Archive for February, 2008

More on Book Quality — Statistics and Recommendations

As some of my readers know, I was trained as an economist, and economists occasionally lapse into statistics, and, in this case, I will offer some figures associated with recommendations about purported quality of the books that you read.

Last month, the vaunted Locus published its list of recommended books released in 2007, 40 in all, of which 22 were science fiction and 18 were fantasy. Since these books were deemed to be of quality by Locus reviewers, as someone who is skeptical of any one source, particularly any one source of experts, I decided to make a comparison of the Locus findings to the reviews, or lack thereof, in Publishers Weekly.

Of the forty books Locus listed as superior, PW gave exactly 11 (or 27.5 %) starred reviews, their mark of quality. I would have made a similar comparison with other “authorities,” such as Booklist and Kirkus, but, alas, I don’t have access to their full databases, nor do I wish to pay their exorbitant rates for that privilege, but I will note that a number of books which did receive starred reviews from other sources such as those were not included on the Locus list. In the interests of full disclosure, I will point out that none of my books figure into these statistics, since nothing I published for the first time in 2007 received any listings by Locus or starred reviews [not that I know of, at least] from anyone else.

Having some interest in statistical oddities, I also noted that the Locus list predominantly featured male authors [72.5% of the recommended books were authored by males]. The breakdown by gender and genre did change slightly, since 77% of the SF titles were by males, as compared to a mere 67% of the fantasy titles. From my infrequent perusing of Booklist and Kirkus review summaries, I do retain the impression that at least several of the books receiving starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, and not included in the Locus list, were written by women.

For another comparison, the final Nebula ballot lists five novels. So far as I can determine, exactly one of them got a starred review from PW, but three of the five were on the Locus recommended list. And, of course, four of the five Nebula nominees were written by men.

All this suggests that there’s definitely a difference in who and what are considered quality between those officially “in” the F&SF field, and those not so in. But then, haven’t we always known that?

ADDENDUM: After I originally posted this, the thought occurred to me, as it might to many readers, that the selections by Locus reviewers and the Nebula voters might merely reflect the gender distribution of authors and titles in the F&SF field. So I did a quick analysis of the 2008 advance title listings of the twelve publishing imprints that are projected to issue more than 30 books. Of the twelve, six will publish more titles by men, and six will release more titles by women. Overall 56% of the more than 750 titles listed for those imprints will be authored by men and 44% by women [and I gave 1/2 credit to each gender where there were mixed gender co-authors]. To me, that does seem to suggest a certain gender disparity.

The Folly of Punishing Institutions

A great deal of campaign rhetoric seems to concern itself with issues involving institutions or faceless groups — the greedy corporations who shift jobs to third world countries, the illegal immigrants who take low-paying jobs and keep decent wages from being paid to Americans, the predatory lenders and banks, the automobile industry that lobbies against decent mileage standards for cars, the health-care industry that bankrupts the forty million Americans without health insurance… and so it goes.

And more than a few politicians and public figures all have ways to punish these groups and institutions. Satisfying as thinking about punishing such institutions is, any such punitive solution won’t solve the problem, and it’s likely to hurt other individuals even more, often those who’ve already been injured.

No…I’m not being a corporate apologist… just a realist. The reason why corporations are corporations, why they incorporated in the first place, was to limit, if not to eliminate entirely, personal liability for its executives and employees — except in clear cases of direct criminal behavior.

So… if lenders market mortgages to low-income or high-risk borrowers whom they know are likely to default… or who end up paying far more than they might have with a 30 year mortgage… and then the lenders securitize those mortgages and sell them to investors, what can anyone do? The government will find it difficult, if not impossible legally, to regain the lost assets, and will spent millions in attempting anything. The borrowers will still lose their houses, and the investors will lose a great deal of the money they paid for the securities. The original homeowner or homebuilder might not lose money, but, then again, they might end up with a devalued property. Since a significant portion of mortgage lenders nationwide were involved to some degree, punishing them all would only make buying homes more difficult for everyone. Punish the “more guilty?” Where do you draw the line, legally and practically? How can you legally punish someone for bad judgment and for ethically reprehensible but legal lending practices?

If government changes the law to deal with abuses, as it has done many times in many areas, two things inevitably happen. The overall transaction costs go up, and seldom are any but the worse of the abuses curtailed, because the perpetrators go on to find another legal way to do the same thing.

The problem with corporate and institutional misbehavior is two-fold. First, corporate law effectively shields corporate decision-makers from being held liable for bad or questionably legal corporate decisions. Second, even if corporate misbehavior is wide-spread, the fall-out from negative actions will still fall disproportionately upon the innocent. In the case of Enron, for example, employees at all levels of Enron headquarters knew that the company was running a phony second trading room. They may not have known about the off-book financial manipulations, but scores if not hundreds, knew about the phony trading room, and few if any reported to authorities about that bit of fraud and deception. But, before the collapse, Enron had 5,600 employees, the vast majority of whom were innocent, and most of whom lost their jobs, their retirement, and their future. A handful of executives were found guilty, but that did nothing for the thousands who suffered.

Similar events unfolded with Global Crossings and WorldCom, although the unraveling of both those corporations had far more to do with bad management. Still, in the end, that bad management had disproportionately negative impacts on innocent employees, suppliers, and investors.

Is there a workable governmental solution? I honestly don’t know, but it’s clear that corporate law creates a real barrier to individual responsibility at the corporate executive level. It’s also clear that corporations continue to fire incompetent or unsuccessful CEOs and send them off with “golden parachutes” paid for by consumers, the shareholders, and, in some cases, even indirectly by government.

The same factors are at work in government, another institution. To get elected, politicians promise what the majority of people want, but they seldom, if ever, tell anyone how they’ll pay for it, except in generalities, usually targeting the “rich” and corporations. That doesn’t work, because the rich have better lawyers and accountants, and the corporations are legally structured to pass on all the taxes and costs to the consumer. Add to that the fact that government isn’t generally all that efficient, and we wind up paying more taxes for programs and services that usually don’t satisfy anyone… and then we blame the politicians — every one of them except “our” representative, who did what “we” wanted. After all, more than 90% of all incumbents get re-elected.

Of course, the most workable solution would be if we, as a culture, backed off the demand for more and more at the lowest possible price to ourselves… but then, we couldn’t blame the government and all those greedy corporations for doing whatever they legally can to meet our demands. And who’s to say that the corporate executives, and the higher education executives, and the health care executives, not to mention the politicians, just wouldn’t keep padding their expense accounts and payrolls?

Of course, a greater societal emphasis on individual ethics and responsibility over “fame and fortune” wouldn’t hurt, either. But… I confess a certain skepticism about seeing that happen anytime soon in the reality-TV culture we’ve developed.

War, Reality… and SF

Why do human beings go to war? This is a question that scholars, psychologists, historians, economists, military leaders, and others have debated over the ages. I won’t propose an answer to the question, but I will raise some questions about some of the commonly accepted reasons.

If human beings are generally aggressive, and war results from that aggression, why is it that we always go to war against comparative strangers and attempt to kill them, when most violence experienced by most people is from those they know and to whom they are far closer? Historically, in the United States, approximately 22 percent of murders were committed by family members of the victim, while in 53 percent of the cases, the offender and victim were acquaintances. Other offenses, from rape to robbery, from fraud to assault, are not committed against us by those in other lands, against whom we make war, but by those in our own communities.

Another reason given for war is a national need for resources or economic gain. Yet most wars cost far more than any potential gain to either party. By definition, the loser doesn’t gain and may lose independence and resources, and its citizens can lose personal freedoms, if not their lives. But the winner often loses far more than it can possibly regain. The current estimate for the relatively “small” [and it is, in historical terms] war in Iraq is an annual cost of $200 billion. Almost five years into this war, the U.S. cost alone is approaching one trillion dollars and has resulted in nearly 4,000 deaths of U.S. military personnel. This doesn’t include, depending on who is making the estimates, the deaths of between 60,000 and one million Iraqi soldiers, terrorists, and civilians. And for this expenditure, exactly what did we gain, either economically or politically? We aren’t getting any more oil, and we haven’t lowered the price of crude oil. In fact, before the 2003 invasion the price of crude was running at around $30 a barrel, and lately it’s been running over $90/barrel, and sometimes over $100/barrel, and we’re more dependent on imported oil than ever.

Another reason that people give for war is the need to project or protect power and leadership. Let’s see. We seized the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish American War, occupied the islands for over 40 years, lost men defending them in WWII, spent billions propping up corrupt governments, and finally turned over billions of dollars of facilities to the Philippine government when the last U.S. military bases were closed in 1992. Fifty years after we lost over 50,000 men in Korea, we’re still faced with a renegade regime in North Korea that is flirting with developing a nuclear capacity, and we’re still paying to maintain troops in South Korea. Thirty-five years after we lost over 55,000 soldiers and pulled out of Vietnam, we’re the ones begging for trade concessions from them… and from China. After two invasions of Iraq and one of Afghanistan, we haven’t stopped Al Qaeda, and we’ve lost more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than we lost civilians in the 9/11 twin towers disaster.

Another reason for war is “to protect ourselves.” I’d be naive not to say that at times this is a necessity, as in the case of WWII, but I have trouble seeing how the war in Iraq has increased our safety, or how fighting in Vietnam made us safer.

Another reason given is to “protect human rights.” Again, pardon me, but history doesn’t show the United States exactly rushing to protect all the Jews of Europe against Hitler. We did show great sorrow after the fact, but pretty much all of the major non-Nazi powers of Europe, as well as the United States, ignored what was going on until after WWII. We’ve ignored, except for a few diplomatic notes and protests, the genocide in Darfur, and the abuses of Stalin, Pol Pot, and countless other dictators — except when it suited other purposes. And now, we tolerate a president who claims that restricting torture of suspected terrorists will make us weaker as a nation.

So just exactly why do we as humans have to fight so many wars? Could it just be that, all protests to the contrary, as a species we really like conflict?

I’ve only seen this addressed directly once in SF, in Alan Dean Foster’s series The Damned. And, from what I recall, that series didn’t do all that well. He postulated that humans were bred to be warriors… and we didn’t want to face it. Neither did many of the critics. Imagine that.

How Many "Really Good Books?"

A well-known publisher often tells a story of his early days in the publishing business when he visited a large commercial book-buyer to present the titles forthcoming from the firm he then represented. After the presentation, the buyer looked at the young salesman and said, “How can you say all that with a straight face? Last year, you came and told me that those titles were the best ever, and the ones you just told me about are better than the ones that were the best ever? I only have so many feet of shelves, and every year you and the others come and tell me that this year’s offerings are the best ever…”

If the Locus annual review of the number of F&SF titles published is accurate, and I have no reason to believe that it’s not as close to the real numbers as any such compilation could be, last year 1,710 original F&SF books were published, of which 693 were hardcovers, along with 1,013 reprints of already-existing titles. But how many were “really good books?”

How about 1,710? After all, these publishers wouldn’t publish books that they didn’t think were good, would they? Well… maybe a few that would appeal to people with, shall we say, “particular tastes.”

Of course, this all brings up the question of what “good” means. For some people, it means a fast and exciting read that removes them from their not-so-wonderful day job and otherwise mundane circumstances. For others, it’s all about the choice of words and structure of the sentences [I kid you not; I’ve seen books described as classics that had NO plot and no action]. For others, it’s the play of ideas or the characters.

Even the so-called experts don’t agree. I’ve seen SF books listed as “Best of the Year” by Kirkus or Booklist that don’t make the annual and long Locus recommended reading list. Books that get starred reviews by Publishers Weekly can get poor reviews from various genre reviewers. One of my books that got starred reviews from most sources and won awards got a very mediocre review from Romantic Times [which, believe it or not, reviews lots of F&SF].

All this confusion may well explain why the largest reasons people pick up books are either because they already know the author OR because a personal friend or close relative has recommended it. I suspect the latter works because we tend to know what our friends like, or don’t, and can factor what we know about them into our choices. It works both ways. If one friend in particular raves about a book, I’ll probably never read it because I know from experience that I’ll most likely hate it.

One reviewer lamented recently that she could find fewer and fewer books to recommend, but is that because there are fewer good books… or merely fewer books of the kind that meet her criteria for excellence — or, perhaps, a little of both?

In the end, though, I’d have to say that there aren’t nearly so many good books as the publishers claim and more than any individual reviewer would admit. But then, that’s just my opinion on “really good books.”

The Golden Age… and Camelot

There’s always been this human feeling that sometime, somewhere in the past, was a golden era, from which we as humans have fallen. For the ancient Greeks, it was the Golden Age, for devout Christians, the Garden of Eden. For those of English heritage, it was Camelot, and for at least some Americans, it was the American Camelot of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The problem, of course, is that none of them existed as envisioned by their believers. Early Greek history was blood-soaked, with life brutal and short, and that was if you were male and free. Even under the original terms of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had to be unperceptive and not-too-bright, because they weren’t allowed a full range of knowledge, and if the archeologists are correct, the original garden was located in an area near the Persian Gulf that was conflict-ridden. The time of the Arthurian Camelot was the warlord-torn period following the retreat of the Romans from Britain, when no one was safe and nothing secure, and during the Presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, literally nothing was accomplished except a failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the near-Armageddon of an atomic conflict over Cuba, and the most philandering in the White House in history [facts papered over and/or conveniently ignored by revisionists of all stripes].

Today, politically, Barrack Obama is appealing to that yearning for change, and those who long for Camelot and the Golden Ages that never were are flocking to him, his incredibly well-spoken words, and his visions. While that yearning for a golden and simpler time is certainly understandable, and an eternal human wish, wishing for and following such a spellbinding orator is nothing more than another manifestation of the human desire for a better life paid for by someone else. This isn’t to say that such desires aren’t powerful and that they can’t change things. They do… and seldom for the better.

Hitler promised dreams of a better life, and so did Mussolini, and so did Huey Long in Louisiana. Lenin roused the proletariat, and Mao marched the Long March toward peace, prosperity, and improvement… and one thing that they all had in common was the desire to take from one group to give to another in the name of a more perfect society.

Me… I’m much more impressed by an imperfect Winston Churchill’s promise of only “blood, sweat, and tears,” because that’s how the world is improved, not by harkening to times that never were and suggesting that they can be achieved just by “wishing” for change or voting for or supporting a particular man or woman on a white horse.

All too often those dreams of a Golden Age have only presaged a lifetime of nightmares.

The Unseen Danger from AIs

The vast majority, if not all, of evolutionary biologists believe that one of the critical factors in the rise of the homo sapiens, as reflected in the species terminology, was the ability to think, an ability that led to sophisticated tool-making, agriculture, organized societies, and so forth. The combination of thinking and a tool-making culture has led to the creation of ever more sophisticated tools and a greater understanding of life and the universe.

But… if a trend observed by two U.S. researchers continues to take hold, all that may change. The two studied graduate students using high level computational tools and found that, when solutions eluded the students or when the results were unsatisfactory, almost invariably, the students attempted to figure out new and different ways to use the computerized tools and never addressed either the structure of or the assumptions behind the questions they had posed or the approach they had taken in addressing the problem at hand. In short, they had stopped truly thinking analytically and had reduced themselves to mental mechanics, as opposed to higher-level thinkers.

This isn’t just a problem for doctoral students in the sciences. It’s already everywhere. Because a large number of students have never really learned basic mathematics, they can’t estimate solutions, and if a calculator or computer is wildly off, they often never catch it. Many retail employees have trouble making change. Students seem to assume that all the answers are somewhere on the internet.

These and other examples suggest that people are blindly relying on the answers and methods provided by modern technology, instead of asking questions and thinking about the approaches and implications. Again… this isn’t new. A good twenty years ago, when I was working in the environmental field, I watched researchers and public policymakers get sucked in by mathematical models and accept the output relatively uncritically… and when, as a consultant, I asked some rather pointed and critical questions, they all deferred to the models as if they were infallible. They’re only models of reality. Sometimes they come very close, and sometimes they don’t, but it takes thought to determine which. That was twenty years ago, and today it’s even worse. Most trades on the stock market are handled by the computers of large funds, and those trades are in turn determined by mathematical algorithms, which are based on certain assumptions. But what happens if the assumptions change? Who’s watching?

This isn’t necessarily a problem when such thoughtlessness occurs in those people whose occupation isn’t supposed to be thinking, but it seems to be happening more and more often among those whose expertise is supposed to include analytical thought.

Now… just take this trend another step forward, to when we get more and more intelligent computer systems, even AIs. Certainly, Kubrick and Clarke anticipated this in 2001: A Space Odyssey with Hal… but very few viewers seem to see the parallels to our own culture today. Will homo sapiens give way to homo unsapiens without anyone even thinking about it?

Another Side to "Character Vulnerabilty"

One of the problems most, if not all, writers have is that, no matter what most of us claim, we tend to dwell, if not obsess, over what the readers and reviewers don’t see that seems perfectly obvious to us. And each of us, as writers, has certain predilections. One of mine, shared by some other writers, is to write about strong and powerful individuals.

I don’t and can’t bring myself to write about detective mages so stupid that they make four or five major mistakes, any one of which should have killed them, in every book. I don’t write about weepy and helpless women, nor about powerful but stupid villains.

But, of course, a good book is about overcoming challenges, and readers want to see protagonists tested to their limits. One reader told me, “Make sure you really abuse your heroes.” One of the possible problems with this is that external challenges may not be the real obstacles. I’ve seen incredibly talented people essentially throw their lives away, and I’ve seen moderately talented but ambitious people succeed where more talented but less driven individuals failed. So one of the formulas suggested by writing gurus is that internal challenges should mirror the external ones, or vice versa.

All that said, very little can stop an incredibly talented, intelligent, and driven individual. This means that, in books as in real life, powerful individuals are seldom realistically threatened or done in by others. Yet there seems to be a feeling that fictional characters who are “too strong” are not believable because they have no weaknesses. Part of that is because most of us can’t identify with them, and we’d prefer to identify with the underdog. That’s why the story of David or Goliath — or Seabiscuit — still resonates with people. But strong characters do have weaknesses. They can be done in by a combination of other powerful individuals, by their own weaknesses, or especially by their ties to others.

This certainly isn’t a new concept, but it tends to be overlooked, although it was laid out fairly bluntly in Gordon Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not. No one can stop Tam Olyn… but he turns aside from destroying an entire culture because of love — and would in fact be devastated if anything happened to Lisa. There’s certainly no one individual who could stop my own character Alucius by the end of Scepters, but he is and will always be held hostage to the love of his homeland, which is highly vulnerable, and his way of life. In the end, the near-invincible Mykel and Dainyl both end up vulnerable and hostages to life and those they love. In a similar sense, the women of Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country control everything, and yet remain hostages.

Yet, all too many readers and reviewers tend to think of external vulnerabilities as the most challenging. Whether external or internal vulnerabilities are the greatest depends on the character and the situation, which is as it should be, not upon a preconceived assumption that large and visible dangers are always the hardest to overcome.

The War on Science and the Future?

What if we’ve all missed the point of the war in Iraq? What if the real agenda of the Bush Administration was not to keep the Iraqis from establishing a Euro-denominated oil bourse, or to ensure U.S. access to Iraqi oil once Saudi Arabia collapses to revolution, or to assure future significant revenues for the Bush family’s consulting firm? What if the real agenda was to weaken and destroy science education and training in rational thought in the United States, in order to further creationism and fundamental religious beliefs?

Now… some may claim that might be going a bit too far, but, in support of the Bush war budget, the latest Congressional appropriations take huge cuts out of fundamental research in physics, so much so that Fermilab in Illinois and Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center together will lay off more than 300 scientists and employees, essentially closing for all practical purposes. Why? Supposedly because the something like $95-$100 million required is needed more to fund the war than for physics research.

Pardon me, but I don’t see cuts in $200 million bridges to nowhere, and the cuts in federal funds for physics research amount to tenths of a percent of the annual costs of waging the war in Iraq. Such research cuts won’t add anything meaningful to the war funding, but they will cripple American physics research for years, if not longer.

We’re already suffering a decline in U.S. born and bred scientists, not to mention science and math teachers, and we’ve adopted “security measures” that effectively curtail the education and possible future assimilation of foreign-born doctoral students in the hard sciences. Could all this just be another part of the grand creationist conspiracy to damp down and wipe out critical scientific thought?

I mean… how could it be anything else? After all, much of American economic and military success has been based on our historic ability to entice the best minds and thoughts from around the world and to offer them rewards well beyond what they could ever have achieved in their homelands.

Surely, no thoughtful person would want to destroy one of the fundamental bases of American success and prosperity just through stupidity and oversight, would they? So there must be a reason for this policy. There has to be, doesn’t there? What else could it be but a great fundamentalist and creationist plot?

"Promoterism" In Writing?

While some readers will doubtless laugh at what follows, I still have the feeling that I went, almost overnight, from “up-and-coming writer” to “he’s-been-writing-forever.” It wasn’t all that many years ago when my editor asked me to introduce myself to a young writer who had just sold his first book. I introduced myself and got a blank look, followed by the statement, “I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of you.”

That was less than eight years ago, and I’d published almost thirty books. Now, I see comments like, “The Recluce Saga is older fantasy, but still good.” A former publicist remarked that, “I can’t believe the Recluce Saga is still going.”

Times do change, and I’ll have to admit that my reaction to one of the changes probably marks me as being of the “older generation.” This change has to do with how writers tend to get started. When I first began to write seriously, my naive thought was that, if I wrote well enough and worked hard enough, I’d get published. And I did… and it happened. It also happened for other writers.

Today, I can think of more than a few would-be writers who seem to spend more time promoting themselves on the internet than writing or attempting to improve their craft. And in a way, they remind me of juvenile ravens, because they tend to collect in a gaggle [although technically and grammatically and practically, the term is an “unkindness”], where they spend an inordinate amount of bandwidth and space commenting on the writing field and promoting the new works of the younger writers, whom they wish to join. Call it the support of the “new” by those who wish also to be the newest of the new.

I don’t mind that aspect of it. A majority of the “young” have always done that. I never was in that majority, but that’s another story that won’t be told. But what concerns me is the amount of time that this represents. This is not, for the most part, time spent refining one’s craft as a writer. It is not time spent creating stories or novels. It is sheer personal promotion, often before the writer is question has much of worth to present.

Is it understandable? Absolutely! Now that only one or two F&SF of the major publishing firms accept unsolicited manuscripts, how else can a writer find a way to get either an invitation from a publisher or an agent interested?

Is it good? I don’t think so. More than a few editors have suggested to me privately that the technical quality of submissions is declining. That’s not to say that some are not good, or that all of that decline results from the shift of energy from writing to promoting, but they’re fewer and harder to find. It also is a trap, I suspect, because maintaining a high-visibility website takes a tremendous amount of time. If the site declines, so does viewership… and visibility. But in a culture that is incredibly media-driven, not “improving and advancing” is seen not as stability, but as failure. So, in order to attract “attention,” more and more effort is required for promotion, and less and less time is available for actual writing and learning the craft.

Add to that an increasing pressure to produce profits by the parent companies of larger publishers, and what happens? More and more profit is generated by a handful of books and by media knock-offs, while good books that don’t appeal widely don’t get published by the majors and/or are put out by smaller presses.

From that point of view, it seems to make sense for a newer writer to try to build a following through the internet, but the problem is that when they’re all chasing the “flavor de jour” they’re all trying to appeal to the exact same audience, and that audience is still not a majority of the book-buyers, even in F&SF, and the rest of the audience is often put off by the “flavor de jour” and purchases fewer books.

Do I have an answer? I’d suggest that more new writers take a risk, a real risk, and concentrate on writing and not promotion. Remember, neither J.K. Rowling nor Robert Jordan needed a website presence to get started. They just needed books that lots of people, and not just the internet crowd, wanted to read.