Archive for May, 2008

F&SF Writers: Popularity and Influence

Literary critics like to write about the importance of an author and his/her work, but many of them seldom put it quite that way. They write about themes and styles and relationships and relevance, but, most of the time, when they write about an author, they’re only guessing as to whether an author will really have a lasting influence over readers and culture and whether anything written by that author will resonate or last beyond the author’s lifespan.

Because critics seldom seem to consider history, although they’ve doubtless read about it, readers tend to forget little things like the fact that Shakespeare was NOT the pre-eminent playwright of his time, and that Beaumont and Fletcher ended up interred in Westminster Abbey long before the Bard did. Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for literature, but few today read anything of what he wrote anymore, except for The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, and a handful of poems.

Publishers and booksellers tend not to care as much about potential influence, but about sales — or popularity. And, of course, our current media culture is all about instant-popularity. So… in the field of fantasy and science fiction, the media tends to focus on the mega-sellers like Harry Potter or The Wheel of Time. Certainly, both series have sold well and inspired many imitators, but how well will they fare over time in influencing readers and overall culture?

Will either approach J.R.R. Tolkien? Or for that matter, Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelley?

Tolkien was both popular and influential, to the point that a great many of today’s popular fantasy writers are not influential at all. They’re merely imitators, using pale similarities, that include trolls, orcs, faerie, variations on European feudalism, and the same kind of vaguely defined magic as Tolkien employed. These writers have sold a great number of books, but exactly what is their influence, except as extensions of the approach that Tolkien pioneered?

Poe could be said to have pioneered the horror genre, with a relevance and an influence great enough that movies have been made and re-made more than a century after his death. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has long outlasted her considerable output of scholarly and other works and is perhaps the model for the nurture/nature conflict horror story.

What works of today’s F&SF writers will outlive them?

As has been the case with all cultures, while all of us who write would like to think that it will be our works that survive, in almost all cases, that won’t be so. That realization may well be, in fact, why I intend to keep writing so long as I can do so at a professional level. That way, if my works fall out of favor, I won’t be around to see it. And if they don’t, well, that would be an added bonus, even if I wouldn’t know it.

Still… what factors are likely to keep a book alive?

Some of them are obvious, such as an appeal to basic human feelings with which readers can instantly identify. Other factors, such as style, are far more transient. Shakespeare’s work, with its comparative linguistic directness, has fared far better than those writers whose style was considered more “erudite.” And with our mass-media-simplifying culture, I have great doubts that the work of writers whose appeal to critics is primarily stylistic will long endure. Works which explore ideas and ideals and how they apply to people are more likely to last, but whose works… I certainly couldn’t say.

For all that the critics write, with their [sometimes] crystal prose, I have to wonder just how many of them have accurately predicted or will be able to determine which works of today’s authors will still be around — and influential — in fifty years… or a century.

What’s a Story

Recently, I was asked, as I am occasionally, very occasionally, to judge a writing contest. It was an extremely painful experience. Now, in past years, one of the more agonizing aspects of going through manuscripts was dealing with the rather deplorable grammar and spelling. Clearly, spell-checkers and grammar checkers have had an impact, because the absolutely worst grammatical errors have largely vanished. The less obvious errors of grammatical and syntactical misuse remain, as do errors in referential pronouns, among others.

What struck me the most, however, was the almost total lack of story-telling. In years past, I read awfully-written and ungrammatical work, but a large percentage of the submissions were actual stories.

This, of course, leads to the question — what is a story? For most people, trying to define a story is like the reputed reply given by an elder statesman when he was asked to define pornography. “I can’t define it, but when I see it, I know it.” That sort of definition isn’t much help to a would-be writer. So I went back to my now-ancient Handbook to Literature and checked the definition:

…any narrative of events in a sequential arrangement. The one merit of a story is its ability to make us want to know what happened next… Plot takes a story, selects its materials not in terms of time but causality; gives it a beginning, a middle, and an end; and makes it serve to elucidate character, express an idea, or incite to an action.

Robert Heinlein once defined a story this way: “A story is an account which is not necessarily true but which is interesting to read.”

Put more directly, in a story, the writer has to express events so that they progress in a way that makes sense, while hanging together and making the reader want to continue reading.

Almost all of the stories I read were anything but interesting to read, and not just to me, but to a jury of first readers, none of whom could recommend any. So the first readers thought they weren’t seeing something and passed all of them on to me. Unhappily, they were right. But why?

In considering these stories, I realized they all shared several faults. First, while almost all had a series of events, there was no real rationale for those events, except that the writer had written them. In real life, there is, as the definition above notes, a certain causality. It may be the result of our actions or the actions of others, or even of nature, but events do follow causes, notwithstanding the views of some quantum physicists. A story, at least occasionally, should give a nod to causality, either through background or the words or actions of the characters. After a reader finishes the story, he or she should be able to say why things happened, or at least feel that how they happened was “right” for the story.

Second, all too many of the stories shifted viewpoints, even verb tenses, almost from sentence to sentence. This is a trend that has been growing with younger writers over the years, and I think it’s probably the result of our video culture, with its rapid camera cuts, and multiple plot lines, but what works, if imperfectly, on a video screen, doesn’t translate to the printed page because a reader doesn’t have all the visual and tonal cues provided by video. The words have to carry the action and the emotions, and when those words are absent or scattered among a number of characters, the reader is going to have trouble following and identifying with anyone.

Third, almost none of the stories showed any real understanding of human character and motivation, yet one of the unspoken reasons why most readers read is because of the characters or the glimpses of characters. Again, I suspect that this lack of understanding stems in large part from a video entertainment culture that focuses on action to the exclusion of character. I’ve noticed this change in other ways, as well, because many younger readers have great difficulty in picking up on subtle written clues to character in novels. I’ve seen more than a few comments about books, my own as well as that of other authors, decrying the lack of characterization, while older and more experienced readers often praise the same books for their depth of characterization. Because I’m not of the younger generation, I can only guess, but it appears to me that when they write, while they may imagine such characteristics, they neglect to write them down, believing that other readers will imagine as they do, even without any written clues. Needless to say, each of us imagines differently, and without cues, many readers may not imagine at all, which leads to a lack of interest.

In the end, a story has to contain all the words, phrases, description, and causality necessary to carry the reader along. Or, as one man put it years ago, “If it doesn’t say it in black and white, it doesn’t say it.”

Questions of Change

Science fiction and fantasy have always dealt, at least ostensibly, with change, about how the future might be with technology, aliens, biotech, or whatever, or how our world or others might be if some form of workable magic existed. In a world where change is ongoing and seemingly accelerating, we tend to forget that for much of human history change was either slow or non-existent. And it wasn’t just a question of technology. The Ptolemaic Egyptians had a rather interesting array of technological gadgets. And they were nothing compared to what had already been developed in China. The Roman Empire implemented Greek technology, but added little, except concrete, central heating, and plumbing, despite conquering a large section of the “known” world. So why did technology lead to change and ever more change in post-Renaissance Europe and virtually none in earlier prosperous societies?

Africa is clearly the cradle of homo sapiens, and where tool-making began, yet after the Egyptians, the Nubians, and perhaps the Carthaginians, in a sense, nothing changed, and societies in Africa declined, both in cultural and technological terms. Why?

Today, after several centuries of comparatively rapid change, despite outward appearances, the pace of change is again slowing. About the only significant change in space exploration and travel over the last forty years has been the advances in communications and video areas so that we can see more of the solar system and the universe in far greater clarity. We still can’t get anywhere significantly any faster, and, in fact, we’ve really done less human traveling in space. Do better pretty pictures of space represent a real change, or just an illusion of change?

Despite Einstein and atomic power, essentially we’re still using an improved model of the first atomic power plant. That’s after fifty years of accelerators, totamaks, and other gadgets designed to discover more about the nature of matter and energy, and we don’t seem much closer to practical fusion power than a generation ago. The fastest commercial air travel is slower than it was two decades ago. We have a better understanding of medicine and better medical procedures, but much of our own population and most of the rest of the world can’t afford the costs of availing themselves of such medical improvements. Will such costs eventually choke off real change in the medical procedures available to most people?

According to some test scores, American students are smarter and improving in their knowledge of various subjects, and certainly there are more students in both absolute and percentage terms who are completing high school and college. Yet the high-level functional literacy rate of college graduates and post-graduate degree holders continues to decrease, and the absolute performance of males is declining relative to women. The United States, despite a century or more of effort to eliminate sexual discrimination, is one of the few western industrial nations that has never had a female head of state, and, unless matters shift dramatically, has never even had a major party candidate who was female. The U.S. is also the most overtly religious of the major western industrial nations. Does that religious background mitigate against significant real change in the gender power balance? And perhaps in other aspects of society?

Both Democratic Party candidates have called for “change,” but for what sort of change? I don’t see a call for re-invigorating our space program, or more more research in basic science, or for real and fundamental change in our approach to education, or anything approximating real change. What I see is an emphasis on changing who controls government and resources and who benefits from them, and that’s not the same thing… is it? Really?

The Future of False Hope

Those of us who write science fiction and fantasy are often considered to be people who enable escapism through our writing. Certainly, I’d dispute that, particularly given what I write. But…even if the charge happened to be true, which it’s not, we writers would hardly be the only ones in U.S. society institutionalizing escapism.

The other day a husband and wife who are acquaintances told me how upset they were by the university commencement address given by a Nobel laureate because the scientist had laid out rather directly and bluntly some of the challenges that the next generation would have to face, in particular those involving energy supplies and global warming. They both felt that a commencement address should be inspiring and uplifting, and “not a real downer.”

On the one hand, I can see their point. Hitting bright young graduates between the eyes with the cold water of realism is not exactly encouraging, when commencement is considered “their” day.

On the other hand, times have changed. Many long years ago, when I was in high school, educators made a practice of pointing out one’s short-comings in more than graphic detail, day after day, while suggesting that major improvements in attitude, effort, and skills were the only way to avoid a life of failure and lack of accomplishment. And when one got to college, the “standard” entry address to college freshmen was: “Look to your left; look to your right. By the end of the year, one of you won’t be here.” In those days, there was a draft and a war in Vietnam, and for young men, at least, not being there meant a good chance of being somewhere else — a place distant, hot, damp and dangerous. And more than a few students didn’t make it through the curriculum. Those that did finally got to hear an excessively optimistic speech about how they would go forth to conquer the world… or at least their chosen profession.

Today, except in a comparative handful of institutions, education tends to be all about encouragement and reward for often negligible accomplishments. For all the talk about tightening standards, and the like, the functional literacy of American university graduates continues to decline, even while the grades given — and received with little gratitude — has continued to inflate. Given the recent financial crises, it’s also clear that fewer Americans seem to know enough basic mathematics to understand how to calculate the impact of a mortgage payment on their monthly budget… or even what a budget might be.

So… we’ve moved from a more realistic system of education, where the commencement addresses were always falsely encouraging, to an educational regime that tends to exude false hope and low standards, but where commencement addresses are occasionally sobering. Personally, as a curmudgeon and cautious optimist, I think the old system prepared more students for the real world… and back then false hope was limited to an occasional commencement address and not dispensed throughout an entire course of studies.

The Vastness Illusion

Recently, especially in dealing with subjects like near-earth-objects or global warming, I’ve come across more and more people whose reaction to these subjects is conditioned by or based on what I’d call the “vastness illusion.” I’m not talking about unintelligent individuals, either, but people who have been highly successful in business, academia, and in other fields requiring education, skills, and experience.

Put simply, the vastness illusion is the belief that the earth, and especially our solar system, is so vast that nothing we as human beings do could possibly affect it in any measurable fashion.

Like many illusory beliefs held by humans over history, there’s a grain of truth behind the vastness illusion. In fact, there’s nothing that a given individual — unaided by technology and the efforts of others — can do that will make a measurable impact on our world. For better or worse, however, there are six billion humans now living on the face of the planet, and those six billion people and their technology, both high and low, do have a significant impact on the world and, in particular, on its climate.

Those six billion people rely on 3.3 billion cattle, sheep, and goats for milk, meat, wool, and other products, and those billions of head of livestock require food, most of it derived from grazing. Presently, over half the grass and rangelands are at least moderately degraded as a result of the more than doubling of livestock production over the past century. Human activities, mainly those associated with agriculture, have increased annual methane emissions from less than 80 million tons in 1860 to over 500 million metric tons a year at present, and those emissions remain in the atmosphere for an average of 12 years, and they are a greenhouse gas that helps warm the atmosphere.

The six billion people and their activities are also adding 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere every year, and the majority of that CO2 remains in the atmosphere for close to a century. Both these greenhouse gases have feedback effects on the water vapor that is and has always been the largest greenhouse gas in terms of impact. Even a slight increase in global temperature results in more water vapor. So while the advocates of the “vastness” theory point out that CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases are “marginal” in their direct contribution to global warming, they tend to ignore their considerable feedback impact on water vapor, which is anything but marginal.

Admittedly, the earth’s atmosphere is indeed vast, but human technology and human numbers multiply our effects on the world, in a real fashion analogous to compound interest. A percentage point here and another one there, and millions have trouble making their house payments. Well… the same is true about human impacts on our planet… except that if we lose a climate conducive to maintaining our present human cultures, we lose a great deal more than a few million houses, and it’s a different kind of arrogance to insist that our activities have no impact.

The earth is over four billion years old, and yet, in the last few centuries we’ve managed to consume between a third and half the fossil fuels created over that long span… and the earth is too vast for us to have any impact? We’ve hunted scores of species out of existence, and we can make no difference? The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the highest in more than 650,000 years, and that’s been with no large or sustained unusual natural occurrences; the last eleven years have been the among the 13 warmest over the past century and a half… and possibly the longest “warm streak” in thousands of years, if not longer; the northern polar ice cap has been shrinking steadily for forty years, and now is at the smallest extent and thickness in thousands of years, if not longer.

Yet, there are those who insist that the earth is too vast for us to have any measurable impact. What sort of impact do they want before they’re convinced? All of Florida under water? Starvation of billions because of climate shifts? Or would anything matter, because they believe that we’re essentially helpless to affect matters one way or the other?

I suppose that’s comforting, in a way, because it means we can do anything we want without having to be held accountable. Just claim that earth is too vast for us to be responsible, as well as being so vast that we can’t change or affect any major challenge that nature hurls at us. And, of course, that means admitting that, as a species, we’re merely hostages to fate, unable to direct our destiny, poor lost souls, depending on chance or deities to rescue us from disaster. But then, since neither chance nor deities have had a very good record in that department, if the majority of homo sapiens cast their lot with those who claim earth is too vast for us to affect matters, they’re essentially condemning the rest of us to great privation and possibly even marginalization or extinction as a species — and sooner, rather than later.

Not only does that make for lousy government and cultural direction, it’s also a terrible plot for either science fiction or fantasy.

Death of an Anecdotal Species?

We of the species homo sapiens may not exactly deserve the “sapiens” label, since the terminology homo anecdotus or something similar might be more accurate. We react to what we see and what we hear, and tend to believe stories others tell, rather than facts, mathematics, or statistics.

When I was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there was such a furor over hazardous waste sites that, effectively, almost the entire political staff of the Agency was canned, including the Administrator, as well as the Secretary of the Interior. While I thought then, and still do, that the issue was badly bungled by the Administration, and that’s putting it mildly, they did have a certain point in believing that people were overreacting. That was because people could see the hazardous waste sites and the handful of children and others who suffered damaged health, as well as the contaminated neighborhoods.

HOWEVER… in perspective, as shown by a later series of studies, the “Superfund” hazardous waste sites were far from the most dangerous environment concerns. Yearly deaths from exposure to household radon were far more dangerous, by five to twenty times, as was asbestos exposure, which has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths annually. Cancer deaths from smoking exceed 300,000 annually, and automobile accidents account for some 45,000. Yet the Superfund political upheaval resulted in Congressional action headed toward impeaching the head of EPA and resulted in the resignations of both the Interior Secretary and the EPA Administrator, and the conviction of an assistant administrator for perjury before Congress.

Another example of this anecdotalism is exemplified by people who refuse to fly because they feel driving is safer. For them, the anecdotal example of the infrequent air crash where 300 people die has a greater impact that the fact that most people are ten thousand times more likely to die in an automobile accident than in a plane crash.

On a far larger scale, take the issue of cometary or asteroidal impacts on the earth. Based on what was seen, i.e., anecdotal evidence, scientists originally estimated that the chance of a “space rock” large enough to create a catastrophic impact on earth, such as the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, was roughly once every million years. Then, more digging and satellite photography analysis discovered more craters, and the odds were increased to something like once every 100,000 years. Then, several years ago, several scientists made the rather obvious observation that the craters that had been discovered were all where we could see them — on land — but that the earth’s surface is something like seventy percent water. More investigation and correlation with historical and climate records revealed several more near-catastrophic water impacts over the past 10,000 years.

Then, recent astronomic discoveries have revealed that the population of near-earth objects [NEOs] big enough to wipe out cities or larger sections of the planet is approaching more than a thousand, and that their orbits aren’t nearly so stable as was originally surmised. Yet NASA, the U.S. space agency that might be considered to have a certain concern about space-related potential disasters, blithely informed Congress several years ago that any really reliable survey of NEOs would cost $1 billion, about seven percent of its annual budget — or one percent if spread over seven years — and that NASA had no intention of spending money on what is clearly a real threat, nor did it even have a draft contingency plan of what it might do if one of those objects was discovered to be on a collision course with earth, even though some respected astronomers have now estimated that the chances of a city-destroying [or worse] object hitting earth in any given century are about one in ten. In short, since we haven’t seen anything like this recently, except maybe something did explode above Siberia a century ago that we still can’t explain fully, it can’t be as real as the need to pinch pennies for other projects that don’t bear on the survival of our entire species, as well as a few thousand others.

The anecdotal mind-set may function adequately in a hunter-gatherer society, but just as we’ve given up, largely, chipped flint hammers for better tools, isn’t it time to go beyond the anecdotal mind-set, one that’s clearly limited to what we can see, and use a wider and deeper perspective?

Because, over time, if we don’t, earth will see the end of our anecdotal species.

New… and True… and Trite

I happened to come across a reader’s comments about the Spellsong Cycle, most of which boiled down to the fact that he liked all my books — except those, because they were “trite.” I mean, after all, writing about sexism and stereotypes is just so old and trite, and the idea of magic being wielded through song in a logical and technical basis is almost as trite, as well. Except… outside of Alan Dean Foster and Louise Marley, I haven’t seen any other decent, in depth, and logical treatments of vocal music as the basis of magic. It’s very rare, as Louise Marley herself has said upon occasion, and as both a noted novelist and a professional opera singer, she does have a bit of expertise in those fields.

That leaves the issue of novels dealing with sexism as perpetuating “trite” stereotypes and something that is so old and last-century, or even so nineteenth century. If anyone thinks that sexism is that out-of-date, then you’re living in a greater fantasy than anything I’ve ever written. A few examples follow. A highly-qualified gynecological oncologist [female] who runs the a division at a top medical school is paid less than a younger colleague [male] with far less academic and occupational qualifications, publications, or surgical expertise. Female full professors at any number of colleges and universities — with equivalent or greater time in rank and professional qualifications — are on average paid more on the level of male associate professors in the same disciplines. A similar discrepancy occurs in the ranks of business executives [when one can even find senior female executives who have managed to break through the glass ceiling]. What is interesting about all this is that these days, if you look at university graduates and post-graduates, women are winning a wide majority of the academic honors, with the exception of a few areas of science.

I’d also note the large number of political pundits who are calling for Senator Clinton to drop out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. As a long-time Republican, if of the Teddy Roosevelt stripe, I can claim a certain distance… but I would note that in my own twenty-odd years of political involvement I never saw anyone even broach that sort of suggestion to a male candidate. After all, it’s only right that a real man fights it out to the last, isn’t it?

Obviously, with six daughters and a wife all in professional fields, I have a wealth of insights and information from which I can draw, in addition to the statistics that are available to all — and which are largely ignored and minimized.

Now… one of the roles that F&SF fills in our society is to explore ideas and issues and problems, and it’s one of the few writing fields that does so consistently. I’d be the first to agree that readers certainly don’t have to read what they don’t like… and they don’t. Some readers have indicated that they stay away from my work that deals too directly with real-world issues. I can understand that. There are times when I certainly don’t want to deal with them. But issues tend to keep coming up until they are addressed.

After all, some of the Founding Fathers, among them John Adams, suggested that the slavery issue wasn’t going away — and it didn’t. Nor did the civil rights issues that followed. Nor will the issues raised by the current Administration in instigating a war and in suppressing civil liberties in the name of “security.” Nor will the problems raised in a society where almost any working woman has to do more and do it better than her male peers in order to even come close to them in terms of compensation.

Is sexism a long and enduring problem? Absolutely. Does that make it “trite?” Not in the slightest.

A reader can certainly complain about anything, and an author has to take complaints with enough grains of salt to fill all the shakers in my house. But… don’t tell me or anyone else that a real social problem is “trite.” You can tell me that the plot’s lousy, that you don’t want to read about women and their problems, or that the kind of fantasy you really want to read has to have more testosterone in it. You can claim my style’s weak, that the book’s too long or too short, or that the song lyrics should have been better. But when a reader claims that a real and unsolved social issue is trite… that’s a pretty good explanation in itself why that issue hasn’t been resolved… and why I’ll continue to raise the issue at least periodically.

Health Care… and the Future

The April 28th issue of the Wall Street Journal carried an article that would have been considered science fiction some thirty years ago — and James Gunn was one of the writers who addressed it then. Now it’s reality. Major non-profit hospitals are demanding payment up-front for expensive treatments when significant portions of the cost of treatment aren’t covered by insurance.

I suspect that the initial reaction of most people will be along the line of “that’s uncaring and cruel.” The problem isn’t uncaring health professionals or even heartless insurance companies, although I have my doubts that the accountants and actuaries operating most insurance operations have anything remotely resembling heart or compassion. The problem is that to deal with life-threatening diseases and conditions that were an automatic death sentence fifty years ago, medicine has become high-tech and expensive, even when pared down to cut-rate costs. Another problem is the cost of malpractice insurance, because in some specialties, malpractice insurance is the largest single expense for a physician, sometimes costing more than the doctor takes home for himself or herself.

Several years ago, my wife shattered her leg and ankle in a freak hiking accident on a very moderate trail. For a complicated, but relatively common surgery and a plate and screws in her leg, the total cost was almost as much as the average annual American worker’s yearly income. That was for something that is comparatively simple in medical terms. Other medical procedures that deal with life-threatening conditions are far more expensive. Cancer surgery and treatments appear to start at over $100,000 and climb rapidly. When somewhere over 40 million Americans don’t have any form of health insurance, wide-spread use of “pay-before-treatment” is effectively a death sentence for those who cannot find a hospital willing to treat them without a healthy deposit, and the numbers of hospitals who will do so — or that can afford to — is rapidly shrinking.

Non-profit hospitals have seen their unpaid bills pile up. Some have unpaid bills totaling $30 million to $50 million annually, up from a tenth of that two or three years ago. They’ve also discovered that collecting on such bills is often impossible. After all, if you don’t make the house payment or the car payment, the lender can foreclose and take them back. What sort of threat can a hospital make? They can refuse future treatment, but they can’t take back their treatment.

If they don’t collect on these bills, then people who can pay their bills — and their insurance companies — will pay more. That has already raised insurance costs and out-of-pocket costs for the financially able, and is likely to fuel future cost increases as well as make health insurance more expensive and less affordable for working Americans. If the government ends up picking up the losses, taxpayers end up paying the bill. All of the increased costs aren’t going to the doctors, nurses, and technicians, but also fund research, more and more elaborate equipment, and insurance.

There’s another fact that complicates matters more. Statistics released last week show that, for the first time, life expectancies are declining in the poorer U.S. counties. While statistics are not readily available, I suspect that in metropolitan areas, the group that may suffer the most is not necessarily those labeled as poor who receive government assistance and Medicaid, but those who earn just enough not to receive health care. For the past half-century, most Americans have taken health care as fairly much a given, but now, for a growing number, it’s not a given, and, equally to the point, regardless of all the political rhetoric, there not only isn’t a simple solution, there may not be one that allows more than basic health care for most Americans — and that may well result in the kind of future that Joe Haldeman suggested in one version of The Forever War — where virtually no medical care was available for the extreme elderly. Given the nature of advanced medical treatments and the resources required, it appears more and more likely that the most advanced medical care will only be universally available to the affluent, just as Gunn forecast over forty years ago… unthinkable as that was then, and certainly still is.

All Hail…

This afternoon, Saturday, May third, right after the completion of the 134th Kentucky Derby, the filly Eight Belles, who finished second, broke both front ankles and collapsed. The injuries were so severe that the runner-up had to be euthanized on the spot. NBC Sports, which covered the event, spent less than two minutes dealing with the tragic death of the filly, instead concentrating through the remaining 30 minutes of the telecast on interviews with the winning jockey, trainer, and owners, and showing at least three recaps of the race.

To me, that symbolized a certain emphasis that has overtaken the United States, and possibly the entire modern technological age — the focus on winning to the near-total exclusion of anything else. I’m not taking anything away from Big Brown, the winning horse. But he will live to race another day and probably survive to a ripe old age in stud in some green pasture. For Eight Belles, there are no other days.

For Eight Belles, all that remains, at best, is a hurried grave, if that, and a fleeting memory of a gallant race.

I’ve already heard words that her race and death was a metaphor for the efforts of women to achieve some sort of equality in society — a gallant race where they come off in second place, followed by death. Is that harsh? Perhaps… but I’m not so certain that it’s all that extreme.

And I’m absolutely convinced that the NBC coverage pattern is all too typical of the media, and possibly our entire societal focus — all honors and praise to the winner, no matter how he won, and but a fleeting mention of all the other gallant struggles that didn’t end in success. And then all the so-called pundits wonder why life seems to have gotten cheaper by the year, why business and politics have become ever more cut-throat, while reality TV gets higher and higher reviews, and while “gentler” sports and pursuits, the arts, and even reading, seem to fade.

Or, as I’m doubtless misquoting someone, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

All hail, great media caesars, for those who die and are forgotten are about to salute you.

Of Sacred Poets and Sacredness

Years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote one of his columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction on the subject of the role of “sacred poets” — the idea that poetry immortalizes and dramatizes in a way no other aspect of human culture does. He actually took the term “sacred poet” from the Latin poet Horace, who had used it in pointing out that there were other heroes besides those immortalized in Homer’s Iliad, but they had lapsed into nothingness because they lacked a “sacred poet.” Asimov also made the point that even bad poetry has resulted in creating immortality, while often creating a false impression of history, such as in the case of Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s ride, which leaves the impression that Revere was the hero who warned the Massachusetts colonists about the British, when in actuality Revere never completed the ride and the colonists in Concord were actually warned by Samuel Prescott. Yet most Americans who know anything about this part of American history remember Revere, not Prescott.

Rhythmic words, especially when coupled with music, indeed can have a powerful effect, but such “sacred” songs also require something beyond well-chosen rhymed words and music. They require knowledge and understanding of the events portrayed by the words and music. The more popular religion-based sacred songs rest on scripture and doctrine, but the more secular “sacred” songs [a juxtaposition that seems strange, but accurate in the sense described by Horace and Asimov] are based on history.

Thus, the Iliad is merely a long epic poem to those American students who even know anything about it, while it was effectively a “sacred poem” to the Athenians of Greece in the fourth century B.C. “The Star Spangled Banner” is a sacred song to most Americans, in addition to being the national anthem of the United States, but what is often forgotten is that it did not actually become the official national anthem until 1931, more than 117 years after it was composed during the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It became the national anthem because it was a “sacred” song that linked history to the national emblem — the flag — not a “sacred” song because it was the national anthem.

Because the continued impact of sacred songs and texts depend on not only words and possibly music, but upon knowledge, they may fade into obscurity when the knowledge is lost, or disregarded, or minimalized by later generations. Songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “One Tin Soldier” were close to “sacred” songs for the young people of the Vietnam era, but they quickly faded. Today, it appears that there aren’t any replacements, not even of that nature.

What is also interesting is that the Iliad, as a sacred poem, was essentially book length. Such “sacred” songs as “America the Beautiful,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are far shorter. The lyrics of the Vietnam-era songs were about the same in length, but were simpler and more repetitive. What people seem to remember — as a group, not as individuals — today seems to be confined to slogans, advertising slogans in particular.

Could it be that the death of “sacred” songs, texts, and poets will lie in the inability of people to listen to anything of length or complexity? Or will it lie in a cynicism that suggests that there’s little worth in “sacred” texts, regardless of the fusion of text, rhythm, and music? Or will such poems, songs, and texts just be replaced by consumeristic slogans?