Archive for June, 2007

A Sideways View of F&SF and "The Literary Establishment"

Earlier today, Mathew Cheney [whom I’ve known on and off since he was in something like fifth grade, and since he’s over 30, that might tell you that we’ve both been in this field for a while] wrote a piece in his Mumpsimus blog reacting to Jason Sanford’s article in The New York Review of Science Fiction. To stir the pot a bit more, I’m going to say that I think, in a sense, they’re both right in some fashions and totally missing the point in viewing the larger “literary” picture.

As I understand it, Jason makes the point that F&SF “don’t get no respect” from the so-called literary establishment, and not only no respect, but not even any acknowledgment. Matt makes the point that in real terms, there’s no such thing as a monolithic or even an oligopolistic literary establishment or an agreed-upon literary canon. Matt goes on to point out that, even if The New York Times attempted to impose such a canon, its reviews effectively amount to less than a thimble full of liquid in an ocean of ink.

Over the past almost fifteen years, I’ve lived in a slightly alien culture — Utah — where the prevailing faith dominates the local media, the local events, the laws, and even the scheduling of athletic events. Yet, Utah has a state constitution which prohibits strongly any religious interference in government on any level, and while the LDS Church occasionally makes pronouncements, essentially it doesn’t have to interfere, because the cultural indoctrination is more than sufficient for its purposes.

In a similar sense, since its very beginning, science fiction has had to battle a similar cultural indoctrination, one that I’ve become aware of on a very personal level as a writer. Over the years, I’ve had a number of highly intelligent people attempt to read my books… and fail. One of them was my own father, who was not only a brilliant attorney, but an accomplished pianist and sometime composer. The only book of mine he actually understood and liked was The Green Progression, which was a very near-future political/legal/regulatory thriller. For all of his intelligence, his wanting to read and enjoy what I had written, his stylistic mastery of the English language, and his wide reading of historical and contemporary fiction, he had one problem — he was so deeply grounded in the here-and-now that he could not accept worlds or futures based on anything that he did not know to be “real” and true.

In that sense, he was a member of that large group of people from which Sanford would claim the “literary establishment” arises, an establishment which Matt denies exists. The plain fact is that this group of people, many of them highly intelligent, does exist, but not as an organized group or conspiracy. No, most of them are not reviewers and literary critics, but some of them are. The problem isn’t that of a “literary” establishment, but the fact that any culture is composed almost universally of individuals whose thought processes and preconceptions are tethered to the present reality in which they live. That present reality is the basis of their preconceptions. Some can speculate slightly beyond the here and now. An even smaller number is comfortable in reading farther beyond the “now.” But… the farther one goes from the comfortable here and now, the fewer individuals there are who will make that leap, and even fewer who are comfortable with it. Even in the theoretically more open society of the United States, there are tens of millions of people who cannot conceive of, let alone accept, any sort of domestic arrangement besides a two-partner paternalistic, heterosexual union sanctioned by a religious body. There are possibly more than a hundred million who have no understanding of any theological system except those derived from European Christianity. Effectively, the vast majority of individuals from such backgrounds are self-alienated from science fiction and to a lesser degree from fantasy.

Fantasy gets around some of that barrier for many people by claiming, right from the outset, that nothing is real in fantasy and never can be… or that fantasy is based on folk-tales and the like and is merely cultural fancy. The fact that fantasy sells far more titles than does science fiction supports, I believe, my conjecture that alternative cultures, worlds, that postulate possible other realities are far too uncomfortable for most people. Even so, the current best-selling Harry Potter books, I recently read, annually total only some 10 million copies a year in English-speaking markets of some 400 million people.

There is no conspiracy or determined effort by a literary establishment to attack science fiction and/or fantasy, but individual attacks have occurred and will continue to occur. Because scholars, critics, critiquers, reviewers are all drawn from the literate population of a culture at large, the majority of whom are uncomfortable with alternatives and futures beyond the here and now, most of those scholars and reviewers will simply be unable and/or unwilling to comprehend alternatives beyond their comfort zone. Rather than admit such discomfort, they will ignore or denigrate that which they do not understand.

At times, this discomfort is so great that it blossoms into outright prejudice, where talented F&SF writers cannot teach at certain institutions or where critics blindly lambaste all fantasy and science fiction. This prejudice does not arise from a tight literary clique, as Sanford would apparently have one believe, but, contrary to what Matt has implied in his blog, from a large segment in society firmly and irrevocably socialized against science fiction and fantasy, and indeed against anything outside their “this-is-real-and-acceptable” mindset. Unfortunately, the majority of critics and reviewers tend to fall into this category, not because they are a literary clique or because they are “out to get” science fiction and fantasy, but because of a socialization they either cannot or will not transcend.

The “bad” news is that little we as writers can do will change adult minds already closed. The “good” news is that, in our society, we can still write and reach those who are open to re-socialization and an understanding that the universe is far wider and wondrous than those who will not can possibly imagine.

The Larger Greenhouse Responsibility

Over the years in SF, various writers have postulated assorted “doomsday” environmental scenarios, where the entire planet gets too hot, or water turns to the equivalent of clear jello, or the northern hemisphere becomes encased in solid ice in an improbably short period of time. Yet, in a way, these are “simple” catastrophes, and I say simple because they are of such magnitude that we poor humans can do nothing.

What about catastrophes with which we could deal… and won’t?

For example, it appeared for a time as though there were two schools of thought on greenhouse gas effects, those who believed in global warming and that it was caused or greatly exacerbated by human activity and those who denied any such warming was taking place. Recently, it appears as though the majority of what one might call “informed” opinion, i.e., those with data and some understanding of it, has changed into those who believe in global warming as created by human activities and those who believe in global warming as caused by “natural” effects.

Too many of those in the second group, at least from what I can see, don’t seem to understand that the situation is no less critical for being “natural” [if indeed it is]. But such warming, whether anthropogenic or “natural,” will still lead to ocean levels far higher than they are now. Picture a United States with much of Florida underwater, New Orleans submerged, parts of Houston, New York, San Diego, and other coastal cities under water.

Current estimates for the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina run at over $100 billion, and the majority of that centered on the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area. Something like a 30 foot rise in sea-levels would create a loss of property and equipment thousands of times that amount. How about a $10 TRILLION loss?

And that well might be conservative.

There’s been a great controversy raised by the current administration about the need to reform Social Security because of the possible cost burden required to maintain current benefit levels. Yet rising sea levels pose an even greater threat to the next generation than mere financial burdens — but the financial losses involved would be huge, as noted above. Curiously, I’ve seen no real attempts at a hard dollar assessment just of the losses of productive lands, cities, and like that would be caused by rising sea levels. While one might justify building dikes around New York City, it’s clearly neither possible nor practical to build dikes along the entire U.S. coast.

And what of the political firestorm that would be created by “writing off” real estate and investment in low-lying areas? Yet, if global warming is “natural,” it could well fall under the “acts of God” clause in most insurance and indemnity policies… and that’s certainly where casualty insurers would want it.

With such a massive loss possible, it’s no wonder that no one really wants to address it… and that politicians and policy-makers chose either to ignore the possibilities or to wait until “better data” are available. In the meantime, more and more homes, buildings, and other societal assets are being created in areas ever more vulnerable to losses through rising waters, storms, and violent weather.

But, of course, if all that warming is just a “natural” effect, we really don’t have to worry, do we? And our children and grandchildren will be just fine, won’t they?

And besides, it’s not really a world-destroying environmental danger of the kind we writers postulate, is it? Just a minor rise in temperature and sea-levels, that’s all.

The Unobvious Horrors

The other day I was proofing a copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming short story collection [Viewpoints Critical, Tor, March 2008], and I came across a line in the introduction that pointed out that much of what I write has unsettling implications… if the reader thinks about it. This observation followed my reading the introduction that David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer offered to my story “Ghost Mission,” which appears in their annual anthology [Year’s Best Fantasy 7, Tachyon Press] and in which they claim that I’m a romantic.

Yet… if my fantasy and science fiction have unsettling implications, why is it so seldom noticed? So much so that respected editors term me a romantic?

As a side note, I was once asked in which of the worlds I’ve created I’d like to live, and I didn’t even have to think about it. “None of them,” was my immediate answer. I’ll leave it to all of you to consider why my answer was both immediate and vehement — for a moment — but it wasn’t because any of those worlds were quiet and “boring.”

Part of the reason why I’m not considered even a borderline “horror” writer is because I seldom throw the horrifying aspects of the worlds about which I write into my readers’ faces… or figuratively rub your faces in the gore. But… if one thinks about the implications…

Would it really be comfy-cozy to live in a world where the ghost of your teen-aged son or daughter who died in an accident or a lingering illness remained for years to remind you visually and physically that, somehow, perhaps you could have done better?

Would you like the idea of living in a world, like that of Recluce, where every substantial increase in technology resulted in an increase in chaos and societal disruption… somewhere in the world? [Or do we live in a similar world already?]

What about a world such as Liedwahr where the greatest power is wielded by those who have musical abilities most of us can never hope to match? [But is that so different from intellectual capabilities in a high-tech world?]

Or a world such as Corus where abusing the environment will ensure absolutely that a few generations hence every intelligent creature will perish?

Or a future high-tech world such as depicted in Archform:Beauty or Flash, where all of the technological and political/legal protections we have enacted make it virtually impossible to be truly ethical — or to protect your family — without breaking the law?

But…of course… none of these are considered horrifying in comparison to novels that spill entrails everywhere and where evil is conveniently personified in devils or evil politicians or business types out to dominate whatever world is being described. Or where massive fleets of spacecraft [patently impossible both technologically and economically] vie to see whether the good guys and gals or the baddies control the universe.

Then…it just might be that most readers prefer simple and obvious horror and that the less obvious and more real horror hits too close to home.

Genetic Engineering — The New Religion?

I recently read an article in The New York Times with a title something like “DNA Sequencing, Two Billion Bits of Me, Me, Me!” That suggested more than just research into what makes a human being.

We live on a small planet holding over six billion human beings, and that planet is located in a universe that, so far as we can determine, holds something like fifty billion galaxies, each with between fifty and a hundred billion stars and their solar systems. Yet each of us wants to believe that we are not only unique, but special, and we want to affirm in some way that we are not so insignificant as the numbers above might indicate. For that reason, we as humans have continually sought ways to prove our worth, both to ourselves and to the world at large.

Religion has certainly been one of those ways, as has a striving for some form of world-changing accomplishment. But when one comes right down to it, there’s only room for a handful of world-changers such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon, or geniuses such as Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Edison, and Fermi, or even fortune-building entrepreneurs such as J.P Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, or Bill Gates. But heretofore anyone could theoretically believe in a god and a faith that promised some form of immortality. Except now… even religion is under attack.

I have no doubts that religion will remain as a bulwark against personal universal insignificance for billions of humans, but for those for whom the billions upon billions of stars in the sky suggest that religion will not provide any security against personal oblivion and meaninglessness, I suggest that genetic engineering is the new faith. Just think, there’s the possibility of endless clones of one’s self, or more modestly, the possibility of ensuring that one’s best traits are passed on to offspring — not only one’s own, but to others desirous of having children with special traits and brilliance, for do we not all have such brilliance?

Even now, services are offering clones of favorite pets and, in the process, giving their owners a sense of power over a cruel universe. How long will it be before we can pass “ourselves” on to an identical clone and thus not have to rely on an uncertain deity for continued existence?

But then, isn’t that just another kind of faith? And faith is religion in another guise, isn’t it?

Standards in F&SF and Politics

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to CONduit, the science fiction and fantasy convention held in Salt Lake City, and the convention that qualifies as my “local” convention, because it’s the closest — if anything some 260 miles away is ever exactly local. One of the panels I was on dealt with the topic of “foreshadowing” in fiction, the idea that an author needs to set up events occurring farther along in a book so that the reader doesn’t get to that later event and throw the book across the room — or worse — vow never to read another of the author’s books.

Another panel was on political commentary in science fiction and fantasy, and one of the points brought up was that authors should generally refrain from pontification and empty rhetoric and that we should use the events and actions in the story to demonstrate and illustrate how political acts influence society and people and what those effects will be. As an author, I very much agree with that point, and although I must confess to an occasional lapse, generally perpetrated by my alter-ego Exton Land, I do make a deliberate and conscious effort to show my readers what will happen as a result of political decisions and acts.

But…as I was driving home, I began to think about the confluence of those panels — and there is more than enough time to think on a 260 mile drive through the sparsely populated mid-section of Utah. It struck me that those of us who are authors are being held to a far higher standard by our readers and the public than our politicians are. Politicians can mislead their constituents day after day, year after year, by promising a happy ending through higher federal benefits, greater environmental protection, lower taxes, or laws that conform to the religious beliefs of their constituents… if not all of the above. What’s more, over ninety percent of them get re-elected.

If I, or any other author, tried to foist that kind of a happy ending on my readers, especially if I did so following 300 pages of the kind of obfuscation and misdirection practiced by the vast majority of politicians, after one book I would have almost no readers left. And again, I must confess to past errors, because for all too many years I was one of those political staffers who created speeches, letters, policy papers, and speeches all designed to suggest a political happy ending through blind faith in a given politician.

As an author, I don’t have that luxury. I have to produce an honest ending, and if I don’t, I won’t be able to make a living from writing fiction because my readers expect that degree of professionalism from me. Neither will most of the other authors I know. Yet we’re authors, just people who try to sell stories for entertainment.

We haven’t been elected to make or change laws that have national and world-wide consequences. People pay far less for our books and stories than they do in the taxes that support government and their elected politicians. But as authors,we’re still held accountable for what we produce and do.

So why don’t people expect and demand the same degree of professionalism from their elected representatives?

Is Harry Potter Really Fantasy?

The quick and obvious answer to the question is. “Yes. How could it be anything else?” After all, the books have good and evil wizards and magic and flying broomsticks and giant chess games where the pieces move themselves.

But for all that, most of the settings focus around what amounts to a co-ed English boarding school for magicians. Magic doesn’t seem to play much of a part in the world at large away from Hogwarts, yet there would seem to be a role for such magic

in the world of the muggles.

The idea of the English boarding school was, variously, to educate young people away from their parents, to instill some sort of background, to prepare them for life, etc., but boarding schools have always been, in many senses, unreal places. So the fact that Hogwarts is unreal isn’t that much of a stretch. Nor is the fact that Harry and his friends have to solve problems that seem, and may be, life-threatening. Likewise, studying magic is about as useful as certain aspects of boarding school curricula must have seemed to more than a few students over the years. And in time, the boarding school becomes a far more real place than a “home” where less and less time is spent. In a perverse way, the time Harry spends away from Hogwarts is more of a nightmare than the time he spends at Hogwarts.

For all the trappings of education at Hogwarts, there’s precious little on the structure of magic, or even on the structural differences between good and evil. And…if we’re talking about fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, where an author creates an entire world from scratch, with cultures, languages, different economies and technologies, “Harry Potter” tends to come up as enjoyable “fantasy lite.”

Now, obviously, fantasy can be anything an author and that author’s publisher declare it to be, so long as it’s popular and profitable, and the Harry Potter books are certainly both. Also, as a fantasy author, at least part of the time, I’m more than pleased to see young people reading anything, particularly anything that might lead them into reading more, especially more challenging works.

But I still have to ask,”Is Harry Potter really fantasy?” But then, does it really matter?