Archive for July, 2008

Avoiding Real and Fantasy Taxes

While I may not be the only writer to do so, I’m certainly one of the very few to present the taxation problem from the viewpoint of a ruler in a fantasy novel. For those interested, the character is Creslin, in The Towers of the Sunset. The entire issue of taxation, both in fantasy worlds and in real worlds, seems to be stereotyped in terms of “taxes are bad for the poor and too low for the rich.”

The problem with this viewpoint is that it tends to ignore the entire reason for taxes, which is to raise revenue in order to provide services for the society as a whole that it would be uneconomic or impossible for the majority of individuals to provide for themselves. National defense is often cited as one of those services, perhaps because it’s fairly obvious that very few of us could afford to build or buy even one aircraft or tank or ship. Other obvious “communal” services are road-building, water and sewers, ports, harbors, and canals. And some services, once regarded as best provided privately, are now considered public in most industrialized nations, such as education, old-age income security, banking regulation, food and medical oversight and regulation.

The underlying problem with taxation is that people have differing levels of income, but many of the services provided are the same, regardless of income. Each individual generally gets the “same” amount of national defense, roads built, availability to water and sewer or education as any other. And given socio-economic trends, often certain services are used disproportionately by those who have little or no income and pay little or no taxes. Thus, even with a “flat” percentage tax, in essence a certain amount of redistribution of social assets takes place. With a “so-called” progressive income tax system, where those with greater income pay a higher share of taxes, even more income and asset redistribution takes place. And when one adds in programs to aid the poor and disadvantaged, or direct subsidies to businesses, an even greater amount of redistribution occurs.

Now… even in fantasy novels, when taxes or tariffs are discussed, usually they’re imposed by the evil ruler, and they’re far too high. What’s overlooked in fantasy and reality is that taxes are in essence fees for services provided, and the social question becomes who pays how much for what, and who receives what in return for what.

The United States is running a massive deficit, financed these days primarily by the Chinese, simply because we have voted for more services than we are willing to pay for, including funding an unpopular war and income redistribution through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and various welfare programs, not to mention farm and other “corporate” subsidies [not to be confused with tax concessions, which are NOT income redistribution, whether they are justifiable or not]. Oh, every American will say, “I don’t mind my taxes going for ‘X,’ but I don’t think we should be spending on ‘Y’ or ‘Z.'”

In The Towers of the Sunset, Creslin is faced with the unenviable problem of needing to raise revenue to build and pay for enough of an armed forces and navy to defend his people against outside attacks. If he taxes too highly, he will destroy his young nation’s economy, and if he taxes too little, he won’t have a nation left. But, at least, as the head of a ruling council, he didn’t have to deal with trying to explain to every citizen why he or she all couldn’t have more in services than they wanted to pay for.

The Red Queen’s Race — Part II

There’s a very personal side to the Red Queen’s Race, and that’s what happens to individuals. For example, to people like my wife. As a professor of music and an opera director, she’s theoretically on a nine month contract — except theory is far different from practice. Admittedly, instead of working the 60-80 hour weeks, and weekends, she works during the school year, she’s only working 40 plus hours pretty much every week of her “vacation,” just to handle all the aspects of her job that don’t fit into the year, as well as: (1) counsel incoming freshmen during the three one-week sessions the university has scheduled in order to compete for students; (2) develop three new courses to help implement the new degrees offered by the University and the Music Department; (3) write the two scholarly papers due before school starts again in August; (4) track and assign incoming students; (5) develop the ground plans, staging, and rehearsal schedules for the coming year’s opera productions… and about ten other things, all during her theoretical vacation. She’s far from the only one at the university. In fact, dozens of them all laugh, and not cheerfully, at what they call “the myth of the nine month contract,” because it really amounts to the equivalent of a 25% pay cut, or 25% more in work for no more pay.

But they’re certainly not the only ones with this kind of problem. There’s a doctor I know well, who’s a surgeon and a researcher, as well as a department head, at a major medical center and who spent the last year carrying not only her job, but that of her non-existent assistant [also a doctor’s position], because budgetary constraints meant holding off filling the position for a year. The director of human resources at a major chemical company has told me that the company is always juggling these issues, because of cost and resource constraints.

Certainly, the effect has also hit the fiction publishing field. Writers whose work has won critical plaudits have been forced to move to small presses… or not have their work published at all because of the ever-increasing pressure for efficiency and profitability. Other writers are told that certain kinds of books can’t be accepted because they’re unlikely to meet expected financial and sales goals.

All across the United States, those in management and professional positions are finding themselves handling both their jobs and those once held by subordinates. Middle management positions have been trimmed everywhere, in the name of efficiency. But the work load hasn’t been cut anywhere close to commensurately. On a other economic levels, everyone has heard about all the renegotiated salaries across industry after industry, from pay cuts for pilots and flight attendants, to bankruptcy-forced pay cuts, to the replacement of full-time employees with part-timers without benefits. In fact, the only area where this hasn’t hit is CEO compensation, which for the moment seems to remain above the effect of the Red Queen’s race.

And the bottom line still remains… run faster, because running as hard as you can only leaves you in the same place.

The Red Queen’s Race

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, which is, incidentally, a classic tour-de-force, the Red Queen tells Alice that running as fast as she can will not take her anywhere. To get anywhere, she must run even faster. The concept of “the Red Queen’s race” crops up occasionally, and Isaac Asimov even wrote a story with that title.

Today, unfortunately, I see western society developing along lines that make a Red Queen’s race all too likely. What do I mean?

A few examples might help. It’s widely known and often cited that working Americans take much less vacation time than people in any other industrialized nation, and the amount of vacation time taken continues to decrease. Yet, the real earnings of average Americans, after adjustment for inflation [and that adjustment, as I’ve noted earlier, does not take into account the full amount of inflation] have actually decreased in recent years. Now, the easy answer, and the one that the demagogues of the left quickly invoke, is that’s because all the “excess” goes to the “rich.” Some of it does, but one could confiscate the amount of “excess” and redistribute it across the population, and it wouldn’t change the overall picture much, and not for long. Spread across the population, those hundreds of billions of assets of the “truly rich” might increase family income by a few thousand dollars — for all of one year, because you can bet that sort of confiscatory taxation would drive those individuals right out of the country. On the other hand, the demagogues of the right claim that the problem is that the government taxation steals money from the productive and gives it to the unproductive. And while it is indubitably true that the U.S. tax system redistributes income, the United States is far less redistributive than most European countries, and the recipients of that redistributed income generally spend every last cent on buying goods and services from others, often creating more income than is “taken” for society as whole.

Yet “real” wages are tending to decline. Why?

First, we’re in a global economy, and now that technology and education are more wide-spread, other countries can produce many goods more cheaply. How are Americans compensating? They’re working longer and harder, rather than reduce their standard of living. Now that cheap credit is vanishing, and the piggy-bank of home equity has been deflated, they’re dipping more into savings and retirement.

Second, energy costs are rising, and that will squeeze U.S. businesses — and employee compensation — even more.

Even so, the Red Queen problem doesn’t lie mainly in income, but in resources and outlays, and it’s exacerbated by our vaunted technology. For example, two hundred years ago, if you got cancer, there wasn’t anything to be done, and you died. If you had congestive heart failure, not all the doctors in the world could do anything, no matter what your wealth might have been. Today, an “average,” run-of-the-mill cancer treatment can easily exceed $200,000 a year. Already, annual Medicare expenditures alone exceed $200 billion, and health care costs are increasing more than twice the rate of other services, and that doesn’t factor in private health care costs or the ever more expensive drugs and treatments.

Likewise, in the past travel and transport were limited, as were goods. The result of the industrial revolution, technology, and globalization is that more and more of the world has the ability to buy more and more goods and services… but the total of those goods and services is limited. Call it, if you will, Malthusian economics, postponed, delayed, and modified, but Malthusian nonetheless.

The real Red Queen’s race is the one that has been around since the beginning of civilization — and one whose effects have been largely mitigated or delayed in the industrialized west for the past century or so. Simply put, we have now reached the point in the development of our civilization where it will shortly become obvious to all levels of all societies that, technology and ingenuity notwithstanding, we cannot physically provide the very best in health care, commodity goods, services, housing, and food to every individual, or even to a sizable fraction of our populations.

Yes, we will be able to provide health care for most problems for most people, but not the range of life-extending and cancer-controlling and other extensive procedures for everyone — just for a comparative few. Yes, we will be able to provide fuel for transportation, but not fuel for four billion personal vehicles [a rate roughly half the U.S. average applied to the entire world, and if you think I’m being unreasonable, just look at the rate of growth of motor vehicles in China]. Yes, we will be able to provide housing, but not the 2,400 average square footage per house for U.S. new housing. And since the United States will be competing in a world market for energy, food, goods, and services, we won’t be able to isolate ourselves from these effects the way we have in the past.

Welcome back to the Red Queen’s race.

Capitalistic/Free-Market Zealotry

Readers of science fiction and, in particular, fantasy often read about the evils of zealotry in fictional worlds, and how it destroys people. Likewise, we in the “enlightened” and industrialized world, particularly the western world, tend to look down on the Islamic “zealots,” and to ignore anything they say which doesn’t agree with our view of the world. Now… don’t get me wrong. I am not an apologist for the excesses of Islam, nor do I have any desire to live in a culture dominated by any version of Sharia, but we tend to forget that western industrialized culture also has its zealots. In particular I’m referring to the far right-wing, the business-model-is-best, policy wonks, politicians, and bureaucrats.

Earlier, I mentioned how the failures of airline deregulation could be traced to the fact that those structuring the deregulation failed to understand or even consider that the industry doesn’t fit into a free market because there are far too many geographic, economic, and structural barriers to free and open competition. But those facts were brushed aside, and now travelers face the possibility of transportation purgatory every time they enter an airport.

Just the other day I read that some economists were re-thinking the “free-trade” ideal, and the idea that free trade was always a blessing. In fact, this group concluded free trade might not necessarily be good for some developing nations, good as it might be for the rest of the world. Then, there are the educational bureaucrats who have been attempting to restructure education on a “business basis,” which results in institutions competing for students on the basis of popularity, the increasing easiness of courses and majors, and in the watering-down of curricula and the continued pressure to increase class sizes to gain economies of scale. Whole departments have been abolished in institution after institution because enrollments were not economic, all with little consideration about the educational role of a university — supposedly its purpose.

We face a tremendous oil crisis today in the United States because the “free-market” policies of our government continually discouraged investment in alternative fuels and in more efficient automotive transport, and it’s likely that at least one of the Big Three automakers will go under financially because a tacit reliance on the economic assumption that cheap oil would always be available, which encouraged U.S. automakers to concentrate on more profitable gas-guzzling huge SUVs and trucks. Yes, that was economics — short-term economics, because in consumer goods, the marketplace reflects the “now,” not the future. That’s just one of the problems with unfettered “free-marketing.” The readjustments when the economics change can be catastrophic, something the advocates of the “business model” fail to point out.

The problem is really fairly simple to describe: Not all aspects of any society fit the “free-market” mold, because while truly free markets are certainly efficient, first, not all societal actions fit into a free market, and, second, sometimes that vaunted free-market efficiency is brutally inhumane and uncivilized. Yet, anyone who raises those issues seriously and suggests that at times regulation and control of activities on a non-economic basis might just be necessary and justifiable risks an ire and scorn from the high priests of the market not all that much different in tone than non-believers in an Islamic nation risk from their high priests — except that in the United States, the market high priests only want the power to sever people from their jobs and benefits when either is “un-economic,” as opposed to severing people from their heads, which is highly possible in the more theocratic Islamic regimes.

In either case, however, just as in too many fantasy novels, the high priests are far more interested in the purity of their beliefs than in the practical welfare of their people, and in that sense, there’s not all that much difference between in the approach of the free-market zealots and the Islamic zealots.

Writing the Whole Enchilada

On Sunday, July 6th, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played an incredible tennis match at Wimbledon, but what I found most interesting was that no U.S. men reached even the semi-finals, nor did they at the French Open. I also watched the televised celebration of the fourth of July at the U.S. Capitol and was far less than impressed with the performance of “American Idol” Tyler Hicks. On what might seem an unrelated note, the performance of American stock analysts was woefully inadequate in ferreting out and making public the all-too-obvious weaknesses in the mortgage securitization field, and the greed of all too many institutional investors in seeking “quick and unrealistic profits” was a major factor in creating the circumstances that led to the mortgage meltdown and the current recession. And, in the field of F&SF writing, where are the new “great” young American males? I see women with promise; I see comparatively young British writers like Charles Stross. I see a “great” book here and there, but see comparatively little continued production of consistently good books by more than just a few American male writers under 40, while the shelves are exploding with books by American women.

Admittedly, these are semi-anecdotal examples, but from what I’ve seen, they’re definitely representative. In all these cases, American men don’t seem terribly interested in perfecting the full range of talents necessary to excel. Current “top-level” American male tennis players don’t want to put in the hours and effort to perfect back-court ground strokes and work to obtain the conditioning necessary to scrap for every point in the way John McEnroe and Andre Agassi once did. One noted U.S. tennis coach closed his camp with the statement that young Americans didn’t want to work, because it interfered with their social life. Tyler Hicks is good looking, well-dressed, energetic, and enthusiastic, with good dance moves. Unfortunately, he’s supposed to be a singer, and his singing is definitely second-class, if that. So why are Americans focusing so much on appearance and failing to see that his vocal production is lacking? The failure of U.S. financial analysts to consider the full range of factors behind the credit and mortgage boom… and subsequent bust… reflects the same kind of failure — a focus on what is immediate and easy and profitable, rather than on the core requirements for long-term excellence and financial stability — and the results were just as predictable.

All of this applies to writing as well. In its simplest sense, fiction consists of two components — technical skill in putting words on the page and story-telling. Writers who have great technical skill and write beautifully crafted prose with either limited story-telling or none to speak of [such as in the Ghormenghast Trilogy] aren’t complete writers, and won’t sell much, if anything. Writers who are technically deficient but who tell great stories are like the top American tennis players — they’ll make money, but they’ll never be great.

In any field, to excel requires a mastery of the full range of skills, not just what’s easy, or popular, or what brings in the cash, and right now, it seems to me, the interest in popularity and cash is destroying the desire for greatness in all too many fields in the United States, especially those that take great and sustained effort, and particularly among American men.

Fashion and Societal Viability

The necktie manufacturing trade association has closed its doors, because there are no longer enough necktie manufacturers to support it. While I doubt the demise of the association has caused much mourning outside the fashion industry… it does concern me, and not because I always wear a tie. I don’t, except to conventions and other appropriate business and social occasions. But it does concern me because of what it represents. The decline of the necktie might well be likened to the canary expiring in the social coal mine, so to speak.

Fashion is not just the presentation of one’s self through attire. It’s also a form of acknowledgment that there are duties to society which include appropriate clothing. Or put another way, wearing a tee-shirt to church or to a wedding or a tank-top to a restaurant, even McDonalds, is a form of disrespect to those in either place. It’s an attitude best described as “in your face, I’ll wear what I want.”

Interestingly enough, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York City, he forced a crackdown on minor offenses, which initially was met with ridicule. But… the results of this type of policing in New York and elsewhere, not surprisingly to me, have shown that it also decreases other types of crime. That may well be because it reinforces societal expectations on behavior.

My late father-in-law was a trucker at a time when truckers were expected to wear uniforms of the company for which they drove [imagine that!], and frankly, in those days, truckers were a great deal more polite, both in person and in the way in which they handled their rigs. I can’t prove it, but I believe those uniforms reinforced their image and their sense of responsibility.

Dressing in an inappropriately sloppy fashion and just for one’s self when going out in public is another form of self-indulgence, the visual equivalent of bad manners. Bad manners lead to bad behavior. Bad behavior tends to undermine societies and social structures, because all successful and enduring societies are based on a degree of mutual respect between individuals within a society, and bad manners are a form of direct and personal disrespect.

Throughout human history, there have been periods where manners and standards of attire declined. Almost invariably, thereafter so did the society. So, if as a writer, you want to portray a collapsing society, just show one where personal sloppiness and bad manners are abundant, and you won’t be far wrong.

And that’s why I worry about the demise of the necktie and the necktie manufacturing trade association.

The Downfall of a Short-Term Society

Last week, like many other travelers, my wife went on a business trip. Also, like many other travelers, she experienced the trip from hell. After three hours en route, her first flight was put in a holding pattern over west of Charlotte, N.C., for another two hours, because of thunderstorms, then landed at Greensboro, where it sat on the tarmac for an hour until a gate that could refuel the plane was available — except the gate where the plane was parked didn’t have that capability, and the plane had to wait for yet another gate. Some four hours later, she finally arrived in Charlotte at 2 a.m, for a connecting flight that had left four hours earlier. The next available flight left at 7:15. She was there, two hours early for security, only to be told that, because the same crew that had flown them in late was the crew to take them to Nashville, the flight would be delayed three hours to meet federal turn-around-time standards. And, oh yes, even though she’d called the hotel and asked them to hold her room — and that she’d pay for it, the hotel canceled her reservation, and she had to commute to the conference from another hotel. The return after her conference in Nashville wasn’t much better. First, because she had picked up some scholarly materials at the academic conference, her suitcase was ten pounds overweight — an additional $50 fee. Then, without the excuse of weather, her flight to Dulles, for a connection to Las Vegas [which is a 3 1/2 hour drive from our house] was an hour and a half late, causing her to miss her connecting flight. She was rebooked through Los Angeles, some 200 plus miles west of Las Vegas, and arrived in Las Vegas five hours late — and her luggage didn’t make it, even though it made it to L.A. and there was a two hour layover in L.A. So it had to be sent to our house arriving another day later. She finally arrived home some 24 hours after she first left for the airport after being up all night, twice in a week.

Now… first of all, her experiences are far from unique. They’re not even rare. At least half a dozen other academics at the conference who arrived on different flights had similar tales, and certainly the several hundred other passengers on these flights were also greatly inconvenienced. And it’s easy to blame the airlines, most of which are either slightly badly mismanaged or horribly mismanaged, but the reason for this mismanagement lies deeply imbedded in our society, and it’s very simple. Simple, but profound.

While there are exceptions, in the vast majority of cases, as a society, we seek the cheapest prices for everything, no matter what the long-term costs may be. We reward short-term greed and refuse to consider the long term societal and personal costs of such short-term thinking. The airline mess is a perfect example of what can happen.

Now, it’s not exactly a secret that oil supplies are tight, nor has it been unexpected that oil prices would rise over the long-term. Some few airlines, such as Southwest, locked in lower fuel prices through hedging and long-term contracts. Most did not, because they didn’t want to pay the short-term associated costs of such hedging. So… now they’re slapping fees on everything because fuel costs are up, and the prices they charged for tickets bought months ago don’t cover operating costs.

When weather conditions are bad, congestion gets far worse than it would have to be because the United States has a terribly antiquated air-traffic control system, again because no one wants to pay the price for a modern system, not the airlines, and not the federal government. So delays and messes such as those experienced by my wife become even greater and cost small businesses and individuals millions. Larger businesses charter jets, and that increases congestion and costs in a different way.

Then, there are the other costs. Although Southwest flies only one type of aircraft [the 737], most airlines not only fly differing aircraft, but differing models from different manufacturers. This has the effect of increasing maintenance costs, and that’s exacerbated by the fact that even different model aircraft from the same manufacturer aren’t always exactly engineered for parts and maintenance compatibility. Seeking the “best deal” every time one upgrades one’s fleet may reduce procurement costs, but it also increases maintenance costs and may actually require purchasing more aircraft because maintenance delays result in aircraft being out of service.

In the interests of short-term profitability, the major airlines, again except for Southwest, developed the hub and spoke system where their flights and feeder regional aircraft congregate at regional hubs. This not only increases regional air congestion, but also ensures that any time there is a major weather problem, entire sections of the country suffer loss or significant reduction in air travel capacity. In addition, the combination of deregulation and the hub-and-spoke routing encourages “specialty” lower-cost carriers to “cherry-pick” the more highly traveled routes, forcing prices down on those routes and redistributing higher costs to routes where there’s less competition. This is out-and-out geographic discrimination, and it’s largely not based on the costs of providing service, but the degree of competition, which is limited by the fact that commercial air travel can never be a free market.

Airline deregulation was adopted in the ostensible interests of reducing airfares, but those pushing and supporting it seemed unable or unwilling to accept that so-called free market competition has extremely high indirect costs to everyone when the market isn’t truly free. In the case of the airlines, the available routes are limited and controlled by the government. The major airports located near population centers are also limited, both in numbers and in their ability to handle more than a certain number of aircraft. The barriers to entering the industry are extremely high, because passenger aircraft each cost hundreds of millions, and trained pilots and crew are not inexpensive, not to mention the costs of leasing or buying terminals, reservation systems, etc., and, of course, fuel. This is not a classical free market in any sense of the word, but everyone jumped on board because deregulation promised cheaper fares “now.”

It’s also not a traditional free market because there’s often a tremendous lag time between when the service is purchased and when the cost of supplying it is incurred. If costs increase, such as has happened in the case of rapidly rising fuel costs, the supplier can’t pass on the costs to the consumer, and, in fact, will probably never totally recover them, which is why virtually all the major airlines who cannot or will not hedge their fuel costs risk bankruptcy… because fuel costs will continue to rise.

In a nutshell, the airline mess is exactly what we as a high-tech society can expect with ever-increasing frequency and with ever-increasing costs and frustrations so long as we continue to focus on the “cheapest price,” this quarter’s balance sheet, and the idea that “free competition” solves everything. Total regulation doesn’t, either, but that’s another story for another time.

"Lies" and Forgotten Innovation

All too often, sometimes more often than not, those who make the innovations or who create something new aren’t the ones recognized for it. Robert Fulton, for example, didn’t build the first steamboat; Robert Fitch did, but he went bankrupt, while Fulton made money. Galileo certainly wasn’t the first scientist to propose the heliocentric solar system, nor was Guttenberg the first one to come up with the idea of moveable type and the printing press. The listing of those recognized as “firsts” who weren’t is long, and, given human nature, that’s probably not surprising, because, for someone to be recognized as a “first achiever,” it’s necessary that the knowledge of that achievement be disseminated, both about the action, and with some supporting information explaining why the act or achievement is worthy of recognition. Sometimes, explanation isn’t all that necessary, but knowledge of the act is vital for societal recognition.

In addition, sometimes a figure well-known for popular achievements never receives his or her true due for other substantial accomplishments. Benjamin Franklin certainly falls into this category. With all the notice about his political successes, his scientific career is reduced to the story of the key, the Leiden jar, and the kite. Yet Franklin also invented bifocals, the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, a flexible urinary catheter, not to mention the armonica [glass harmonica], and, with his cousin, was the first to name and to chart the Gulf Stream. He was the first to document and write up many of the basics of electrical behavior, and the first to document the principles of evaporative cooling.

These examples suggest that often what we “know” about innovation or about people happens all too often to be incomplete, or sometimes close to a complete lie.

In the field of fantasy and science fiction, this is also true. Popular recognition of “innovation” often has not coincided with reality. As I wrote almost a year ago, Fred Saberhagen was a very innovative writer, but one who never truly received his due for all the innovation and uniqueness in his work, perhaps because he accomplished it without bells and whistles, without overwhelming self-promotion and rhetorical excesses.

Although “alternative history” dates back to the Roman writer and historian Livy, H. Beam Piper was one of the first twentieth century SF writers to create more than one or two works of alternate history, beginning with “He Walked Around the Horses” in 1948, but comparatively few readers today would recognize his name, and most of those would likely do so because of the tributes of current writers to his legacy.

Even with popular and well-known writers, at times, works of a high caliber are overlooked or lost behind the clamor about popular works. Examples of this include, in my opinion, Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness, Michael Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain, David Drake’s The Forlorn Hope, George R.R. Martin’s The Dying of the Light, and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Way of the Pilgrim. Of course, in accord with the trend noted in a recent blog, these are all stand-alone works unrelated to the more popular series of these writers.

So… on a day of remembrance, some remembrance for works and achievement forgotten or not remembered as they should be, including all those I haven’t cited.

Cheap Pleasures and CheaperThrills… and Jane Austen

Science fiction in particular has tended to mix a combination of elements — a sense of transition from where we’ve been as a society, a commentary on the present, and an extrapolation depicting one of any number of possible futures. Given the current popularity and market place domination of the F&SF genres by fantasy, it’s often hard, especially for new readers, to realize that for almost a century, science fiction was certainly far more prevalent and dominant than fantasy.

How did it come to be that in a comparatively short period of time, fantasy has literally swamped science fiction?

First, let’s take a look at Jane Austen. Over the past few years, there’s been a resurgence in the popularity of Jane Austen, manifested especially in endless cinematic and video remakes of her books, as well as the continued popularity of more than a few romance take-offs on her “world.”

I can certainly understand the Austen period fascination. The clothes were fashionable and elegant, and people didn’t board their carriages in tank tops and flip-flops. The conversation was well-mannered, even when vicious. The dances were truly dances and not frenzied athletic competitions or public pseudo-orgies. Dinners were a time for dining and not gulping fast food after a rushed trip through a drive-in service window. Even revenge was thoughtfully and carefully planned in a way that makes most current “pay-backs” seem crude and boorish. The music had melodies, and young men and women were pleased to master difficult instruments, and not just bang out repetitive chords on an electrically amplified, yet simplified guitar.

By comparison, we live in a world of cheap pleasures and cheaper thrills, gulped down like fast food, time after time, because, somehow, they never satisfy. Americans in particular have more “toys” than ever before, and yet surveys show that they’re not any happier, and in fact may be less so.

And what does all this have to do with science fiction and fantasy?

Among the chief attractions of the genre are inspiration and, frankly escapism, and it’s clear that a growing number of readers want to escape the ugliness of the present, but, from what I’ve seen and read, comparatively little science fiction offers hopeful escapism. Most of it’s pretty grim. Twenty years ago, there were more well-written SF books like Walter Jon Williams’s House of Shards, which deftly mixed SF with manners. I still write books in which the future still has culture, and so do a handful of others, such as Lois McMaster Bujold, but, in general, those tend to be the exception, whereas fantasy tends to offer, if not exclusively, more hopeful endings, or at least endings where there is a glimmer of light. In passing, I would also note that even Devention, the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in early August, is featuring a “Summerfair Reception in Barrayar” and a Dowager Duchess of Denver’s Regency Dance.. and both are based on “mannered” societies, if fictional ones.

And we could all use more manners, more culture, and more inspiration toward excellence and beauty… especially in our fiction.