing tens of millions of people.

Erroneous preconceptions by U.S. military leaders about how the Vietnamese would react to U.S. forces were the one of the major factors in why the U.S. became mired in one of the longer-drawn-out conflicts, yet military figures seem to have the same problem in Afghanistan, and it appears that this is also a problem with U.S. views on both China and North Korea, because too many U.S. leaders have the preconception that people from other cultures think of things in the same way – or they look down on others and draw simplistic conclusions based on arrogant assumptions.

On a lighter note and in a slight digression, I’ve gotten several reader comments about Assassin’s Price to the effect that those readers were upset that an imager wasn’t the main character, and several said that they couldn’t get into the book because of that. I can understand a certain disappointment, if you’ve been looking forward to a book about imagers, but… every synopsis about the book mentions Charyn, and Charyn is definitely not an imager in the previous two books, and he’s much older than the age when imagers manifest their talents. In addition, the book is still an adventure, and it still has imagers… if not as the main character. These readers had such preconceptions about the book that they couldn’t really read and enjoy what was written.

The older I get, the more I’ve seen how preconceptions permeate all societies, but it seems to me that in the U.S., erroneous preconceptions are on the increase, most likely because the internet and social media allow rapid and easy confirmation bias. What tends to get overlooked is that human beings are social animals and most people have a strong, and sometimes overpowering, desire to belong. Social media allows people, to a greater extent than ever before, to find others with the same mindset and preconceptions. This allows and often even requires them to reinforce those beliefs, rather than to question them, because in most groups, questioners are marginalized, if not ostracized… and that practice goes much farther back than the time of Socrates.

Trump’s hard-core supporters truly seem to believe that he can bring back manufacturing jobs and that the U.S. would be better off if all eleven million illegal immigrants were gone. Neither belief holds up to the facts. Far-left environmentalists believe that the world can be totally and effectively powered by renewable energy. Not in the foreseeable future if we want to remain at the current levels of technology and prosperity. Pretty much every group holds some erroneous preconceptions, and pretty much every group is good at pointing out every other group’s errors, while refusing to examine their own.

And, at present, we’re all using communications technology to avoid self-examination and to blame someone else, rather than using it to figure out how to bridge the gaps and recognize the real problems, because you can’t fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge, nor can you fix a problem that only exists in your preconceptions. Nor, it appears, at least for some people, can they even get into a book in a series that they like because the main character doesn’t fit their preconceptions.

Research

Over the past several years, I’ve heard a number of variations on the theme that the younger generation doesn’t need to learn facts, that they just need to learn methods. I have to disagree – vehemently!

The younger generations not only need to learn, if anything, MORE facts, and those facts in their proper context, more than any other previous generation. Those who disagree often ask why this is necessary when computers and cloud databases have far more “storage” than the obviously limited human brain.

In fact, the very size of computer databases are what makes the need for humans to learn facts all the greater. That’s because of a simple point that tends all too often to get overlooked… or disregarded. To ask an intelligent question and to get an answer that is meaningful and useful, you have to know enough facts to frame the question. You also have to have an idea of what terms mean and the conditions under which they’re applicable.

While the computer is a great help for “simple” research, the computerization of research sources has often made finding more detailed information more difficult, particularly since algorithms often prioritize search results by popularity, which can make finding more out-of-the-way queries difficult, if not impossible, if the searcher doesn’t know the precise terms and key words necessary.

Already, there are too many young people who don’t know enough arithmetic to determine whether the numbers generated or shown by a point-of-sale terminal or a computer screen are even in the right ballpark. And from what I’ve seen, grammar checkers actually are inaccurate and create grammatical errors more often than they correct errors.

Then there’s also the problem of trying to use computers when they shouldn’t be used. Trying to get directions from Siri while actively driving qualifies as distracted driving. It’s fine if a passenger is arguing with Siri, but anything but that if the driver is.

Then there’s the problem that surfaced in the last election. When people don’t have a long-established in-depth personal store of knowledge and facts, they’re at the mercy of the latest “information” that pops up on the internet and of whatever appeals to their existing prejudices and preconceptions. And that doesn’t serve them — or the rest of us — well at all.

Literary Pitches… and Timing

I’m committed to do a story for The Razor’s Edge, an anthology from the small press Zombies Need Brains. The theme of the anthology is about just how little the difference is between the freedom fighter and the insurgent and the question of when fighting for a cause slips from right to wrong… or whether that’s just a matter of perspective.

As part of the PR for the anthology, the editors asked the contributing “anchor” writers if they’d be willing to write a blog post on one or all of the topics of creating an elevator pitch, a query, or a plot synopsis for one of their projects.

This posed a problem for me. Strange as it may sound in this day and age, I’ve never done any one of those things in order to sell a book or a story. I will admit that I’ve often managed to develop a plot summary or an “elevator pitch” for at least some of my books – after they’ve been bought… and I’ve hated doing either, and still do.

Why? Well… some of you who read my books might have a glimmering of an idea, but my personal problem is that any “short” treatment of a book – whether it’s an elevator pitch, a query, or a plot synopsis – has to focus on a single element. For what I write and how I write it, this is a bit of a problem, because focusing on a single element tends to create massive distortion of what I write.

Sometimes, questions help, or so I’ve been told. And some of those questions might be: What’s the most important facet of the book? What’s the hero’s journey? To what kind of reader does it appeal? The problem, for me, is that such questions make what I write come off as one-dimensional.

One of my most popular books is Imager, the first book in the Imager Portfolio. It features Rhennthyl – or Rhenn, who at the beginning of the book is a journeyman portrait artist in a culture vaguely similar to 1840s France, except with later steam-power. Rhenn is a good artist, good enough to be a master, but it’s likely he never will be for a number of reasons, and especially after the master painter for whom he works (under a guild system) dies in an accident that may have been caused by Rhenn’s latent magical imaging abilities.

Now, the book could be pitched as “young artist develops magical abilities and gets trained by mysterious group to use magical imaging powers.” And if it had been pitched that way, it would likely have flopped as a YA imaging-magic version of Harry Potter, because Rhenn is far more deliberate, not to mention older, than Harry Potter. Also the Collegium Imago makes Hogwarts look like junior high school.

Imager could also have been pitched as “a magic version of Starship Troopers,” since it does show the growth and education of a young man into a very capable and deadly operative, but Rhennthyl is operating in a far more complex culture and society, and one that’s far more indirect than what Heinlein postulated.

Then too, Imager could be pitched as a bildungsroman of a young man in a world where imaging magic is possible. And that, too, contains a partial truth, but ignores the fact that Rhenn’s basic character is already largely formed and many of his problems arise from that fact. Such a description also ignores the culture.

Because I never could find a short way to describe any book I wrote, not one that wasn’t more deceptive than accurate, I never did pitch anything I wrote that way. I just sent out the entire manuscript to a lot of people, and, of course, it took something like three years before someone finally bought my first book.

And… for some kinds of books, as it was in my case, letting the book sell itself may be better than trying to shoehorn it into a description or pitch that distorts what the book is all about. Now, authors aren’t always the best at describing their own work, but over time, I discovered that even my editors had trouble coming up with short pitches. So… if those who read your work also can’t boil it down into a pitch… then it just might not be a good idea.