Archive for November, 2007

Writers: Is It Overused "Theme"or Truthful Observation?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that various readers and reviewers have remarked on the fact that I seemed obsessed with the “theme” of power, and sometimes the “theme” of gender and sexual politics. Other writers get identified with these or other “themes,” and usually, but not always, the noted identification carries the implication that the writer under discussion should get on with it and stop pounding at that theme.

But… is there a distinction between observation of human nature and a theme that underlies human behavior? Or is it just a matter of reader and reviewer opinion? Is it a repetitive and unnecessary theme when the reader or reviewer doesn’t want to accept the observations, but merely life-like when they do?

For better or worse, before I became a full-time writer, I spent almost thirty years in the worlds of the military, business, and government and politics, and in these worlds I received a thorough education in how power is used and abused in all fashions by human beings. As many others before me have noted, and as doubtless many others after me will note, very few people really understand and know how to use power effectively, and even fewer use it for what might be called the “greater good.” This is not a “theme.” It’s an observed fact, and if I include fictionalized versions and variations on what I’ve observed, as an author, I’m being true to human nature.

This issue applies to other aspects of writing science fiction and fantasy as well.

In the Spellsong Cycle, Anna continues to use the same tactics, often in battle after battle. So do various others of my characters in other books, and some readers have complained that was “unrealistic,” that such tactics wouldn’t continue to work. In combat, effective tactics are based on the abilities of the combatants, the weapons at hand, the geography, and various other limited factors. The range of effective tactics is indeed limited, and tactics are used effectively over and over again. This is why military strategists study ancient and modern campaigns. In addition, weapons change their form, but their functions change slowly over time, and sometimes not at all over centuries. Today, the function of the vast majority of modern weapons is the same as two centuries ago — to apply various destructive and explosive devices to the most vulnerable aspects of the enemy. We’ve gone from musket balls to cluster-bombs and RPVs, but the function remains the same. Even in science fiction, this observation holds true.

Likewise, so does another human variable — the slowness of human beings, especially in groups — to learn from experience. Even after WWI, the armies of most industrialized nations, including the U.S., still retained cavalry units — with horses — despite the clear knowledge that mounted cavalry was ineffective and counter-productive against such weapons as the machine gun. Castles took a long time to vanish after the development of artillery. Yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve had readers complain about — and even some reviewers comment on — why one side or the other doesn’t learn how to cope with something after one or two battles. Borrowing from another media… Duhhh!

After a certain amount of experience, I learned that fights of all kinds consist of short and violent action, punctuated by far longer periods of comparatively little action. As a beginning Naval aviator, I was told that flying was “99% boredom and one percent sheer terror.” In a sense, it’s true. Most time in the air is spent getting to a place where intense action occurs or is undertaken before you return. Some missions are designed to have no action; you’re either gathering information or waiting on station in the event something might happen. Yet far too many books depict only the action and all action… and more action. To me, that’s incredibly unrealistic.

Yes, fiction has to offer entertainment, and no one wants to read, and I certainly don’t want to write, something as boring as a moment-by-moment adaptation of boring reality. By the same token, not taking into account the crux of human nature and human brilliance and stupidity — and at least some of the waiting in between — can only result in the written version of a high-speed video game.

I don’t write those, but they do get written, and that’s part of the marketplace. I don’t mind that, either, believe it or not, but what I do mind is when readers and reviewers with a “video-game” mindset criticize those authors who are trying to enlighten and educate, as well as entertain, because their books are more true to life. Some themes are true, both in life and fiction, and ignoring them is one reason why conflicts like Vietnam and Iraq, or the Middle East, or… [pick your favorite politico-military morass] have occurred and will continue to happen.

Overused theme or time-tested observation? In the end, it still depends on the reader’s viewpoint.

Living Forever — Fact, Faith, or F&SF?

The other day, my wife made an interesting observation. She asked, “If so many people believe in Heaven and an afterlife, and Heaven is so wonderful, why is everyone trying to live forever?” At that, I got to thinking about the associations and corollaries. According to the polls and statistics, the United States is the most “religious” nation in the world. And from what I read and can determine, we’re also the nation that spends by far the most money on medical research and procedures to keep older people young and to extend life-spans. We’re also the nation where talk of practical immortality and agelessness holds great sway, where the singularity will lead to practical agelessness, if not immortality. The entire issue of immortality has been one of the staples of both science fiction and fantasy from the beginning, with the immortal land of faerie or such works as Zelazny’s This Immortal.

Yet, if the true believers are right, what’s the point? Heaven is obviously a far better place than here on earth. If it weren’t, how could it be Heaven? So why are we spending billions to keep the most elderly barely alive, if that, when they could be in a better place… that is, if you’re a believing and practicing Christian or Muslim? And why have so many books and stories centered on immortality?

Now, I’m not disabusing medicine or medical research. People shouldn’t have to suffer horrible diseases or die of infections or be paralyzed for life or otherwise incapacitated when medicine can cure them or improve their life or condition. Yet, the plain fact of medicine is that, in the United States, the vast majority of medical care and expense goes to those who are in their last year of life, and far, far, less money in research and treatment goes to children and infants.

If those dying of old age are going to a better life anyway, wouldn’t it make much more sense to spend more of that medical funding on finding cures for children’s ailments… or providing better nutrition and preventative care for the young?

But then, do all those true believers really believe in Heaven and the afterlife? It’s often been said that actions speak louder than words and that people put their money in what they believe… and they read that which interests them. If that’s so, all the medical scrambling to extend lives and find immortality might suggest a certain, shall we say, shallowness of belief. Even hypocrisy, perhaps? Or, too, perhaps they do indeed believe in an afterlife, and subconsciously don’t want to face the theological nether regions reserved for those whose actions are less than charitable and worthy.

Either way, I find it food for thought. Exactly why does a society with so many true believers support medical age-extension and the quest for physical and earthly immortality anyway? And why is there now such an increase in books about immortal vampires and werewolves and the like? Are the two trends connected… and if they are… how do they square with the fact that the fastest growing religions are those which are best described as fundamentalist evangelical… with the attendant belief in an afterlife?

Genre Chaos

This past week saw yet another group of reviewers post their “best books of the year” listings, and there will be more yet to come. In times to come in Locus, at least four or five respected gurus will list their choices. Why, if an author can’t get something somewhere into something labeled as best, he or she obviously hasn’t been trying hard enough.

But what constitutes “the best?” According to my outdated Funk & Wagnall’s, “best” means “of the highest quality.” This doesn’t help much, because also according to that same dictionary, “quality” is defined as “the degree of excellence,” and “excellence,” in turn is defined as of “superior quality.” When you get a definitional circular argument in meaning such as this, it’s a fairly good indication of subjectivity. “Excellence” or “quality” falls into that category that might be described as, “I can’t really quantify or objectively explain why this is good, but by [the appropriate deity] I know excellence when I see it.”

Compared to what? To other books just like it? To all fiction? To a selected body of work based on the subjective criteria of the reviewer?

As all too many readers of speculative fiction know, a number of writers of “mainstream” fiction, or thrillers, or romances, or mysteries have adopted SF themes in their work, the majority, sadly to say, often badly, if not totally ineptly. The critique has often been that, first, yes, they were writing science fiction and, second, they did it badly. The real critique should have been more direct — they wrote bad books.

This basic issue of quality has been obscured by the “dictates of the marketplace” and aided and abetted by the growth of the book chain superstores [yes, yet another great sin laid at the feet of the evil empires of book marketing]. In their zeal to sell as many books as possible as easily as possible, clearly in competition with the comparative mindlessness of broadcast/satellite/multimedia entertainment, the publishers and the book chains have broken fiction into genres and sub-genres, and sub-sub genres. We have whole sections of bookstores devoted to media-spin-off-teenage vampire series or Star Trek spin-offs, or… the list is long and getting longer.

Yet for all this splintering of fiction into genres or sub-genres — perhaps better identified as niche marketing opportunities that require less thought and consideration by would-be readers — what we’re seeing is a lower and lower percentage of the population remaining as serious readers. One explanation for this is that reading is “merely” entertainment, and with the proliferation of other venues of entertainment — video and online gaming, satellite and cable television, multiplex theatres, DVDs, year-round broadcast sports, etc. — the proportion of readers is bound to decline. I certainly can’t argue with that, because it’s exactly what’s appeared to have occurred.

When I was growing up, back in the dark ages when television meant three network channels and one independent local TV station, reading was effectively subdivided into non-fiction, fiction, and magazines and comics. Comics were for kids, and reading only magazines suggested a certain lack of intellectual perseverance, which may have been why there were book clubs where people really read the books and discussed them. And… more people of all ages used to read books.

All the multiplicity of fiction genres, and their accompanying awards, to my way of thinking, puts more and more emphasis on following genre or sub-genre rules than on writing a good, intriguing, entertaining, well-written, and logically internally consistent work. Yet, every time I look around, it seems as though there’s another set of awards, based on another media offshoot, or another genre or sub-genre. As all these awards have proliferated, and as the book marketing empires segregate books, often quite artificially, a smaller and smaller percentage of the general population reads. Amid all the genre-chaos and confusion, a few handfuls of authors succeed in establishing themselves as “brands,” which is one of the few ways in which a writer can transcend the limitations of genre-niche-marketing taken to extremes. Others work on media or gaming tie-ins. The rest… well, the numbers are showing there are more and more writers being published, and most of them are selling fewer copies of individual titles than their predecessors of a generation earlier. Yet the multiplicity of awards continues to proliferate.

But, no matter, if I get an award for the best novel dealing with alternate history of an established fantasy series universe [if it’s my own universe, anyway], based on the greatest logical constructions of fantasy improbabilities, I’ll take it… graciously and gratefully, and my publicist will probably find a way to get it on the cover of my books after that.

The Wrong/Incomplete Data

Several years ago, an acquaintance made a comment that almost caused me to take his head off. He said, “Your wife has a really cushy job. She doesn’t even leave for work until 9:30 every morning.” I refrained from homicide and tried to explain that, first, that because she is both a college professor and an opera director, as well as a performer, she seldom got home before nine or ten o’clock at night, and usually it was later, far later, that she worked four out of five weekends at the university, and that overtime compensation was non-existent. He replied by pointing out that she only had to work nine months out of the year. I just shook my head and walked away, because that wasn’t true, either. Generally, she only gets paid for nine months, but she works between eleven and twelve months a year — admittedly “only” about forty hours a week in the summer to catch up on what won’t fit in the year, to research and often write the shows for the coming year, to conduct job searches, and to write the required scholarly articles. And for all that, with all of her graduate work and international expertise, and as a tenured full professor, she makes far less money than do almost any of our offspring — only one of whom has more degrees.

I’m not writing this to say how down-trodden professors are — I do know some who truly skate by, although they’re a tiny minority, and that could be yet another example — but to offer the first instance of what might be called “data abuse.”

The second example is that of the Mars probe that crashed several years ago, because its systems clashed. One system had been programmed for “English” measurements, the other for metric. A third example is NASA itself, and the fact that manned space exploration has actually declined in scope and in accomplishments ever since the Apollo missions of more than 30 years ago.

A fourth example is the issue of school voucher programs, a proposal that was just defeated in Utah. Proponents argued that providing vouchers for roughly $3,000 a year per student for those who wished to go to private schools would actually allow more money for those students who remained. Mathematically, this would have been true, but the most salient points were minimized and never addressed in all the sound-bite coverage. First, even if every student received the maximum voucher amount, on average families would have to come up with an additional $4,000 per student. Exactly how many families making less than the Census Bureau’s “middle-class” income of $42,000 are going to be able to come up with an additional $8,000 in after-tax income [assuming two children in school]? Currently, only about 15% of all private school students receive financial aid, and that means that schools cannot afford to grant significant additional aid, not without raising tuition. Second, a great many communities in the state have no private schools at all. Third, the program did not provide additional funding to pay for the voucher program, but would have diverted it from existing [and inadequate] public school funds. So, in effect, the voucher program would not have benefited low-income students, or most middle-class students, but, for the most part, would have subsidized the tuition of those who could already afford such schools. Certainly, the program would have done little for the public school system, even though the supporters claimed that it would have.

Another example is the “core” inflation version of the Consumer Price Index, which is supposed to measure the rate of price inflation, and is the index used by government to measure how inflation affects consumers. Several years ago, however, the changes in the prices of food and energy were removed because they were too “volatile.” Yet 67% of all petroleum products go to transportation, and the majority goes into the tanks of American cars. So, as we have seen a price increase of almost 60%, as measured by the cost of a barrel of oil, over the past year or so, that increase doesn’t appear as part of inflation measurements. Thirty-three percent of all the petroleum we use goes into making industrial products, such as rubber and plastic, and chemicals. But those costs are reduced by “hedonics” or implied quality improvements. If your new car has better disc brakes or cruise control, or automatic stability, the CPI auto component for durable goods is adjusted downward to reflect quality improvement. The only problem is that the price paid by the consumer doesn’t go down, but up, yet the statistics show a decline the durable goods index.

These are all examples of what I’d loosely term “using the wrong data.” At times, as in the case of the Mars probe, such usage can be truly accidental. At other times, as in the case of my acquaintance, such incorrect data usage is because the user fits a prejudice into existing data and doesn’t really want to seek out conflicting and more accurate data.

In other cases, as exemplified by the NASA budget, other data, chosen to exploit other political priorities, take precedence. And, as illustrated by the voucher issue or the CPI measurements, all too often those with a political agenda have no real interest in using or examining the full and more accurate range of data.

What is often overlooked in all of these cases, however, is that in none of them did those involved use “incorrect” data. The figures used were accurate, if often selective. Yet in political and policy debates; in inter-office and intra-office, or departmental budget or resource allocation tussles; even in conversation; what people focus on all too often is whether the numbers are accurate, rather than whether they’re the numbers that they should be considering at all. Seeking accuracy in irrelevant data isn’t exactly a virtue.

It’s not just whether the data is accurate, but whether it’s the right data at all.

More on the Hugos

Several people have contacted me about my proposal for a Hugo for Betty Ballantine, and one pointed out that the World Science Fiction Society Constitution limits what Hugos can be given, and further stated that the special award given to Betty in 2006 was probably the only practical kind of recognition possible.

After reviewing the WSFS Constitution, I will note that section 3.3.15 states:

Additional Category. Not more than one special category may be created by the current Worldcon Committee with nomination and voting to be the same as for the permanent categories. The Worldcon Committee is not required to create any such category; such action by a Worldcon Committee should be under exceptional circumstances only; and the special category created by one Worldcon Committee shall not be binding on following Committees. Awards created under this paragraph shall be considered to be Hugo Awards.

I note the last sentence: Awards created under this paragraph shall be considered to be Hugo Awards.

Now… was Betty Ballantine’s special award in 2006 a Hugo under the rules? I honestly do not know, but, given the comments I’ve received, it doesn’t appear to be, and more than a few life-time professionals in the field have declared that what Betty received is not a Hugo.

I still believe that Betty deserves a Hugo, but in studying the WSFS Constitution, I discovered what I believe to be a serious fault, and the fact that Betty has not received a Hugo is just one example of that fault.

The fault is simple, but basic and obvious. There is no single standing and permanent award for achievement in a body of work, whether in writing, editing, art, or publishing. Every single award is for work appearing in the previous year. Now, for authors who have a substantial body of work, and who have not received a Hugo, at some point, there is a chance that a “late-in-career” book will receive a nomination and a Hugo, one that it probably does not merit, in order for the voters to recognize, if belatedly, someone who has been overlooked in the annual popularity contest. The same is true of artists, and under the revisions involving editors, for them as well.

Wouldn’t it be far better simply to create an on-going Hugo for life-time achievement, the way the World Fantasy Convention has [horror of horrors] than to keep ignoring those whose contributions may have been less spectacular in any given year, but whose overall achievements dwarf those of many one-time Hugo award winners?

If the WSFS does not wish to address this, then perhaps the Constitution should be amended to read — “The Hugo awards reflect only popularity among a limited number of readers in the previous year and do not attempt to reflect continued and sustained excellence by members of the speculative fiction community.”

Is this an issue that members of the WSFS wish to address, one way or another, or is everyone happy with the continuation of the annual popularity polls and the ignoring of long-standing contributions to the field?

A Hugo for a True F&SF Pioneer

When I was at the World Fantasy Convention earlier this month, I had the privilege of having breakfast with Betty Ballantine, whom I had never met before. Even at 88, she’s sprightly and has a cheerful and feisty wit, but after that breakfast, I realized that only a comparative handful of people truly know or understand the contribution that Betty, along with her late husband Ian, made to western literature and publishing, and particularly to science fiction and fantasy.

Betty and Ian began importing mass-market paperbacks from the United Kingdom in 1939 before helping to form Bantam Books and then launching their own firm, Ballantine Books. Prior to the Ballantines’ efforts, there were virtually no paperback books in the United States, except those already imported by the Ballantines. Ballantine Books became one of the earliest publishers of original science fiction books, publishing such authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCaffrey, and H.P. Lovecraft. They even published the first “authorized” edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. By their efforts, they effectively lifted science fiction and fantasy from the pulp magazines to paperback books and created a commercially viable genre that in turn laid the groundwork for the media take-offs for such television shows as Star Trek and movies such as Star Wars, not to mention such later bestsellers as The Wheel of Time and Harry Potter.

Of course, one of the reasons why Betty was at the convention was that she had been selected to be the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award from the World Fantasy Convention. But, as noted by many, it did seem rather strange, in retrospect, that this woman, who has done so much for both science fiction and fantasy, has never been honored with a Hugo — the most recognized popular award in speculative fiction.

While I understand that L.A. Con IV did offer a “special committee” award to Betty Ballantine in 2006, a special committee award is almost a slap in the face for someone to whom every speculative fiction author and reader owes so much.

All too often, those who pioneered and made something possible are forgotten in the glare of the successes of other people, successes that the pioneers made possible. That’s particularly true today, where fame is even more fleeting than ever and where celebrity so often overshadows true achievement. Sometimes, after they’re dead, such visionaries and pioneers are remembered and memorialized, but while that’s great for posterity, it really doesn’t show much appreciation for the real living person, and Betty certainly deserves that appreciation.

So… what about a Hugo for Betty Ballantine in Denver next year? A real Hugo, voted on by all those whose reading was made possible and affordable by Betty and by those whose writing, and cinematic and video achievements might not ever have come to be without her efforts?

And… for the record, and the skeptics, I’ve never been published by any imprint even vaguely related to those created by Betty… and I strongly doubt I ever will be. I just happen to think it’s a good idea.

The Under-Recognized Passion… and Its Future

Most of us, when someone mentions passion, think of sex, at least first. But an article in New Scientist got me to thinking about another passion that is far stronger and far less recognized than sex — greed.

In January 1820, a transplanted German who had taken the British name of Frederick Accum published a book, Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons. The book provided an expose of how those in London’s food trade adulterated their wares and poisoned their consumers. Accum named names and spared no one, illustrating how bakers used gypsum and pipe clay in bread, how lemonade was flavored with sulfuric acid, how new wines were aged with sawdust, how phony green tea was created by using poisonous copper carbonate.

And what was the reaction to Accum’s book? It sold out, and, then, there were anonymous threats against him. Those who didn’t like what he wrote followed him around until he was observed ripping several pages containing formulae from a book in the Royal Institute library. He was immediately charged with theft, and his reputation attacked and destroyed, all for the sake of profit, however obtained. Although the charges were dismissed, Accum was forced to return to Germany. Not until thirty years later did the British medical journal, The Lancet, and Dr. Arthur Hill Hassail address the problem, and Parliament finally passed the Food Adulteration Act in 1860. It took far longer in the United States, until after the muckraking of the early 1900s.

You think that’s all in the past? Flash forward to today.

We have had the experience of cheap pet food from China being contaminated, and almost every week, some food manufacturer is recalling something. It’s not just food, either. It goes well beyond food.

Enron built a phony trading room in order to further its energy shell game, and then left all the shareholders and employees holding the bag. Similar shenanigans occurred with WorldCom and Global Crossings. And what about all the sleazy mortgage brokers who sold naive homeowners mortgages that they wouldn’t be able to afford once the “teaser” rates vanished? Or the payday lenders who charge effective interest rates of 100% and more?

Even in “legitimate” commerce, greed has its place, from the hedge fund traders who make hundreds of millions of dollars for shifting paper… a number of whom just lost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars… to the airline industry.

As just one example, airlines have scheduled 61 flights to depart from New York’s JFK International Airport between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 A.M. every morning. There’s the small problem that existing systems and technology only allow for 44 departures. The Federal Aviation Administration has suggested either: (1) charging airlines more for “prime” take-off slots or (2) limiting the number of flights per hour. The Airline Transport Association, representing the major carriers, finds both of these options unacceptable and states that the FAA needs to adopt new GPS-based and high-tech radar control systems. The FAA probably will have to do this sooner or later, but there’s a small problem. It’s called funding. The airlines don’t want to pay for improving a system that’s already highly subsidized by the taxpayers; the Congress doesn’t want to; and passengers don’t want to.

What else is greed besides not wanting to supply honest goods — in this case, on-time departures — for a reasonable price? Instead of trying to solve the problem, the airlines and the politicians will ensure we’ll get more delays because everyone wants a service more cheaply than it can be provided… and that’s also a form of greed.

Oh… and by the way, in 1820, the last section of Accum’s Treatise concluded by recommending that “the painting of toys with colouring substances that are poisonous, therefore, ought to be abolished.”

So why are we still seeing children poisoned by lead paint, almost 200 years later? And why this will still be a problem fifty or a hundred years or more into the future?

Tell me again why greed isn’t stronger than sex. Except… sex sells more books, and I keep trying to ignore that, because sex is transitory, and greed isn’t.