Archive for July, 2007

The "Facts" We All Know

A recent scientific article reported the results of a study of the conversational patterns of men and women. The results? That men and women actually utter almost the same number of words daily. The topics talked about did differ by gender — men talked more about tools, gadgets, and sports, women more about people — but the difference in the volume of conversation indicated that, on average, women talked only about three percent more on a daily basis. More interesting was the fact that the “extreme” talkers were male.

What I found most interesting about the study was its genesis. One of the researchers kept coming across references to a “fact” that women talked three times as much as men did, but he could never find any research or statistics to support that contention. I can’t help but wonder how many more such facts are embedded in our culture… especially in the science fiction and fantasy subculture.

Science fiction, in very general terms, is supposed to be based on what is theoretically possible in the sciences, and over the years I’ve heard more than a few authors talk, both sotto voce and loud and boisterously, about how they wrote “hard science fiction,” solid stuff, based on science. And to give them their due, most of them did. But with a tradition of such “hard” SF going back over seventy years, why is it that SF writers have had such a poor record of predicting the future?

The first reason, I submit, is that many of the “facts” accepted by writers don’t stay facts. They were theories or assumptions based on science that was either already outdated or which soon became outdated, yet was still widely accepted. For example, Tom Goodwin’s “classic” story [“The Cold Equations”] basically suggested that there was absolutely no flexibility in oxygen supplies in a spacecraft, largely, I believe, because he did not anticipate oxygen recycling and the like, or the kind of human engineering and ingenuity that allowed Apollo 13 to make a miraculous return to earth. The other problem with “The Cold Equations” is that Goodwin combined the “laxity” of long-accepted technology with the totally tight margins of experimental and pioneering craft. The only prevention for intrusion into a spacecraft about to launch was a sign? For a culture sending a ship across interstellar space? Yet, so far as I can tell, few if any writers or critics ever noted this at the time.

Also, like the “conversation” fact uprooted by this recent study, there are other cultural facts and myths, so deeply part of our society [as well as different “facts” deeply rooted in other cultures] that we seldom question them. There is the “fact” that the ace pilot is tall, lean, and rangy. In fact, usually the pilots best able to take high gee forces are shorter and less rangy.

A second reason is that technology — or magic, if we’re considering fantasy — is only one of many factors. Costs and economic viability usually trump technology. That’s the principal reason why there’s no follow-on aircraft to the Concorde. And why we don’t all have those personal helicopters predicted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet still, all too many SF authors don’t consider the economics of their cultures or futures.

So… if you really want to write something that’s accurate, consider those “facts” you have tucked away very carefully… and don’t forget about the cost of implementing that nifty technology.

Let’s Try Again… or… "You" Are Not Everyone

Although there have only been a comparative handful of comments here about my earlier statements on “true believers,” I’ve discovered that the negative comments elsewhere abound. I’ve been accused of being everything from a “big dope” to insensitive and not understanding just how enlightened and far-seeing and intelligent Christian, Mormon, Muslim, atheist, etc., F&SF readers are everywhere. I don’t dispute their enlightenment and intelligence. I never have.

Virtually every one of those individuals who has contested what I wrote has begun by explaining their individual background to illustrate how what I said does not apply to them. Once again, I agree… wholeheartedly. It doesn’t. As noted in my previous post, I never said that what I wrote applied to every single individual. In fact, I took pains to point out that it didn’t.

One of the better qualities of human beings is that we like to identify with others; that is one of the reasons why society is in fact possible. Unfortunately, this favorable quality has a downside, and that downside is that we also tend to assume that everyone is like us. In general, we like to belong, whether in rooting for a sports team or attending F&SF conventions. HOWEVER… readers are a minority in USA society today, and fantasy and science fiction readers more so than that. F&SF readers are not like “everyone else,” although they do share certain traits and beliefs, to a greater or lesser degree, with other readers of speculative fiction.

First, let’s take a quick look at “everyone else.” A recent article in The New Yorker noted that polls taken since 1945 consistently show that:

More than 50% of all American cannot name a single branch of our government or name their own Congressman.

More than 2/3 do not know the issue behind Roe v. Wade or the role of the FDA.

More than three quarters do not know the length of a Senate term.

More than 40% cannot name either of their senators.

In addition, a report issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005 noted that 69% of all college graduates lacked sufficient literacy to read and fully understand a standard newspaper editorial. Moreover, 59% of all advanced degree recipients in 2005 also lacked that ability. Obviously, this deficiency does not apply to those reading this blog, but then, and it’s no secret that readers of science fiction and fantasy tend to be more intelligent than the general population. But is everyone else like F&SF readers?

Roughly 16% of all Americans have an IQ below 85, and that means close to 50 million Americans who cannot effectively read or understand the content of most science fiction and fantasy. Likewise, roughly 16% of all Americans have IQs above 115, and the majority of serious readers fall within this group. Now… if the proportion of fiction titles published in the F&SF genres compared to all fiction is roughly proportional to the reading population [and while that is an assumption, it isn’t exactly unreasonable, except that it may overstate the number of readers, because I’ve observed that most F&SF readers are voracious in their reading] there are potentially 3-6 million “regular” F&SF readers in the USA.

So… please don’t tell me that you’re typical, or that “everyone else” is like you. Or that I am bigoted and close-minded because I’m suggesting that there are millions of people who don’t and can’t think like you do, because, like it or not, you are not like most people.

Please Read What I Wrote, Not What You Thought I Wrote

Just recently I received several comments which accused me of tying the word heterosexual to “close-minded” and equating those with a Christian or Islamic belief structure with being small-minded… or something to that effect… with the clear implication that I’m neither heterosexual nor of a Christian background… or fond of either. Because there are at least a few people who are reading what they want to read, rather than what I wrote, here are the apparently offending phrases:

…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.

First, please note that I did not say that any and all heterosexuals were close-minded; I said that the majority of those who could not conceive of and accept a wider view of marriage were — despite the fact that history and culture have consistently demonstrated far more arrangements than the heterosexual model. Second, given that the United States has roughly three hundred million people, tens of millions do not represent a majority, although the polls I’ve seen indicate that people who reject all forms of marriage except the western heterosexual model indicate well over a hundred million in the USA. Third, I’d like to point out that I did not say that all of the individuals from such backgrounds were self-alienated; I said that a majority were. In that, the numbers don’t lie, because, compared to any segment of the population, F&SF readers comprise a very small percentage. Therefore, my point about the majority of individuals from such backgrounds being self-alienated from the field stands.

In addition, the facts should be fairly well-known that I am devoutly heterosexual, as my wife and former wives and numerous offspring would certainly attest, and come from strong Episcopalian background, which is certainly a branch of western Christianity, at least the last time I checked.

Now… why did I bring up this seemingly trivial set of complaints?

In the complaints, my words were not attacked — I was, and I was attacked for something that I didn’t even write, but for what people thought I wrote, because they either did not read carefully or could not. I’m a writer, and, if you as readers don’t like what I write, then you have the option of not reading my books and telling others why. That’s fair.

You can also misread what I wrote and tell others. That also happens, more than I or any other writer would like, but it’s part of being an author.

What bothers me about all of this is simple. I’m an author. I love words and strive to use them clearly and effectively, and so does every other author I know. Usually we succeed. Sometimes, we don’t, but not for lack of trying.

Is it really too much to ask someone to read what we wrote, rather than what they thought we wrote?

But then, I have to admit, when the Pope starts suggesting that Catholicism is the only”true” Christianity, we’ve got far bigger problems than someone misunderstanding what I wrote… yet I can’t help but feel that they’re all tied together, perhaps because of the hundreds of “true believers” I’ve met over my lifetime, I’ve found very few who were able to consider anything that conflicted with their beliefs impartially and thoughtfully, regardless of their level of intelligence. They just couldn’t, if you will, read what was written, but only what they thought was written.

Fred Was There First

Last week Fred Saberhagen died. I can’t claim to have been a close friend, since Fred and I talked less than a dozen times over as many years, but he was always thoughtful, kind, and insightful, what anyone would have called, and many have, “a class act.”

In thinking about Fred, however, I realized there is an important aspect of Fred’s writing that’s been mentioned in passing, but not really emphasized to the degree it merits. In more than a few areas of fiction, he was there first. All too often, the true innovators in writing get overlooked by those who do it later with greater fanfare, more brashness, and less talent and class, and, for this reason, I’d like to point out how much of a quiet pioneer Fred was.

Fred conceived of and began his “Berserker” books some twenty years before the Terminator was even a gleam in James Cameron’s eyes, and “popular culture” tends to credit the Terminator as the first violently anti-human cybernetic intelligence. But… Fred was there first.

Fred’s use of Vlad Dracula — historically depicted as one of the great semi-mythic villains — as an intelligent and sympathetic hero not only predates all the other vampire books, but does so with wit and charm, and, to my way of thinking, his books are not only better written, but far more thoughtful. Just a few years later, I wrote The Fires of Paratime, in which I made the Norse mythic villain Loki the hero. While I had not yet read Old Friend of the Family or The Dracula Tape, it didn’t matter. Fred was there first.

Underlying his “Swords” books and Empire of the East is the premise that atomic warfare would change the very principles of the world on which we live — in a way an overlooked use of a metaphor that has come to pass. In this, and in his use of technology, myth, and modern techno-metaphor… Fred was there first.

Changing Cover Art ?

The other day, a more recent reader [new to what I write in the last five years, and also, I suspect, of a younger persuasion] of my work emailed me with a suggestion. His view was that my science fiction covers were far too “dated.” The artwork looked like “that eighties stuff” with all the sharp lines and airbrushing. He argued that my SF would sell much better if my science fiction covers looked more like the recent Corean Chronicles covers by Raymond Swanland, because “Swanland is more organic…”

The reader went on to say that my science fiction is anything but conventional or dated, but that the covers on the books proclaim that it is. I certainly like the Swanland covers, but I like a number of my other covers, by other artists, and the John Picacio cover for Ghosts of Columbia helped John win an award or two, I understand. I like that cover a great deal.

But… the point raised by my reader is intriguing. Certainly, research into reader buying habits shows that, especially for an unknown or little known author, the cover is one of the largest reasons for picking up and buying a book. One study determined that something like 27% of sales result from the impression the cover makes on would-be readers.

Yet, for an established author, how much of a difference do covers make? Or do they only make a difference in sales to new readers? The covers on the Recluce books have always been painted by Darrell Sweet, who is a superb colorist, while the Corean Chronicles covers painted by Swanland show more dynamic action. Certainly, sales of the Corean Chronicles appear to have increased somewhat with the Swanland covers, but would a switch to more edgy action covers increase the sales of my SF books… or would they end up disappointing readers who would then expect the sort of non-stop action such covers would imply? Would they turn away older readers who would think that the change in covers reflected a change in content? And while my science fiction certainly has action, it’s definitely not non-stop, because my characters are as real as I can make them, and in real life, nothing is non-stop.

Of course, as the writer, I get very little say on the cover, outside of suggestions for scenes, and what technical input I do provide is usually on the accuracy of the illustration — and yes, the art director and editor do actually consider such factors.

Still, the question remains… would organic yet edgier covers for my science fiction better reflect to readers what I write?

Thoughts on Homo Irrationalis

One of the biggest unaddressed issues in science fiction and fantasy is the fact that, whether we want to admit it or not, we as human beings are really not very rational. At best, we’re selectively rational… otherwise known as using rational arguments to support what we already decided to do or to oppose what we don’t want to do. Just as we’ve finally mastered enough technology to get to the point where we can move off the planet so that all the human eggs, so to speak, are not in the same basket, we effectively slow down and turn away from space travel. Just when we’re almost to the point of being able to prevent disastrous asteroidal impacts, we scale back on sky scans and enabling technology.

Yet… should we really be surprised at such irrationality?

If we as human beings are so smart, why do we fret and worry about our jobs, our social status, our earnings, and so many similar circumstances… and then drive while drunk or using cell phones… or while drowsy or distracted… without fastening the seat-belts?

Put another way, motor vehicle deaths every year are nine times greater than all job-related deaths, and for those of us not involved in farming, forestry, and heavy construction, automobile accidents cause fifty times more deaths than anything in our occupations. In fact, the only large-scale work field with a high death rate from the occupation is agriculture/forestry, and even in recent years, there were almost twice as many deaths in farming and forestry accidents as combat deaths in Iraq.

Another example, albeit in a different context, was revealed by two sets of statistics revealed by the state of Utah. Utah boasts the highest high school graduation rates [something like 92%], the lowest per pupil expenditure on primary and secondary education, and one of the highest rates of failure by high school graduates on national competency exams — over 25% of graduating Utah high school seniors cannot pass basic competency levels in reading, mathematics, or general skills, i.e., they can’t understand a newspaper editorial, balance a checkbook, or read and understand a map. Now, these numbers don’t seem contradictory to me. If you don’t spend much money on education, have a high rate of teacher turnover, and lenient grading standards, then exactly what should a rational person expect when the students are assessed more objectively?

Years ago, a health researcher told me [and I’m taking it on face value] that one of the reasons that early tests on the effects of tobacco smoke on rats didn’t reveal elevated rates of cancer was that the rats piled straw and anything else they could find against the smoke inlets in their cages. Even if this story is exaggerated, millions of human beings, supposedly far more rational than rats, and now with the scientific knowledge of exactly how tobacco impacts the human body, choose to smoke and continue smoking. Is this exactly rational?

The United States possesses one of the most prosperous and open economies in the world, and there are millions of jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want to do, and there aren’t even enough Americans to do them. So… we should be amazed that we have 12 million illegal immigrants? One can say, of course, that the immigrants are behaving rationally in trying to improve their lot in life, but is the other side of that equation that prosperity enables irrationality?

Maybe… just maybe, that’s why great civilizations fall… because great prosperity removes, for a time, the constraints of rationality. But then, does it make a great SF novel? Nah… After all, doesn’t great human technology in the hard SF tradition solve all the problems?