Archive for April, 2008

The Instant News… and Its Implications

Whether it’s Headline News, Bloomberg News, Fox News, and AOL… everywhere there’s instant news… and where there’s not instant news, there are instant comment shows, or failing that, instant action dramas. But the instant news exemplifies the trend… and the problems. The other day, in a moment of weakness, I happened to be actually using the satellite TV and came across a well-known sports commentator who was pitching an instant sports news network or program with words to the effect that this instant sports news access venue [whatever it was] was a must to the young and hip, and that only those over fifty waited for the regular news to learn what was happening.

My first thought, as quickly as I turned off the system and regretted the impulse that had led me to even consider that there might be anything interesting being broadcast, particularly on a Saturday, was to wonder why anyone HAD to know the sports “news” that quickly. Then, there was the secondary thought about how much of the news, these days, is really so vital that one can’t wait for the next day’s newspaper. But then, our society is all about, as one commercial called to my attention by my wife stated, how “I want it all, and I want it now.” So I suppose instant news of all sorts is just another aspect of that attitude.

Still… for all the growth of and popularity of all these forms of instant news, it seems to me that either very few people realize the implications behind these demand for instant information or those that do feel that protesting what seems like a popular tsunami of support is futile.

So… here are the implications as I see them. First, as we already know, all these varieties of media “news” have become entertainment, not a source of real information, and whatever information is contained tends to be so condensed, slanted, or incomplete as to be either inaccurate or misleading. There’s a headline about how a substance increases cancer risks by sixty percent, but nowhere does the story point out that the risk for most people for that kind of cancer is something like 1/20th of one percent. Hazardous waste sites and nuclear power plants are touted as great health risks, when guns, falls, substance abuse, and automobile accidents are all literally hundreds of thousands of times more dangerous.

Second, because the media focuses on sensationalism in one form or another, meaningful news that impacts most Americans is ignored until it becomes a sensational disaster. The problems with adjustable rate mortgages and securities derivatives weren’t exactly a great secret. They just weren’t worth exploring as news until they created hundreds of billions of dollars in losses and started costing tens of thousands of Americans their homes.

Third, it perpetuates caricaturing as a media art-form, creating images of individuals in the news that may well be at variance with who they are or what they have done… or failed to do. This has always been a mass media problem, and some of the most notable examples are the way in which Hitler used the media in Germany, the American media’s creation of an image of JFK that bore little resemblance to the actual man and his considerable lack of achievement as president or the media’s depiction of Gerald Ford as a clumsy physical bumbler when Ford was in fact perhaps one of the most graceful and athletic presidents. In our present electronic age, especially, because of the mass media time-limits and the capabilities of technology, anyone presented in this format becomes an instant caricature.

Fourth, the emphasis on the current, new, and instant creates a pressure to act and react on inadequate information, and, as the Founding Fathers knew [which was why they structured our government to preclude hasty action and reaction], hasty actions almost always result in bad decisions and less than desirable repercussions. Yet today, the entire media culture presses people to decide “now.” Check your credit card balance instantly so that you can decide how much you can charge for that new wide-screen television. Vote your preferences online for the candidates — political or American idol, it makes no difference. It’s only entertainment.

Finally, as a result of the above, the entire idea of “news” as having a special or intrinsic value is devalued, and it becomes harder and harder for the average person to find the information that they need and should have without digging deeper and harder than ever before — exactly at a time when those who should learn more don’t want to and those who would like to know more have less and less time to explore it.

If these pressures remained in the electronic media, that would be bad enough, but they’re not. They’re also now exerting a considerable impact on the publishing industry. I can recall, years ago, reading the introductory chapters of James Michener’s books. Frankly, I really didn’t care much for the novels, but I found the popularized history and background fascinating, and that led to my reading more and more non-fiction in those areas.

One of the fastest-growing print entertainment areas is the anime/manga subgenre or cross-genre. I don’t have a problem with anime/manga per se, but I have great problems when I go into a bookstore and see carrels of books being replaced by what amounts to graphic novels, because, regardless of what the anime aficionados may claim, when real books are being replaced by grown-up comic books, the intellectual capacity of the culture isn’t headed in the right direction. It’s just another form of the over-visualized and over-simplified.

In the end, thinking requires a depth of information and time to consider. Instant news, instant entertainment, and instant reaction are all being pushed by the media in order to get people to instant-buy, but this rush to instant-everything denies any real depth of information and denigrates thoughtful consideration of facts and issues. And, if the trends continue, they’ll also water down, if not destroy, the thoughtful side of the print fiction market.

And the thought of losing future readers to instant sports or celebrity news tends to irritate me… and probably more other writers than would care to admit it.

There Must Be a Reason

Most current American fiction,by its very nature, and especially science fiction and fantasy, generally tends to repudiate the “absurdist” movement of the French existentialists of the mid-twentieth century. Does this repudiation, both directly and through its indirect influence on other media, actually perpetuate the very question that the existentialists raised, as well as help fuel the high degree of religious belief in the United States? Now that I have at least a few readers stunned…

I’ll doubtless end up grossly oversimplifying, but since I don’t wish to write the equivalent of an English Ph.D. dissertation, we’ll go for a modicum of simplicity. Sartre and Camus and others of the absurdist school tended to put forth the proposition that, in essence, life had no intrinsic meaning, that it was “absurd,” and that, in as illustrated in Camus’s L’Etranger, the only real choice one had in life was what to do with one’s life, i.e., whether to take a meaningful step to end it or to let life continue meaninglessly.

The question is, simply enough: “Does an individual life have intrinsic worth or meaning by the mere fact of existence?” The absurdist view would tend to imply that it doesn’t. The deeply religious Christian view is that every single life has meaning to the Deity.

While I can’t claim, and won’t, to have read even a significant faction of the something like 30,000 new adult fiction titles published every year, at times I have read a large fraction of what’s been published in the F&SF field, and I can’t recall more than a handful of books that discussed or considered intelligently the absurdist premises or more than a tiny fraction where the characters acted as though life had no intrinsic meaning. In some, a disturbing fraction, I have to admit, that intrinsic meaning was to be available to get slaughtered by the heroes or the villains, but a certain sense of value was still placed on the lives of even the most worthless.

Is this comparative authorial lack of interest in the possible meaninglessness of life bad? Not necessarily. In LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, however, one of her characters makes the statement that to oppose something is to maintain it. I’d suggest, following LeGuin’s words, that the continued cheerful, and unthinking assumption that life has intrinsic Deity-supported meaning leaves all too many readers and people wondering if that is really so… and why they should believe it.

For whatever wonder may be generated, though, very little finds its way to the printed fiction page.

I will offer one observation and clarification. Many, many authors speculate on the meaninglessness of a given character’s chosen life path, but that isn’t the same as whether life has an intrinsic meaning to or within the universe. In fact, I could even claim that the realization of or belief in a meaningless occupation or set of acts affirms the idea that life is meaningful in a cosmic sense — an application in a backwards way of LeGuin’s words.

Yet… on one side we have a universe some sixteen billion light years across in all directions with some 100 billion galaxies, each with between 50 and 100 billion stars, with the believers in intrinsic meaning claiming that each life has a special meaning. And there’s almost no one on the other side?

Well… maybe there are many on the other side, but outside of Richard Dawkins and those few like him, I’m not seeing all that many, and I’ve certainly not read about many heroes or heroines who look up into the night sky and consider the odds on whether life has that kind of meaning. Almost a century ago, Alfred North-Whitehead observed that when one wishes to understand truly a society, one should examine the basic assumptions of that culture, those which are so basic that no one has ever scrutinized them. I’d submit that one of those assumptions underlying western European-derived culture is that there is a God-given meaning to each life, and that the fact that the absurdist proposition died away so quickly suggests that this assumption remains strong… and largely unexamined.

I tend to deal with this issue, as I suspect a few other writers do, at the second remove, by having my characters act along the lines of: If there is a God/prime mover, then we should do the best we can because that’s what expected; if there’s not, it’s even more important that we do our best because we’re not getting any divine support.

But I do wonder if we’ll see many popular atheist/absurdist heroes or heroines anytime in the near future.

Standing Ovations & "Discrimination"

Many years ago, when all my grown children were still minors, one of them wanted to know why I seldom said that anything they did was good. My answer was approximately, “You’re intelligent and talented, and you’ve had many advantages. I expect the merely good from you as a matter of course. If you do better than that, then I’ll be the first to let you know.” Perhaps I was too hard on them, but that was the answer I’d gotten from my father. But my answer clearly didn’t crush them, or they survived the devastation of not having a father who praised everything, because they’ve all turned out to be successful and productive, and they seem to be reasonably happy in life.

As some of my readers know, I’m married to a professional singer who is also a university professor and opera director. She has made the observation that these days almost any musical or stage play, whether a Broadway production in New York, a touring Broadway production, a Shakespeare festival play, or a college production, seems to get a standing ovation… unless it is so terrible as to be abysmal, in which case the production merely gets enthusiastic applause. The one exception to this appears to be opera, which seldom gets more than moderately enthusiastic applause, even though the singers in opera are almost invariably far better performers than those in any stage musical, and they don’t need body mikes, either. Maybe the fact that excellence still has a place in opera is why I’ve come to appreciate it more as I’ve become older and more and more of a curmudgeon.

My wife has also noted that the vast majority of students she gets coming out of high school these days have almost all been told through their entire lives that they’re “wonderful.” This is bolstered, of course, by a grade inflation that shows that at least a third of some high school senior classes have averages in excess of 3.8.

In a way, I see the same trend in writing, even while I observe a loosening of standards of grammar, diction, and the growth of improbable inconsistencies in all too many stories. I’ve even had copy-editors who failed to understand what the subjunctive happens to be and who believed that the adverb “then” was a conjunction [which it is most emphatically not]. Matt Cheney notwithstanding “alright” is not proper English and shouldn’t be used, except in the dialogue of someone who has less than an adequate command of the language, but today that means many, many characters could use it.

At the same time, I can’t help but continue to reflect on the change in the meaning of the word “discrimination.” When I was growing up, to discriminate meant to choose wisely and well between alternatives. A person of discrimination was one of culture and taste, not one who was prejudiced or bigoted, but then, maybe they were, in the sense that they were prejudiced against those aspects of society that did not reflect superiority and excellence.

But really, does everything merit the equivalent of a standing ovation? Is excellence measured by accomplishment, or have we come to the point of awarding standing ovations for the equivalent of showing up for work? Can “The Marching Morons” of Cyril M. Kornbluth be all that far in our future?

More Writing About Writing

To begin with, I have to confess I’m as guilty as anyone. About what? About writing about writing, of course. Now… for some background.

When I began to consider being a writer, I thought I was going to be a poet, and I did get some poems published in various small poetry and literary magazines. And then, there was this escalating altercation in Southeast Asia, and I ended up piloting helicopters for the U.S. Navy and didn’t write very much. When I got out of the Navy, I started writing market research reports dealing with the demand for industrial pneumatic accessories by large factories. Then I wrote a very bad mystery novel, awful enough that I later burned it so that it could never be resurrected. Only after all that did I attempt to write science fiction, and after close to ten years of hit or miss short-story submissions, with only about half a dozen sales while I was working full-time at my various “day jobs,” I finally got a rejection letter from Ben Bova which told me to lay off the stories and write a novel. And I did, and I sold it, and I’ve sold, so far, every one I’ve written since. Now… all this history is not bragging, or not too much, but to point out that virtually all the writing I did for almost forty years was either occupational-subject-related or poetry or fiction that I hoped to see published — and even more hopefully, sold for real money and not copies of magazines and publications.

All that changed a year ago, when I started blogging… or more specifically, writing about writing or about subjects that bear on writing, if sometimes tangentially. Instead of writing fiction for publication, I’m writing close to the equivalent of a book a year… about writing. I’m certainly not the only one out there doing this. In fact, I’m probably one of the later arrivals in this area.

But I can’t help wondering, no matter how my publicist has said that it’s a good idea, if there’s something just a bit wrong about writing about writing, instead of just writing. What’s happened to our culture and our society when readers seem to be as interested, or more interested, in writing about writing than in the writing itself. And why are so many younger writers going to such lengths in their blogs to attract attention?

At least one well-known publisher has noted that no publicity is all bad, but is this sort of thing all that good? Or is it not all that good, but necessary in a society that seems to reward shameless self-promotion as vital for success?

Who could say… except here I am, along with hundreds of others, writing about writing.

The Future of the Adversarial Society

Some twenty years ago, when I was a consultant in Washington, D.C. [i.e., beltway bandit], a chemicals, paint, and coatings company came up with an environmentally safe way to get rid of their hydrocarbon leavings [still bottoms]. They wanted to transport and sell them to a steel company, which would then use them in its smelting process. This had the advantage of first, destroying the semi-toxic waste in a safe fashion that did not harm the environment, and second, providing a cheaper source of usable carbon for carbon steel. Not only that, but the steel furnaces were far hotter than commercial hazardous waste incinerators. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Needless to say, this environmentally beneficial trade-off never occurred.

Why not? Because the U.S. EPA wanted to make sure that the process was 100% regulated, and that meant that the steel company would have had to apply for a hazardous waste disposal permit and submit itself to another layer of extremely burdensome federal regulation. Even then, U.S. steelmakers were having trouble competing, and more federal regulation would have compounded the problem. So, instead of having a cheaper source of carbon and a cleaner environment, the steelmaker paid more for conventional carbon sources, while the chemical company had to pay money to have its still bottoms incinerated in an approved hazardous waste incinerator. This didn’t help the American economy or the environment very much.

Unfortunately, I can now understand the combination of reasons as to why this happened… and why it continues. Most industrial companies haven’t historically acted, frankly, in the best interests of the population and the environment as a whole. That’s understandable. Their charter is to make money for the corporation and its shareholders, and one of the underlying and unspoken assumptions has historically been that corporations will do so in any way that is legal and will not besmirch their reputations. Likewise, because most corporations haven’t exactly been trustworthy or all that responsible for the larger issues, government bureaucrats haven’t been all that willing to trust them without imposing restrictions.

And exactly how did we get to this point?

First is the fact that, no matter what most people in the United States say, they essentially believe in a world of limitless resources. Somehow in some way, they believe, ingenuity and technology will keep things going, and there’s no real shortage, and if there is, it’s caused by government regulations or business greed. Second, we believe that competition is the way to ensure efficiency and lower prices. Third, we don’t trust government.

The problem is that all these beliefs are partial truths. There are great resources, but not unlimited ones. Competition indeed spurs lower prices, but it also encourages cut-throat competition and continued attempts by those who produce goods and provide services to transfer costs to others. Pollution transfers costs to the public, as does deforestation, strip mining, and a host of other activities. And government is certainly an institution to be wary of… but it’s the only institution that has the power to rein in out-of-control giant corporations, or on the local level, lawbreakers.

So… we have a society that is basically adversarial. Even our legal system is designed more like a stylized trial by combat than a means of finding truth or justice. How often does the better attorney transcend the “truth?” We’ve just seen a case where a pair of attorneys kept silent for years even when they had evidence that an innocent man was unfairly convicted. Why? Because our adversarial system would have disbarred them because revealing that evidence would have meant they were not fully representing the interests of their client.

So long as there are “excess” resources, an adversarial society can continue, but how long will a United States, with 5% of the world’s population, be able to continue to consume 26% of world resources? The Wall Street Journal just reported that literally billions of dollars worth of fuel is being wasted at U.S. corporations because cooperative waste reduction and energy efficiency initiatives keep falling afoul of adversarial attitudes between different divisions, differing regulatory agencies, and differing executives. At the same time, over the past five years, the price of energy has tripled…and that doesn’t count the costs of the energy-related war in Iraq, or the recent Russian announcement that Russian oil production has peaked and is declining.

Yet… are we seeing any changes? If anything, it appears as though our society is becoming even more adversarial, and that leads to a last question.

At what point does an adversarial society self-destruct?

SF and Future Business

The other day, as I was considering the origins of war, some observations came to me. When I thought over history and what I know, I realized — again — that most wars have economic origins, regardless of their widely identified or proximate causes. Helen didn’t have the face that launched a thousand ships, regardless of what Homer sang and others later inscribed. The Mycenaeans were after the lucrative Black Sea and Asia Minor trade dominated by Troy.

But that led to a second observation — that very little science fiction or fantasy actually deals with the hand-maiden of economics, that is, business itself, or even delves into the business rationales that explain why so many business tycoons cultivate political connections. Charles Stross’s The Clan Corporate deals with alternate world mafia-style types who mix special abilities, alternate worlds, murder and mayhem with business, and more than a few books cast corporate types as various types of villains. While I know I haven’t read everything out there, it does seem that books that deal with business itself are rare. One of the classics is Pohl and Kornbuth’s The Space Merchants, and two of my own books — Flash and The Octagonal Raven — deal heavily with business, but I can’t recall any others offhand.

Considering just how involved businesses have been in the disasters and wars of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it’s rather amusing that so few SF authors have taken on the challenge of dealing with business directly. Is it so impossible? Or is business just dull? Let’s see. One of the strongest factors in contributing to the Civil War wasn’t slavery, but the desire of indebted southern planters to repudiate their debts to New York bankers. Because of the influence of U.S. business types in Hawaii, a U.S. warship in Honolulu effectively supported the pseudo-revolution that overthrew the independent Hawaiian monarchy and turned Hawaii into a U.S. territory. The need for a shorter route for U.S. shipping prompted the U.S. to foment and encourage, and then support militarily, an independent Panama… and made U.S. construction and domination of the Panama Canal possible. Most of the industrialized world collaborated to put down the Boxer Revolt in China because they didn’t want existing trade agreements — and profits, including those from the opium trade — destroyed. Japan effectively started its part of WWII in order to gain resources for Japanese business, and Hitler was successful not just because of popular support, but because his acts restored German business. And, of course, despite knowledge of what was going on in Germany, during the early part of WWII, a number of U.S. companies were still in communications with their German counterparts and subsidiaries. More than a few industrial firms in the U.S. were opposed to an early pullout in Vietnam, and interestingly enough, the Texas-based firms prospered greatly, especially after Kennedy’s assassination. Now we have a war in Iraq, which occurred as oil demand continued to grow in the U.S. and after Iraq had given indications that it wanted to base its oil sales on the euro and not on the dollar. And those examples are barely the tip of the iceberg.

So… is business really that dull? We have expose after expose about what happens, and each year it seems to get more sordid… yet comparatively few authors seem to want to extrapolate into the future. Or is that just because none of them feel that they could possibly imagine anything wilder and more corrupt than what has already happened?

Simplistics in Writing and Society

As I have listened to the various candidates for president trot out their ideas and policies, and as I see and hear the public and media responses, I’m not just disturbed, but appalled. Beyond that, I also have to wonder how long intelligent fiction will remain economically viable. As it is, from what I can see, intelligent writing, which considers and reflects on matters in more than “seven steps” or “five tools” or “the church/government/corporation/male sex is the root of all evil” or “the more violence/sex/both the better” is already fast becoming limited to a small part of F&SF or non-fiction.

We live in a complex world, and it’s not getting any simpler, but there’s an ever increasing pressure on all fronts to make it seem simpler by blaming the “bad guys.” Now, who the bad guys are varies from group to group and individual to individual, depending on personal views and biases, but these “bad guys” all have one thing in common. They aren’t us.

Gasoline prices are rising. So let’s blame the multinational corporations and the Arabs for their greed… and, of course, the U.S. government for giving tax breaks to oil producers. Along the way, everyone seems to ignore the fact that the United States remains the third largest producer of crude oil in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia, and that we produce twice as much oil as does Iran and four times as much as Iraq at present. But… with five percent of the world’s population, we’re consuming something like 26% of annual world production. Why are all those tax breaks there? Because producing oil in the US is far more expensive than elsewhere, and without those tax breaks U.S. oil production would decline even more. Does anyone consider what a few million 12 mile/per/gallon SUVs represent?

We have over 41 million Americans without health insurance, and guaranteed pension plans for Americans are declining faster than the government can count. Why? Might it just have something to do with the fact that we Americans are always looking for the lowest priced goods and services, and health care insurance and guaranteed pension benefits are the principal reasons why foreign car manufacturers can produce lower-priced/higher quality vehicles than the U.S. big three?

Housing prices, despite the current collapse, are still astronomical compared to fifty years ago, but how many people really look at the fact that the average new house is twice the size of the average new post-WWII dwelling… and has more than twice the conveniences and contains a two or three-car garage?

Immigration is another case in point. Building a 700 mile fence isn’t going to stop immigration. It might detour or slow it, but Americans want too many of the services immigrants provide, and we don’t want to pay exorbitant prices for them, no matter what we say publicly. Of course, there’s also the rather hypocritical aspect that everyone in America today is either an immigrant or the descendent of one — and that includes Native Americans. The latest studies indicate that the European immigrants of the 15th and 16th century brought the diseases that killed off close to eighty percent of the continent’s then-indigenous population. So… it was all right for our so-upright ancestors to seek a better life, but these people today shouldn’t have that opportunity?

As an economist, I could go on and on, with example after example, but these examples are just illustrations of a general mind-set. The current political mood is: “We want change.” The real translation of that is: “We really don’t want to consider how we got here, but please get us out without making us think about how we got ourselves into this mess, and, by the way, don’t make us pay for it.”

Unfortunately, this also carries over into writing, and particularly into fiction. Is it any wonder that the Harry Potter books have swept the world, but particularly the English-speaking world? In a stylized way, they recall certainties of a past time and offer a dash of short-term hard work and magic to solve the problems at hand. The success of The DaVinci Code offers another example of blaming ills on a mysterious church-related conspiracy. We have conspiracy and spy and thriller books and movies, all pointing to relatively simplistic villains who aren’t us.

Yes, as I discussed previously, for a writer to be successful, he or she must entertain, but why have so many writers retreated to or succumbed to the allure of the simplistic? Novels can certainly entertain without being simplistic, and without purveying gloom, doom, and despair, but there’s always the question of how many readers will buy the more thoughtful and thought-provoking work. I’ve certainly had readers who have written to say that they just weren’t interested in my “deeper” work, and I’m certain I’m not alone. I know several best-selling writers who began by writing some very thoughtful work that I felt was thoughtful, intriguing, and entertaining, not to mention fairly well written. They don’t write such work any more, and they make a great deal more money from what they do write.

Given the pressures of society toward the simplistic, how long will those writers who have not given into the allure and rewards of the overly simplistic be able to hold out against such pressures… and even if they do, how many readers will they be able to attract?

Thoughts on Writing Success

Jim Baen and Eric Flint, as well as other fiction writers and editors, have both made statements to the effect that every writer and publisher is competing for a reader’s “beer and movie money.” While not always literally true, their underlying point is all too accurate. A successful fiction writer has to leave his or her readers feeling that their time and funds were well-spent.

That’s obvious enough, but is there any single great and glorious formula for success in achieving that end? Not exactly, because there are as many types of successful writers as there are types of readers willing to pay for books. As a result, we have writers who range from those who produce what can most charitably described as “mindless entertainment” to those who write books that are so involuted and complex that often a single book is all that they ever publish.

Years ago, a well-known news magazine used to publish a chart on which the bestsellers were listed, along with a red or green arrow. The red arrow pointed down and the green one up, and the arrows represented the consensus of a span of reviewers. What I found interesting was that the vast majority of bestsellers almost invariably had red arrows after the title. While I tended to agreed with the arrows, beyond that my perceptions certainly didn’t agree with those of the reviewers in all cases.

These days, for whatever reason, I tend to agree with reviewers in the F&SF field even less than I did twenty years ago, and I usually didn’t agree all that often even then. That may brand me as a curmudgeon, and someone who was one even before I was old enough to claim that title by virtue of age, but I think the reason was simple enough. It had to do with the “suspension of disbelief.” I’ve never had that much trouble suspending my disbelief about plausible future high-tech gadgetry or even about magic — if the author is logical and consistent in describing and using such gadgetry and magic, but I’ve always had real problems when authors have characters and societies which act and react in ways contrary to basic human nature — and one of the historic problems with science fiction has been its excessive emphasis on the technical in ways often at odds with how societies work. Readers will easily and often point out that Dyson rings or the like need steering jets [or whatever], but will swallow far more easily economic, social, and political systems that could never work, usually because they’re at great variance with human nature.

In an overall sense, my writing reflects my views in this area and how I approach writing. In my opinion, this is as it should be, at least for me. As for editors, that’s another question, and one I’m not about to touch here.

All that said… books sell because the stories they tell and the way in which they’re told appeal to various types of readers. Some authors appeal primarily to readers whose make-up falls within clear preference lines. Others don’t. And there’s a temptation for newer writers to “aim” their works directly at a given type of reader.

To that, I say, “Don’t.” Especially if you’re new to writing professionally and if you want to have an identity and stay around for a while. I’m not saying there aren’t writers who aren’t good at targeting markets. There are. Some of them even are quite successful, but far fewer are successful than one might imagine. Why do I say this? Because any written work of any length reveals as much about the writer as do the story and the characters. If a writer’s style, structure, and views are consistently and widely at variance with the stories he or she is telling, sooner or later, in most cases, one of two things are likely to occur. Either the writer will burn out because he or she is fighting his or her nature, or the readers will drift away because of the dichotomy between the overt actions and characters and the conflicting subtexts.

And what of those few who can write “anything,” and do? More power to them, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of them. Not for a million years… or dollars, and I suspect those who read and like my work might understand why, and for those who don’t… it doesn’t matter.

The SF Future: More of the Same — Except Better or Worse?

Recently, in his column about Arthur C. Clarke in the New York Times, Dave Iztkoff explored whether present and future writers would be as successful as Clarke had been in envisioning future technologies. Over the years, various writers and academics have attempted to quantify in a rough fashion just how accurate SF has been in predicting the future. In his Foundation series, written around 1940, Isaac Asimov did anticipate the pocket calculator — and even the color of the numbers — but he thought it would be thousands of years before they were developed, instead of twenty or so. Clarke himself thought we’d have expeditions to Jupiter by 2001, and he lived to see that men hadn’t gotten farther than a few missions to the moon. In his book, The Forever War, first published in 1974, Joe Haldeman envisioned interstellar travel by the twenty-first century, and we still don’t even have interplanetary travel.

At the same time, in most areas, we’ve advanced further than Verne and the visionaries of the late nineteenth century imagined, sometimes much further. So what happened? Why has that changed?

I’d submit that the failings of later SF writers to anticipate the future rest on three factors. The first is that while our world has become far smaller than anticipated by early writers, our solar system, galaxy, and universe are far larger and more complex than even most scientists truly understood. The second is that future advancement depends on an increasing share of our resources being devoted to science and technology. And the third is that most predictions, either from scientists or from SF writers, are based on extrapolating from the known, because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of what lies beyond the known, without basing it on what is known. Yet many technologies have come from what was not previously known or understood. In short, most predictions suggest more of the same, except with changes that imply the future will be better… or worse, but not all that different. Human motives and emotions aren’t likely to change; that’s true enough, but the framework within which they’re expressed is likely to change greatly.

In fact, the future is likely to be different, and most probably both better and worse. Given the great advances in micro-electronics and communications, as David Brin has suggested, future society is most likely to be the “transparent society” where almost everything can be discovered by almost anyone, and the most valuable commodity may be privacy. In some of my work, particularly in The Elysium Commission, I’ve explored this to some degree, but I don’t think I’ve more than scratched the surface in terms of how that kind of technology will change society, and I’ve seen very few books that do explore that possibility.

All too many future SF stories postulate trade between solar systems. In fact, the only trade, if there is any at all, will be knowledge or unique art or artifacts, because the energy cost of such travel would be so great that any good could be produced within any given system far more cheaply than it could possibly be transported and sold.

What about finance? We’ve just seen the world-wide impact of the failure of a U.S. financial subsystem consisting of sophisticated and highly leveraged mortgage-backed securities. What sort of new financial complexities lie down the road — and what sorts of regulations?

A recent study I ran across suggests that people who are not good readers are far more susceptible to manipulation by con men and politicians and more likely to take at face value what they see on video presentations. Add to that the fact that the rise of a video visual culture has almost halved the percentage of supposedly “educated” people in the USA [those with a baccalaureate degree] who have the reading skills to follow sophisticated written arguments and statements. In other words, less than 30% of those with a college degree can do so. What are the political implications of that? What sort of future — and stories — might come from it?

Even ten years ago, could anyone — did anyone, except the Israelis — imagine citizens of the United States lining up for security searches more reminiscent of communist Russia just to get on an airplane?

In almost any area or discipline where one might look, there are similar changes beneath the surface, and all of them will impact the future. What is certain is that, beyond the next decade or so, the future won’t be what we’re likely to think it will be. But then, even for scientists and writers, it never has been.