Archive for March, 2008

Not So High-Tech

I tried to get deposit slips from a well-known financial institution for almost a month. I’m pleased with all the services and features, except this one thing. They wouldn’t send me more deposit slips. I finally received them two weeks after contacting a vice president. Considering that I first requested replacement slips over two months ago, it’s rather amazing that I have to send them money in care of a vice president with a cover letter because they can’t get around to sending me replacement slips. After all, shouldn’t we be able to do better in our computerized high-tech society?

Sadly not, I have to conclude. While we have progressed immensely in our ability to move information and electrons around, our infrastructure for moving much of anything else seems to be on the decline. Another example is mail. My mother lives a ten hour drive from me. I can get to her house almost entirely on interstate highways, with only a quarter mile drive from my house to the interstate and a mile from the interstate to her house. So why, exactly does it take 4-5 days on a regular basis for the U.S. Postal Service to get a letter in either direction? Since 1950, the consumer price index has increased some 760%, that is, the average of all consumer goods costs more than 7 ½ times what the same goods did in 1950. The cost of a first class postage stamp is up 1233%, or more than twelve times what a stamp cost in 1950. In 1950, the vast majority of first class mail was delivered within three days, and many cities still had twice a day deliveries — and the Post Office wasn’t running a deficit. To get a chance at three-day delivery now will cost you a minimum of $4.60.

It’s not just the U.S. Postal Service, either. Last year, we ordered a loveseat from a well-known furniture manufacturer — and this is often necessary because we live many miles from any significant furniture retailer — and it took eight weeks to get it. It arrived broken, and another five weeks passed before we received a replacement.

I just returned from ICFA [the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts], where three boxes of books sent from various publishers — with tracking numbers — had failed to arrive, and two different “overnight” shipping companies had no idea where they were. Then, there is the business of stocking supermarket shelves. Why is it that they always run out of one brand of tea, or one brand of potato chips, week after week, month after month, and never stock more of that brand? Is it incompetence? Or merely a stock and price fixing arrangement that might violate any decent antitrust legislation? Speaking of which, why can’t the techno-whizzes who create all those stock-trading algorithms come up with something that might flag more precisely insider trading or fraudulent mortgage lending?

I won’t mention — except in passing — the state of airline baggage. But I will ask why we seem to have more trouble delivering “stuff” and finding it when we have more technology than ever before at our fingertips and why so little of that technology is employed to deal with the nagging glitches in life.

F&SF and the Roots of Charity

According to “The Philanthropy Hormone,” an article published in the April issue of Discover, one third of all U.S. philanthropic giving in 2006 went to religious groups. The next largest category, at 14%, was education. Foundations and human service organizations each received somewhat more than 10%, while cultural/arts organizations and international affairs groups received about 4% each, with other categories receiving smaller percentages. All told, on average, Americans contributed 2.2% of their after-tax earnings to charity.

This distribution of charitable giving is intriguing, particularly because it suggests, as is also the case with morality, that charity is strongly linked to belief in a higher being of some sort. One could almost make the case that a great deal of this charity comes from religious-based fear — punishment in the afterlife — or this one — by a divine being. At the very least, one could suggest that at least some of the giving in other areas might also be inspired by “divine guidance.”

Of course, there might be another reason for the predominance of religious giving. It simply could be that religious establishments provide a critical social function in knitting communities together, and that the contributions they receive are a form of payment for that social cohesion and not “charity” at all.

All this raises another question. Why is there so little F&SF dealing with the issues in and around charity? Certainly, there are more than a few novels dealing with religion, some notable, like Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I’ve certainly taken on belief and religion, but offhand out of the thousands of F&SF novels I’ve read, I can’t think of one notable title dealing with the issue of charity and its impact on humans and humanity in general [and as sure as I’ve written this, someone will comment and raise a title I should have remembered].

Either way… what exactly do the numbers above suggest about the human species? Are there any writers out there who want to take a crack at it?

Experience… and Popularity in the Novel

In some ways, the first three books of the Spellsong Cycle are among the most realistic fantasies I’ve written, particularly in dealing with sexual politics and intrigue. Interestingly enough, each of the five books received starred reviews from some literary source or another, and the last book was a book of the year for one literary review. None of my other fantasy series has received anywhere close to that sort of critical acclaim, but the books of the Spellsong Cycle don’t sell as well as those in my other fantasy series.

It can’t be because there’s no sex, since none of my books — except one, published more than 20 years ago — contain anything other than indirect allusions to sex. Is it because the main character is a middle-aged woman? Is it because the source of magic is the fairly technical application of song and accompaniment? Or is it because I dared to show certain very direct components of sexual discrimination?

All of those may play a part, but I suspect that the real reason is the same reason why my science fiction novel Archform:Beauty won plaudits and awards and only sold modestly. The success/failures of characters in both books hinge on the value of experience. No young hero saves the day against impossible odds. In the Spellsong Cycle, Anna bides her time, utilizes the bitter lessons of academic politics and a failed marriage to position herself so that, when the time comes, she can act effectively. She doesn’t hate men, but she has few illusions about either their strengths and weaknesses, and she’s not any easier in assessing those of her own “fair” sex, either.

In Archform:Beauty, the experiences of the five viewpoint characters — all told from the first person — interact and combine to create the resolution, and like most such resolutions in life, the results are bittersweet and mixed… and, also like life, anything but world-shaking.

This does bring up a point that has certainly been debated for years, if not centuries, and that is whether, except in exceedingly rare cases, books that hew closer to the realities of human emotions and experiences can ever be wildly popular. Is popularity based on the defiance of experience, the dream of identifying with what we as readers know to be impossible, but would still like to believe? Does it matter?

This might seem like an “eternal question,” but in a sense, it’s anything but eternal, because in terms of human culture, the modern novel is an extremely recent innovation. While epic tales date back millennia, and one of the first examples of what we would consider a novel is the eleventh century Japanese work, The Tale of Genji, such examples were either essentially oral traditions or hand-written longer works with extremely limited circulation. The modern novel needed the printing press, and a number of scholars suggest that Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740, is the first of the modern novels.

And in practical terms, until the 1950s, and the wide-spread advent of paperback books, novels tended to be restricted to those who could afford them, and not a large percentage of the population could. While book publishers were clearly interested in profitability, “popularity” didn’t become the dominant issue with book publishers until the late nineteenth century, and didn’t become an overriding imperative until the last 50-75 years.

But the interplay of popularity and content do raise further questions. What is the point of publishing a book? To sell as many copies as possible? To make a great profit? To entertain? To enlighten? To educate? To raise issues? What trade-offs do publishers make… and why?

I’ve certainly been fortunate as an author to have been backed by a publisher who has allowed me to raise issues, sometimes less than popular ones, in what I’ve hoped is an interesting and entertaining manner… and I’ve seen other publishers who do, but I have to wonder, as I watch the media conglomerates strive for market saturation and pure profitability, how long truly thought-provoking books will be widely published.

F&SF Cultures — Who’s Responsible?

I came across a comment by a reviewer that condemned [yet again] one of my characters [not Van Albert, surprisingly enough, who has taken much abuse over the years since The Ethos Effect was published] for killing “innocents” when she destroyed a city ruled by those who had inflicted great evil on others for generations. The evil wasn’t questioned, but the extent of the “collateral damage” was, and it was questioned on the grounds that it was akin to condemning all Germans in WWII because Hitler was the German head of state.

Now, it could be that I’m just cynical and jaundiced because I spent some twenty years in and around national politics in Washington, D.C., but evil governments aren’t just foisted off on hapless people. All those evil lobbyists? Are they really so evil? I mean, if General Conglomerated Amalgamations doesn’t get the contract for the SPX-Vortex, the good people of West Podunk will lose a thousand jobs. And if we don’t contract out to Halliburton and Blackwater, why… to keep the war going in Iraq we might have to extend Army and National Guard tours of duty, or even re-institute the draft, and isn’t it much better just to handle these disagreeable tasks with good old American private enterprise?

There’s something about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

And the same realization should permeate good fantasy and science fiction. That evil king who tortured peasants and abused young women in ways too degrading to mention… did he do it all alone? Who supplied the torture tools? Who staffed the dungeons? Who grew the food that fed the castle? Who made the spears and swords? Were all his subjects so cowed by his army that they could do nothing? Perhaps, but what cowed the army and the generals? They had the majority of weapons, and why couldn’t they suggest that torture wasn’t a good idea? Besides upsetting people, it’s really not very effective in getting accurate information.

The same questions arise in SF, in future high-tech terror states. Exactly who’s behind all the spying, the loss of freedom, the midnight raids? Is it just the president, the prime minister, the head of the military? Or might it be also the industrial combine that supplies surveillance gear, and the people who work there who want to keep their jobs and their paychecks? Or the weapons manufacturer and its employees… or the communications giant..

As I and others have noted, no government in history has survived against the will of the majority of its people. Many haven’t even survived against the will of a small and determined minority. That does have a tendency to suggest that when evil individuals rule a land, fictional or real, they do so with either the tacit acceptance or the willing support of the majority of the populace. And under those conditions, just how innocent are the “innocents” who accepted the benefits of that government while claiming it wasn’t their fault?

In short, does the responsibility for evil rest solely on the designated head of state? It’s so convenient and reassuring to think so, but should we, as writers, really foster that comforting illusion?

Writers and Societal Illusions

Last week, my editor, his assistant, and I were “discussing” some elements of a book I’d turned in. I use the word “discussing” in very loose terms. My editor was having a hard time with the situation in the book. I won’t go into the specifics here, because some of you might read the book, but both my editor and I did agree on the facts, on the credibility of the situation, and the culture. But, in essence, the issue turned on one point — that to be sympathetic to the reader the protagonist should find a “better way” to resolve the issue. Either that, or all the “bad” characters should be so overwhelmingly evil that no matter what the protagonist did, every reader would cheer.

I resisted this — and time and your future comments will reveal exactly how readers do in fact react — because I’ve gotten more than a little tired of culture-centric societal illusions, in particular, American culture-centric illusions. I’m not talking about ideals, where we strive to do better, and often fail, but illusions.

I’m certainly not the first writer to tilt at this windmill, and I seriously doubt that I’ll be the last. In Slaughterhouse Five, for example, Kurt Vonnegut took dead aim at the American illusion that all it takes to become rich is hard work and virtue.

I’ve addressed this issue before, if not presented in quite that way. In The Ethos Effect, the protagonist discovers that his own culture has turned from a relatively open democratic society into a xenophobic, militaristic, homophobic, and repressive society that opposes all efforts, internal and external, to return to what we might term a relatively free society. He takes drastic steps, and more than a few readers were appalled, making the almost inevitable and rhetorical statement that there had to be a”better way.”

And my discussion with my editor, not surprisingly, centered on that same great American illusion — that there’s always “a better way,” a better solution to a problem that involves less work, less cost, and sometimes, less loss of life. The problem is — sometimes there isn’t, and no one wants to face it.

If we really want to get rid of some ten thousand homicides annually in the USA, i.e., those committed with firearms, “all” we have to do is collect all the guns. That would be the most effective way, wouldn’t it? Just try it, and you’ll see how far that gets you. The illusion, because a vocal and large minority opposes gun control, is that we can reduce those homicides through a “better way.” So, in search of that better way, we enact this and that regulation, and this and that restriction, and the impact is statistically minimal. We create the illusion of doing something, and that’s “better” than giving up society-wide gun ownership. Of course, all those regulations haven’t made much of a dent in the homicide numbers, and there is no “better way” both to allow weapons and reduce gun-related homicides.

We also foster an illusion of equality, and we’re quick to cite the Declaration of Independence, in that “all men are created equal.” I’m sorry. While the birth process is the same, the results are anything but equal. A crack baby is seldom, if ever, going to be equal to a healthy one. A child born to less advantaged parents will always have a greater struggle to achieve what can be attained by one born to more privileged parents. And all the Head Start and pre-natal care and enrichment programs won’t erase all of that inequality. Am I saying such programs aren’t worth anything? Heavens, no. I’m saying that, necessary as they are, they won’t bring about complete equality, not even complete equality of opportunity, because for a society to function well, the best qualified people should be hired and promoted. Like it or not, individuals in any society are not equal. But fostering the illusion of equality allows people to ignore the realities of inequality, the true costs of remedying even just a portion of it — and the fact that it will always exist.

All societies have illusions. They always have, and they always will, but to me, one of the tasks of a writer, in addition to entertaining, is to at least occasionally draw back the dark curtain and shed a few rays of light on such illusions, even if indirectly through fictional or fantasy cultures… and even if it means occasionally disagreeing with my editor.