Archive for March, 2007

Mind Bogglers

Recent images from the Cassini spacecraft have again revealed a hexagonal weather pattern some 15,000 miles across centered on Saturn’s north pole, confirming that the pattern is in fact a long-standing feature of Saturn’s upper atmosphere, since Voyager images revealed the same pattern some 25 years ago. Just think about this — six regular lines of clouds, each some 7,000 miles long in a pattern that has lasted at least 25 years. That truly boggles the mind.

In other news, investigations have disclosed that ITT, a top U.S. defense contractor, revealed details of secret U.S. night-vision equipment used by U.S. troops by outsourcing part of the production to firms in China and Singapore over a period of more than ten years. The company agreed to a $100 million fine, of which $50 million was deferred because ITT’s new CEO had been “cooperative” in the investigation.

What do these stories have in common? Nothing… except that they’re mind-boggling in two different ways.

Defense products historically comprise more than a third of ITT’s total revenues (43% in 2005) of more than $7.0 billion annually, and the annual profits from the company’s defense sector exceed $200 billion. If I understand the situation correctly, for breaking the law about not revealing defense secrets, and doing so repeatedly for over ten years, ITT will be fined in cash terms less than a quarter of its annual profits from defense contracts alone, which contracts it will not lose. The amount of the fine is only about 5% of the company’s annual profit. This is truly less than a slap on the wrist for a long-running illegality in company operations.

The Cassini mission is also a long-running operation, expected to continue through 2008, with launch occurring in 1997, and years of development before that. Over the course of the Cassini mission, ITT’s defense profits amounted to more than the annualized cost of Cassini. From Cassini, we’ve gained a far greater understanding of our own solar system, and particularly that of Saturn and its satellites. From ITT, we’ve gained… what?

The understanding that: (1) the pursuit of profit is greater than patriotism and more powerful than the requirement to obey the law; (2) that these disclosures could lead, if they have not already, to an increased number of deaths of U.S. servicemen and women; and (3) these illegal and unconscionable actions can be papered over with what amounts to a token fine?

That’s almost as incomprehensible as a naturally occurring hexagon that could swallow something like four complete planets the size of Earth.

Celebrity — The Triumph of Face Over Substance

Do any of you know that, some thirty years ago, I carved a set of miniature wooden animals for my children? Or that those animals were perhaps among the most amateuristic efforts ever to disgrace the non-artistic world? More important, does anyone besides the children really care? Should anyone care?

What is it about our world that so many people in the so-called civilized western world need to know the trivia about everyone who is anyone? Yet we often know so little about those around us. Recent news stories revealed that illegal commercial pot growers have now invaded the suburbs of large cities, turning dwellings in those suburbs into high-tech marijuana “grow houses.” Why? Because in many middle class or even affluent suburbs no one knows more than a few neighbors, and everyone’s schedule is so regimented and isolated from their neighbors’ schedules that no one even notices who’s reclusive and who’s not.

I confess I’m not immune. I have some neighbors I haven’t seen in years, and some whose names I don’t even know. I console myself that I don’t know anything about Paris Hilton except her name, or about Anna Nicole Smith… except what was in the headlines that were hard to avoid.

Still… I find it somehow sad that millions know the intimate details of the lives of people who will be forgotten in a few years and not the names of the neighbors only three houses away, near whom they may have lived for years, or for that matter, the name of the current president or any past president.

By the same token, I find it disconcerting that the best popular songs of my parents’ and grandparents’ times are still around, and many are quite distinctive, and they’re often sung, seldom as well as by the original artist. Yet very few of today’s listeners will be able to remember a single one of last year’s “current” hits by next year, let alone hum a melody [assuming the song even had one] or sing the lyrics, assuming they were intelligible in the first place… except for those “songs” that repeat the same phrase time after time.

Now… there are more and more magazines and publications about “entertainment,” but what I find amazing is that very little of the “content” — the few columns squeezed in between the ads — deals with the entertainment itself. Rather than deal with the creations, feeble as they may be, of such media-manufactured artists, the magazines and newspapers and other mass media devote endless pages, video, and the like to occurrences involving celebrities and pseudo-celebrities and the minutiae of their lives. In William Gibson’s book Idoru, published over ten years ago, a character goes so far as to suggest marrying Rei Toei, an “idoru” (idol) who exists only in virtual reality. What’s intriguing about this is not that it’s far-reaching, but that such a future is almost at our fingertips — and an ever-growing number of people prefer it to the lives they live. And what does that say about the lives we do live?

Real and Fictive Fiction

I’m about to attempt to draw a line, albeit a wide and fuzzy one to split fiction — or at least speculative fiction — into two differing sub-genres, those that I will call “real” fiction and “fictive” fiction.

But isn’t all fiction fictive, by definition? In a technical sense, that’s absolutely correct.

Why am I bothering with what sounds like a technical exercise? Because, first, in point of fact, I believe it to be anything but technical, and, second, I see too many readers and reviewers belaboring and bashing perfectly good books because said readers and reviewers don’t seem to understand the distinction. Nor do many of them seem to care.

So, in the interest of reader and reviewer education, as if many will heed the effort, I am attempting to suggest that the differences between these two types of fiction not only exist, but that at the extremes they are very different. In the middle, of course, where much fiction is written, the distinctions can be blurred into indistinguishability, but because it is often indistinguished there, that lack of distinction doesn’t seem to matter in such cases.

In “real” fiction, human beings, or other intelligent beings, behave in ways consistent with their culture, genetics, heritage, education [or lack thereof], and their job description. This means that if a character is depicted as a business owner, an inordinate amount of his or her time should be devoted to that business. Soldiers should be preparing for war and handling military collateral duties, of which any army in history has had a plethora. Teachers should be teaching, plumbers plumbing, smiths smithing, engineers engineering, and so forth. They should all have concerns about income, because all humans have always had such a concern, and those who have not generally ended up dead or redundant, neither of which should involve a protagonist. They also have to juggle their economic requirements against their emotional needs and requirements, as well as against everyone else’s economic and emotional requirements, not to mention the requirements imposed by the culture, geography, and climate. Needless to say, there are authors who do not wish to bother with these troublesome details, and those who cannot be bothered because such details merely get in the way of the story. There are also those for whom the details threaten to bury the story, something of which I’ve occasionally been accused.

But, for better or worse, “real” fiction at its best tends to illuminate aspects of life and culture as we know it, but at enough of a distance that such illumination is not blinding. It generally does not provide nearly the escapism of “fictive” fiction, but it can be enjoyable to those who appreciate a dose of realism with their escapism.

On the other hand, in “fictive” fiction, accurate depiction of culture, character, background, and economics all take a back seat to adventure and escapism. In fictive fantasy, the peasant boy or girl can become the great hero, despite never having even held a sword or piloted a spacecraft. No one looks too closely at where the resources come from to wage war or go on a lengthy quest. Cities can appear or be built in deserts. Creatures whose biology is patently suspect can appear and wreak havoc or bestow bounty. Great and glorious love can spontaneously arise and enchant two people who do not have the same background or culture, nor speak the same language, and who may not even have the same biology.

In fictive science fiction, new inventions can be created overnight and produced in quantity in days or weeks. Information can be obtained with a quick supercomputer [or the equivalent] search. Private investigators can afford to work on a single case for little or no retainer or expenses for weeks on end. Scientists can create black holes with little equipment in portable laboratories, and global climate change can overwhelm an entire planet in days, if not in hours.

I’m not saying that such fictive fiction stories aren’t entertaining, nor am I saying that many are not well written stylistically. What I am saying is that they’re about cultures or people that haven’t the remotest chance of ever being close to any recognizable reality, and that’s all right. Some readers, and sometimes I’m even one of them, need that kind of escape.

The problem comes when the devotees of one kind of fiction read the other kind, thinking that it might be “their” kind… and come away disappointed and angry enough to complain that writer “x” is not “radically awesome” enough or that writer “y” has so little understanding of technology and economics that he [or she] could not even build a sand castle, let alone a real one.

In short, be careful of damning a book because the writer didn’t write it to your specifications; it may well meet someone else’s. That applies to style as well. Just because a book is written from the first person viewpoint or in the present tense, or both, doesn’t mean it’s either bad or good. It’s a differing approach. Different is different. Poorly written is poorly written. But “different” based on personal expectations, as opposed to technical quality of writing, doesn’t automatically equate to poorly written and bad, and these days I’m seeing that equation far too often, and it doesn’t do either other readers or the writers much good.